Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fragment 253

The interaction of people and books is a strange thing. A book takes its whole shape from the society that spawns it, then generalizes the material, renders it clearer and sharper, and as a consequence reality is transformed. The originals become caricatures of their own sharply drawn portraits and real people take on the character of their literary shadows.

Alexander Herzen.

During the early 1860’s two new kinds of character appeared in Russian literature, and in Russian society. These characters have left their enduring mark upon history and are still with us today.

The first is the drop-out. In 1859 Goncharov published his novel Oblomov, in which the eponymous protagonist spends his life consumed with lethargy, lying on the sofa, doing nothing at all. From him descend all the hippies, drop outs, slackers, wasters, agoraphobics, hikikomori, channel hoppers, internet surfers and couch potatoes, those who refuse or are incapable of participating actively in real life, and who replace it with unrealistic pipe dreams of universal peace, brotherhood, or who simply succumb to the enervating effects of an undisciplined and all too easily obtained material comfort.

The second is the revolutionary nihilist. In 1862 Turgenev published his novel Fathers and Sons, in which the hero, Bazarov, rejects everything the previous generation stands for, all ideals and standards. From him descend all the grim-faced revolutionaries of Russia and China, the terrorists of Islam, the Red Brigade, the IRA, those, in other words who are willing to sacrifice the human for the ideological, and who are characterised by an extreme hatred of the dominant social and cultural order.

Both these characters oppose the existing conditions, but their opposition takes different forms: the Oblomov’s is a passive rejection, the Bazarov’s is an active destruction. Modern man’s dissatisfaction with his age swings between these two poles.

Turgenev’s and Goncharov’s contemporaries were aware of the significance of the appearance of these two types, and both books caused storms of controversy.

The critic Dobrolyubov claimed: in each of us there resides a significant part of Oblomov. The critic Pisarev claimed Our whole younger generation with its aspirations and ideas can recognise itself in the characters of [Fathers and Sons].

Literature is in a certain sense both a picture and a mirror.


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