Tuesday, April 1, 2014

What is to be done? Base camp, as it were.

'A good chemist is twenty times as useful as any poet,' broke in Bazarov.

'Oh, indeed,' commented Pavel Petrovitch, and, as though falling asleep, he faintly raised his eyebrows. 'You don't acknowledge art then, I suppose?'

'The art of making money or of advertising pills!' cried Bazarov, with a contemptuous laugh.

'Ah, ah. You are pleased to jest, I see. You reject all that, no doubt? Granted. Then you believe in science only?'

'I have already explained to you that I don't believe in anything; and what is science--science in the abstract? There are sciences, as there are trades and crafts; but abstract science doesn't exist at all.'

'Very good. Well, and in regard to the other traditions accepted in human conduct, do you maintain the same negative attitude?'

'What's this, an examination?' asked Bazarov.

Pavel Petrovitch turned slightly pale.... Nikolai Petrovitch thought it his duty to interpose in the conversation.

'We will converse on this subject with you more in detail some day, dear Yevgeny Vassilyitch; we will hear your views, and express our own. For my part, I am heartily glad you are studying the natural sciences. I have heard that Liebig has made some wonderful discoveries in the amelioration of soils. You can be of assistance to me in my agricultural labours; you can give me some useful advice.'

'I am at your service, Nikolai Petrovitch; but Liebig's miles over our heads! One has first to learn the a b c, and then begin to read, and we haven't set eyes on the alphabet yet.'

'You are certainly a nihilist, I see that,' thought Nikolai Petrovitch. 'Still, you will allow me to apply to you on occasion,' he added aloud. 'And now I fancy, brother, it's time for us to be going to have a talk with the bailiff.'

Pavel Petrovitch got up from his seat.

'Yes,' he said, without looking at any one; 'it's a misfortune to live five years in the country like this, far from mighty intellects! You turn into a fool directly. You may try not to forget what you've been taught, but--in a snap!--they'll prove all that's rubbish, and tell you that sensible men have nothing more to do with such foolishness, and that you, if you please, are an antiquated old fogey. What is to be done? Young people, of course, are cleverer than we are!'
This scene takes place early on in Ivan Turgenev's 1862 novel Fathers and Sons, in which nihilists, the "new men" of Russia, are beginning to appear and challenge the "antiquated old fogeys." In Turgenev, the nihilist Bazarov dies young, withering on the vine as it were. The old fogeys walk off into the sunset with children who share, more or less, their old fogey values. Other nihilists live shallow, ridiculous lives. End of story?

But no, the gauntlet has been thrown down by Turgenev (who may not have known he threw it), to be picked up in turn by many Russian authors. Novels and counter-novels were written. Speeches and counter-speeches were made. Polemics were published. Etc. Quite the uproar, as Russia (at least the intellectuals of Moscow and Petersburg) were divided over the question of what was to be done with Russia's future, and if that future belonged to the classic Russian aristocrat and his freed serfs, or if the future belonged to the nihilists, the new men. The throwing down of challenges and the fever pitch of the debate reminds me of that scene, late in "Richard II", where every lord in England is throwing down a glove and challenging some other lord to lethal combat, crying "liar!" and "rebel!" and "traitor!" What fun indeed. I digress.

Nikolai Chernyshevsky took up the gauntlet Turgenev unknowingly threw, and wrote a novel called What Is To Be Done? in--I think--direct response to the question asked by Pavel Petrovich in the above-quoted passage. I am currently reading that novel. Vladimir Lenin wrote an essay called What Is To Be Done?, also possibly in response to Turgenev. There may be other 19th-century Russian works entitled What Is To Be Done? that I don't know of yet. I also am not sure that the question, as written in Turgenev, is the same Russian phrase (Shto delat?) used by Chernyshevsky and Lenin. I could find out, I'd bet, but I am a lazy person. There is also the verse at Luke 3:10-14, and that Tolstoy book. Blah blah blah. Twenty-eight seconds on Wikipedia can likely get you all of this, and more. Anyway, I'm reading Nicky's novel, in the Michael Katz translation, as part of Amateur Reader's masochistic readalong. What larks!


  1. Oh, good, you're reading it. I guess. Good for me. Someone to keep me honest.

    Have you gotten to the sewing collective yet? I just wrote a tiny bit about the sewing collective. I don't think the book truly bogs down until then. Takes off. One of those.

    At the halfway point - this I had forgotten - I would never guess that the book was a response to Turgenev if I had not known. But that part is coming.

    Erik at XIX Bek is actually working on a translation of a Leskov novel that is in the "response to Turgenev" genre. How many of these things were there?

  2. I have read...the introduction, and some online articles about the novel. None of Ch's writing yet. I'll start chapter one on my commute home, I think.

    I'd be willing to bet that Soviet writers were still responding to Turgenev. At some point I'll get around to Voinivich and Gladkov, just to see.

  3. I checked the Russian text and the phrase Pavel Petrovich uses is indeed "Shto delat?"

    I don't think Lenin's essay can really be seen as a response to Turgenev, it's about what sort of organizational structure a revolutionary party should have (you can see the genesis of everything that went wrong in that one essay) and the viewpoint attacked in it is that of other socialists.

    XIX Bek also has a good post on Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Chernyshevsky, and Pisarev (a radical critic who wrote a famous essay reacting to Fathers and Sons).

    1. Thanks, that's very useful. I have been too lazy to find a Russian-language copy of Fathers and Sons (and my Russian is at a beginner level still, restricted mostly to getting directions around town and ordering food and drink). I had no idea about the Lenin; I noted the title and the year but I'm not sure I want to read it (though your parenthetical is enticing).

      XIX Bek is doing amazing work on his blog. When I get a free moment, I'll check out the Pisarev post.

    2. My Russian's pretty basic at this point too, I just ctrl F'd "shto delat" in until I found that passage (the full text is online).

      Your posts on "What is to be Done?" make excellent reading, btw.