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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dostoevsky's Recovery

A while back, the Mystagogy blog featured an article about Fyodor Dostoevsky's recovery from a severe gambling addiction which devoured his fortunes and his relationships:


Dostoevsky's description of his gambling addiction was summarized in his essay, The Gambler.  To this day, it is studied by experts as one of the most accurate portrayals of what this disease feels like for the addict:


As you can see, the various theories have been postulated why a gambler will gamble, either to win or to lose, either symbolically or literally.  But, if you read what's really going on in the story, the gambler is addicted to the 'experience' of gambling.

Dostoevsky's story is powerful because the reader is drawn into the story of the experience.  Addicts are drawn to their addictions not necessarily because of the outcomes (which usually become negative once the will is compromised and the full disease has set in), but rather because the addiction provides a complete escape from all the problems of the addict.

A substance abuser can relates to Dostoevsky's experience because of the great focus the act of the addiction brings: no longer does his mind swirl with his problems and the likely outcomes of his actions, but he becomes enraptured in the moment.  The addict lives for the moment, and his focus becomes very narrow.  Thus, he experiences the 'great escape.'

But, what about the recovery?  Freud, who studied Dostoevsky, really never spoke of it when analyzing his writings.  Then again, Dostoevsky never clearly wrote about it.

From the Prof. David Starr article:

We noted near the beginning that Joseph Frank found it remarkable that Freud, having devoted a substantial article to arguing that Dostoevsky’s vices and particularly his gambling were results of perverse passions induced by childhood trauma, never mentions the recovery from gambling addiction. Though Freud saw the deficient fathers and parricides in his novels as evidence of his thesis, the very novel in progress at the time of Dostoevsky’s deliverance from addiction was Devils, in which a pathetic father, Stepan, found repentance; and a spiritual father, Tikhon, reveals to Stavrogin that he must find his own repentance for his terrible sin against the young girl who committed suicide. Dostoevsky was just finishing the first part of the novel, when he left the gambling tables for the last time. I believe his final effectual repentance caused or was affected by realizing his responsibility for his life and forgiving his father. In The Adolescent the father of Arkady’s flesh is incipiently reformed by illness, and by novel’s end it is possible he may shoulder responsibility to marry Arkady’s mother. We have no certainty Versilov will keep his promise, but we have spiritually authoritative testimony that it is possible. Tikhon, Makar and Zosima in these last great novels attest to a spiritual presence on earth and within the characters’ lives of the Heavenly Father bearing the love of Christ and assisting in the transformation of the novels’ protagonists.

Freud did not think such a spiritual cure realistic, but Dostoevsky proves that it is possible. We have mentioned the words of Father Zosima to Father Fyodor: "Stop lying, most especially to yourself, for that destroys receptivity to truth, which yields contempt, from which inability to love must follow." On Zosima’s account to adhere to truth can yield respect, love and forgiveness. The same realization freed Dostoevsky’s from gambling and made his love for Anna and his children effectual. Did it also enable him to forgive his father? In Crime and Punishment and The Idiot the protagonists’ fathers are simply missing, but in Devils, The Adolescent, and Brothers Karamazov we have poor excuses for fathers who are either repentant or capable of repentance. Dostoevsky had been such a father, and in 1871 finally ceased to resemble his most pathetic characters in this respect. He repented and it seems at the same time learned how to forgive fathers. If Freud is right about any of the elements of his pathology, then its cure must indicate a reversal or removal of the cause.

Even Fyodor Pavlovich has a vestigial soul, and we learn to see him through the forgiving eyes of Alyosha and in the authoritative light of Zosima’s admonitions. We understand Dmitri’s anger and Ivan’s contempt and even find Smerdyakov’s pathetic hatred understandable. Even Dmitri and Ivan finally begin to lose their destructive passions. Is this realistic? It may not be common, but it is real, and Dostoevsky is our witness. There may be a particle of truth in Freud’s aeteological speculation, but there is surely no room in his psychoanalytic theory for Dostoevsky’s kind of therapy; for its basis is excluded from Freud’s supposed causal nexus. Without freedom, how can there be healing? Though Freud knows that the patient must actively participate in his cure, human activity is never distinguished from passion. Freud confines himself to the passions and assigns agency only to physical instinct and its manifestations, yet the mystery Freud recognizes in the creative process of Dostoevsky’s art must refer itself to a greater Mystery, as Dostoevsky finally understood.

He says of Pushkin, that his poetic genius was at most assisted by external stimuli, “...calling forth in him what lay hidden in the depth of his soul, the organic unity of the internal wholeness of which encompassed all the principles of his creative work.” The source of this wholeness is Christ, in whose image we were created, and by whose Incarnation that image is renewed among us and, especially those enlightened by the Gospel and the mystery of the Church. Man without Christ subverts his nature, pretending to be god and making man — gods of or for himself — i.e., persons or the state. Christ the God-man corrects this, enabling men to become god-bearers in the Spirit of loving union with each other, in Him. Such sources of literary activity surely apply to Dostoevsky himself at least as much as Pushkin, of whom he spoke them in the 1880 address and in its defense later the same year — even more, since Dostoevsky’s spiritual struggle seems more evident.

That he understood himself far better than Freud did is attested by the fact that he was cured of gambling and many other ills not by himself, as Frank implies, but by Christ, as Dostoevsky himself understood through repentance and regeneration. That he knew human nature deeply appears in his ability to recognize, as few moderns do, that the generic physiological and socio—economic causes that limit us interact with and are affected by the personal will. Such freedom is not incompatible with causality, since environmental causes affect us differently as we voluntarily change how we relate to them. In the image of the Holy Trinity, man is one in being while existing in distinctly embodied persons, and because human being is prior in the order of creation to other causes, we need not choose between individual moralism and amoral passivity before material causes. Dostoevsky articulates why he subscribes to neither:

"…[T]he people are aware... that they themselves are guilty in common with every criminal. Still, blaming themselves, they do not prove thereby that they believe in 'environment'; on the contrary they believe that environment is wholly dependent on ... their uninterrupted repentance and self-betterment. Energy, work and struggle — these are the things which reform environment. By work and struggle alone, independence and the sentiment of self-respect are being achieved... That is what the Russian people, by a strong feeling, are tacitly conceiving in their concealed idea of the misfortune of the criminal."

He learned from the Orthodox people that co-suffering love is the Way of the God-man. Having embraced the word of Christ and taken His yoke upon them, by His Spirit men have access to His energy. Dostoevsky, having found that access, found empirical theology, and that Truth gave him freedom.

If anyone understood Dostoevsky better than he understood himself, it may have been the authentic healer of souls from whom he sought help after the death of his son Alexei. It seems fitting to give the last word to a real elder who knew him, and on whom he in part modeled his Elder Zosima. Starets Amvrosy of Optina commented after his visit to his hermitage near Kaluga in 1878, “This is a man who repents.”

Dostoevsky found hope in God that led him to return to reality and thus recovery.  Addictions are primarily the escape from reality.  In his writings, Dostoevsky tried to show that man can exist in even the harshest realities and yet still find God there.  Thus, there is hope even for the worst kinds of guilt and remorse.

Freud could not understand Dostoevsky's recovery because he could not grasp the belief that God even exists:

If one wishes to form a true estimate of the full grandeur of religion, one must keep in mind what it undertakes to do for men. It gives them information about the source and origin of the universe, it assures them of protection and final happiness amid the changing vicissitudes of life, and it guides their thoughts and motions by means of precepts which are backed by the whole force of its authority.  - New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires. -  New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

Devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of certain neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one. - The Future of an Illusion

At bottom God is nothing more than an exalted father. - Totem and Taboo


Yet, Freud found no way through his psychoanalysis to achieve what 12 Step groups have been able to accomplish with God.  Freud is now more of an influential historical character rather than a genuine source of knowledge about the human condition.

The truth is that man is far healthier knowing a loving God than he is dwelling in his own ego.  Dostoevsky realized this after seeking help from the Church, and eventually was freed from his disease.  What Freud called a 'neurosis' is actually the cure.

1 comment:

  1. Astounding! I rarely get a chance to read anything so full of truth.

    ReplyDelete