Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Dershowitz, Dostoyevsky, and the Devil

In the final chapter of his compelling study of attitudes towards present day Israel, Alan Dershowitz mentions one widely held view among Israel's critics, who like to say that the current situation in the Middle East is "the Israelis' fault", or "Sharon's fault". He shows how this type of thinking has its roots in the past, when blaming outbreaks of anti-Semitism on the victims was a common response among European and Russian intellectuals. In his Writer's Diary - the blog to outblog all blogs - the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky published a notorious article of 1879 in which he claimed that "It's all the Jews' fault", and declared that the hatred of Jews "must have stemmed from something" - "the Jew himself is guilty".

As Dershowitz points out, "Dostoyevsky's views of the worldwide Jewish conspiracy are not much different from the views expressed by Hitler in Mein Kampf or in the Czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." For Dershowitz, as for Joseph Frank, there are two Dostoyevskys, and that his fame "is based on his fiction writings and not on his nonfiction rantings." (p. 233) Yet there are also anti-Semitic passages in Dostoyevsky's fiction. Book XI of The Brothers Karamazov contains the following conversation between the crazy Liza and Alyosha:

...Alyosha, is it true that the Jews steal little children at Passover and kill them with knives?'
'I do not know.'
'Well, I have a book in which I read about a trial somewhere, where a Jew had first cut off all the fingers of both hands belonging to a child of four years old, and then crucified him against a wall, hammered in nails and crucified him, and then at his trial he said that the boy died quickly, within four hours. That was quick! He said that the boy had groaned and groaned and that he had stood feasting his eyes on him. That is good!'
'Yes, good. I sometimes think that I myself crucified him. He hung on the wall, groaning, and I sat down opposite him and ate pineapple compote. I'm very fond of pineapple compote. Are you?'

The "two Dostoyevskys" approach to this is perhaps the most generous and forgiving one, but it also expresses the bewilderment of many people who, like Dershowitz, cannot understand how it's possible that "a man of Dostoyevsky's brilliance and insight in so many areas could have harbored such primitive fantasies about the Jews." After all, Dostoyevsky's fame rests above all on his reputation as a preacher of Christian love and human brotherhood. In his introduction to David Goldstein's Dostoevsky and the Jews, Dostoyevsky's biographer Joseph Frank goes out of his way to create a special category which can be applied to Dostoyevsky, that of "guilty anti-Semite". Dostoyevsky himself claimed that he was never an anti-Semite, and this leads Frank to suggest that the novelist was split: "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."

As one critic has emphasized, Dostoyevsky's hostility to Jews was only one of a whole series of hates, which included "the Poles, the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church, the socialist idea, the West, atheism, and materialism. In fact, his contempt for the Roman Catholic Church is unparalleled in literature."

The following words of Shatov in The Possessed give us some idea of how Dostoyevsky saw the world:

"Reduce God to the attribute of nationality?...On the contrary, I elevate the nation to God...The people is the body of God. Every nation is a nation only so long as it has its own particular God, excluding all other gods on earth without any possible reconciliation, so long as it believes that by its own God it will conquer and drive all other gods off the face of the earth. At least that's what all great nations have believed since the beginning of time, all those remarkable in any way, those standing in the vanguard of humanity...The Jews lived solely in expectation of the true God, and they left this true God to the world...A nation which loses faith is no longer a nation. But there is only one truth; consequently, only one nation can possess the true God...The sole "God bearing" nation is the Russian nation.."

While acknowledging the debt owed by Russian Messianism to the Messianism of Judaic thought, Dostoyevsky believed that Russian Orthodoxy would eventually conquer the decadent civilizations of the West, and he was implacably hostile to anything or anyone that would stand in the way of this conquest.

In confronting Dostoyevsky's anti-Semitism, it seems that we are forced to choose. If his anti-Semitism was seriously felt and intended, then his writings, including the great works of fiction for which he is famous, are ironic. If, on the other hand, it was the expression of a fundamental split in his character, of which he was aware, and ironically aware, it may be that in the end it was not anti-Semitism at all, but rather an attempt to overcome the culturally-determined anti-Semitism of his upbringing and background in favour of those "who left this true God to the world." It could even be that were Dostoyevsky alive today, he would be in the forefront of those who defend the state of Israel, and see it as an upholder of virtues and morality that most of the West has forgotten.

For myself, I am sceptical. The presence of anti-Semitism in literature - from Chaucer and Shakespeare and Marlowe through Smollett, Voltaire, Dickens and Thackeray to Eliot and Pound - is all too perceptible, and Dostoyevsky does not constitute an exception, but rather a depressing conformity to the rule. As far as his being a proponent of Christian and brotherly love is concerned, I think one needs to reflect that Dostoyevsky was profoundly affected by the years he spent in prison, in the penal colony in Siberia to which he was exiled. The Christianity at which he ultimately arrived was far from being a simple or straightforward creed. It is not by accident that the Devil is the most important character in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. And, as the author wrote at the very end of his life, in the notebook for 1880-81:

The Devil. (Psychological and detailed critical explanation of Ivan Fyodorovich and the appearance of the Devil.) Ivan Fyodorovich is deep, this is not the contemporary atheists, who demonstrate by their unbelief only the narrowness of their world-outlook and the dimness of their dim-witted abilities... Nihilism appeared among us because we are all nihilists. We were merely frightened by the new, original form of its manifestation. (All to a man Fyodor Pavloviches.) ...Conscience without God is a horror, it may lose its way to the point of utter immorality... The Inquisitor is only immoral because in his heart, in his conscience there has managed to accommodate itself the idea of the necessity of burning human beings... The Inquisitor and the chapter about children. In view of these chapters you could take a scholarly, yet not so haughty approach to me where philosophy is concerned, though philosophy is not my speciality. Not even in Europe is there such a power of atheistic expressions, nor has there been. So it is not as a boy, then, that I believe in Christ and confess Him, but through the great crucible of doubt has my hosannah passed, as I have him say, in that same novel of mine, the Devil.
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