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What Is to Be Done? readalong

January 17, 2014
Nikolai Chernyshevskii (1828-1889) was Tolstoi's age, older than the prototypical nihilist but young for a man of the 1840s

Nikolai Chernyshevskii (1828-1889) was Tolstoi’s age, older than the prototypical nihilist but young for a man of the 1840s

Over at Wuthering Expectations, there’s going to be a readalong of Chernyshevskii’s What Is to Be Done? (Что делать?, 1863). I’m excited about it, since I feel like the social phenomenon of nihilism and the thicket of novels it inspired make more sense to me now than when I had to read Chernyshevskii for grad school.

For me the key thing was to stop thinking about the word “nihilism.” From a certain point of view, it may have seemed like the new men and new women held “nothing” sacred, but really they held different things sacred. The way I see it now is that the generation that came of age in the late 1850s and early 1860s, with Alexander II, the abolition of slavery, and the Great Reforms on one side of them, and new medical discoveries, Darwin, and Science with a capital S on the other, thought the world was about to be turned upside down. Their faith in the new seemed appalling to traditionalists, and arrogant even to the progressive nobles who had spent the 1840s and 1850s cautiously advocating emancipation. Most of all their outward expression of group identity drove outsiders crazy, from their insistence on using the formal pronoun when talking to newly freed peasants to their hair and clothes to their self-consciously scientific and objective speech.

Writers saw the generational divide different ways. For Leskov and Pisemskii, what matters is how people are, and the nihilist vogue provides the trappings for their admirable or despicable qualities. Leskov shows us heroes (Artur Benni/Rainer, Liza Bakhareva), villains (Nichiporenko/Parkhomenko, Gordanov), and people muddling through (say, Bertol’di). In Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), Pisemskii’s nihilists can be utterly worthless opportunists (Sophie’s brother Viktor) or the opposite: Baklanov’s brother-in-law converts his family’s strict Orthodox morality into an idealistic commitment to the nihilists and a resolve not to betray his comrades. Mostly, though, people are flawed and selfish whether or not they stand with the new generation. In Dostoevskii the ideas and the people both matter. Raskolnikov has the seeds of evil and redemption in him, but it makes a difference whether he reads, and takes to their logical extreme, Pisarev’s ultra-nihilist articles or the New Testament. Tolstoi in An Infected Family (Зараженное семейство, 1864) dismisses both ideas and people as youth revealing its vulgarity, as the young fail to understand that house slaves were happier under a master’s protective wing and freedmen prefer to be addressed as ты. For Chernyshevskii, do ideas set people free to do the right thing, as they’ve all been longing to all along? I’ll let you know how it looks now when I reread the book.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, because as Tom says at WE, I’ve started translating, or rather co-translating with Victoria Thorstensson, Leskov’s No Way Out (Некуда, 1864). Her dissertation, “The Dialog with Nihilism in Russian Polemical Novels of the 1860s-1870s,” has reinforced my recent tendency to see nihilism more as a social phenomenon than as a philosophical position. So, fans of Chernyshevskii or the 1860s, watch Wuthering Expectations. I think the readalong starts in April.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris T. permalink
    January 17, 2014 1:45 pm

    Looking forward to it! I will take WE’s suggestion and prep by reading Fathers and Sons (should have read it during my BA, but didn’t), and maybe rereading some relevant Dostoevsky.

  2. January 17, 2014 3:08 pm

    What have I promised to do? And more importantly why?

    I am so glad that some people who know something – and maybe, even better, a lot – about the subject will be joining in, however they do it.

  3. January 17, 2014 4:17 pm

    I’ll be following along, but not joining in (life is too short to read Chernyshevsky); thanks for the heads-up!

  4. January 18, 2014 2:07 pm

    By the way, Dahl has a hilariously reductive definition of нигилизм: “безобразное и безнравственное ученье, отвергающее все, чего нельзя ощупать.” Fortunately, I have the third (1903–1910) edition, edited and revised by Baudouin de Courtenay (the only one anyone should be consulting now, though it was not reprinted by the prudish Soviets and thus is relatively unfamiliar to Russians), with Baudouin’s intemperate bracketed emendation:

    !, Наивное определение Даля! Собственно: 1) теоретический, научный нигилизм: отрицание всего, непризнавание авторитетов и принципов. 2) Практический нигилизм: разрушение всего, разрушение существующего порядка, стремление к перевороту. Посмотрите, как глубоко нигилизм запустил свои корни.

    Followed by:

    Нигилист, нигилистка, последователь подобных учений; радикал, революционер. По внешнему виду: студент и вообще “интеллигент” с длинными волосами, в очках, грязный; вообще в устах людей малоразвитых и необразованных бранная кличка, вроде как сыцылист (социалист) и т.п.

  5. January 18, 2014 7:17 pm

    Thank you for that! The “по внешнему виду” bit right in the dictionary definition goes very well with Victoria Thorstensson’s description of nihilism as largely about such markers (though the short-haired woman is omitted for some reason). I like the critique of Dal’, but I’d have written something like непризнавание одних авторитетов и принципов в пользу других, if one can say that. Nihilists seem to spend a lot of time arguing about which scientists and economists are the right ones for new men and women to be reading.

    And actually, though Dal’s definition is pretty funny, doesn’t the qualifier “чего нельзя ощупать” make it at least as specific as BdC’s emendation? (Especially if you mentally adjust “immoral” to “anticlerical” or “irreligious.”) Defining нигилизм as “отрицание всего” is letting etymology blind you to 1860s nihilism as it was experienced and written about. It’s not quite like your “res novae” = “new things,” but it’s on the way there.

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