Saturday, August 12

More Musings on Turgenev (et al.)

It might mean exceeding our Book-Loop quota on this writer and my 'seriousness' quota for the month, but in my defense, I did arrive late to this party.

I actually finished Fathers and Sons the other day, and after that, a few sketches from Turgenev's Hunter’s Notebook. As regards their artistic and aesthetic merit, I am only qualified to bow in deepest reverence. After all, Turgenev’s writing met with Flaubert’s approval, and Flaubert himself found that hard to come by. In any case, I was more naturally interested in the moral, political, and economic dynamics at work beneath the surface of Turgenev’s realism, and not just for their distinctly Russian character. In particular, I found myself reading his writings as a profound meditation on human ‘happiness,’ as is possible with most great works of literature.

In this case, it seems for Turgenev, and perhaps equally for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, that ‘happiness’ is something reserved for the blessedly simple (e.g., Turgenev’s Fenichka or the peasants sketched in his Hunter's Notebook; likewise Tolstoy’s Gerasim or Dostoevsky’s Alyosha K.) and possibly also those fortunate enough to be ‘saved’ among the well-to-do (e.g., if one can separate the tragic from the optimistic, the ‘happy endings’ in Fathers and Sons; likewise in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina). To be sure, for Turgenev, salvation would appear to lie upon the more secular road of love, nature, and beauty—which might help explain his popularity in France—whereas Tolstoy and Dostoevsky tend to preach more transcendental ideals. This is not my main concern, however. Instead, what of the people who take neither road? Utter hopelessness, it would seem. (I speak only for myself, of course, but air these doubts on the chance that other Book-Loopers might offer sympathy or, better, insights.) I consider myself neither blessedly simple nor avowedly spiritual and certainly not well-to-do. What must I conclude? Am I to be Turgenev's Bazarov or perhaps the anonymous ‘Hamlet’ from his Sketches? Am I to be Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov or, worse, his ‘Underground Man?’

Of course, these great writers can be seen as leading by their own examples, and perhaps my fellow Book-Loopers are fortunate enough to have a creative genius of their own with which to escape such a nihilistic fate. For my part, I laugh at the lot left me by these great Russian writers, but I will also, now and again, fret whether there is nothing more to do than that. Obviously, I would be most eager to hear alternative interpretations, as I will be the first to admit to the tenuous and tendentious nature of my own. I also second the sentiment of other Book-Loopers that these writers are especially worthy of consideration.


Ben said...

There can be no quota for a writer as essential as Mr. Ivan Turgenev. Louis, you have enlivened Book-Loop discussion, and I thank you. You seem to be a higher level of literary interpretation (or, at the very least, intelligent expression of your interpretation) from myself. I'm not sure exactly how to proceed with this discussion. I was in awe of Turgenev's artistry but fell short in my comprehension of the political and economic ideas bandied about by Bazarov and the gang--to say nothing of the philosophical implications.

I want to touch on this idea of happiness being reserved for the blessedly simple, because I think you're right to point it out. While this is a motif is found in a great deal of literature and film, I generally find the idea condescending and reckless. The scholar looking down at the simple beings and admiring their insouciant facade, while cursing his own plight as a thinking man so consumed by the philosophical riddles of humanity that he is unable to find happiness. It's a case of the grass being greener, and while the simple folk might not organize their struggles with the human condition in complex thought they are just as equally at the mercy of life's ocassional suffering.

I guess what I'm saying is that these blessedly simple people who plow their way through life without taking pause for overwrought meditation are no more likely to be happy, they're just far less likely to write books about what ails them.

Like you I I consider myself neither blessedly simple nor avowedly spiritual. I think this places both us in the same realm as the vast majority of earth's citizens. There are infinite roads to hapiness, the problem I find myself faced with is the selection of which road to take. Every road seems too limiting but I think we sometimes need to limit ourselves in order to sharpen ourselves and better acquaint ourselves with what it is we need from life. Surely we can't all be doomed to face utter hopelessness, Louis. Hopelessness is not the ulltimate fate of anyone who possesses the capacity to change.

As a nihilist, Bazarov thwarted his own emotions and had a rather destructive relationship with the concept of change. He turned his back on several things that offer humans genuine (though admitedly fleeting) happiness--music, art, literature--and also on love, which almost certainly offers the best road to happiness. The role of Bazarov is not to be seen as that of the everyman. Rather, I believe him to be a cautionary figure. A man so caught up in his own philosophy that he has blocked many of his avenues to happiness. As Book-Loop members, fans of the arts, and people with a pliable worldview, I don't think we should fear the fate of Bazarov.

It should also be noted that my brief statements on The Torrents of Spring from a few weeks back were made hastliy before I finished the book. My labeling of it as "a pretty standard love tale" is fairly inaccurate. As it pertains to this discussion, the outcome of Torrents bears a fine example of a man who is happily traveling along that "secular road of love, nature, and beauty" before he sabotages his own fate with a detour that is maddening for the reader.

LTS said...

Oh, no, Ben, I assure you--my level of literary interpretation is nothing special, and certainly not any 'higher' than your own. I only thank you for taking the post seriously (that and for the update on Torrents).

A couple reactions. First, I wasn't promoting these ideas as constituting a healthy worldview--in fact, like you, I'm suspicious of all of these ideas and others like them. That said, as much as any deeper analysis would be perhaps, er, artificially semantical(?!), I would want to make some finer distinctions--as would these writers, I think--between, for example, the 'simply simple' and the 'blessedly simple'; the 'apparently happy' and the 'truly happy'; the 'hopelessly aware' and the 'hopelessly unaware.' And while I dig myself into a deeper rhetorical hole, in which I don't expect anyone of you to join me, I'd further argue that Bazarov, Ivan K., 'Hamlet,' the 'Underground Man'--these are not meant to be the fate of, say, the vast majority of 'apparently happy' (if 'hopelessly unaware') people. Rather that, for these writers, if the man who is 'hopelessly aware' is not also saved by love (or beauty), be it secular or divine--and if he is, he is probably a Turgenev or Tolstoy or Dostoevsky--then that man cannot be saved at all. But that's only their idea (or so I contend), and not mine. I posted, though, because I think it's terrifying nonetheless. I doubt I've made myself any clearer, but I suppose what I was whinging about was the fact that 'love'--and here again the distinction is as to 'true love'--isn't always easy to come by. Not that anyone said it should be easy.

As for your conception of 'happiness,' Ben, it is beautiful, optimistic, and particularly 'modern,' I think. At the risk of getting in even further over my head on the subject, I'd say it reminds me of the conception put forth in Rawls' "A Theory of Justice"--especially as regards the many 'roads' we are presumably fortunate to have available to us today. Anyway, it's a work (possibly THE work) of contemporary moral philosophy (1972?), the importance of which I'm sure I underestimate. As regards its addition to the Book-Loop I'd only add that Rawls' style seems awful to me (like my own?) and so his book is not exactly a fun read, even if the ideas are very powerful. For what it's worth...

Ben said...

Yes, I like this: "for these writers, if the man who is 'hopelessly aware' is not also saved by love (or beauty), be it secular or divine ... then that man cannot be saved at all."

A Theory of Justic is the book my protagonist is reading when he is killed by the demolition blast from the courthouse in my ill-fated Kafka for idiots short story that I posted on my blog a few months back before deleting it! It all comes full circle in Book-Loop.

Bryan said...

That's why it's called a "loop."

LTS said...

So, um, we get to read this short story of yours when exactly?

Ben said...

Ply, why must you explain my silly jokes?

Louis, the story was available for a limited time only. It has since been dismantled, rearranged and forgotten.