Dostoyevsky and the Epileptic Prince

Prince, the artist and musician had the Sacred Disease as a child.  So too did Dostoyevsky and his character the Prince in his classic novel The Idiot.

When the young (purple) Prince was Seven he told his mother that he had been visited by an Angel and he had been cured of his seizures.

“I’ve never spoken about this before but I was born epileptic. I used to have seizures when I was young. My mother and father didn’t know what to do or how to handle it but they did the best they could with what little they had…My mother told me one day I walked in to her and said, ‘Mom, I’m not going to be sick anymore,’ and she said ‘Why?’ and I said ‘Because an angel told me so.’ Now, I don’t remember saying it, that’s just what she told me…From that point on, I’ve been having to deal with a lot of things, getting teased a lot in school,” he said. “And early in my career I tried to compensate by being as flashy as I could and as noisy as I could.”  Prince interviewed by Travis Smiley

His Song for Victor seemingly makes allusion to his childhood epilepsy, Victor being perhaps less of an alter ego and more a personal state of triumph over struggle.

Song for Victor
I was born on a blood stained table

Cord wrapped around my neck
Epileptic ’til the age of seven
I was sure Heaven marked the deck (We sacrifice)

…Lord, I might get tired But I, I’ve got to keep on (We sacrifice)
Walkin’ down this road (We sacrifice) 

Keep on walkin’ down this road (Joy around the corner)
When I reach my destination (We sacrifice)
My name will be, Victor.  Amen.

My long term fascinations with epilepsy ( a disease symbolised internationally by the colour purple – see as an artist growing up with a father with Complex Partial Seizures has sparked a lifelong curiousity about the relationship between creativity, spirituality and altered states of consciousness.

So often there is something nebulous and otherworldly about those artists with epilepsy and/or mental illness that compels them into deep and passionate explorations of symbolism, mysticism, sexuality and spirituality.

“…he remembered that during his epileptic fits, or rather immediately preceding them, he always experienced a moment or two when his whole heart and mind and body seemed to wake up to vigor and light, when he became filled with joy and hope and all his anxieties seemed to be swept away forever. these moments were but presentments, as it were, of the one final second–it was never more than a second–in which the fit came upon him. that second, of course, was inexpressible. when the attack was over, and the prince reflected on his symptoms, he used to say to himself, ‘these moments, short as they are, when i feel such extreme consciousness of myself and consequently more of life than of other times, are due only to the disease–to the sudden rupture of normal conditions. therefore, they are not really a higher kind of life but a lower.’ this reasoning seemed to end, however, in a paradox and lead to the further consideration, ‘what matter though it be only disease,–an abnormal tension of the brain–if when i recall in to analyze the moment, it seems to have been one of harmony and beauty in the highest degree–an instant of deepest sensation overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life.'” Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s  “The Idiot”

There is an illuminating article from 2012 on The Higher Meaning Behind Prince’s Love Symbol by Gabriela Jimenez which looks into the seminal symbolism inherent in an early ‘visionary-esque’ cover artwork that would later evolve in to Prince’s iconic Love Symbol.  Intriguingly Jimenez notes:

“…In the same P where a mane suggests Prince’s masculinity, the Love Symbol began its genesis, making its first appearance with its first configuration. The widely used emblems for peace (☮), femininity (♀) and masculinity (♂) emanate separately from a sun. After traveling through the letters spelling Prince, the three icons return as one, O(+>, following the phallic 1 at the bottom of the 9, as if the product of ejaculation. The melding of the three convolutes gender by implying that multiple can exist in one entity—simultaneously and without much turbulence. In that way, the Love Symbol cruise-controls on sexual ambiguity. 1999’s cover shares paradigm-altering eccentricities with artists from a former time and space.”

Undoubtably, the androgyny, sexual union, sigils and solar imagery throw us into that deeply archetypal territory that is the realm of visionary art with it’s alchemic undercurrents and close links to mystic experience.  Jimenez even links Prince’s symbolic expression to that of the Dadaist’s with that most delicious of Greek words  ‘syzygy’  – a concept Jung used to describe balanced sexual unification of masculine and feminine that was originally used in relation to the alignment of celestial bodies and male-female pairing of spiritual emanations in Gnosticism.  If you are thinking this sounds a lot like esoteric Bowie territory, you would be right. And perhaps unsurprisingly, Bowie too had close genetic proximity to epilepsy, as a young boy watching his half-brother suffer violent seizures and hallucinations, together with as a strong family history of psychosis.

Bowie famously was another artist fascinated with the androgyne, sexuality and spirituality who swam deeply in the waters of liminality and symbolism, his work oozing with imagery of angels light and dark.   But if at the end of Bowie’s life his creative expression around spirituality was cryptic and ambiguous, Prince was more cautionary. You know there are bad angels as well as good angels.” he observed in 2010 discussing his serious commitment to his Jehovah’s Witness’ faith in later life that incredibly also included the JW staple of door-knocking neighbourhoods to share his belief.

So today, as the world faces the death of yet another iconic pop cultural figure in 2016, I can’t help but think of all the visionary artists and mystics who struggled with epilepsy and mental illness,  forever wrestling angels good and bad.

“…suddenly in the midst of sadness, spiritual darkness and oppression, there seemed at moments a flash of light in his brain, and with extraordinary impetus, all of his vital forces suddenly began working at their highest tension. His mind and heart were flooded with extraordinary light. All his uneasiness, all his doubts, all of his anxieties were relieved at once. But at this moment these flashes were only the prelude of the final second with which the fit began.” Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot.

Which brings me to Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division and his profoundly intense struggle with epilepsy and depression which ended his life reminding us that for all the poetic insight, the disease can be very difficult to live with, taking an enormous toll on the sufferer.  When Curtis committed suicide, Iggy Pop’s vinyl record The Idiot, produced by Bowie, was found playing on the stereo. The title of Pop’s album The Idiot was inspired by  Dostoyevsky’s story of the  spiritually sensitive Epileptic Prince who by the end of the novel, was driven mad by the tragic and violent society in which he lived.

“Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life
Electric word life
It means forever and that’s a mighty long time
But I’m here to tell you
There’s something else
The after world
A world of never ending happiness
You can always see the sun, day or night
So when you call up that shrink in Beverly Hills
You know the one, Dr. Everything’ll Be Alright
Instead of asking him how much of your time is left
Ask him how much of your mind, baby
‘Cause in this life
Things are much harder than in the after world
In this life
You’re on your own
And if the elevator tries to bring you down
Go crazy, punch a higher floor”
(Lets Go Crazy – Prince)

Today Prince, the young epileptic boy visited by angels, driven throughout his life by  passion for sexuality, spirituality and music was found dead in an elevator, something he used as a very powerful spiritual metaphor.   Ironically today is also Iggy Pop’s 69th Birthday,  one of the last of the old rock guard standing.

Vale to the Epileptic Princes who swim in liminal waters of the sensual, sublime and the subterranean.

Don’t let the elevator bring you down.  Go Crazy and Punch that Higher Floor.

Hans Holbien’s painting “Christ’s Body in the Tomb”an image that deeply impacted Dostoevsky and had a profound influence upon his novel The Idiot.

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