Thursday, March 08, 2007

What Is It Needed For?

In Ivan Turgenev's novel, Fathers and Sons, Madame Odintsov is talking with Bazarov (translation from the Russian by Rosemary Edmonds):
'. . . I have no desire, no longing for life. You look at me incredulously; you think those are the words of an aristocrat covered in lace and sitting in a velvet armchair. I don't deny for a moment that I like what you call comfort, but at the same time I have very little desire to live. Reconcile that contradiction as best you can. Of course all this is sheer romanticism in your eyes.'

Bazarov shook his head.

'You are healthy, independent, well-off -- what more do you need? What is it you want?'

Bazarov is a self-described nihilist: he doesn't recognize any authority, or any tradition. The past should be completely swept away. More to the point, here, is that he has no appreciation for art or nature. Of art, he says: 'Why, what is it needed for, may I ask?' Whereas nature simply exists in order to be transformed by man. Love is another ridiculous thing. It only brings stupidity--what good is it? Meanwhile, he is realizing, to his horror, that he is falling in love with Madame Odintsov. A few pages later he admits:

'Let me tell you then that I love you idiotically, madly. . . . There, you have forced that out of me.'

Madame Odintsov held out both her hands before her, while Bazarov pressed his forehead against the window-pane. He was breathing heavily; his whole body trembled. But it was not the trembling of youthful timidity, not the sweet alarm of the first declaration that possessed him: it was passion struggling in him, violent and painful -- passion not unlike fury and perhaps akin to it. . . .

It is often observed that we believe in all kinds of things that are irrational--love, for instance. I'd take that further: I think that most of what we believe in is less rational than we'd like to think. Or: if we believe in something rationally--there are rational reasons for holding a certain belief, and we may even be able to cite scientific evidence to support the belief--our commitment to the belief may be irrational. Our passion is irrational. Bazarov couldn't abide the passion that Madame Odintsov inspired in him, just as he couldn't abide art, because they are absurdities--what are they good for? But those irrational things--like love, or art--that we believe, as well as those rational beliefs we hold with an irrational passion, or fervor (or, rather, the passion with which we believe)--these cannot be rationalized away, cannot be dealt with on a rational plane.

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