BY FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY, 1869
Prince Myshkin is returning to Russia from Switzerland, where he has been living for more than four years, for medical reasons, at the beginning of The Idiot. “His eyes were large and pale blue, and their intent gaze held at once something gentle and saturnine, ﬁlled as they were with that odd expression by which some people can detect epilepsy at a glance.” Later, Dostoevsky describes Myshkin about to be attacked by a man with a knife:
Then all at once everything seemed to open up before him: an extraordinary inner light flooded his soul. That instant lasted, perhaps, half a second, yet he clearly and consciously remembered the beginning, the first sound of a dreadful scream which burst from his chest of its own accord and which no effort of his could have suppressed. Then consciousness was extinguished instantly and total darkness came upon him.
He had suffered an epileptic fit, the first for a very long time. As is well known, attacks of epilepsy, the notorious falling sickness, occur instantaneously. In that one instant the face suddenly becomes horribly contorted, especially the eyes. Spasms and convulsions rack the entire body and all the facial features. A fright ful, unimaginable scream, quite unlike anything else, bursts from the chest.
The ﬁt saves Myshkin’s life. Unnerved by the sight of his convulsions, the attacker ﬂees.
Myshkin’s epilepsy is both a medical problem and a metaphor for the innocence that sets him apart, an otherworldliness that contrasts with the competitiveness and materialism of the people around him. This is consistent with the sense of transcendence that often affects people (like Dostoevsky himself) who have temporal lobe epilepsy:
Amid the sadness, spiritual darkness and oppression, there were moments when his brain seemed to flare up momentarily and all his vital forces tense themselves at once in an extraordinary surge. The sensation of being alive and self-aware increased almost tenfold...His mind and heart were bathed in an extraordinary illumination...all his doubts and anxieties seemed to be instantly reconciled and resolved into a lofty serenity, filled with pure, harmonious gladness and hope... with the consciousness of the ultimate cause of all things.
Born in 1821, Dostoevsky became linked with the forces of political reform in Russia. He and a group of friends were arrested for political activity, tried, and sentenced to death. In a dreadful charade, as he was about to be executed, the sentence was commuted and he was sent to prison in Siberia. There he experienced his ﬁrst epileptic seizure. Although he was a Russian nationalist, he left Russia for Europe in 1868 and there wrote The Idiot to help pay off his gambling debts. Dostoevsky’s own epilepsy was particularly acute as he was writing the novel ("Madness in Good Company: Great Literary Portrayals of Brain Disorders" By Marcia Clendenen, and Dick Riley, 2007).
This book, The Idiot, was a revelation to me. I have been a reader of Dostoevsky since my teens, and this is the single book of his I have missed reading, until this year. It is perhaps the finest description of TLE I have ever come across. While the flaws related to the book have to do with other people's interpretations, i.e. "innocence", "Christ-like", etc., the whole of the tale rang very loud bells for me.
To my own experience, the "innocence" described by critics of the book is symptomatic of a kind of naivete that presents itself in the personality of the TLE sufferer. "Innocence" strikes me as a kind of willed state, while naivete is no more an act of will than is the E. itself, but it is present, nevertheless.
I admit identifying with Prince Myshkin.
I am happy to identify with him, and with Dostoevsky.
Afterall, I might be Myshkin!!!