Making Art at the Painful Margins

Laurie Sheck in The Atlantic:

PillowWorldlessness, Hannah Arendt calls it—this state of radical isolation and loneliness that is so often a condition of the ill, the feared, the shunned, the stateless, the despised, the misunderstood, the powerless, the afflicted. What is taken away is a shared language, a sense of trust in being seen, the stability of genuine connection. As far back as childhood, long before I ever came across this word, I sought from books a way of drawing close to this realm of feeling. I wasn’t looking for consolation, much less explanation, but for the complex, textured presence of the uncomforted, the rawly vulnerable, the disrupted—hurt bodies and minds that in their radiance and affliction might lead me, as the jolt of illness sometimes does, toward a less protected, more open questioning. To love these hurt minds and bodies is a way of touching, however lightly, the unknowable, hurt world— and of struggling, as much as possible, to feel its ungovernable reality. This world of feeling is brought searingly to life in Dostoyevsky’s great novel The Idiot, a book that manages like no other to plunge fearlessly into suffering while at the same time illuminating the enduring, almost unspeakable beauty of the human. It opens with a young, epileptic man, Prince Myshkin, returning to St. Petersburg after years away for treatment in a sanitarium in Switzerland. The train windows are covered with fog—already there is an indication of the limits of human seeing.

This initial scene, with the frail, displaced stranger returning home to a city in many ways now unfamiliar, haunts and informs the entire book. Every aspect of the novel, even its structure, conveys a sense of precariousness and instability much like the epilepsy that alternately tightens and loosens its grip on Prince Myshkin but never lets go. It is his body’s truth, this thrashing and upheaval he experiences in his deepest being and can never fully decode. His illness instills in him an intuitive awareness of others’ suffering, and a certain apartness anchored in shame and a built-in mistrust of stability.

More here.