Dostoevsky and the Jews
To the Editor:
I was very pleased to see the article by Fernanda Eberstadt, “Houses of the Dead” [February], which rightly praised the remarkable book of Gustav Herling, A World Apart. It was interesting to learn that the book was refused by Gallimard in 1956, after having been accepted by Albert Camus, and that probably Louis Aragon and perhaps Jean-Paul Sartre were responsible. But why has the book taken so long to be published in the United States? It appeared, after all, in England in 1951 with a preface by Bertrand Russell. Could it have been blackballed here for the same reasons that barred its publication in France?
Since Miss Eberstadt was kind enough to mention my own writings on Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead in connection with Herling’s book, please allow me to correct a slight error. She speaks of my “third” volume, which does contain an analysis of the book, but then mistakenly gives the title of the second one. The correct title is: Dostoevsky, The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865.
While happy to see Miss Eberstadt advising the readers of COMMENTARY to consult the excellent book of David Goldstein, Dostoevsky and the Jews, her remark that I am “reluctant to give Dostoevsky’s hatreds their due” may create a false impression. I do think that when he wrote The House of the Dead his anti-Semitism was probably less virulent than later in his life. But I also state flatly that “Dostoevsky’s supposedly comic portrait of Isay (the Jewish convict in the camp), whatever its relations to what he [Dostoevsky] may have actually seen, cannot be said to transcend the contemptuous treatment of the Jew prevalent in Russian literature for most of the 19th century. . . .” I add, however, that within this context Dostoevsky is far from being the worst offender.
Fernanda Eberstadt writes:
I thank Joseph Frank for his kind letter and regret having shuffled the subtitles of the second and third volumes of his biography of Dostoevsky.
Mr. Frank raises once again the vexed question of how we must regard Dostoevsky’s caricature of the Jewish convict Isay Bumstein in The House of the Dead. That in this largely autobiographical rendering of his prison years, Dostoevsky should have turned a man whose real-life original was Greek Orthodox into a practicing Jew solely in order to provide occasion for a malicious burlesque of Jewish religious observances suggests, to me at least, a somewhat more active animus than Mr. Frank allows.
Mr. Frank also takes issue with my remark that he has been reluctant to give full due to Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism, which, he stipulates in his letter, was “virulent.” He joins me in praising David I. Goldstein’s “excellent” Dostoevsky and the Jews (University of Texas Press, 1981). As it happens, Mr. Frank wrote the foreword to that work, which is essentially an anthology of Dostoevsky’s references to the Jews in his fiction, journalism, and letters, fleshed out with historical background and with Goldstein’s own judicious and (to quote Mr. Frank’s foreword) “scrupulously impartial” expositions.
It is a foul harvest. As Goldstein reveals, Dostoevsky was indeed an ever more maniacal enemy of the Jews, and his theories, insinuations, invective, and fabrications of “fact” (his specialty was ritual murder and the crucifixion of Christian children) ran the familiar gamut of anti-Semitic hate literature. Most importantly, however, not only Dostoevsky’s journalism but also his novels reek, at times, of his rage against the Jews. And this is Goldstein’s saddest news: that this willed and willful pathology, by no means rare among late 19th-century Russian writers, may have betrayed Dostoevsky in several of his finest novels into violations of the twin tenets of his artistic creed, factual accuracy and psychological truth.
In his foreword to the documents which Goldstein assembles, Mr. Frank offers a response which is strangely disappointing. Dostoevsky could not, he argues, have been an out-and-out anti-Semite, since the novelist exchanged “frank and courteous letters with at least two Jewish correspondents.” Mr. Frank does not tell us, however, that this correspondence consisted of the protests of two Jewish readers to Dostoevsky’s infamous “The Jewish Question” and of Dostoevsky’s replies, which were alternately abusive (accusing one correspondent of bad faith) and dishonest (pretending that the czarist decrees restricting Jewish settlement and travel and barring Jews from educational establishments and the professions were in fact sweetheart laws conferring special privileges and protections denied ordinary Russians).
While deploring “false apologetics,” Mr. Frank maintains in his foreword that Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitic fulminations were by no means so monolithic as the printed record would suggest, but rather should be seen as the “manifestations of a profoundly ambiguous and divided sensibility.” Dostoevsky was anti-Semitic “just as he was anti-French, anti-German, . . . and particularly anti-Polish.” Hence his anti-Semitism “should be placed in this larger context of a more general xenophobia” and—unlike Wagner’s, for instance—“need not be considered ignoble or humanly repugnant.” With the case thus closed, Mr. Frank assures us that we may continue reading Dostoevsky’s novels “without any gnawing doubt.”
In short, I consider amply justified my suggestion that Mr. Frank has been “reluctant to give Dostoevsky’s hatreds their due.”
I hope I am not wrong in discerning in Mr. Frank’s present letter some change of heart on this disturbing issue, and I look forward very much to reading the future volume or volumes of his biography in which he will chronicle the years when both Dostoevsky’s demonic hatreds and his celestial genius came into fullest force.
Whether or not one may still rejoice in the works of this greatest of writers, knowing that they are occasionally disfigured by a mendacious anti-Semitism, is another question. I believe, with some misgivings, that one can. But it does no good to pretend that this most degrading, calculating, and falsifying of world views is in any way comparable with being “anti-French.”