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His Jewish Problem

David Goldstein’s Dostoyevsky and the Jews is a valuable study on a subject which cannot help being of interest to any reader of Dostoevsky, and it goes a long way toward lighting up one unhappy aspect of this complex, baffling, and self-contradictory genius.* One may fear, at first sight, that it is the type of book described in the old story about the mythical Academy of Sciences which, offering a prize for a scientific study of the elephant, was mildly astonished to receive an entry entitled: The Elephant and the Jewish Question. But Mr. Goldstein does not unduly inflate the importance of the Jewish Question for Dostoevsky, and he happily makes no attempt to endow it with more significance than it actually has in the body of the novelist’s work.

In fact, Dostoevsky depicted only one Jewish character at any length (Isai Fomich Bumstein in The House of the Dead). The minor figure of Lyamshin in The Possessed, a member of Pyotr Verkhovensky’s revolutionary “five,” is, as Mr. Goldstein demonstrates, probably a converted Jew; but his Jewish traits are so minimal that they have hardly attracted any critical attention. There is also the passing glimpse of the Jewish fireman, incongruously rigged out in an Achilles helmet (Matthew Arnold might have been pleased by this combination of the Hebraic and the Hellenic), before whose disbelieving eyes Svidrigailov shoots himself in Crime and Punishment. Mr. Goldstein’s analysis of this fleeting encounter is the only place in the book where a trace of the elephantine can, perhaps, be detected.

Nonetheless, Mr. Goldstein is perfectly justified in maintaining that a study of Dostoevsky’s relation to the Jews and Judaism is by no means arbitrary or superfluous. Dostoevsky himself felt it necessary publicly to take a stand on “The ‘Jewish Question”’ in his important article with this title in The Diary of a Writer, and he constantly makes passing allusions, invariably uncomplimentary, to Jews and Jewishness in his novels and stories and, most of all, in his Diary. Yet, at the same time, he exchanged frank and courteous letters with at least two Jewish correspondents (one of them serving a prison term for theft) and made efforts to help them personally. Moreover, he vigorously denied that he was a “hater of the Jewish people,” and declared “there has never been such a hatred in my heart.” Clearly, he was preoccupied with this problem himself and raises it in such a way as to justify devoting to it the close scrutiny that Mr. Goldstein has finally provided.

I have now read his book twice and each time have been impressed by the thoroughness of the documentation, the rigor of the analysis, and the scrupulous impartiality that Mr. Goldstein maintains in presenting the evidence. None of the facts is left out so far as my knowledge goes; opposing points of view are invariably given; and Mr. Goldstein always firmly distinguishes between Dostoevsky’s opinions as a polemicist and public figure and his genius as a novelist. All the same, his book adds up to an implacable indictment, and I must confess that it left me both times with an unrelieved feeling of dismay. What this indictment amounts to is well summed up in one passage where Mr. Goldstein describes the course of Dostoevsky’s “thinking on the Jews.”

Initially nothing more than an object of scorn or derision,” he writes, “a peddler, small-time money lender, the Jew was too ridiculous to be really hated. But, by the end of the 1860s, he had become a financier and manipulator, the occult master of the stock exchange and state treasuries dedicated to the destruction of the foundations of Christian civilization. And now [in the 1870s], he had become the nihilist, the driving force behind the revolutionary movement and agent of socialist subversion.” A passage from a letter only partially printed in the Soviet edition of Dostoevsky’s correspondence, but whose full text Mr. Goldstein restores, reveals this final stage of Dostoevsky’s “thinking.” “Odessa, the city of the Yids, is the center of our rampant socialism. In Europe, the very same situation: the Yids are terribly active in the socialist movement…. And understandably so: the Yid has everything to gain from every radical cataclysm and coup d’état because it is he himself, status in statu, that constitutes his own community which is unshakable and only gains from anything that undermines non-Yid society.”

Let me hasten to add, after these disturbing citations, that I would by no means wish to conceal or distort the facts to which Mr. Goldstein calls attention or refuse to look them in the face. Far better to know and accept the truth, however painful, than to struggle at all costs—even at that of intellectual integrity—to preserve a cherished illusion about a cultural idol. Nothing seems to me more ridiculous, if not ignominious, than the perennial efforts of Marxists to refuse to admit the obvious and virulent anti-Semitism of Marx’s own The Jewish Question, which anticipates by thirty years Dostoevsky’s identification of Jews with the lust for gold, merciless usury, and the unscrupulous exploitation of others—and which, moreover, states this identification with much less uneasy equivocation than we find in Dostoevsky. Nothing has been more abject, to take a more recent example, than the linguistic acrobatics of devout Heideggerians trying to deny that Heidegger was an active Nazi sympathizer in the early years of Hitler’s accession to power. Such an attitude smacks of hagiography rather than history and really does no service (quite the contrary) to the cause it seeks to advance.

Those who believe blindly will have continued to believe in any case; those with some critical sense will hardly be persuaded and only will be exasperated by what, at best, can be considered obtuseness and, at worst, outright falsification. No, every admirer of Dostoevsky should be willing to test his or her admiration against the evidence presented by Mr. Goldstein with great force.

As I read and reread his book, I realized that my own discomfort at its conclusions was a result of having to confront such a challenge; and I kept asking myself whether it could really be met. Must one admit that Dostoevsky was bitterly and blindly prejudiced and that all the appeals in his work for Christian love, and sympathy for the oppressed and the suffering, ring false in the light of what seems to be his deep-rooted anti-Semitism? Or is there some other perspective that can be proposed which, without false apologetics, allows us to see Dostoevsky in a slightly more sympathetic light? Some of the mental notes that I made in the course of my reading seemed to me to indicate the possibility of such an alternative, and I should like to sketch these reflections here briefly as a tribute to the stimulus provided by Mr. Goldstein’s treatment of the subject.

Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism, in my opinion, should perhaps not be taken to be as much all of one piece as Mr. Goldstein tends to assume. He never admits the possibility that Dostoevsky might have had conflicting feelings over the issue or been caught up, regarding Jews, in the same sort of inner conflict that we know him to have wrestled with on so many other important matters. Mr. Goldstein inclines to discredit—or to consider unimportant and even deceptive—any trace of ambiguity and uncertainty in Dostoevsky’s attitude toward the Jews and to accept as genuinely felt only those aspects of this attitude that reveal a marked anti-Semitism.

For example, Mr. Goldstein notes himself that Jews were invariably depicted in Russian literature of the nineteenth century, from Pushkin to Chekhov, in the most uncomplimentary fashion and solely as objects of ridicule, contempt, and derision. Dostoevsky follows this tradition, for the most part, in his portrayal of Isai Fomich; but the effect, nonetheless, is not only one of caricature. There are passages characterized by “warmth and goodwill” and “it is with sympathy, if not affection” that Dostoevsky evokes “the blissful countenance of my prison comrade and barracks’ mate, the unforgettable Isai Fomich.” These are Mr. Goldstein’s own words or those he quotes from Dostoevsky’s text; yet he passes over them very rapidly and returns to the other side of the picture (admittedly much more extensive). Still, there is evidence here of something else besides the usual contempt or disdain, and it indicates that Dostoevsky was capable of both reactions at the same time.

Similarly, Dostoevsky’s magazine Time, arguing against the Slavophil Day early in the 1860s, defended an extension of certain legal rights to educated Jews. Why does Mr. Goldstein take for granted that the motive was exclusively tactical, and only so that the journal might appear to have a more “liberal” coloring? Could Dostoevsky, as editor, not have been expressing an honestly held opinion? Certainly, in view of the shading given to Isai Fomich, such a possibility cannot be excluded. And the words used in the article, written either by Dostoevsky or a close collaborator, jibe with some of the novelist’s deepest convictions: “The teachings of peace, love and concord,” the article declares, “should have prompted other thoughts and other words” from the supposed defenders of Christ.

Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitic views become much more pronounced during the 1870s; but even here, and particularly in his sensational article on “The ‘Jewish Question,”’ we can find manifestations of a profoundly ambiguous and divided sensibility. The first two sections, as Mr. Goldstein rightly points out, are a handy compendium of anti-Semitic slurs and slanders, some dating from time immemorial and others slightly more up-to-date (it is very difficult to be original on the Jewish Question). But then, suddenly, the tone changes, and after one particularly vicious passage, Dostoevsky unexpectedly declares: “I am, nevertheless, in favor of full and absolute equality of rights because that is Christ’s law, because that is a Christian principle.”

Even more, the last section of the article, Chapter Three, seems to have been written by a different person. Here Dostoevsky faithfully cites a long letter from one of his Jewish correspondents (a young girl named Sofya Lurye, the daughter of a well-to-do Jewish family in Minsk) who had described to him the funeral of a German Protestant doctor in her community which had been celebrated by Jews and Christians alike. The saintly doctor had come to the aid of everyone who appealed to him for help; he had made no distinctions because of religion; and both communities had joined together in prayer and sorrow over his tomb. This was only an isolated case, Dostoevsky says, but perhaps in this example is the beginning of an answer to the Jewish Question. Dostoevsky thus ends his article, written in his usual impassioned, probing and jabbing manner, with Jews and Christians united in a community of love, stirred by their common reverence and gratitude for the doctor’s memory and forgetting their age-old enmities and resentments.

What are we to make of such a text, which ends up at exactly the opposite ideological pole from which it started? Mr. Goldstein discounts this last section entirely because he is convinced that, by stressing such an individual moral exemplar, Dostoevsky was actually arguing insidiously against demands for legal action on behalf of the Jews; a change of heart in relation to them, he seems to be implying, would really be enough. Certainly this is one inference that may be drawn; but it should also be kept in mind that Dostoevsky took up exactly the same position in relation to advocates of a Russian constitution that would have granted more legal rights to the Russian peasant.

For Dostoevsky, legal rights made no sense unless they were already grounded in the moral feelings of the people; and no matter how extravagant it may seem (but is it really any more extravagant than the Populist doctrines of the Russian Left at this time?), Dostoevsky could only conceive of Russia as a Utopian community of love, not as a constitutional state in the Western legal sense. In the last analysis, as we see, he could not bring himself to exclude the Jews from this community despite all the evident strength of his anti-Semitic prejudices. No more on this question than on any other should the restless, tormented, incredibly volatile Dostoevsky, whose greatest characters so often express the very views he most hated and feared, be reduced to any single or simple point of view.

Dostoevsky was thus unquestionably anti-Semitic, just as he was anti-French, anti-German, anti-English, and, particularly, anti-Polish—indeed, anti-everybody who was not Russian, and Great Russian at that. To tell the truth, he was probably more fiercely anti-Polish than anti-Semitic, and he portrays the Poles much more extensively in his work than he does Jews. He speaks of the Poles who were his fellow prisoners in Siberia much more respectfully than he does of Isai Fomich; they were, after all, educated men, and among the few fellow prisoners with whom he could carry on an intelligent conversation. But he finally ended up by quarreling with them all the same, and he is quoted by a Polish fellow inmate as saying that if he thought he had a drop of Polish blood in his veins he would instantly have himself bled. In The Gambler he portrays various anonymous Poles as crooks, cheats, and swindlers of incredible pretentiousness and vanity, who conceal their mendacities under a thin veneer of gentility and punctilio. The same type of characterization, on a much larger scale, is given to the two Poles in The Brothers Karamazov, one of whom is Grushenka’s ex-lover; they are both shown to be completely despicable and irredeemable scoundrels.

Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism, it seems to me, should be placed in this larger context of a more general xenophobia; and what distinguishes his anti-Semitism from all his other national, ethnic, and religious hatreds is that, here and here alone, he appears to betray a certain sense of guilt. Perhaps in this respect also, as in the case of his novels, it is necessary to invent a new category for Dostoevsky—the category of guilty anti-Semite. In relation to the Jews, I would suggest, he could never reconcile himself inwardly to his own violation of what he knew very well were the commands of the Christ in whom he believed (he may have had doubts about the existence of God, but never about the divinity of Christ), and the contradictions in his anti-Semitism faithfully reflect this struggle within himself. From such a point of view, his anti-Semitism should certainly not be overlooked or excused; but at least it need not be considered ignoble or humanly repugnant. Others (Richard Wagner for one, to select only a single name from a distressingly long list) had felt no such qualms. And one can thus continue to read Dostoevsky’s work, where both guilt and the love ethic of Christ play so large a part, without any gnawing doubt about whether his anti-Semitism does not really turn all this into a fraud and a sham.

These few remarks indicate how I should meet the challenge posed by Mr. Goldstein’s book; but everyone who feels the same need to come to terms with Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism will have to find their own solution. One thing, however, is certain: the place to start from is in Mr. Goldstein’s pages.

  1. *

    This essay will appear in different form as the introduction to Dostoyevsky and the Jews, to be published by the University of Texas Press in December.

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