In my day everyone was a Hegelian

In Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons a father reflects that in his university days everyone was a Hegelian. Now, having spent a little time with his son who has just returned from college, he believes that in the new generation everyone is a nihilist.

Did the same narrative play out when the Sixties generation came to maturity? They were the hopeful ones – the next generation was directionless, believed in nothing very much, and listened to Kurt Cobain.

“Raphael is not worth a brass farthing,” the nihilistic Bazarov says. Reading Pushkin is stupid. Nature, too, is trivial, in the sense Romantics give to it. “Nature is not a temple, but a workshop, and man’s the workman in it.” Bazarov hates abstractions – big words like liberalism, progress, principles, aristocratism, the logic of history. He just wants people to have some bread to eat every day. Art, poetry and literature belong to the past, and chemistry, medicine, the sciences belong to the future. Dissecting frogs is symbolic of the kind of man he is.

Instead of having a plot, Turgenev says: look, these are the types of people we have today. So he brings about a head-to-head between Bazarov, the college-graduate nihilist and Pavel, a man in his late forties, who stands for civilization, enlightened aristocratism, and his own version of progress. Fathers and Sons is a state-of-the nation piece. That’s why it doesn’t work.

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