Sierra Moreno reviews Kathleen Béres Rogers’ Creating Romantic Obsession: Scorpions in the Mind (Palgrave Macmillan: 2019)
In Francisco Goya’s 1799 etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, a slumped figure is assailed by a cloud of flapping, nocturnal things. Cats, bats, owls—they nip at his back, squawk in his ear, loom ominously above his head, and generally make themselves impossible to ignore. While it might be supposed that the figure in this image is, as the title suggests, sound asleep, momentarily letting down the guard of his reason and thus leaving an opening for such fantastical monsters to flood his mind, the tension visible in his hunched-up shoulders implies otherwise. He may in fact be awake and cowering in fear of the creatures that crowd around him, or perhaps, as some critics have suggested, slouched hopelessly forward in a gesture of melancholy (Tal, 2010: 115). If the latter could be the case, then the etching may contain a more specific message than simply warning viewers against the perils of an overactive imagination—of letting one’s reason “sleep,” so to speak. It could in fact be Goya’s interpretation of the obsessive, ruminative thoughts of what Romantic-era proto-psychologists might have called a “melancholic,” made tangible in the form of monsters.
This image, viewed through the lens of melancholia, provides a useful depiction of the complex relationship that arose between obsessive thinking and the imagination during the Romantic period. The image depicts what happens when the imagination becomes, from the Romantic-period point of view, “diseased” (Béres Rogers, 2020: 2). As Kathleen Béres Rogers illustrates in her new book and the subject of this review, Creating Romantic Obsession: Scorpions in the Mind, such obsessive thoughts born from a “diseased” imagination were the subject of much debate among the proto-psychologists of the Romantic period. “Melancholy,” as Béres Rogers explains in her introduction, was just one name for a whole host of overlapping conditions which involved obsessive thought and were delineated around the turn of the 19th century, often used interchangeably with terms like “phrenzy,” “frenzy, “mania,” and “monomania” (Béres Rogers, 2020: 3). Quoting Etienne Esquirol, one of the leading proto-psychiatrists of the 19th century, she gives the Romantic-period definition of melancholy as being “the permanent and exclusive impression of any object whatever, pursued with ardor, and almost always accompanied with fear, suspicion, etc.” (Béres Rogers, 2020: 9). In other words, it denoted a person who devoted all, or nearly all, of their attention to a single, sustained activity or idea—a person who we might describe today as being “obsessed.”
Monomania, though similar to melancholy, lay even closer to the behaviors that we might label as “obsession” today. Béres Rogers, again quoting Esquirol, describes the progression of monomania in the following terms:
The patients seize upon a false principle, which they pursue without deviating from logical reasonings, and from which they deduce legitimate circumstances, which modify their affections, and the acts of their will…illusions, hallucinations, vicious associations of ideas, false and strange convictions, are at the basis of this delirium (Béres Rogers, 2020: 11).
The phrase “vicious associations of ideas” is key here, pointing to the root of many of these new diagnostic categories in associationism, a notion espoused by David Hartley in his 1775 treatise Hartley’s Theory of the Human Mind, on the Theory of the Association of Ideas. In it, he argues that all ideas are derived from initial sense impressions taken in from the external word; building upon these original sensations, the mind then produces associations. However, associations can be drawn from associations as well, and if one builds an association upon a “false principle,” as Esquirol puts it, the result can be “exponential” (Béres Rogers, 2020: 7), potentially leading to delusions and hallucinations. If we return our attention to the Goya etching with this in mind, we can perhaps see some characteristics of monomania illustrated therein. The creatures seem almost to grow out from one another in chains of association, multiplying into the distance where they grow indistinct—like paranoid fears lurking at the back of one’s mind. They weigh the figure down, pressing on his back in a manner reminiscent of the “fatigue” experienced by many monomaniacs resulting from excessive application to one train of thought (Béres Rogers, 2020: 65). It should also be noted that, even while the monsters weigh the figure down, they seem to be spurring him on in his work; one of the owls perched on his writing-desk even uses a talon to extend him a pen. This suggests that the figure may be suffering specifically from intellectual monomania, a primarily male-gendered condition which involved “a madness caused by an ‘overstrained intellect,’” and is explored in depth by Béres Rogers in Chapter 3 (Béres Rogers, 2020: 12).
Following the detailed contextualization of Romantic-period obsession given in her introduction, Béres Rogers moves on in the following chapters to guide her readers through the various diagnostic categories assigned to obsessive thinking around the turn of the 19th century. This section of the book has the feeling of a field guide to the many varieties of Romantic-period obsession, coupled with examples from literature to illustrate how they might have looked in the wild. Through this approach, Béres Rogers aims to show what factors arose in the Romantic period which “caused obsessive thinking to merit its own pathological category,” a question that she contends “can best be answered through works of literature that introduce the problem of obsessive thinking and begin to examine the many anxieties that generated ‘monomania’” (Béres Rogers, 2020: 12). The varieties of obsession she explores are many, ranging from nymphomania, a term still in general use today, to the now-vanished condition of “vigilia,” which the doctor and poet Erasmus Darwin defined as “watchfulness [that] consists in the unceasing exertion of volition” and involved the obsessive desire to learn another person’s secrets (Béres Rogers, 2020: 12). Béres Rogers provides a thorough and engaging context for what each of these terms would have meant to Romantic-period proto-psychologists, writers, and readers in each chapter, following this context up with detailed readings of texts that exemplify the sort of behaviors and symptoms that would have accompanied each condition.
Overall, in Creating Romantic Obsession: Scorpions in the Mind, Béres Rogers gives a fascinating overview of the ways in which obsession was perceived and pathologized during the Romantic period, bringing each term that she introduces to life through compelling readings of examples from Romantic literature. She wraps up her survey of Romantic obsession with a coda that ties in Romantic notions of obsession with contemporary culture, pointing out that, while Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is listed in the 2013 DSM V, it bears very little resemblance to what monomania and other obsessive conditions would have looked like during the Romantic period. If anything, intellectual monomania has come to be viewed as a positive trait. As Béres Rogers shows in her reading of A.S. Byatt’s 1990 novel Possession, what might have been called intellectual monomania in the past bears many similarities to the traits of a good scholar in the present. The fluctuation in what does and does not constitute an unhealthy level of obsession, she contends, should give us pause to consider which present-day anxieties might be shaping what we consider to be “abnormal” today (Béres Rogers, 2020: 17).
Tal, Guy. “The gestural language in Francisco Goya’s Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” Word & Image 26, no. 2 (2010): 115-127.
Sierra Moreno holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Glasgow. She currently lives in Oregon, where she tutors English and works as a contract writer and editor.