What Is to Be Done? readalong
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.