"As long as you're a reflector, a melancholiac," [Nezhdanov] whispered again [to himself], "What kind of a damn revolutionary do you think you are? Write your little poems, go sour, fuss around with your petty little thoughts and feelings, root around in your puny psychological subtilities and musings, but most importantly--don't take your sickly nervous caprices and annoyances for manly indignation, for the righteous wrath of a man with convictions! Oh, Hamlet, Hamlet, you Danish prince, how to come out from under your shadow? How to stop imitating you in everything, even in the shameful pleasure of self-flagellation?"
"Solomin!," Paklin exclaimed, "He's got it. He made out very well. Abandoned his old factory, took the best men with him. There was one guy there...good head on his shoulders, they say! Pavel was his name...he took him too. They say he's got his own factory now, a small one, somewhere in Perm', run on some kind of cooperative principles. This one won't abandon his task! He'll break through! He's got a subtle beak, and a strong one too. He's got it! The main thing: he's not an instant healer of societal ills. Because what kind of people are we, we Russians? We keep waiting, thinking that something or someone will show up all of a sudden and cure us in one moment, close our wounds, rip out our diseases like a sick tooth. Who's this conjurer going to be? Darwinism? Rural life? Arkhip Perepentyev? A foreign war? Whatever you like! Just rip out the tooth, man! This is all just laziness, listlessness, thoughtlessness. Solomin isn't like that! No, he doesn't pull teeth--he knows what he's doing!"
- Ivan Turgenev, Nov' (The New-Plowed Field)
Turgenev's brilliance is of a particularly Nietzschean kind: he makes the political personal. Even Dostoevsky often succumbed to the temptation to make his characters mere stand-ins for a particular philosophical or political position. At his best, he resists this tendency, but there are moments throughout his work when personal struggle turns bloodless and abstract. Turgenev's strategy is always the opposite: his characters want desperately to be taken as abstractions, as ideal revolutionaries or conservatives of one kind or another. He never lets them. Their personal weaknesses and conflicts always intervene, bringing out the flesh-and-blood pathos of the ridiculous. In the process, Turgenev makes clear one central fact--that the ideals and principles that guide his heroes are not pregiven forms disturbed in various ways by their foibles, but rather are themselves constructs, emergency fortifications thrown up against the onslaught of personal failure.
In particular, Turgenev's account of the revolutionaries in Nov' is a neat way of putting an end to the Badiouian debate about revolution. Here, the fact that it is an uncaused cause does not produce any theoretical advantage, however hazy; rather, the significance accorded to this transcendent moment is nothing but a massive collective projection, a way of avoiding confrontation with personal weakness. Nezhdanov is a particularly poignant figure, because he senses his failure all too acutely. Hamlet, of course, is the image of indecision--and the image of the revolution, however insubstantial, is the straw that enables Nezhdanov to avoid his fate. The revolution has no connection with real-life events, and the people in whose name it is being prepared are much more eager to embrace reaction; the pitiful revolutionaries in the novel constantly, feverishly search for a reason to act, but reality always defeats them. We may read this as the source of a Badiouian Truth. But Turgenev, like Nietzsche, won't let us. The will to revolutionary truth is only the expression of a cowering and slavish personality.
Bazarov, the antihero of Fathers and Sons, thus appears in an especially interesting light. Turgenev's radical contemporaries criticized him for having portrayed a crude "nihilist" caricature. In fact, he seems to have done precisely the opposite. Bazarov is a much stronger man than Nezhdanov, because he acknowledges no abstractions. There are dissected frogs, but there is no such thing as Science in itself. There is a kind of praxis, but there is no theory--no Liberalism, no Progress, no Revolution. In his stubborn need to take the world as it appears to him, without "romanticism," Bazarov avoids the projective confusions between personal and political that prove to be the undoing of the characters in Nov'. He is credible only because he believes in nothing.
But of course Bazarov cannot deny the authority of death. What does that make of his resistance to abstraction? On the one hand, it vindicates him: he faces death without cowardice or anxiety, as the ultimate concrete sensation. On the other, it seems to give abstraction free rein, for nothing else is left if Bazarov's freedom is ultimately unrealizable. In neither case, however, can the belief in revolution be seriously maintained. We can pretend to believe it--but only as a futile bulwark between ourselves and the ultimate nihilism of death.