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Title: Dostoevsky and the epileptic mode of being
Author: Fung, Kai Yeung
ISNI:       0000 0004 2718 8883
Awarding Body: University of Manchester
Current Institution: University of Manchester
Date of Award: 2011
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This thesis explores the relationship between Dostoevsky and epilepsy, suggesting that his works can be characterized by a mode of existence which is epileptic by nature. An attack of epilepsy is depicted in two phases: immense anxiety of the outbreak of a seizure; and its sudden attack, during which consciousness completely collapses. I suggest that Dostoevsky's writings can be understood in terms of these two phases: an infinite alternation between the desire to seize upon a critical moment and the impossibility of experiencing it. The thesis examines five of Dostoevsky's post-Siberian novels to illuminate this particular existence, this epileptic mode of being. Chapter 1 looks at Humiliated and Insulted to show that the seemingly selfless pursuit of moral ideals is a form of egoism. Vanya (Ivan Petrovich) sacrifices his personal interests and strictly binds himself to the moral law, incarnating Kantian moral imperatives. Discussing Freud on masochism and Jacques Lacan on Kantian ethics, this chapter shows that philanthropy is a form of idealism which privileges the ascetic ideal and despises the body. The chapter also shows how moral idealism is mocked and suspended under the power of epilepsy. Chapter 2, on Crime and Punishment, demonstrates how Dostoevsky's Petersburg is depicted as enigmatic, even 'epileptic', disconfirming subjectivity. The eclectic style of the city's architecture - specifically St. Isaac's Cathedral - makes the Petersburger disoriented and decentred. Similarly, the chapter demonstrates that the meanings of 'crime' and 'punishment' are pluralized in Raskolnikov's dreams, revealing a splitting of identity. Due to this schizophrenic nature of the urban subject, there can be no single knowledge of why Raskolnikov commits the murder. Chapter 3 explores the split subject in The Idiot. Prince Myshkin wants to reflect on the final moment just before consciousness collapses. He likes to freeze that moment and contemplate the possibility of an afterlife. But this wish is eclipsed by the seizure or, in the case of a guillotine execution, the immediate arrival of death, which continues to create a contradictory existence. Chapter 4 examines Kirilov and his suicide plan in Demons to show that the epileptic has a will to master death: he has a will to the knowledge of death. But paradoxically, death is something ungraspable and cannot be appropriated into the realm of experience. Death as well as epilepsy eludes the self who wants to grasp it. This chapter also discusses Nietzsche on nihilism and Maurice Blanchot's comments on Kirilov's suicide. Chapter 5 suggests a form of 'feminine' epilepsy in The Brothers Karamazov, which I link with the hysterics who suffer from their reminiscences. I show that epilepsy is a moment of rupture of repressed violence. Epilepsy not only disrupts Vanya's moral idealism, Petersburg's pure architectural style, the Prince and Kirilov's wishes for an eternal life, but it also evokes what is repressed beneath these thoughts. This chapter ends with Walter Benjamin's angel of history, showing how the novel unveils a family history which is violent and silenced. The thesis concludes with Blanchot's The Instant of My Death, suggesting that the epileptic mode of being demands the Dostoevsky's heroes to live in infinite postponement, which necessitates a Dostoevskian subject which is infinitely deferred and unfinalized.
Supervisor: Tambling, Jeremy; Tihanov, Galin Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available