The Wall Street bankers were bailed out by taxpayers’ money and they continue to get richer while the average person continues to wonder how long it will be before they lose their job and they will not be able to pay their bills and will lose their health benefits. The people are disgusted by what is going on in Washington and they are demanding answers.
This lack of confidence in authority is nothing new. In the 1860s a movement known as nihilism developed in Russia. This term first appeared in Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883). Nihilists favored the destruction of human institutions and laws, based on the idea that such institutions and laws are artificial and corrupt. At its core, Russian nihilism was characterized by the belief that the world lacks comprehensible meaning, objective truth, or value. For some time many Russian liberals had been dissatisfied by what they regarded as the empty discussions of the intelligentsia. The Nihilists questioned all old values and shocked the Russian establishment. They moved beyond being purely philosophical to becoming major political forces after becoming involved in the cause of reform. Their path was facilitated by the previous actions of the Decembrists, who revolted in 1825, and the financial and political hardship caused by the Crimean War, which caused large numbers of Russian people to lose faith in political institutions.1
This novel discusses the divide between two generations. The “generation gap” is not a new concept. Almost every generation believes that the younger generation is too impulsive and too prone to rash judgment. Almost every younger generation believes that the previous generation caused all of the problems that they are facing and it is their job to correct these problems. It is quite common for members of the older generation to offer advice to the younger generation and it is also common that the younger generation does not follow such advice.
In an interview with Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) he discussed this very issue. He stated that it is impossible to inherit one’s experience. It must be lived. We often hear it said that we should use our fathers’ experience. This is too easy. However, once we have acquired the experience we no longer have time to use it. The next generation rightly refuses to listen to this. They want to experience life for themselves. He says that the real meaning of life is that we cannot pass on our own experience to others or force them to feel suggested emotions. It is only through personal experience that we understand life. 2 He made this point in his film “Andrei Rublev”.
This point is also addressed in Fathers and Sons. The younger generation is open to the idea of Western ideas and would like to introduce these ideas into Russian culture as a way of bringing about social change. The older generation believes that what is needed is a return to traditional Orthodox spirituality. This is completely unacceptable to the younger generation, especially since they have lost confidence it traditional institutions.
Another factor is the sense of the loss of meaning and truth which was infecting Russia at this time. Without a sense of meaning or purpose it is very difficult for people to go on. In his book, Man's Search for Meaning, Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, the father of Logotherapy, reflects upon his experiences as a prisoner at the Auschwitz death camp during World War II. Frankl makes the point that a person can suffer a great deal if he or she can make some sense out of their suffering. He said, "We can endure a great deal of what if we understand the why." He found that when rumors were spread through the concentration camp that the prisoners were going to be freed on a particular day that the prisoners mental and physical state actually improved. However, once that day came and went and there was no release their condition deteriorated.
One of the ways that the prisoners were given some sense of hope was by helping them to focus on fact that there was life beyond the death camp. He writes, "When we spoke about attempts to give a man mental courage, we said that he had to be shown something to look forward to in the future. He had to be reminded that life still waited for him, that a human being waited for his return." 3
It is this same sense of hopelessness which inspires people to take to the streets today in protest. They have lost faith in traditional institutions and no longer believe that life will be better for them than it was for their parents. It is important to inspire hope in such people, otherwise they will become desperate and desperate people take desperate measures. The nihilist movement eventually began to encourage the use of violence to bring about change and there is no reason to doubt that this will happen again.
The main character in Fathers and Sons is Yevgeny Barazov, a medical student who has accepted the philosophy of nihilism. He is mentor and friend to Arkady Nikolaevich Kirsanov. Yevgeny falls in love with a wealthy widow named, Anna Sergeevna Odintsova, who entertains nihilists at her estate. However, his love is unrequited and this painful emotion to too much for him to bear. He turns to his parents for support; however, when he receives no support his despair grows worse.
Conversely, Turgenev shows us Arkady’s traditional happiness in marriage and estate management as the solution to Bazarov's cosmic despair and Anna's life of loveless comfort. (Arkady marries Anna Odintsova's sister, Katya, though he was also originally in love with Anna). The height of the conflict between Bazarov and the older generation comes when Bazarov wounds Pavel, Arkady’s brother, in a duel. Finally, Turgenev also refutes Bazarov's "insignificance principle", i.e., the nihilist idea that life is utterly insignificant and that nothing remains after death: after leaving and then returning again to his parents, Bazarov dies of typhus. The final passage of the book portrays Bazarov's parents visiting his grave.
They walk with a heavy step, supporting each other; when they approach the railing, they fall on their knees and remain there for a long time, weeping bitterly, gazing attentively at the headstone under which their son lies buried: they exchange a few words, brush the dust off the stone, move a branch of the pine tree, and pray once again; they can’t forsake this place where they seem to feel closer to their son, to their memories of him… Can it really be that their prayers and tears are futile? Can it really be that love, sacred, devoted love is not all powerful? Oh, no!
Their love causes them to remember Bazarov: he has transcended death, but only through the love of other people.
Ivan Turgenev does not find meaning in traditional institutions, such as politics, but in love. It is love with transformed Arkady’s life and allowed Barazov to transcend death. Love gives meaning and purpose to life. It is also something that we cannot understand based upon someone else’s experience, but something which we must experience ourselves.
1) “History of Russia” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Russia#Nihilism
2) “Tarkovsky on Art: Part One” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V27XlEDLdtE&feature=related
3) Frankl, Viktor E. Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (NY: Washington Square Press, 1969), p. 146