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.

My summer reading list –ADD YOURS, PLEASE!

girl_with_dragon_tattoo_bookAmazon Books has listed The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Understanding Lisbeth Salander and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, in which, apparently, “19 psychologists and psychiatrists attempt to do what even expert investigator Mikael Blomkvist could not: understand Lisbeth Salander.”

Any story, IMHO, that needs 19 psychologists and psychiatrists to understand it probably isn’t worth reading.  That does not include Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the other two stories in the trilogy. Anyone who wants to bother finding out what 19 psychologists and psychiatrists have to say about Lisbeth Salander is welcome to waste her time, but it certainly is not necessary. I just finished the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire.

Here’s what I (with an almost PhD in esthetic studies) have to say about the novels: they are great yarns! Steig Larsson did not bother with all the “literary” techniques, the niceties that make a “great novel” by the standards of academic literaturists (I can make up a word if I want to), but—my goodness!—he can tell a story. I am grateful to Larsson, may he rest in peace, for helping me find out once again how much fun it can be to read a novel.

For the last ten or so years, I have not been able to read novels because I haven’t been able to concentrate long enough to get through one. And now I’ve read all but the last 15 pages of two and will begin the third in the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest today.  I’ve been told by more than one friend that it’s not as good as the first two of the trilogy, but I was told that about the second compared with the first—and I’ve found it not true. But what do I know.  (There are other reasons for my inability to read—a problem with sleep, for one. I won’t go into those little issues here.)

So I fully expect to keep reading for fun this summer. The 19 psychiatrists can spoil their own fun if they want to, but they are not going to spoil mine.

I know when my ability to read a novel ended: in 1999 when the members of my (second, never-to-be-finished) PhD committee gave me a list of about 30 novels I needed to read (in one summer) in order to take my qualifying exams. I read them. I passed the exams. And I quit the program.

In 1985 I taught a course in World Literature at Salem State College in Massachusetts. It was pretty strange, I will admit. I was an adjunct music teacher drafted to teach Freshman English because that department was desperate and they read my in-progress dissertation and decided I wrote well enough to teach writing (!?!). Then they decided I could teach World Literature (on what basis, I do not know).  I’d say I didn’t “teach” the students much. Together we read a Greek tragedy, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, some short stories by Flannery O’Connor, E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, and Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Not a bad list. If I were to teach such a course now, at least some of the stuff by dead white men would be replaced.

He dared to write "epilepsy"

He dared to write “epilepsy”

I have read much of the “standard” literature – you know, the “Canon.”  But my reading for the last ten years or so has been mostly non-fiction, mostly academic articles, mostly really boring (if not irrelevant) attempts by scholars to understand/explain this-that-or-the-other.

So thanks to Steig Larsson, my summer reading list is taking shape.

  • It will begin with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

I already have on my Nook/Kindle/iPad:

  • William Gibson’s Neuromancer (I’ve never read it),
  • Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place,
  • Louise Erdrich’s The Master Butchers (which I’ve started twice but not finished), and
  • Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.

I also have a paper copy of

  • the recent translation of The Idiot, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky which is authentic enough to translate the word “epilepsy” as “epilepsy” instead of the vague, meaningless words that translators have always used.

I may even add more murder mysteries if I can find some good ones.

I’d like to know what other folks are reading these days.

My first summer reading venue

My first summer reading venue

PLEASE!  LEAVE A COMMENT WITH YOUR SUMMER READING LIST.

Note: If you listen to NPR or PBS, you’ve no doubt heard they are supported by the Carnegie Foundation, endowed by Andrew Carnegie “to do real and permanent good.” The Scottsbluff, NE, public library (left) is one of many the Carnegie Foundation built across the country,