The Epileptic Genius: The Use of Dostoevsky as Example in the Medical Debate over the Pathology of Genius

By Dahlkvist, Tobias | Journal of the History of Ideas, October 2015 | Go to article overview

The Epileptic Genius: The Use of Dostoevsky as Example in the Medical Debate over the Pathology of Genius


Dahlkvist, Tobias, Journal of the History of Ideas


In a remarkably short period in the 1880s, Fyodor Dostoevsky went from almost complete obscurity to being generally regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time. The starting-point of Dostoevsky's reception in Western Europe was Wilhelm Henckel's German translation of Crime and Punishment, published as Raskolnikow in 1882. Within three years Crime and Punishment had been translated into French, English, and several other languages; by the end of the decade, all his great novels could be read in most major languages. These years were also a period during which the medical interest in the pathology of genius was at its peak: one of the major voices in the debate over the nature of genius-the Italian criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso-sought to incorporate a new and controversial theory of epilepsy into his concept of genius. Dostoevsky, the epileptic genius, became a key example to both Lombroso and his critics.

In this paper I will argue that both the major schools of criminal anthropology-Lombroso's Italian school, which considered crime and genius as pathological deviations, and Alexandre Lacassagne's Lyon school, which sought their explanation in the environment-read Dostoevsky through the lens of European literary criticism. In particular, I will seek to demonstrate that an important element of their interpretations was the French diplomat and critic Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé's reading of Dostoevsky in his Le roman russe from 1886, a book that, Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank asserts, was "primarily responsible for making his name familiar among cultivated European readers.''1 By using biographical facts from Vogüé, the psychiatrists discussing Dostoevsky incorporated into their medico-anthropological theories a description of Dostoevsky's epilepsy that was a layman's opinion and that furthermore was quite hostile to Dostoevsky. The way the medical writings on genius discussed Dostoevsky is an indication that fin de siè cle medicine stood in an ambiguous relation to literature. Psychiatrists and criminal anthropologists were much more open to non-scientific observations and ideas than their positivistic ideals would lead one to think. The use of Dostoevsky as an example in the discussions on genius can therefore serve as a very concrete illustration of Georges Canguilhem's observation that the fundamental concepts of scientific theories are often grafted upon older images, even myths.2

DOSTOEVSKY AND VOGÜÉ'S LE ROMAN RUSSE

During his diplomatic career, Vogüéhad been posted in Saint Petersburg and drew on his personal acquaintance with the exotic Russian culture for his essay on the Russian novel. The book was an immediate success: it went through ten editions in its author's lifetime and secured him a seat in the Académie Française in 1888.3 Vogüé's observations on Dostoevsky were "especially valuable because they come from a neutral foreign observer,'' Frank claims.4 The fact is, though, that Vogüéwas anything but neutral in regard to Dostoevsky. While he held Russian literature in general to be superior to the French, his comments on Dostoevsky are consistently critical. Already in his preface, Vogüésuggested that Dostoevsky's influence on French literature was harmful, as evidenced by the fact that young decadents were choosing Dostoevsky as their model.5 In a study of Le roman russe, Magnus Röhl argues that the poetics of the book is based on the moral effect of literature: the Russian writers stand above the French because they make the reader morally better-with the exception of Dostoevsky.6 Vogüédoes not doubt Dostoevsky's pure intentions, but still regards his books as morally questionable, especially Crime and Punishment, which allegedly inspired a number of similar murders.7 (Vogüétook liberties with the chronology of events here: though a similar murder-a student robbed and murdered a pawnbroker-did take place in St. Peters-burg around the time of the publication of the novel, it actually occurred before the publication. …

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