Books, Rhetoric

A strident avenger for insulted human reason

Aristocracy, liberalism, progress, principles…useless words! A Russian doesn’t need them.” This quote, above a Penguin logo, has appeared on posters around London outraging sentiment. It has been accused of promoting ethnic-hatred; a petition to have the posters removed has been launched; Russian State media has thundered against British state-sponsored Russian-bashing; shrill social media moralists are on the march; a complaint is being made to the UK regulators.

I suppose it is too ludicrously naive to think that readers of the quote would be literate enough to recognise the words. They are taken from a character in Turgenev’s 1862 novel Fathers and Sons. Along with books from nineteen other authors (Zola, Rilke, Bulgakov etc.) it is being promoted by the publishing house. The character who speaks these words in argument is the young nihilist Bazarov (in fact it’s an abbreviated version, the actual translated quote is “Aristocracy, liberalism, progress, principles” said Bazarov “Just think what a lot of foreign and useless words! A Russian would not want them as a gift”). Bazarov is a nihilist who rejects the assumptions of his fathers’ generation whilst denouncing everything that cannot be measured: literature, aesthetics, religion, intuition, beauty in nature. He is a young medical researcher who spends his time dissecting frogs. He is a strident avenger for insulted human reason. Bazarov is a man incapable of introspection, a hard-boiled materialist who believes only in strength, will-power and utility. He has been described as the first Bolshevik.

Ernest Renan giving an eulogy in Paris following his death, praised Turgenev’s ability to enter attitudes and beliefs that were antipathetic to his own. In this way he differed from his literary contemporaries Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Turgenev was no preacher, no thundering prophet, no didact pointing the path to salvation. He was self-critical, tolerant, judicious, and wrote prose that offered no way out. He had seen his own mother abuse the serfs on their estate and was punished by her when he interceded on their behalf. He witnessed, as a boy, his maternal grandmother murdering with impunity one of her boy serfs. On his mother’s death Turgenev freed all the domestic servants. He had a lasting pre-occupation with the freedom and dignity of individuals and a hatred of Russian feudalism. Fathers and Sons was written during an upheaval in Russian history and examined the very great moral confusions of the time. His concern was for the inner life, for ideas, for moral predicaments. He clung to a humane literary culture.

This Penguin quote flows from the mouth of his fictional character displaying the violence of cold thought and youthful ardency. It is not of the novel’s viewpoint, still less Turgenev’s, still less Penguin’s, still less the British State’s. Penguin publish many Russian books, for which they should be praised. Perhaps, instead, the frothing moralists should read this novel rather than demand the removal of a poster promoting it.

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