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Biography At Its Best

ISSUE:  Autumn 1977
Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821—1849. By Joseph Frank. Princeton. $1650

ONE of the most remarkable features of this superb book is its Appendix, “Freud’s Case-History of Dostoevsky,” an essay by Joseph Frank which was first published in the Times Literary Supplement. With a dazzling display of erudition, Frank demolishes Sigmund Freud’s famous 1928 paper “Dostoevsky and Parricide.” Freud had argued that Dostoevsky’s epilepsy was “affective” rather than organic, and that the full-scale outbreak of the illness could be linked to the murder of his father. Although other of Freud’s so-called applications of psychoanalysis to history have long been challenged, until now his essay on Dostoevsky has escaped critical examination.

Frank establishes that Freud was essentially using the figure of Dostoevsky for the sake of propagandizing pre-conceived psychological convictions. Frank begins by pointing out a fact that Freud never mentioned—Dostoevsky had a son who died at the age of three from an epileptic attack. Presumably the child inherited the illness from his father, which would bear on the hypothesis of the emotional character of Dostoevsky’s own epilepsy. In contrast to Freud’s approach, Frank finds that Dostoevsky’s symptoms of epilepsy cannot be traced to either childhood or the death of his father, but in all probability began during his later captivity in Siberia. Furthermore, Frank documents how Freud twisted scanty biographical evidence to prove that Dostoevsky suffered from the threat of castration by a punishing father. Frank also objects to Freud’s characterization of Dostoevsky as a latent homosexual; as Frank irreverently puts it, “there are no male friendships in Dostoevsky’s life comparable in length and emotional importance to Freud’s own friendships with, for example, Wilhelm Fliess and Josef Breuer.”

In his critique of Freud’s essay, Frank sticks to the material available at the time Freud wrote on Dostoevsky. A key footnote in the text of Frank’s book indicates, however, that it now seems unlikely that Dostoevsky’s father was in fact murdered. Yet Frank had constructed so firm a case within the terms of Freud’s own knowledge that so significant a piece of new information becomes only a postscript to the way Frank has pulled the rug out from under Freud’s thesis. It is unfortunate that Frank did not go further in perceiving how Freud had used Dostoevsky for the sake of disguised autobiographical understanding. The Brothers Karamazov was Freud’s favorite novel, and he considered Dostoevsky’s literary standing to be close to that of Shakespeare; the Russian could therefore serve as one of Freud’s many doubles in the history of ideas, and in particular as a precursor to modern psychology. Frank does not mention that Freud himself suffered from fainting attacks and urinary incontinence, as well as the personality traits of irritability and intolerance that he ascribed to Dostoevsky. Freud’s interpretations of Dostoevsky’s death-like attacks go far in explaining some of Freud’s own fainting spells. Finally, Freud himself fit his picture of Dostoevsky as a guilt-ridden writer who worked best after some appeasement of fate through suffering.

Although Frank’s Times Literary Supplement article heralded the appearance of his book, it is only one illustration of the scrupulous scholarship with which he has approached his subject. To the extent that he seeks biographical understanding of Dostoevsky, Frank is, of course, compelled to come to terms with the significance of the Russian’s early years. According to Frank, Dostoevsky’s family did not resemble Freud’s reconstruction. The Dostoevskys were a tightly-knit unit where the children’s welfare was uppermost in their parents’ concern. Dostoevsky’s father was not the model for the dissolute patriarch of the Karamazovs; and although at the time corporal punishment was a conventional aspect of child-rearing, evidently Dr. Dostoevsky never hit any of his children.

It is regrettable that while he feels obliged to dismiss the central points in Freud’s essay on Dostoevsky, Frank fails to mention the way Freud projected portions of his own problems onto his account of Dostoevsky; yet paradoxically this particular weakness in Frank is an aspect of the strength of his general approach. For he is determined to avoid biographical reductionism, whether in talking about Freud, Dostoevsky, or any other thinker. Frank aims to interpret Dostoevsky’s art, and therefore not to “go from the life to the work, but rather the other way round.” Frank treats Dostoevsky’s creations as a genius’s synthesis of the major themes of his times. Dostoevsky’s stories are examined as personal expressions, but Frank sees him as oriented more than most by issues outside himself, Frank is fascinated by Dostoevsky in the context of 19th-century Russian culture, and his notable achievement is to present Dostoevsky in the milieu of his society. Whereas psychologists are too prone to find in the past illustrations for currently fashionable theories, Frank has sought to re-create an alien period of a great writer, and in that way to expand our horizons of the humanly possible. The result is intellectual history at its best.

Frank sees the presence of serfdom in Russia and Dostoevsky’s moral revulsion against the enslavement of the peasantry as one of the key aspects to his early writings. In addition, Frank emphasizes the significance of Dostoevsky’s religious background; in contrast to Dostoevsky’s own experience, Tolstoy and Herzen were not given religious instruction as children. Dostoevsky’s respect for non-heroic suffering was a notable feature of traditional Russia. And his conception of salvation as pride surrendering to the self-sacrifice of love made on its behalf by Christ was not simply a manifestation of personal idiosyncracy. Dostoevsky’s psychology of violent emotion and tortured conflict fit the reality of a society whose goals were increasingly unsettled and whose values starkly conflicted. Dostoevsky saw the torment of irreconcilable ideas, and the quest for dignity in a world of class obstacles and political repression; yet he was also aware of the human problems for which there can be no social solution.

Although earlier literature emphasized the relative harmlessness of the youthful political activities for which Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849, Frank demonstrates that Dostoevsky belonged to a secret group devoted to arousing revolutionary change in the status of the serfs. Dostoevsky’s involvement in Russian romanticism did not mean he was insensitive to political and social injustices, and Frank reminds us that the European governments of that era were hardly unconcerned about all those who reacted against the corruption behind formal social facades. Politics and literature are still today uniquely intertwined in Russian life.

Twenty years ago Frank conceived the project of re-examining Dostoevsky. In the end he executed a four-volume study, of which The Seeds of Revolt is the first installment. He has not sought to invent a new Dostoevsky, at odds with the responses of intelligent readers over the past century. Rather we find Dostoevsky more present and critically alive than ever before. The central reservation on finishing reading this book is that the next three volumes are not yet at hand.


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