|Self-portrait of Dostoevsky (lower right), with a sketch of an old man, from http://az.lib.ru/d/dostoewskij_f_m/text_0810.shtml|
However, epilepsy was not the only conduit for ecstasy in Dostoevsky's life. During the four years he and Anna Grigorievna spent wandering through Europe (not an extended honeymoon, but a prolonged avoidance of creditors at home in Russia), Dostoevsky found a new ecstatic connection: with the Great Masters. As the Dostoevsky scholar Jacques Catteau admits, Dostoevsky's appreciation of art was neither adventurous nor profound; he was capable of confounding the relatively trivial or unoriginal (Watteau, Battoni) with the timeless (Rembrandt, Titian). However, his most spontaneous admiration was commanded by truly eternal masterpieces: Titian's The Tribute Money and Raphael's The Sistine Madonna. Anna Grigorievna has left us a vivid account of Dostoevsky's enjoyment of these works at the Gemaldegalerie in Dresden : 'Passing by all the other halls, my husband led me up to the Sistine Madonna - a painting which he held to be the highest manifestation of human genius. Subsequently, I was to see how my husband could stand for hours in front of this strikingly beautiful painting, deeply moved and affected'. She added that she had the startling impression that the Madonna was flying upwards from the canvas to greet her visitors. In another account of their first sight of Raphael's painting, Anna Grigorievna wrote: 'What beauty, what innocence and sadness in that divine face, how much humility, how much suffering in those eyes! Fedya finds that her smile is sorrowful' [both passages are my own translation]. (And yes, for the record, she did like those ubiquitous Dresden cupids at the bottom of the painting; Dostoevsky's reaction to them is not known). At the Kunstsammlung in Basel (the city's collection had not yet removed to the present-day Kunstmuseum), Dostoevsky saw Hans Holbein the Younger's image, The Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521), which would affect him differently but equally profoundly.
a great article on this subject in Slavic Review).
In his excellent book on Dostoevsky's aesthetics, Dostoevsky's Quest for Form (1966), Robert Louis Jackson points out that throughout his entire career, Dostoevsky was preoccupied by a search for a consistent aesthetic form - part style, part philosophy, part theme - that would make his literary achievements consistent and unitary. Jackson points out that when Prince Myshkin, in The Idiot, repeatedly apologizes for his lack of form - that is, his failure to speak or think coherently, or behave with the expected suavity of a nobleman - he is expressing Dostoevsky's fear of compromising his own ideas through flawed expression (Jackson, 'Introduction'). Myshkin's epilepsy may therefore not be just an autobiographical echo but an elaborate metonym of narrative incoherence. In The Devils, Stepan Trofimovich's polemic with his increasingly riotous audience is another parable of aesthetic fragmentation: his message is betrayed by the messenger. In contrast, Dostoevsky's use of ekphrasis - the careful reconstruction of artworks within his text - is a reassertion of form. The writer's form emerges in the skill with which the image is described; the message is encoded in the image - a perfect form, because Platonic - and shared by the writer, the reader, and the characters in the narrative. Holbein's dead Christ, described in sadistic detail by the consumptive Ippolit, challenges everyone's faith in God (Ippolit's monologue is a precursor to the Grand Inquisitor parable in The Brothers Karamazov); Raphael's Madonna, flying upwards over her tormentors, eternally supersedes the need for petroleum or boots.
All translations in this post, unless otherwise credited, are by Constance Garnett.
Dostoevsky and the Healing Art: An Essay in Literary and Medical History
Dostoevsky's quest for form: A study of his philosophy of art (Physsardt publications in literature ; 2)