Conversation 6: ‘The Jewish Question’. Episode 2

After reading this, I have to say I felt fairly disillusioned with Dostoevsky for a couple of days. On the one hand I wished he’d turn up and explain himself. On the other hand, I was quite glad he didn’t. It might be the end of a beautiful relationship. I even wondered about giving the seminar a miss, but I felt that would be rather shameful. Even if my hero had feet of clay, it was better to know the truth. Anyway, for all I knew the speaker was going to show that there was some more positive side to the picture, though the mention of the Third Reich wasn’t very promising. So, with a sense of foreboding, I went.

            The room where the seminar was being held looked out over Professor’s Square, a range of grey Victorian buildings in the Scottish baronial style. Splashes of yellow from the first daffodils were appearing in the raised grass plot in the middle of the square and a couple of trees were coming into flower. Spring was in the air.

            There were about a dozen people there, sitting round a long table that filled most of the room. Carl was the only one I knew. We arrived at more or less the same time and sat together. Only two or three of those attending looked like students and the rest were fairly middle-aged, probably academics or maybe mature students. It was a bit different from the mix in our own department. The speaker sat at the end of the table and was concentrating on his laptop screen while exchanging small talk with the chair, a suited and very respectable looking young man. I guessed that Greenhill-Jones must have been about forty, perhaps younger. He had a shaven head and large black-rimmed glasses and wore a blouson leather jacket. He looked very serious, even ‘earnest’. 

            The chair told us that Greenhill-Jones was applying for a major grant on Literature and the Conservative Revolution 1919-1939, which, again, didn’t obviously connect with Dostoevsky. Unfortunately, he didn’t make a lot of effort to engage with the audience but read his paper from his laptop with very little variation in tone or inflection, only occasionally looking up to scan the room, perhaps to make sure we were still paying attention. Well, this was the way people were doing things now. I didn’t like it a lot, but I suppose I was used to it. And it saved paper.

            I made fairly extensive notes, but I’m not going to try to reproduce his whole paper here, just to go through the main points. It’s now available online for anyone who’s interested in reading more (at least, it was at the time of writing). Even in summary, it’s probably too academic for most, but then it is just that—academic! 

            The speaker started out by explaining that he was going to set out three ways in which Dostoevsky had made an important contribution to the rise of National Socialist ideology: firstly, by developing a forceful anti-bourgeois and anti-Western rhetoric; secondly, by undermining the ethical credentials of democratic politics; and, thirdly, by portraying the Jews as the main causes of the malaise of modern society. He would illustrate this from both Dostoevsky’s publicist writings (he meant The Diary of a Writer) and his novels. 

            You can’t say we weren’t warned.

            The paper began with a discussion of the German translations of Dostoevsky’s works. Unlike in the English-speaking world, what the translators called his ‘political writings’ were translated fairly early on, in 1922, and had a big impact on right-wing thinkers. The Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger was only one of those who praised them. One of the editors actually wrote a book called The Third Reich that did a lot to inspire the Nazis. At that time (Greenhill-Jones explained) many Germans were fascinated by what they saw as the extremism of Russian society, swinging from the extreme of Tsarist autocracy to that of Bolshevism: from the complete submission of the people to one man to the complete submission of the people to one party—and Dostoevsky was seen as the essential spokesman for this Russian extremism.

            Like Karl Marx, Dostoevsky accused capitalism of bringing about an endless struggle for the survival of the economically fittest, a struggle that undermined social cohesion and left individuals to sink or swim for themselves. A kind of war of all against all. It’s true that this was something he and I had touched on several times, but (which he hadn’t mentioned to me) Dostoevsky apparently believed that this capitalist revolution was, essentially, a Jewish revolution. In his view, Jews had no loyalties to the wider society to hold them back from single-mindedly pursuing profit, whatever the social cost. When they saw the peasants socially uprooted after emancipation, they didn’t pity them but set about ruthlessly exploiting them. (This fitted in with what he’d written about Lithuania.)

            Then, Greenhill-Jones went on, Dostoevsky’s idea of the unity between Tsar and people provided a model for the totalitarian state. This was a bit more complicated than blaming the Jews for capitalism and seemed also to involve the idea that his writings showed a strange symbiosis between religious mysticism and terrorism. Alyosha Karamazov was an example of this. Although the novel shows him as a saintly young man trying to reconcile his brothers and make peace amongst some squabbling schoolboys, Dostoevsky’s notes show that he would later become a terrorist and be executed. He thought this development was entirely logical. 

            I didn’t really agree with that, not least since Fyodor Mikhailovich and I had touched on how his characters are always evolving in ways that makes it nearly impossible to predict what’s going to happen next. The truth is we just don’t know what Dostoevsky would have done with Alyosha if he’d lived to write the next chapter. What we do know is that nearly all his novels changed radically in the course of being written, so whatever he ended up writing might have been quite the opposite of what he mentioned to his friends. Who knows? But if I didn’t agree with that point, I had difficulty even following the next one.

            The argument was along the lines that the Nazis took the idea of the exceptional or superior man, from Dostoevsky. This superior man was someone who was not bound by legal or moral codes, an idea developed by Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Such a man was entitled to transgress every social boundary for the sake of his higher idea, like (Raskolnikov thought) Napoleon, Caesar, or Mohammed. He would even have the right to shed blood for his idea. Given Dostoevsky’s analysis of the effects of capitalism, the emergence of such characters in the modern age was actually quite predictable. From here, Greenhill-Jones said, there was a more or less straight line to the dictator-idea that Mussolini and Hitler would seek to embody, though he also mentioned Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch as pointing in the same direction. But here was the twist: such a dictatorship (it seemed) would bring us back to the kind of relation between Tsar and people that Dostoevsky so admired. Unlike in bourgeois democracies, with their endless disagreements and debates, leader and people would be one—only this time their unity would not be based on culture or tradition but on the will of the leader.

            This seemed rather peculiar to me. I could understand the Tsar-and-his-people idea and I could understand the Raskolnikov-as-prototype-of-the-dictator idea but they seemed to me to be two completely different things—quite apart from the fact that Dostoevsky never endorsed Raskolnikov’s ideas. In fact, the whole point was to show that they were essentially wrong-headed—or so I’d always thought. 

            Finally—and I suppose I’ve been putting off getting round to this bit—there was how he depicted the Jews. Of course, he went through the passages from The Diary of a Writer I’ve already mentioned, which left me feeling rather weak, but then he turned to the novels.

            “A lot of commentators,” he said, “especially Christian commentators” (he looked round the room at the assembled theologians who were, presumably, mostly Christian) “like to draw a line between Dostoevsky the publicist and Dostoevsky the novelist. There is no such line when it comes to the Jews. Dostoevsky’s Anti-Semitism is just as obvious on the pages of his novels as it is in The Diary of a Writer. We do not have time to go through every example and I shall limit myself today to some of the most egregious and characteristic.”

            So, which were they going to be? I couldn’t immediately think of any examples, but my ignorance was soon vanquished.

            He brushed aside the passages where one or other character makes an Anti-Semitic remark. That, he conceded, could be down to the novelist portraying people as they actually were, with their real-life prejudices. But that was only the tip of the iceberg.

            He began with the character of Isay Fomich Bumstein, a Jewish prisoner—the sole Jewish prisoner—in the prison novel-memoir The House of the Dead. This, he said, was the epitome of an Anti-Semitic caricature of the Jew. Isay Fomich was described as physically scrawny (Dostoevsky said he looked like a chicken), he was a coward, a money-lender, and his prayers were said to involve bizarre and almost inhuman screeching and wailing. He is described as vain and boastful and, because of being Jewish, gets special privileges, being allowed to attend the synagogue in town and paying to get himself whipped with birch-rods, Russian-style, in the steam bath—which Dostoevsky’s narrator incidentally says was a picture of hell itself. The obvious inference was that Isay Fomitch was the most hellish apparition in all of hell. (I didn’t remember the narrator quite saying that and made a mental note to look it up later.)

            From there on, it seemed that there was at least one Anti-Semitic passage in just about every one of the major novels—Crime and PunishmentThe IdiotThe Possessed, and A Raw Youth all got a mention. Whenever a Jew appeared, he was either a coward or a capitalist. 

            Finally, he came to The Brothers Karamazov. Admittedly, there are no Jewish characters here, but, he pointed out, Dostoevsky makes a point of saying how, at a crucial moment in old man Karamazov’s life, he’d gone away to Odessa, where he associated with many Jews. “It may be presumed that at this period he developed a peculiar faculty for making and hoarding money,” comments the narrator. But, as Greenhill-Jones added (and it was hard not to agree), this wasn’t just a more or less accidental character trait, since it was precisely old man Karamazov’s love of money that started off the whole series of catastrophic events that end with his murder. And it wasn’t just making money that he learned from the Jews. When he came back from Odessa, the narrator says, “He behaved not exactly with more dignity but with more effrontery”—again a supposedly Jewish trait that Dostoevsky mentions in The Diary of a Writer.  We are told that “his depravity with women was not simply what it used to be, but even more revolting”, probably alluding to the supposed sexual voraciousness of the Jew. Along with his love of money, this habitual insolence and unrestrained sexual desire also contribute to the tragedy to come. In these ways, and despite being technically a gentile, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov’s ‘Jewish’ characteristics are what cause the disaster that unfolds in the eight hundred pages that follow. If not Jews themselves, Jewishness is at the root of the whole catastrophe.

            In a final twist he added that one character, Liza, a highly neurotic adolescent, actually replays myths about Jews crucifying Christian children. It couldn’t really get worse—except that when she asks saintly Alyosha if it’s true he merely says he doesn’t know rather than telling her to stop.

            Going back to where he had started, Greenhill-Jones concluded that, for Dostoevsky, the catastrophe of the Karamazov family is a microcosm of Russia itself and Dostoevsky’s solution is that Russia must find its own superior man, a leader whose mystical sense of union with God empowers him to recreate a modern version of the ‘synthetic’ state in which all barriers between leader and people have been dissolved and who is ready to tear up all existing laws and conventions in order to attain this goal.

            “The conclusion then is unavoidable,” he finished up, “Dostoevsky was not only an Anti-Semite but one of the thinkers who provided the essential materials for the emergence of the Hitlerian state.”

            I was fairly sure that this wasn’t really a fair representation of Dostoevsky’s thinking since, as I said, all the ‘superior man’ type characters turn out to be flawed and, as he’d explained to me, their apparent ‘superiority’ is often the manifestation of their inferiority complex. But what were other people—what were these theologians—going to make of all this?

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