February 09

Fyodor Dostoyevsky and His Epileptic Nirvana

On the 9th of February 1881, one of the most prolific Russian writers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, died of complications after a pulmonary haemorrhage in Saint Petersburg in the Russian Empire. On the day of his death he asked his wife to read him a passage from the Bible (Matthew 3:14-15): “But John forbid him, saying, I have need to be baptised of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness”. Then he uttered his last words: “Hear now – permit it. Do not restrain me!” (Geir Kjetsaa, Fyodor Dostoyevsky: A Writer’s Life). After this, Dostoyevsky fell into a coma from which he never woke up.

41fZSqCpNPLDostoyevsky’s last words are those of a man who has accepted his fate; he is aware of his unavoidable end, yet he takes it with dignity and calmness. Bearing in mind that during his lifetime the writer had suffered from frequent epileptic seizures, the experience of death could have presented a similar quality to him – that of “happiness” and “harmony”. Dostoyevsky’s description of one of his seizures is reminiscent in its intensity of the artificially induced LSD state: “For a few moments, I experience such happiness as is impossible under ordinary conditions, and of which other people can have no notion. I feel complete harmony in myself and in the world, and this feeling is so strong and sweet that for several seconds of such bliss one would give ten years of one’s life, indeed, perhaps one’s whole life.” (Louis Breger, Dostoevsky: The Author as Psychoanalyst). The seizures had usually a strong impact on his physical and mental condition. On several occasions it took him up to one week to recover fully from the postictal state.

There is no consensus as to when Dostoevsky started suffering from epilepsy. Some of the sources claim that his first epileptic fits happened during his exile at a katorga prison camp in Omsk, between 1849-54. The writer mentioned his epileptic fits in the 1859 petition from Tver, in which he asked the Tsar for permission to return to Petersburg, justifying his request by his poor health caused by “the epilepsy which declared itself in the first year of my prison life.” (E. H. Carr, ‘Was Dostoyevsky an Epileptic?’, The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 9, No. 26, Dec., 1930). Although from his letter to Baron Wrangler, dated 9 of March 1859, we learn that the fits could have occurred much later, after his first marriage to Maria Dmitrieva Isaeva in February 1857, when, “The doctor told me that I had genuine epilepsy.” (Carr).

416D3TBKR7LThere was also speculation, derived from Freud’s essay Dostoyevsky and Parricide (1928), that Dostoyevsky’s epileptic condition could have been ignited by hysteria over his father’s death. Even though there was no evidence to justify this assertion, Freud in his essay presented a complex analysis of not only Dostoyevsky’s case per se but a general explanatory model. “When he applies the general model to Dostoyevsky, Freud is right about a few specifics and wrong about many others. His interpretation that Dostoyevsky’s compulsive gambling was a form of self-punishment, and that the burden of debt that the novelist always managed to take on was the tangible manifestation of guilt, are brilliant insights. However, Freud’s interpretation of the source of this guilt reduces it to the familiar oedipal theme: rivalry with the father for mother, death wishes toward the hated, feared father – in Dostoyevsky’s case realized when his father was murdered by his serfs – and the turning of these emotions around on the self: “You wanted to kill your father in order to be your father yourself. Now you are your father, but a dead father.” In this view, the epileptic seizures are the symptomatic expression of the death-dealing attack of the inner father – the superego – on the ego.” (Breger).

415ATl6ZK0LDostoyevsky used his experiences in the construction of several characters in some of his famous works: Kirillov in The Possesed, Nellie in the Insulted and Injured, Smirdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, and Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. In the words of the latter, epilepsy is, “The height of harmony and beauty, and gives an unheard-of and till then undreamed-of feeling of wholeness, of proportion, of reconciliation, and an ecstatic and prayer-like union in the highest synthesis of life.” (Breger)