Rachel Lehmann is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Kent. In her thesis she will explore the discourses of exhaustion in German and French medical and literary texts of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century period.
She has recently published an original article on pleasure in Michel Houellebecq’s work in the University of Kent’s peer-reviewed postgraduate journal Litterae Mentis.
The Crisis of Exhaustion in Turn-of-the-Century Germany: Medical and Literary Perspectives on Body Regeneration
At the turn of the twentieth century, many German cultural critics identified modernity as a paradoxical process of progress and decline, activity and paralysis. With fast-paced progress and modernisation, sustained mechanisation and industrialisation, followed a fear of cultural decline and individual degeneration. As an inhibitor of movement and control, exhaustion and its related syndrome of neurasthenia became epitomised as a disease of civilisation, as a sign of resistance against progress, and as a symptom of degeneration. In a society in which the norm was constructed on efficiency and productivity, exhaustion embodied human limitation and powerlessness. While the spectres of exhaustion provoked anxiety, they also offered a rationale for new interventionist strategies of body regeneration, which aimed to recuperate, augment, or maximise bodily energy. Rigid measures of self-optimisation, such as energy management, body gymnastics, and strength and resistance training of the will, dictated the new paradigms of health and normality.
Concurrently, counter-discourses emerged in the literary realm. Along with other writers and diagnosed neurasthenics, such as Heinrich Mann, Franz Kafka, or Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann was familiar with the medical discourses at that time and engaged with them in his work. The motif of the exhausted body is recurring. Yet, to regenerate their bodies, the exhausted protagonists travel to decadent, fluid, unbounded spaces such as Venice or the mountains. Far from rigid health standards, these places become new conceptual spaces for regeneration. This paper will explore Thomas Mann’s construction of exhaustion and regeneration and compare it to the medical discourses.