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 the world had never seen before.

I plead insanity …

How long has it been?!? I have been an atrocious blogger the last several weeks, maybe months. And I’ve been terrible at reading, visiting and commenting at all your lovely blogs as well. But now its a new year, time for new goals and getting back to business. I promise to visit everyone soon!

I finished up 2019 by doing a lot of reading. I tackled some heavy hitters this year and fell one short of meeting my GoodReads challenge of 30 books. Still, considering the weight of some of the material I covered, it’s a pretty good show. I tackled The Divine Comedy with notes, The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States, The Art of Memory, The Stranger, The Plague and One Hundred Years Of Solitude, just to name a few.

The second half 2019 was insane, there’s no other way to put it. I’m in a new country, new house, finding new friends and my way around unfamiliar territory, physically, mentally and emotionally. But it’s good. It really is.

The move consumed a lot of time and energy and it prevented me from writing and posting here on the blog. That changes now. I am back to writing this week. I have an editing project to work on and another one possibly after that. The very act of working on writing, even though it’s someone else’s material, has given me the inspiration to get started on my own work again.

So this year, I’ll be sharing more of my World War One research, updates on the historical novel, bits and pieces of writing advice/mistakes, and an occasional piece of art. I’m not going to try any challenges this year, though. That became a bit of a burden last year. I am going to try and keep any artwork that I do relevant to my historical work. For example, characters I encounter in research or events set during the Great War.

I hope you all are well and that 2020 is off to a good start. Happy writing and productive editing!

Research Notes – The Great War (23) Max Beckmann, Artist

“My heart beats more for a rougher, more vulgar art… one that offers access to the terrible, the crude, the magnificent, the ordinary, the grotesque, and the banal in life. Art that can always be right there for us, in the realest things of life.” Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann was born on February 12, 1884 in Leipzig, The Kingdom of Saxony, part of the newly established German Empire. He began painting as a youth, attempting to emulate the old masters, resulting in his early work following the classic, academic style. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Beckmann enlisted as a medical orderly and his experiences as such would forever change his art. Rather than continuing to paint traditional and realistic depictions, he began to distort figures and space —a demonstration of his altered view of the world and humanity within it.

In letters home, he wrote of his experiences as a medical officer, bringing the wounded to the hospitals for treatment: “…the sick lie naked on the table, often four or five of them. … With no sign of emotion, the doctors courteously show me the most horrible wounds. The sharp smell of putrefaction was hovering over everything, despite good ventilation and well-lit rooms. I was able to take it for about an hour and a half then I had to go out into the open landscape.”

Beckmann recreated this vision in his etching: The Large Operation, (1914):

Grosse Operation, Max Beckmann 1914 (courtesy MoMa)

After his discharge from the military, he transformed his art to reflect the horrors of war. Even those works not explicitly about the war are informed by it. Now his works —crowded with figures and details— were all jagged lines, broken planes and angular forms. The effect was unsettling and claustrophobic.

An example of this style can be seen in Playing Children (1918) in which the figures of the children are compressed into a tight circle. Adding to the sense of menace, most of the children wield weapons and engage in a violent mock battle.

Spielende Kinder; Max Beckmann, 1918 (courtesy MoMa)

Beckmann became quite successful in the years after the war. Many of his paintings portrayed the cabaret culture of post war Germany and the decadence that arose during the time of the Weimar Republic.

Dancing Bar In Baden-Baden; Max Beckmann, 1923

However, things changed with the rise of the Nazis. Adolf Hitler disliked Modern Art to the extent that it was suppressed by the state. Beckmann was labeled a “cultural Bolshevik” and his work declared degenerate. In 1937, Beckmann left Germany for the Netherlands and never returned.

In 1948, he moved to the United States but his tenure as an American was to be short lived. Only months after obtaining a professorship at the Art School of New York’s Brooklyn Museum, he suffered a heart attack and died at the corner of 69th and Central Park West, not far from the apartment he shared with his wife.

Header image: Self Portrait in a Tuxedo; Max Beckmann