Monday, April 13, 2020

What one does while waiting out a pandemic: a note meant to be more provocative than it appears

I wrote this as a friends-only post for Facebook, the method I typically use to address a large but quite specific audience. Circumstances make me believe there is no way to post this there in the midst of immediate personal tragedies without seeming monumentally insensitive, so I am semi-concealing this meditation on Counterforces.

I write this right after listening to an NPR interview with a nurse who drove from Boise, Idaho to Harlem Hospital to volunteer for the Covid-19 ward, and feel more than ever my incompetence in the face of a tragedy that demands the simplest and least reflective responses, such as sewing cloth masks for those who need them.

On the other hand, I have been remembering recently the Polish émigré poet Czeslaw Milosz’ account, in his autobiography Native Realm, of being suddenly pinned down by the machine gun fire of the unanticipated Warsaw Uprising while walking to a friend’s house to discuss the project of translating T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” into Polish, and then crawling to another friend’s house where he spent two weeks, hiding whenever the SS searched the building. He used the time to read a comprehensive history of the Polish peasantry, an activity that stood him in good stead when he became a cultural attaché in the foreign service of the Communist government installed by the Red Army. But that, as usual, is not the main point of this post.

I am probably the only person in Atlanta (not the only one in America, I feel certain) who has currently felt the need to reread, if not Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, then Kenneth Rexroth’s commentary on it in More Classics Revisited, pp. 115-117, which I was able to find online. Gary Shteyngart’s 2006 recommendation of Turgenev’s novel ( withholds the salient episode to which I want to refer, and which Rexroth makes central to his argument, so consider this a spoiler alert.

Fathers and Sons was the first Russian novel that Western European writers of the 1860s took seriously. It presents the tensions between well-off, socially and politically liberal fathers on their estates in the countryside, and their socially and politically radical sons Arkady and Bazarov, back from university, sneering at their fathers’ insufficiently radical political and social views and identifying with the peasants, who regard the kids as a couple of buffoons.

The sons end up taking over from their fathers, Arkady becoming an enlightened landowner and Bazarov, more intransigently radical, becoming a country doctor who dies from accidentally infecting himself with typhus during an autopsy. Rexroth identifies this as a key episode in the greatest of Turgenev’s “ecological tragedies,” in which, according to Rexroth’s hypothesis, “Turgenev’s heroes die in the midst of their biota. In the final analysis that is why they die, not because they are political outcasts, impotent rebels, or superfluous men, but because something has gone wrong with their interconnectedness with the living world.”

Rexroth ended his analysis with this paragraph: “The years since Fathers and Sons have been years of revolutionary change and search for the meaning of life. The critics of each generation have concluded by saying, ‘Fathers and Sons is peculiarly appropriate to our time.’ Today we live at a moment in history of unparalleled incoherence, with ‘an old world dead and a new powerless to be born.’ …We are out of phase with the living world around us. We are all Bazarovs. Unlike him, few are innocent.”