Fathers and Children: Turgenev and the Liberal Predicament Part II

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Ivan Turgenev
Ivan Turgenev; drawing by David Levine

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…

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