Dostoevsky on the Couch
A CultureMap®
by Brenda L. Horrigan
Published on 7/10/13

Nineteenth-century Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy, an affliction he gave to many of his characters—heroes and villains alike. Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychiatry, psychoanalyzed Dostoevsky after the writer’s death and concluded that Dostoevsky’s hatred of his father caused his seizures. This map looks at the Freud-Dostoevsky connection and makes some forays into Dostoevsky’s own attempts at talk therapy, as well as filmmaker Woody Allen’s appreciation for both men.

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The Idiot  (Fyodor Dostoevsky | novel | 1868–1869)
to  Epilepsy

Fyodor Dostoevsky assigned epilepsy—a disorder that was sometimes called the “idiot disease”—to several characters in his novels. Most notable is Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of The Idiot, whom the author describes as possessing eyes that are “gentle, though heavy-looking in their expression,” with a “strange look from which some people can recognize at the first glance a victim of epilepsy.” Describing the onset of a seizure (an account one of Dostoevsky’s biographers interprets as autobiographical), Dostoevsky writes that it was as if Myshkin’s brain had caught fire and his awareness increased “ten times at those moments which passed like a flash of lightning.”

In making Myshkin an epileptic, the author did not wish to signal that Myshkin is diseased or defective; on the contrary, Dostoevsky saw him as a superior being. In one passage Myshkin’s oncoming seizure is depicted as an almost religious experience that floods heart and mind with “extraordinary light.” The narrator notes, “These moments were…the direct sensation of existence in the most intense degree…. At the very last conscious moment before the fit, he had time to say to himself clearly and consciously, ‘Yes, for this moment one might give one’s whole life!’”

Sigmund Freud  (1856–1939 | Austrian psychiatrist)
to  Epilepsy

Fyodor Dostoevsky claimed his first bout of epilepsy occurred while he was imprisoned for being part of a utopian socialist group. He wrote to his brother Mikhail in 1854, “Disordered nerves have given me epilepsy, but the fits occur only rarely.” After a major seizure in 1857 that involved convulsions, foaming at the mouth and urinary incontinence, he was shocked when a doctor diagnosed him with full-fledged epilepsy.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychiatry, analyzes Dostoevsky’s epilepsy in his 1928 essay “Dostoevsky and Parricide.” Freud argues that the author’s epilepsy actually began much earlier in life and that it was triggered by his guilt over a suppressed longing for his father’s death (that is, an oedipal rivalry) and perhaps other psychological conflicts. Freud found it particularly interesting that in Dostoevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), the brother who murders the father is also an epileptic. Thus, deduces Freud, “it is highly probable that this so-called epilepsy was only a symptom of his neurosis and must accordingly be classified as hystero-epilepsy.” Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank calls the facts Freud presents “extremely dubious at best” and the case history he develops “purely fictitious.”

Sigmund Freud  (1856–1939 | Austrian psychiatrist)
to  Crime and Punishment  (Fyodor Dostoevsky | novel | 1866)

As he developed his methods of psychoanalysis toward the end of the 19th century, Sigmund Freud attempted to use hypnotism on his patients but eventually found he could get results by having them lie on a couch and free-associate—that is, say whatever came to mind, without self-censorship. He then analyzed the patients’ words to get at their subconscious meaning. A similar sort of “talking cure” takes place in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment when the magistrate Porfiry Petrovich converses with the novel’s protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, trying to uncover his motivation for murder and get him to confess and seek redemption. Petrovich is not merely looking for a conviction—he wants Raskolnikov to face what he has done, reject the thinking that led him to commit murder, renounce his past ways and become a benefit to society.

Turkish novelist and 2006 Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk has explained the similarity between Freud’s method and Dostoevsky’s, noting that Dostoevsky understood, “long before Freud, that human beings were not rational creatures but acted on instincts they didn’t understand.”

Crime and Punishment  (Fyodor Dostoevsky | novel | 1866)
to  Woody Allen  (b. 1935 | American writer and filmmaker)

Writer and director Woody Allen takes on Crime and Punishment in his 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors, but Allen’s story comes to a very different outcome. The novel’s central character, Rodion Raskolnikov, murders a pawnbroker and her sister. He sees himself as a poor but intellectual man who needs the money and considers the pawnbroker a wretched human being who contributes little to society. Afterward he torments himself with questions of responsibility and motive before finally confessing to the crime and going to prison.

Raskolnikov’s counterpart in Allen’s film, Judah Rosenthal (played by Martin Landau), initially experiences overwhelming guilt about arranging for his mistress to be killed, imagining that the eyes of God are on him. But as time passes, he learns to live with it. One night, a bit drunk at a party, he sits down with filmmaker Cliff Stern (Allen) and suggests a plot for a film about a man who gets away with murder. Cliff suggests Judah consider a different ending and have the murderer turn himself in. “In the absence of a god, or something, he is forced to assume that responsibility himself,” suggests Cliff. “Then you have tragedy.” Judah scoffs, “But that’s fiction.”

Woody Allen  (b. 1935 | American writer and filmmaker)
to  Sigmund Freud  (1856–1939 | Austrian psychiatrist)

References to psychotherapy and Sigmund Freud, the visionary thinker behind psychoanalysis, occur frequently in Woody Allen’s movies, no doubt because the writer and director has spent time on an analyst’s couch. In his first screenplay, for the 1965 film What’s New Pussycat?, Allen created a psychoanalyst character (played by Peter Sellers) and gave him a Freud-like Austrian accent. Allen makes overt references to Freud throughout his oeuvre. His title character in Zelig (1983) claims, “I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women.” More often Allen’s characters discuss their analysts and psychotherapy sessions. Allen refers to Freud so much in his films that an interviewer once asked if he had done extensive study of psychoanalytic literature. “No, I’m not interested in it as a student,” he replied. “I’m just happy being a patient.”

Crime and Punishment  (Fyodor Dostoevsky | novel | 1866)
to  Dostoevskaya Station

The opening of a new Moscow subway station dedicated to author Fyodor Dostoevsky was briefly delayed in 2010 because local therapists and journalists feared the artwork in it might provoke despair among commuters. One psychologist proclaimed, “It is a direct call for suicide. It can’t be ruled out that people will also commit murders and assault others.” The works—in black, gray, white and purple by muralist Ivan Nikolayev—depict scenes from several Dostoevsky novels. Among the murals Russian mental health experts cited as most disturbing are those that depict scenes from Crime and Punishment, including one that shows the main character with one body at his feet, about to commit a second murder with his ax. Another depicts a character from The Possessed (1872) holding a gun to his own head. In response to the criticism, Nikolayev replied, “Art is not fun, and artists are not clowns in the circus arena.”