Epilepsy as a Pharmakon in Dostoevsky's Fiction

Dissertation, The University of Arizona (1992)

As the de-privileged term in an oppositional structure, disease is understood culturally as a "poison" in the same way Jacques Derrida has shown writing to be so understood in philosophical discourse. Nevertheless, Dostoevsky's epilepsy, with its opposite but connected expressions of ecstatic aura and agonizing fit, maintains a posture of ambivalence in his life and works, and thus functions in his fiction as what Plato calls a pharmakon. Dostoevsky's representation of reality in terms of a dialectic in which "contradictions stand side by side" thus parallels the structure of his characters', and his own, epilepsy. In each of the novels where epilepsy is portrayed--The Landlady, The Insulted and Injured, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov--epilepsy appears as both "poison" and "remedy," and the question of epilepsy, like the nature of writing in Derrida, remains undecidable. These novels also hint at Julia Kristeva's view of the aura as a form of sublimation leading to forgiveness and a reinscription of the self. This further dimension links Dostoevsky's disease, and his reconstruction of it, to his literary work. Ultimately, the disease cannot be relegated to a space "outside" the cure or the self, but remains on the "inside." As a pharmakon, epilepsy subverts health/disease and mind/body oppositions within these texts. A discussion of the treatment of Dostoevsky's epilepsy in medical, psychoanalytic, and literary critical discourse even shows how this pharmakon subverts these texts as well
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