Will beauty save the world?

NOVEMBER: NATIONAL EPILEPSY AWARENESS MONTH

No idiot he.

No idiot he.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s most often-quoted line (at least in the circles in which I run—and I do run in circles) is, “Beauty will save the world” (Prince Myshkin in The Idiot).

Dostoyevsky was epileptic.

The Idiot is my favorite novel. I’ve seriously contemplated learning Russian simply to be able to read it in the original. How’s that for grandiosity (see Google search for Bipolar II disorder)? I have The Idiot as a Nook book, as an eText on both my computer and my iPad, and, best of all in a BOOK, the miraculously compelling 2004 translation by David McDuff. I’ve read The Idiot at least four times and am about 1/3 of the way through the McDuff translation.

I first read The Idiot in 1987 in preparation for teaching an “Introduction to World Literature” course as an adjunct in the English Department at Salem State College in Salem, MA. Why I was teaching that course, I’m not quite sure, but by the third semester I had some idea what I was doing. I used The Idiot because one of the Professors in the department suggested when I told him—because the fluorescent lights in the classroom were killing me—I am epileptic. He thought I would enjoy it for myself, and, as long as I was going to take the time to read it, I might as well use it in class.

Lest you think in some way I am comparing myself to Dostoyevsky—don’t. Your Google search above may have listed grandiosity as one of the presentations of Bipolar II Disorder, but even I am not that daft. Not even my epilepsy is the same as Dostoyevsky’s. He had full seizures. Mine are tiny, half-seizures, little storms in my head that have no physical manifestation. Partial seizures, they are called. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy is my diagnosis (neurologists call it something else these days).

Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of The Idiot, is a full-blown, full seizure epileptic. I love the guy. While I have nothing in common with Dostoyevsky, I have a kinship with Myshkin that simply is.

He was thinking, incidentally, that there was a moment or two in his epileptic condition almost before the fit itself . . .  when suddenly amid the sadness, spiritual darkness and depression, his brain seemed to catch fire at brief moments . . . His sensation of being alive and his awareness increased tenfold at those moments which flashed by like lightning.  His mind and heart were flooded by a dazzling light.  All his agitation, doubts and worries, seemed composed in a twinkling, culminating in a great calm, full of understanding…but these moments, these glimmerings were still but a premonition of that final second . . . with which the seizure itself began.  That second was, of course, unbearable. . . (The Idiot, Section V).
Dostoevsky_Grave
My experience used to be of the same quality, but of an order of magnitude so much smaller that it hardly seems the same. I knew that “sensation of being alive [with my] awareness increased tenfold at those moments which flashed by like lightning.” My moment was a high pitched ringing (always B-flat) and then an explosion into white noise, and then the seizure, which was (is—very rarely now) a sense of dissociation, of otherworldliness, of being-there and not-being-there. When I was a kid, the feeling could go on for days. Wandering around certain I could pass through walls because I had no body.

So then, in 1984, that all changed. I was diagnosed with TLE, the medications (heavy doses of Carbatrol and Depakote) began, and I zoned out. Have done ever since. I’ve had one real seizure in Dallas—a complete black-out doozy. In Target. Police called and everything. Very dramatic.

I asked my neurologist a few years back if anyone had a study of the long-term effects of Carbatrol (I’ve been taking the same massive doses for 29 years). He said, “You’re it!”

So enough about me, already. Here’s what I want you to think about as you look for a way to support to the Epilepsy Foundation this month.

. . .  Myshkin is the embodiment of an insolvable conundrum. . . [that] has to do with the fact that Dostoevsky’s ideal “I” can never be achieved because to reach it, one must annihilate one’s actual “I” and join “in a blissful synthesis with the all,” where the “I” no longer exists. . . .this conundrum perfectly reflects what happens during Myshkin’s epileptic attacks. In the moments before a seizure, Myshkin achieves a sense of “a lofty serenity, filled with pure, harmonious gladness and hope, filled too with the consciousness of the ultimate cause of all things” (an intimation of the ideal “I”). But a moment later, “stupor, spiritual darkness, and idiocy” follow—the annihilation of the self in the seizure and its aftermath . . .Yet epilepsy can only take us so far as an exegetical device by which to understand . . . what happens to Myshkin at the end of the novel. . .  epilepsy with the “destruction of personality” that accompanies it is pointedly rejected by Dostoevsky as the reason behind Myshkin’s relapse into idiocy. The triggering event must be sought elsewhere.
(John Givens . “Dostoevsky’s Idiot and the Christology of Comedy.” The Russian Review 70 [January 2011]: 111. )

NEAM-Facebook-LogoYou have to read The Idiot to understand this, obviously—and probably much more Dostoyevsky than that (I think the same conundrum is present in the other Dostoyevsky novels I’ve read—especially Crime and Punishment, which you have no doubt read).

But when a kid is sitting in his second grade class and have a feeling of “a lofty serenity, filled with pure, harmonious gladness and hope, filled too with the consciousness of the ultimate cause of all things,” it’s more terrifying than anything else. And he probably will not have worked out what it means—or even for sure what the feeling is—by the time you’re 68. But it’s fun trying (no, it’s not—it’s crazy-making).

I just wish they’d turn off all fluorescent lights in the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: