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Fathers and Children: Turgenev and the Liberal Predicament Part II

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Young Man to Middle-aged Man; “You had content but no force.” Middle-aged Man to Young Man; “And you have force but no content.”

From a contemporary conversation1

This is the topic of Turgenev’s most famous, and politically most interesting, novel Fathers and Children. It was an attempt to give flesh and substance to his image of the new men, whose mysterious, impalpable precence, he declared, he felt about him everywhere, and who inspired in him feelings that he found it difficult to analyze. “There was,” he wrote many years later in a friend,” please don’t laugh—some sort of farum, something stronger than the author himself, something independent of him. I know one thing; I started with no preconceived idea, no ‘tendency’; I wrote naïvely, as if myself astonished at what was emerging.”2 He said that the central figure of the novel, Bazarov, was modeled mainly on a Russian doctor whom he met in a train in Russia: But Bazarov has some of the characteristics of Belinsky too, Like him, he is the son of a poor army doctor, and he possesses some of Belinsky’s brusqueness, his directness, his intolerance, his liability to explode at any sign of hypocrisy, of solemnity, of pompous conservative, or evasive liberal, cant. And there is, despite Turgenev’s denials, something of the ferocious, militant anti-aestheticism of Dobrolyubov too.

The central topic of the novel is the confrontation of the old and the young, of liberals and radicals, traditional civilization and the new, harsh positivism which has no use for anything except what is needed by a rational man. Bazarov, a young medical researcher, is invited by his fellow student and disciple, Arkadi Kirsanov, to stay at his father’s house in the country. Nicholas Kirsanov, the father, is a gentle, kindly, modest country gentleman, who adores poetry and nature, and greets his son’s brilliant friend with touching courtesy. Also in the house is Nicholas Kirsanov’s brother. Paul, a retired army officer, a carefully dressed, vain, pompous, old-fashioned dandy, who had once been a minor lion in the salons of the capital, and is now living out his life in elegant and hritated boredom.

Bazarov scents an enemy, and takes deliberate pleasure in describing himself and his allies as “nihilists,” by which he means no more than that he, and those who think like him, reject everything that cannot be established by the rational methods of natural science. Truth alone matters: what cannot be established by observation and experiment is useless or harmful ballast—“romantic rubbish”—which an intelligent man will ruthlessly eliminate. In this heap of irrational nonsense Bazarov includes all that is irrational, unverifiable, that cannot be reduced to quantitative measurement—literature and philosophy, the beauty of art and the beauty of nature, tradition and authority, religion and intuition, the uncriticized assumptions of conservatives and liberals, of populists and socialists, of landowners and serfs. He believes in strength, willpower, energy, utility, work, ruthless criticism of all that exists. He wishes to tear off masks, blow up all revered principles and norms. Only irrefutable facts, only useful knowledge, matter. He clashes almost immediately with the touchy, conventional Poul Kirsanov: “At present,” he tells him, “the most useful thing is to deny. So we deny.” “Everything?” asks Paul Kirsanov. “Everything.” “What? Not only art, poetry…but even…too horrible to utter….” “Everything.” “So you destroy everything…but surely one must build, too?” “That’s not our business…. First, one must clear the ground.”

The fiery revolutionary agitator Bakunin, who had just then escaped from Sibenu to London, was saying something of this kind: the entire rotten structure, the corrupt old world, must be razed to the ground, before something new can be built upon it; what this is to be is not for us to say; we are revolutionaries, our business is to demolish. The new men, purified from the infection of the world of idlers and exploiters and its bogus values—these men will know what to do. The French anarchist Georges Sorel once quoted Marx as saying “Anyone who makes plans for after the revolution is a reactionary.”3 This went beyond the position of Turgenev’s radical critics of the Contemporary. They did have a program of sorts: they were not ruthless egoistic individualists, disciples of Max Stirner or scientific positivism; they were socialists, democrats, and passionate popullats. But faith in the people seems just as irrational to Bazarov as the rest of the “romantic rubbish.” “Our peasants,” he declares, “are prepared to rob themselves in order to drink themselves blind at the inn.” A man’s first duty is to develop his own powers, to be strong and rational, to create a society in which other rational men can breathe and live and learn.

His mild disciple Arkadi suggests to him that it would be ideal if all peasants lived in a pleasant, white-washed hut, like the head man of their village. “I have conceived a loathing for this…peasant,” Bazarov says. “I have to work the skin off my hands for him, and he won’t so much as thank me for it; anyway, what do I need his thanks for? He’ll go on living in his white-washed hut, while weeds grow out of me….” Arkadi is shocked by such talk; but it is the voice of the new, hard-boiled, unashamed, materialistic egoism.

Nevertheless Bazarov is at his case with peasants, they are not self-conscious with him even if they think him an odd sort of member of the gentry. Bazarov spends hours on examining insects or dissecting frogs. “A decent chemist,” he tells his shaken host, “is twenty times more use than any poet.” Arkadi, after consulting Bazarov, gently draws a volume of Pushkin out of his father’s hands, and slips into them Buchner’s Kraft und Stoff,4 the latest popular exposition of materialism. Turgenev describes the older Kirsanov walking in his garden:

Nikolal Petrovich dropped his head, and passed his hand over his face. “But to reject poetry,” he thought again, “not to have a feeling for art, for nature….” and he cast about him, as if trying to understand how it was possible not to have a feeling for nature.

All principles, Bazarov declares, are reducible to mere sensations. Arkadi asks whether, in that case, honesty is only a sensation. “You find this hard to swallow?” says Bazarov. “No, friend, if you have decided to knock everything down, you must knock yourself down, tool…’

This is the voice of Bakunin and Dobrolyubov: “one must clear the ground.” The new culture must be founded on real, that is, materialist, scientific values: socialism is just as unreal and abstract as any other of the “isms” imported from abroad. As for the old aesthetic, literary culture, it will crumble before the realists, the new, tough-minded men who can look the brutal truth in the face. “Aristocracy, liberalism, progress, principles…what a lot of foreign…and useless words. A Russian would not want them as a gift.” Paul Kirsanov rejects this contemptuously; but his nephew Arkadi cannot in the end accept it either. “You aren’t made for our harsh, bitter, solitary kind of life,” Bazarov tells him.

you aren’t Insolent, you aren’t nasty, all you have is the audacity, the impulsiveness of youth, and that is of no use in our business. Your type, the gentry, cannot get beyond noble humility, noble Indignation, and that is nonsense. You won’t, for instance, fight, and yet you think yourselves terrific. We want to fight…. Our dust will eat out your eyes, our dirt will spoil your clothes, you haven’t risen to our level yet, you still can’t help admiring yourselves, you like castigating yourselves, and that bores us. Hand us others—it is them we want to break. You are a good fellow, but, all the same, you are nothing but a soft, beautifully bred, liberal boy….

Bazarov, someone once said, is the first Bolshevik; even though he is not a socialist, there is some truth in this. He wants radical change and does not shrink from brute force. The old dandy, Paul Kirsanov, protests against this:

Force? There is force in savage Kalmucks and Mongols, too…. What do we want it for?…Civilization, its fruits, are dear to us. And don’t tell me they are worthless. The most miserable dauber…the pianist who taps on the keys in a restaurant…they are more useful than you are, because they represent civilization and not brute Mongol force. You imagine that you are progressive; you should be sitting in a Kalmuck wagon!

In the end, Bazarov, against all his principles, falls in love with a cold, clever, well-born society beauty, is rejected by her, suffers deeply, and not long after dies as a result of an infection caught while dissecting a corpse in a village autopsy. He dies stoically, wondering whether his country had any real need of him and men like him; and his death is bitterly lamented by his old, humble, loving parents.

Bazarov falls because he is broken by fate, not through failure of will or intellect. “I conceived him,” Turgenev later wrote to a young student, “as a somber figure, wild, huge, half-grown out of the soil, powerful, nasty, honest, but doomed to destruction because he still stands only in the gateway to the future….’5 This brutal, fanatical, dedicated figure, with his unused powers, is represented as an avenger for insulted human reason; yet, in the end, he is incurably wounded by a love, by a human passion that he suppresses and denies within himself, a crisis by which he is humiliated and humanized. In the end, he is crushed by heartless nature, by what the author calls the cold-eyed goddess Isis who does not care for good or evil, or art or beauty, still less for man, the creature of an hour; he is not saved either by his egoism or his altruism, by faith or by works, by rational hedonism or puritanical pursuit of duty; he struggles to assert himself; but nature is indifferent; she obeys her own inexorable laws.

Fathers and Children was published in the spring of 1862 and caused the greatest storm among its Russian readers of any novel before or, indeed, since. What was Bazarov? How was he to be taken? Was he a positive or a negative figure? A hero or a devil? He is young, bold, intelligent, strong, he has thrown off the burden of the past, the melancholy impotence of the “superfluous men” beating vainly against the bars of the prison house of Russian society. The critic Strakhov in his review spoke of him as a character conceived on a heroic scale.6 Many years later Lunacharsky described him as the first “positive” hero in Russian literature. Does he then symbolize progress? Freedom? Yet his hatred of art and culture, of the entire world of liberal values, his cynical asides—does the author mean to hold these up for admiration?

  1. 1

    The original epigraph to Fathers and Children which Turgenev later discarded. Sev A. Mazon, Manuscrits parisiens d’lvan Tourguénev (Paris, 1930). pp. 64-65.

  2. 2

    From a letter to Sallykov-Shehedrin, January 15, 1876.

  3. 3

    Sorel declares that this passage occurs in a letter which, according to the economist Lujo Brentano, Marx wrote to one of his English friends, Professor E. S. Boésly (Reflexions sur la violence, 7th edition [Paris, 1930], p. 199, n. 2). I have not found it in any published collection of Marx’s letters.

  4. 4

    Turgenev calls it Stoff und Kraft.

  5. 5

    Letter to Sluchevsky, April 26, 1862.

  6. 6

    Ottsy i deti,” Vremya, 1862, No. 4, pp. 58-84. See also his essays on Turgenev in Kriticheskiye stat’i ob I.S. Turgeneve i L.N. Tolstom (1862-1885), (St. Petersburg, 1885).

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