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  • Writer's pictureAndrew White

Dostoevksy: A Psychologist We Can All Learn From

This article was originally published by Mad in America on the 24th of October. You can find the original article here

Nietzsche famously said of Dostoevsky that he was the only psychologist he had anything to learn from. In a letter to the Danish literary critic Georg Brandes in 1888, Nietzsche exclaimed how Dostoevsky had provided, “the most valuable psychological material I know. I owe him a debt of gratitude.” Regarded as one of the original 19th century existentialists along with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky’s novels are known for wrestling with the deepest issues concerning human existence.

This wrestling was typified by Dostoevsky’s exploration of psychological repression and what happens when someone tries to run or is cut off from their unconscious—an exploration that helped lay the groundwork for psychoanalysis. Freud, ambivalent about Dostoevsky’s legacy due to him “colluding with humanity’s jailers”, our irrational forces, nevertheless proclaimed The Brothers Karamazov as, “the most masterly novel ever written.”

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, c. 1872
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, c. 1872

It is no surprise that the early psychoanalysts who were obsessed with Nietzsche, also consciously and unconsciously followed many of the literary tracks that Dostoevsky laid in his writing. His intuitive grasp of how childhood trauma could repress and obliterate memory, fuelling the repetition compulsion of self-destructive patterns of behaviour, was central not only to psychoanalysis, but also our modern understanding of psychological trauma. Yuri Corrigan, Assistant Professor of Russian Literature at Boston University, in his 2017 book Dostoevsky and The Riddle of the Self, described his writing as: “a vast experimental canvas on which the problem of selfhood is continuously explored over the course of four decades.”

When Nietzsche said this of Dostoevsky in 1888 (and again, more forcefully in Twilight of the Idols, published the following year), he was likely referring to the psychology of Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt was the founder of the first psychology lab at the University of Leipzig in 1879 (coincidentally Nietzsche’s alma mater) and is the grandfather of psychology as a standalone discipline. The biopsychosocial model of psychology as it is taught and practiced today, is stilled heavily influenced by the scope determined by Wundt. Wundt, as an assistant to Hermann von Helmholtz, a physiologist and giant of German science, was heavily influenced by the psychophysical paradigm established by his mentor.

This paradigm held that a person was basically a mechanism determined and activated by physical and chemical forces. The experimental psychology practiced by Wundt was shaped by this view, focusing on studies of perception and behaviour. The most well-known of these experiments, called threshold tests, involved adjusting different stimuli (lights, colour, weights) and asking the experimental subject when they were able to notice a difference. This difference was then recorded as the threshold at which someone became aware of a shift in perception.

Psychology has greatly broadened its scope since Nietzsche’s day and yet his implied criticism is one the discipline is still wrestling with. Psychology has become a giant, its terms and constructs now part of the cultural lexicon, and yet it is one with clay feet. The twin challenges for psychology today are that in order to be ‘scientific’ it must either focus on lower-order processes of cognition and behaviour, i.e how many items are we able to hold in working memory, or when it broadens scope to social issues, faces a crisis of being unable to replicate previous findings.

The roots of the word psychology mean ‘study of the soul’, and bar a few exceptions, there appears to be very little that the discipline has to say on the topic. Indeed, the concept of ‘soul’ as something to be studied is completely rejected by scientists, with the term ‘mind’ now essentially taking its place. Even if the term ‘mind’ is perhaps a needed upgrade on the word soul, with all its accompanying baggage, there is very little agreement on exactly what mind is, making it a difficult thing to objectively observe.

The paradox for psychology has always been that every individual knows their own experience intimately and yet the richness of our experiences, what scientists call qualia, is fiendishly difficult to observe directly. The client case study, that Freud and other early psychiatrists sketched with such vividness to convey this subjective experience, has largely been lost to the ‘precise’ approaches that try to determine norms for populations. The individual in modern psychology has largely been obscured by statistical analysis and the flattening continuums of normality and pathology.

If Freud’s case studies were a portrait of personality, then Dostoevsky’s novels are a vividly rendered landscape of the soul. Anticipating Freud’s central idea of opposing drives causing pressures and releases of psychic energy, Dostoevsky’s writing also conceived of ‘the soul’ as rooted in the unconscious—the exploration of which could lead to healing and transformation.

As an intrepid explorer of the psyche, he unfolded through his characters a vivid picture of how early trauma could lead to adaptive behaviours that were compulsive, reactive, and excessive. Dostoevsky showed how these behaviours represented a running from the terror of emptiness that lay in the depths of an unconscious psychic wound. Corrigan describes these patterns of behaviour as an “extraordinary outwardness” in his characters, with their flight from the rumblings of the unconscious soul leading to the false choice of either fusing with the collective or radically asserting the ego-self.

His characters, from Golyadkin in The Double to Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, the ‘Underground Man’ in Notes from Underground and Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov—demonstrate how their suffering stems from an inability to see beyond the delusions that trap them in cycles of self-destruction. For Dostoevsky the good life was a kind of embodied, reciprocal exchange between self and other, an exchange that served as a foundation for a lived, rather than intellectual grasp of truth.

Nietzsche, in the remainder of his correspondence with Georg Brandes in 1889, ended his discussion of the novelist by saying “He still remains one of those who has afforded the greatest relief to my mind.” The greatest relief, despite all the madness of his characters, their despicable acts, and the twisted realities they create for themselves. Nietzsche’s relief may have been a subconscious recognition of the dormant madness that would eventually erupt and paralyse him a decade later, or perhaps it was the relief of finally being able to open a window to the soul that had appeared jammed.

Whatever it was, there is no doubt that reading Dostoevsky opens a window into the irrational parts of humanity that we often try to brush away. To read him can be harrowing, claustrophobic and maddening—but also consoling in some odd way. Like all great writing it makes us feel less alone by reflecting what we don’t like about ourselves. It points out what we might be on the run from, creating an opening to pause and reflect on how this hurts us. The relief we might experience is the relief in realising that it is not just us who feels and fears our own darkness. The German novelist Thomas Mann said of Dostoevsky’s writing that, “I am filled with reverence…before this prototype of the downtrodden and possessed in whom the saint and the criminal are one.”

In other words, the morbidity, evil and madness within Dostoevsky’s work are not just in ‘the other’. We all have the potential to be criminal or saint and cannot comfort ourselves by clinging to the hope that the darkness and evil we see is only present in others. The relief felt in this realisation is the relief of awareness that we aren’t the only ones who feel the pull of our shadow. It is this awareness that comprises the first steps of our journey toward acceptance and accommodation of these parts of ourselves. Dostoevsky’s writing refracts the spectrum of human experience and in that brilliant awe, wonder and horror, shows us an opening to how we might heal our unconscious soul.

What dooms Dostoevsky’s character’s, what cuts them off from their soul, is what award-winning translator Richard Pevear refers to as ‘inner fixity’. In the foreword to his translation of Notes from Underground, Pevear says:

“The one quality his negative characters share…is inner fixity, a sort of death-in-life…. Inner movement, on the other hand, is always a condition of spiritual good, though it may also be a source of suffering, division, disharmony in this life. What moves may also rise.”

Pevear refers to ‘inner fixity’ as a narrow mindedness, or blinkeredness, resulting in a spiritual death of potential. For the highly rational and deeply divided Ivan from The Brothers Karamazov, this death-in-life is revealed to him in a dream where it is as though he is awake in his sleep. His dream is simply a recreation of his rooms, rooms whose windows and doors are locked to the outside world, but which the devil still manages to enter. His conversation with the devil, who continually points Ivan back to himself, reflecting his old, recycled ideas, symbolises how he has been cut off from an internal source of spiritual sustenance. The desolateness of his dream, the facsimile of his waking consciousness, is a metaphor for how, through repeated repression and suppression, he has been fixed-in-place and cut off from the sustaining richness and creative potential of his unconscious soul.

This fixity is also central to the rantings of the narrator in Notes from Underground, who believes he would be a hero, if only the right moment would present itself:

“This was the point, that I blindly believed then that through some miracle, some external circumstance, all this would suddenly extend, expand; suddenly a horizon of appropriate activity would present itself, beneficent, beautiful, and, above all, quite ready made, and thus I would suddenly step forth under God’s heaven all but on a white horse and wreathed in laurels. A secondary role was incomprehensible to me… Either hero or mud, there was no in between. And that is what ruined me, because in the mud I comforted myself with being a hero.”

The passage illustrates what a psychologist today might call narcissism or a fixed mindset. It represents a retreat into grandiose and delusional fantasy, a fantasy whose carriage is a kind of warped faith. A vision in a vacuum that dissolves on contact with reality and experience. The anti-hero of the novel holds a preference for the perfect conception of himself. A fixed conception that inflates a fear of shattering the fantasy, and so heralds a retreat from life. The abyss between his flawed self-conception and the inconvenience of reality, is filled with a despairing envy and hatred of those he encounters, encounters that shatter the mirror of his intellectual invention. Unwilling to let go and accept the contradictions and hypocrisies that are involved in living, he instead festers like an unplanted seed, his potential growth extinguished by an unwillingness to expose himself experience.

A willingness to expose oneself to life, without losing or dissolving oneself, forms the basis of the riddle for Dostoevsky’s hero Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator describes how Alyosha and many of his generation are so desperate to grasp and participate in ‘the truth’ that they will throw away their future by giving themselves to whatever intoxicating doctrine holds sway at the time. The narrator laments that this desire to sacrifice everything for ‘the truth’, including life, was perhaps the ‘easiest of sacrifices to make’. Easiest, because it didn’t require the grinding courage to live, and instead represented a laying down of personal responsibility.

Alyosha who having abandoned his studies to enter a monastery under the guide of the elder Zosima, does so having been struck by a complete vision providing “a way out for his soul struggling from darkness to light”. This is what we would now refer to, in the words of psychotherapist John Wellwood, as ‘spiritual bypassing’, the desire for a shortcut or ready answer to a spiritual question that can only be answered through lived experience. The narrator’s full lament of this generational attitude is as follows:

“[T]he sacrifice of life is the easiest of all sacrifices in many cases, while to sacrifice, for example five or six years of their ebulliently youthful life to hard, difficult studies, to learning, in order to increase tenfold their strength to serve the very truth and the very deed that they loved and set out to accomplish—such sacrifice is quite often almost beyond the strength of many of them.”

What Dostoevsky saw of his age, and what seems especially so of our own, is that people were far too premature in believing they had found the truth and so sacrificed their future growth by clinging to it. The fixity that resulted, the practiced repression and suppression of the murmurings of the soul, led to whole generations being separated from themselves and then each other—with all the disaster that followed. He saw there were many who would rather give up a difficult freedom for the temporary bliss of becoming a vessel for someone else’s ideas. It is a grasping that is the psychological equivalent of immediate gratification, a renouncing of freedom for more narrow horizons. Really this kind of attitude isn’t about truth at all, but rather a turning away from a difficult but transformative process, and instead embracing ideals like idols, believing them to be the culmination of this process. Truth as understood by Dostoevsky was a process of difficult understanding, not a product of belief or analysis.

In our current era, as the facelessness of social media allows people to simultaneously separate themselves with labels and fuse with movements, we might do well to read Dostoevsky and see how much of who we are today is who we have always been. We cling to beliefs and doctrines as avidly as the atheists, socialists, and monks of his day. We still live as the progeny of the materialistic and utilitarian worldview he warned against 160 years ago. Today we are exhorted to take a growth rather than fixed mindset, something Dostoevsky might have agreed with, but not in the service of trying to get ahead in the rat race. This kind of blinkered, utilitarian approach to life was exactly the kind of attitude that he warned would ultimately leave us disconnected from ourselves and others.

Psychology has come a long way since what Nietzsche observed in 1889. His implied criticism then couldn’t have foreseen how the discipline would evolve and, particularly in the context of therapy, help those suffering in a restrictive society. However, in other ways his comment is just as relevant today as it was then. What Nietzsche intuited through Dostoevsky’s writing was not just that he was painting a landscape of the soul but prophesising about what would happen to a culture losing connection with it.

During a time when our own mental health crises reflect the emptiness emanating from a loss of connection between self and other, Dostoevsky reminds us of those deep soul questions that might reframe our perspective: Who am I? Why am I here? What is life for? How do I live? With whom shall I share my life? Dostoevsky’s writing challenges us to look at the darkness within, and the suffering that spreads from ignoring it; so that we might begin to reconnect with ourselves and others and heal in the process. Whilst we may want to turn away from this view or feel uneasy about the spiritual thread that runs through his stories, engaging with him can remind us how, in the words of Carl Jung, “No tree…can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”


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