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Sweating blood

July 17, 2013

Back in April I described the narrator in Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863) as “adopting a tone that is moderately anti-Jewish and more severely anti-anti-Jewish prejudice” and suggested this was unlike what I’d seen in, among others, Leskov. Clearly I hadn’t read enough Leskov. What I wrote is a hundred times truer of the position of the supposedly autobiographical narrator of Episcopal Justice (Владычный суд, 1877) than of Pisemskii.

Both the narrator and the heroic bishop who saves the day show signs of prejudice against Jews. It’s the narrator who sympathetically quotes “Rabbi” Brafman’s work on the qahals, and in one story the bishop defends his kindness toward a Protestant woman by saying, well, it’s not like she’s Jewish. But let me back up.

At this point in Russian Imperial history, Jews were required to provide recruits for the Russian army, like Russian peasant villages were; earlier they had apparently been exempt from military service but paid an additional tax. It was possible to save a boy from conscription by providing a (usually paid) substitute, but the rule was that only Jews could substitute for Jews. The biographical Leskov and the narrator of Episcopal Justice worked in the bureaucracy processing incoming Jewish recruits in Kiev.

The particular sad case that the story’s about is a Jewish father trying to save his underage son from being drafted. He contracts with a Jewish man to substitute for his son, paying him a lot of money under the table in addition to the official figure. But the substitute slips away to a missionary-minded Russian princess, declaring his desire to be baptized. The law said that this meant he could no longer substitute for the Jewish boy, but he could keep the payment.

The father is an eccentric bookbinder whose writing is a mix of so many languages and alphabets that Leskov-the-narrator can hardly understand it. At one point he follows the narrator home, is not offered a bed or even spoken to, and curls up on a goatskin where the narrator’s hunting dog usually sleeps – the dog itself “generally didn’t like Jews” (!) but instinctively made an exception for this tragic figure (chapter 9). It’s a bit earlier that we start to see signs of that strain of anti-Jewish feeling marked by petty physical disgust:

One might think the Jew considered himself in a “city of sanctuary” here and held on to that corner of the office table as if it were a horn of the altar. He evidently had entrenched himself so decisively that one could sooner cut off his tensed, unmoving fingers than pry them off that table. A soldier pulled and tugged at him to absolutely no avail: the whole heavy, long table shook and moved, but the Jew was not torn away from it, and all the while he shrieked unmercifully.

I got fed up with this, and I ordered him to be left alone and sent for the city doctor; but it turned out there was no need for medical intervention. As soon as the Jew was left alone, he immediately quieted down and started to crawl around and reach for something inside his shirt, and a minute later, looking in all directions like a wolf in a rabbit hutch, he stole up to me and set on a small table a sheaf of papers in thick wrapping paper that was soaked through with some stinking brown liquid, sort of ichor-like, that was extremely revolting.

It’s awkward to admit it but a sin to hide it — it was not without disgust that I unwrapped the papers, which were nothing other than the substitution documents prepared by the introligator for his son. (chapter 6)

Here’s the amazing part: the narrator’s sympathy for Jews isn’t some intellectual construct far removed from physical disgust, but comes right out of the center of this physical reaction:

However, thank God, neither I, sitting at the table in front of which the introligator was piteously howling, fidgeting, and tearing his rags and hair, nor the civil servants looking at him through the open doors felt like laughing at him.

It seemed all of us, despite our unhappy habituation to this kind of sorrow and torment, were struck by the awful horror of frantic suffering that had even caused this poor man to sweat blood.

Yes, the stinking ichor-like liquid with which the loose packet of papers he had given me were saturated and of which all these “documents” reeked was nothing other than bloody sweat, which I then saw on someone with my own eyes for the only time in my life. As this skinny, worn-out Jew, who had “almost drownt and almost burnt,” got sodden and damp in the warm room, his forehead with wet hair stuck to it, his writhing arms that seemed to tug convulsively at his rags, and especially his chest that showed through his torn frock coat — all this seemed covered with thin scratches, out of which, like cranberry juice through tightly woven muslin, pushed a red liquid, dripping small dewy drops… This is horrible to see!

Those who have never seen someone sweat blood, and I think that includes an awful lot of people, since there are a significant number of people who are even doubtful of the very possibility of such a phenomenon — I can tell these people that I have seen it myself and that it is inexpressibly terrible.

In any case to this day I can see that dewy cranberry stain on his breast before me, and it seems as if through it I saw a human heart opened, suffering the most painful torment — that of a father striving to save his child… Oh, I will say it again: it is horrible! (chapter 8)

I gather from Hugh McLean’s Nikolai Leskov: The Man and His Art that Leskov would later go to both extremes, from a story so anti-Semitic McLean is embarrassed to talk about it (“Yid Somersault” or “Жидовская кувыркаллегия,” 1882) to a didactic “Jews are no worse than Christians” piece set in fourth-century Byzantium (“The Tale of Theodore the Christian and His Friend Abraham the Hebrew” or “Сказание о Федоре-христианине и о друге его Абраме-жидовине,” 1886).

Here’s McLean on the comparatively mixed Episcopal Justice; I see where he’s coming from but I think he’s understating the force of the paradox of sympathy-in-revulsion:

In general, “Episcopal Justice” is not as successful a work as “At the Edge of the World.” The moral ambiguities of the author have taken an artistic toll. Most of all, the scurrilous caricature of the Jewish father is simply odious; it reflects a tendency toward thinking (and feeling) in terms of ethnic stereotypes. Leskov lays great stress on the father’s ridiculous, offensive, and even despicable qualities. The wretched Jew squeals, grovels, cringes, sleeps on the floor like a dog, jabbers incoherently, and—worst crime of all for a language-lover like Leskov—writes an absurd mixture of Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish, though he claims to be a learned man. He lacks any personal dignity and is ready for any self-abasement in order to gain his end. Symbolically, even the blood he supposedly “sweats” in his anguish has a disgusting odor. If we pity such a figure, we despise him even more. (311)

See also this earlier post on McLean on Leskov’s artistic arguments against baptism.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2013 8:54 am

    Casual anti-Semitism is so much part of the background of 19th-century Russian literature (and, of course, life) that it’s no surprise to find it in any given author (though this particular bizarre tangle of it is well worth bringing to light); I wasn’t a bit surprised, for instance, to run across it in my current reading, Lazhechnikov’s Ледяной дом. The more I read, the more retrospectively astonished I am by Narezhny’s openly philo-Semitic attitude (which I wrote about here and here).

    • July 18, 2013 10:27 am

      Yes, the presence of anti-Semitism isn’t surprising, any more than, say, racism in nineteenth-century American prose. Individual writers can make these issues aesthetically interesting, especially when they’re caught between contradictory positions.

      On top of that, though, I think it can be worthwhile tracking even truly casual prejudice over time. This is probably ground others have been over and over, and I should read more about it, but it seems to me there’s a qualitative change in literary anti-Semitism around the time of the Great Reforms. Maybe even one kind of anti-Semitism in the early part of the century, followed by the theme becoming less salient in the 1840s, and then exploding again in the 1860s? Or perhaps the prejudice against the poor, unassimilated Jew of the western provinces continues, alongside a new and separate stereotype of the powerful, nouveau riche old Jewish man in the capitals and the heartland. I’d be curious if you notice any difference over time as you make your way through all of prose chronologically.

  2. July 18, 2013 12:25 pm

    It’s definitely an interesting topic, and I hope it didn’t sound like I was suggesting you shouldn’t have posted about it! My response was intended more as “Oh god, I know, it’s all over the place, isn’t it?” But the idea of qualitative change is well worth pursuing, and I’ll keep it in mind as I continue my Long March.

    • July 18, 2013 12:46 pm

      No, I didn’t take it that way at all! And I agree with everything you said – it’s just Leskov has me thinking about this stuff. Let me know what you find!

  3. July 19, 2013 9:48 am

    I haven’t read Кувыркаллегия and Сказание yet. Leskov’s 1883 booklet “Jews in Russia” (Еврей в России. Несколько замечаний по еврейскому вопросу) is definitely philo-Semitic and in places aggressively anti-antisemitic. Granted, the booklet was published anonymously but it was based on Leskov’s report to a governmental commission on the Jewish question.

    • July 19, 2013 10:00 am

      Thank you – that further complicates the picture! I haven’t read “Jews in Russia,” but know of it through McLean, who says it “marked the beginning of Leskov’s gradual emancipation from anti-Semitic prejudice,” but notes that it was “commissioned by Jewish leaders” and it’s therefore hard to tell, “Does it embody its author’s convictions, or is it the brief of a literary lawyer?” (425-28).

      It’s weird Jewish leaders would have approached Leskov for this right after Кувыркаллегия, and McLean speculates that they didn’t know about that story because it was published in an obscure journal and not reprinted in a book until 1886.

      • July 22, 2013 2:51 am

        I’ve read Кувырколлегия now. I understand that Leskov became sympathetic to the plight of the Jews in the Russian empire after the pogroms of 1881, in the wake of Alexander II’s assassination. Кувырколлегия opens with strong “sarcasm on” markers – it’s hard to miss or ignore them. The narrator is twice removed from the author: someone else relates the retired colonel’s tale. The colonel is a career military officer from the second half of Nicholas’ reign, which probably did not endear him to a 1880s Russian audience. He likes nothing as much as a wicked joke at somebody’s expense and whoever cannot strike back is fair game. No wonder the Jews in his tale are a caricature. For the smart and sufficiently detached reader though, the truly despicable characters are not them but their persecutors.

        If one is to judge characters by their ugliest actions, the brutal Polish soldier and the German officer suggest a certain anti-Polish and anti-German prejudice on the author’s part because his narrator seems reliable in recounting the beatings. But the most interesting and potentially the most evil figure is Mamashkin. He is an artist of sorts, a comedian, a young man of wit and practical imagination, although of a nasty type, akin perhaps to an imaginative torturer. He’s a shadowy relative of Pamphalon and Razlyulyay and more distantly of Levsha – the nasty practical joke he plays on the Jewish soldiers is a work of art or artisanship perhaps. His devises his trick for the fun of it, for art’s sake as it were – the money promised is next to nothing. As a soldier, he knows well why the Jews are so eager to avoid 25-year conscription slavery, but he does not care. Like a boy from one of Leskov’s parables, he does not sell his soul to the devil – he just gives it away for the thrill.

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