Dostoevsky Studies     Volume 9, 1988

Freud on Dostoevsky's Epilepsy: A Revaluation

Nathan Rosen, University of Rochester


Freud's essay "Dostoevsky and Parricide" was published in 1928 as an introduction to a German collection of materials on The Brothers Karamazov. (1) This was a highly appropriate place of publication since both the essay and the novel dealt with parricide and epilepsy. Sixty years have passed since then but Freud's essay is still useful, filled with brilliant insights that have proved quite influential, even among those scholars who do not accept his theory about the nature of Dostoevsky's epilepsy.(2) Freud's achievement was to bring together, to unify and illuminate as no one had done before him, the most diverse strands in Dostoevsky's life and works: relations between father and son, Dostoevsky's epilepsy, his political and religious views, his gambling, and his obsession with crime and moral responsibility. Were it not for Freud, we would still be examining each of these strands separately, unable to see how they are all interwoven.

Freud's achievement is all the more remarkable since his knowledge of Dostoevsky's life was based on whatever facts he could pick up in German in the 1920's. There is some evidence that he did not know all that was available in German. (3) And some of the facts he misunderstood. Aware of the limitations of his source material he took pains to qualify his arguments: "We cannot be completely certain on this point ...This cannot, strictly speaking, be proved... It would be very much to the point if it could be established that [his seizures] ceased completely during his exile to Siberia, but other accounts contradict this," etc.(4)

Despite these qualifications Freud offered his wide-ranging views, concisely and simply expressed, with the easy assurance of a lifetime spent in the study of the unconscious. (He was 71 years old when he wrote the essay.) As I have said, "Dostoevsky and Parricide" has stood up well over these many years. Apart from questioning by some medical experts and by E.H. Carr, a British historian (1930), Freud was not seriously challenged until the 1970's. A full frontal attack was then mounted, and it has turned into an act of demolition.

The attack came from two directions: Slavic scholars and medical experts. Scholars, led by Joseph Frank, have questioned the biographical facts on which Freud bases his theory. Frank's critique first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement of July 18, 1975; it was then reprinted as a appendix to the first volume of his massive and authoritative biography of Dostoevsky so that it has gained still more weight and authority. Frank dismissed Freud's "case history"


as "purely fictitious."(5) Following Frank, a recent biographer of Dostoevsky (Geir Kjetsaa) says flatly that "Freud's theory of 'hysterical epilepsy' is without foundation."(6) Jacques Catteau speaks slightingly of "la légèreté historique de Freud."(7) And readers of The New York Review of Books for November 24, 1988 were informed by John Bayley that "specialists in Russian literature no longer subscribe to the old legend that Dostoevsky's father was murdered by his serfs, and that this was the cause of Dostoevsky's epilepsy." The dogmatic tone of all these assertions, admitting no qualifications, means the issue is settled and done with in the minds of these scholars - and, indeed, in the minds of most Slavists. At any rate, no one has seen fit to question the evidence cited to discredit the "facts" used by Freud.

Slavic scholars have found scientific support from medical experts, specialists in epilepsy (epileptologists), headed by the world-famous authority Henri Gastaut. These specialists, while arguing with each other as to the precise nature of Dostoevsky's disease (temporal lobe epilepsy, generalized epilepsy, or a combination of the two) are in agreement that Freud's diagnosis of "hystero-epilepsy" is completely wrong.(8) As they see it, Dostoevsky suffered from true epilepsy, organic epilepsy, which is physical in origin: due either to a lesion of the brain or heredity. (In the nineteenth century heredity was considered the decisive factor.) Since organic epilepsy is a disease of the brain, measuring instruments can record abnormal surges of electrical current in the part of the brain that is not functioning properly. Freud, however, contended that Dostoevsky's epilepsy was not organic but psychological, the product of hysteria and neurosis. Hence there is no electrical disturbance in the brain; there is nothing to measure. The epileptic seizure is psychologically determined. As Freud explained it:

Hysteria originates through the repression of an unbearable idea from a motive of defense ... By virtue of its repression, the idea becomes the cause of morbid symptoms, that is, pathogenic.(9)

In other words, the symptoms keep the conflict out of awareness while at the same time permitting it to be expressed symbolically.

This raises an obvious question: why did Dostoevsky's hysteria or neurosis choose to express itself symbolically through hysterical seizures? Freud maintained that these seizures expressed Dostoevsky's "unbearable idea" - his repressed wish for this hated father's death. And when his father was murdered by his angry serfs (as Dostoevsky heard), then the unconscious wish was fulfilled. At that time, according to the "family legend," Dostoevsky suffered his first epileptic attack.

Later we shall see how, according to Freud, Dostoevsky's seizures expressed exactly his feelings about his father's death. At this point, however, I would like to raise a crucial issue which I think has been overlooked. If Freud's detractors are right and Dostoevsky's disease is of organic origin, then


the epileptic seizures are purely physical and have no psychological meaning; Dostoevsky could just as well have suffered from pneumonia or smallpox. There is no connection between his epilepsy and parricide. Nor would Dostoevsky himself be aware of any such connection. Thus if Nelly in The Insulted and Injured has an epileptic seizure (this is stated) just when her hated father comes to visit her, it must be regarded as meaningless, designed merely to awaken pity for her.(10) And if Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov has an extremely strong epileptic seizure after killing his father, this too must be meaningless. As a matter of fact, this is precisely what E.H. Carr says: Smerdyakov's epilepsy "is a piece of machinery necessary to the plot, and appears to have no other artistic or spiritual significance."(11) (Carr, it will be recalled, was the first critic to raise doubts about Freud's biographical facts, especially concerning the "family legend.") This remark of Carr's seems to me to diminish Smerdyakov as a character. In his biography of Dostoevsky, Carr finds the epileptic seizures of the author equally meaningless.(12) And this is not accidental. If Carr and other detractors of Freud are right, if there is no connection between epilepsy and parricide, then our understanding of both Dostoevsky's life and his works is terribly impoverished.

This conviction has led me to look hard at the evidence offered by those who would demolish Freud's theory. I have no fanatical commitment to Freud's general theories. I do not even feel inclined to defend literally every opinion voiced by Freud in his article, such as his views on Russian history and the Russian character. But if it is at all possible, I wish to rescue his basic insight into the symbolic character of Dostoevsky's epilepsy; I wish to reestablish the crucial connection between epilepsy and parricide.

To do this it will be necessary to examine the charges made against Freud by epilepsy experts (a wrong diagnosis) and by literary scholars (a factual problem). Before discussing Dostoevsky's epilepsy it will be useful to look at a description of one of his typical full seizures. In 1836 Strakhov witnessed such a seizure during a conversation with Dostoevsky:

It was late, about 11:00 p.m., when he visited me and we had a lively conversation. I don't recall what the subject was but I know it was on an important and lofty theme. Fyodor Mikhailovich was strongly moved and walked about the room while I sat at the table. He was saying something lofty and joyous; when I encouraged his idea with some comment or other he turned to me with an exalted look, showing that his emotion was at its height. He stopped for a moment, as if seeking words for his thought, and had already opened his mouth. I gazed at him with fixed attention, sensing that he was about to say something unusual, that I would hear a revelation of some kind. Suddenly there came from his open mouth a weird, longdrawn-out and senseless sound, and he fell unconscious on the floor.


This time the fit was not a strong one. The effect of his convulsion was that his whole body stretched out and he foamed at the mouth. In half an hour he regained consciousness and I walked home with him. He lived not far off.
Fyodor Mikhailovich often told me that before the onset of an attack there were minutes in which he was in rapture. "For several moments," he said, "I would experience such joy as would be inconceivable in ordinary life - such joy that no one else could have any notion of. I would feel the most complete harmony in myself and in the whole world and this feeling was so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss I would give ten or more years of my life, even my whole life perhaps."
As a result of his fits he would sometimes bruise himself in falling, and his muscles would hurt him from his convulsions. Now and then his face turned red and sometimes splotches appeared. But the most important thing was that he lost his memory and for two or three days he would feel utterly broken. His mental condition was also grievous: he could scarcely overcome his anguish and hypersensitivity. The nature of this anguish, in his own words, was that he felt he was some kind of criminal; it seemed to him that he was weighed upon by mysterious guilt, by a great crime.(13)

According to Freud, the ecstasy experienced at the beginning of the seizure (technically known as the aura) reflected Dostoevsky's joy at the news of his hated father's death; now he was liberated I The ecstasy was followed by the fall, the scream, unconsciousness, convulsions, a slow and confused recovery, depression, and a feeling of guilt as if he had committed a great crime. These symptoms reflected the punishment imposed on him by his superego - his father's authority exerting itself in his unconscious. Dostoevsky's whole life, said Freud, was to be "dominated by his twofold attitude to the father-czar-authority, by voluptuous masochistic submission on the one hand, and by outraged rebellion against it on the other."(14)

Thus Freud sees the seizures as deeply meaningful in Dostoevsky 's own life and equally meaningful in shaping his ambivalent attitude to authority.

What is puzzling is that Dostoevsky's seizures, if they are hysterical in origin, bear the clinical signs of genuine epileptic seizures. It is known that the hysterical seizure can mimic almost perfectly the true epileptic seizure - to such an extent, in fact, that one can hardly be distinguished from the other even with the help of electrical measuring instruments. Nevertheless, differences between the hysterical and epileptic seizures have been observed clinically; standard tables of comparison can be found in any textbook on epilepsy. Thus the epileptic attack occurs when the patient is alone at night, asleep - whereas the hysterical seizure usually occurs in the presence of others. In an epileptic attack the patient


bites his tongue or otherwise injures himself - whereas in a hysterical attack there is no physical injury. In an epileptic attack the patient's complexion shows cyanosis or pallor; there is no change of complexion in a hysterical seizure. In an epileptic attack the convulsions are followed by depression and disorientation; after a hysterical attack the patient feels better, more comfortable and relaxed. And still other contrasts could be drawn.(15)

Now there is no question that Dostoevsky's symptoms were those of genuine epilepsy and not of hysteria. The reader is referred not only to Strakhov's account given above but to the detailed records of seizures made by Dostoevsky himself between 1861 and 1880, which are available in English.(16) Freud was, of course, thoroughly familiar with all these differences between hysterical and epileptic symptoms; he himself had worked with Charcot on hysterical patients and had published a collection of papers on hysteria. Why then did he "perpetrate the monstrous error" (as Gastaut put it) of ignoring the fact that all of Dostoevsky's symptoms indicated genuine epilepsy and not hysteria? "These signals," remarks James Rice, "should have helped Freud avoid his mistaken diagnostic hypothesis."(17 )

Oddly enough, Freud does not explain in his article precisely how he came to his diagnosis of Dostoevsky's epilepsy. He admits that his diagnosis of hysteria could not be proved due to a lack of information on Dostoevsky's first seizures nor was there enough information about the relation of the seizures to his life. "The descriptions of the attacks themselves teach us nothing." Furthermore, "our understanding of pathological states combined with epileptoid attacks is imperfect."(18) In short, the state of knowledge about epilepsy is too primitive. Freud's diagnosis of hysteria seems to have been based on his reading of Dostoevsky's novels and the neurotic aspects of his life, which he recounts in detail. And in view of the primitive state of research in epilepsy, Freud was not troubled by indications that Dostoevsky's seizures resembled true epilepsy rather than hysteria.

If I may digress for a moment, I find it hard to understand the certainty with which epilepsy experts know that Freud is mistaken. Epilepsy in all its ramifications is still an enigma; it can be controlled by drugs but not cured. The electroencephalogram or EEC, invented in 1929 to measure changes in the electrical field on the scalp, is a valuable tool but "at times it can be quite misleading."(19) Even the differences between hysterical and epileptic seizures are not precisely known. To quote a study published in 1981:

In spite of all that has been written on this subject, few studies have actually been carried out to determine what differences may exist between hysterical and epileptic seizures, and most offer only clinical impressions.(20)

Distinguishing between hysterical and epileptic seizures is all the more difficult since it often happens that both types of seizures can co-exist in the same individual, or an


epileptic seizure may result in hysterical reactions. Thus there is no neat either/or opposition between hysterical and epileptic seizures. This gives us some sense of the complexity of issues in epilepsy research. In the closing pages of Owsei Temkin's great work The Falling Sickness(1971) we have a sympathetic evaluation of the present state of affairs:

Though incomparably more is known than was the case in 1890, a level has not yet been reached where the scientific explanation of epilepsy presents a harmonious picture in which all true results fall into place and from which all false results are eliminated.

Given the primitive state of research in the 1920s, the complexity of epilepsy, the difficulty of distinguishing between true epilepsy and hysteria, Freud may have felt justified in ignoring what his detractors saw: that Dostoevsky' s symptoms suggested true organic epilepsy.

In a letter to Stefan Zweig dated October 19, 1920 (seven or eight years before the writing of "Dostoevsky and Parricide") Freud offered two other reasons for a diagnosis of hysterical epilepsy. It is strange that these reasons did not make their way, except obliquely, into the essay. Freud asserted in this letter (in accordance with the prevailing opinion of his time) that organic epilepsy - a disease of the brain - was associated as a rule with mental deterioration. Yet the famous epileptics of history, judging by their achievements, were not mentally retarded. [Textbooks usually mention the following epileptics: Julius Caesar, Peter the Great, Mohammed, Byron, Flaubert, Paganini, Pascal, Berlioz, Maupassant, Swinburne, Dostoevsky. - nr] Since these epileptics were not mentally retarded, Freud argued, they could not have suffered from organic epilepsy but were all "straight cases of hysteria" (reine Hysteriker).(22)

Although it is now held that epilepsy does not inevitably lead to mental deterioration (Freud admits in his article that there are exceptions), the issue is by no means clear. Here is a summary of the situation as of 1981:

The nineteenth century concept of frequent and inevitable intellectual deterioration has rightly been laid to rest, but it is not possible at this point in time to replace it with a well-founded twentieth-century concept. It is still not clear what proportion of epileptic patients actually deteriorate, or for what reasons. Conspicuous deterioration is probably relatively uncommon, but subtle degrees of cognitive impairment may be more frequent.(23)

William Gordon Lennox, a noted authority on epilepsy, remarks that "if the person's mental endowment is good, the brain can endure an extraordinary amount of damage without serious effect on mentality." And he adds: "Mental deterioration is greater if more than one type of seizure is present."(24) It is generally agreed nowadays that Dostoevsky suffered from two types of seizure - temporary lobe epilepsy and generalized epilepsy.(25) Mental deterioration in Dostoevsky's case took


the slighter form of a growing loss of memory, an inability to recall faces or names. He made the following grim entry about his last epileptic seizure:

6 November 80. Morning at 7 o'clock, just asleep. Average, but the morbid state was endured with great difficulty and lasted almost a week. The farther it goes, the weaker the organism in enduring attacks, and the more severe their effect.(26)

Despite the damage inflicted on his memory» Dostoevsky's mind and talent were unimpaired; indeed, he wrote his greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, in the last years of his life and was planning two other volumes of the trilogy.

If Freud is right, if the great epileptics of history suffered hysteria rather than organic epilepsy, what saved them from the fate of lesser mortals, ordinary epileptics? In the same letter to Zweig Freud suggested an answer: "Hysteria springs from the psychic constitution itself and is an expression of the same organic basic power which produces the genius of an artist (die slch in der genialen Künstlerschaft entfaltet)." (27). This remark is all the more striking when read together with Freud's view of the nature of the artist; in a letter to Hermann Struck Freud confessed to his own "cardinal weakness: ...the attempt to assess the artist in a rational way as though he were a scholar or technician, whereas he is actually a being of a special kind, exalted, autocratic, accursed (verrucht), and at times rather incomprehensible."(28 )

The creative genius is therefore a unique, incomprehensible being whose creativity is involved in the profoundest way with his disease. The force of creativity rises to overcome the force of destruction within him. Thus he avoids the "cognitive impairment" that would be the fate of lesser men. The analogy is not exact (since it has to do with life rather than art) but one recalls Dostoevsky's exultation at the force of life arising in him when he was imprisoned in 1849 in the Peter and Paul Fortress: "Man has infinite reserves of toughness and vitality; I really did not think I had so much, but now I know from experience." (29)

If the artist is unique, if his psyche and body affect each other in mysterious, incomprehensible ways, then the symptoms of his epilepsy cannot be judged like those of ordinary mortals. Thus Dostoevsky's symptoms of organic epilepsy do not necessarily mean that he suffered from organic epilepsy.

Perhaps Freud is right about the mystery of the artist's psyche. His argument seems to be irrefutable and his critics must be reduced to helpless silence. But the situation is far from satisfactory. We long for an explanation of Dostoevsky's seizures that, while meaningful, does not involve the mystery of the psyche. We need an explanation that reconciles Freud and his critics: the epilepsy is meaningful even though the symptoms of the seizure are those of organic epilepsy. Is such a. theory possible? And how could it be tested and confirmed?


I propose to offer such a theory and test it in the following pages.

There is a grey borderland area between hysteria and organic epilepsy that is worth examining. It could be summed up as follows.
1. A person may suffer from both hysteria and organic epilepsy, with each disorder manifesting itself separately. Thus an epileptic seizure could result in hysterical convulsions. (This is especially true of temporary lobe epilepsy.)
2. A person may suffer from both hysteria and organic epilepsy, with both disorders manifesting themselves at the same time, as a sort of hybrid phenomenon.(30)
3. While an epileptic seizure can result in hysterical convulsions, the reverse does not hold: hysteria cannot trigger organic epilepsy. Gastaut was especially irate with Freud and Sartre (who had analyzed Flaubert's epilepsy as of hysterical origin) because both writers mistakenly assumed that "hysteria can be responsible alone for epilepsy by psychogenic mechanisms." For Gastaut and all other epileptologists this seems to be a cardinal sin. "When mental problems are combined with epilepsy, it is always in the same direction... the somatic problems may influence mental life, but the reciprocal is never true."(31) Hence the news of the death of Dostoevsky's father in 1839 could not, says Gastaut, have been responsible for the onset of Fyodor Dostoevsky's epilepsy. (Freud had stressed the importance of this connection.) Once a predisposition to epilepsy has been established, however, the disease can be set off by an emotional disturbance.

Dostoevsky's epilepsy seems to belong to the second category: Hysteria and epilepsy co-exist and manifest themselves at the same time as a hybrid phenomenon. It may be assumed that Dostoevsky had a genetic predisposition to epilepsy. His three-year old son Alyosha died of epilepsy; Dostoevsky felt, according to his wife, that he himself was to blame for Alyosha's death. In addition, says Yarmolinsky, Dostoevsky's ancestry is revealed as nervously unstable, with a prevalence of the epileptoid type - which manifested itself especially in the descendants of his sister Vera. These two genetic factors would have provided the basis for organic epilepsy.(32)

The emotional disturbance that could have triggered off the first noticeable seizure was perhaps the news of the death of Dostoevsky's father; if Freud is right, the wish for parricide is involved. However, as Lennox points out, "an emotionally precipitated attack may be the person's initial one, but this does not justify the appellation of psychogenic origin."(33) We have to assume that a series of emotional disturbances linked to parricide followed the original one. These could have had two sources. On one hand, as we shall see later, Dostoevsky had a number of clashes with authority figures. On the other hand, each of his novels could be regarded as a rebellion or a need to rebel against an authority figures, whether that figure is the personal father, the state, or God.(34) Thus writing each novel became an act of parricide,


and was punished with epileptic seizures. It is noteworthy that only after Dostoevsky had completed The Brothers Karamazov (where he came to terms with his father) did his seizures end. Thus a series of emotional disturbances in his life and in his work - emotional disturbances centering on parricide - engendered the hysterical component of his seizures.

If our proposition is accepted that Dostoevsky's epilepsy had both genetic and hysterical (= psychological) components, then two advantages spring to mind at once. First, the dispute between Freud and the epilepsy experts (if not the Slavic scholars) comes to a happy end for both parties: Dostoevsky's epilepsy was both organic and hysterical. Second, certain problems connected with the seizures can now be easily resolved.

As we noted before, the symptoms of these seizures pointed definitely to a diagnosis of organic epilepsy, and critics took this to mean that Freud was refuted. But if organic and hysterical elements combine with each other, or succeed each other, then Freud's theory remains just as valid as the diagnosis of organic epilepsy.

There is also the vexing question of Dostoevsky's ecstatic aura. The experience of almost all other epileptics is that at the beginning of a seizure they feel fear, terror, or anxiety. Dostoevsky's ecstatic aura was considered so unique that Gastaut thought Dostoevsky was engaged in "unconscious mythologizing," that is, he was deceiving himself.(35) Gastaut changed his mind when he discovered another case of ecstatic aura reported in 1980 from Bologna, Italy. In this case the patient, who suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, was not religious but loved music, and he compared the bliss of his aura with sensations evoked by music. This led the authors of the Bologna report to suggest that "the pesonality and the fantastic world of the patient may certainly deeply affect the 'ecstatic experience' during seizures."(36) In 1988 a similar case was reported from Japan. An elderly, pious woman with temporal lobe epilepsy, who had been converted to a new religion, claimed that at the beginning of a seizure she had a "revelation of god and all creation glittering under the sun. The sun became bigger and engulfed me. My mind, my whole being was pervaded by a feeling of delight."(38) In neither of these reports was any attempt made to explain why temporal lobe epilepsy should cause auras so remarkably different from those suffered by others. Could it not be that, as in the case of Dostoevsky, the ecstatic aura - which was so deeply subjective - was the product of hysterical epilepsy?

The subjective element is also important in another aspect of Dostoevsky's seizures - his feeling of guilt at the end of a seizure. As Strakhov wrote:

The nature of this anguish, in his own words, was that he felt he was some kind of criminal; it seemed to him that he was weighed upon by mysterious guilt, by a great crime.


Freud, of course, seized upon this as proof that Dostoevsky felt guilty of parricide. It is curious that none of Freud's critics call attention to this feeling of guilt, even though Dostoevsky refers to it in his notebooks:

28 December 1874 (after a severe morning seizure): Confused agitation [smutno], depression [grustno], pangs of conscience [ugryzeniia], and sense of unreality [fantastichno].
7 September 1880 (after a rather severe morning seizure): Thoughts fragmentary, moving into other years, dreaminess, guilt [vinovnost' ] . ( 38)

Dostoevsky's depression following a seizure is unusual but it is a well-documented reaction in epilepsy reports. The guilt that followed his depression, however, is unique; at least, I have not come across it in the literature of epilepsy. Yet Dostoevsky has the prosecutor in The Brothers Karamazov discuss this reaction at length in connection with Smerdyakov:

Persons severely afflicted with epilepsy, according to the experience of the greatest psychiatrists, are always [my italics] prone to continual and, needless to say, morbid self-accusation. They are tormented by their "guilt" about something and toward someone, they are tormented by pangs of conscience, often entirely without cause; they exaggerate and even invent all sorts of faults and crimes against themselves.(39)

Note how Dostoevsky has generalized the guilt: all those who are severely afflicted with epilepsy are always prone to guilt. If Dostoevsky had read as widely in the literature of epilepsy as has been claimed for him, he would surely have realized that the feeling of guilt is rare and perhaps unique. I would argue that either he did not bother to read this literature (since he did not believe his disease was curable) or if he did, he was so terribly oppressed by his guilt, by its overwhelming reality for him, that he was certain others must have it as well.

It is only fair to mention a different explanation offered by James Rice, who thinks that Dostoevsky did read widely in the literature of epilepsy and therefore knew that his feeling of guilt was rare or unique. Rice believes that Dostoevsky was satirizing the ignorance of the prosecutor in this matter, just as the whole judicial process in The Brothers Karamazov is satirized. Yet the prosecutor seems to have consulted authorities - "the experience (svidetel'stvo) of the greatest psychiatrists"; he speaks with the authority of knowledge.

To return to Dostoevsky's own strong sense of guilt: like his ecstatic aura, it is deeply subjective. Neither his guilt nor his aura can be explained by a diagnosis of organic epilepsy, but they can both be easily explained in psychological, Freudian terms. And the symptoms of his seizures can only be explained by a diagnosis of organic epilepsy. Both diagnoses fit comfortably and peacefully in our theory.


However, no matter how persuasive a theory may be, it needs to be confirmed by Dostoevsky's own words and acts, by events in his fiction and in his life. And if the theory is valid, it should call attention to those events and illuminate them. This is precisely what I propose to do by examining in detail a case of epilepsy in Dostoevsky's novels and certain decisive moments in his life.

The only two lengthy descriptions of epilepsy in the novels occur in The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov. Myshkin's seizures have been a favorite quarry for epilepsy experts since much is said about the ecstatic aura. Yet the description of Myhskin's epilepsy is incomplete; we do not know the origin of his disease; we know hardly anything about his parents; and his relapse into idiocy at the end is determined more by his problems with women than by the progress of his disease. Smerdyakov, on the other hand, is almost a perfect study of an epileptic. We have detailed portraits of his parents; we learn of his traumatic birth; we know exactly when and how his first seizure originated. And Dostoevsky attributed to him various characteristics of his own epilepsy. Only one characteristic is missing: poor Smerdyakov is never granted an ecstatic aura. His moment of ecstasy probably is the actual killing of the father, which is followed by the most violent and prolonged seizure he has ever had.

For all these reasons Smerdyakov's epilepsy can tell us more than Myshkin's does. Dostoevsky goes into much detail on Smerdyakov's ancestry and birth. His father was an alcoholic, his mother an idiot, and in the nineteenth century such a heritage was regarded as predisposing a child to epilepsy.(40) His birth, was we have said, was traumatic. His mother was Stinking Lizaveta (Smerdyashchaya) , an idiot peasant girl who could barely speak. She was raped by Fyodor Karamazov in a drunken spree. When her time for delivery came, she escaped from the kind woman who watched over her, walked to Fyodor Karamazov's garden, climbed with difficulty over the high fence, fell on the ground, and died as she gave birth to Smerdyakov. "You rent her womb," says Grigory to him. As often happens during such a violent birth, Smerdyakov's brain could have been injured, resulting in epilepsy. "Only rarely do seizures occur at the time of injury," remarks Lennox. "Weeks, months, or years may elapse before the first abnormal manifestation is seen."(41)

Thus a bad heredity and the violence of his birth could have predisposed Smerdyakov to epilepsy - true organic epilepsy -which did not result in seizures, however, until he was twelve years old. Although something happened then that triggered his seizures, the psychological groundwork had been laid in the previous twelve years.

Smerdyakov was obsessed with his illegitimate origin. "I am the fatherless son of Stinking Lizaveta," he said bitterly. (42) If he had not been barred by his illegitimacy and peasant origin, he felt that he could have had an upper-class career worthy of his talents. He built up his ego by despising others (especially the Karamazovs, except for Ivan); he mistrusted a world that had unjustly condemned him to be a


servant in the Kararaazov family. The famous Karamazov sensuality - an intensified force of life - was missing in him; he wished that he had never been born. He was indifferent to women and even looked emasculated, as if something vital had been taken from him.(43) Unsociable and taciturn, he showed no gratitude to his foster-parents, Grigory and Martha. In his childhood "he was very fond of hanging cats, and burying them with great ceremony. He used to dress up in a sheet as though it were a surplice, and sing, and wave some object over the dead cat as though it were a censer. All this he did on the sly, with the greatest secrecy."(44) Taken by itself, Smerdyakov's childhood occupation would seem puzzling - proof of his necrophilic personality perhaps, as Victor Terras sees it.(45) When we examine the context however -another scene of violence that follows directly upon it - the meaning becomes clear. The Karamazov sensuality has been diverted and transformed into rage and hatred of the world around Smerdyakov. Unable to direct his rage at anyone, Smerdyakov chooses to express his pent-up violence in hanging cats, celebrating violence in a grotesque religious ceremony.

Dostoevsky underlines this meaning by having Grigory catch Smerdyakov in one of these acts. Grigory beat him soundly, after which Smerdyakov "shrank into a corner and sulked there for a week" -

"He doesn't care for you or me, the monster," Grigory used to say to Martha, "and he doesn't care for anyone. "Are you a human being?" he said, addressing the boy directly. You're not a human being. You grew from the mildew in the bathhouse. That's what you are." Smerdyakov, it appeared afterwards, could never forgive him those words.(46)

Dostoevsky noted that he had heard this insulting expression from prisoners in Siberia. "You grew from the mildew in the bathhouse" meant "you came from nowhere" - you are of illegitimate birth.(47) Grigory's nasty remark on Smerdyakov's birth directly follows the cat-killing episode and makes us realize that Smerdyakov's illegitimate birth and his violence are closely related.

This episode prepares us for what immediately follows - the crucial emotional crisis that triggered Smerdyakov's first seizure.

Grigory taught [Smerdyakov] how to read and write, and when he was twelve years old, began teaching him the Scriptures. But this teaching came to nothing. At the second or third lesson the boy suddenly grinned. "What's this for?" asked Grigory, looking at him threateningly from under his spectacles. "Oh, nothing. God created light on the first day, and the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day. Where did the light come from on the first day?" Grigory was thunderstruck. The boy looked sarcastically at his teacher. There was something positively condescending in his expression. Grigory could not restrain himself. "I'll show you where!" he cried, and


gave the boy a violent slap on the cheek. The boy took the slap without a word, but withdrew into his corner again for some days. A week later he had his first attack of the disease to which he was subject all the rest of his life - epilepsy.(48)

We should observe, first of all, that the incident begins with a question about cosmic origins. Smerdyakov is so obsessed with his own origin that it affects every other question he thinks about. Second, he is proud of his reasoning ability which is clearly superior to Grigory's. Third, he uses his rationality to point out a contradiction in the Bible, with the obvious intention of debunking the authority of a sacred text and, at the same time, to humiliate Grigory - his foster father. Grigory, fully realizing the challenge to his (and God's) authority, has no answer except the time-honored prerogative of fathers: he slaps his "son" violently on the cheek. Smerdyakov silently withdraws into himself and a week later has his first epileptic seizure.

What caused this seizure? Smerdyakov's constant repressed rage over his destiny led him to hanging cats and to a mystique of violence. Now his rage has a focus in Grigory, who has taken advantage of superior physical strength and the power of his authority as a father to slap the twelve-year old boy violently on the cheek. Smerdyakov would like to hit back, to hit hard, but is too weak to do so. His rage, unable to turn outward, recoils upon himself in an act of self-destruction: his first epileptic seizure.(49)

What is interesting is that Dostoevsky is reported to have given his wife this same explanation for his own first epileptic seizure, which he said occurred in Siberia. According to Anna Grigorevna, Dostoevsky

always said that the cause of his disease was his fiery (strastnyi) temperament, which in the course of four years of imprisonment could never be allowed to express itself (ni razu ne mog byt' iudovletvoren) because he feared being beaten with rods.(50)

Note that both Smerdyakov's and Dostoevsky's first attacks are of hysterical origin. I am sure that no one - not even Gastaut - would dispute this. But the similarities go further. In Smerdyakov's case, the hysterical seizure triggered the organic epilepsy to which he was predisposed (as we have already seen) by a bad heredity and a traumatic birth. His disease has therefore both hysterical (psychological) and genetic components - precisely like Dostoevsky'  own epilepsy.

I would like in closing to quote two authoritative medical descriptions of this kind of epilepsy:

A given person may suffer from both of these disorders (hysteria and epilepsy), separately or perhaps as a hybrid phenomenon.
                                                            - William Gordon Lennox


Epilepsy and an hysterical reaction may co-exist as two separate aetiologically unrelated entities in the one individual.(51)
                                                            - John M. Sutherland and Mervyn J. Eadie

This, then, is the nature of Smerdyakov's epilepsy, and it describes Dostoevsky's epilepsy as well. The disease is both hysterical and organic. Freud and his critics are both right. And Freud was correct in assuming that Dostoevsky's epilepsy was meaningful, and that parricide - Dostoevsky's repressed feeling about his father - was the key to it.

Part II of this article, which will appear in a later issue, examines the charge made by Joseph Frank and other scholars that Freud misinterpreted Dostoevaky's biographical data.


  1. Die Urgestalt der Brüder Karamasoff, ed. W.L. Komarowitsch (Munich: Piper Verlag, 1928). For details of publication see Ernest Jones, The Life and Works of Sigmund Freud (New York: Basic Books, 1957), III: 142-43, 426-27; Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 1:379-85. For a larger background to the article see James L. Rice, Dostoevsky and the Healing Art (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1985), pp. 210-23.
         I wish to express my gratitude to James Rice for letting me draw, time and again, on his inexhaustible knowledge of Dostoevsky and the literature of epilepsy. He has always been a stimulating, helpful, and patient friend.
         Dr. Maurice Charlton, an epilepsy specialist at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, has helped me with professional advice and I thank him.
  2. Joseph Frank: "Freud's article contains some shrewd and penetrating remarks about Dostoevsky's masochistic and guilt-ridden personality" (Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1:28); Victor Terras: "'Dostoevsky and Parricide' may well be mistaken in its assumptions about Dostoevsky's personal biography, yet it is valuable in suggesting an extra dimension in this novel [The Brothers Karamazov] ." In A Karamazov Companion (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981), p. 82, James Rice remarks that "Freud's slapdash and quite mistaken diagnosis of FMD's underlying malady by no means invalidates the myriad useful psychoanalytical observations which can and must be made about FMD's case and career." (Personal communication, Sept. 26, 1981)
  3. Rice, p. 219.

  4. 121

  5. Sigmund Freud, "Dostoevsky and Parricide," in Dostoevsky: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. René Wellek (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962), pp. 98-111 passim.
  6. Frank, 1:28.
  7. Geir Kjetsaa, Fyodor Dostoeyevsky: A Writer's life (New York: Viking Penguin, 1987), p. 35.
  8. Jacques Catteau, La Création littéraire chez Dostoievski (Paris: Institut d'études slaves, 1978), p. 135, fn. 5.
  9. Temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) presupposes a lesion in the brain. It also has a momentary "aura" at the beginning of a seizure - usually fear, anxiety, or terror. Generalized epilepsy presupposes a hereditary origin (no damage to the brain); it has no aura, and is characterized by brief lapses of consciousness ("absences" or petit mal seizures). This may develop into grand mal seizures, such as Dostoevsky had.
         There is an enormous medical literature on Dostoevsky's epilepsy. See the bibliography in James Rice's book.
  10. Sigmund Freud, "The Psychotherapy of Hysteria" in Selected Papers on Hysteria and Other Psychoneuroses (New York: The Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases Publishing Co, 1912), p. 102.
  11. The Insulted and the Injured, Part IV. ch. 1.
  12. E.H. Carr, "Was Dostoevsky an Epileptic?" in The Slavonic Review, 9 (December 1930), p. 430.
  13. E.H. Carr, Dostoevsky (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931), pp. 37-38.
  14. Nikolai N. Strakhov, Vospominaniia o Fedore Mikhailoviche Dostoevskom (1883), reprinted in F.M. Dostoevsky v vospominaniakh sovremennikov (Moscow: Izd. Khud. Lit., 1964), I: 280-81.
  15. Letter to Stefan Zweig dated October 19, 1920, reprinted in Letters of Sigmund Freud, ed. Ernst L. Freud (New York: Basic Books, 1960), p. 333.
  16. William Gordon Lennox, Epilepsy and Related Disorders (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., I960), 1-489; John M. Sutherland and Mervyn J. Eadie, The Epilepsies, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 1980), p. 45; Rice, pp. 86-87, 219-20.
  17. Rice, pp. 287-98.
  18. Henri Gastaut, "Fyodor Mikhailovitch Dostoevsky's Involuntary Contribution to the Symptomatology and Prognosis of Epilepsy," Epilepsia, 19 (April 1978), p. 192; Rice, p. 220.

  19. 122

  20. Freud, "Dostoevsky and Parricide," p. 100.
  21. Sutherland and Eadie, p. 53.
  22. M.R. Trimble, "Hysteria and other non-epileptic convulsions," in Epilepsy and Psychiatry, eds. E.H. Reynolds and M.R. Trimble (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 1981), p. 100; see also S. Venkat Ramani and others, "Diagnosis of Hysterical Seizures in Epileptic Patients," American Journal of Psychiatry, 137 (June 1980), pp. 705-6.
  23. Owsei Temkin, The Falling Sickness, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1971), pp. 387-88.
  24. The Letters of Sigmund Freud, p. 332.
  25. S.W. Brown and E.H. Brown, "Cognitive Impairment in epileptic patients," in Epilepsy and Psychiatry, p. 162.
  26. William Gordon Lennox, Science and Seizures (New York: Harper, 1941), pp. 53-54.
  27. The most authoritative diagnosis is by Henri Gastaut: "Dostoevsky combined primary generalized epilepsy and partial epilepsy of the temporal lobe with a predisposition that is genetically transmitted." In "New Comments on the Epilepsy of Fyodor Dostoevsky," Epilepsia 25 (No. 4, 1984), p. 409. Diagnoses by Voskuil, Rice and others are similar.
  28. Rice, p. 298.
  29. The Letters of Sigmund Freud, p. 332; Sigmund Freud, Briefe 1873-1939 (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1960), 331.
  30. The Letters of Sigmund Freud, p. 305.
  31. Letter to M.M. Dostoevsky, July 18, 1849 in Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Leningrad: Nauka, 1985), 28, bk. 1: 158.
  32. Lennox, Epilepsy and Related Disorders, Sutherland and Eadie, The Epilepsies, p. 44.
  33. 1:479;
  34. Henri Gastaut, Yvette Gastaut, and Roger Broughton, "Gustave Flaubert's Illness: A Case Report in Evidence Against the Erroneous Notion of Psychogenic Epilepsy," Epilepsia 25, No. 5 (1984), p. 636.
         Lennox remarks: "If emotion, either conscious or unconscious, is the sole cause of seizures, the condition is hysteria and not epilepsy" (Epilepsy and Related Disorders, 11:655).
         For the record, there are two brave epilepsy experts who can envisage the reverse process of psychogenic epilepsy: the emotional disturbance can provoke true organic epilepsy. The two audacious rebels are W.R. Cowers, Epilepsy and Other Chronic Disturbances (New York: William Wood & Co., 1885), p. 148; and Norman Geschwind, "Dosto-


    evsky's Epilepsy," Psychiatric Aspects of Epilepsy, ed. Dietrich Blumer (Washington, C.C.: American Psychiatric Publications, 1984), pp. 325-333. Geschwind thinks that Freud used the term "hystero-epilepsy" not in the sense of a hysterical pseudoseizure but as psychosomatic epilepsy, i.e., organic epilepsy resulting from unresolved inner conflicts (p. 330).
  35. Anna Dostoevsky, Dostoevsky: Reminiscences, trans, and ed. Beatrice Stillman (New York: Liveright, 1975), pp. 291-92; Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Dostoevsky: A Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934), pp. 421-22 ("A Genealogical Note") .
  36. Lennox, Epilepsy and Related Disorders, 11-655.
  37. It is regrettable that Dostoevsky never revised The Double as he plannd to do. It would have contained "an anatomical dissection of all Russian attitudes toward authority." (PSS 1:432)
  38. Gastaut, "Fyodor Mikhailovitsch Dostoevsky's Involuntary Contribution...," p. 193.
  39. F. Cirognotta, C.V. Todesco, and E. Lugaresi, "Temporal Lobe Epilepsy with Ecstatic Seizures (So-Called Dostoevsky Epilepsy)," Epilepsia 21, no. 6 (December 1980), p. 709.
  40. Haruhiko Naito and Nozomi Matsui, "Temporal Lobe Epilepsy with Ictal Ecstatic State and Interictal Behavior of Hypergraphia," The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 176, no. 2 (February 1988), p. 123.
  41. Rice, p. 89.
  42. The Brothers Karamazov, Norton Critical Edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976), p. 672. I have made corrections when necessary.
  43. Rice, p. 153.
  44. Lennox, Epilepsy and Related Disorders, 11:611; Lennox, Science and Seizures, pp. 76-77.
  45. The Brothers Karamazov, p. 206. In Russian: "la podlets potomu chto bez otsa ot Smerdiashchei proizoshel" (PSS 14:204) .
  46. Richard Peace has some fascinating pages on Smerdyakov's "haggard, Castrate-like features" and the various symbols that associate Smerdyakov with the Castrates sect. See his book Dostoevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp. 261-63. From an entirely different point of view (the analysis of Kramskoi's painting "Contemplative") James Rice reinforces Peace's thesis about the importance of the Castrate theme. See Rice, pp. 87-88; 252-59.
  47. The Brothers Karamazov, p. 112.

  48. 124

  49. Terras, p. 178, note 127.
  50. The Brothers Karamazov, p. 112.
  51. See Terras, p. 178, note 128. Also PSS, 15:544, note for p. 114. Dostoevsky created an unconvincing situation due to his liking of the folk expression "you grew from the middle in the bathhouse." If Lizaveta leaped down from the high wall into Fyodor's garden and injured herself fatally, why should she crawl further to give birth in the bathhouse? It could not have been the weather - it was the month of June. And would she have been able to move at all? In choosing to give birth to Smerdyakov on Fyodor's estate she had made her point about paternity; the bathhouse was superfluous except to make as striking and memorable as possible the expression about growing out of the mildew in the bathhouse... Striking and memorable, that is to say, for Smerdyakov!
  52. The Brothers Karamazov, pp. 112-13.
  53. This seems to be an excellent illustration of Freud's theory of parricide and one wonders why he did not seize upon it. His only comment on Smerdyakov was that "Dostoevsky had attributed to him his own illness, the alleged epilepsy, as though he were seeking to confess that the epileptic, the neurotic, in him was a parricide" ("Dostoevsky and Parricide," pp. 107-8). Perhaps Freud felt that Smerdyakov's repression of his hatred of Grigory was not characteristic enough because it was probably not unconscious: Smerdiakov consciously nursed his anger for a week after the slap before his first seizure occurred. Smerdyakov's hatred of Fyodor Karamzov, on the other hand, was so deeply rooted and repressed that he never - not once in the whole novel - referred to Fyodor as his father. He does not even hint anywhere at the relationship. "I am the fatherless son of Stinking Lizaveta," he says bitterly. Even when he kills Fyodor he tells Ivan that he did it only for the sake of the 3,000 rubles; he did, however, have a very agonizing and prolonged epileptic seizure after the murder.) Yet the defense lawyer Fetyukovich declares that Smerdyakov believed himself to be the illegitimate son of Fyodor Pavlovich: "there is evidence of this" (p. 701). What is the evidence? First, the townspeople gave him the patronymic Fyodorovich. Second, his mother made a special point of giving birth to Smerdyakov in Fyodor's garden, even at the cost of her life (see fn. 47). Third, the Karamazovs - at any rate Dmitrii Karamazov - speaks about it openly to the court: "Why, he's very likely his son, you know - his natural son." (449) In an earlier draft version Dmitrii speaks even more positively of the relationship: "Smerdyakov - but it's his own father." Compare both versions in Russian:
    Final version: Da i za chto emu uivat' starika? Ved' on, mozhet byt', syn ego, pobochnyi syn (PSS 14:428)


    Early draft version: Smerdyakov - no ved' on i otets emu. (PSS 15:298)
    Not only did Freud refrain from citing the case of Smerdyakov but he also failed to cite the exclamation of Ivan Karamazov in court: "Who doesn't desire his father's death?" (651) James Rice argues that this exclamation is an extremely powerful defense of Freud's position (Rice, p. 221). I think, however, that it is weakened in two ways. First, just as Ivan tried to shift the blame for the murder from himself to Smerdyakov, so he now tried to lessen his guilt by attributing the same desire to everyone else. But is Ivan's cry the voice of his subconscious, the Oedipal problem? Or is it rather his realization - and ours - that the audience is hungry for sensation to replace its loss of faith in God; Dostoevsky builds up this characterization of the audience (western, liberal) as well as of the judge. And what stronger sensation than to experience vicariously the killing of the father?
  54. The source of this reported quotation is a letter written on February 26, 1881 by. E.A. Rykacheva to her parents (her father was Andrei Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, the youngest brother of the novelist). That same day, she wrote in her letter, she had visited Anna Grigorevna and asked whether Dostoevsky had ever told her the cause of his first epileptic seizure. Rykacheva then recorded in her letter what Anna Grigorevna told her (Dostoevsky: materialy i issledovaniia [Leningrad: Nauka, 1974], 1:303).
         Incidentally, Jacques Catteau cited Rykacheva's letter in his book La Création littéraire chez Dostoievski, p. 147, fn. 3. Note that he considered the quotation from Anna Grigorevna on the cause of Dostoevsky's first seizure worth only a footnote. He prefaced the footnote with a noncommittal remark: "Une interpretation de l'écrivain lui-même mérite d'être signalée pour son originalité." Apparently Catteau did not feel it necessary to say anything further about the quotation. Actually, the novelist had used the same explanation to account for Smerdyakov's epilepsy. And there is another echo: Dmitrii Karamazov feared that he would not be able to control himself in Siberia if the guards treated him roughly (p. 723) .
  55. Lennox, Epilepsy and Related Disorders, 1:479; Sutherland and Eadie, The Epilepsies, p. 44.
University of Toronto