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
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.