Dostoevskij and Cultural Others

Susan McReynolds, Northwestern University

This paper subjects two pairs of self/other oppositions significant for the study of Dostoevskij to critical scrutiny. The first is the opposition between Dostoevskij as artist and journalist. The second is the opposition between Russia and the Jews created by Dostoevskij himself.

The first term of each pair is valorized as the authentic self, whereas the second is marginalized. The Diary of a Writer’s puzzling chauvinism impels many readers to create an opposition between the “true” humanist of the fiction and xenophobic “other” Dostoevskij of the journalism, demoted to the status of a peripheral biographical enigma (R. Girard, M. Jones, Hackel, Holquist, many more). The Diary creates a structurally similar opposition between “true” humanity – manifested in Russian Christian culture – and the “other” of the Jews.

This paper contributes to the integration of the Diary into our understanding of the fiction (Kelly, Morson, Scanlan, others). To understand these oppositions better, I juxtapose close readings of Diary passages that define Russianness and Jewishness with passages from The Brothers Karamazov that explain the essence of Christian faith. These juxtapositions enable us to make a surprising discovery: the novel describes Christian faith through the same terms used in the Diary to define Jewishness. The Brothers Karamazov admits into the very definition of the Russian Christian self the qualities vilified as the essence of the Jewish other in the Diary

The Diary defines the difference between Jews and Russians through a distinction between a certain kind of rationality and “irrational” self-sacrifice. Jews are characterized by a mentality that calculates how it can benefit from commerce in the suffering of others; Russians exemplify transcendence of this “Jewish” rationality: instead of trading in others’ misfortune, they practice self-sacrifice, giving themselves without expectation of return.

This moral-ethnic distinction constructed in the Diary, the basis of its chauvinism, breaks down in Brothers Karamazov. Through close readings of Zosima’s exposition of the nature of faith, I show that he advocates the rationality ascribed to Jews in the Diary. In the Diary, refusal to accept others’ misfortune as the basis of a higher good inspires Russia’s crusade against the Judaized West, but in the novel, this refusal forms the basis of Ivan’s rebellion. Ivan retrospectively reveals the potential of the Diary’s rejection of “Jewish” rationality to inspire blasphemy.

This paper thus advances a tentative account of the relationship between the novel and the journal, of the Diary’s construction of a Russian/Jewish opposition, and of its antipathy towards the Jews: ambivalence about benefiting from innocent suffering, which runs throughout Dostoevskij’s fictional works, provokes the Diary’s attempt to project this behavior onto another, an “other” who absorbs all the fear and loathing elicited by the suspicion that this inadmissible feature exists in the self. Far from being others to each other, the Diary and Brothers Karamzov emerge from concern with the same philosophical problem of reconciliation with or rejection of the use of innocent suffering.