Friday, September 19th, 2014
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1862 / Russia

New Men and Old

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“The motive force behind our actions is that which we recognize to be useful,” pronounced Dr. Bazarov. “At the present time the most useful thing is negation—so we deny—”

“Everything?”

“Everything.”

“How can that be? Not only art, poetry—but also—terrible to say—”

“Everything,” repeated Bazarov with indescribable composure.

The nobleman Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov gaped at him. This he had not expected, and his nephew Arkady actually flushed with pleasure.

“But by your leave,” spoke up Arkady’s father, Nikolai Petrovich, “you deny everything, or to put it more precisely you destroy everything; but when all is said and done it is also necessary to construct.”

“That already goes beyond our task. The first thing is to clear the field.”

“The present state of the people makes it necessary,” added Arkady pompously. “We must bow to that necessity, we have no right to abandon ourselves to the satisfaction of personal egoism.”

This last sentence was evidently not to Bazarov’s liking; it smacked of philosophy, that is of romanticism, for Bazarov designated even philosophy as romanticism; but he did not consider it necessary to refute his young pupil.

“No, no!” exclaimed Pavel Petrovich in a sudden outburst. “I will not believe that you, my fine sirs, really know the Russian people, that you are representatives of their needs, of their aspirations! No, the Russian people are not as you imagine. It is a people who have the deepest reverence for tradition, a patriarchal people who cannot live without faith—”

“I don’t deny it,” Bazarov broke in. “I am even ready to agree that there you are right.”

“But if I am right—”

“Then it still doesn’t prove anything.”

“Exactly, it doesn’t prove anything,” repeated Arkady with the confidence of an experienced chess player who has foreseen an apparently dangerous move on the part of his opponent and has therefore remained quite unruffled.

“What do you mean, ‘It doesn’t prove anything’?” muttered Pavel Petrovich, quite confounded. “Then I suppose you will go against your own people?”

“And even if we would?” cried Bazarov. “The people believe that when there is a clap of thunder it is Elijah the prophet riding about the sky in a chariot. So what? Must I agree with them? And for all that they are Russian, am not I myself a Russian?”

“No! You are not a Russian after all that you have just said. I cannot consider you a Russian.”

“My father walked behind the plow,” Bazarov replied, arrogant with pride. “Ask any one of your peasants in which of us, in you or in me, he would sooner recognize the compatriot. You don’t even know how to talk to him.”

“And you talk to him and despise him at the same time.”

“And why not, if he deserves to be despised? You censure my attitude but how do you know that it has come to me fortuitously, that it isn’t called into being by that very popular spirit which you are so hot to champion?”

“How could that be! We have no use for nihilists.”

“Whether or not they are of any use is not for us to decide. After all, you consider yourself not altogether useless.”

“And have made up our minds to undertake nothing on our own account,” repeated Bazarov grimly. He had suddenly begun to feel annoyed with himself at having so poured out his heart before this “gentleman.”

“And just to sit back and to hurl abuse?”

“And to hurl abuse.”

“And that is called nihilism?”

“And that is called nihilism,” again repeated Bazarov, this time with deliberate insolence.

Pavel Petrovich narrowed his eyes slightly.

“A force which counts no cost,” pronounced Arkady, and drew himself up.

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About the Author

Ivan Turgenev, from Fathers and Sons. Born to a philandering father and a wealthy mother with a penchant for beating her sons, Turgenev in his twenties studied classics, history, and the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel at the University of Berlin, which he attended between 1838 and 1841. He published an obituary of Nikolai Gogol—“Gogol is dead! What Russian heart is not shaken by those three words?”—in 1852, the same year he received wide acclaim for his collection A Sportsman’s Sketches.

The day the world ends, no one will be there, just as no one was there when it began. This is a scandal. Such a scandal for the human race that it is indeed capable collectively, out of spite, of hastening the end of the world by all means just so it can enjoy the show.
Jean Baudrillard, 1987
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