Redemption and the Merchant God: Dostoevsky's Economy of Salvation and Antisemitism

Article excerpt

Susan McReynolds. Redemption and the Merchant God: Dostoevsky's Economy of Salvation and Antisemitism. Studies in Russian Literature and Theory. Evanston: Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2008. xiii, 241 pp. Index. $69.95, cloth.

Redemption and the Merchant God is a bold and thorough examination of the antiSemitism in Dostoevsky's writings, looking at it as a function of his Christian faith - or rather as a function of his growing frustrations over his repeated failures in his novels to explain his Christian faith. The author argues that Dostoevsky's novels and his journalistic writings are linked; the late novels, in particular, explain the anti-Semitic outpourings in the Diary of a Writer. Professor McReynolds further claims that Dostoevsky's anti-Semitism must affect the way we read the novels.

The key elements in Dostoevsky's Christianity are taken to be the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, and the promise of the redemption of mankind. McReynolds is scarcely interested in other aspects, such as the childlike perception of the world we find in The Idiot, with the continual social scandal aroused by the childlike Prince Myshkin. Dostoevsky and his characters, in particular Raskolnikov, Ivan and Zosima, are unable, McReynolds argues, to account for redemption in terms other than those of a utilitarian calculation of sacrifices and benefits. Another problem is that a Christlike saviour, who sacrifices himself for others, may find that nobody wants his sacrifice; the would-be saviour may appear as an aggressor of sorts.

Dostoevsky's frustration at his inability to articulate a justification for the Christian God in other than utilitarian terms leads him to displace onto the construct of a "Jew" the wish to reduce man's well-being and salvation to a calculus. At times, this is linked to a disowning and "othering" of traits he does not like in the Russian people or modern, westernizing Russian society, or indeed himself. This othering begins in his early letters and journalistic writings, and is intensified in the Diary of a Writer.

The anti-Semitic quotes McReynolds gives make for ugly and painful reading. She does not gloss over Dostoevsky's language. "Zhid" is given as "Yid." For instance, in one of many examples, in quoting from the Diary of a Writer for March 1877, she relies on Kenneth Lantz's translation and says, "the idea of the Yids, which is creeping over the whole world in place of 'unsuccessful' Christianity" (see p. 1 88 of the Lantz translation).

While the arguments McReynolds makes for the impact of Dostoevsky's literary writings on his journalism are convincing, it is less clear that we must read the novels in the light of his anti-Semitism. Indeed, there, the problem of an inadequately articulated faith is continually relegated to the margins, to the conclusion, to another novel, which is always to be written, which almost certainly could not be written. McReynolds does not view Dostoevsky's struggles to articulate his faith with much sympathy. …