Epileptics and Mysticism

I touched on this briefly in another post, but could not provide the citation. This week, I finally found the source dealing with shamanism and psychopathology: Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Technique of Ecstasy, (Princeton: 1951). Eliade explores the practice of shamanism across a wide range of cultures. Where this practice exists, the shaman is regarded as an elevated figure. According to Eliade, “shamans are of the ‘elect,’ and as such they have access to a region of the sacred inaccessible to other members of the community” (7). The Shaman is considered “the great master of ecstasy” (4), a specialist in the human soul, possessing the ability to communicate with deities as well as the power to heal.

A shaman is recognized through the “call” he receives to his vocation (hereditary transmission also plays a part)*. The nature of this “call” is of particular interest to us: “the future shaman exhibits exceptional traits from his adolescence; he very early becomes nervous and is sometimes even subject to epileptic seizures, which are interpreted as meetings with the gods” (15). For the Altians, “when a young man in a family is subject to epileptic attacks, the Altians are convinced that one of his ancestors was a shaman” (20). For the Kazak Kirgiz, “to succeed in the profession [of shamanism] a predisposition to nervous disorders was essential” (20). “The Batak of Sumatra and other Indonesian peoples prefer to choose sickly or weak subjects for the office of magician. Among the Subanun of Mindanao the perfect magician is usually neurasthenic or at least eccentric” (25). (All of this makes sense in light of the Dolgoff-Kaspar article dealing with the cosmic spirituality of people who have seizures.) In Shamanism, Eliade complicates the relationship between shamanism and psychopathology, arguing that after his training, a shaman will come to exhibit control over his illness (for an epileptic, the seizures will apparently come of his own will).

David B.’s Epileptic sets up a relationship between epilepsy and mysticism, in the descriptions of the traditions and beliefs of the mystics the family visits, as well as in the narrator’s own imaginings. What surprised me, given Eliade’s work, was that the mystic characters themselves did not see the connection. Every mystic approaches Jean-Christophe’s epilepsy as an illness to be cured: none of them see it as a potentially mystical state.

In the previous post, I talked about how the societal view of an illness affects the individual who has it. Epileptic’s Jean-Christophe lives in a world which views epilepsy as a harmful disorder and which teaches him to view himself as a cripple. The perspectives of his family, his friends, onlookers, the doctors, and the mystics affect how he views his own disease: as something unfair, as a curse that prevents him from living in society and connecting with others. He sees himself as powerless, developing an obsession with Hitler. He disconnects from his family, hating them for their inability to cure him.

Speaking of mystical states, William James stresses “how important it is to neglect no part of a phenomenon’s connections, for we make it appear admirable or dreadful according to the context by which we set it off” (332). Similarly, epilepsy may be viewed in two ways: in shamanistic societies, as a gift of communication with the divine, taking the epileptic into an elevated place that the rest of us cannot access; in ours, as a disease. In the epilogue of Epileptic (which, for me, was the most beautiful part of this book) David says to his brother, “when you’d have a seizure I’d get the sense that you were floating off somewhere, that your spirit was leaving. Joining the dead…in hell…in some other dimension” (355).** He sees Jean-Christophe’s epilepsy as an epic quest, a movement towards a destination. The question of “where” Jean-Christophe goes during his seizures is one that haunts his brother and us as readers. It is unfortunate that the mystics in the novel do not concern themselves with it. One wonders how differently this story might have turned out if Jean-Christophe’s epilepsy had been contextualized differently by everyone around him.

* That heredity should be a part of shamanism reminds me of David B. asking his mother if epilepsy is hereditary. The hereditary gift of shamanism may perhaps be linked with the heredity of nervous disorders.

** “feeling of leaving body” is one of the descriptions of numinous-like auras given by Dolgoff-Kaspar, 641

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One thought on “Epileptics and Mysticism

  1. During a seizure I was afraid and asked God to hold me. I was definitely with Him during this and He brought me back

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