Christian writers have talked about mental illness in lots of different ways, but few have explored it as thoroughly as Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He doesn’t put modern labels on his characters, but what I like about his books is that he explores the ways that mental illness impacts people without judging them. When he created the simple-minded epileptic Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, for example, Dostoyevsky said that he was describing “the positively good and beautiful man.” The literary critic George Steiner wrote of Dostoyevsky’s characters that “the destitute, the infirm, and the epileptic have important advantages: through their material nakedness and in their seizures they suffer totalities of perception which rend apart the obscuring armour of sensuality and normal health.” Illness is not a good thing though. Alexei Ivanovich’s addiction destroys him and his loved ones in The Gambler, and in The Possessed Stepan Trofimovich’s obsessions and paranoia wreck havoc in the lives of everyone he encounters. Whether or not these people are “mentally ill” is debatable, but Dostoyevsky clearly thinks that there is something wrong with them, however one might classify it. Sometimes people bring illness upon themselves, as Raskolnikov does in Crime and Punishment, but more often it seems to be a innate part of who they are. Dotoyevsky implies that while people are more than their weaknesses, they cannot be imagined apart from the sicknesses that infect their minds.
In Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevsky introduces us to a character who is overwhelmed by anxiety. He says, “I am a sick man. . . . I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.” Like many people who suffer from anxiety, he doesn’t understand what is wrong with him and his symptoms are both too vague and too embarrassing to see a doctor about. He says, “I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors.” The Underground Man describes himself as a proud misanthrope who despises other people and is totally irresponsible: “What I’m for is whim, and I want the right to use it whenever I want to.” As the novel progresses, however, we discover that he is actually extremely worried about what other people think of him: “if only they knew what thought and feeling I’m capable of and how sensitive and complex I am!” He becomes upset at an officer over a trifle and resolves to confront him over it, only to find that he is unable to do anything that he plans. “Perhaps I was the only one in the office who fancied that I was a coward and a slave,” he writes, “and I fancied it just because I was more highly developed. But it was not only that I fancied it, it really was so. I was a coward and a slave.”
The Underground Man is terrified of many things, but above all he has a phobia of other people: “I have all my life, as it were, turned my eyes away and never could look people straight in the face.” He worries that people might despise him, but worse than this is the fear that other people might not notice him. He flies into a rage when his colleagues plan a meeting and forget to tell him that they changed the time. His anger comes from the fact that this is precisely what he had been obsessing over for months. Nothing really bad ever actually happens to him, but his social anxiety is crippling: “My wretched passions were acute, smarting, from my continual, sickly irritability I had hysterical impulses, with tears and convulsions.” The worst of it is that when someone does understand, and reaches out to him, loving him, he throws her proffered salvation away because he has “lost the habit of living,” having come to believe that “loving means bullying and dominating.” Acting out of his own pain makes him hurt people around him. Moreover, he feels like he will never get better. He worries constantly that “it could not be otherwise; that there was no escape for you; that you never could become a different man; that even if time and faith were still left you to change into something different you would most likely not wish to change; or if you did wish to, even then you would do nothing; because perhaps in reality there was nothing for you to change into.”
Anxiety disorders differ greatly from person to person, and Dostoyevsky gives us a nuanced picture of what it looks like for this one individual. Above all, he has taken the time to appreciate the Underground Man as a person. Even if no-one else does, Dostoyevsky truly understands “what thought and feeling” he is capable of and “how sensitive and complex” he is. What he sees isn’t always beautiful, but this causes the novelist to draw closer to his character and to penetrate his secrets ever more deeply rather than to abandon him to his fate. No-one is perfect in Dostoyevsky’s novels, and the impression we get is not that some people are sick and others well, but that there are some people we know well enough to know their demons and others who are strangers. For people who suffer from mental illness, Dostoyevsky’s message is that we cannot save ourselves. The Underground Man defies the limits of his reason and demands to be able to do the impossible, but he can’t. He is too weak, his thoughts and feelings are not reliable, and so long as he looks only to himself for salvation he remains trapped within his anxiety. Healing oneself is harder than it looks. Only God can do the impossible.