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One of the presents I received this Christmas was a book on Dostoyevsky by Rowan Williams (yes ... that Rowan Williams!) So far, I've read the first chapter, and yes, it's heavy going: not surprisingly, Rowan Williams views Dostoyevsky from a theological angle, and I have so little experience of theology, that I am finding it difficult following his thought. But it's something I'd like to read, nonetheless, as I feel that Dostoyevsky is quite obviously one of the great giants of literature, and, although I can sense the imense power in his works, I have never really quite got to grips with him. He seems to me almost a sort of alien being: no doubt the vision he presents in his work is profound, but it is a vision so alien to my sensibilities, that I cannot quite come to terms with it.

One reason for this, I think, is that, not having had any sort of religious background, my sensibilities are very secular, and I increasingly think that it is impossible to appreciate Dostoyevsky from a secular perspective. I very much want at least to understand (if not necessarily to share) the religious frame of mind from which Dostoyevsky's work can make sense - for, at the moment, despite the power and the intensity apparent in these works, they frankly make very little sense to me.

Anyway - I thought I'd open up this thread to solicit from anyone out there any thought on this obviously great writer.
Klara Z

Dostoyevsky is certainly one of the 'heavies' and I agree---there is something very alien about his outlook on life----at one time, (student years) I read  a few of his novels (Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, The Devils and Crime and Punishment) and I was frequently perplexed in a way that I am not perplexed when reading other Russian writers like  Gorky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy. The characters often behaved in a way that I found quite inexplicable and finding my way through the plot seemed quite tortuous at times.

I think if anyone was beginning to read Dostovesky for the first time, a good start would be 'Crime and Punishment'---a very moving novel and, I suppose, the most accessible.

We should perhaps not be surprised that Dostoevsky seems somewhat alien - and also highly religious. He (like many writers of a religious bent) was a sufferer of temporal lobe epilepsy, which can have some very strange consequences with regard to how one perceives the world. Typical sensations are an ecstatic sense of understanding or enlightenment, which then slips away before it can be grasped; feelings of unreality (everything perceived 'feels' as if it's fake); jamais vous (the opposite of deja vous - a sense that one has never been in a place before when in fact one has been there often). TLE sufferers are very often profoundly religious.

It is quite likely that Philip K Dick suffered with TLE. Perhaps his greatest theme was 'what is real, and how can we know?', and he frequently described various divine invasions, communications from God, and massive shifts in reality (or perception of reality). In his last decade he wrote a massive text known as the Exegesis in which he grappled with the religious experiences he had in February and March 1974. The document, most of which remains unpublished, runs to some 8,000 pages.

Thanks for that, Mike - that really is very interesting. I had known, of course, that Dostoyevsky was epileptic, but I had not known about the type of epilepsy he suffered from, nor of the effects of the illness.

Dostoyevsky himself describes very vividly (especially in The Idiot) the vague, fleeting perceptions one has when one undergoes an epileptic fit. And very frequently, he conveyed what you describe as "ecstatic sense of understanding or enlightenment, which then slips away before it can be grasped" - indeed, I can't think of a better description of what I think I find in a Dostoyevsky novel. His long-term planning is, I think, sometimes poor, but there are these ecstatic moments where he does seem to capture a fleeting sense of enlightenment. These are perceptions very alien to me, and yet, there are moments in all of these novels when these fleeting moments strike you wih all the impact of a thunderbolt. At times, it's like a delirious hammering inside one's head.

I hadn't realised, by the way, that Philip K. Dick suffered from this condition as well.

TheRejectAmidHair wrote:
I hadn't realised, by the way, that Philip K. Dick suffered from this condition as well.

I don't think this is universally agreed upon, but it's a hypothesis that makes a lot of sense. He was not diagnosed as such in his lifetime, and his copious drug-taking and experiments with bizarre vitamin-rich diets must make any judgment problematic. In any case, one should always be a little cautious about posthumous diagnoses.

I think in Dostoevsky's case the evidence is much more certain, not least from his own descriptions of his seizures. Here are a couple of articles that may be of interest:

Read ‘The Double’ (1846) a novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in a translation by Contance Garnett.  In the course of this Gogolesque – A Petersburg Poem - story the chief character, Golydakin, a government clerk, already somewhat paranoid, rapidly descends into madness. His downward spiral accelerates when a new clerk who appears to be his exact double, his doppelganger, arrives on the scene, and gradually takes over his life and identity.  It’s not an easy book to describe, much of it happening in Golyadkin’s head, with long internal ravings and rambling, incoherent speeches, as G. attempts to reason himself out of his increasingly intolerable situation. Dostoyevsky captures this superbly.  I found it quite a frightening book as G. gradually loses control, his behaviour becoming more and more bizarre as he endures a series of embarrassing confrontations with his superiors, together with disconcerting public humiliations at social gatherings.  I was never quite sure whether the double was a real person or a figment of Golyadkin’s disordered imagination. Reading the book is an unsettling experience, the whole story being poised on the edge between reality and fantasy, driving forward relentlessly as G. slides into schizophrenia. The ending I found frightening.  
The stranger, also in his hat and coat, was sitting before him on his bed, and with a faint smile, screwing up his eyes, nodded to him in a friendly way. Mr Golyadkin wanted to scream, but could not – to protest in some way, but his strength failed him. His hair stood on end, and he almost fell down in horror. And, indeed, there was good reason. He recognised his nocturnal visitor. The nocturnal visitor was no other than himself – Mr Golyadkin himself, another Mr Golyadkin, but absolutely the same as himself …….

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