July 5, 2004 by AK

A juxtaposition

Dostoevsky was, among other things, a journalist, of a conservative persuasion. Some of his articles were anti-Semitic.

Wagner, as CB reminds us, “wasn’t the only composer with anti-Semitic feelings but <...> the only one to publish Das Judentum in der Musik.”

Dostoevsky is read by Jews and non-Jews alike, in Israel no less than in other countries. On the contrary, attempts at public performance of Wagner’s works in Israel have always stirred controversy. It’s as if Wagner had been indelibly branded an enemy of the Jewish people.

Music is pure form, it has much greater difficulty being anti- and pro-anything than literature, especially non-fiction. So why the contrast?

The most trivial explanation would be that Russia knew nothing like the Holocaust. Pogroms in Tsarist Russia were bloody but hardly part of the government’s effort to exterminate all the empire’s Jews. Pogroms during the Civil War were worse, but against the backdrop of the nationwide bloodletting, not extraordinary. Stalin may have had hideous plans for a final solution in the early 1950s, but the tyrant expired in 1953 just before Purim.

No, that won’t do. There are a few unpleasant Jews in Dostoevsky’s novels, but removing them wouldn’t change the quality of his writing much. (Besides, Dostoevsky was not racist: his ideal was Jews converting to Christianity.) On the other hand, we’re conditioned to perceive Wagner’s music as ethnically exclusionist; to discern the heavy gait of Nordic gods in his chords.


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