Reply to Jordan Peterson on the Jewish Question — From His Heroes Part Two: Dostoevsky

Go to Part 1: Solzhenitsyn.

Jordan Peterson references Fyodor Dostoevsky in almost every interview, talk, or text he delivers —perhaps even more than he refers to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His admiration for Dostoevsky is considerable and is made clear in 12 Rules for Life. In 12 Rules, Peterson refers to the Russian author as (p.68) “incomparable,” and (p.137) “a wise and profound soul” possessing “great generosity of spirit.” Peterson describes Crime and Punishment (p.83) as “perhaps the greatest novel ever written,” and Dostoevsky himself (p.136) as “one of the great literary geniuses of all time.” He adds to the latter praise that the author “confronted the most serious existential problems in all his great writings, and he did so courageously, headlong, and heedless of the consequences.”

Perhaps even more so that was the case with Solzhenitsyn, Fyodor Dostoevsky has been pilloried in recent decades as an ultra-nationalist anti-Semite who believed Jews “had harmed and continued to harm the foundations of Russian society and culture.

Peterson, it will be recalled, has described anti-Semites as individuals who “claim responsibility for the accomplishments of [the] group [they] feel racially/ethnically akin to without actually having to accomplish anything [themselves].” Clearly an important point needs to be reconciled by Peterson: namely the outstanding literary accomplishments and political stances of Dostoevsky (even in Peterson’s own gushing estimation), and Peterson’s assertion that anti-Jewish critique rooted in nationalist sensibilities is merely a form of psychological escapism for those keen to avoid accomplishing anything for themselves. Surely it is self-evident that Dostoevsky, like Solzhenitsyn, was a man not only of accomplishment, but of remarkable, extraordinary accomplishment. What were Dostoevsky’s attitudes to Jews and the Jewish Question, and how would he respond to Jordan Peterson?

The two most septic academic treatments of the Russian author are David Goldstein’s 1981 Dostoyevsky and the Jews,[1] and Joseph Frank’s 2002 Dostoevsky, The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871–1881. Both writers exude Jewish identity in their treatment of Dostoevsky’s published and private writings on Jews, an emotionality that appears remarkably commonplace among Jews as a whole. Reviewing some material penned by Jews on the Russian writer, I was struck by their similarity to the fraught sensitivity of Anthony Julius to the work of T. S. Eliot. The core problem is that, while Jews (and also apparently Jordan Peterson) often comfort themselves with the delusion that their critics are intellectually and socially inferior, they appear to experience great psychological trauma when faced with the reality that their harshest and most insightful critics are often men of great ability and genius. An excellent example of this phenomenon, along with the Jewish obsession with historical enmities, can be observed in these comments, posted at a Jewish website as part of the question “Should a Jew read Dostoevsky?”:

There was a period, while I was in college I think, when I was very into Russian short-story writers and playwrights. I read quite a few, and was very impressed — until I came to Nikolai Gogol, and a story in which described the glory of the Cossacks. I couldn’t read any further; the Cossacks were murderous butchers who slaughtered my ancestors. Of course, if Jews were to shun all writers who hated us, we would be left with slim literary pickings; a quick thumbing through Allan Gould’s What did they think of the Jews? shows that we would lose a great deal of Western culture, including figures like Lord Byron and Joseph Conrad and Jack London.

Similarly, Haaretz writes of Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky biography: “As a Jew, Frank cannot be nonchalant about the primitive anti-Semitic elements in Dostoevsky’s writing,” describing Frank’s exploration as a “painful saga.” This is fully in keeping with observations made in my 2014 essay “Reflections on Aspects of Jewish Self-Deception,” in which, referring especially to the works of academic activists Anthony Julius and Robert Wistrich, I noted:

Jewish-produced accounts of anti-Semitism often begin or conclude with maudlin claims that the subject is ‘difficult,’ ‘emotional,’ or ‘trying’ for them to approach. At the extreme end of the spectrum one finds Anthony Julius who describes studying the subject at the conclusion of Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England as “immersing oneself in muck. Anti-Semitism is a sewer.” Wistrich refers to his “long-standing concern with the nature of anti-Semitism,” and describes his study of the subject as a “difficult enterprise,” which was “painful, often shocking.”

Goldstein and Frank, like Julius, are quite typical of Jewish literary critics who emerged from elite colleges in the mid-to-late twentieth century. In The Professionalization of History in English Canada (2005), Donald Wright notes that between the 1940s and early 1960s many WASP literary academics were taken aback by the aggressive and highly antagonistic attitude of their Jewish students. In just one example, a Canadian academic named Frank Underhill included in one student report the following comments: “He is a Jew, with a good deal of the Jew’s persecution complex, and this makes him unduly aggressive and sarcastic in discussion and writing.”[2]

Having read the majority of the offerings from Goldstein and Frank, I don’t think I could improve upon “unduly aggressive and sarcastic” as suitable descriptors. The same could be said of Peterson’s lazy dismissal of anti-Semitism as a tool of the unaccomplished.

Jews hardly feature in the fictional canon of Fyodor Dostoevsky, making him in some ways a less obvious target for attack than Solzhenitsyn, who was once berated by Jewish activist academic Mark Perakh because “a disproportionately large number of unattractive Jews appear in his work.” Perakh’s stance reminded me strongly of the activism of Anthony Julius in relation to representations of Jews in English literature. On this point, I’ve commented previously:

What Julius, and the horde of other Jewish literary ‘scholars,’ are really asserting here is their antagonism towards anything but positive reflections of Jews in literature, which is not only arrogant and unreasonable, but also further indication of a pathological level of ethnocentrism. Their efforts have the dual function of staining the legacy of the English literary past, and shackling authors in the present, who would feel constrained to avoid having a negatively portrayed Jewish character in their works.

The primary grounds for the Jewish attack on Dostoevsky appear to be the character of Isai Fomich Bumstein in The House of the Dead [for the sake of accuracy I should note my own 1980s Soviet Union edition/translation bears the less common title Notes from the Dead House]. It can be asserted with reasonable certainty that Isai Bumstein is Dostoevsky’s only real attempt to include a fully-fledged Jewish character in his works. Since The House of the Dead was strongly autobiographical, we can also assume that the character was based on a real Jew encountered by the author during his detention in a Siberian work camp. It appears, however, that Isai Bumstein, despite cutting a solitary figure, is one Jew too many for some.

Isai Fomich is described as the camp’s jeweler and foremost moneylender. A figure of fun, but with dark and even satanic undertones, Dostoevsky describes this, the only Jew in the camp, as “the spitting image of a plucked chicken. He was a man, no longer young, about fifty, short and weak, cunning yet positively stupid. He was arrogant, impudent, and at the same time a terrible coward.” Bumstein was confined to the jail for murder and uses his talent in making and trading jewelry to “wriggle out of his hard labour.” The book’s most extensive discussion of Bumstein takes place in the build up to a Dante-esque scene of claustrophobic horror in the local bath house, in which Bumstein takes a prominent and quasi-demonic role reminiscent of the Judge in the final act of Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 Blood Meridian (although no literary scholars seem to have discovered the link between the characters — despite McCarthy’s known affinity with Dostoevsky; further parallels between these two characters may be found in their unusually pale complexions, supernatural cunning, and numerous authorial allusions to their hairlessness).

Bumstein’s first act on entering the gaol is to barter for the “filthy, ragged summer trousers” of a fellow inmate, which he then takes in pawn and negotiates interest on. Sullen on entering the jail, he now “suddenly roused himself and started feeling the rags with his fingers in a most business-like manner. He even held them up to the light.” The deal concluded, “Isai Fomich re-examined the things he had taken in pawn, folded them carefully, and stowed them away inside his sack.” With the other inmates later in his thrall, he sings a song that he later confesses to be obliged to sing as a Jew in “moments of triumph over foes.”

Bumstein is described by Dostoevsky as having an easy time in confinement, enjoying privileges and all the trappings of elite status:

He was not at all hard up and, in fact, even lived quite prosperously, saving his money and lending it at interest to the whole prison. He had his own samovar, a good mattress, cups, and a complete set of crockery. The town Jews did not snub him and, on the contrary, they patronised him. On Saturdays, as allowed by the rules, he would go out under guard to the town’s synagogue.

Bumstein’s final appearance in the book takes place in the local bath house where eighty prisoners are essentially crushed into a space twelve paces by twelve where they must steam and wash themselves. The scene is oppressively and horrifically claustrophobic and is punctuated by the figure of Bumstein looming over all, “laughing his head off from the highest steam-shelf.” Impervious to the heat and noise bringing everyone else to near senselessness, “it seemed that no heat was enough to satisfy him.” The Jew uses his money to hire five attendants in succession to beat him with birch twigs, all of whom near the point of unconsciousness before rushing to revive themselves with cold water.

Bumstein “could indeed feel that he was indeed ‘on top’ of all the others. He had outdone them all. It was his moment of victory. And over all the noise, his shrill, mad voice was heard shouting out his aria: ‘La, la, la, la.’ It crossed my mind, that should we one day meet again in Hell, the scene would be very much the same.”

Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead, like several of his other works, is indeed a work of literary genius. That such a great work also contains a very memorable, unflattering, and all too believable portrait of a work-shy Jewish moneylender is a source of much contemporary Jewish psychological disturbance. Another crucial problem is that, although Jewish criticisms have revolved around accusations of the employment of stereotypes, the book’s strong autobiographical origins, together with Dostoevsky’s commitment to realism, render the portrayal of Isai Fomich Bumstein all too difficult to dismiss or dispel. As this commentary in Haaretz concedes, “Dostoevsky, more than all the great authors of 19th-century Russia, derived his inspiration from real life, even from the front pages of the newspaper, to the point where the critics of his day felt that this excessive realism harmed his work.”

In “On the So-Called Jewish Question,” Jordan Peterson appears to contrast high IQ individuals who (relatedly) score highly on Openness to Experience and political liberalism with presumably lower IQ individuals who seeks solace for their personal lack of accomplishment in group identity, ethnic nationalisms, and, one assumes, anti-Semitism. Kevin MacDonald has already saliently pointed out that Israel is hardly typified by Openness to Experience and political liberalism, despite being populated with the group Peterson seems to regard as epitomizing the high IQ/Openness/liberalism trifecta. It’s interesting, though, that the life, career, and ideas of his hero Dostoevsky also offer a strong rebuttal to Peterson’s poorly thought out schema. Dostoevsky was certainly an ardent Russian nationalist with a keen sense of ethnic identity, but was also “perceived as a courageous and independent critic of the czarist government, unafraid of denouncing its misdeeds and corruption.” Dostoevsky was no blind authoritarian; and he was certainly no unaccomplished basement-dweller in search of identity.

In his later writings, published in his journal Diary of a Writer, Dostoevsky began to write with some regularity on Jews, and in at least one issue wrote at length specifically on the Jewish Question. The opinions put forth in these pieces contrast sharply with that offered by Prof. Peterson. In fact, Dostoevsky, reflecting arguments that were common in post-Enlightenment Europe, argues that it would be suicidal for Western civilization to abandon its religious, ethnic, and historical identities (White “identity politics”) in favor of modern fads (he names socialism, but one could as easily substitute Peterson’s dubious strain of liberalism).

[Jews] maintain their own close-knit identity. If the Jews are given equal legal rights in Russia, but are allowed to keep their ‘State within a State,’ they would be more privileged than the Russians. The consequences of this situation are already clear in Europe. … What if there were only three million Russians and there were eighty million Jews? How would they treat Russians and how would they lord it over them? What rights would Jews give Russians? Wouldn’t they turn them into slaves? Worse than that, wouldn’t they skin them altogether? Wouldn’t they slaughter them to the last man, to the point of complete extermination? … When only anarchy remains, the Yid will be in command of everything. For while the Jew goes about preaching socialism, he will stick together with his own.

Offering Jews full citizenship rights would be beneficial for Jews because they would still operate as a cohesive group in a nominally individualist society. This goes to the heart of Peterson’s liberal/individualist ideology. It can only work if everyone adopts it. When cohesive, ethnically networked and highly competent groups with their own interests remain in a nominally individualist society, they easily dominate the individualists and are able to shape the culture to conform to their interests. These interests need not, and often are not (e.g., policy toward Israel, mass immigration of non-White ethnic groups), the same as the interests of the individualists.

And on that note, we make way for Carl Jung.

Go to Part 3 of 4.

[1] David Goldstein, Dostoyevsky and the Jews (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).

[2] Donald Wright, The Professionalization of History in English Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 95

9 replies
  1. Александр
    Александр says:

    As a Russian Orthodox person who knows Dostoevsky’s work well enough, it is definitely clear to me that anti-Semitic motives were not decisive in his work. Dostoevsky addressed the Russian soul, the Russian civilization, and the Jewish question was external, princely. The main thing in the concept of the Russian soul is internal torments, temptations and overcoming of oneself. In the opinion of the Russian person, the main thing in Dostoevsky’s work is an excerpt from his novel “Demons”:

    “Sophia Matveevna knew the Gospel well and immediately found from Luka the very place that I set as an epigraph to my chronicle. I will quote it here again:
    “Immediately on the mountain a large herd of pigs was grazing, and the demons asked Him to let them enter them. He let them. The demons who came out of a man went into the pigs; and the herd rushed down the steep into the lake and sank. The shepherds, seeing the incident, ran and told in the city and in the villages. And they went out to see what had happened, and, coming to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at the feet of Jesus, dressed and in his right mind, and were horrified. Those who saw it told them how the demoniac was healed. ”
    “My friend,” said Stepan Trofimovich in great agitation, “savez-vous, this wonderful and … extraordinary place has been a stumbling block to me all my life … dans ce livre … 26 so I mentioned this place from childhood . Now one thought came to me; une comparaison. 27 I have a terrible amount of thoughts coming now: see, it’s just like our Russia. These demons coming out of the patient and entering the pigs are all ulcers, all the miasms, all the impurities, all the demons and all the devils that have accumulated in the great and sweet of our sick, in our Russia, over the centuries, over the centuries! Oui, cette Russie, que j’aimais toujours. 28 But a great thought and a great will will overshadow her from above, as well as that insane possessed person, and all these demons will come out, all impurity, all this filth that festered on the surface … and will themselves be asked to enter pigs. Yes, and entered already, maybe! It is we, we, and Petrusha … et les autres avec lui, 29 and I, maybe, the first, at the head, and we will rush, insane and furious, from a cliff into the sea and we will all be drowned, and there we will go because we are just enough for this. But the patient will be healed and “sit down at the feet of Jesus” … and they will all look with amazement … Honey, vous comprendrez après, 30 and now it really worries me … Vous comprendrez après … Nous comprendrons ensemble.”

    Without an understanding of these lines it is impossible to understand Dostoevsky and such a mysterious “Russian soul”)))

    Alexander Nikishin, analyst, publicist

    • Rob Bottom
      Rob Bottom says:

      anti-Semitic motives were not decisive in his work

      That is not at all what this article is suggesting, so a defense is unnecessary. Most non-Jews would likely agree that Dostoevsky was critical of the Jews not simply because they were Jewish, but because of observable patterns of behavior as a “nation within a nation” that were at odds with the Russian people. Had some other out-group behaved the way Jews did in Russia there’s little doubt he would have been just as critical of them.

      However, Jewish critics, as quoted in this very article, make it clear that they consider Dostoevsky’s writings on the Jews to be nothing more than simple antisemitism. Perhaps we should take that as an admission that to be Jewish is to hold interests at odds with non-Jews, but for a goy like me to suggest that would make me an anti-Semite according to them and Prof. Peterson, to whom this article is addressed.

    • Trenchant
      Trenchant says:

      Good article, thanks. It’s a clever way, Taleb’s, of drawing attention to the dynamics of the situation without presenting a big target. I approve of his Semitic wiliness.

      • Richard B
        Richard B says:

        Trenchant: I couldn’t agree more. I’m currently reading Skin In The Game and it couldn’t be more obvious who he’s really talking about. I think he, and I’d even include Tucker Carlson (who once interviewed him) are proof that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

        In fact, I’d also add that, at this point, most frontal attacks, if not downright suspicious (Patrick Little), are often foolhearty, not brave, and certainly not wise.

        We don’t comment here under fake names for nothing. It’s not good. True. But it’s idle to regret it. What good would it do us?
        I have no doubt that when it’s safe to come out we will. And when we do we’ll have nothing to regret or apologize for.

  2. Name Goes Here
    Name Goes Here says:

    “What Julius, and the horde of other Jewish literary ‘scholars,’ are really asserting here is their antagonism towards anything but positive reflections of Jews in literature, which is not only arrogant and unreasonable, but also further indication of a pathological level of ethnocentrism.”

    This quote reminds me of an 1893 article about German historian Heinrich von Treitschke:

    “Professor Heinrich von Treitschke, the Prussian historian, was the first man of acknowledged position to take a serious view of what many then believed to be only a passing craze. It required courage to give public expression thereto. In a series of articles in the renowned Preussische Jahrbücher he pointed out the growing power of the Jews, their solidarity as a separate caste of foreign race in Germany, their arrogance in the press, their resentment at the slightest reference to themselves as lèse-majesté, whilst daily indulging in unlimited criticism of everything and everybody — these he stigmatised as the causes of the Anti-Semitic agitation. Treitschke foretold an enormous increase of the movement; and his prophecy has been more than fulfilled.”

    Buy the way, you should take a look at some the work of Portugal’s main novelist Eça de Queiroz, specially his essay “Israelism”.

  3. Richard B
    Richard B says:

    “The same could be said of Peterson’s lazy dismissal of anti-Semitism as a tool of the unaccomplished.”

    Exactly! And if we were to add “unaccomplished because excluded, and excluded because Jews are possessed by an insane demand to be placed above criticism, loved unconditionally and blindly obeyed. So, the only non-Jews who make it today are those who serve (as in servants) Jewish interests.”, it would do much to smack the sanctimonious smirk off of JBP’s face and show him for the intellectually corrupt Goy Toy that he is.

    A man who’s sold his soul to the Devil*, literally, giving life advice to the desperate, lonely, and credulous. What a world. What a world.

    *The Devil is the spirit that denies value. And that’s what the Jews do with non-Jews. They deny them any value. Which is why they didn’t hesitiate to kill as many of us as they did as soon as they got the chance. And they won’t hesitate should they get the chance again. USSR 1918 – USSA 2018. And JBP works for them. He’s soulless and unimpressive. But don’t worry, he’ll get his.

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