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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74.1 (2000) 165-166



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Book Review

Büchner and Madness: Schizophrenia in Georg Büchner's "Lenz" and "Woyzeck"


James Crighton. Büchner and Madness: Schizophrenia in Georg Büchner's "Lenz" and "Woyzeck." Bristol German Publications, vol. 9. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1998. x + 315 pp. $99.95.

There is a genre in German literature of "texts about pathology written by physician/authors." Ranging from the eighteenth-century poet Friedrich Schiller to the expressionist Gottfried Benn, these writers use the themes of their craft in crafting their poetry. No big surprise: such texts exist in virtually every Western literary tradition after at least Rabelais. But the German pathological texts are an odd sort of "special problem" for students of the culture of medicine, for more often than not their writers have an overt political purpose and use them as a means of critiquing social ills. Prefiguring Rudolph Virchow's notion of the body as a model for the political collective in the middle of the nineteenth century, physician/authors after the Enlightenment (beginning perhaps with Marcus Herz) see their craft as healers also in clearly political terms.

No better example of such a writer is Georg Büchner, the physician/revolution of the first decades of the nineteenth century. Dying shortly after he finished medical school, Büchner was productive and fascinating for the complexity of his work. Forgotten by the end of the century except as the dead brother of the much more famous materialist philosopher Ludwig Büchner, he was resurrected at the beginning of the twentieth century as one of the "moderns." He was of interest to the young expressionists some hundred years after his death because of his fascination for the psychopathological, a fascination that paralleled their own. [End Page 165]

James Crighton has written a solid and informative dissertation on Büchner and the psychiatry of his time. He certainly knows much more about early-nineteenth-century psychiatry and madness than Büchner himself ever did (Crighton did his work partially under the supervision of the great historian of psychiatry German Berrios at Cambridge). His published dissertation provides ample material on the complex history of the mental illness that was labeled "schizophrenia" by Eugen Bleuler at the very moment when Büchner was being rediscovered by the expressionists at the beginning of the twentieth century. The book is crammed with interesting details about Büchner and the medical world of his time, about the history of the diagnostic criteria that later come to be called schizophrenia, about literary representations of madness in German literature before Büchner, about Büchner and his key subject, the Sturm und Drang poet J. M. R. Lenz, and the continued history of this trope of madness in the later works of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Balzac.

This is a solid contribution to the comparative study of literature and psychiatry. Its lack is the lack of all such projects--an analytic frame that tries to explain what the very fascination was of madness in literature, except in the simplest biographical terms. (Was Büchner himself "schizophrenic"?) Its greatest weakness is a slight tendency to do retrospective diagnosis. (One cannot speak of "schizophrenia" as a syndrome in the 1810s: its component parts were present, but were seen as either separate disease, such as catatonia, or aspects of other illness, such as mania.) The book is well written and will provide a basis for further sophisticated work on such topics. Crighton is to be praised for presenting the complexity of the materials that he has read in a clear and straightforward manner.

Sander L. Gilman
University of Chicago

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3176
Print ISSN
0007-5140
Pages
pp. 165-166
Launched on MUSE
2000-03-01
Open Access
No
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