‘He used to say it was frenzied, but beautiful’

Paul Fung, Dostoevsky and the Epileptic Mode of Being

Legenda, 148pp, £55.00, ISBN 9781909662087

reviewed by Andre van Loon

The trouble with Dostoevsky can be knowing where to start. It doesn't seem to matter if you're a novice reader, a seasoned aesthete or a professional literary critic. He's too verbose, too serious; too intent on piercing the heart of the matter in hand (‘and till my ghastly tale is told/this heart within me burns’, as Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner declared). There are those who find all this extremity a little unbearable. But Dostoevsky held ideals, and his work overflows with designs for their realisation. It was precisely this that fuelled his immense capacity for anger, which, although directed mainly towards nihilism, extends to anyone obtuse enough to settle for mere happiness.

Since his death in 1881, Dostoevsky’s keenest readers have had plenty to argue about. One can delve into the receptions of 19th-century Russian mystics, confront the force of Nietzsche or Freud's readings, plunge into Mikhail Bakhtin’s studies of his aesthetics and ethics, witness (in an unlikely pairing) Christian fundamentalists or avant-gardists prising him out of context, or achieve total immersion in Joseph Franks’s vast, voluminous biography, which took more than 30 years to complete. And while for some, Dostoevsky is a quintessential Mosaic prophet, for others he's a revolutionary, standing stoutly on the barricades. He's lauded by Archbishops (see Rowan Williams’s 2010 Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction), as well as likely young troublemakers – it's not hard to picture the dog-eared pages of Russell Brand's copy of Crime and Punishment.

So it is that finding a genuinely new word to say about Dostoevsky is no mean feat, fraught with a greater than usual danger of rehashing someone else’s arguments. There are two ways to react. On the one hand, it might be possible to face these high stakes with unabashed self-confidence. In his 1983 Dostoevsky, for example, the English critic John Jones wrote without a hint of anxiety, luxuriously unrestrained by academia's compulsory doffing of hats. On the other, one might well gain authority by paying due homage to existing scholarship (itself naturally more abundant today than in the 1980s) while carefully, even quietly advancing new readings.

In Dostoevsky and the Epileptic Mode of Being, Paul Fung takes the latter approach. Fung, who is Assistant Professor in English at Hang Seng Management College (Hong Kong), began planning his book in 2007, while completing a doctoral thesis on Dostoevsky at the University of Manchester. Eight years later, the resulting volume is tautly structured, neatly conceptualised and, at 148 pages, relatively slim. Fung has clearly spent many hours thinking about Dostoevsky and the sprawling secondary literature, yet he presents his arguments with nuanced and skilful economy.

It all hangs on his concept of the ‘epileptic mode of being’ itself:

[I intend] to reread Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels from the perspective of the ‘moment’. By the ‘moment’ I mean an indivisible instant, a caesura or a break, during which consciousness is abruptly cut off. In the moment the flow of thoughts of the Dostoevskian subject is suspended; the intensive dialogues of different voices – no matter whether they happen within consciousness or among several characters – come to a halt… This book positions epilepsy as a metaphor: Dostoevsky’s writing is ‘epileptic’ as it is punctuated by moments of caesuras and breaks.

By taking this literary ‘moment’ as his starting point, Fung avoids the trap of a simplistic focus on Dostoevsky’s own real-life epilepsy. While noting the author's terror at the illness (with characteristic morbidity, he thought it left him looking as though he had died, and was said to be afraid of being buried alive as a consequence), he remains wisely off-trend by withholding any cod-scientific correlation between epilepsy and literary creativity. Fung’s interest is, rather, in what Dostoevsky wrote, more than the fact that his slow periods of recovery meant that he often could not write anything at all. And by focusing on ‘moments of caesuras and breaks’, Fung also sets himself apart from the myriad critics drawn to the famous scenes where verbal, and sometimes physical, arguments erupt with astonishing force.

The study is structured around five of Dostoevsky’s novels: The Humiliated and Insulted (1861), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), Demons (1872) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). In the chapter on The Humiliated and Insulted, Fung focuses on the contrast between the idealistic protagonist Ivan (Vanya) Petrovich and the anti-hero Prince Valkovsky. The former is drawn after Friedrich Schiller (a poet Dostoevsky was much influenced by), brimming with idealism and self-abnegation; the latter is a Marquis de Sade, spiteful and self-interested. The novel revolves around Vanya’s love for Natasha, who in turn loves the young nobleman Alyosha, Prince Valkovsky’s son. Vanya does not reject Natasha, nor hate Alyosha, but remains a true friend to them both. The central issue becomes whether Prince Valkovsky will bless his son’s love for the impoverished Natasha, with Vanya trying to keep everyone happy. Instead, however, Valkovsky mocks Vanya, brutally attacking his idealism, particularly over a magnificent set-piece dinner. Fung writes:

[Valkovsky’s] mockery terrorises Vanya, challenging the moral ideals he wants to achieve…The Schillerian hero is subject to mockery of his romantic pursuit of moral ideals. His project of building lofty ideals is continually delayed, thus marking an existence which is characterised by postponement.

As this analysis illustrates, Fung is good at capturing Dostoevsky’s tensions, here played out between a meek dreamer and a vigorous libertine. His understanding of how Valkovsky’s mockery generates a silenced moment of contemplation is a rich thought. That said, there seems little that's strikingly epileptic about it.

Inevitably, Fung finds a clearer link with epilepsy in his discussion of The Idiot, whose Prince Myshkin is himself epileptic. In the story, about Myshkin's return to a spiritually troubled Russia, Fung singles out a lengthy digression focusing on what a convict sentenced to death might feel in their last moments. Myshkin speculates that such moments might come close to an earthly experience of the eternal: time itself becomes fluid, stretched, however inexorably it creeps towards that final, fearsome moment. Later, paralleling this idea with his own epilepsy, Myshkin speaks of an attack building up towards an ecstatic state, giving him

the highest degree of harmony, beauty … a hitherto unheard-of and unknown feeling of fullness, measure, reconciliation, and an ecstatic, prayerful merging with the highest synthesis of life.

Uncertainly, and acutely aware it may simply be a medical effect of the attack, Myshkin desires to experience this moment once and for all: for it to become perpetual and all-encompassing. Yet as his earlier reflections on the imminence of death indicate – coupled with The Idiot’s other characters’ frequently morbid fascinations – such a desire could easily flip into a death wish. In this case, the foregrounding of epilepsy offers a penetrating path through the novel.

Fung traces a similar desire and problematic relationship with death in his discussion of Demons. In this novel, one of the major secondary characters, the young engineer Alexei Kirilov, intends to commit suicide in order to attain an everlasting, God-like life. Kirilov, Fung notes, has an acute ‘will to death … a desire for finishing the existing life in exchange for a meaningful and utopian afterlife.’ Like Myshkin, he fervently believes in a moment of ecstasy at the point of death, on the threshold of complete transformation, when time itself ceases to matter. Frighteningly, in his case, his actual suicide is not at all utopian, but a horrific descent into a kind of bestiality and madness. According to Fung, Kirilov seeks to escape the present, with all of its imperfections and dangers, by attaining that one, true, empty moment of being. Epilepsy is thus equated to the threatening present; the ‘moment’ to a post-suicidal state of tranquillity.

Fung is adept, if not strikingly original, in his analysis of Crime and Punishment. Like many before him, Fung points to the ironic accidentalness of Raskolnikov’s murder. Famously, Raskolnikov has a theory, which he intends to put into practise through his killing of the old female pawnbroker, that a Napoleon-like figure enjoys superiority over the vast majority of mankind. A Napoleon can seize the moment, grasp power and transgress the rules others need, and in fact, like to obey. The majority, the ‘herd’, live day to day; only an extraordinary minority can utter a ‘new word’, can change life through their deeds. Raskolnikov believes that he belongs to this minority: his murder becomes his attempt to prove it. The problem, though, is that he bungles the actual killing. His plans go awry when he suddenly finds himself at the pawnbroker’s apartment as if by accident, and carries out the killing almost mechanically, beset by a slew of silly mistakes. As Svidrigailov, another of the main characters (and one of the most frightening personalities in Russian literature) says to him later:

I’ve already observed you several times from the side. You walk out of the house with you head still high. After twenty steps you lower it and put your hands behind your back. You look but apparently no longer see anything either in front of you or to the sides. Finally you begin moving your lips and talking to yourself, sometimes freeing one hand and declaiming, and finally you stop in the middle of the street for a long time.

Fung sees Raskolnikov’s murder as epileptic, in the sense that it defers the ‘perfect’ deed until a later date. He points, too, to the quieter moments in the novel, when Raskolnikov becomes a haunted character. Yet although Fung articulates a valuable sense of Dostoevky’s extraordinary power in Crime and Punishment – in which much of what happens seem like an unreal echo, returning with a warped sound – his ascription of Raskolnikov’s murder and haunted existence to an ‘epileptic mode of being’ is less assured. In short: the analysis is interesting and valuable; the concept could be easily imagined with another name.

Dostoevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, revolves around the difficult relationship of the landowner Fyodor Karamazov with his four sons (Dmitri, Ivan, Alyosha and Smerdyakov). The novel returns repeatedly to the theme of what it means to be a family. In Dostoevsky’s world, families struggle, fight and even kill each other, and all the bounds of common decency and the Christian spirit are loosened. The Karamazov sons argue with their father, and amongst each other, although Alyosha, the 20-year-old meek character, who associates with the spiritual leader the Elder Zosima, tries to bring a sense of unity to them all. But even he remembers his father’s sins against his mother, who became hysterical after his abuse:

[Alyosha] remembered a quiet summer evening, an open window, the slanting rays of the setting sun … an icon in the corner of the room, a lighted oil-lamp in front of it, and before the icon, on her knees, his mother, sobbing as if in hysterics, with shrieks and cries, seizing him in her arms, hugging him so tightly that it hurt, and pleading for him to the Mother of God … and suddenly a nurse rushes in and snatches him from her in fear. What a picture! Alyosha remembered his mother’s face, too, at that moment: he used to say it was frenzied, but beautiful, as far as he could remember.

The Brothers Karamazov is a monumental novel, with copious subplots and secondary characters. Fung manages this complexity by temporarily focusing on the concept of the ‘good’ memory: Alyosha remembers his mother’s frenzy, and acutely feels the pain this engenders in him, yet also experiences that moment’s beauty. In Fung’s analysis, Alyosha strives to capture an idealistic past (unlike, for example, Kirilov in Demons, who longs for an idealised, post-suicide future). Of course, such a transference of an idealised (past or future) moment to the present typically falters, as the ‘now’ comes with its own tensions and dangers.

Dostoevsky can brilliantly capture the absurdities and criminalities of the present, while fervently believing in utopian visions. His best works are extended ruminations on the barriers between reality and idealism, violence and unity, sin and virtue. Dostoevskian personalities are never free from questions; even his meek, kind-hearted characters experience moments of anger and doubt. Indeed, it can be argued that finding the right thing to say about Dostoevsky is less important than engaging with the full range of his characters’ feelings and experiences. They constitute Dostoevsky’s view of what it means to be human: a forever flawed, even tragic existence in which deep, prolonged suffering is more important than happiness.

In the end, Fung seems fully aware of Dostoevsky’s challenge. His study comes to a valuable, unified, but rather restricted vision. Skilful in his discussions, with a solid grasp of the best scholarship on Dostoevsky, he yet succeeds only in giving us a fragment of the bigger picture: his critical efficiency means that he sometimes seems to be holding Dostoevsky at arm’s length, warding off a full-blooded engagement with his ethical nightmares. The trouble of thinking about Dostoevsky, ultimately, is exactly the point, in all of its frenzied beauty; but the fact that Fung seems to be preparing himself for a fuller engagement makes him a Dostoevsky scholar to watch.
Andre van Loon is a freelance literary critic, specialising in new British and American novels and studies of Russian 19th- century literature.