Ivan Turgenev - Fathers And Sons - Preface To Podcast
Updated: Sep 2, 2021
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin: if asked to rank, in order of brilliance, the three greatest authors to whom mother Russia has given birth, the three literary sons into whom that vast and fertile state has breathed such copious life, one would be apt to respond with the aforesaid.
Dostoyevsky, darkly psychological, and unfathomably deep, would be awarded the preeminent place. Tolstoy, insulted by the somewhat arbitrary decision, would remain very close on the epileptic’s heels. Pushkin, eldest of the three, would stand back from that dread fight now embroiling the summit—that very pinnacle from which he’s not so very far away. Conscious of his shortcomings, he’d simply honor the company among whom he is, and forevermore will be, counted, and relish the view. Such, I think, is the disposition of a poet. As for the novelists, it’s their penchant to strike.
If, however, we were to extend our list to permit the inclusion of one more writer, space would be made for Ivan Turgenev. If only on its slightly less exalted second tier, Turgenev would be granted admission to the Russian Pantheon, to that lofty, thin abode suspended in the clouds, about which, on the wings of genius, the spirit this remarkable nation whirls.
Born in the year 1818, Turgenev absorbed all of the excitement and tumult of his age. He experienced the diminution of the king, and the liberation of the serfs. Peace, in his time, was an exception, never a rule. The Crimean War was a seminal event. He followed it with nervous attention, and wished for an outcome clement to each side. He viewed the later Franco-Prussian War with similar ambivalence. Some in the country of his birth might have suspected his sympathies of having strayed; he was, after all, an inveterate lover of all things British and French (including the enchanting Parisian vocalist, Pauline Viardot).
Despite the uncertainty of his allegiance, however, he sensed in these wars an unraveling of sorts. He felt the disruption of a continent with which, as a Russian, he hoped only to build stronger bonds of friendship. To his bones, he felt the warmth of European culture, and basked in the intoxication of the West, while being simultaneously chilled by Russian tradition’s sobering touch. In truth, he stood astride two epochs, and two worlds: one old and aristocratic, the other progressive and new.
Between them, joined in the danger of a combustible union, were two volatile fumes: that of liberalism, and that of nihilism. The latter was the great success of the Enlightenment, that resounding shift of the intellect by which all prior thought was happily unsettled. And oh how Turgenev rejoiced in the disturbance by which his feet were daily tickled! As for nihilism, he sensed the development of this idea more acutely than most. Nietzsche, of course, had noticed, but at a slightly later date. It was Turgenev who gave this despondent philosophical notion its unforgettable hero: Bazarov.
We’re introduced to this disquieting figure in Turgenev’s best-known work, Fathers and Sons (or, in the original Russian, Fathers and Children). It was published in 1862, and it enjoys, still to this day, the distinction of being among that century’s immortal works.
Hero, of course, might not be the most suitable term, for there’s very little in this University graduate deserving of emulation. Anti-hero, if forced to choose a replacement, would doubtless be more apt. He, along with the charming but impressionable Arkady, is representative of the younger generation for which Russia was, at this time, grudgingly beginning to make room. He’s the symbol of a group of young, melancholic radicals, fresh onto the scene, into whom the fangs of nihilism have already sunk their poisonous teeth. Opposite these two are the “Fathers”: Pavel and Nicholi Petrovich. The former, like Bazarov, is an egoist; the latter, like his son, a moralist. The difference is that these elder two gentlemen are just that—gentlemen. They still believe in the niceties of aristocratic behavior, the goals of the Enlightenment, and the meaning of life.
Bazarov, ever prone to profanation, says that he only looks to heaven when he wants to sneeze. For this, he must be pitied: it’s the confession of a man numb to the aesthetic, and contemptuous of the divine. The rest, as we learn, harbor a deeper affinity for the sky, up to which they look if not with faith, then at least with awe.
From the text:
“A nihilist—that’s from the Latin "nihil", nothing, so far as I can judge. Therefore, the word denotes a man who doesn’t recognize anything?” Sadly, it does. The word’s etymology, should you be so fearless as to trace it to its root, shan’t lead you astray. It will, however, lead you to dark, morbid, and unnatural places, to a chthonic world out of which you’ll not easily climb. It’ll lead you to a realm emptied of meaning, and an existence stripped of life. The materialist, utilitarian, unpoetic, brooding Bazarov will welcome you to this ghastly terrain.