Paul Fung. Dostoevsky and the Epileptic Mode of Being. London: Legenda (Modern Humanities Research Association and Maney Publishing), 2015. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. xi + 148 pp. $99.00 (cloth).
Paul Fung’s book is a welcome addition to philosophical treatises on the subject of Dostoevsky. The first and second epigraphs sum up the central idea.
“Dostoevsky always represents a person on the threshold of a final decision, at a moment of crisis, at an unfinalizable—and unpredeterminable—turning point for his soul” (Mikhail Bakhtin).
“Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystalizes into a monad” (Walter Benjamin).
Although I recall him using the word only once in his book, Paul Fung writes about Dostoevsky in the context of liminality. The characters he discusses—from five of the post-Siberian novels—are culture heroes in the process of making threshold crossings, which crossings into a new state of being are never successfully made. As the Russians would say, Через порог нельзя (“Cherez porog nel’zja”). The folkloric and mythological pattern, as treated by such writers as Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade, is different. The hero departs from home, travels into a magical kingdom and returns transformed, bringing back with him a wife or a boon. In Dostoevsky, according to Fung’s schema, the hero gets a crazy idea, or has an epileptic seizure. He is trapped in the middle of a situation of “infinite postponement.” No successful culture crossing, no boon.
Fung is interested in reading Dostoevsky “from the perspective of the moment,” concentrating on “a caesura or break during which consciousness is abruptly cut off.” The central metaphor of the book is epilepsy, and Dostoevsky’s writings are “epileptic” in that they “are punctuated by moments of caesuras and breaks” (1).
Fung dwells on the liminal moments, the times of the no time, when Dostoevsky’s heroes “react to the sudden removal of the ground.” The heroes seem to yearn both toward and away from these “epileptic” non-moments; they are incessantly anxious to experience such states, while, simultaneously, realizing that the experience is ultimately ungraspable, that it will get them nowhere.
Utilizing the writings of Western philosophers and thinkers (Jacque Lacan, Freud, Schiller, Kant, Walter Benjamin, Maurice Blanchot, Nietzsche, Bakhtin and others), Fung analyzes specific episodes in Dostoevsky’s novels from the perspective of what he calls “the epileptic mode of being,” which embodies the heroes’ efforts to, so to speak, seize upon the seizure or the liminal moment. The “desire to seize upon what is unseizable characterizes what I call the epileptic mode of being” (3).
In Dostoevsky’s works, as in his life, an epileptic seizure is preceded by the aura, that “sublime tranquility” and “harmonious joy” as described by Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. The victim of epilepsy incessantly strives to go beyond his own limits, but fails. Upon awakening from the seizure he is plagued by hideous anxiety and fearful that another seizure is impending. The “epileptic mode of being is always subject to the annihilation of existence” (3).
In other words—my words, not Fung’s—the threshold crosser/epileptic in Dostoevsky’s works begins with the unearthly bliss of the aura, then thrashes around in “the epileptic mode of being,” continuously striving toward a state of timeless bliss, while realizing, simultaneously, that his gratification, intensely desired, must be infinitely postponed.
Fung’s book concentrates on this contradiction. In terms of both his own epilepsy and his experience of having been almost executed in 1849, “Dostoevsky is driven by the desire to comprehend and write the incomprehensible” (4).
In his introduction (5) Fung gets a bit ahead of himself, discussing Raskolnikov and his great man (Napoleon) theory from Crime and Punishment (the subject of Chapter Two). The theory is based upon a great epileptic figure from history, Julius Caesar, and this “suggests that Raskolnikov is an ‘epileptic’ character even if not literally an epileptic” (5). This kind of belabored logic, forcing Dostoevsky’s characters into Fung’s schema, is a weakness of the book. Throughout its whole length the author is constantly reaching out and pulling the characters, who wander, back into his preconceived theory. It reminds you of Dostoevsky himself, battling in his huge novelistic constructions with characters who consistently escape the authorial control.
Some of the most unconvincing parts of the book are those relying perhaps too much on Freud, especially when Fung gets off on symbolic castration as applied to Dostoevskian characters. See p. 9, 35-6. At one point we are told that the cathedral St. Isaac’s “bears a castrating force” and in itself is also “subject to castration” (58). But, on the whole, a main strength of the book is the way Fung brings in a variety of great thinkers to support his points.
Nietzsche, who read Dostoevsky and was influence by him, “called the epileptic genius ‘the active man.’ He mentions “men given to intellectual spasm—Byron and Alfred de Musset are examples.” These men cannot “remain within themselves. They long to dissolve into something ‘outside.’ Some of the “supreme examples known to us of the impulse to action were epileptics: Alexander, Caesar, Mohammed, Napoleon” (6).
No one has established for sure that Mohammed was epileptic, but some of the legends associated with him suggest epilepsy. In one tale the Archangel Gabriel awakens Mohammed in the night. Gabriel’s wing brushes against a jug of water, knocking it askew. Gabriel transports Mohammed from Mecca to Jerusalem, and from there Mohammed rises up into the seven heavens, where he speaks with angels, prophets and Allah. Then he descends into the fiery Gehenna and returns to Mecca in time to catch that jug and keep the water from spilling.
This legend is one illustration of the liminal moment, what Myshkin in The Idiot calls the moment when “time shall be no more” (7). Taking Bakhtin as a point of departure, Fung sets out to trace how multiple references to epilepsy—and, by extension, to phenomena that he sees as congruent with epilepsy—“are presented polyphonically in Dostoevsky’s works” (12). Fung is not interested in epilepsy as such, but in Dostoevsky’s subjective reading of the disease. He takes a giant leap at the outset, when he decides that Dostoevsky’s representations of death are analogous to the way he presents epilepsy. He does, however, find supporting evidence for this in Dostoevsky’s assertion that epilepsy is like death, which comes and goes. Further evidence lies in Hugo’s condemned man, who states that men are given indefinite stays of execution, and in Blanchot’s assertion that in near-death (near-execution) experiences your “death stays with you” (22).
“From age twenty-six until his death (1847-1881) Dostoevsky had an epileptic seizure almost once every three weeks” (15). Two years before he was sent to Siberia he described his “strange and unbearably torturing nervous illness.” It often seemed to him that he was dying and “real death came and then went away again” (15). Still unaware that his illness was epilepsy, Dostoevsky, suggests Fung, already saw his illness as “a form of death.” The word kondrashka, which Dostoevsky often used to describe his seizures, was, as James Rice has pointed out “a popular term for sudden death” (16). It says something about Russian literature that two of its most famous sons, Gogol and Dostoevsky, were fearful of descending into a lethargic state of near death and being buried alive.
Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, says Fung, never depicts death from the perspective of a dying person’s inner consciousness and never depicts an epileptic seizure from an interior perspective either. Both death and epilepsy point to “the annihilative moment, which cannot be consciously perceived.” Here we have, once again, the focus on the liminality; you are on the threshold of annihilation, but you don’t get all the way there. Jacques Catteau has found epilepsy at the core of Dostoevsky’s process of creation, stating that Dostoevsky’s novels “are driven by a violent and convulsive impetus and are inclined to a form of excess” (15).
Having established the congruity of epilepsy and death in Dostoevsky’s life and elsewhere, Fung goes on to describe Dostoevsky’s near-death/near execution experience (in 1849), comparing it to that of Victor Hugo’s protagonist in “The Last Day of A Condemned Man,” a work that Dostoevsky knew well.
CHAPTER ONE: “THE EGOISM OF SUFFERING”: SCHILLER WITH SADE
This chapter treats the novel The Insulted and the Injured, which is teeming in Dostoevskian poor people who seek exhalation through self-demeaning altruism. Some of the characters have epileptic seizures, one main character resembles the Marquis de Sade, and others enjoy “an ecstasy of hatred.” There’s a dreamy narrator who is looking for someone to “reset my brain in my head” (28). Fung makes reference, as well, to The Underground Man, with his “эгоизм страдания,” his taking of joy in the aching of his teeth. A main point is that “seeking suffering can be a selfish and pleasurable act” (32).
Maybe I’m less interested in Fung’s treatment of this minor novel in the context of Schiller, Kant, Lacan, Sade, because I’ve never got around to reading it—and in hearing Fung hash over the hysteria and melodrama of the plot I’m not inspired to read it now. After Fung has established “the epileptic mode of being” as his focus point in the highly intriguing introductory chapter of his book, I keep waiting for him to get back to this in Chapter One. He digresses here into sadomasochism, into the way magnanimity is steeped in egoism, into “the ecstasy of hatred.” Meanwhile, standing forlornly off in a corner, the main issue of the epileptic mode is waiting to join the party. The closest Fung gets to that issue here is when he discusses Vanya’s “mystic terror,” which Dostoevsky obviously models on his own (41).
“Vanya compares the mystic terror to necrophobia. . . Similarly, Dostoevsky is anxious that he will be buried after having a seizure, as his body will look like a corpse. It is not coincidental that the above passage refers to necrophobia: the fear of the corpse implies the fear of the self, who is always subject to the epileptic seizure, which turns the self into a ‘corpse.’ Although Vanya does not literally suffer from an epileptic seizure in the novel, the fact that he is haunted by the mystic terror every night suggests that he is subject to the power of seizure” (41).
CHAPTER TWO: PETERSBURG AND THE DEAF AND DUMB SPIRIT
In describing the early stages of his writing of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky noted that “strange half-baked notions were in the air” (49). In March of 1866 the student Karakozov (prototype name for Dostoevsky’s Karamazov) made an unsuccessful attempt on the life of the Tsar Liberator, Aleksandr II. From then on, until Mar. 1, 1881, one of those half-baked notions was—and Dostoevsky was well aware of it—that the tsar must be killed. They tried, time and time again. Even Dostoevsky’s travelling partner and semi-mistress in Europe, the hysterical Dostoevskian woman Polina Suslova, once swore that she would take revenge on all men for the way she was treated by killing not her Spanish lover, not Dostoevsky, but the tsar himself. Many critics presume that Alyosha Karamazov was modelled after Karakozov, and that Dostoevsky’s plan was to turn Alyosha into a revolutionary in the sequel to The Brothers Karamazov (111). If Fung is correct in his assumption that Dostoevsky planned on having Alyosha attempt to kill the tsar, it is ironic that the “idea in the air” finally was realized only about a month after the writer died—the terrorists beat Alyosha to it (124).
In his chapter on Crime and Punishment Fung hashes over many things long established in Dostoevskian criticism. He discusses, e.g., the theme of transgression (stepping over—преступление), the significance of Raskolnikov’s dreams, the Napoleon theme. He takes the famous sentence about “intentional” and “unintentional” cities from Notes from Underground (the reference is to the “intentional” city of St. Petersburg) and expands its meaning. In Fung’s view the grandiose structural achievments of Petersburg—the Admiralty, the Bronze Horseman, the Aleksandr Column, Rossi’s Winged Chariot, the Winter Palace, etc—plus the straight lines of the streets, the attempts to create classical harmony in architecture—constitute the intentional city. Unintentional St. Petersburg is made up of the Haymarket, the chaos of the floods, all parts of the city that today are known as “Dostoevskian” Piter (52-53).
But, so says Fung, even the intentional Piter turns out to be unintentional in that its architecture is eclectic and therefore not harmonious. Raskolnikov is dismayed by the “disorienting space” around him. This includes not only the squalor of the Haymarket District, but also St. Isaac’s—which is eclectic, therefore, nonintentional and disorienting.
The “dumb and deaf spirit” that Raskolnikov sees incarnate in the glorious view of what is supposed to be “intentional” Petersburg (including St. Isaac’s) is congruent with the dumb and deaf spirit exorcised from the epileptic boy in Mark 9:18 (54). Fung develops Dostoevsky’s idea of St. Petersburg as a city of half-crazy people. Raskolnikov wants to “take charge of the intentional city” by his “stepping over” (transgression), but at the same time he belongs to the unintentional chaos of the Haymarket, and his attempts at moving out of his liminal position, stepping over into the position of Great Man, is an utter failure. We are left, once again, in the “in-between,” in limbo, and that (in Fung’s hypothesis) is where all of the heroes of Dostoevsky’s great novels are left.
Fung makes a case that Raskolnikov’s split personality is embodied in the architecture of the city; the eclectic style of buildings “contaminates the purity of the classical style.” He has five intriguing pages on the liminal state of St. Isaac’s, a cathedral perpetually in the process of being built, with accretions from all different architectural styles, but a building never quite finished (57-62). At the end of this chapter Fung goes off into Sergei Eisenstein’s conception of montage, relating this to the way the eclectic architecture enacts “a dialectical relationship within moments of explosion” (63-65).
A brief digression from the book. People often accept in full coin Dostoevsky’s idea of St. Petersburg as a phantasmal and morbid city, but sometimes you wonder. True, both Pushkin and Gogol had developed the idea somewhat before Dostoevsky, but it is Dostoevsky who brought it to full fruition—with his descriptions of madmen wandering the city streets, with his foul air and the spirit of illness, with all his love-hate for the grotesqueness of this “rotting and slimy city” (quoted from The Adolescent, 58). What you wonder is this: how much of the rot and slime is really there in the spirit of Piter, and how much of it comes out of the souls of the sick characters and their sick creator?
One thing in this chapter brings us back to the central issue of the liminal character, stuck in-between and getting nowhere. Fung emphasizes that Raskolnikov in his mind is being punished even before he commits the crime, he is punished in the very midst of committing it, and he is punished after he has committed it. The crime and the punishment are congruent and simultaneous. Here we can see similarities with the epileptic theme, for with an epileptic seizure (the aura) the belabored creature grasps a moment of glorious eternity, while (almost simultaneously, but not quite) foaming at the mouth and twitching in convulsions on the floor. And getting, essentially, nowhere. Such is the truth of “the epileptic mode of being.” Of course, Fung is not the first to discover that the novel is about crime in the midst of punishment.
THE IMAGE WITHOUT AN IMAGE: THE GUILLOTINE AND HOLBEIN’S DEAD CHRIST
In this chapter Fung discusses The Idiot, with emphasis once again on boundaries between life and death (more liminality). In August, 1867, Dostoevsky and his wife Anna Grigorievna visited the town of Basel to view the Hans Holbein painting, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521). In her diary Anna Grigorievna writes of the horrible impression the painting made on her:
“Contrary to tradition, Christ is depicted. . . with an emaciated body, the bones and ribs showing, the hands and feet pierced by wounds, swollen and very blue, as in a corpse that is beginning to rot. . . [The painting] in not in the least aesthetic and in me it aroused nothing but revulsion. . . But Fedya is full of admiration for the painting” (73).
Через порог нельзя. Nature does not approve of us looking too intently at things better left unlooked at. In the act of looking at the Holbein painting, says Fung, Dostoevsky is involved in another sort of transgression, or a stepping over. In this ambivalent moment of boundary crossing, both fascinated and horrified, Dostoevsky (as A.G. reports) almost has an epileptic seizure (73-4).
In discussing the “loosening of bodily boundaries,” Fung cites Julia Kristeva: “Corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. . . There I am at the border of my condition as a living being. . . The corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. . .” (73).
We are inclined not to look at such a denial of the narrative of the Resurrection, at this Christ who is a rotting corpse and shows no inclination to rise, but it is typical of Dostoevsky that he not only looks, he stares— he indulges himself in the painting to the point of having a fit. Later he goes back and climbs up on a chair, to have another look.
The issue here is bezobrazie (literally, that without an image) in art. The word means the chaotic and the formless, or the ugly. Question: can that which is monstrous, evil, full of disharmony and discord be depicted in an aesthetically attractive way? In other words, the issue, so important in Dostoevsky’s art, is the aesthetics of ugliness.
Robert Louis Jackson, whom Fung cites in his discussion of bezobrazie in art, argues that Holbein’s painting is bad art, as it “deeply disturbs man’s moral and religious tranquility”:
“one might enjoy the lacerating beauty and poetry of Holbein’s disfigured Christ (as one might enjoy beauty in Sodom), but in principle, in the sphere of aesthetic theory and religious convictions, one had to deny this kind of beauty all along the way” (Jackson cited, 77).
I suppose that the religious man in Dostoevsky would agree with Jackson here, but the artist in Dostoevsky was often at odds with the religious believer. The artist in Dostoevsky believed not only in looking at bezobrazie, but also in depicting bezobrazie. And how. In fact, one of Dostoevsky’s most salient themes is the attractiveness of the ugly, the attractiveness of morbid imagery. What, after all, would the artist Dostoevsky be without bezobrazie? Then again, it’s a simple fact that great art always disturbs and shakes up the consumer of that art. Such is the nature of great art.
Here, in line with Fung’s theory of “the epileptic mode of being,” we have one more moment of in-between. The dead body, in liminal horror, “resembles nothing but itself,” and art captures the non-image of the corpse in liminality. More liminal moments are suggested by the image of a head being lopped off by the guillotine. Prince Myshkin in The Idiot (79-80) recommends painting a condemned man’s face just before the blade of the guillotine falls. Myshkin imagines that as the head is being cut off “it may know for a split second that it has been cut off”—as if to say, “Well, imagine that: my head has just been lopped away!”
Myshkin’s thinking, writes Fung, “is epileptic; it involves tremendous movements and disruptions.” It involves (more to the point) his desire to look at life in the moments of what Fung terms “caesura,” in the brief liminal seconds. Later in the chapter Fung returns to the issue of looking. He discusses Turgenev’s description of an execution—in his article titled “The Execution of Tropman” (1870). Turgenev turns away at the decisive moment, declaring that if he watched the execution this would make him almost an accomplice to murder.
Dostoevsky reacted with scorn to what he saw as Turgenev’s squeamishness. He cited Terence’s famous declaration, “I’m a man, and nothing human is alien to me (homo sum et nihil humanum). In Dostoevsky’s opinion we do not have the right not to look at dead rotting bodies (even if the body is that of Christ) and at human heads lopped off.
Prince Myshkin is an epileptic, and Fung discusses the two seizures that he has in The Idiot. Myshkin describes the seizures in much the same way that Dostoevsky described his own seizures to acquaintances at various times in this life. Both Myshkin and his creator place great emphasis on the aura, the enraptured state when the sufferer has a feeling of “absolute harmony in myself and in the whole world”.
In such a state of mind one literally gets in touch with God. “I attained God and was imbued with Him. ‘Yes, God exists!’ I cried. . . “all the joys that life can give I would not exchange for it” [that one split second of bliss] (Dostoevsky cited from a personal reminiscence, 18-19). The epileptic seizure apparently lights up the same parts of the brain that are touched by psilocybin drugs, as those who have taken controlled “trips” in recent experiments with psychedelic s report much the same experience of getting in touch with God (see The New Yorker, “The Trip Treatment,” Feb. 9, 2015).
At one point Fung questions whether Dostoevsky ever really had such experiences: “There is hardly any empirical evidence that Dostoevsky did experience the ecstatic moment” (19). He quotes Jacques Catteau to the effect that “Dostoevsky may have mythologized the aura” (19). I find that hard to believe. If Dostoevsky made up his descriptions of his own ecstatic states —states that he described with utter elation to his acquaintances and shared with his characters such as Myshkin—he must have been crazier than we ever give him credit for being (and we give him credit for, at times, near utter lunacy).
At any rate Prince Myshkin repeats the same, or similar words, about his condition, where banal idiocy and eternal harmony coexist. During his ecstatic moments he understands the phrase (from Revelation), that “time shall be no more. “Yes, for this moment one could give one’s whole life” (84). Of course, the main point here, in line with Fung’s hypotheses, is the ambivalence of epilepsy, where getting in touch with God coexists with convulsions and foaming at the mouth. The time of the fit is, once again, liminal, and Dostoevsky, says Fung, is interested in the in-between moments, the caesuras, when a character struggles to attain to something REAL, tries to get somewhere that a human being has no chance of ever reaching.
CHAPTER FOUR: THE WILL TO EPILEPSY: SUICIDE, WRITING AND MODERNITY
Towards the end of this chapter Fung briefly turns to Michel Foucault, who has written that “modern man reacts to the transience [of life] by attempting to recapture something eternal within the present moment” (106). If I am reading this book correctly, it seems to me that Fung’s main point is that that is what Dostoevsky’s characters are often doing.
Dostoevsky has numerous characters whom Fung characterizes as “mouthpieces for pseudoscience,” men pushing “great ideas” that are flawed: Raskolnikov, Shigalyov, Smerdyakov (94). For a discussion of shchigalyovshchina, a precursor of the Grand Inquisitor’s philosophy in The Brothers Karamazov, see p. 94. Such flawed ideas, in fact, are the hallmark of Dostoevsky’s fiction, and, ironically enough, in the same novels where he presents such ideas in order to disprove them, he is hashing over his own flawed ideas.
A good example of this in The Devils is the passage where the casting out of demons (from Luke 8: 32-35) is cited, leading to Dostoevsky’s pet idea about how “a great will and a great thought will descend [to Russia] from on high, as upon that insane demoniac, and out will come all these demons, all the uncleanness, all the abomination that is festering on the surface…” (93).
Dostoevsky proved something of a prophet, in that his predictions that deleterious ideas from the West (especially socialism) would wreak total havoc on Russia. He proved less than a prophet in his assumption that somehow God would save Russia from the havoc and drive out the demoniac forces. I suppose some would see the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the last century as confirmation of his prophesies, but what has come to replace the U.S.S.R. in the New Russian Federation appears to have its own demons. The exorcism that Dostoevsky fervently preached, at any rate, has not yet occurred.
The most important character treated in Chapter Four is the bridge engineer Aleksei Nilich Kirilov, who, according to Fung, “has a will to epilepsy.” That is, a desire for the ecstatic moments just before the attack of an epileptic seizure. Kirilov, who is essentially a madman, wants to attain to the moment when time suddenly stops (97). “There are seconds—they come only five or six at a time (says Kirilov)—and you suddenly feel the presence of eternal harmony.” Shatov tells Kirilov that the way he is talking (hinting at something like the aura), he’ll surely get the falling sickness (98).
At one point Fung brings in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and compares him to Kirilov. Nietzsche writes of “a yearning to pass beyond all appearances. . . a will to nothingness, an aversion to life” (100).
Kirilov is something of a comic character. Dostoevsky always has dark streaks of comedy running through his works, although the issue of humor is not treated in Fung’s book. Kirilov is an engineer, a builder of bridges, whose obsession is killing himself, taking charge of his own death, and, consequently, superseding God and himself becoming a god, even to the point of “changing physically.” Stepan Trofimovich sees the comedy in Kirilov’s simultaneous attempts to (1) kill himself and become a deity and (2) get a job building a local railway bridge: “You declare yourself for the principal of universal destruction. They’ll never let you build our bridge!” (95) Then again, the only physical change after suicide is decomposition, so Kirilov’s idea of “changing physically” is also preposterous.
The central philosophical issue of this chapter is whether man can die his own death. Extrapolating out from Kirilov, Fung brings in the opinions of a variety of Western thinkers on this issue. Oddly enough, he never mentions that the expression actually exists in Russian, whereas in English it doesn’t exist. If you say in English, “I want to die my own death,” what exactly do you mean? I want to choose the time and place of my death? I want to decide how I die? I want to (like Kirilov) take control of my own death by way of suicide? The expression isn’t really used in English.
But in Russian it is. Он умер не своей смертью. Literally this translates as “He died not his own death.” What it means is, “He didn’t die a natural death.” The idea of “a natural death” is the closest we can come in English to saying the literal thing: He didn’t die his own death. Yet since the expression exists in Russia the concept must be there in the Russian mind: there are two ways of dying—you die a death that belongs to you (your own) or a death that does not (not your own). The underlying (at least linguistic) assumption is that you have something to say about how you die!
Of course you don’t, though. So says Maurice Blanchot in The Space of Literature:
“Even when with an ideal and heroic resolve I decide to meet death, isn’t it still death that comes to meet me, and when I think I grasp it, does it not grasp me? . . . Do I myself die or do I not rather die always other from myself?” (102).
In speaking of death Kierkegaard writes that death cannot really be anticipated or experienced as an idea. “Since its actual being is a non-being [I would have to ask] whether it therefore is only when it is not” (101).
What Kirilov is doing, in trying to go out and meet his own death, to take control of it, is just grasping at the ungraspable, as, so Fung has told us, is what so many of Dostoevsky’s characters are doing. They are trapped in liminality, in the in-between. He never gets around to saying this, but there is a strong implication that this is what their creator, Dostoevsky himself, is doing in so many of his great philosophical/psychological novels. His reach always exceeds his grasp.
“The suicidal will. . . fails to form any relation to death” (102). Death is ungraspable and does not belong to the realm of human experience. What it all comes down to is this: Nikto ne umiraet svoej smert’ju. Vse umirajut ne svoej smert’ju. The idea of “dying one’s own death,” even if the linguistic terminology exists in Russian, is a fantasy.
THE KARAMAZOVS’ OTHER HISTORY: CHILDHOOD, VIOLENCE, AND THE SHRIEKERS
You look at Dostoevsky’s tumultuous and tortured life, and you sometimes wonder how he managed to stay on this earth, writing works that reveal deep insights into human psychology and philosophy, for sixty years.
In May of 1878, Dostoevsky’s three-year-old son Alyosha died after a series of epileptic seizures (110). This was a direct reminder to him of his own personal heritage, and his existence in “the epileptic mode of being.”
As always, his fertile imagination was teeming with ideas, and his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was meant to be the first of a great trilogy. This is somehow a peculiarly Russian idea, this writing of a great trilogy that will shake the universe down to its roots when completed, but that never gets completed. Compare, e.g., Gogol’s Dead Souls. The concept is congenial to Fung’s idea of “the epileptic mode of being.” A character sets out to seize the moment, to stop time and wallow in an apotheosis, but he is caught in the in-between, the caesura, in a state of “infinite postponement.” The trilogy is left ungrasped, uncompleted.
One has only to read Fung’s descriptions of the plot of Dostoevsky’s final novel to understand why this writer is not for all readers. To read Dostoevsky is to do what Turgenev turned away from doing when he refused to watch that execution. Dostoevsky takes the reader by the hair and then rubs his nose thoroughly in perverse grotesqueries. “See there, reader, take a look at that. Smell it? That, reader, is what we call life on this God’s green earth of ours.”
The bastard son Smerdyakov (“Stinkerman”), “begotten of bathhouse slime,” feeds dogs food mixed with nails and has a habit of hanging cats, then burying them with funeral ceremonies (112). You’d have to laugh at this if it weren’t so disgusting. There are numerous other examples of Dostoevsky’s obsession with the freakish and perverse: a six-fingered son, Flagellant and Castrate sectarians, Shrieker women, the torturing and brutalizing of children, attacks of “brain fever,” which, it appears, is a disease more prevalent in Dostoevsky’s fiction than in life itself. Alyosha’s fiancée Liza voluptuously imagines crucifying a four-year-old, cutting off his fingers. “Nothing human is alien to me.”
Periodic episodes of bizarre logic break out in Fung’s (otherwise well-reasoned) book. Take this passage, for example, which is going quite well until it veers off and careers into absurdity:
“Three fathers have visited in Alyosha’s dream: Zosima, Christ, and the old Karamazov. These three images are interchangeable in the dream. The father figure is both the divine and the debauched, recalling the Karamazovian beauty, which is always marked by the ideal of Madonna and Sodom at the same time. The father figure represents both the elder who teaches the doctrine of immortality as well as the rapist who abused Alyosha and his mother. The condensed image of the father suggests an ambivalent meaning of patriarchy. That the son is asked to join the orgy also suggests a homosexual attraction between the fathers and son”(124-25; my emphasis).
Another example, from the same page. Alyosha steps out of the monastery and has a hysterical fit. He suddenly, as if cut down, falls to the earth and embraces it, kisses it, weeping and sobbing and watering the good earth with his tears. “Susanne Fusso suggests that the earth evokes the image of the maternal [okay, I’ll go along with that]. She sees Alyosha’s frenzied kissing as some sort of masturbatory moment, after which the son ceases to be a virgin” (124). Now, that’s bizarre. True, it’s not Fung’s idea, but he repeats it without demur.
The most interesting discussion in this chapter revolves around Alyosha’s memories of his violent past and his attempts to sugarcoat those memories in his mind, so as to make them tolerable in his present. Fung makes a convincing case for asserting that Alyosha’s good memories of his past and his mother are confabulations. Freud’s studies in hysteria raise “the question of whether we have any memories at all from our childhood” (122). What we have, rather, are confabulations, our memory’s re-creation and mollification of traumatic moments.
At one point in this chapter Fung briefly touches on the issue of saliva and its importance as a boundary crosser. The scene involves Alyosha’s mother and the perverse old Karamazov, who spits on her favorite icon. “Spitting (writes Fung) de-consecrates the icon, severing the relationship between the Mother of God and Alyosha’s mother. The spitting of saliva not only profanes the mother’s prayer, but also evokes the image of the abject. That is, the saliva, which exists in liminal space, both inside and outside the membrane, engenders a threat to body boundaries” (121, with reference to Julia Kristeva and Georges Bataille).
Fung leaves the issue of the saliva undeveloped here, but he well could apply it to the liminal imagery that dominates much of his book. Dostoevsky’s characters (so he tells us) want to seize the moment, stop time, get somewhere, but they are perpetually trapped in the caesura, the state of “infinite postponement.” Yet bodily emissions (saliva, urine, excrement) have played a special role in folk rituals all over the world and from time out of mind in that they are successful threshold crossers. Unlike human beings, who are trapped in the caesura, bodily emissions exist in at least two different dimensions. Saliva is spit out over the threshold into a different world, while remaining, at least in part, within the human body.
“This book has traced and examined the appearances of epilepsy in five of Dostoevsky’s novels, suggesting that the writer’s works are characterized by the epileptic mode of being. For this particular existence, I have referred to the infinite alternation between the desire to seize upon the present moment and the impossibility of seizing it. The moment which is impossible to seize upon has been understood as the caesura, the moment of incomprehensibility which ruptures the sense of continuity of the novels’ narratives. This is the moment where Dostoevsky’s heroes are thrown into a state of traumatic shock, even the collapse of consciousness” (131).
In his final chapter Fung amplifies the issue of “the infinite postponement” with reference to the works of Maurice Blanchot. In a short story published in 1948 Blanchot writes of a woman who is stricken with a fatal disease, but who lives on for an unexpectedly long period of time (131). Blanchot is especially interested in the subject of death held in abeyance. He is attracted to the idea of the limbo state, the time when death is somehow already present in a person’s life but does not bring down the final blow of the scythe.
In “The Instant of My Death” (1994), based on his own life’s experience, Blanchot writes of a young man about to be shot by the Nazis. Aware that his death has arrived, he experiences a strange sort of beatitude. It’s as if he were “bound to death by a surreptitious friendship” (132). Just as the order is about to be carried out the Nazi lieutenant is distracted by a noise and goes off to investigate it. A German soldier, laughing, makes a sign to the narrator: “Get out of here; run.” He runs off into the woods; three other farmers’ sons are shot, but he survives.
Blanchot’s hero lives out the rest of his life in a special relationship with death. Death has, as if, “friended” him on Facebook and he has friended Death back. In a sense he is already dead, in a sense not. Here we have another liminal state of existence. My death has arrived but it must now be held in a condition of perpetual abeyance. “We ain’t quite ready for you yet, son.”
“Rather than than I who die my own death, it is death that stops me from dying” (Blanchot cited on 133). Fung compares the situation with that of Joseph K in Kafka’s The Trial. He is informed that his trial is always impending, that he will be arrested at any time. Here we are back to the issue of whether anyone can die “his own death.”
There is, of course, an obvious parallel here with Dostoevsky’s story—of how Death came for him in 1849 and then stepped away. The point about postponement of death, holding it in abeyance (in the Blanchot story) may be seen as “a commentary on Dostoevsky’s post-execution, post-Siberian and posthumous novels” (133). Fung does not explain his terminology here, but the implication is that the great novels written after Dostoevsky’s return from prison and exile are, in a sense, posthumous. Written by a man who is at least half a ghost.
Unlike the resurrected Christ, who, as the Orthodox Easter prayer reads, “is risen from the dead, trampling down Death by Death (Russian instrumental case: смерть смертью) and upon those in the tombs bestowing life,” Blanchot’s and Dostoevsky’s survivor is dying not by his own death, but by the death of Death, which has already arrived and yet has not. The men are involved with what Fung uniquely terms a dis-appointment with eternity. So also are characters such as Prince Myshkin and Kirilov and Raskolnikov. Each of them arrives at a moment of tension, and each of them is, ultimately, “dis-appointed,” trapped in the caesura.
But really now, can we buy Blanchot’s argument about the man almost shot who lives on awaiting his pending death? I don’t think so. I don’t think the fact that Dostoevsky was almost shot in 1849 made him all that different from anyone else in the remaining years of his life. Aren’t we all, after all, in the same position, even if we have never been almost executed? Aren’t we all not really holding our own death in abeyance from the very day of our birth? All of Dostoevsky’s major heroes in the post-Siberian novels are in a state of perpetual limbo, in “the condition of unfinishedness and deferment” (135). Fung makes that point again and again over the course of his book. But then aren’t we all?
Мы все умираем не своей смертью, а смертью Смерти. We all of us die not our own death, but the death of Death.
I hope that my infrequent cavils with Fung’s text do not dispose the reader to be overcritical of this book. It’s a great philosophical read, which squeezes Dostoevsky and his characters in and out of the minds of any number of puissant Western thinkers. It deserves a welcome and respected place up on the bookshelves of Academia, next to the many fascinating books on the life and works of that perverse and talented genius of Russian literature: Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky.