Even without the COVID-19 epidemic, the Western world has been going through turbulent times, economically, socially, politically and culturally. All times are turbulent, perhaps, and we just happen to be so constituted as always to think that our present turbulence is unprecedented and greater than that of any in the past. It is only in retrospect that some or other period of the past seems peaceful and placid to us, which it never did to those who lived through it; nevertheless, there seem to us to have been periods that we are pleased to call normal, that is to say times when most important questions seemed to be settled and all problems were either minor or susceptible of easy solution.
Past travails, however, illuminate present travails. Historical analogies are never exact—that, after all, is why there are analogies rather than repetitions—and the lessons of the past are always disputable; moreover, there is no human experience from which the wrong conclusions cannot be drawn. Perhaps one of the ironies of our present conjuncture is that, while multiculturalism is extolled and treated almost as an unimpeachable orthodoxy, so many people lack historical imagination and cannot enter mentally into a world in which people had a different scale of values from their own. The past for them is not another country where they do things differently; it is the same country where they were not as enlightened as we.
This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Karl Marx was quite right when he said that men make their own history but not just as they choose: from this well-expressed truism, however, he drew the false conclusion that there existed historical inevitability. In his view, men could have free will only if they were free of all constraining circumstances whatever, but this is not only to invoke an impossibility, but to mistake the nature of infinity. It does not follow from the fact that some choices are closed to me—I cannot, for example, be King of England—that the number of choices before me is not infinite. A grammar limits what can meaningfully be said, but it does not limit the infinitude of what can be said.
The great Russian writer Ivan Turgenev was an exact contemporary of Karl Marx. They were born and died in the same years, 1818 and 1883. These were not the only parallels in their lives. They both came under the influence of Hegelianism in Berlin, and they were in the same place when the revolutions of 1848 broke out. They both knew the Russian anarchist Bakunin, and were close friends with him, though they both broke from him later. They were both at home in several languages. But as far as I know, they never met; and though Turgenev was born of the Russian aristocracy, his acquaintance with actual oppression—in his case by his mother of the peasants whom, as a serf-owner, she held as property, and whom she often treated abominably, and always arbitrarily—was far greater than Marx’s. The latter hated oppression in the abstract, and developed an equally abstract doctrine which eventually took oppression to new heights (or depths); but Turgenev, no doubt both because of his temperament and personal acquaintance with it, hated oppression viscerally, while remaining clear-sighted about the many possible forms it could take and the many circumstances in which it could arise. He was not a doctrinaire and envisaged no utopias.
His most famous work—though all his novels, short stories and essays were excellent and have never been out of print—was Fathers and Sons, published in 1861, the year of the emancipation of the serfs in Russia (and a year before the emancipation decree in the United States). It is often said that Turgenev’s first published prose work, Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, read by the Emperor and Empress of Russia, hastened or brought forward the emancipation, though no doubt it would eventually have occurred in any case.
In Fathers and Sons, Arkady Kirsanov, son of Nikolai Kirsanov, returns home to his father’s isolated small landholding after completing his university degree. He arrives with his close friend and mentor Bazarov, a student of natural sciences and aspiring doctor, who is of somewhat lower social class, being the son of an army surgeon, and who is, as it were, a prodromal revolutionary, or revolutionary type.
Bazarov is a complete rationalist, that is to say someone who accepts no authority other than that of his own reasoning and the evidence of his own eyes, on any subject whatever. He is a kind of logical positivist avant la lettre: the only kind of knowledge that he believes in is that proved by scientific experiment, though in fact he is scientistic rather than scientific.
He regards poetic utterance as worthless and even meaningless. Turgenev coined, or at least made current, the word nihilist through Bazarov’s self-description as such. Bazarov claimed to believe in nothing, belief being co-terminous in his mind with superstition and irrationality, and hence the term nihilist: though of course it is impossible for metaphysical reasons to clear human minds of belief and presuppositions, and in any case science is not straightforwardly the body of indubitable and positive established truths, as Bazarov appears naively to think it is. In this, ironically given his insistence on thinking for himself, he follows the rather crude German positivist materialists in vogue at the time, such as Büchner. It is not easy to think entirely for yourself: in fact, it is impossible.
It is the conflict between Bazarov’s philosophy and the inevitable exigencies of human life that are the theme, at least to a modern reader, of this great book. Bazarov comes to a tragic end, dying of typhus contracted from performing a post-mortem on a person who has died of that disease. Turgenev’s clinical description of the disease, incidentally, is very accurate. At his death, Bazarov realises the insufficiency of the whole philosophy by which he has tried to live, but alas it is too late. He has by then fallen in love, and is therefore prey to emotions far stronger than his rationalism.
Kirsanov is dazzled by Bazarov’s superior intelligence, and even more, perhaps, by the certitude with which he holds his opinions. He has become Bazarov’s disciple, but he is not made of the stern, single-minded stuff of Bazarov. He is a natural follower, where Bazarov is a leader. His weakness and vacillation are his salvation, at least as far as his happiness is concerned; he is not the kind of man, any more than was Turgenev himself, to follow a line of argument and cleave to it even if it led to a horrible conclusion. Turgenev’s own vacillations, however, extended not only to political or philosophical matters, but to personal ones also. His only real emotional commitment in his adult life was to Pauline Viardot, an opera singer of Spanish descent who was married to another man, Louis Viardot, and whom he followed around almost like a lapdog. He lived in a ménage à trois for many years.
Fathers and Sons is a novel of ideas, but unlike the characters of Bernard Shaw’s plays of ideas, who often resemble ventriloquists’ puppets under Shaw’s control rather than real living human beings, the characters in the novel express their ideas in a way that is indissolubly linked or expressive of their character, though the ideas that they express are also fully of their time: a time which, as we shall see, speaks to our own more than a century and a half later to a surprising extent, given all the historical changes that have taken place in the meantime. In short, Turgenev’s novel has the feel of lived reality, with all the ambiguities and inconsistencies that anyone not in the grip of an ironclad ideology will recognise. It is Turgenev’s temperamental vacillation that permits him to see all sides of a situation: though, of course, I do not mean to imply that every vacillator is a Turgenev.
The heart of the novel, as far as its ideas are concerned, occurs in Chapter 11. In this chapter, Bazarov has an argument with Pavel Kirsanov, Arkady Kirsanov’s paternal uncle, who also lives in the family house. Uncle Pavel despises, hates and perhaps fears Bazarov from the very first, and is aware of Bazarov’s disdain or even contempt for him. He is determined to have a quarrel, as if that would clear the air as does the storm in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.
Uncle Pavel is an aristocratic drone, which was in some sense what Turgenev felt himself to be. Indeed, there are parallels with the author’s life, though they are not exact, as one would not expect them to be from a literary artist of Turgenev’s calibre. Pavel Kirsanov, for example, has had an unsatisfactory love affair with a woman, Princess R, whom he follows round Europe with dog-like devotion, much as Turgenev followed Pauline Viardot: though in the end Princess R dies mad and Uncle Pavel, unlike Turgenev, retires permanently, licking his emotional wounds and living on his brother Nikolai’s estate. Incidentally, the difficulties that Nikolai experiences in running his estate, many of them consequent upon his soft-heartedness and the advantage taken of him by crafty and dishonest peasants, parallel those that Turgenev himself experienced in running his estate, from which he derived an income throughout his life, though he spent most of that life in Western Europe. Turgenev was aware that his literary activities were possible only because of the labour of the peasants.
In a way, Uncle Pavel is a victim of his own good fortune. An exceptionally handsome man, and with (at least in youth) a natural charm, he does not really have to struggle to make his way. Again, there are parallels with Turgenev. At first Pavel goes through life like a hot knife through butter, but too easy success, at least in the social sphere, is bought at the expense of a failure to strive for anything, or even to appreciate the need for striving. Thus, together with his disappointed grand passion, he is set up for a life of pointless, if not altogether unpleasant, existence.
He is both fastidious and punctilious. He continues to dress as a dandy, as for the drawing rooms of aristocratic Petersburg, though he lives in the utmost rural isolation from society (and, of course, given the vast extent of Russia, that is very isolated indeed). He is careful with his ties, collars, coats, hair and whiskers, which he perfumes. He follows the English fashions of the time. His hands are carefully manicured and of course free from any taint of manual activity. He is intelligent and cultivated, reads German and frequently uses French expressions, as if they come naturally to his mind as the best way to express his thoughts. He is as exotic as a hothouse pineapple grown in a cold climate.
As for his moral qualities, one could not say that he was either very good nor very bad—unless, of course, you take the view, as Bazarov did, that to live essentially on the labour of others is very bad.
The conflict between Bazarov and Uncle Pavel is partly generational. In fact, Nikolai and Pavel are not very old, at least by modern standards, being only in their forties; but people aged more quickly in those days, and Turgenev considered himself old by the time he was forty-two. Furthermore, not all generational conflict is political in nature. Whether intergenerational friction, misunderstanding or conflict is an inevitable part of the human condition is not a question that I can answer, for lack of knowledge of all human societies that have ever existed; it is sufficient for our purposes that it is by no means uncommon with us. As the old shepherd puts it in The Winter’s Tale:
I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest: for there is nothing in between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting …
(Shakespeare knew whereof he spoke: did he not get Ann Hathaway with child when he was eighteen?)
When Arkady arrives home, Turgenev very succinctly draws attention to one of the small tragedies of human existence, namely that children often mean more to their parents than parents mean to their children. There is an inevitability about this, at least in societies where children are expected to make their own way; and on Arkady’s arrival home, Turgenev tells us, “Nikolai Petrovich appeared to be far more excited than his son. He seemed a little flurried and overcome with shyness”—the shyness of the kind that hides extremity of emotion.
Youth is often thoughtless towards age, that is to say cruel without meaning to be. When just after his arrival Arkady remarks on the sweetness of the air at home, Nikolai Petrovich says, “Of course, you were born here so everything is bound to strike you with a special …”
Arkady interrupts him, saying, “But papa, what difference does it make where a person was born?”
“Still—” hazards the father.
“No,” continues Arkady, with the certainty that comes from inexperience, “it makes absolutely no difference.” Nikolai Petrovich gives a sidelong glance at his son, adds Turgenev.
Note how deftly this is done, and how much it suggests! As we are soon to learn, Arkady has fallen under the spell of the rationalist Bazarov, who would say something like this: If the air of a place is sweet, it is precisely as sweet as it is irrespective of where one was born. To say anything else would be to give in to abominable and irrational superstition or sentimentality. The quality of the air is the same for the stranger and the native.
This, of course, is a crude kind of rationalism that requires that we ignore the very common, if not necessarily universal, attachment people form to the place of their birth and childhood, without necessarily claiming the place of their childhood to be the most beautiful place in the world. We love where we have been raised partly, perhaps, for its beauty (though people may also be nostalgic for places that are far from beautiful, indeed are very ugly), but much more because it is ours, it has a vital connection to our lives and our past. If we have been happy in childhood, we value where we were raised. In Bazarov’s philosophy, however, we should value places, if we should value them at all, according to strict and objective criteria: but humans are not, and cannot be, like this, though Arkady thinks, as Bazarov’s disciple, that he himself ought to be.
Arkady clearly inflicts pain on his father without wishing to do so, through the callowness of youth rather than through malice. His father hopes that Arkady, having come home, will stay for a long time; Arkady’s professed lack of attachment to place removes one reason why he might do so, and thus his father foresees that he will not stay long and his fondest hopes are dashed.
There is nothing political in all this. Such scenes are enacted, such pain inflicted, every day, because children inevitably come to make their own lives, at least in non-traditional societies, and separate from their parents. It is one of the prices we pay for freedom of the individual. Implicitly, then, this is tragic, which is to say that there is no solution, least of all political, to the suffering caused. Not all desirable things in life—for example, the freedom of children to make their own lives and the desire of parents to remain close to their children—are achievable at the same time. Utopianism, a permanent temptation of the young and of those who decline to acknowledge the complexities and ambiguities of life, is excluded. This is important, because political utopianism was a growing phenomenon in Turgenev’s Russia, as perhaps it is in our time too.
But the conflict between Uncle Pavel and Bazarov, besides being generational, is of a quite different order from Arkady’s disappointment of his father and is political, ideological, philosophical and above all cultural. What is astonishing is that, despite the very different social, political and economic circumstances of today, one can easily imagine such arguments in the homes of any Western country today, where they might break out over a large number of subjects, any one of which swiftly would call into question the underlying assumptions and whole way of life that the older generation had hitherto taken for granted. One has only to think of the upheavals in homes that demands for the adoption of vegetarianism or veganism would cause, or of the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement, to imagine the potential for bitterness and dispute. Moreover, radicalism on one question is likely to be associated, statistically if not logically, with radicalism on another: another form of intersectionality, if I may so put it. Mutual exasperation is likely to be the result.
The cultural dimension of the conflict is extremely important. In effect, Bazarov wants a cultural revolution. Even before his dispute with Uncle Pavel, he has remarked to Arkady on his father’s fondness for reading poetry, which he considers useless, time-consuming and even harmful in that it discourages the kind of activity that would lead to social progress. (Here I must reiterate that Turgenev was not an opponent of such progress, and was fully aware of its desirability, having been an effective opponent of the feudalism in the midst of which he grew up.) Arkady, still in complete thrall to his mentor, Bazarov, finds his father reading Pushkin and gently replaces the book with one by Büchner, the militant materialist who insisted that there was nothing more to man than matter and force, and also that his complete happiness would be found in the application of science. Pushkin, of course, was almost the founder of Russian literature and is to this day considered the greatest poet in the language, so that to replace him by a volume by Büchner might be considered, at least symbolically, the equivalent of pulling down a statue of George Washington in the United States.
In recounting the dispute—or skirmish, as Turgenev puts it—between Uncle Pavel and Bazarov, Turgenev does not load the dice: in other words, he does not reduce it to a question of good versus evil, allowing good to triumph by means of conclusively superior argument. Both characters are flawed; there are between them not only intellectual differences, but those of temperament and class—Uncle Pavel being an aristocrat and Bazarov of the non-landed middle class and intelligentsia that was then just emerging in Russia and was to play a huge part in bringing about the Revolution. It is a tribute to Turgenev’s art that we do not feel that any single factor is completely determinant of either of the characters’ views, which is to say that they are not just caricatures or ideal types brought on to illustrate a doctrine, but real flesh-and-blood human beings. Hence the discussion does not proceed in an orderly fashion, with one of the characters playing the part of Socrates in a Platonic dialogue, but proceeds rather by accusation or insinuation and counter-accusation or counter-insinuation as such discussions tend to do in real life.
The acrimonious discussion begins when Bazarov, en passant, calls a local landowner a “third-rate” aristocrat. Uncle Pavel seizes the opportunity for a quarrel and accuses Bazarov of meaning that all aristocrats are third-rate, ex officio, because aristocracy is intrinsically productive of the third-rate. Bazarov hasn’t actually said this in so many words, but we all know that words may carry a heavier load of implication than of literal meaning.
Uncle Pavel defends aristocracy not so much as a social system as an ideal:
I am seeking to prove [that] without a proper sense of pride, without a sense of self-respect—and these feelings are highly developed in the aristocracy—there can be no firm foundation for the social … bien public—the social fabric. It is personal character that matters, my dear sir: a man’s personal character must be as strong as a rock, since everything is built up on it.
Here is a reference to a question that even now has not been answered definitively, and perhaps never will be answered: do men make society, or does society make men? This goes straight to the heart of the insoluble mystery of being human: what makes us, how do we become, what we are?
Bazarov is clearly of the party that believes in a society so perfect that no one will have to be good; Uncle Pavel is of the opposing view: and it is probably true that the young in general are inclined to the former, the older to the latter, hence the title of the book. Here I should perhaps add a personal note: I have sometimes had discussions with ardent young people like Bazarov, in which I have suddenly thought to myself, “I am turning into Uncle Pavel.”
Uncle Pavel continues by extolling self-respect:
I am very well aware … that you are pleased to ridicule my habits, my way of dressing, my punctiliousness, in fact. But these very things proceed from a sense of self-respect, from a sense of duty—yes, sir, of duty. I may live in the country, in the wilds of the country, but I do not let myself go, I respect myself as a human being.
This self-praise, not surprisingly, gives Bazarov an opening. He says, interrupting:
Allow me, Pavel Petrovich. You say you respect yourself and you sit with your arms folded: what sort of benefit does that do the bien public? If you didn’t respect yourself, you’d do just the same.
There is obvious justice in Bazarov’s retort. Uncle Pavel’s punctiliousness clearly partakes of vanity and self-regard, and furthermore does not benefit anyone other than himself as he looks in the glass and parades himself in the house. There is no one to admire or be grateful for his dandyism. And yet Bazarov’s argument does not quite settle the matter, for there is no doubt that, even if self-respect is not the true motive of Uncle Pavel’s punctiliousness, yet self-respect is genuinely enough a virtue.
Uncle Pavel’s punctiliousness requires an effort, and in other circumstances—in a city, say—an effort made for the sake of others, or at least the opinion of others. Someone with this kind of punctiliousness must at least be aware of others and try to enter their minds, to see things from their point of view. Contrary to what we might at first have thought, punctiliousness of the Uncle Pavel kind may result from a concern for others, not for the self—though it may not: and also may, like any virtue, be taken too far and become a vice.
Compare this with the extreme casualness of the way we dress now. Do we not, by the way we dress, in effect say to others, “I’m not going to make an effort just to please you!” Those of intellectual bent may add in their thoughts, “My mind is focused on higher things than mere appearances.” And thus an asocial mass sloppiness results.
So in this part of the argument, Uncle Pavel and Bazarov are both right and wrong. Sincere reflection on this very ambiguity would tend to break down the binary political culture to which Russia was increasingly becoming prey, and which in the end was to produce such a catastrophe. Fifty years later, the Tsarist Russian Minister of the Interior was to say that the epileptics of the revolution were opposed by the paralytics of the government, and we see this ab ovo in Uncle Pavel’s disputation with Bazarov.
The epileptic (or perhaps choreiform would be a better neurological analogy) nature of Russian radicalism is clear from the continuation of the discussion on the matter of principles. Bazarov claims to have no first principles, but the belief that one should have no first principles is itself a first principle, and therefore his philosophy is self-refuting. I am reminded of the self-refuting philosophy of the Logical Positivists, who claimed that a proposition was meaningful either by definition or by potential correspondence with an empirically testable state of affairs: itself a proposition neither true by definition nor testable empirically, and therefore—by its own standards—meaningless.
Unfortunately, the incoherence of a philosophy does not make it harmless, quite the contrary. In the course of the discussion, Bazarov says, “We base our conduct on what we recognise as useful. In these days the most useful thing we can do is to repudiate—and so we repudiate.”
This, of course, horrifies Uncle Pavel, just as the young nihilists of the present time horrify their elders. “Everything?” Uncle Pavel demands to know.
“Everything,” replies Bazarov.
“What? Not only art, poetry … but also … I am afraid to say it …”
And Bazarov, with great composure, repeats, “Everything!”
Surely in Bazarov we can hear the voices of young people in Western society today who claim that their own societies have been built on nothing but force, fraud, massacre, injustice, slavery and so forth, and therefore everything must be swept away, as if they were trying to clear a jungle in order to start a plantation (which, incidentally, is rarely a good idea, since a jungle, though luxuriant to all appearances, often grows on thin and vulnerable soil that swiftly erodes when cleared of its native vegetation). Since all our institutions are founded in this history of force and fraud, the past existence of which cannot of course be denied, it is necessary to begin again from scratch, without respect for or even awareness of the slow accretion of achievement that has enabled us to live as well as we do (by comparison with most people in history). “One must construct too, you know,” says Arkady’s father weakly, but Bazarov simply replies, “That is not our affair … The ground must be cleared first.”
Then there is the question of whether the nihilists like Bazarov, who are so small in number, can in practice effect any change. “Do you think you can take on the whole nation?” asks Uncle Pavel, to which Bazarov replies, “A penny candle, you know, set Moscow on fire.” And he says this not as a warning, or as a call to prudence, but as a message of hope. He wants Moscow, and everywhere else, to be burnt down, at least metaphorically.
At this point, I doubt that many Americans, and no doubt people in other countries, all of them with seemingly more solid foundations than those of Tsarist Russia in the 1860s, will not think of the effect that a very small percentage of the population has had, very suddenly, on the whole country, and how what seemed so stable, almost immemorial, now appears extremely fragile.
Of course we cannot read Fathers and Sons without the knowledge (which Turgenev could not, of course, have had) of what was to happen less than sixty years later. It is impossible for us not to regard Bazarov and his nihilism as a kind of harbinger for the disasters to come, albeit that he himself was not to see those disasters. During the Soviet period, indeed, Bazarov was taken to be an unequivocally positive hero. His morality was a slightly weaker version of the morality of Lenin, for whom whatever served the revolution and the establishment of Bolshevik power was good, whatever hindered it was bad. Indeed, morality could have no other meaning; repudiation of everything else was necessary, for example of normal human decency and kindness as mere petit bourgeois sentimentality, for example, and even the beauty of music (Lenin couldn’t listen to a Beethoven sonata because, he said, doing so sapped his revolutionary ardour, precisely as Bazarov might have said or warned).
Our knowledge of events subsequent to the publication of Turgenev’s great book prevents us, I think, from responding to Bazarov as anything other than a revolutionary prig, but this was not how Turgenev saw him. On the contrary, he was very sympathetic towards him, and in some sense loved him. He is said to have cried as he wrote the passage describing Bazarov’s death, which indeed is very moving. At the end of his life, Bazarov has found love, which—too late—he realises is more important than philosophy or social revolution, for a world without love would not be worth working for. And since love is achievable in the present world, that world cannot be so totally bad that everything must be swept away before starting all over again.
Thus we see that, au fond, Bazarov is a tragic figure, not a villain, mistaken but not evil. Again, this might inhibit us from too rapid (and gratifying) a division of humanity into the good and the bad, though this is also not to deny the potentially appalling effect of radically mistaken ideas. Lenin once said that Bernard Shaw was a good man fallen among Fabians, by which he meant, such was his ethic (if one can call it such), that Shaw would have been a better man if he had slaughtered his audiences rather than entertained them. Bazarov, by contrast, was a good man fallen into ideology—albeit, of course, that he must have had some elective affinity for it in a way that his friend and disciple, Arkady, ultimately did not.
I have only touched on some of the depths of Turgenev’s book, which is among the best expositions known to me of the inevitable reciprocal imbrication of character and thought. Perhaps in two thousand years no one will have the faintest idea what Turgenev was writing about; but for now, a hundred and sixty years later, he remains astonishingly, if disturbingly, contemporary.
Anthony Daniels has contributed his Astringencies column to Quadrant since October 2015. This article is adapted from a lecture he gave (by Zoom) to Ralston College, Savannah, Georgia, in January.