Fathers and Sons and Nihilists

A short time ago, I finished an interesting little novel by Ivan Turgenev, his most famous work: Fathers and Sons.  I used to know a Russian Jew who, to my surprise, told me that Alexander Pushkin and Ivan Turgenev were his favorite Russian authors.  (I had expected either Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoyevsky to be on the list.) Having finished Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a salient work on the early effects of Western thought on Russian society, I at last found time to try out the Russian gentleman’s other favorite.  I was quite delighted at how the book focused more on the darker aspects of Westernization in Russian and the one which held the most dire consequences: nihilism.

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Turgenev, though he did not coin the term, made the word nihilism a popular point of discussion across Russia thanks to Fathers and Sons.  Turgenev claims that he did not intend nihilism to mean a belief in nothing: even if the novel’s hero, Bazarov, often gives that impression.  Instead, meant by nihilism a philosophy of revolution.  Yet, this revolution was nothing less than a revolution against all the mores of Russian society and its heritage.  Bazarov contemns poetry, the beauty of nature, religion, aristocracy, serfdom, superstition, romance, etc.  In the place of the above, he inserts science and matter.  I could never imagine recommending a work of physics to a lady acquaintance, unless that lady was a modern Marie Curie.  Yet, Bazarov and his friend Arcadii recommend books on science and economics to all and sundry.  Bazarov can be seen as noble for decrying the worst in Russian society, but he throws the baby out with the bath water, and his nihilism has nothing to offer the human spirit.

The program of the novel almost seems Hegelian.  (A reminder that Turgenev was a Westernizer himself, but less radical.) The Slavophiles, Arcadii’s father and uncle, stand for the thesis, Bazarov for the antithesis, and Arcadii, once he removes himself from Bazarov’s influence, for the synthesis of the two–keeping what is good and rejecting what is evil or inferior.  Turgenev realizes that things could not go on as they were in Russia.  Some ideas from the West have merit, but nihilism, and the Marxism and socialism which form its core, threaten to dehumanize the motherland in a vague notion of progress.  We truly have a fair minded novel here.  One is surprised that it drew so much criticism in 1862, when it was published, that Turgenev went into self-imposed exile.
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Another writer, the famous Dostoyevsky, was one of two people Turgenev thought really understood the novel.  And, Dostoyevsky became a devoted Slavophile after discerning how dangerous nihilism was to Russia.  His novel Demons details the dark vision he foresees for Russia, which fully describes the evils nihilism, in the form of Marxism, had in store both for Russia and the entire world.

So, I recommend the trio of Eugene Onegin, Fathers and Sons, and Demons to anyone who wishes to study this topic further, since each one builds of the other and Pushkin is the Father of Russian literature.

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