Theater of Cruelty

The melancholy interpreter has traveled

The Swedish idea historian and essayist Karin Johannisson died in November. Her books on the history of emotions, body and mind will continue to raise important questions for generations. 



The Belarusian author and Nobel laureate Svetlana Aleksijevich writes in the beginning The war has no female face, originally published in 1985: "I'm not writing about the war, but about the man in the war. I do not write the history of the war, but the history of the emotions. ”

When I heard about Karin Johannison's death the 23. November, I was struck by the obvious coincidence between her and Aleksijevich's life projects, although the differences between them are also obvious: Aleksijevich is documentary and outreach in his quest for living human experiences, while the idea historian Johannisson followed the long historical perspectives and delved into a tremendous textual material when she wrote the long story of the body, mind and emotion. But the similarities between them make them complement more than differ from each other: Both have a radical life project in showing that people's experiences, feelings and sensations are as relevant and important perspectives as any other when writing our history. They are both characterized by not giving in to the horror and discomfort, but rather making an effort to write it into our collective memory and avoid alienating ourselves from it. They are both true humanists who put man at the center uncompromisingly.

Karin Johannisson. PHOTO: Carolin Andersson / Albert Bonniers Förlag.

In this case, perhaps the biggest difference between them is still the most interesting: Aleksijevich says that she searches for the eternal in man, "the eternal trembling of man." Karin Johannisson was, after a long human science career, less and less convinced that something authentic and purely human actually exists.

The history of the disease. Karin Johannisson was born in 1944 in Lund and died in November in Uppsala, where she had been a professor of history of ideas and learning since 1996. She published a number of books, won several awards, was named honorary doctor of medicine and was recognized and acclaimed both as a researcher and facilitator. Of course, it is misleading to refer to her only as a "historian of feelings" – she was just as much a science historian, medical historian and diagnostic historian. Through extensive source material and thorough dissections of personal reports, medical records, scientific models and various contemporary climates, she reminded us over and over how disease is not only a neutral consequence of biological factors, but also moves in a cultural and social space. A condition can drastically change both status and prevalence: Melancholy is attributed to lofty traits, attributed to intellect and long connotated with the male elite – until the state of the 1900 begins to be explained by an unstable psyche rather than refined nerves. Melancholy also becomes available to workers and working-class women – and at the same time loses status.

Karin Johannisson was, after a long human science career, less and less convinced that something authentic and purely human actually exists.

The disease chlorosis is another example: It spread epidemically at the end of the 1800 century, was characterized by paleness, anemia and eating disorders and affected especially young upper and middle class women. Since chlorosis abruptly died out in the early 1900, it cannot be explained solely by improvement in nutrition or new diagnostic classification systems, Johannisson points out in The dark continent: Chlorosis spread explosively among young girls as the disease began to be described as a female phenomenon, and also as a reaction to the increased pace of modern civilization and new demands. As the condition became less socially legitimate, the frequency decreased – in addition to parts of the symptom picture being swallowed up by another diagnosis that was on the rise and increased in frequency: anorexia nervosa.

Contemporary Critics. There are such mechanisms Johannisson revealed in book after book. She showed that the interplay between medicine, biology, available identities and culture is crucial to how we perceive ourselves as bodily, sensing beings. She showed how diagnoses are born, make careers and die out, and she showed how power constellations, disease states and status are closely interwoven. The limits of what is sick and what is healthy are constantly changing – and in our day, emotional difficulties have more than ever been allowed to place within the clinical limits of medicine. "More and more people are willing to define their lack of well-being as illness," Johannisson said in an interview with Focus magazine in 2009. The risk with this, she further pointed out, is that one can end up placing all the responsibility and all the help of the experts and the medicine. Researcher Johannisson did not go out of his way to be a sharp public voice in a time that at times cultivates our right to flag mental diagnoses as both a disclaimer and an interesting attribute in a culture of openness that does not necessarily help the weak: "When Famous people are exposed in the media with diagnoses – which has not prevented them from achieving success or being funny, creative, intellectual or high-performing – contributes to an important stigmatization of mental illness, but also to the invisibility of those who suffer severely and are greatly hampered by its vulnerability, ”she wrote in Dagens Nyheter a few years ago.

Tears and mastery. The story of feelings is, after all, a crucial thread in Johannison's work. You see this in particular Melancholy rooms (2009), also found in Norwegian translation, where she thoroughly reviews the melancholy as a cultural category through the ages. And just like diseases, emotions can lose status as they change class and gender. A striking example is the 1700 number's tears: Visible crying in interaction with others was an expression of genuine delight and participation, both for men and women. Tears were communication and an expression of a qualifying sensibility. At the same time, tears were strictly socially and morally coded; one should not display feelings and tears in the wrong way (especially women's tears were at risk of being read as coquettish or uncontrolled). 100 years later tears are compromising and an expression of weakness. The new codes are self-control and dignity.

According to Johannisson, the tears and sensibilities of the 1700 are an example of active and outward expressions of melancholy, while later times lead (boredom) and the feelings of emptiness and fatigue of our own time are examples of passive and introverted melancholy expressions. The point is how emotions arise as a spontaneous and creative freedom in the subject, but are shaped and controlled by social and cultural mechanisms, writes Johannisson.

But what does all this really mean? It is not difficult to understand that people's accepted expression of emotions was different in antiquity and in the 1700 century than they are today. But feel Are we also completely different over time? Isn't it the same reality behind all the different names and categorizations she refers to – that is old wine in new bottles?

No core. It is this that is always left behind as the big and really rather unpleasant question when reading Johannisson. For I believe that as strong as our desire to uncover history's changes, variations, and violations to understand ourselves is the desire to find a continuity at the same time. Especially in this case: a human red thread throughout history, or what Svetlana Aleksijevich refers to as "the eternal man," "the shaking of eternity," which cannot be invaded by an external contemporary and culture. Even Johannisson said it as clearly as possible in a radio program in 2015: "I do not believe that the authentic person exists." After years of sewing human life experience, inner life and external conditions, she no longer escaped what we experience as both our human core and our private feelings, are neither private nor inalienable. Everything is about reflections of a specific time and a larger structure. And she added, in her usual trying, essayistic manner: "But I don't know if I can stand for this extreme idea, nor defend it in all its aspects and all its complexities."

Johannisson turned 72 years old. I should like to hear her elaborate and reason more about what she really meant about human authenticity. That will not happen. We will have to pick up the thread on our own.

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