Friday, July 31, 2009

The Two Conflicted Selves of Turgenev and Chernyshevksy's Need To Respond To One of Them

Turgenev is someone I truly identify with, not as a writer (a dream, to write so) but as an individual conflicted with two competing identities: one, the liberal Country Gentleman, fond of nature, romanticism, decorum. Progressive, a humanist, but subject to the comforts of pleasant, secluded life. The other: the Stern Conscience - provocative, demanding, intellectual, uncompromising. A humanist for whom reform is not sufficient. The table should not be cleared, its legs should be kicked out. Rigorous, disciplined, haughty, and - on some level - hypocritical.

Not a terribly flattering portrayal. But I believe Fathers and Sons is a true projection of Turgenev's conflicted inner world; this - combined with the profound and disruptive resonance the novel created in Russian culture - is precisely what makes it one of the greatest works ever written.

Bazarov, the young nihilist, is his Stern Conscience. Nikolai Petrovich, the Country Gentlemen, is his weaker but ultimately more genuine self, hence the internal conflict.

Turgenev's life story absolutely reflects this pattern. His hero, the critic Belinsky (an early pre-nihilist revolutionary, himself the subject of a future post) who died earlier in Turgenev's life, almost jumps out from the grave in demanding Turgenev adhere to his strict moral obligations, while time and time again Turgenev tips his hand with ambivalence towards both the rigors of his responsibilities and the new generation in general.

While he desired their approval, their friendship, their sanction, ultimately his opinion of the nihilist revolutionaries was low:

"[He]... could not bear their fanatical rejection of all that he held dear - liberal culture, art, civilized human relationships. But they were young, brave, ready to die in the fight against the common enemy, the reactionaries, the police, the State. Turgenev wished, in spite of everything, to be respected by them.
- Isaiah Berlin (p.24)

This leads us to the fundamental question of Turgenev's novel:

Is Bazarov a positive or negative character?

That this remains in dispute only further underscores Fathers and Sons' brilliance. My own thesis is that he was a negative character; the fate and portrayal of Bazarov tips Turgenev's hand.

Enter Chernyshevsky
Now one of these fellows Turgenev desperately sought approval from was an editor of a radical paper (Contemporary) named Dobrolyubov, who wouldn't even speak to him. He would literally turn away and face the wall. That Turgenev tried so fervently to seek Dobrolyubov's respect, even under such conditions, shows just how deeply his psyche needed his Stern Conscience to validate his weaker but more authentic Country Gentleman self.

The radical Dobrolyubov's fellow editor was a chap named, surprise surprise, Chernyshevsky.

"What is to be Done?" was written in large part as a response to what Chernyshevsky and his cohort considered an affront to their movement: Turgenev's negative portrait of the nihilist Bazarov.

That Chernyshevsky felt he needed to correct the image Turgenev had created, only underscores Turgenev's true opinion of Bazarov.

Why is all this important? Well, Bazarov is often referred to as "the First Bolshevik". Thus Turgenev's opinion of him - historically speaking - is no small trifle. Further, placing the two novels in context with one another helps us understand them both.

A cursory and off the cuff analysis, but whatever. Next I will discuss the relationship between "What is to Be Done?" and Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, as well as the charater Roskolnikov as an antithesis to the positive/ideal Rakhmetov. There is a sort of circular portrayal, fluctuating from the negative, to positive, then back to negative, that has had an enormous impact on subsequent philosophical thought, politics, etc. etc.

Bazarov (ambivelant/negative) --> Rakhmetov (ideal/positive) --> Roskolnikov (anit-Rakhmetov/negative)

Each is a response to the last; anyhow more on this later...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What is To Be Done? In Literary and Historical Context

In the next few posts I intend to discuss the literary and historical context of Chernyshevsky's "What is to Be Done?" In order to do so I felt it handy to create the diagram below as a point of reference. I may - likely - will add to it, but first want to discuss each individual connection, starting with the relationship to Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. I find this relevant to the general understanding of the Russian Revolution, its relationship to some great works of Russian literature, as well as the various philosophical strains that evolved from the fundamental question it poses.

Without further ado, here's the chart (note I've avoided for a moment the progeny of Dostoyevsky because it gets too complicated too quickly. But I will discuss shortly - I'm sure you can't wait):

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Life As A Finite Pie: George M. Foster's image of limited good

The notion of life as a finite pie is correlated to the image of limited good, a term famously and controversially coined in 1965 by Anthropologist George M. Foster (yes, I know, old white guy) to explain peasant behavior:

"peasants in all societies share a common 'cognitive orientation,' which he calls the image of limited good. Since nothing can be done to increase the resources that peasants divide among themselves, one person's gain is inevitably another's loss. ...[This] accounts for a great deal of otherwise puzzling peasant behavior. For example, people who believe that good is limited will understandably be secretive about their own successes and envious of others'; they will avoid cooperative work situations for fear of being cheated; and they will resist innovations that, in their view, cannot increase the available good. ...this 'image' often persists into an era in which cooperation and acceptance of modern techniques could lead to a better life for all. Peasant communities have strong sanctions against innovation: 'The villager who feels the need for Achievement and who does something about it, is violating the basic, unverbalized rules of the society of which he is a member'..."
-(Rethinking Psychological Anthropology, Bock p. 144)

The above is essentially a verbatim definition of how one might be expected to behave in our world of Swindlers and Fools. Thus the predicament in Russia - one of 'cognitive orientation' (which sounds so - I don't know - sterilized) - is not a unique one. (On a side note, the controversy boils down to essentially that his conclusions were a little too general; probably true, but shouldn't undermine the larger and very valid point.)

What is of interest, in my view, is that ultimately we aren't giving those holding the image of limited good enough credit, when perhaps we should consider such a 'cognitive orientation' may stem from an actual reality: a material world whose resources are indeed limited and finite.

Foster's view is in this sense ethnocentric, because the underlying assumption is that in truth, life is not a finite pie, but one of possibility, freedom, and liberty. The benefit of one does not necessarily entail the detriment of another.

If we accepted the premise that a world exists somewhere in which good is indeed limited and finite, then we run into a bit of trouble when it comes to creating Liberty there:

Liberty consists in being able to do anything which does not harm another.
- Declaration of the Rights of Man

Well, in the world of Swindlers and Fools, you can't do much at all that benefits you without harming someone else!

Thus we have a bit of a problem on our hands.

This is why the spirit of the Russian, French, and American revolutions were all essentially the same: models committed to the preservation of human liberty against - in spite of - what seems to be an inevitably rising tide: increased discrepancies between rich and poor, a greater gap between haves and have nots, increased corruption, greed, croneyism, nepotism, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

One might argue the question, "What is to be Done?" has yet to be adequately answered.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Enter Rakhmetov

If you read my last few posts (introducing in a very crude way the Russian nihilist, tying him in a very crude way to the dichotomy between faith and science, and then providing a very crude sketch of his world - the world of Swindlers and Fools) then it is now time to dig a little deeper and get into the meat of what this is all about.

So let's meet one of these nihilists in person, starting with arguably the most important one: Rakhmetov. As you will soon discover (particularly once you see his photograph), his influence on Russian history cannot be understated. We will look at him as both hero and caricature, and after that we'll meet his better-known antithesis (and one of the greatest characters in fiction): Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov. Then we will tie all of these elements together in a nice revolutionary bow.

This is going to be so exciting! But let's back to the task at hand. To meet Rakhmetov, we must return to Chernyshevsky's novel "What is to be Done?" We must return also to the world and paradox of Swindlers and Fools. Why? Because Rakhmetov has been historically interpreted as Chernyshevsky's answer to this very severe and most fundamental problem - perhaps the most daunting problem of modern civilization.

Notice first that both Chernyshevsky's description of the problem and his solution are embedded in the language of characters. You can play the role of either a Swindler or a Fool. You can develop into a Vera Pavlovna (the novel's female protagonist). You can model yourself after a Rakhmetov. Everything is framed in terms of the individual. This is because his entire approach is - in accordance with the time in which it was written - one of personal character: personal moral and ethical virtue is what interests him; the structure of society is only significant in how it shapes the self.

In other words, if society is soil, he is interested in the plant, and from the plant the crop. The soil is only relevant in how it nurtures the plant - it must be rich with nutrients, it must drain well, etc., but in essence his approach is an inverted contrast to the manner in which these issues are discussed in social science today. But I digress, more on that later.

Now come on, let's meet Rakhmetov already!

It should come as no surprise that Rakhmetov is a nihilist (Remember "Nothing exists except that which can be observed by the senses"? Hence he is a student of the Natural Sciences) very much like Bazarov in Fathers and Sons.

And like the other central characters in Chernyshevsky's novel, he is neither a Swindler nor a Fool. He rejects the Swindler, but he won't subject himself to be the Fool, either. He declares this dichotomy as false and breaks it over his knee, his only weapon his mind.

But he is something a bit more too.

is a moral ascetic hero, an ideal. While most in Chernyshevsky's novel are people willing to dedicate their lives to the greater good, Rakhmetov has gone further: he has truly sacrificed his. He lives in the most austere way, selflessly, his actions governed exclusively by the needs of the cause, guided by "principles and not passions, according to convictions and not personal desires.” He eats raw meat, sleeps on a bed of nails, reads voraciously, that sort of thing.

There are only a few of them, but through them everyone’s life will flourish. Without them life would wither and go sour. There are only a few of them, but they make it possible for all people to breath; without them people would suffocate. There’s a great mass of honest and good people, but there are very few people like them. But these few people are within that mass, as thine is in tea, as bouquet is in fine wine. They are its strength and its aroma. They are the flower of the best people, the movers of the movers, the salt of the salt of the earth.

He is, in essence, a professional revolutionary.

So why is this all important?

Well, in order to explain that I must tell you the story of the Brothers Ulyanov.

Now, a long time ago, there were two very bright brothers, the Brothers Ulyanov. The elder one, Alexander (pictured left), went off to University and was arrested for his role in a plot to assassinate the Tsar Alexander III with a bomb planted in a textbook.

The event essentially destroyed the family, already struggling with the premature passing of their father the year previous. Alexander was hung, his sister Anna was exiled for her role in the plot, and thus one can only imagine the effect this all had on the surviving younger brother, Vladimir, and his mother.

Indeed, Vladimir Ulyanov realized he knew nothing of his elder brother's political beliefs. One night he went into his brother's room, sat down on his empty bed, and took "What is to be Done?" from the bookshelf.

He read it six times that summer.

He modeled his remaining life after this moral ascetic character Rakhmetov. In 1901 he outlined his revolutionary blueprint in a paper entitled, not coincidentally, "What is to be Done?"

Thus the character Rakhmetov came to life in Validimir Ulyanov, much better known for his revolutionary moniker than his real name. Here is his photo, or rather his mugshot from his first arrest as a youth. I'm sure you'll recognize him. Now, regardless of your opinion of him, whatever it may be (and please, don't make any presumptions about mine; I might surprise you) as I mentioned before his effect on history cannot be understated.

"He plowed me up more than anyone else... After my brother's execution, knowing that Chernyshevsky's novel was one of his favorite books, I really undertook to read it, and I sat over it not for several days but for several weeks. Only then did I understand its depth... It's a thing that supplies energy for a whole lifetime." - Lenin