Epilepsy in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot - Language, Stigma, and Mythology
Around 400 BC, Areatus -- one of Hippocrates’ pupils, proclaimed ‘epilepsy is an illness of various shapes and horrible’. Later, Areatus was also one of the people who called the disease ‘sacred’; according to them, a deity had sent a demon to possess the patient, or the patient had been cursed by the moon. The Hippocratic physicians were among the first to attempt to separate the scientific and the cultural/fictional discourses. However, even till the late nineteenth century, medical narratives were intertwined with the fictional narratives that surrounded epilepsy, and these narratives contributed significantly towards the stigma that has historically been associated with the disease. This paper will examine how medical and non-medical discourses shaped the representation of epilepsy and contributed to the cultural mythology surrounding epilepsy. In the course of this paper, the author will specifically focus on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, in which the reader sees the author’s personal view of epilepsy, cleverly accommodated into the character of Prince Myshkin, who is surrounded by social stigmatisation. Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy for a major part of his life, and he maintained detailed accounts of his seizures. His epilepsy had a huge influence on his writings and his perception of the world. Dostoevsky’s epilepsy has been seen as particularly relevant, since being an epileptic himself, his works provide the reader with an insight into the disease which is hard to find elsewhere.
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