Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Russian Nihilist

Fathers and Sons (Norton Critical Edition)Fathers and Sons 
by Ivan Turgenev

“Whereas I think: I’m lying here in a haystack... The tiny space I occupy is so infinitesimal in comparison with the rest of space, which I don’t occupy and which has no relation to me. And the period of time in which I’m fated to live is so insignificant beside the eternity in which I haven’t existed and won’t exist... And yet in this atom, this mathematical point, blood is circulating, a brain is working, desiring something... What chaos! What a farce!”  ― Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

The novel Fathers and Sons, like other great works of literature, has a timeless quality. The characters are memorable and the plot, while not terribly complicated, is universal in its aspect. Turgenev had, earlier in his writing career, contributed to the ideas of the developing intelligentsia with his collection of short stories, Sketches from a Hunter's Album. His portrayal of the peasants and serfs as real human beings showed a character not demonstrably different than that of the narrator who was a member of the aristocracy.
Published a decade later, Fathers and Sons became an inadvertent political agenda favorite, juxtaposing two generations, "the fathers," or the fading aristocracy, and "the sons," or the new fresh blood of the middle class and the nihilists, the novel seemed a perfect vehicle for portraying the brewing unrest of the pre-revolutionary era, and introduced the character of Bazarov -- the spirited nihilist who was seen as a brilliant idealistic rebel, the new kind of perfect man who rejected the old notions of class and came to disrupt nobility's status quo. His nihilism is particularly interesting since it was not the sort of nihilism I had previously encountered in Western European intellectual history, but it is more like a sort of empiricism. As such it was a Russian intellectual movement in the 19th century that insisted that one should not believe in anything that could no be demonstrated to be true. As a critical approach to virtually everything it is a powerful force used by Turgenev through the character of Bazarov to provide an alternative to the traditions and romanticism of the 'fathers' of the novel. The force does not prevail however. The strength of Bazarov's intellectual approach to everything crumbles in the face of both nature and love. His adoring friend Arkady loses interest in it and Bazarov himself succumbs; first to the personality of Madame Odintsov and finally to the infection that leads to his untimely death. Growing up, Turgenev witnessed much class injustice in Russia, and his themes reflect his overwhelming concern with the suffering of the poor and the voiceless serfs. But Fathers and Sons is not merely a convenient socio-political piece; Turgenev is a lyrical romantic. At the novel's heart lies the ultimately tragic human story of Bazarov's flippant kiss of a servant girl and the bizarre tension it causes in a cozy country gentry household where he is a guest. The world goes on, but the ideas presented are not vanquished but merely lie dormant, to be resurrected in continuing political unrest in Russia.

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Brian Joseph said...

I have been wanting to read Turgenev for a while but have not yet done so. I his fairly high on my list of authors that I really want to get to. I am fascinated by the ideas that others say he presents. Of course this work sounds fascinating for a lot of reasons.

Thanks for the commentary!

James said...

Hope you enjoy Turgenev. He is the most lyrical of the great Russian novelists, yet presents the clash of ideas as well.