Neurasthenia – A Disease For the 20th Century

The years leading up to the Great War were a time of huge upheaval. The dizzying pace of change which preceded the outbreak of hostilities undoubtedly set the stage for that horrible conflict. The turn of the century brought with it rapid technological advancement as well as changes in the roles of women and a blurring of the previous century’s class structure. The world was shifting on its axis and a new feeling of anxiety presented itself during those times.

Neurasthenia was the name given to this new dis-ease, which affected more men than women —a surprise to the establishment, given its similarity to hysteria, which was largely viewed as a female disease. (On a side note, hysteria was an overused, misogynistic diagnosis. Have a bad day? Hysterical. Don’t feel like having sex tonight? Hysterical. A woman could be labeled hysterical for simply disagreeing with her husband’s demands. It was diabolical. Anyway…) The psychiatrists saw this nervous exhaustion as a result of the fast pace of life in the modern world. For example, with the advent of the assembly line, manufacturing was transformed from a system in which one worker saw the building or assembly of the product from start to finish to one in which the product was built or assembled by a team of workers each repetitively performing one task. The faster the process, the more machines built, the more units sold, with lower the cost to the consumer and more profits to the company. The pace could be as frenetic as the work was mind numbing.

The condition was even more common among the professional class: doctors, lawyers, judges and businessmen were finding it difficult to cope with their lives. The pressure to work hard, play hard resulted in irritability, sleep deprivation, depression, various physical pains and eventual breakdown. Those professions in which new technology was being employed suffered the greatest. Telephone operators, typesetters, railway workers, and engineers working on ever faster machines struggled to keep up. All throughout the Western World, the numbers of new diagnoses of neurasthenia rose at a frightening pace. For example, in Germany, just over 40,000 patients were registered in mental hospitals in 1870. By 1900, that number had risen to nearly 116,000 and to 220,000 by 1910. These numbers don’t include those who consulted a doctor without being admitted to hospital or those who spent time in a private sanatorium for respite. One German doctor called the illness ‘the pathological signature of the time in which we are living.’

Imagine a world where the great powers were rapidly developing their economies, competing for dominance in the colonial holdings, embracing new technologies, expanding their military might and simultaneously trying to hold on to the political systems of the past. The working classes were primed for revolution and the professional classes were having nervous breakdowns. It was a recipe for disaster and inevitably culminated in a global catastrophe like the world had never seen before.

Compulsion

A poem by Meg Sorick

Symmetry and straight lines,
All the light switches closed.
The knives pointed
In the same direction
The dishes must be white.
And there must be an even number.
Or a set with one in the middle
Just so, nothing less is acceptable

Take the spoon from the front
If you please, there’s no other way
To make sure they’re all used equally.
The shelves are not full.
I must fill the shelves.
Fold the clothes and stack
Keep the piles from tipping.

Balance is essential,
But neither temperance or sensibility.
This relentless striving for perfection
Pushes to the very edge of the abyss,
Where the only comfort is in a bottle.

Too much is out of my control.
I must control all that I can.

*Not autobiographical, header image artwork by me.

Blue

On a beautiful day, I am blue
Not like the cloudless, cerulean sky
Where the bright, mocking sun
Unfavorably compares my mood
To her brilliance, warmth and cheer

This blue is the slate
Of the storm-tossed ocean
Heavy seas, deep and dark
Full of sunken ships
And drowned sailors

The dangerous blue
Of exposure
Of lips curled over chattering teeth
Shivering in the cold
Killing frost of November

The kind of blue
That manifests itself as anger
Only because the rage
Feels just a little better
Than the weakness of sorrow

But its a blue that passes quickly
When I raise my head with purpose
It runs away like water
Dribbling through my fingers
And drying in the breeze

Header Image: IKB 79 ~ Yves Klein, 1959