Dostoyevsky and Psychoanalysis


By Lida Prypchan

dostoevskyDisciplines outside the scope of medicine, such as literature and art, have powerfully drawn the attention of psychoanalysis.  Artistic creation reflects the artist’s inner world and his unconscious.  So psychoanalysis analyzes the work of an artist, applying the same criteria used to decipher the dreams of a patient.

The artist is, in and of himself, an unusual case, not only worthy of deep study, but he should also trigger admiration in us.  The artist is a different being, whose inner voice requires him to lead a life different from the one led by the common man.  He will suffer and enjoy his torment, that vital imperative that leads him to travel down unusual paths.  On this point, Freud believes that what makes the artist choose paths that are different from those of other people is sublimation; this is what channels the power of his libido along courses different from the usual in order to vent the tensions of their psychic contents.

Freud published a book called “Psychoanalysis of Art” in which he presents the analysis of the work of five artists, who are: Delusion and Dreams in “The Gradiva” by Jensen; “A Childhood Memory” of Leonardo da Vinci; “The Moses” of Michelangelo; A Childhood Memory of Goethe in “Poetry and Truth”; and “Dostoyevsky and Parricide”.

In his book, Freud declares himself to be a layman in matters of art, a layman who feels more attracted by the qualities of the artwork than by its techniques.  He is attracted by them because he feels overpowered by them and what is intriguing to him is that they are beyond his comprehension.

At least he finds an explanation for this fascination, and this is what he calls “the intention of the artist.”  By focusing on the artist, he believes that they are neurotics fleeing from an unsatisfactory reality and taking refuge in a fantasy world from which, unlike the mentally ill, they can find their way back.  For Freud, the sexuality of the artist has a great influence, but he knows to admit that this is not the only source of art and that psychoanalysis has not thrown any light on the technique of art as such.


Freud distinguishes four facets in the rich personality of Dostoyevsky: the poet, the neurotic, the moralist and the sinner.  Of these, the last three are the ones accessible to psychoanalysis as it lays down its arms when faced with the first.

Regarding the first three, Freud studied various aspects of the Russian writer’s life, which are: considering him a criminal, based on his literary production; his Oedipus complex and his desire to kill his father, which dwell deep within him; and the reaction that these desires produce in him: epilepsy, which, in this case, Freud defines as being of the affective type.

At first, Freud is tempted to consider him a criminal, but he encounters great resistance: Dostoyevsky harbors, unlike a criminal, a huge capacity for love and a great need for love; he is an extremely kind and humane man, even in circumstances in which he should feel hatred and revenge.  What moves Freud to think of Dostoyevsky as a criminal is his choice of literary topics, in which he prefers selfish, violent and murdering characters, as well as some real events from his life, one of which was having sexually abused a prepubescent girl.  His instinct for destruction appears as oriented in his life against himself, and creates a huge guilt complex in him.

Dostoyevsky’s case is complicated by the presence of his neurosis.  Freud found that this is the basis of his epilepsy.  Dostoyevsky uses epilepsy as a means to redeem his parricidal desires.  This man, Dostoyevsky, is bisexual – according to this study – with an Oedipus complex.  Faced with this problem, two alternatives are proposed: kill the father in order to possess the mother, or play the female role in order to win over the father.  But they both lead to the same dead end, which is the punishment he would receive were he to be discovered: castration.  These desires create a guilt complex in him that manifests itself in his epileptic seizures, during which he felt a state similar to death.  This is what Freud deduces, basing himself inter alia on a peculiar fact: his attacks began in real life beginning at age 18, after the murder of his father.

Here the aforementioned parricide is shown.  Two brothers: one of them commits the crime, and it is precisely this one that Dostoyevsky attributes his illness to, as if to admit that the neurotic and epileptic person in him was parricidal.

This great work continues with the report to the courts and in it, the famous mockery of Psychology, which is nothing but a cover-up of Dostoyevsky’s true intentions. His mockery is aimed at the courts!  He cannot be mocking Psychology as this is only important to the person who deeply desired the crime.

Dostoyevsky’s sympathy with the offender goes far beyond compassion. For him, the criminal is like a savior: he takes upon himself the burden that otherwise others would have had to bear.  Moreover, one should be grateful to him since if he had not done it, one would have had to.

In short, Freud opines: “There is identification on the basis of identical murderous impulses.”

It is beyond doubt, Freud is telling us, that his choice of literary topics was based on this identification and he used it to bequeath us his poetic confession.


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