Quickly, think of the face of a person you know. […Thinking?…] I bet the face you recalled had some sort of emotion being expressed. Even if the emotion was very subtle, it was there. It would be difficult for most people to imagine the face of someone they know existing without any emotion or feeling. That is because when we encounter other people we normally encounter them while they are conscious, and conscious people have thoughts and feelings. Even the best poker face is just representing the idea of hiding.
Damasio explains that people look to other people in order to get a sense of what is happening around them. We look at faces with expectation, the way we look at a clock.
If a person suddenly has no emotional reactions, do they then have no feelings? What, really, is a person without feelings? When a person suffers a seizure, specifically a generalized tonic-clonic seizure like the ones experienced by Jean-Christophe and Muishkin, consciousness is lost. The epileptic’s contact is broken with the world in a way that can never naturally be duplicated, besides death. Even sleepers are conscious; just watch the face of someone sleeping (with permission, please.)
Generalized tonic-clonic seizures affect the Default Mode Network (DMN) which has been hypothesized to control self-awareness (among many other functions) (Danielson 56). When a person has a tonic-clonic seizure, consciousness returns in steps. During this process, there is a point where the person may be able to grasp an understanding of “external awareness… responses to external stimuli,” but may not be able to remember or speak his or her own name (Danielson 56). In those moments he knows nothing about himself; he cannot access the parts of him that are him. The person could seem conscious, as he turns in response to pressure from a hand, but this is not true consciousness.
David B. wrote his autobiography in response to the brother he felt he lost. David felt more and more removed from his brother every time Jean-Christophe had a seizure. To explain this loss of a person who was still technically alive, David B. slowly morphed Jean-Christophe into his disease; a disease that lurks lazily and then, without reason, explodes in an ugly fury.
Jean-Christophe’s feelings are never really explained, because David B. is not his brother. The pieces we see of Jean-Christophe show an unsympathetic person who let a disease swallow his life. This is how David B. perceives the situation; it is difficult for someone to read the emotions of someone who so frequently drops into an emotionless land, alone.
Muishkin was not granted a more happy ending than Jean-Christophe, but his plot was arguably more ripe. Dostoevsky also had epilepsy, and using anecdotal evidence gathered from his friends, it seems that Muishkin’s epilepsy was based very closely on what Dostoevsky experienced (Baumann 327-328) Therefore, he was able to see beyond the unconscious epileptic, creating a character that, while still heavily flawed, was not a merely a manifestation of epilepsy.
The other characters were unwilling to let Muishkin forget about his disease, most likely because they found it so strange. A seizure saved Muishkin from being murdered; but his second seizure pushed him away from Aglaya and toward Natasia, resulting in the ruin of nearly every character. For epileptics, seizures are plot devices.
The epileptic character represents much more than just epilepsy.
Through the use of an epileptic character, readers are able to better understand their own feelings about consciousness and unconsciousness, and how those concepts may or may not relate to death. Concepts concerning ‘othering’ are explored, allowing readers to broaden their worldviews. Of course, more is learned about epilepsy, which aids in the understanding of a still-elusive and complicated disease.