Once again, I find myself reading a book that I have heard of for ages, but never got to: Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? What indeed? It was so influential that both Tolstoy and Lenin wrote pieces by the same name. The introduction to my translation says that Notes from Underground is a sustained parody of the book and its ideas. Basically, everyone was talking about it, and responding to it. As the Dostoyevsky scholar, Joseph Frank, puts it:
If one were to ask for the title of the nineteenth-century Russian novel that has had the greatest influence on Russian society, …a non-Russian would choose among….Fathers and Sons, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment…No, the novel that can claim this honor with the most justice… What Is to Be Done?… No work in modern literature, with the possible exception of Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin, can compete.
Unlike that American novel, another that took me time to get around to reading, and which I found to my surprise to be a stunningly powerful work, What Is to Be Done? is simply awful as literature. There’s no getting around it. It’s clunky, talky, the characters are allegorical and speak in the most stilted way imaginable, and in addition, the author had to use ‘code’ to get by the censors of the Tsar. The plot is a soap opera about idealistic young people who are, we gradually realize, members of a revolutionary movement, yet politics is not the focus of the book, but the liberation, legally and sexually, of women is. Strange to think that this is the book that set the Bolsheviks in motion, but Lenin himself, besides his homage to the book’s title, energetically defended the novel against critics.
The book is also quite strange: Chernyshevsky frequently indulges in meta-literary interludes, addressing the ‘dear reader,’ hinting at what’s to come, congratulating us for already knowing what’s to come, psychologizing his characters, and generally managing the action like a vaudeville impresario. Yet, this was the book that led to the October Revolution!
The nihilistic revolutionaries of the story are pretty nice, wholesome, energetic, idealistic guys and gals, for the most part. They just happen to be atheists and thoroughgoing materialists. Chernyshevsky uses the story to espouse his theories of ‘rational egoism,’ which is a radical distillation of English utilitarianism: all people act for advantage; there is no morality, there is only calculation of what one’s advantage is. The same old rubbish: man is motivated by two things: the desire for pleasure and the desire to avoid pain… But because of the importance of the book, and, oddly, because it is chock-full of ideas, even if they are expressed in a wacky manner, it is, honestly, fascinating!
But, but, what’s this I find on page 216? Something that lifts my spirits into the heavenly realm of drainage! Here is the main character discoursing to his young wife on ‘agriculture’ and how to improve swampy wastelands:
Until very recently no one knew how to restore such fields to health; but now a method has been discovered. It’s called ‘drainage’. Excess water is channeled off into ditches, leaving only the required amount.
The editor makes clear the real meaning of this ‘Aesopian’ language:
Russian radicals referred to mechanical processes such as drainage to indicate revolutionary means of change, and chemical processes to signify evolutionary change. Thus Chernyshevsky’s emphasis on drainage rather than on chemical improvement indicates his advocacy of revolution
I always knew that Drainage would serve The Revolution. I will post more when I finish it.