Monday, September 24, 2012

A spot on the beautiful garment

Marc Chagall, Isba on fire

One day, you learn, one way or another, that a parent, a relative or a friend is dragging a disgrace, a betrayal, or a shameful passion behind himself... How do you feel ? How will you now reconcile affection, friendship or esteem you have for the person and the awareness of this dark area of himself he tries somehow to conceals?

This is, roughly, what I am feeling at the moment. What is it all about? A few days ago, a correspondent, organizer of a high-quality blog, which dedicates itself mainly to the defense of Israel, sends me a sadden message. She visits my blog and knows my admiration for Dostoevsky. But she writes me: "... I am devastated, I just learned that Fiodor Dostoevsky really did not like the Jews, the Jewish nation and the Jewish religion ..." and she asks me what I think of it. She has, indeed, just discovered a text, entitled The "Jewish Question" which Dostoevsky published in March 1877 in A Writers Diary(1). There, unquestionably, the writer indulges in an all-out attack against those whom he calls "the Israelites". And, according to our criteria of today, this text can, without hesitation, be qualified as anti-Semitic.

At first, acknowledging the friendly message that was sent to me, I answered a little bit too fast: "... This is obviously not the best pages written by Dostoevsky - and this is an understatement. That said, in a few words, and while waiting to address the issue more in depth, I would simply say that he is dependent on the prevailing mentality of the orthodox society of his time. He thus conveys, more or less, the anti-Jewish stereotypes (we still cannot, it seems to me, speak of anti-Semitism) as taste for money, absence of "Russian" roots, subservience, etc." I must say that I read the Writers Diary a dozen years ago. At the time, less sensitized to the issue of anti-Semitism, I read this passage – twenty pages in a volume of 1,500 – without much attention, surprised, maybe embarrassed, but leaving the benefit of good faith to this Fiodor that I considered already, not only as one of the four or five greatest writers of all time, but also as a master in humanity.

But now, I have just read again the twenty pages of The "Jewish Question" and, really, they stick in my throat! Hence this new painful feeling: my admiration for the writer and his novels is not affected, but I must now reckon with this unbearable side of his work – and therefore, to a certain extent, of his person. Dostoevsky, it seems, has fallen into anti-Judaism, or even anti-Semitism (event if the term itself, with its racist meaning, did not appear before 1879, two years after the publication of his text in the Writers Diary).

If it was necessary to look for "extenuating circumstances" in favour of Dostoevsky, various factors could be taken into consideration. First, there is the perspective with which we now consider him, and it is necessarily "anachronistic". There is also the historical context of Russia at the time, with the abolition of serfdom and the social crisis that ensued. Then, the inescapable Slavophilism of Dostoevsky is to be taken into account, and still more, his belief that the Russian people, with its Orthodox tradition, is "théophore" (bearer of God), and that there cannot be any other. On the other hand, the writer leans on events or circumstances which, in themselves, involve Russians as much as Jews, if not even more. But dependent on the anti-Jewish common prejudice, he blames "the Israelites" for all kind of troubles. So, as Aucouturier writes in a note: "Dostoevsky (and he was not the only one) attributes here to the 'Jews' what was the fact of numerous middle-class persons, merchants, and kulaks, Jews or not: the repurchase of the lands of nobles ruined by the emancipation of the farmers, or incapable to adapt themselves to it. Between 1861 and 1881, the ownership of nearly 18 million hectares of land changed"(2). As for the impressive ability of the Jewish people to maintain, through thick and thin, its cultural and religious specificity, we see it today as remarkable and as a sign an admirable fidelity. But Dostoevsky, provided with his concepts of political analysis, does not see anything but a "State within a State". Finally, we can say that if the great Fiodor has a sharp tongue against the Jewish people, he is hardly softer towards the major European nations, especially Poland.

But after all, is it necessary to look for excuses and defend the indefensible? We will have to wear the beautiful garment with the spot... However, so much Dostoevsky is detestable when he gets entangled in theories of political nature, as is the case here, so much he seduces and touches us when, leaving the generalizations and ideological extravagances, he dives into the depths of the human heart. There, he finds – in a kind of contradiction of his own opinions – the antidote to his hazy theories or, at least, openness and hope. This is precisely what he does in the chapter immediately following The "Jewish question", entitled The burial of a "citizen of the world". The writer mentions a letter addressed to him by a young Jewish woman, about whom he speaks with great sympathy. She recounts the funeral of an old doctor of German origin. This man, for over half a century, demonstrated extraordinary generosity, especially towards the deprived people and, in particular, to many poor Jews of the town where he exercised. His funeral was the occasion of a real fraternization between Russians and Jews. In this "isolated case ", Dostoevsky sees a paradigm of what can lead to solve what he called The "Jewish question." Here are some lines from the last page of this text: "But say, at this moment, it is almost resolved, the famous 'Jewish question'! The pastor and the rabbi are united in a common love, they almost kissed each other in front of the tomb under the eyes of the Christians and the Jews! No matter if, once back home, each parties return to the old prejudices:drop after drop, the water wears away the stone. And it is such 'citizens of the world’ who overcome the world by uniting it; prejudices will fade a little after each individual case, and eventually vanish altogether. This old man leaves behind him legends, writes Miss L..., Jewish herself, who also wept over the 'good head’ of this friend of men. But the legends are a first step towards action; they are the living memory and the constant reminder of the 'conquerors of the world’ to whom the earth belongs.... "

But read this whole chapter here . It is not very long and it is worth it. You will discover another image of the writer: a Dostoevsky who, beyond its anti-Jewish prejudices, expresses his hope and its faith in the human being.

Fiodor (the other one)

(1) Unfortunately, I could not find any English translation of the text on the web. The French translation can be read free online on Gallica website. The best edition and translation in French is the work of Gustave Aucouturier, collection La Pléiade, Gallimard, 1972. The "Jewish question" is on pages 936-956.
(2) Ibid., p. 1530, note on p. 580.

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