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Dostoevsky and Borat would have agreed on one thing

Dostoevsky expert discusses the author's anti-Semitic feelings

Published: March 21, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

diverse-city-3-21-08-final_page_1_image_0003.jpgI know a lot of things about Fyodor Dostoevsky. He was a great writer, journalist, thinker. He was deeply religious. What I didn’t know, though, was that one of my favorite authors was an anti-Semite.

I attended a talk by Susan McReynolds on March 18 in Shiffman called “Artist and Anti-Semite: Dostoevsky’s Provocation.” During this hour and a half long talk, she as well as the audience, explored Dostoevsky the artist, the thinker, and the Christian in relationship to his anti-Semitic feelings.

McReynolds is from Northwestern University and is an expert on Dostoevsky. She released her book on the author, Redemption and the Merchant God: Dostoevsky’s Economy of Salvation and AntiSemitism, in December.

The talk first discussed the history of Dostoevsky, from when he was publishing his Diary to his first experiences in Western Europe. McReynolds also focused on when Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitic leanings first reared their ugly head.

Dostoevsky was well-known in nineteenth century Russia, as a great thinker. A man who believed in Russia and Christianity. He published The Diary of a Writer as a way to impart his ideas and opinions upon his fellow Russians. The Diary included articles, political commentary, short stories, etc.

Due to the popularity and influence of his Diary, Dostoevsky received many letters from people about his writings. Most of these people agreed with Dostoevsky’s opinions and some asked him to be their mentor.

After a few years of The Diary, Dostoevsky told his readers that he needed to take a break from it so that he could write a book that had been formulating in his mind. That book was of course the famous The Brothers Karamazov. In this book, many of the same ideas and opinions that had been established in The Diary were brought up by the characters in the novel.

One of the most interesting ideas that was brought up in discussion after the talk was that Dostoevsky was such a thinker, that he was conflicted. Dostoevsky believed most in saving the less fortunate. He felt that one couldn’t sacrifice a person for the betterment of everyone else (aka a cost-benefit analysis of suffering). This deep conviction of Dostoevsky was put at odds with the idea that Jesus was sacrificed by his own father for the betterment of mankind.

This idea comes up in The Brothers Karamazov as a conflict between the ideals of Ivan Karamazov and Zosima. There were also numerous examples of these ideals and this conflict in The Diary as well.

So where does the anti-Semite thing fit in? Well, all the bad traits that Dostoevsky saw in the world, he attributed to the Jewish people. He felt that the Jews were very comfortable sacrificing whoever they needed to to ensure their own happiness or the betterment of the state.

He also felt that Jews thought that a higher authority such as the state or government did not have the same moral obligation that one person does. Also, when asked by one of his correspondents if it was true the Jews practiced human sacrifice on Passover, Dostoevsky answered in the affirmative.

In all, the talk was fascinating. I’m not entirely sure that I agreed with all the ideas that were put forward, but I truly enjoyed learning more about Dostoevsky. McReynolds was a fabulous speaker and the discussion afterward was especially interesting.