Sunday, July 18, 2010

Review: God and Man According to Tolstoy

God and Man According to Tolstoy
by Alexander Boot
Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2009
ISBN 13: 978-0-230-61586-1
ISBN 10: 0-230-61586-4

The good: Draws attention to the debate over Tolstoy's mental and physical health.

The bad: Lack of documentation; use of inflammatory language; very small print; the price of the book.

Leo Tolstoy is an icon in world literature. Countless biographies and essays have been written about him, although neutrality and objectivity have eluded many of the authors of those works. It would seem that Tolstoy is one of those persons who inspires either great devotion and veneration or great revulsion and denigration.

Alexander Boot's book, God and Man According to Tolstoy, falls into the latter category.

An important part of this book, and to my mind its chief value, is that it brings attention to the debate over Tolstoy's mental and physical health. This debate, beginning in the 19th century before Tolstoy's death, ranged from what Mr. Boot says today would be called severe personality disorder and/or narcissistic personality disorder; to discussions of whether Tolstoy suffered from epilepsy.

Mr. Boot reports that Tolstoy has been diagnosed with epilepsy. He seems to be relying heavily on a report written in 1930 by a Russian psychiatrist named Aleksandr Mikhaylovich Yevlakhov entitled Konstitutsionalnye osobennosti psikhiki L. N. Tolstogo. And herein lies one of the major shortcomings of Mr. Boot's book: it is sadly lacking in documentation. While there are some endnotes, they are most often merely explanatory rather than citing sources of the information he reports. Yevlakhov is said to have analyzed thousands of pages written by and about Tolstoy, resulting in his diagnosing Tolstoy as suffering from epilepsy. This implies that Yevlakhov did not meet with Tolstoy personally.

Epilepsy is sometimes accompanied by psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety, and Mr. Boot cites this as supporting the view that Tolstoy was epileptic It is undeniable that Tolstoy was subject to depression, as evidenced in his diaries and letters, as well as observations recorded by family and friends.

A list in God and Man According to Tolstoy which purports to show that Tolstoy had an inherited predisposition to mental illness contains at least one serious error: Tolstoy had only one sister, not two as the list states; and other items on this list are questionable. Whether this list comes from Yevlakhov, or from some other source, or was compiled by Mr. Boot himself is unclear.

The question of whether Tolstoy suffered from epilepsy was also addressed by John R. Hughes of the Department of Neurology, School of Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago in his 2004 study entitled "Did all those famous people really have epilepsy?" Dr. Hughes concludes that Tolstoy was not epileptic, that the seizures suffered by Tolstoy as he was dying "were very likely reactive attacks, associated with a very high fever, rather than a manifestation of epilepsy with its spontaneous seizures." On the issue of whether Tolstoy was epileptic, I put more credence in Dr. Hughes' views than in Yevlakhov's as reported in God and Man According to Tolstoy.

Did Tolstoy suffer from a personality disorder? This book does not convince me that he did.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

God and Man According to Tolstoy

God and Man According to Tolstoy
by Alexander Boot
Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2009
ISBN 13: 978-0-230-61586-1
ISBN 10: 0-230-61586-4

In today's mail I received a review copy of God and Man According to Tolstoy which I had requested from the publisher in connection with my research into the issue of whether Tolstoy suffered from any form of epilepsy.

I will now begin reading, and a review will be forthcoming shortly.

Ghost Stories

I am once again in a ghost story mood. Yesterday I read The Shell of Sense by Olivia Howard Dunbar, page 69 of Harper's Magazine, Volume 18, December 1908, available at Google Books. It is an interesting story. The spirit of a woman, bound to earth by jealousy and selfishness, struggles against dealing vengeance. It is a very short story, well worth the time to read it.

Now I am in the midst of reading The Shadow World by Hamlin Garland, also available at Google Books, as well as at Project Gutenberg. I am not far into it, and it is unclear to me whether it is a novel or a fictionalized account of what the author purports to be real experiences. At any rate, it is entertaining. There is a woman who is the 19th century version of The Ghost Whisperer. What role she will play in the book as a whole is unclear to me at this point, but so far it is an enjoyable read.

Monday, July 12, 2010

No interlibrary loan

Unfortunately, no one has a copy available for loan of the book by the Russian psychiatrist Segalin concerning his diagnosis of Tolstoy.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tolstoy and epilepsy

I am trying through an interlibrary loan request to borrow a copy of G. V. Segalin's Европатология личности и творчества Льва Толстого (Yevropatologiya lichnosti i tvorchestva Lva Tolstogo), mentioned in Alexander Boot's book, God and Man According to Tolstoy. Segalin is said to have concluded that Tolstoy suffered from "affective epilepsy" characterized by fainting, delirium, hallucinations, and amnesia. What is unclear from what I was able to read in Boot's book in a preview view at Google Books is whether Segalin made this diagnosis after seeing Tolstoy personally, or whether Segalin was relying on the accounts of others. Fingers crossed that the interlibrary loan comes through with a copy for me to peruse - and that my Russian-English dictionary is up to the challenge of a lot of medical terminology.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Did Tolstoy have epilepsy?

Leo Tolstoy has been an interest of mine since 1967. Over the years I have read extensively about his life and works. I published an article in an early number of the Tolstoy Studies Journal related to the chronology of his life and work as compiled by N. N. Gusev; and from 1995 to 2009 (when Geocities ceased to exist) I maintained on online library of digital versions of some of Tolstoy's works, most of which I digitized myself.

Having recently discovered that all 90 volumes of the Jubilee edition of the Complete Works of Tolstoy (in Russian) are now available online, I have recently returned to my research into the life and work of this great author.

A Google Books search turned up a book called God and Man According to Tolstoy by Alexander Boot which states that Tolstoy is believed to have been an epileptic. This was a surprise to me, and I have begun researching this assertion. What I have learned so far is that there is some disagreement as to this diagnosis of Tolstoy being epileptic.