Sunday, February 12, 2012

Science: Why is it a focus?

I’ll restrict these comments to Turgenev’s Fathers and Children and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: Part 1.

            Science does not play a subtle narrative. In both of the aforementioned novels it is explicitly referenced and placed intentionally – to the point where it is clear that it is not simply mentioned in passing.  Turgenev’s displays his view of science via Bazarov, the scientist and nihilist, and they are much connected. Although we know Bazarov changes his views and, to some extent, unlearns his nihilist tendency before he dies, the process is significant. At one point, Bazarov says in response to Anna Sergeevna question how to understand people, “So called moral qualities are also shared by everyone: small variations don’t mean a thing. A single human specimen’s sufficient to make judgments about all the rest. People are like trees in a forest; no botanist would study each birch individually” (pg. 67). But is each individual reducible to a set of parts? This is the main thrust of Turgenev. Bazarov’s nihilism agrees with this reducibility in that we, everything, become mechanisms, void of unique feeling and interpretation. It stands in contrast to convictions and beliefs, which is why Pavel Petrovich’s principles and respect of art as an item of higher significance clash so heavily with it. In this way, Turgenev links nihilism and science, via a belief that everything can be logically assessed (its necessary foundation), and sets them in contrast those immeasurable, irreducible values, such as the bond of family and love.
            Dostoevsky prefers a less amiable approach to this subject. Two quotations highlight his sentiment. The first is from his Marmeladov, who says, “compassion if forbidden nowadays by science itself” (pg. 12). The second comes from Raskalnikov, Dostoevsky writes (and thinks), “A percentage! What splendid words they have; they are so scientific, so consolatory… once you said ‘percentage’ there’s nothing more to worry about.” (pg. 49) Now, without fully diving into how both of these characters individually present the inherent flaw in science’s attempt to explain the world, it should be clear that Dostoevsky is troubled by what is lost by the introduction of a scientific view of life. Compassion and unnatural consolation are a part of the list, but in general, what appears to be in critique is the notion of meaning. And, can we have meaning when we assume that precise measurements, percentages, logical planning can evaluate everything?
            Dostoevsky and Turgenev’s criticisms of science and its growing influence are very similar. Perhaps Turgenev’s is slightly softer, as if to admit that scientific approaches will be a factor the older generation must partially incorporate. Nonetheless, both writers are acutely aware of the distinctions they must make in order to create full characters and expound on their conceptions of life and world around them. Turgenev writes at the end, “Can it really be that love, scared, devoted love is not all-powerful? Oh, no!” (pg. 163) The disconnect between scientific description, and emotions and convictions, such as love or fate, is not lost on these two writers. We will soon see more of Raskalnikov and Dostoevsky’s mindset, and my sense is that the convictions and beliefs will be emphasized.

1 comment:

  1. I do not think that Dostoevsky and Turgenev are critical of science in general. They may be critical of science trying to explain the matters of emotion and conviction, or even belief. It is this mutually exclusive aprroach to issues: one or the other, science or emotion, which they find disturbing. Yet, it is quite plausible that both may play important role in one's actions or understanding of the world. I think that both Turgenev and Dostoevsky deliberately introduce their characters in this mutually exclusive light, only to create enough space to expose their fallacies as the story unfolds.