Dostoevsky and the Jews.
by David I. Goldstein.
University of Texas Press. 217 pp. $17.50.
An exuberant twenty-three-year-old Fyodor Dostoevsky related in a letter to his brother in 1844 the literary projects he planned to undertake now that he had completed his degree at the St. Petersburg School of Engineering. He wrote that he was contemplating the writing of three plays, Maria Stuart, Boris Godunov, and The Jew Yankel. None was ever completed—the young writer soon turned from drama to fiction—but the three titles foreshadowed interests that would prove to be lifelong and intense: a fascination with Schiller, who had treated the theme of Maria Stuart in his unfinished Demetrius; with Alexander Pushkin, whose Boris Godunov was greatly admired by Dostoevsky; and with Gogol, whose Taras Bulba had introduced the character of Jew Yankel. The Jew Yankel, the only one of the three plays that Dostoevsky apparently began to write, also presaged a preoccupation with Jews more acute than that of any other 19th-century Russian novelist.
This preoccupation was reflected in articles of such ferocity and in fictional characterizations of such coarseness and uncharacteristic lifelessness that most interpreters of Dostoevsky have embarrassedly passed over this feature of his work with little if any notice. This inattention, amounting to something of an embargo, can also be traced to several other factors. Soviet students of Dostoevsky, for instance, found it necessary to suppress references in his unpublished work to sentiments contradicting official Soviet ideology. Furthermore, the inclination of some scholars to view Dostoevsky’s extensive journalistic activities as peripheral to his major concerns resulted in a neglect of the brutal attacks on Jews often found in his articles. In addition, the well-known (but now largely discredited) “polyphonic” theory of M.M. Bakhtin—according to which Dostoevsky’s novels are made up of numerous voices, none of which expresses the view of the author—forced much Dostoevsky scholarship into a rigidly formalist mode that discouraged efforts to examine his views on Jews (or any other issue of substantive concern). Perhaps most important of all, once Dostoevsky came to be seen as the quintessential Russian writer of the 19th century, not a few turn-of-the-century Russian-Jewish intellectuals and others eager for a Russian-Jewish symbiosis found it inopportune to acknowledge the intensity of his antipathy toward Jews.
David I. Goldstein’s book, published originally in French in 1976 and now translated into English by the author, an American scholar, approaches this complex subject with admirable sobriety and rigor. Limiting himself to a meticulous exposition of Dostoevsky’s ideas about Jews as they appear in his novels, articles, and letters, Goldstein avoids the protracted philosophical meanderings that Dostoevsky (through no fault of his own) has frequently inspired in his interpreters. On the whole, Dostoevsky and the Jews is a model of judicious scholarship.
Dostoevsky’s earliest characterizations of Jews were drawn from the repertoire of highly stylized and unfavorable descriptions that served nearly all Russian writers through much of the 19th century, “liberals” like Saltykov-Shchedrin and Chekhov no less than “reactionaries” like Gogol. Already in Dostoevsky’s first feuilletons the term zhidi, the Russian equivalent of “kikes” which Dosteovsky preferred to the neutral evrei, is frequently linked to “moneylenders,” “creditors,” and “slanderers,” and this at a time when it is unlikely that Dostoevsky had ever so much as seen a Jew.
It was in The House of the Dead, a series of sketches published by Dostoevsky in 1860-62 after his liberation from prison and compulsory military service, that he introduced his first Jewish character, the prisoner Isai Fomich Bumstein. Though modeled on a certain Isaac Bumstein, who served a sentence at the Omsk prison at the same time as Dostoevsky, Isai is a familiar amalgam of unflattering yet curiously discordant characteristics. The hapless Bumstein is abused by the author in every conceivable way, described as being at once stupid, shrewd, lazy, tireless, cowardly, and insolent. His physical appearance, his manner of speech, his almost monomaniacal greed, and even the way he showers are the subjects of preposterous caricature. Isai emerges as the only comical figure in a work of otherwise harrowing intensity.
Dostoevsky’s first trip abroad in 1862 was a major turning point in his intellectual and artistic development and in his attitude toward the Jews. He took the trip within a year of the emancipation of Russia’s serfs, an event which Dostoevsky, and nearly all Russia’s intellectuals, applauded, though they sensed that it might lead to a convergence between Russia and the rest of Europe, a prospect which many had come to view with skepticism. Seeing Europe (for which, as he writes, “I had been dreaming . . . in vain for almost forty years”) persuaded the increasingly conservative Dostoevsky that Russia must at all costs resist going the way of the West, with its complacent bourgeoisie utterly indifferent to the misery surrounding it. Drawing on Russia’s immense spiritual resources—still, for the most part, untainted by the decadent materialism that he thought had overwhelmed Europe—Dostoevsky envisioned a Russia that would redeem the world from the despotism of Western liberalism.
But Dostoevsky came to feel that the Russian messianic ideal was challenged by a discredited yet mysteriously obdurate opponent—the Jews. Though they complained incessantly of persecution at the hands of others, the Jews constituted the most potent threat to the triumph of those ideas which Dostoevsky held dear, still intent as they had been since the days of Moses to impose their will on all mankind. The Jews were thus transformed in Dostoevsky’s mind from contemptible to wickedly impregnable figures. He posited a strange Manichean opposition between the Russian-Christian ideal and the Jewish ideal, an opposition which suggests, though Goldstein does not raise this point, an iconoclastic and even heretical interpretation of the traditional Christian view of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.
His preoccupation with the challenge posed by the Jews was vividly reflected in Dostoevsky’s novels. Indeed, Goldstein shows how Dostoevsky’s antipathy toward Jews, and his desire to impute to them the basest of motives, necessitated that he traduce the artistic truth of several sections of his major novels. In a well-known passage in The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, the hysterical Liza Khokhalakova asks Alyosha, the chaste character who serves as Dostoevsky’s emblem of Russia’s spiritual redemption, whether it is true “that at Passover the Yids steal and slaughter children?” Alyosha answers, “I don’t know.” “What demonic force,” asks Goldstein, “incited Dostoevsky to betray Alyosha, the pure, virtuous, the godlike, his Alyosha, who, in other circumstances, responded with a ringing No to the question: would you be willing to build the future happiness of mankind on the tears of a single baby?” As Goldstein writes:
Alyosha’s evasive reply is not justifiable on either human or artistic grounds . . . [and] . . . in betraying Alyosha, Dostoevsky betrayed himself. Driven by a blind hatred against a people, ostracized and execrated in the country of their adoption—the only homeland they knew—Dostoevsky, humanist and Christian, in the twilight of his life, did not shrink from endorsing, with all the authority he commanded as both man and writer, an ignominious myth and odious lie. Thus, he knowingly and willfully incited his people . . . against the “people of the Book.”
What Goldstein’s study does not tell us is the source of this “blind hatred.” Goldstein says nothing, for instance, about the degree to which Dostoevsky’s beliefs may be traced to the profoundly religious training he received in his parents’ home, a training which, as Joseph Frank has demonstrated in Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, explains much about the tenacity of Dostoevsky’s religious attachments. Goldstein also does not explore the impact on Dostoevsky of Western and Central European anti-Semitic ideas (except in the context of his friendship with the arch anti-Semite Pobedonostev), though Dostoevsky’s prophecy of the future spiritual reconciliation of all Aryan peoples in his famous “Pushkin Speech” (1880) suggests at least some influence from those quarters. Nor does Goldstein shed light on the intriguing discrepancy between Dosteovsky’s rapturous odes to the Old Testament and his condemnation of biblical Israel and perhaps even the God of biblical Israel. He tells us only that Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism was, at the most fundamental level, the product of an “innate, almost organic aversion for Jews,” which reflected “a priori feelings of repugnance.” This is no doubt true, but it is not enough.
If these omissions and lapses on Goldstein’s part are regrettable, the one thoroughly disappointing feature of the volume is the foreword by Joseph, Frank, one of the leading experts on Dostoevsky in the United States. Frank writes that Goldstein’s book, which is both “valuable and indispensable,” left him with an “unrelieved sense of dismay” since it added up to “an implacable indictment” of Dostoevsky. Nevertheless he argues that Dostoevsky was less consistent and more tortured on the Jewish Question than Goldstein cares to admit. Frank points in particular to the last section of Dostoevsky’s lengthy article on Jews in “The Diary of a Writer,” where Dostoevsky quotes favorably and with some sympathy from a letter written to him by a young Jewish correspondent and even speaks haltingly of the possibility of some future reconciliation between Christian and Jew. Frank sees this as indicative of a less than monolithic approach to the Jewish Question. Though he admits that Dostoevsky was unquestionably anti-Semitic, he contrasts Dostoevsky’s willingness to entertain one or two isolated exceptions to his general evaluation of the Jews with Richard Wagner’s wholesale, indivisible contempt for the Jewish people.
Yet, as is well known, Wagner too, in his notorious essay “Jewishness in Music,” a sweeping condemnation of the impact of Jews on modern cultural life, made a special exception for the Jewish-born writer Ludwig Börne, a disclaimer which in no way could be said to qualify the general thrust of his essay. Similarly, Goldstein’s study persuasively demonstrates that, despite some apparent equivocations, Dostoevsky’s attitude toward the Jews, at least from the early 1860’s until his death in 1881, was one of overpowering revulsion and fear. Little can be said to exonerate him, and what little Frank does muster is decidedly unconvincing. The reader does indeed put down this study with an “unrelieved sense of dismay,” tempered perhaps by a recognition of the truth of Dostoevsky’s own insight that “the greatest artists could be the worst scoundrels and that there was nothing incompatible between the two.”