The Red Flower by Vselevod Mikhailovic Garshin

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Only two authors, as far as I know, killed themselves by throwing themselves down a stairwell, and it is now disputed that one of them, Primo Levi, did so suicidally: rather, he fell. But there is no disputing that Vselevod Mikhailovic Garshin (1855 – 1888) did so with suicidal intent.

Garshin, known as the best Russian writer of short stories of the period before Chekhov reached his maturity, wanted to be a doctor but was not admitted to medical school. He joined the army as a private during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 and his first story, Four Days, was a fictionalised account of the wound he received in that war. He lies, semi-delirious, for four days on the battlefield, next to the decomposing body of the Turkish soldier whom he has killed with his bayonet, and whose bottle of water saves his life. Two details remind us that this is fiction, not autobiography. The “horrible grinning skull [of the dead Turk] with its everlasting smile” reminds the narrator that, as a medical student, he has often handled such skulls; and eventually the narrator’s leg is amputated. Garshin was never an amputee or a medical student, though he might easily have been both.

Almost certainly, though, he suffered severely from manic-depression. His most famous story, The Red Flower, again semi-autobiographical, is an account of a lunatic’s admission, progress and death in an asylum. I doubt there is a better account of mania in literature. The protagonist is so manically hyperactive that he constantly loses weight despite eating gargantuan meals; he has moments of insight that something is wrong with him, but they soon depart.

When he meets the doctor, the patient says to him:

I have this idea! When I discovered it I felt reborn. My senses have become more and more acute, my brain works as it never did formerly. What was once attained by a long process of reasoning I now know intuitively. I am an illustration of the great idea that space and time – are fictions. I live in all centuries. I live outside space, everywhere and nowhere…

The patient becomes seized with the idea that the evil in the world is concentrated in three red poppies that grow in the asylum garden – “they flourished on all innocent bloodshed, which is why they were so red” – and that it was his duty and destiny to rid the world of evil by plucking and uprooting them, thus eliminating their terrible emanations. But picking the flowers in the garden is not permitted, and the patient has cunningly to evade the attendants in order to carry out his grandiose and paranoid plan to rid the world of evil.

He dies of manic exhaustion (as used sometimes to happen), but with beatific contentment on his face because he has managed to uproot the last of the poppies, and therefore believes the world to have been purified.

Garshin had an immense reputation in his day though his output was small (only 20 stories). Now regarded as a minor writer, he nevertheless provided an illuminating insight into depressive thinking in his story A Night:

He imagined he saw all his life before him. He recalled a series of ugly and sombre pictures in which he was the principal figure. He recalled all that was worst in his life, turned it all over in his mind, but failed to find one clean or bright spot in it, and was convinced that none remained. “Not only none remained, but had never existed,” he added in self-correction.

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