Conversation 6: ‘The Jewish Question’. Episode 3.

When the speaker had finished, the chair (who declared at the outset that he’d never read any Dostoevsky) asked for questions or comments. There was the customary silence. I was even starting to wonder whether anyone else was going to say anything—I had several comments lined up but this wasn’t my home turf, so to speak, and it didn’t seem right for me to go first.

            The silence was eventually broken by an older colleague, maybe retired, who’d been sitting at the far end of the room from the speaker. He’d spent a lot of the time looking out of the window and occasionally checking his phone, and I’d wondered whether he’d been listening at all or whether, perhaps, he was only there out of duty.  

            He lifted his hand in a rather languid way.    

            “Professor Allan,” said the chair, clearly relieved that things were getting underway.

            “Thank you,” Professor Allan said, “and thank you to the speaker for a very thorough if rather depressing paper.” He spoke with the kind of slightly supercilious drawl that I associated with the more self-consciously upper middle-class suburbs of Edinburgh. “I dare say that a lot of what you argue is correct, but surely the point is that at that time nearly everyone in Europe was Anti-Semitic. You make a lot of Dostoevsky characterizing Jews in terms of their being ruthlessly acquisitive, cultivating a state within the state, and so on and so forth. But these are all standard tropes that Dostoevsky shared with all his contemporaries. What makes him worse than any of the rest?”

            Almost without pausing to think, the speaker answered in a slightly irritable tone, as if this was the sort of question only a fool would ask. Perhaps he also felt he was being talked down to by the older man.

            “Well, that’s obvious,” he said. “But I don’t see that it makes it any better and the fact is that there were a great many writers, philosophers, and social reformers who were developing a much more positive approach to Jews and Judaism. Think of George Eliot. And, as I tried to emphasize, my paper wasn’t just about Dostoevsky but about the impact—the deleterious impact—that his ideas had on the first generation of his German readers.”

            “But an author can’t be responsible for his readers,” replied Professor Allan dismissively. “And if we’re talking about the Nazis, then they were exceptionally unscrupulous readers who tried to enlist all the important figures of Western culture into their cause—Shakespeare, Bach, even Jesus. They claimed them all. So the fact that some Nazis also liked Dostoevsky doesn’t really prove anything.”

            Prof Greenhill-Jones shrugged.

            “Maybe not,” he smiled, rather grimly, “but he gave it to them on a plate.”

            Uncomfortable silence.

            “Next question?”

            I was working hard on formulating my thoughts, when, slightly to my surprise, Carl (who’d acknowledged not being very knowledgeable about Dostoevsky) chipped in.

            “Hi, Peter,” he began. “I don’t have any objections to the main thrust of your paper,” he continued, “but perhaps relating to the last comment about how Dostoevsky was being so badly misread in the 1920s, I do think many of these readers were projecting back into Dostoevsky ideas that were, basically, everywhere in the radical right at the time—but also the left. If I’m not mistaken, I think the connection between mysticism and terrorism is from George Lukacs, although this is the kind of political extremism that moves very quickly from left to right or vice versa.”

            “Yes. That’s what I was saying.”

            “But my point is that it’s not Dostoevsky himself. And when it comes to the dictator theory he is surely only one of many sources—de Maistre, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Schmitt, Cortès. And the same goes for Anti-Semitism, which was endemic in German culture long before they started reading Dostoevsky. Think of Wagner and what Nietzsche’s sister did with her brother’s writings, even though he was openly contemptuous of Anti-Semites.”

            “Maybe. I did mention Nietzsche. But that doesn’t absolve Dostoevsky.”

            “I don’t say it does, but you gave the impression that he was somehow uniquely responsible, whereas I’m arguing that, actually, he was only a very small piece of a much larger mosaic.”

            He shrugged again and didn’t seem inclined to follow this up.

            “Anyone else?” came plaintively from the chair.

            “Sorry,” said Carl, “maybe I didn’t put my point very clearly. The issue seems to me to be really about how important any literary text, including Dostoevsky, was to the development of the radical right. I don’t deny that writers and artists had a role on the left and on the right, but it was a secondary role. Any ideas they contributed had to be processed through political debate and were ultimately evaluated on their political, not their literary merits. OK, so there was an expressionist fringe, who saw art as itself being a kind of revolution, but they were fairly quickly brushed aside.”

            “But this just my objection to Dostoevsky,” Greenhill-Jones retorted. “That he’s a political theorist who dresses his views up as literature and it’s the political effect of his work we should be most worried about.” 

            “That doesn’t make any sense,” said a youngish man in a t-shirt with a geometric design that reminded me of something by one of the Russian constructivists. He seemed fairly self-assured in any case. The speaker understandably stiffened.

            “Yes, Greg,” said the chair, who looked worried that things might be starting to get out of control.

            “Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense,” continued Greg, “because once you stop reading Dostoevsky as literature, there’s no point really. He was a novelist, that’s it. In fact, I doubt whether there’s a consistent political philosophy in his work at all. But that’s not what anyone reads it for, anyway. In any case, you could turn the whole argument upside down. I mean, if you took Bakhtin’s view that none of his characters can be identified with Dostoevsky’s own voice, then why not see The Diary of a Writer as a kind of fiction, a thought-experiment, if you like? Putting it out there to see how people react.”

            This seemed to me to be not taking Dostoevsky seriously enough. I was sure he did mean a lot of what he wrote in The Diary and at least some of it resonated with the fiction.

            “If you take that approach, then any writer could mean just about anything,” Greenhill-Jones said severely. “It reduces writing to play.”

            “Isn’t that what writing—literature—is?” asked the young man.

            “Not at all. For Dostoevsky and the other leading modernist writers writing was a means of trying to change society. That’s why what they say about society is the key to understanding them.”

            Another pause. I raised my hand.


            “Thanks for the paper. What you say about the articles on ‘The Jewish Question’ is regrettably correct, and I don’t think we can entirely write the articles off as thought-experiments, though it’s an intriguing idea.”

            As I began speaking, a man who’d come in a little late, shortly after the start of the paper, suddenly leaned forward as if to listen more attentively. He was probably in his mid-thirties, rather pale, and with a wispy moustache. I couldn’t see him properly as he was sitting to one side and slightly behind me, but I’d sensed him fidgeting rather nervously at several points during the paper and generally giving off a sense of anxiety. Some strange people do turn up at these seminars.  He seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place him.

            I continued.

            “But, to be fair to Dostoevsky, although you mentioned that he ended by calling for reconciliation between Christian and Jews, I didn’t feel that you gave it sufficient emphasis. I mean, talking about a Rabbi and a Pastor jointly presiding at the funeral of the German doctor isn’t the sort of thing you usually get from Anti-Semites, is it?”

            “As you say, I mentioned that. But it’s clear that Dostoevsky takes with one hand what he gives with the other. Throughout this passage it’s the goodness of the Christian doctor he emphasizes and though the doctor is good to Jews, they’re not allowed any real agency of their own. They just have to be grateful. You can see this even more clearly when he goes on to describe how the whole story could be encapsulated in the kind of genre painting popular at the time. The picture shows the eighty-year-old doctor tearing up his shirt to use for the new-born baby of a destitute Jewish family. Then …” he paused and brought up a document on his laptop, which he then read out. “Then—I’m quoting—he has the doctor say, ‘“This poor little Yiddisher will grow up, and, perhaps, he himself will take his shirt off his shoulders and, remembering the story of his birth, will give it to a Christian” … Will this come to pass? Most probably not.’ So, what I take from this is that even the self-sacrificial example of the good Christian is not going to be enough to move the Jew to be equally charitable. Why not? Because, as I’ve said, Dostoevsky regards the Jew qua Jew as deeply and essentially morally corrupt and immune to compassion.”

            I couldn’t complain that I hadn’t had a full answer, though I still thought what he said was probably too one-sided—but I didn’t immediately have a counter-quotation at my fingertips. I’d also wanted to say something about how he read the figure of Isay Fomich, which I remembered as being far more positive. But while I was thinking, another voice joined in. This was a middle-aged woman sitting just the far side of Carl. She had short wavy brown hair and a likeable, rather humorous face. When she spoke, it was with a distinct Russian accent, though her English was very good. She didn’t wait to be asked by the chair but just spoke up.

            “Of course, we know all this about Dostoevsky and Anti-Semitism. It’s not new. Anti-Semitism is a fact of Russian life. People are anti-Semitic, the Church is anti-Semitic, even the Communists were anti-Semitic. But—so what? I’m Russian, I’m Jewish, I’m Orthodox. Theoretically, this shouldn’t be possible, but here I am. You know what Dmitri Karamazov said about Russia and Russians: Russia is broad, it contains many contradictions. Dostoevsky contains many contradictions and the fact that he was Anti-Semitic didn’t stop him writing beautiful things about Christ, about love, about reconciliation. I don’t see the problem. This is life, not putting people in pigeon-holes. Anti-Semitic, not anti-Semitic, blah blah blah.”

            Again, I caught the latecomer out of the corner of my eye and noticed that he seemed to be blushing.

            One of the students stifled a laugh.   

            “Well, it’s not so funny,” she continued, adjusting her scarf, patterned with brightly coloured flowers on a black background and glaring at him. “Quite a lot of Jews converted to Orthodoxy in the 1980s. Maybe it was the ritual. Maybe it was because it was one of the few ways of expressing spiritual life. Maybe it was a space of intellectual freedom. But it’s a fact.”

            “Thank you, Irina,” said the chair. I sensed that he had previous experience—at least in his mind—of Irina as a disruptive presence in the seminar, though I’d rather liked what she’d said. “Peter?” he asked, turning to the speaker. 

            “Sure. People are not always consistent. That’s obvious,” he said fairly brusquely, clearly irritated by this latest intervention, “but it’s not a question of Dostoevsky as an individual or the Russian character. For us, these are historic texts and we have to read them objectively. If you want to claim Dostoevsky as an important source for modern thought, then you have to be clear as to just what he says and just what kind of influence he had. And he may well have written beautiful things about Christ but that doesn’t—that can’t—justify what he says about Judaism nor the effect that his words had on those who would turn these words into action.”

            “This is not what reading Dostoevsky is about,” said Irina, dismissively, “but, whatever …”

            The chair looked questioningly at her in case she wanted to turn this rather vague comment into a proper question or response, but she just smiled and raised her eyes, as if to say that it would be entirely pointless to try to say anything more.

            The next question wasn’t about Dostoevsky at all but about Russian Orthodoxy and Jewish-Christian relations in Russian history. The questioner was clearly wanting to see this in a more positive light, but Professor Greenhill-Jones wasn’t having any of it. I wasn’t so interested in this rather more theological discussion but went on trying—and failing—to identify just what it was I thought the speaker was missing and trying to remember just what exactly Dostoevsky had said in the story about the doctor. I was sure that what Greenhill-Jones had read out hadn’t been the last word.

            After the last question, the chair announced next week’s topic, thanked Professor Greenhill-Jones for a ‘provocative’ paper and said that although the speaker had to leave promptly to catch a train back to London anyone who wished to join him in the pub to continue the discussion would be welcome. 

            There was a general shuffling about as people gathered their bags and coats. I asked Carl if he was going to the pub but he had another seminar to go to.  Making my way down the stairs I found myself next to the elusively familiar late-arriving man.

            “That was, as the chair said ‘provocative’”, I remarked.

            He nodded, with a slight shrug of the shoulders. It was a gesture I’d become familiar with from our previous conversations and I recognized it immediately. It was Fyodor Mikhailovich, looking (I now realized) as he looked in the photographs taken of him while he was serving in the army, out in Siberia.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich!” I exclaimed, keeping my voice down so as not to draw attention. “I didn’t recognize you!” 

            “Yes,” he smiled, almost mischievously. “I thought it might be best for an occasion like this to look a bit younger and less like a slightly disreputable old man.”

            By now we were leaving the building and at the bottom of the steps we both stopped. The small crowd was separating out. Carl had already shot off at top speed to his next event and Fyodor Mikhailovich and I found ourselves standing alone. I hadn’t noticed how it happened, but he now looked more like the Dostoevsky I knew from our previous encounters, which was both unsettling and reassuring.

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