"There Is Not Much Thrill about a Physiological Sin"

Neurasthenia in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House

How to Cite

Robinson, T. (2001). "There Is Not Much Thrill about a Physiological Sin": Neurasthenia in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. M/C Journal, 4(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1912
Vol. 4 No. 3 (2001): Sick
Published 2001-06-01

In January of 1908 H. Addington Bruce, a writer for the North American Review, observed that "On every street, at every corner, we meet the neurasthenics" (qtd. in Lears, 50). "Discovered" by the neurologist George M. Beard in 1880, neurasthenia was a nervous disorder characterized by a "lack of nerve force" and comprised of a host of neuroses clustered around an overall paralysis of the will. Historian Barbara Will notes that there were "thousands of men and women at the turn of the century who claimed to be ‘neurasthenics,’" among them Theodore Roosevelt, Edith Wharton, William and Henry James, and Beard himself. These neurasthenics had free roam over the American psychiatric landscape from the date of Beard’s diagnosis until the 1920s, when more accurate diagnostic tools began to subdivide the nearly uninterpretably wide variety of symptoms falling under the rubric of "neurasthenic." By then, however, nearly every educated American had suffered from (or known someone who had) the debilitating "disease"--including Willa Cather, who in The Professor’s House would challenge her readers to acknowledge and engage with the cultural phenomenon of neurasthenia.

Cultural historian T.J. Jackson Lears, long a student of neurasthenia, defines it as an "immobilizing, self-punishing depression" stemming from "endless self-analysis" and "morbid introspection" (47, 49). What is especially interesting about the disease, for Lears and other scholars, is that it is a culture-bound syndrome, predicated not upon individual experience, but upon the cultural and economic forces at play during the late nineteenth century. Barbara Will writes that neurasthenia was "double-edged": "a debilitating disease and [...] the very condition of the modern American subject" (88). Interestingly, George Beard attributed neurasthenia to the changes wracking his culture:

Neurasthenia is the direct result of the five great changes of modernity: steam power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and the mental activity of women. (qtd. in Will, 94)

For Beard, neurasthenia was a peculiarly modern disease, the result of industrialization and of the ever-quickening pace of commercial and intellectual life. Jackson Lears takes Beard’s attribution a step further, explaining that "as larger frameworks of meaning weakened, introspection focused on the self alone and became ‘morbid’" (49). These frameworks of meaning--religious, political, psychosexual--were under steady assault in Beard’s time from commodifying and secularizing movements in America. Self-scrutiny, formerly yoked to Protestant salvation (and guilt), became more insular and isolating, resulting in the ultimate modern malady, neurasthenia.

While Willa Cather may have inherited Beard’s and her culture’s assumptions of illness, it ultimately appears that Cather’s depiction of neurasthenia is a highly vexed one, both sympathetic and troubled, reflecting a deep knowledge of the condition and an ongoing struggle with the rationalization of scientific psychology. As an intellectual, she was uniquely positioned to both suffer from the forces shaping the new disease and to study them with a critical eye. Godfrey St. Peter, the anxious protagonist of The Professor’s House, becomes then a character that readers of Cather’s day would recognize as a neurasthenic: a "brain-worker," hard-charging and introspective, and lacking in what Beard would call "nerve force," the psychological stoutness needed to withstand modernity’s assault on the self. Moreover, St. Peter is not a lone sufferer, but is instead emblematic of a culture-wide affliction--part of a larger polity constantly driven to newer heights of production, consumption, and subsequent affliction. Jackson Lears theorizes that "neurasthenia was a product of overcivilization" (51), of consumer culture and endemic commodification. Beard himself characterized neurasthenia as an "American disease," a malady integral to the rationalizing, industrializing American economy (31).

Cather reinforces the neurasthenic’s exhaustion and inadequacy as St. Peter comes across his wife flirting with Louis Marsellus, prompting the professor to wonder, "Beaux-fils, apparently, were meant by Providence to take the husband’s place when husbands had ceased to be lovers" (160). Not only does this point to the sexual inadequacy and listlessness characteristic of neurasthenia, but the diction here reinforces the modus operandi of the commodity culture--when an old model is used up, it is simply replaced by a newer, better model.

Interestingly, Cather’s language itself often mirrors Beard’s. St. Peter at one point exclaims to Lillian, in a beatific reverie:

"I was thinking [...] about Euripides; how, when he was an old man, he went and lived in a cave by the sea, and it was thought queer, at the time. It seems that houses had become insupportable to him" (156).

The Professor’s "symptom of hopelessness," Beard might explain, "appears to be similar to that of morbid fear--an instinctive consciousness of inadequacy for the task before us. We are hopeless because our nerve force is so reduced that the mere holding on to life seems to be a burden too heavy for us" (49). Both Beard and Cather, then, zero in on the crushing weight of modern life for the neurasthenic. The Professor here aches for rest and isolation--he, in Beard’s language, "fears society," prompting Lillian to fear that he is "’becoming lonely and inhuman’" (162).

This neurasthenic craving for isolation becomes much more profound in Book III of the novel, when St. Peter is almost completely estranged from his family. Although he feels he loves them, he "could not live with his family again" upon their return from Europe (274). "Falling out, for him, seemed to mean falling out of all domestic and social relations, out of his place in the human family, indeed" (275). St. Peter’s estrangement is not only with his family (an estrangement perhaps rationalized by the grasping or otherwise distasteful St. Peter clan), but with the human family. It is a solipsistic retreat from contact and effort, the neurasthenic’s revulsion for work of any kind.

Neurasthenia, if left untreated, can become deadly. Beard explains: "A certain amount of nerve strength is necessary to supply the courage requisite for simple existence. Abstaining from dying demands a degree of force" (49). Compare this to the scene near the end of the narrative in which St. Peter, sleeping on the couch, nearly dies:

When St. Peter at last awoke, the room was pitch-black and full of gas. He was cold and numb, felt sick and rather dazed. The long-anticipated coincidence had happened, he realized. The storm had blown the stove out and the window shut. The thing to do was to get up and open the window. But suppose he did not get up--? How far was a man required to exert himself against accident? [...] He hadn’t lifted his hand against himself--was he required to lift it for himself? (276)

This classic scene, variously read as a suicide attempt or as an accident, can be understood as the neurasthenic’s complete collapse. The Professor’s decision is made solely in terms of effort; this is not a moral or philosophical decision, but one of physiological capacity. He is unwilling to "exert" the energy necessary to save himself, unwilling to "lift his hand" either for or against himself. Here is the prototypical neurasthenic fatigue--almost suicidal, but ultimately too passive and weak to even take that course of action. Accidental gassing is a supremely logical death for the neurasthenic. This appropriateness is reinforced by the Professor at the end of the narrative, when he remembers his near death:

Yet when he was confronted by accidental extinction, he had felt no will to resist, but had let chance take its way, as it had done with him so often. He did not remember springing up from the couch, though he did remember a crisis, a moment of acute, agonized strangulation. (282)

Again, the Professor is a passive figure, couch-ridden, subject to the whims of chance and his own lack of nerve. He is saved by Augusta, though, and does somehow manage to carry on with his life, if in a diminished way. We cannot accredit his survival to clinical treatment of neurasthenia, but perhaps his vicarious experience on the mesa with Tom Outland can account for his fortitude.

Treatment of neurasthenia, according to Tom Lutz, "aimed at a reconstitution of the subject in terms of gender roles" (32). S. Weir Mitchell, a leading psychiatrist of the day, treated many notable neurasthenics. Female patients, in line with turn-of-the-century models of female decorum, were prescribed bed rest for up to several months, and were prohibited from all activity and visitors. (Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s "The Yellow Wallpaper" has long been considered a critique of Mitchell’s "rest cure" for women. Interestingly, St. Peter’s old study has yellow wall paper.) Treatments for men, again consistent with contemporary gender roles, emphasized vigorous exercise, often in natural settings:

Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Eakins, Frederic Remington, and Owen Wister were all sent to the Dakotas for rough-riding exercise cures [...] Henry James was sent to hike in the Alps, and William James continued to prescribe vigorous mountain hikes for himself[.] (32)

Depleted of "nerve force," male neurasthenics were admonished to replenish their reserves in rugged, survivalist outdoor settings. Beard documents the treatment of one "Mr. O," whom, worn out by "labor necessitated by scholarly pursuits," is afflicted by

a settled melancholia, associated with a morbid and utterly baseless fear of financial ruin...he was as easily exhausted physically as mentally. He possessed no reserve force, and gave out utterly whenever he attempted to overstep the bounds of the most ordinary effort. [As part of his treatment] He journeyed to the West, visited the Yellowstone region, and at San Francisco took steamer for China [...] and returned a well man, nor has he since relapsed into his former condition. (139-41)

Beard’s characterization of "Mr. O" is fascinating in several ways. First, he is the prototypical neurasthenic--worn out, depressed, full of "baseless" fears. More interestingly, for the purposes of this study, part of the patient’s cure is effected in the "Yellowstone region," which would ultimately be made a national park by neurasthenic outdoors man Theodore Roosevelt. This natural space, hewn from the wilds of the American frontier, is a prototypical refuge for nervous "brain-workers" in need of rejuvenation.

This approach to treatment is especially intriguing given the setting of Book II of The Professor's House: an isolated Mesa in the Southwest. While St. Peter himself doesn’t undertake an exercise cure, "Tom Outland’s Story" does mimic the form and rhetoric of treatment for male neurasthenics, possibly accounting for the odd narrative structure of the novel. Cather, then, not only acknowledges the cultural phenomenon of neurasthenia, but incorporates it in the structure of the text.

Outland’s experience on the mesa (mediated, we must remember, by the neurasthenic St. Peter, who relates the tale) is consistent with what Jackson Lears has termed the "cult of strenuousity" prevalent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. According to Lears neurasthenics often sought refuge in "a vitalistic cult of energy and process; and a parallel recovery of the primal, irrational sources in the human psyche, forces which had been obscured by the evasive banality of modern culture" (57). Outland, discovering the mesa valley for the first time, explains that the air there "made my mouth and nostrils smart like charged water, seemed to go to my head a little and produce a kind of exaltation" (200). Like Roosevelt and other devotees of the exercise cure, Outland (and St. Peter, via the mediation) is re-"charged" by the primal essence of the mesa. The Professor later laments, "his great drawback was [...] the fact that he had not spent his youth in the great dazzling South-west country which was the scene of his explorers’ adventures" (258).

Interestingly, Outland’s rejuvenation on the mesa is cast by Cather in hyperbolically masculine terms. The notoriously phallic central tower of the cliff city, for instance, may serve as a metaphor for recovered sexual potency:

It was beautifully proportioned, that tower, swelling out to a larger girth a little above the base, then growing slender again. There was something symmetrical and powerful about the swell of the masonry. The tower was the fine thing that held all the jumble of houses together and made them mean something. It was red in color, even on that grey day. (201)

Neurasthenics embraced "premodern symbols as alternatives to the vagueness of liberal Protestantism or the sterility of nineteenth-century positivism" (Lears xiii). The tower stands in striking contrast to St. Peter’s sexless marriage with Lillian, potentially reviving the Professor’s sagging neurasthenic libido.

The tower also serves, in Outland’s mind, to forge meaning out of the seemingly random cluster of houses: "The notion struck me like a rifle ball that this mesa had once been like a bee-hive; it was full of little cluff-hung villages, it had been the home of a powerful tribe" (202). Outland’s discovery, cast in martial terms ("rifle ball"), reinscribes the imperialistic tendencies of the exercise cure and of Tom’s archeological endeavor itself.

Tom Lutz notes that the exercise cure, steeped in Rooseveltian rhetoric, exemplified "a polemic for cultural change, a retraining, presented as a ‘return’ to heroic, natural, and manly values...The paternalism of Roosevelt’s appeal made sense against the same understanding of role which informed the cures for neurasthenia" (36). Outland seems to unconsciously concur, reflecting that "Wherever humanity has made that hardest of all starts and lifted itself out of mere brutality, is a sacred spot" (220-1). While Outland does have genuine admiration for the tribe, his language is almost always couched in terms of martial struggle, of striving against implacable odds.

On a related note, George Kennan, writing in a 1908 McClure’s Magazine edited by Cather, proposed that rising suicide rates among the educated by cured by a "cultivation of what may be called the heroic spirit" (228). Cather was surely aware of this masculinizing, imperializing response to neurasthenic ennui--her poem, "Prairie Dawn," appears at the end of Kennan’s article! Outland’s excavation of Cliff City and its remains subsequently becomes an imperializing gesture, in spite of his respect for the culture.

What does this mean, though, for a neurasthenic reading of The Professor’s House? In part, it acknowledges Cather’s response to and incorporation of a cultural phenomenon into the text in question. Additionally, it serves to clarify Cather’s critique of masculinist American culture and of the gendered treatment of neurasthenia. This critique is exemplified by Cather’s depiction of "Mother Eve": "Her mouth was open as if she were screaming, and her face, through all those years, had kept a look of terrible agony" (214-15). Not only does this harrowing image undermine Outland’s romantic depiction of the tribe, but it points to the moral bankruptcy of the cult of strenuousity. It is easy, Cather seems to argue, for Roosevelt and his ilk to "rough it" in the wilderness to regain their vigor, but the "real-life" wilderness experience is a far harsher and more dangerous prospect. Cather ultimately does not romanticize the mesa--she problematizes it as a site for neurasthenic recovery. More importantly, this vexed reading of the treatment suggests a vexed reading of neurasthenia and of "American Nervousness" itself.

Ultimately, in spite of his best efforts to recover the intense experience of his past and of Tom Outland’s, St. Peter fails. As Mathias Schubnell explains, Cather’s "central character is trapped between a modern urban civilization to which he belongs against his will, and a pastoral, earth-bound world he yearns for but cannot regain" (97). This paradox is exemplified by the Professor’s early lament to Lillian, "’it’s been a mistake, our having a family and writing histories and getting middle-aged. We should have been picturesquely shipwrecked together when we were young’" (94). The reader, of course, recognizes the absurdity of this image--an absurdity strongly reinforced by the image of the deceased "Mother Eve" figure. These overcivilized men, Cather suggests, have no conception of what intense experience might be.

That experience has been replaced, the Professor explains, by rationalizing, industrializing forces in American culture:

Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures...nor any new sins--not one! Indeed, it has taken our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin...I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance--you impoverish them. (68)

St. Peter, the neurasthenic humanist, gets here at the heart of his (and America’s) sickness--it has replaced the numinous and the sacred with the banal and the profane. The disorder he suffers from, once termed a sin, has become "physiological," as has his soul. It is worthwhile to contrast the Professor’s lament with Beard’s supremely rational boast: "It would seem, indeed, that diseases which are here described represent a certain amount of force in the body which, if our knowledge of physiological chemistry were more precise, might be measured in units" (115). The banal, utterly practical measuring of depression, of melancholia, of humanity’s every whim and caprice, Cather suggests, has dulled the luster of human existence. The Professor’s tub, then, becomes an emblem of the relentless stripping away of all that is meaningful and real in Cather’s culture: "Many a night, after blowing out his study lamp, he had leaped into that tub, clad in his pyjamas, to give it another coat of some one of the many paints that were advertised to behave like porcelain, but didn’t" (12). Porcelain here becomes the religion or art which once sustained the race, replaced by the false claims of science. The Professor, though, seems too world-weary, too embittered to actually turn to religious faith. Perhaps God is dead in his world, eliminated by the Faustian quest for scientific knowledge. "His career, his wife, his family, were not his life at all, but a chain of events which had happened to him" (264). Godfrey St. Peter, like the rest of the neurasthenics, is doomed to an incurable sickness, victim of a spiritual epidemic which, Cather suggests, will not soon run its course.

Author Biography

Todd Robinson