Is Gogol’s Diary of a Madman Coinciding With the Description of Schizophrenia?
Posted on April 27th, 2014

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge

There is always this element of concealed accusation in neurosis, the patient feeling as though he were deprived of his right-that is, of the center of attention ” and wanting to fix the responsibility and blame upon someone. –Alfred Adler

Nikolai Gogol could be described as one of the most idiosyncratic Russian novelists and in the West he is regarded as the Russian Charles Dickens.  He earned the title – father of modern Russian realism. His novels, short stories and dramas were so exceptional because Gogol combined realism, fantasy, comedy and tragedy in his work. His novels and short stories made profound impacts on Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy.

Nicolai Gogol published his sardonic tale -Diary of a Madman (Zapiski sumasshedshego) in 1834 which described the inner psychic conflict of a person named Axenty Ivanovich Poprishchin. According to the short story the protagonist Axenty Ivanovich Poprishchin shows some positive psychotic features that are characteristic in Schizophrenia. It is important to know that Nicolai Gogol’s writings came way before the mental health clinicians defined Schizophrenia as a separate mental illness.

Schizophrenia is a mental illness that is characterized by distorted thinking, hallucinations and reduced ability to feel normal emotions. Schizophrenia has an altered perception of reality.

There are several types of schizophrenia. In Paranoid schizophrenia the patient has delusions and auditory hallucinations. The delusions can often be about being persecuted unfairly or being some other person who is famous like Napoleon Bonaparte or Albert Einstein. They can exhibit anger, unfriendliness, anxiety, and argumentativeness.

Disorganized schizophrenia is characterized by speech and behavior that are disorganized or difficult to understand, and flattening or inappropriate emotions. Patient’s disorganized behavior may disrupt normal activities. In Catatonic-type schizophrenia disturbances of movement can be observed. In undifferentiated-type schizophrenia a mixed picture is often seen.

Modern descriptions of schizophrenia, starting with Emile Kraepelin’s laborious work and in 1878 Emile Kraepelin coined the term dementia praecox gaudily describing the clinical picture of Schizophrenia. In 1911 Eugene Beuler first used the term schizophrenia elucidating the major symptomatology such as blunted emotions, disordered thoughts, and loss of awareness.

Sigmund Freud’s (1911) hypothesis explains the basic disorder in schizophrenia consists in the patient’s inability to maintain the libidinal cathexis of objects. The fact that patients suffering from the two principal types of schizophrenia present signs of real and fantasy object relationships has been taken as evidence that the illness cannot be based on a decathexis of object representations. 

Paradoxically before Emile Kraepelin , Freud or Eugene Beuler in 1834 Nicolai Gogol epitomized the inner world of a schizophrenic patient via his short story Diary of a Madman.

Schizophrenia is characterized by profound disruption in cognition and emotion, affecting the most fundamental human attributes: language, thought, perception, affect, and sense of self. Also the sufferers experience a numerous features such as hallucinations, delusions, apathy, lack of emotion, poor social functioning disorganized thoughts, difficulty in concentrating and memory problems. These features become central to Gogol’s fictional character Axenty Ivanovich Poprishchin.

As described in Gogol’s short story Poprishchin is a civil servant in his 40s. Poprishchin experiences bizarre events when he sees two dogs talk to them in Russian. According to another entry Poprishchin thinks that he is the substitute for the King Ferdinand VII of Spain. Poprishchin has persistent delusions, disorganized behavior and occupational dysfunction.

Diary of a Madman is an inner turmoil of a man with a conflict in his perceptions. The story follows in a diary entry format and the entries reveal that Poprishchin goes in to gradual slide into insanity. It is an extraordinary sketch of psychopathology.

Up to this time Spain had been somewhat of a mystery to me. Their native customs and court etiquette are really most peculiar. I don’t understand, I really do not understand them. Today they shaved my head even though I shrieked as loud as I could that I didn’t want to be a monk. And I have only a faint memory of what happened when they poured cold water over my head.

(From Diary of a Madman)

Poprishchin’s story mixed with humor, sadness, and tragedy and explicates the gradual personality deterioration and how he struggles with his disintegrating psyche. Gogol dives in to Poprishchin’s mind and vibrantly presents the bizarre events that he experienced. 

I hadn’t been there more than a minute when I heard a faint little voice: “Hello, Medji!” Well, I never! Who was that talking?… What was going on, for heaven’s sake? Then I saw Medji sniffing round a little dog following the two ladies. “Aha,” I said to myself, “it can’t be true, I must be drunk.” But I hardly ever drink. “No Fid¨le,” I told myself, “you’re quite mistaken.” With my own eyes I actually saw Medji mouth these words: “I’ve been, bow wow, very ill, bow wow.” Ah, you nasty little dog! I must confess I was staggered to hear it speak just like a human being.

(From Diary of a Madman)

Another entry from Poprishchin’s diary gives a clear clue of the distorted cognition that he experienced.

But afterwards, when I’d time to think about it, my amazement wore off. In fact, several similar cases have already been reported. It’s said that in England a fish swam to the surface and said two words in such a strange language the professors have been racking their brains for three years now

(From Diary of a Madman)

People with schizophrenia can have certain types of cognitive dysfunctions. The cognitive dysfunctions are accurately detected by neuropsychological tests. Some patient’s loss the ability to absorb and interpret information and make decisions based on that information. They have inability to sustain attention, and problems with working memory or to keep recently learned information.

With schizophrenia the person’s inner world and behavior change notably. These behavioral changes might include social withdrawal, intense anxiety and a feeling of being unreal (Depersonalization), poor self care , experiencing hallucinations, sense of being controlled by outside forces , delusions, or making up words without a meaning (neologisms). Schizophrenia makes it difficult for a person to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences, to think logically, to have appropriate emotional responses to others and to behave appropriately in social situations. Nicolai Gogol vividly describes these cognitive and social dysfunctions in his short story.

Following entry symbolizes Poprishchin’s apparent delusions…..

I did write to you, Fid¨le. Polkan couldn’t have delivered my letter.” I’d stake a month’s salary that that was what the dog said. Never in my life have I heard of a dog that could write. Only noblemen know how to write correctly. Of course, you’ll always find some traders or shopkeepers, even serfs, who can scribble away: but they write like machines ” no commas or full stops.

(From Diary of a Madman)
Gogol was the founder of the critical realism in Russian literature. His influence greatly benefited to Nabokov and Dostoevsky. He wrote a number of humorous stories showing the discrepancies in human nature. But also stated that the longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes. May be he was correct. Deep down there are human suffering and tragedy in Gogol’s writings. Perhaps he showed the genuine nature of the mankind.

He wrote: “What is stronger in us ”” passion or habit? Or are all the violent impulses, all the whirl of our desires and turbulent passions, only the consequence of our ardent age, and is it only through youth that they seem deep and shattering?

He also wrote: “Everywhere across whatever sorrows of which our life is woven, some radiant joy will gaily flash past.

Most of Gogol’s literary characters   do not have a persona. For instance his short story nose was based on an unrealistic story-(the nose leaves his face and develops a life of its own). D.S. Mirsky wrote that “The Nose is a piece of sheer play, almost sheer nonsense. In it more than anywhere else Gogol displays his extraordinary magic power of making great comic art out of nothing. His sardonic tale -Diary of a Madman shows the gradual personality decay in Axenty Ivanovich Poprishchin.

Ironically Gogol too experienced schizophrenic symptoms later in his life. We do not know whether Gogol experienced pre Schizophrenic symptoms at the time when he was writing this short story. Without any background in psychology or medicine Nikolai Gogol vibrantly described the inner world of a schizophrenic patient via his short story. Therefore Gogol’s short story Diary of a Madman has   a literary significance as well as a clinical significance.

In the latter part of his life Gogol became a prisoner of a fanatical religious ideology. He gave up his literary career. Just as his fictional character Poprishchin Gogol had an intra psychic conflict. He became delusional and detached from reality. According to an eyewitness testimony Gogol experienced hallucinations and reacted violently. He became paranoid and burnt the part two of the manuscript of Dead Souls. In the final days he refused his meals and became a victim of insanity.  He starved himself to death. Gogol died in 1852 denouncing his great literary legacy. Gogol’s fall and redemption represents Gogol’s view of the tragedy and absurdity of life.

2 Responses to “Is Gogol’s Diary of a Madman Coinciding With the Description of Schizophrenia?”

  1. AnuD Says:

    IS it possible to treat Schizopherenia like illnesses with Past-life therapy – like treatments

  2. . Says:

    Schizophrenia is a brain disorder and recent researches have shown chemical imbalance and structural changes of the brain. (imbalance in the complex, interrelated chemical reactions of the brain involving the neurotransmitters dopamine and glutamate, and possibly others, plays a role in schizophrenia) .Therefore pharmacological and psycho social rehabilitation in indicated in the treatment of Schizophrenia.
    Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D.

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