Literature and Psychoanalysis

By Edith Kurzweil; William Phillips | Go to book overview

12. Myshkin's Epilepsy

Elizabeth Dalton

IN "DOSTOEVSKY AND PARRICIDE", Freud argues that Dostoevsky's epilepsy was the central expression of his neurosis, and thus fundamental to his life and character. If this is indeed the case, epilepsy must also have crucial significance for Dostoevsky's work. Throughout most of his adult life, he endured not only the violent and humilating grand mal seizures, which during some periods occurred several times a week, but also the agitated, irritable disorientation that preceded them and the hours and days of weakness and depression that followed. The extraordinary experiences associated with the fits and the state or condition of being an epileptic must certainly have shaped Dostoevsky's work and the conception of experience that informs it in some intimate and profound way.

There are several epileptics in the novels. In The Brothers Karamazov, the epileptic Smerdyakov is a parricide, the debased alter-ego of Ivan and indeed of all the brothers. In The Possessed it is suggested that Kirilov, the tormented and visionary young nihilist who commits suicide, is or might have become epileptic. And above all there is Myshkin, the hero of The Idiot. Myshkin is one of the most extraordinary creations in all of fiction. Dostoevsky intended him to be the representation of ideal and absolute moral beauty -- "a positively beautiful man," a sort of Russian Christ who would point the way to the moral regeneration of Russia and even the world. And Myshkin is indeed an irresistibly attractive and

From "Myshkin's Epilepsy", Partisan Review ( 1978), 65(4)595-610; also in Dalton, Unconscious Structure in "The Idiot" ( Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979). Copyright © 1979, Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

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