Dostoevsky and Psychology

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Dostoevsky and Psychology

"A sick man's dreams are often extraordinarily distinct and vivid and extremely life-like. A scene may be composed of the most unnatural and incongruous elements, but the setting and presentation are so plausible, the details so subtle, so unexpected, so artistically in harmony with the whole picture, that the dreamer could not invent them for himself in his waking state. . . "1

Fyodor Dostoevsky's remarkable insight into the psychology of man is seen here in the development of Raskolnikov's dream on the beating of a horse by drunken peasants. The dream is significant on several planes, most notably in the parallel of events in the dream with Raskolnikov's plan to murder the old pawnbroker. It also serves as perhaps the most direct example of the inseparable tie between events of the author's life with the psychological evolution of his protagonists, as well as lesser characters, through the criminal minds of Raskolnikov, Rogozhin, Stavrogin, and Smerdyakov, and into the familial relationships of The Brother's Karamazov.2

Traditional interpretation of literature from a psychoanalytic standpoint has relied extensively upon the work of Sigmund Freud. In the case of Dostoevsky, however, this method is both anachronistic and inadequate. Dostoevsky's great works, considered individually or holistically, though fictional, established him as one of the forefathers of psychoanalysis, and a predecessor to Freud.3 Indeed Freud himself acknowledged that "the poets" discovered the unconscious before he did,4 stating further in a letter to Stefan Zweig, "Dostoevsky 'cannot be understood without psychoanalysis- i.e., he isn't in need of it because he illustrates it himself in every character and every sentence.'"5 There is, however, a complementary relationship between Dostoevsky and Freud brought about through the striking clinical accuracy of psychological traits exhibited both individually in Dostoevsky's characters, as well as in reflecting the author's own mental processes. Thus, it is necessary first to examine Freud as a point of departure before looking at modern alternatives of psychoanalytical method.

Freud on the Oedipus complex

Epileptic seizures plagued Dostoevsky throughout the last thirty-four years of his life, occurring about once a month on average, and consisting of "A brief, intensely exalted, premonitory sensation, loss of consciousness, convulsions, and a lingering depression with vague feelings of criminal guilt for three to eight days."6 Freud delves into the psychological roots of this illness in his essay "Dostoevsky and Parricide", calling into question Dostoevsky's "alleged epilepsy". "It is highly probable", he states, "that this so-called epilepsy was only a symptom of his neurosis and must accordingly be classified as hystero-epilepsy- that is, as severe hysteria.
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