Charles Baudelaire’s novella La Fanfarlo (1847; the flaunter) attributes the idiosyncrasies of the protagonist, Samuel Cramer, to his mixed parentage (German and Chilean), his French education, and his heaven-bestowed partial genius. Baudelaire is thus practicing etiology—diagnosing the causes of a condition—but not with the seriousness a physician would adopt. Instead, he explains a condition through a whimsical mixture of rationales based on nature, nurture, and God. Such jocular syncretism (or, indeed, any extensive etiology) is common in fiction only from the eighteenth century onward. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), Myrrha’s incestuous passion for her father creates the kind of situation that later fascinated psychologists, but the narrator simply comments on that passion as criminal and disgusting without investigating why Myrrha had such an unusual craving. Presumably, fate or the gods are somehow responsible.
With the rise of the sciences in the eighteenth century, however, tacit reference to supernatural influence was not enough to explain personality differences. Before the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century, the characters to be diagnosed seldom deviated far from normality and thus were little in need of lavish elucidation. Thereafter, however, neurotics and psychotics began multiplying through a growing interest in extreme expressions of individuality.
To demonstrate this individuality, authors must at some point diagnose characters’ deviance from the norm; paradoxically, since what can be thus cataloged is not uniquely individual, the authors must also show a distaste for diagnosis itself....
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