restricted access Dostoevsky and the Healing Art: An Essay in Literary and Medical History, and: Tryant and Victim in Dostoevsky, and: Dostoëvski et l'autre (review)
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Reviewed by
James L. Rice. Dostoevsky and the Healing Art: An Essay in Literary and Medical History. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985. 352 pp. $30.00
Gary Cox, Tryant and Victim in Dostoevsky. Columbus: Slavica, 1984. 119 pp. $9.95.
Louis Allain. Dostoëvski et l'autre. Lille: Presses Universitaries de Lille, 1984. 202 pp. 85 F.

Professor Rice has made a substantial contribution to Dostoevsky's biography and to the history of ideas regarding illness, a rich topic as yet only sketchily explored. He establishes that the Russian author suffered from epileptic seizures approximately once every three weeks from age twenty-five until the end of his life. For years Dostoevsky kept a seizure diary, seeking in vain for a possible external trigger in the weather, stress, or diet. Episodes of paranoid feelings and depression appear to have been peripheral consequences of his illness. Once in Siberia, Dostoevsky feigned that prison had brought on his illness in order to win sympathy and gain release. But otherwise he routinely concealed his symptoms. They emerge everywhere indirectly in his fictional works: "symptoms of epilepsy are always overtly or covertly strategic in Dostoevsky's creative writing." Freud was plainly mistaken in his famous essay on "Dostoevsky and Parricide" when he labeled the Russian writer a hysteric: unlike hysteria, Dostoevsky's attacks could occur during sleep.

Rice's well-written, impeccably documented study falls into the tradition of investigations of "biological constraints on the human spirit" (Melvin Konner) such as Doktor Faustus, where Thomas Mann dramatized the widespread myth that neurosyphilis can inspire genius; Susan Sontag's poignant discussion of how we blame the victim of cancer; Michel Foucault's Madness and History and The Birth of the Clinic; and Horacio Fabrega's cross-cultural examinations of what people mean when they say "sick" or "well." Readers should not expect to find literary criticism but rather an invitation to reinterpret Dostoevsky themselves. The only general criticisms one could make are that Rice occasionally repeats details (particularly in the section "Epilepsy and Russian Jurisprudence") and that the text at times seems the record rather than the results of research (for example, in the section on Carus, pp. 133-146).

Chapter One, "Diagnosis," describes Dostoevsky's intimate, lifelong relationship with his physician, Stepan Yanovsky, whom he saw each day for three hours during the three years preceding his arrest. Chapter Two, "Dialectic," analyzes the subjective experience of illness throughout Dostoevsky's life. In childhood he exhibited symptoms that were unmistakable harbingers of epilepsy. As an adult, he had sudden mood swings and outbursts of irrational rage. And yet the "hallmark of his creativity [was] his wit in the face of humorless, inexorable, punishing illness." Chapter Three, "Morbus Sacer," shows how "the clinical concept of epilepsy was extended during Dostoevsky's lifetime to include a broad range of abnormal behavior, psychopathology, and personality traits." In nineteenth-century Russia, epileptic criminals were often not held responsible for their crimes. Undoubtedly, Dostoevsky studied medical literature avidly to try to understand his condition; yet Rice's plausible account of the writer's medical sources must remain speculative because Dostoevsky seldom named or cited them. And Rice does not take the opportunity explicitly to place the notion of the diseased genius into a broader context such as the furor poeticus of the Ancients or the Romantics' [End Page 824] frequent choice of a "sick role" for the artist. Chapter Four, "The Healing Art," surveys two hundred medically oriented studies of Dostoevsky since his death, stressing Doctor Chizh and Freud. It then concludes with a brief consideration of Dostoevsky's fiction. Throughout Dostoevsky's career, the epileptic prophet Mohammed recurred as an emblem of inspired madness. Elsewhere, at the structural core of his novels, Dostoevsky fractioned the epileptic personality into two or three characters: the "enigmatically volatile ideologue"; a violent figure; and "a sub-dominant figure who manipulates the action sado-masochistically through various pathologies"—for example, Ivan, Dmitri, and Smerdiakov in The Brothers Karamazov. Altogether, Rice's book is a rewarding labor of love.

Gary Cox's Tyrant and Victim in Dostoevsky, inspired by Lionel Tiger's Men in Groups, discusses "bonding hierarchies" of dominant and submissive partners...