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Portraits of Anxiety in Dostoevsky and Dickens

November 10th, 2021 | 13 min read

By Daniel Dorman

E.M. Forster wrote, “it is the function of the novelist to reveal the hidden life at its source.” In Aspects of the Novel, Forester explains that while it is the work of the historian to deal with the external details of character, it is the realm of the novelist to expose the interior life, the hidden life of subjectivity.

As explorations of subjectivity, many novels contain stunningly profound insights into the life of the mind; as novels delve into personal expressions of anxiety and depression they function as in-depth studies of mental illness. Reading great novelists of past ages allows us to take stock of our contemporary understandings of the interior life broadly and of mental illness specifically.

That literary works offer meaningful insights into the nature of human subjectivity, or the ‘psyche’, is the apparent basic assumption of psychoanalytic criticism. Even Sigmund Freud, as he founded the study of modern psychology, was a literary critic. (The failure of Freud and other psychoanalytic critics is their attempt to use literature to support systems of thought which are foriegn to the texts themselves. Instead of learning from the text and growing in their understanding of the psyche, Psychoanalytic critics too often subjugate the text to fit within their worldview and thus they read-in irrelevant conclusions.)

The work of two nineteenth-century novelists, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens, offer discerning psychological insight and prescient philosophical critique. And (rather than expressing a foreshadowing of Freud) their works offer powerful illustrations of a psychology grounded in the moral theology of Thomas Aquinas and the Chrisitan tradition.

Mental Illness and Self-Centered Non-Objectivity

In The Christian Idea of Man, Josef Pieper summarizes Thomistic moral theology and virtue ethics. Within Thomistic virtue ethics, the first of the virtues, the virtue which “gives birth to all moral virtue” is prudence.

As the foundation of all virtues, prudence is the knowledge of reality which makes right living possible. Pieper explains Aquinas’ thought: “The first thing that is required of a person who acts is that he is aware, says Thomas. One who does not know how things really are cannot do good… In Prudence, objective knowledge of reality plays a decisive role for action.”

Pieper writes:

The fundamental attitude that is at one with being and with objectivity, as expressed in the classical doctrine of prudence, was summed up in the medieval period in the wonderfully simple sentence: a man is wise if all things taste to him as they really are. It is, to my mind, an experience of modern psychology — or more precisely, of the modern psychology of healing — that can hardly be taken seriously enough: that a person to whom things do not taste as they are but who in all things tastes only himself — that this person has not only lost the real possibility of justice (and of any kind of moral virtue) but has also lost his mental health; and that the whole category of mental illnesses consists essentially in this self-centred non-objectivity.”

Pieper defines mental illness as ‘self-centered non-objectivity’, a lack of prudence. (According to Pieper one strand of modern psychology, the ‘psychology of healing’, arrives at the same conclusion.)

I do not think Pieper’s use of ‘self-centered’ necessarily carries the connotation of shallow narcissism that it does in modern English (Pieper originally wrote in German). Pieper’s term ‘self-centered’ can be read literally; his definition of mental illness as ‘self-centered non-objectivity’ should be taken as a claim that ‘subjectivism’ (also; constructivism, relativism, emotivism, or perspectivism) is the breeding ground of mental illness. Any system of belief which proposes that reality is relative to our perceptions or our feelings, any action or habit of mind which forces us away from the exterior world and into ourselves is a potential cause of mental illness.[1]

Portraits of ‘Self-Centered Non-Objectivity’ in Dostoyevsky and Dickens

Shakespeare’s Hamlet said that the purpose of ‘playing’ (writing or performing a play) was “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image.” In those words many have found an articulate expression not just of the purpose of ‘playing’ but of literature or art as a whole.

In the writings of Dostoyevsky I found the mirror of an anxious psyche, a detail of previously unrealized patterns of thought which are the often unacknowledged substance of my own struggles with anxiety.

On the first page of Crime and Punishment the main character, Raskolnikov, is described as, “so completely absorbed in himself, and isolated from his fellows that he dreaded meeting… anyone at all.” On the second page he sinks “into deep thought, or more accurately speaking into a complete blankness of mind; he walked along not observing what was about him and not caring to observe it.” Pieper’s description of mental illness as ‘self-centered non-objectivity’ perfectly describes Raskolnikov’s anxious musings.

Raskolnikov progresses from mere anxiety to full neurosis. Dostoyevsky presents a scene between Raskolnikov, an abused teenage girl, a predator, and a policeman. At first Raskolnikov is horrified to see a young girl in an abused and drunken state out on the street, and to perceive a man ready to take advantage of her. He finds a policeman and says: “The chief thing is… to keep her out of this scoundrel’s hands.” But then, “in an instant, a complete revulsion of feeling came over him [Raskolnikov].” Raskolnikov shouts to the police officer, “Let them be! What is it to you? Let her go! Let him amuse himself.” Raskolnikov is ruled by momentary passions, disassociated from reality; he is a picture of ‘self-centered non-objectivity.’

The portrait of Raskolnikov’s illness is extreme but relatable. It is designed to show us the possibilities which lie at the end of unhealthy patterns in our own minds, patterns like the rejection of the company of others, or the tendency to be insensibly lost in one’s thoughts.

Notes from the Underground, a novella by Dostoyevsky published just before the longer Crime and Punishment, presents a similar main character and a similar psychological struggle. Crime and Punishment is written in the third person, portraying the anxious psyche of Raskolnikov from the outside. Notes from the Underground is written in the first person. The depiction of an anxious psyche is thus more explicit and more feverish in the Notes.

The first words of the novella, “I am a sick man” indicate that the novella is an extended portrait of mental illness. The entire work is anxious introspection, a re-telling of a man’s failings in social interactions. That the anonymous main character of the Notes is stricken with self-centered non-objectivity is evident from the final lines of Chapter One in which he sets out his program for the rest of the ‘notes’:

“By the way, what does a decent chap talk about with the greatest possible pleasure?

Answer: about himself.

Very well, so I will talk about myself.”

In both of Dostoyevsky’s main characters pride plays a distinctive role in their alienation from others and their retreat into ‘self-centered non-objectivity’. It is expressed clearly of Raskolnikov: “He seemed to some of his comrades to look down upon them all as children, as though he were superior in development, knowledge and convictions, as though their beliefs and interests were beneath him.”

Without claiming that pride is a necessary ingredient in anxiety or mental illness, I will say (from personal experience) that pride can be a significant factor in mental illness.

The idea that a moral failure (pride) can play a role in the development of mental illness is shocking to the modern mind in part because the whole of modern psychology grew up in the modernist ethos of rejecting objective morality and moral responsibility.

Consider W.H. Auden’s description of psychoanalysis in 1942:

“Psychoanalysis, like all pagan scientia, says: ‘Come, my good man, no wonder you feel guilty. You have a distorting mirror, and that is indeed a very wicked thing to have. But cheer up. For a trifling consideration I shall be delighted to straighten it out for you. There, Look. A perfect image. The evil of distortion is exorcised. Now you have nothing to repent of any longer. Now you are one of the illumined and elect. That will be ten thousand dollars, please.

And immediately come seven devils, and the last state of that man is worse than the first.”[2]

There is a danger in much modern psychology. The danger is that it may provide a high-minded excuse that we make to recuse ourselves from repentance and afford ourselves a quickly fading peace. In so far as modern psychology holds to subjectivist standards of truth and morality it will not ask us to conform any aspect of ourselves with reality; it will not ask for the repentance which may be the necessary condition of our mental health. It may merely affirm the distortion of our often fallen thoughts and feelings, and in that it may affirm our delusion or our sin.

In Dickens’ Great Expectations a portrait of anxiety is thrust upon us within the very first pages of the novel. In these pages the outline of our main character, orphaned Pip, is drawn. The novel begins in a graveyard near a country church, where Pip’s parents and siblings are buried. Pip is “a small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry.”

A recently escaped prisoner comes upon our already horrified Pip. He threatens to cut his throat, and interrogates him for his name and the location of his home:

“The man, after looking at me [Pip] for a moment, turned me upside down and emptied my pockets. There was nothing in them but a piece of bread. When the church came to itself—for he was so sudden and strong that he made it go head over heels before me, and I saw the steeple under my legs—when the church came to itself, I say, I was seated on a high tombstone trembling, while he ate the bread ravenously.”

Pip’s description of the church going ‘head over heels’, where it is plain that he had been turned upside down, is precisely ‘self-centred non-objectivity’. It is an image of reality conforming to our perspective rather than our perspective being informed by reality.

While I have no notion of whether Dickens intended a theological metaphor in that it was a church which became upended by Pip’s relative view, I will say what I think the words on the page could illustrate to the theologically minded reader:

The image of the church going ‘head over heels’ could represent the final loss of orientation to reality as it is, the final subjugation of reality to our subjective experiences. Anxiety, as ‘self-centred non-objectivity’, is the loss of reality or truth, where truth is understood as ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’.

Dickens’ imagery suggests the anxiety of being lost in the singularity of our perspective, of espousing Nietzschean perspectivism, rather than seeking to graft our thoughts into God’s thoughts, rather than seeking objective knowledge.[3]

Mental Illness and Modernity

In Dickens’ novel the personal circumstances of Pip’s anxiety are plain; Pip is a mistreated orphan without the opportunity to develop healthy relationships or feel safe (except perhaps with his Uncle). A retreat into his mind is inevitable.

The societal circumstances which contribute to the mental illness of Dostoyevsky’s characters is more telling. In a footnote on the first page of the Notes, Dostoyevsky says that he is not describing an individual, but a type of individual that:

“Not only may, but must, exist in our society, if we take into consideration the circumstances which led to the formation of our society. It was my intention to bring before our reading public, more conspicuously than is usually done, one of the the characters of our recent past. He is one of the representatives of a generation that is still with us…. This person introduces himself and his views and, as it were, tries to explain those causes which have not only led, but which were bound to lead, to his appearance in our midst.”

There are at least two aspects of the society that Dostoyevsky describes which are external causes of mental illness, one technological and one philosophical.

The capacity to exist in relative anonymity in a large city, made possible by the technological advancement of industrialization, is essential to the development of mental illness for both of Dostoyevsky’s main characters. In both novels we find men failing to participate in the life of a bustling city. The brokenness, even the physical stench, of industrializing St. Petersburg is a recurring theme in both novels.

More significantly, a philosophical shift in our understanding of self-hood occurred during the romantic period and has been influential ever since. Where past ages (i.e. pre-modern or pre-romantic) saw the self as fundamentally defined by an external realities and roles (the religious man or political man), modern peoples increasingly see the self as defined by interiority, by feelings, culminating in the birth of the radically new psychological man.[4]

Dostoyevsky joins the romantics in vilifying the industrialized city as a place of mental unrest, but in a more profound way Dostoyevsky is a critic of romanticism and the psychological man. By portraying characters in the grip of self-centered non-objectivity, stricken with anxiety and neurosis, Dostoyevsky is decrying the dangerous triumph of the psychological man over the religious or political man. Dostoyevsky’s novels demonstrate the pathology that lurks in the presuppositions of much modern philosophy and psychology.

Much like in Dostoyevsky’s day, our mental health is facing the dual threat of rapid technological advancement and the wider acceptance of subjectivist philosophies. If mental illness is ‘self-centered non-objectivity’ then a society which has allowed itself to be absorbed into a disembodied, lonely, and anonymous digital culture is plainly at great risk of mass mental illness.[5] Our emotivist[6] culture which has internalized radically subjectivist ideas (i.e. critical theories) is in graver danger still.

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  1. A hundred ambiguities persist in modern language around mental illness. Modern psychology, infected by materialism, often leaves the complex moral and spiritual aspects of our interior life unconsidered. There is a lack of clarity about what is an issue of the mind and what is an issue of the soul, around what is a moral issue, a spiritual issue, or a physical issue; we are helpless at articulating the complex interactions of these aspects of the human person. Rather than sorting out these ambiguities, the aim of this essay is simply to learn from great novelist’s portraits of mental illness as ‘self-centered non-objectivity’.
  2. Cited in Alan Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943.
  3. I think this theological interpretation of Dickens is valuable and strongly implied by the imagery of the text, even if somewhat eisegetical. If anyone considers that I am committing the error which I accused the psychoanalytic critics of, I will defend myself only by saying that I see a wide gap between assuming that the steeple of a church represents God’s truth as we know it on earth and assuming, as the Freudians likely would, that a steeple is a symbol of genitalia.
  4. For a fuller account of this foundational shift in modern conceptions of the self see Carl R. Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.
  5. A society forced deeper into the loneliness of digital culture through a year of pandemic lockdowns is at greater risk still.
  6. See Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue for a helpful definition of emotivism.

Daniel Dorman

Daniel Dorman is a contributor with Young Voices and the director of communications at a public policy think-tank in Ottawa, Canada. His writing has recently appeared in a variety of publications including the National Review, National Post, and Mere Orthodoxy.