Making Art at the Painful Margins

What the violent suffering in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot taught the author Laurie Sheck about finding inspiration in torment and illness

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Michael Chabon, and more.

Doug McLean

For three years, the writer Laurie Sheck suffered from an undiagnosed illness, an agonizing facial pain that put normal life out of reach. She sought medical attention, but the doctors couldn’t seem to determine what was wrong; some even suggested her symptoms were stress-induced, psychosomatic, a sign of madness. Meanwhile, the agony continued. “I would just sit at the dinner table with my husband and my daughter, thinking: If I could just have three minutes of normal life—if I could just sit here like a normal mother, I would be so happy,” she told me, in a phone interview.

Ultimately, she found a doctor who recognized her condition: trigeminal neuralgia, an excruciating disorder of a cranial nerve. Sheck now takes medication that manages the pain, which, according to the National Institutes for Health, can be extreme enough to be  “physically and mentally incapacitating.” The experience seems to have influenced the composition of Sheck’s most recent books, which feature characters made into outcasts as a result of their disordered bodies. In 2009, she published a hybrid novel that reimagines Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from the monster’s perspective. Her new novel, Island of the Mad, also has the ailing, unattended body at its core: The hunchbacked narrator travels to Venice to search for something that may lessen a friend’s suffering—a lost notebook with clues about her own, mysterious malady.

In a contribution for this series, Sheck wrote about Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, a book disordered and nearly destroyed by illness. (His extreme form of epilepsy, in which racking seizures are prefaced by brief, visionary states of bliss, is sometimes called “Dostoyevsky Syndrome.”) Sheck looks at the novel’s shattering climax, which challenges us to take on a more radically empathetic form of compassion.

Sheck is the author of five books of poetry, including The Willow Grove, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A faculty member at The New School’s MFA in Writing, she has had her work featured in venues like The New Yorker and The Paris Review.

Laurie Sheck: Worldlessness, Hannah Arendt calls it—this state of radical isolation and loneliness that is so often a condition of the ill, the feared, the shunned, the stateless, the despised, the misunderstood, the powerless, the afflicted. What is taken away is a shared language, a sense of trust in being seen, the stability of genuine connection. As far back as childhood, long before I ever came across this word, I sought from books a way of drawing close to this realm of feeling. I wasn’t looking for consolation, much less explanation, but for the complex, textured presence of the uncomforted, the rawly vulnerable, the disrupted—hurt bodies and minds that in their radiance and affliction might lead me, as the jolt of illness sometimes does, toward a less protected, more open questioning.

To love these hurt minds and bodies is a way of touching, however lightly, the unknowable, hurt world— and of struggling, as much as possible, to feel its ungovernable reality.

This world of feeling is brought searingly to life in Dostoyevsky’s great novel The Idiot, a book that manages like no other to plunge fearlessly into suffering while at the same time illuminating the enduring, almost unspeakable beauty of the human. It opens with a young, epileptic man, Prince Myshkin, returning to St. Petersburg after years away for treatment in a sanitarium in Switzerland. The train windows are covered with fog—already there is an indication of the limits of human seeing.

This initial scene, with the frail, displaced stranger returning home to a city in many ways now unfamiliar, haunts and informs the entire book.  Every aspect of the novel, even its structure, conveys a sense of precariousness and instability much like the epilepsy that alternately tightens and loosens its grip on Prince Myshkin but never lets go. It is his body’s truth, this thrashing and upheaval he experiences in his deepest being and can never fully decode. His illness instills in him an intuitive awareness of others’ suffering, and a certain apartness anchored in shame and a built-in mistrust of stability. But this sense of apartness derives also from an aspect of the epilepsy less dark but no less troubling or difficult—the lightning-flash of ecstasy, almost unbearable, that seizes him in the few seconds before the convulsion. This flood of sudden joy and ultimate well-being exists utterly apart from the civic, ordered world, its freedom like no other. Though indelible, it lasts only a few seconds before the brutal, excruciating swerve into seizure.

The book itself can be seen as one long seizure or series of seizures: At the beginning its movement is calm, patient, but soon it complicates itself—accruing minute, precarious edges, hazardous turns. It surges forward with wrenching intensity, then suddenly halts as if distracted, almost frozen, blanking out. Or it trembles, teetering on the thinnest edge of structural integrity and coherence. Falls, darkens, gets up, falls again, darkens. Fills with sudden, almost unbearable light and beauty. Trembles again—its whole world contingent, in doubt, a body of oscillations, restiveness, vulnerability.

This instability leads to an odd radiance, an almost-wild breaking free from the strictures of received categories and dichotomous thinking. Everything is up for grabs, nothing taken for granted. As the book progresses, received notions of the real are thrashed, bruised, stunned, knocked down, changed. And so what is unsafe and crumbling also shines with lacerated promise.

Toward the end of the book there is a passage a few pages long so uncompromising and haunting in its transgressive beauty and honesty, that it, too, upends like an epileptic seizure. This passage, enacting a series of violent breakages as it carves fissure after fissure into anything taken for granted or familiar, becomes the opening through which the novel’s final, disconcerting light can enter—a light that makes possible no less than a radical re-envisioning of human tenderness.

The passage comes shortly after Prince Myshkin’s discovery that the young Rogozhin has murdered Nastasya Philippova, the beautiful, troubled woman who compels both men. Myshkin has arrived at Rogozhin’s room fearing the worst, and he has found it. A white marble-like foot protrudes from under the bed sheet. On the floor is a white dress, flowers, white ribbons. Rogozhin readily confesses to the murder.

Instead of fleeing, summoning the police, or lashing out at Rogozhin, Myshkin, trembling and in an almost dream-like state, does what Rogozhin requests and stays through the night with him. On and off for hours  he comforts and strokes him. It is a scene of astonishing bravery and power, deeply weird and at the same time utterly believable. As the night goes on, Rogozhin grows increasingly delirious. And in those hours, Myshkin, as recounted by the book’s un-named narrator, “stretched out his trembling hand to him and softly touched his head, his hair, stroking them and stroking his cheeks…he could do nothing else!”

This is radical tenderness of the most disturbing, challenging, and uncharted nature.

It’s not that Myshkin doesn’t realize the horror of Rogozhin’s act, doesn’t feel it. “My legs won’t move…it’s from the terror, I know,” he observes. And later, “Quite a new sensation gnawed at his heart with infinite anguish.” This new, unnamed feeling is part of what keeps him beside Rogozhin. “At last he lay down on the pillow as though utterly helpless and despairing and put his face close to the pale, motionless face of Rogozhin; tears flowed from his eyes onto Rogozhin’s cheeks.”

By morning, when the police arrive, Myshkin’s eyes appear unseeing. He doesn’t answer any of their questions. There’s no indication he will ever speak again. Shortly afterwards, he’s sent back to the sanitarium in Switzerland.

All that we can truly know is that Myshkin felt the reality of a suffering, delirious being and didn’t turn away from that being.

I love how, with one devastating passage, Dostoyevsky breaks open the accepted, meaning of “tenderness” and reveals its stark impurities and contradictions. It doesn’t hold itself apart from the perverse, the ugly, the tormented, the conflicted. A fissure opens, and Dostoyevsky finds within it the baffling, irreducible and to many, unacceptable, textures of the real. Like the relentless progression of a seizure, there is no pulling back.

By the time Dostoyevsky wrote his transcendent passage—so close to the book’s end—he had been through a period of enormous upheaval, less dramatic than his prison years though in its own way no less devastating or demanding. His notebooks for The Idiot show the many ways his book confused and eluded him from the beginning. For nearly a half year, having fled his creditors and living abroad in Geneva, he’d been filling notebooks with at least eight divergent, often wildly contradictory plans and character studies. His epileptic attacks had grown increasingly frequent and severe. “Two days ago I had a most violent attack, but yesterday nevertheless, I worked in a state verging on madness.” Partway through the writing, his first child, Sonya, was born and then, to his and his wife’s devastation, died that May, 1868, a mere three months later. Despairing, he somehow continued writing. In a late summer letter to his friend A.N. Maikov, he wrote “I am dissatisfied with my novel to the point of disgust. I have desperately tried to work but I haven’t been able to—My mind is sick. Now I shall put the finishing touches on Part 3. If I straighten out the novel, I will straighten out myself, if not—I am finished.”

This edge he walked is everywhere palpable in the finished novel. Although he found his doubts hard to shake, in the end he came to feel the scene of Myshkin’s and Rogozhin’s final night together is the book’s justification and defining moment.

For me, part of the particular uncanniness of Dostoyevsky’s work lies in how even as he delves without hesitation or pity into the miserable, cruel, violent, extreme, his books enact a kind of tender holding of those who suffer and live on the margins, each cruel or violent act backlit by the human capacity for tenderness and wonder.

After the initial serial publication of The Idiot, Dostoyevsky could find no publishing house to issue the book in its entirety. It, too, was consigned to the margin. This is not surprising, given its deeply idiosyncratic form and the way it accommodates its own particular necessities, which can be too easily dismissible as sloppiness, confusion, insufficient focus, failed narrative. Yet part of what makes it so indelible and radiantly moving, and its scene between Myshkin and Rogozhin so masterfully and oddly beautiful, is the way in which the book itself becomes the very embodiment of the complexities and challenges of the margin. The Idiot sees and breathes from many margins, not least among them the margin of illness. It holds close the heartbreaking vulnerability of the unprotected body that seizes as Myshkin’s does, or wastes away like the despised peasant girl Marie, or sickens with tuberculosis like the frightened, embittered teenager Ippolit. The body is a site of tenderness, but also a problem that can’t be solved, a fraught place of ongoing crises, wars, injustices, failures. The desire for comfort and the reality of isolation pull and are unresolved.

Dostoyevsky knew this liminal realm all too well. Imprisoned at 28, first in solitary confinement in the Peter and Paul Fortress on the Neva, then in Siberia for four years followed by five years of enforced service in the military, also in Siberia, he lived far from the center of power, moving among the despised, the degraded, the punished. His epilepsy, too, repeatedly brought him into an abrupt state of intense, demanding removal, during which the world shattered, turned alien, his mind and body opening to an unspeakable otherness, then closing off again, darkening. Stability, steadiness, trust, self-control could no longer be relied on.  He lived each day knowing that within a split second his brain could suddenly catch fire and he’d be thrashing on the floor, his eyes dilated, mouth foaming. While his wife was in labor with their first child, he experienced an attack that left him feeling deeply inadequate and ashamed. Often for weeks afterward he lived in a kind of mental darkness and devoid of his facility with words.

But the margin also gave Dostoyevsky his books. It’s from there that Myshkin cradles Rogozhin and comforts Marie, and thinks about the horrors of state-sanctioned execution, and the integrity and usefulness of donkeys. It’s from there that Myshkin intuits the hurt, violated being within Nastasya’s storminess and provocations.

In a letter to Maikov dated March 14, 1968, Dostoyevsky writes of his work-in-progress, “As regards The Idiot, I’m so afraid, so afraid—that you can’t even imagine.”

Each time I return to his book—my copy’s spine long broken, the pages bound together with rubber bands—I’m reminded of how all great books destabilize both reader and writer in one way or another. Dostoyevsky’s brave, unprotected tenderness of the margin, for one, demands of itself nothing less than a radical re-seeing of the world.