From Turgenev’s conception to Postmodernism

Sandra Colmenero Vázquez

The philosophical concept of nihilism emerged in the latter part of the eighteenth century and is rooted in the Latin term “nihil,” meaning “nothing.” This word denotes an utter denial of the existence of either things or values.

In Europe, nihilism appeared in the Europe of the nineteenth century as an ominous spiritual crisis spread through the continent. It was unforeseeable for Friedrich Jacobi that the term he used to disparage post-Kantian transcendental idealism in his “open” letter to Fichte in 1799 would gain immense popularity in Russian culture as a means of describing a strikingly distinct cultural dilemma (Vishnyakova, 2011, p. 100).

In 1892, the term was first used by the literary critic Nikolai Nadeždin in a philosophical article aimed at epistemological skeptics, whom he referred to as “deniers” (Petrov, 2019, p. 78). The term’s original use was intended to be diminishing and suggested that skeptics had a
poor understanding of the subject matter.

The widespread usage of the term in Russian philosophy would not have transpired without its appearance in Ivan Turgenev’s Father and Sons, published in 1862. Turgenev describes a brand-new kind of man, one whose ethos calls for the rejection of fundamental beliefs and a shift towards a conception of nature that regards self-destruction as crucial and primordial. Unlike other forms of nihilism, Russian nihilism did not entail a comprehensive denial of ethical norms, knowledge foundations, or the significance of human existence, despite what one might expect from a purely semantic perspective. Rather, its negation was directed specifically at a particular political, social, and aesthetic order, equivalent to Tsarist autocracy, religious orthodoxy, fine arts, and, notably, the beliefs, values, and traditions of the
previous generation. Consequently, Russian nihilism emerged as a product of an intergenerational cultural conflict that pervaded Russian society and literature during the 1860s (Petrov, 2019, p. 74). This conflict was aimed at challenging the established values and beliefs of the previous generation. Therefore, the concept of nihilism was applied to the spirit of the youth in Russia.

Georges Florovsky claims that a phenomenon known as “philosophical anxiety” arose in Russian literature during the nineteenth century, distinguished by a persistent effort to reconcile figurative-objective depictions of the world with philosophical perspectives through artistic creativity. Hence, the emergence of “philosophical anxiety” in Russian literature had a significant impact on the trajectory of literary criticism and journalism, leading to the development of a distinct philosophical genre (Sizemskaya, 2018, pp. 395–396). This confluence of philosophy and art resulted in the formation of a shared paradigm that aimed to achieve harmony between intellectual and emotional faculties.

Ivan Turgenev held a central position in the cultural milieu of nineteenth-century Russia. His artistic pursuits were directed towards uncovering the authentic realities of life, and he defended a belief that realism could be achieved by relying on knowledge obtained through reason, rather than divine grace. His recurring themes and motifs in his works explored the truths and illusions of well-known Russian and European socio-philosophical ideologies that were prevalent in the second half of the nineteenth century, including skepticism and positivism, Westernism and Slavophilism, liberalism and conservatism, Marxism, and liberal radicalism (ibid. p. 397).

Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons introduced the word nihilism to display the essence of the dispute between generations and to question how different generations approach and address social problems over time.

Eugene Bazarov, the main character of Fathers and Sons, became the most iconic portrait of a nihilist. Bazarov declares that he does not believe in anything except for the tangible advantages of science. Along with his counterparts, he turns against the older generation of liberals, idealists, and Hegelians, effectively creating a generational identity (Petrov, 2019, p. 78). The behavior of the main character of Turgenev’s novel became popular and widespread among Russian youth. As this phenomenon began to be recognized not only as a manifestation of a particular worldview but also as a broader social trend, the term “nihilism” found a permanent place in the Russian lexicon.

In his novel, Turgenev prophetically portrayed the growing conflict between generations, between fathers and sons, which pitted the established order against the rejection of it by a new wave of youth. The rising generation yearned for a future that was distinct from the present, though they were unsure of what that future would look like. As Bazarov articulates, “Nowadays rejection is the most useful—so we reject!” The new cohort of the intellectual elite longed for upheaval and the dismantling of existing systems (Vishnyakova, 2011, pp. 100–101).

 After the publication of Fathers and Sons, Russian literature adopted nihilism as a common theme, with writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy studying the nihilistic tendencies of their time. For instance, the novel from 1864, Notes from Underground, explores the psyche of a deeply alienated and nihilistic character who struggles to find meaning in a world that seems meaningless.

On the other hand, nihilism had a significant impact on European literature, especially in Germany and France. When discussing nihilism, it is almost impossible not to mention Friedrich Nietzsche, given his proclamation of the death of God and his development of the superman, who can create his own values in a world devoid of inherent meaning (van Tongeren, 2018, p. 128). In France, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the literary movement called “decadence” was closely interconnected with nihilism. Decadent authors, such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine, rejected the moral and social norms of their era and opted for a lifestyle focused on hedonistic pleasures.

Throughout the twentieth century, nihilism maintained its influence on literary movements, including existentialism and postmodernism. Existentialism appeared in the second half of the 20th century and explored themes such as the lack of meaning, absurdity, and the human condition. Personalities such as Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre were the driving forces behind this philosophical school in the previous century. Regarding this question, we should analyze the proposals of one of the greatest representatives of this movement, Jean-Paul Sartre. This philosopher underpins an ontological philosophy with works such as Being and Nothingness and Critique of Dialectical Reason, and it is in this latter book that he prepares the ground for an existentialist anthropology through a revision of Marxism.

Sartre emphasizes that values are inevitably subjective and have no objective existence outside of the individual who experiences them. Therefore, this removes the necessity for a divine Creator altogether. However, this realization can lead to a profound sense of despair. Rather than turning to religion as a way out of this despair, Sartre suggests that the solution is to acknowledge and accept that there is no solution (Glicksberg, 1948, p. 233). Furthermore, Sartre’s philosophical existentialism is premised on the idea that life is absurd and without inherent meaning. In addition, the French philosopher declares that humans are fundamentally free beings, whose existence is contingent upon external circumstances, and that this freedom lies at the core of the human essence. At the heart of Sartre’s philosophy is the notion of radical freedom, which holds that humans are free for better or worse (Sartre, 2009, pp. 42–43).

An example of Sartre’s philosophical thought is embodied in his well-known literary work, Nausea. The novel can be understood as a form of subjective phenomenological report, as it documents the main character’s growing sense of abhorrence and repulsion towards the world and the act of existing itself. As a result of experiencing existential angst, the protagonist comes to acknowledge the underlying absurdity of existence. In particular, he recognizes the absolute contingency of existence and its inherent lack of meaning or purpose (Malpas, 2012, pp. 300–301).

Likewise, Albert Camus emphasized in his literary works the notion that life lacks intrinsic meaning or purpose and that individuals must construct their own meaning in an inherently absurd world. This sense of nihilism is exemplified in his renowned work, The Stranger, where the main character is indifferent towards the world and is eventually condemned to death for the seemingly pointless murder of a man. Additionally, Camus delved into the concept of rebellion in his writing, asserting that individuals must resist the meaningless values of society and embrace their individuality and freedom. The rejection of conventional values and the quest for personal significance are central topics in the work of Camus.

Conversely, Postmodernism was a cultural and literary movement that emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century. The beginning of Postmodernity is marked by the publication in 1979 of Jean-François Lyotard’s book The Postmodern Condition. In this crucial work, Jean-François Lyotard identifies a critical aspect of the postmodern attitude: the rejection of meta-narratives or grand narratives, full of absolute truths that seek to explain the world based on totalizing discourses, supposedly objective and epistemological in nature (Lyotard, 1987).

Against this, Lyotard proposes a return to small narratives and discourses of a local character, thus defining not a single truth, but a multiplicity of visions of things that depend on the subject himself and the environment he inhabits. This shift in thinking has significant implications for the forms and themes of the postmodern novel, as writers seek to reflect this rejection of grand theories and explore diverse representations of reality.

Postmodernism challenged the notion of absolute truth and defied traditional notions of authorship, narrative, and genre. Renowned as the leading voices of postmodern literature, we can find names such as Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and Don DeLillo (Slocombe, 2003, p. 198).

Nihilism is frequently regarded as an antecedent to postmodernism, as it encouraged the rejection of conventional principles and frameworks in artistic and literary domains. The postmodern movement can be perceived as a progression and amplification of nihilism since it elaborates on the concepts of division and ambiguity that typify nihilistic thought.

In conclusion, the concept of literary nihilism has evolved since its beginnings in Turgenev’s representation of disenchantment with conventional values and society to its current incarnation as postmodern nihilism. Literary nihilism is a diverse movement that includes a wide range of philosophical, social, and artistic concerns that extend beyond the mere denial of meaning or purpose. Furthermore, it should be noted that nihilism has been employed to criticize social structures and power dynamics, as well as to research the limits of language and representation. Consequently, nihilism continues to be a relevant and suggestive concept in contemporary discourse, providing insights into the nature of existence and the human condition.


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