Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1871
A Few Facts
One Night in a Room
Dostoyevsky’s books enact a radical empathy. Amid ugliness, strife, distortion, mutilation, a hand reaches as through flame to stroke the anguished face of another. A man asks himself in the cold of winter, If the rich have so much money, why must there be a freezing baby?
So little stays unruined.
In The Idiot, through one night and into morning, Prince Myshkin holds and strokes the murderer Rogozhin. Nearby them in the bed, Nastasya’s dead body. Long hours of dark, then the window faintly lightens. Myshkin trembles, at times he can’t move his legs, but he doesn’t pull back.
Now and then Rogozhin sometimes suddenly began to mutter, loudly, abruptly, incoherently; began to exclaim and laugh; then the prince would reach out his trembling hand to him and quietly touch his head, his hair, stroke it and stroke his cheeks…
Meanwhile it had grown quite light; he finally lay down on the pillows, as if quite strengthless now and in despair, and pressed his face to the pale, motionless face of Rogozhin; tears flowed from his eyes onto Rogozhin’s cheeks, but perhaps by then he no longer felt his own tears and knew nothing about them…
By the time the police arrive in the morning, Myshkin’s eyes are glassy and he can’t speak. It seems he will never speak again.
Everyone believes he’s become an “idiot” again—his night with Rogozhin rekindling the epileptic state where he neither understands nor articulates nor exercises judgment—nothing to be done for it but to send him back to the sanitarium in Switzerland.
But everything they think is just conjecture. No one can see inside his mind. The only fact that can truly be known is that he stayed with the murderer, stroked him, trembled, wept. Held close in mysterious, unspeakable empathy the suffering, delirious body and mind of another.
When he was nine, Dostoyevsky’s family bought a small country house in Darovoe. It was there that one day a peasant man, Marei, reached out and gently stroked the boy’s face. In prison, Dostoyevsky later said, “the memory came back to me and helped me survive.”
“A person does not always look like himself,” Dostoyevsky writes of sitting for his portrait by Vasily Perov.
Such a calm statement. But in his notebooks he keeps track of his seizures as time, space, language, stability, intention break in him over and over. The world breaks over and over.
And there is the aura before:
Suddenly amid the sadness, spiritual darkness and depression, his brain seemed to catch fire … His mind and heart were flooded with a dazzling light. All his agitation, doubts, worries, seemed composed in a twinkling, culminating in a great calm and understanding…
As if you suddenly sense the whole of nature and suddenly say: yes … this is not tenderheartedness, but simply joy … what’s most frightening is that it’s so terribly clear, and there’s such joy. If it were to last longer than five seconds—the soul could not endure it and would vanish.
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.
Between 1860 and 1881, he suffered at least one hundred and two seizures, most likely more.
Built into the workings of his nervous system, that strange radiance inseparable from devastation, that joy and calm that vanish into shame and damage.
The radiant shattering leads to an empathy so radical it’s seen as grotesque, fantastical, ugly.
A hand returned to its own ignorance and mystery reaches to give comfort to another.
In 1882, the influential critic N.K. Mikhailovsky published his derogatory book-length essay Dostoevsky: A Cruel Talent.
“He forces his characters to commit bizarre, fantastic crimes, or at least to entertain the same sort of idea, so that they might suffer, suffer, suffer.”
“All of Dostoevsky’s politics and publicistics is continuous vacillation and confusion, in which there is, however, one independent, original trait: unnecessary, causeless, resultless cruelty.”
Oh, I only don’t know how to say it … but there are so many things at every step that are so beautiful, that even the most confused person finds beautiful. Look at a child, look at God’s sunrise, look at the grass growing, look into the eyes that are looking at you and love you …
After a series of strong and painful fits of my illness, though my mind worked, the logical flow of thought was as if broken …I was completely awakened from that darkness, I remember … and what roused me was the braying of a donkey in the town market … For some reason I took an extraordinary liking to it, and at the same time it was as if everything cleared up in my head … I began inquiring about donkeys because I’d never seen them before, and I became convinced at once that they’re most useful animals, hardworking, strong, patient, cheap, enduring … my former sadness went away entirely.
You know, in my opinion it’s sometimes even good to be ridiculous, if not better: We can the sooner forgive each other, the sooner humble ourselves; we can’t understand everything at once … one must first begin by not understanding many things! And if we understand too quickly, we may not understand well.
I didn’t know that empathy has been a word in English only since 1909. It’s derived from the German Einfuhlung: “feeling into,” which was coined by Robert Vischer, the author of On the Optical Sense of Form: a Contribution to Aesthetics, 1873. In 1909, Edward Titchener, an American psychologist, translated Einfuhlung into empathy.
Mirror neurons are neurons that fire both when an animal acts and when it observes the same action performed by another. They were first identified in the 1990s by a team of neurophysiologists in Parma who placed electrodes in the ventral premotor cortexes of macaque monkeys.
Marco Iacobini, a neuroscientist associated with UCLA, argues that mirror neurons are “the neural basis of the human capacity for empathy.”
Dostoyevsky experienced more than one hundred major seizures, walked in chains and prison garb, wasn’t permitted to hold a pen or pencil for nearly four years or read any book but one. He watched two children die and wrote several times of a man’s inner life in the minutes and seconds before execution. He had Myshkin think about a donkey’s goodness and importance, and led him to the room where he would stroke and soothe Rogozhin.
His books offer the words to feel into pursued to their radical end, embodied. To feel into—which doesn’t mean to understand, or analyze, or interpret, or heal. Doesn’t mean to solve, define, make steady, claim knowledge of, but has something to do with drawing close, with how there’s a radiance more mysterious, more unspeakable than horror; more private in its wounds, more lasting.
Laurie Sheck is the author of Island of the Mad (Counterpoint, December 13, 2016) and A Monster’s Notes, a re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was long-listed for the Dublin Impac International Fiction Prize and chosen by Entertainment Weekly as one of the 10 Best Fictions of the year (2009). Her book of poems, The Willow Grove, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She has been a Guggenheim Fellow, and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and The Nation. She has taught at Princeton, CUNY, and Rutgers, and is currently a member of the MFA faculty at the New School. She lives in New York City.
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