Fathers and Sons: Romanticized Radicalism
Alexius returns home from a day stalking pigeons in the park. He was nearly arrested and had to show his stalking license to the authorities. “Just pin in on your ears next time,” the cop said. What is it with humans and attaching pointy things to animals’ ears. It’s almost like we’re not people.
Mr. Harold Zo: What’s up, my striped friend?
Alexius: Russian literature is the cause of my current outburst.
Mr. Harold Zo: I remember my undergraduate days fondly (Editor’s Note: his graduate school days were far less memorable, I am sorry to say). Russian lit was always one of my favourite classes. What gives?
Alexius throws a copy of Fathers and Sons onto the couch before sliding effortlessly onto the couch. He cuts a stark and sensual picture in the bare apartment. Where are they? And where is the rest of the band?
Mr. Harold Zo: Looks like your editor is at the door asking impertinent questions again. Should I tell him to buzz off?
Alexius: We’re not on speaking terms right now. I’m currently furious with all human beings for exterminating my kind. He deserves to wither out there in the cold.
Mr. Harold Zo: Speaking of the cold, I thought we were talking about Russian literature.
Alexius: Ah, yes. Precisely. You see, I think there’s a way in which liberals like to romanticize radicals, and I see this more and more as I get older and closer to death.
Mr. Harold Zo: Par example, s’il vous plait?
Alexius: Let’s take this book right here. Fathers and Sons. It’s Ivan Turgenev. Classic Russian literature. It concerns this one Bazarov, a nihilist who abjures all beliefs and traditions. He dedicates his days to working on dissections and medicine, learning chemistry and so on. He picks up this friend named Arkady, an aristocratic hanger-on who thinks that Bazarov is a cool cat. So Arkady brings Bazarov back to his father’s dilapidated estate to hang out with some of the upper crust. Bazarov agrees, but realizes that his friend’s nihilism is as authentic as Uncle Pavel’s English tailored suits. By the end, Turgenev has forced Bazarov to repudiate his beliefs by falling in love with a Russian ice princess. Well, she’s a idle widow, but who cares to distinguish when it comes to the useless upper class?
Mr. Harold Zo: Right.
Alexius: (sneezes) In any case, Turgenev not only makes Bazarov a hypocrite, which is fair enough, but also kills him off with a bad case of typhus. At the end, the author inserts this laughably romantic liturgy for the fallen nihilist, talking about eternal life and reconciliation and how beautiful his parents’ tears are and so on. In other words, the book treats Bazarov as a fallen, tragic individualist. His mission to transform society is depicted as utterly hopeless, his personal integrity is constantly undermined through authorial fiat (which is fair as far as it goes), and at the end he’s given an almost mystical eulogy.
Mr. Harold Zo: So are you saying that he makes this Bazarov into a total bastard?
Alexius: That’s precisely it. He isn’t, but the only traits we are supposed to find redeemable are romantic ones. He rejects tradition, he’s an individualist, he tenders a passionate love in his (gulp) bosom, and ends up dead. What I mean is that the only way liberals can like revolutionaries is if they’re dead. Their convictions are chalked up to tragic personality flaws and as long as they are atomized rebels who don’t accomplish much, or can be turned into kitsch symbols (see: Che), liberals want nothing to do with them.
Trotsky is a good example. Mark my words: without that icepick, he would never have become Orwell’s little darling. All the liberals who fawn over Animal Farm as if it accurately represents the history of the Soviet Union wouldn’t be pining about “oh, if only Trotsky had won.” I mean, there are Trotskyists, and obviously they don’t treat Trotsky that way. At least hopefully not. I’m talking about liberal liberals here, capitalists par excellence who prefer their revolutionaries served with an icepick or a spot of typhus. They’re easily romanticized as rebels with a hopeless cause. Another blogger I like to read has discussed this before. Rebellion and so on are all well and good as long as you leave everything the way you found it.
Mr. Harold Zo: Well, I certainly understand where you’re coming from, but I hope you won’t hurt me when I tell you I have a Che poster in my room.
Alexius: How old are you? (Gets up off the couch and leaves, dragging his editor back to their house with his teeth.)
Mr. Harold Zo: Ah, he’ll get over it. If my species were going extinct, I would act the same way.