Dionysus in Literature: Essays on Literary Madness

By Branimir M. Rieger | Go to book overview

Madness, Masochism and Morality:
Dostoyevsky and His Underground Man

Thomas C. Fiddick

Fyodor Dostoyevsky may well have been the greatest "psychological novelist" of the nineteenth century, or even of all time. His themes and characters prefigured many of the terms and insights coined, or discovered, by Freud and other founders of modern psychiatry. His characters, especially the Underground Man, are fictional examples of the terminology used to describe deviant behavior and madness in the twentieth century. This essay will examine how the strange behaviors and unconscious impulses in Notes from Underground parallel numerous modern notions about mental illness, especially the concepts of the obsessive‐ compulsive, masochist, paranoid, schizophrenic, epileptic and "detached neurotic," but also the sadism of displaced hostility.

Freud, of course, saw proofs of his Oedipus complex in the family conflicts of The Brothers Karamazov. But other works by the Russian can be read as "case studies" of various psychic disorders. The Gambler was a semi-self-portrait of an "obsessive" personality. The Possessed (also translated as The Dewils) has been called the greatest political novel ever written, and as a psychological study of political fanaticism it was a forerunner of Harold Lasswell's Psychopathology and Politics. The Idiot pictured the "divine madness" to be found in those "holy fools" who dotted the landscape of Orthodox Russia. Crime and Punishment can be variously interpreted. It might be seen as a portrait of a "split personality" with its protagonist, who struggles with his dual nature, named Raskolnikov, from the Russian word for split, or schism— Raskol—while the more normal, integrated personality is named for the Russian word Razum, meaning "reason." But Raskolnikov might also be seen as an intellectually motivated psychopath, trying to prove, before Nietzsche ever wrote his works, that he was "beyond good and evil"—a "superman" whose "will to power" was on a par with that "Anti-Christ," Napoleon.

The infamous German philosopher once "admitted" (or bragged) that Dostoyevsky was the "only psychologist...from whom

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