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...

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