Bazarov: a lunatic or visionary?

Vlad Elkis
MOL 316-101
Dr. Elizabeth Ginzburg
October 5, 2003

Bazarov: a lunatic or a visionary?

“And the castle made of sand
Melts into the sea,
Eventually.”

— James Marshall Hendrix

Ivan Turgenev’s attempt at creating a new Russian contemporary “hero”
has yielded a figure of extremely high complexity, contradiction, and
divergence. This character, a man named Evgeny Bazarov and the enigma of
his person have fueled limitless debates on the true essence of this
figure, as it was intended by the author. As Socrates said, “Amid the
argumentation, the truth is found”, so let this modest contribution to the
seemingly endless discussion of Bazarov bring us perhaps one small step
closer to the truth about this mysterious man and his true essence. What is
Bazarov? Was he doomed to purgation of his theories, or was he a luminary
worthy of respect and credence?
Evgeny Bazarov was born into a family of a modest provincial doctor.
Turgenev provides no information about Bazarov’s life before his arrival in
Maryino, but it can be guessed that the life of a less-than-richly endowed
medical student in St. Petersburg must have involved innumerable hardships.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment has provided considerable insight
into the life of young scholars at that time, and it is more than
reasonable to suspect that Bazarov’s life was no less of a challenge than
it was for Dostoyevsky’s Rodion Raskolnikov. This austerity of lifestyle,
combined with his dedicated academic pursuits, has made Bazarov into a
strict empiricist, a staunch practician, and a merciless skeptic. Personal
experience became his only acceptable form of discovery. His actions were
governed by nothing other than rational reasoning; sentiments and passions
were trampled by the ironfisted behemoth of his unyielding intellect.
Unfortunately, the power of Bazarov’s mind played a rude joke on the
young pseudo-philosopher. His refusal to acknowledge any authority also
meant his failure to recognize that perhaps he was not the wisest person in
the world. “When I meet a man who can hold his own beside me, then I’ll
change my opinion of myself,”- says Bazarov. Clearly, he is blindly
infatuated with the idea of his own greatness. Pavel Kirsanov remarks this
trait in Bazarov’s character as “Satanic pride”. Perhaps, this super-
egotistic obsession with self-righteousness was fueled by his companion,
Arkady.
The young Kirsanov, barely twenty-three years of age, apparently had
not yet formed a sound system of morals and values and was drawn into
discipleship of nihilism primarily by the power of Bazarov’s charisma and
the “freshness” of the nihilists’ ideas, rather than their sensibility.
Arkady is a person lacking character and devoid of an independent
intellectual backbone. He constantly needs someone’s support and Bazarov
just happens to be vivid enough a personality to attract such a simple life
form as Arkady. Over the course of their friendship, Arkady breathes every
word spoken by his sensei, seldom displaying signs of independent thought.
He delightfully rejects authority, but his nihilistic fervor is not
sincere; Arkady semi-consciously follows his friend, who softly and
ambiguously ridicules him as a phony, for Bazarov knows that Arkady’s
subscription to nihilism is very strongly contradicted by his demeanor, and
his frequent displays of feelings and emotions. But why does Bazarov not
renounce this friendship? Why does he tolerate the company of Arkady, this
dim hypocrite, and why does he agree to travel to Maryino? Well, there was
no reason not to. As devoted to work and science as Bazarov was, he saw no
harm in spending a little time in the mellow and pleasant country estate of
his young friends’ parent. Moreover, Bazarov yet again pursues a selfish
motive by agreeing to travel to Maryino: he dreads boredom, which would
probably consume him at his true destination, his own parents’ homestead.
Although it appears to be understandable why such an intelligent and
developed figure as Bazarov would try to avoid extended periods of
exclusive contact with simpler people – they bore him. But it also seems
that Bazarov, in general, feels most comfortable around people who
inherently have no capability to confront him and question his maximalistic
slogans. He enjoys the company of the local kids in Maryino and
delightfully explains his work in dissecting frogs; Arkady is his friend
because he is harmless; he even tries to seduce Fenechka, that shy and
timid woman, during his final visit at the Kirsanovs’. One way to explain
these gravitational tendencies is by a hypothesis that Bazarov felt
vulnerable as a nihilist. The ordinary people around him constantly
challenged his ideas, and Bazarov’s two rudimentary reactions were to
either withdraw and avoid these debates, as it usually was in his
encounters with Pavel Kirsanov, or to engage in all-out verbal melees with
his attackers, who oftentimes sound more reasonable than the belligerent
nihilist.
Bazarov becomes consumed by his own lies. By so fiercely renouncing
authority, principles, and norms, he contradicts himself. According to him,
poetry is a nothing but romantic nonsense, music is a waste of time,
admiration of nature is next to hallucinating. Consumed by his fictitious
theories, Bazarov fails (or refuses) to realize that by arbitrarily denying
these and other naturally existing attributes of the society and people, he
disaffirms his own dedication to empiricism. Bazarov’s belief in chemistry
attests to the exact opposite of what he asserts. Chemistry is merely a
science that examines the interaction between atoms; it does not write the
laws of these interactions. Similarly, the world is constructed with its
principles of interactions between people within the society. Therefore, by
refusing to recognize the underlying order of the society and becoming a
nihilist, Bazarov puts himself in danger of someday facing a painful
revelation.
His relentless struggle against the ideals and the idealists has
transformed his very self into an idealist. By attacking all principles
already so solidly embedded in the society, he makes himself an author of
just another set of ideals, values, and principles. “Thou shalt not enjoy
the nature, music, poetry, or love! Thou shalt enjoy Stoff und Kraft and
chemistry!” is a possible quote relatable to Bazarov through paraphrasing
of his loud claims. But it is strange that such an intelligent man as
Bazarov could not understand that by depriving people of their common
sources of enjoyment and happiness, he was sermonizing about a world bound
for self-destruction. For it is quite clear that the more harmless sources
of happiness every person finds in his or her life, the better and safer
the world will be for the society as a whole.
Strongly intoxicated by his own brilliance and without understanding
his mistake, Bazarov found the audacity and temerity to question and
ridicule the natural order of his society at the time. His quest for reform
essentially was a trip to the dawn of human race, to the prehistoric times
of laissez-faire ethics (or absence thereof) and an attempt to redesign the
law of the world, the law that constructed itself over the centuries and
evolved as an environmental force much too strong for a simple idealist
like Bazarov to engage.
“Fathers and Sons” is similar to a Sophoclean tragedy, in which the
main character, Bazarov, follows a line that involves most of the
attributes of a real tragic hero, as outline in Greek drama: hubris, an
anagnorisis, and a catharsis. His hubris was the titanic pride and contempt
for too many of the world’s principles. His unsuccessful relationship with
Odintsova, however, forced him to acknowledge the foolishness of his rash
evangelizations. Consistent with his own previous statement that “he will
review his own person when he finds someone who can face him”, Bazarov
experiences his anagnorisis when he undergoes a radical change of
philosophy after all of his nihilistic ideas are put to doubt. Bazarov the
Empiricist witnesses empirically the dismantling of his longtime theories
when he falls in love with the first person capable of standing up to him,
Anna Odintsova. But tragically, the revelation comes to Bazarov only when
he is on his deathbed, losing grip of his mighty intellect. Too late! he
acknowledges the truth about his feeble “castle made of sand that melted
into the sea” when he confessed love to Anna.
Even after yet another version of the interpretation of Bazarov’s
story is presented, it is still unclear whether Bazarov’s death was an
accident or the unshakable nihilist’s deliberate departure from the world
he refused to respect and recognize as his. But what would happen if the
doctor whom Bazarov was assisting during that autopsy did have the
antibiotic to save Bazarov from the typhus infection? Would he abandon his
audacious nihilistic ideals? The answer, I believe, is yes. Bazarovism is
an absolutely unsustainable school of thought in human society, and
Bazarov’s own example serves as solid evidence for that. Through
extrapolation of Evgeny’s persona onto the background of the twentieth
century, it becomes even clearer that elements like Mr. Bazarov would find
themselves dysfunctional and rejected by the society. Moreover, a Bazarov-
like person who believes in nothing but the empirical would be exposed to
too many adverse and destructive influences that only our parents’ guidance
can help avoid: drugs, unprotected sex, etc. Therefore, if Turgenev
allowed Eugeny to live as an equal member of the society, then just like
Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, he, too, would have abandoned his youthful rage
and joined the society of reasonable people.

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