What is Nihilism, with reference to Turgenev's Fathers and Sons and Michel Houellebecq's Whatever?

(Cite author: Fareed Kaviani)

Since the Industrial Revolution, Western society has enjoyed profoundly better living conditions.  Affordable and easily accessible medicines, movement, commerce, and an overwhelmingly greater sense of freedom are noteworthy examples.  However, paralleling the proliferation of empirical comfort is the decline in ecclesiastical belief.  With the reduction of the old authority - the Christian Church - Western society has experienced a crisis of meaning, and consequently, an increase in the belief in nothing.  In this paper, I will first discuss what it means to believe in nothing, followed by the consequences of such convictions.  I will then highlight and discuss the different ways in which nihilism becomes evident, and influential, through two pieces of literature more than one hundred and thirty years divided.

The Madman - Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place and cried incessantly: ‘I am looking for God! I am looking for God!’ - As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there he excited considerable laughter… ‘Where has God gone?’ he cried.  ‘I shall tell you.  We have killed him - you and I.  We are all his murderers…’

The excerpt above encapsulates Nietzsche’s infamous statement ‘God is Dead’.  The implications of this maxim had enormous ramifications that perpetually reverberate.  To understand them, we must first understand what Nietzsche meant by declaring the death of God.  Ansell-Pearson (1994: 34) explains that Nietzsche predicted a ‘cultural revolution’ where our perceptions and interpretations of language and truths would fundamentally shift.  As language is something external of man, it has the capacity to evolve according to the needs we ascribe it. ‘[E]verything has become.  There are no external facts’, Nietzsche proclaims, ‘just as there are no absolute truths’ (citied in Ansell-Pearson 1994: 35).  If everything has ‘become’ and no facts or truths are intrinsic to Man, then in order to understand reality one must do so through a veil of the dominant concepts and language of his time.

It may be said that Christianity has been the greatest and most resilient veil of our time, as it “‘protected life against despair and the leap into nothing’ among the underprivileged, the disenfranchised, [and] the powerless” (cited in Carr 1992: 41).  It provides humanity with a moral and ethical compass, a meaning for life, and the promise of immortality.  Nietzsche believed that Christian morality ‘was the great antidote against practical and theoretical nihilism’ (cited in Carr 1992: 41). Thus, when the prevailing moral and religious code of the last two thousand years, Christianity, was no longer credible, becoming anachronistic; inaccurate, unreliable, and illusionary, Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God.  It is from the casting of this veil that Man plunges into nihilism - a vacuum where man resides tabula rasa.  The ‘nihilist denies himself the religious promises that could rescue him from the bottomless pit of despair, but he is comforted by the thought that in confronting an absurd universe with lucidity and courage he ceases to be the hapless victim of illusion’ (Glicksberg 1975: 40).

What, then, does it mean to be a nihilist?  Nihilism is difficult to define, as there are numerous categories.  However, I shall offer the types that I believe to be appropriate in the case of this essay:

Epistemological nihilism, ‘the denial of the possibility of knowledge’ (Carr 1992: 17). Epistemological nihilists believe that there can be no standards by which truths can be differentiated from untruths.  A type of ‘anything goes’ in the metaphysical realm.

        Ethical/Moral nihilism, the denial of objective morality.  The ethical nihilist does not claim the morality is absent, rather, she does claim that the perpetrator adopts moral or ethical claims to suit their own bias (Carr 1992).

        Existential nihilism ‘is the feeling of emptiness and pointlessness that follows from the judgement, “Life has no meaning”’ (Carr 1992: 18).  This is a ‘passive’ form of nihilism, one that Glicksberg (1975: 11) likens to Buddhism, in that ‘life is an empty dream, action is futile, and striving for happiness, fulfilment, or perfection betrays the fact that one is still the slave of illusion.’ 

Nietzsche believed that with the collapse of a Christian dominant ‘world-view and its systems of universal values’, the world would become void of all meaning, purpose, and aim (Ansell-Pearson 1994).  As a result, no religious or moral code can ever be infinitely credible, as one has experienced perception that is void of any arbitrarily ascribed ‘true’ reality.  In a sense, everything is permitted. 

Symptomatic of the nihilist condition are social anxiety, physiological degeneration, individual and corporate corruption, decreased social solidarity, widespread pessimism, depression, and so on.  Of course, Nietzsche claims that this is a ‘pathological transition stage’, one required of humanity to experience and eventually defeat (citied in Ansell-Pearson 1994: 36).  For Nietzsche, the state of nihilism provides an ‘opportunity for a revolution in language and knowledge, involving both a revaluation of old values and the creation of new ones’ (Ansell-Pearson 1994: 35). One hundred and forty-seven years ago, Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons fervently portrayed this conflict of principles.

‘Moral diseases derive from poor education, from all the rubbish with which people’s heads are filled from birth onwards - in short, from the shocking state of society.  Reform society and there’ll be no more disease’ - Bazarov

Fathers and Sons was set in rural Russia in 1859, a short while before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861.  The chief protagonist, a young nihilist named Bazarov, shocked Russia and caused controversy upon its publication in 1862.  In challenging established views on religion, politics, family, and society in general, and vaunting his ideas of the moral man as the only just philosophy of existence, Bazarov introduced Russian society to nihilism.  Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is a grand portrayal of conflicting ideas between generations.  The following will concentrate on the nihilism advanced to the reader through dialogues with Bazarov, as he threatens established norms and offers humanity liberation from age-old conformities. 

On break from university, Arkady Nikolaevich and his mentor Evgeny Vasilevich Bazarov travel to the estate of Arkady’s father, Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov.  Bazarov is introduced and announced as a nihilist.  Arkady’s uncle, Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov, engages in discourse by defining a nihilist as a man who ‘doesn’t respect anything’ (22).  Arkady rebukes this definition by stating that ‘A nihilist is a man who doesn’t acknowledge any authorities, who doesn’t accept a single principle on faith, no matter how much that principle may be surrounded by respect’ (23).  Denying authority, faith, and principles is an affront to the common sense of an aristocrat such as Pavel, exclaiming that he must be from ‘another age’, because without principles accepted on faith one ‘can’t even breathe’ (23).  Clearly the two, Pavel and Bazarov, have antithetical views on the ethical.

In declaring his belief in nothing, Bazarov goes on to state that he does not recognize art, categorising it with romanticism, nonsense and rubbish (34).  He is questioned on this, ‘which means that you believe only in science?’  However, he does not believe even science to exist, claiming that science is merely a vocation, similar to any other trade, and that science in general does not exist (26).  From this, Bazarov is asserting that there are no definitive truths of the sort science asserts; he is interested only in what is tangible and axiomatic; Natural Science.  Bazarov collects and dissects beetles and frogs on a regular basis.  However, certain interlocutors remain incredulous, asking of Bazarov how he is able to live without art, as one needs it to ‘understand people and study them’ (84).  It is not worth studying people separately, Bazarov retorts, as ‘one human example is sufficient to judge all the rest’, as we are all anatomically identical, consisting of a ‘brain, a spleen and lungs made in the same way’ (84).  ‘Nature’s not a temple but a workshop, and man’s the worker in it’; here, Bazarov effaces all spirituality and mysticism from nature and ascribes it cold hard scientific facts; ‘what’s important is that twice two is four and all the rest’s nonsense’ (44). 

Bazarov rejects all political and hierarchical authority and is contemptuous of the Russian state and its institutions, especially the ensuing serfdom.  Pavel Petrovich, an aristocrat, questions Bazarov’s negation; is it so that ‘according to [your] ideas, the words “rubbish” and “aristocrat” mean one and the same thing?’ (48).  Engaging himself in a short tirade, Pavel then states that in absence of personal dignity and self respect, feelings ‘highly developed in an aristocrat’, ‘there can be no firm foundation for the social…edifice’; one must have human personality ‘strong as a rock, because everything is built on it’ (49).  He concludes, stating that ‘aristocratism is a principle, and without principles only immoral or empty-headed people can live in our time’ (49).  Bazarov retorts, proclaiming that ‘Aristocratism, liberalism, progress, [and] principles’ are all just foreign words that Russians do not need (49).  This is a reference to the concept of the veil through which one interprets language and principles.  Pavel believes such statements sentence Bazarov to be an ‘outlaw’ of humanity and evokes the logic of history, and what one must learn from such logic (50).  Bazarov denounces ‘abstract’ terms like logic, responding that one does not need logic to ‘put a piece of bread in your mouth when you’re hungry’ (50).  In condemning arbitrary rules and principles as his moral compass, Bazarov declares that he acts only on the ‘strength of what [he] considers useful’ (50), clearing the ground for the establishment of a just society. For Bazarov, all that ‘Foreign words’ and ‘abstract’ terminology have contributed to is the ‘contemporary state of the peasantry…’ (50).  Pavel finds this absurd, reacting indignantly at Bazarov’s claims to know the Russian people so well as to be their spokesmen.  Pavel believes the Russians ‘honour tradition and [the] sacred…’ that ‘they are patriarchal…’ not able to ‘live without faith…’ (51).  Bazarov agrees - faith and tradition are so ingrained in the population that they are unaware of the exploitation they endure. As he continues to question Bazarov’s intentions, Pavel slowly steeps into a rage pronouncing his love for civilization, asserting that he and the millions of other will not let the nihilists ‘trample underfoot their most sacred convictions’ (53).

Arkady and Bazarov travel to the estate of Anna Sergeevna Odintsova, an aristocrat who arouses amorous feelings in Bazarov.  Here, we notice in Bazarov an element of distress.  Feelings of ‘change’ are evoked, as his nihilist convictions are put to the test, especially his view on the absurdity of marriage.  These feelings ‘tormented him and drove him mad’ (91).  Bazarov believed in the beauty of women, however, he saw the ideal of love as romantic rubbish, ‘unforgivable stupidity’, and believed that ‘chivalrous feelings [were] something freakish or diseased’ (92).  Eventually, Bazarov the nihilist, who had once said that the ‘mysterious’ relationship between a man and a woman is all ‘romanticism, nonsense, rubbish, [and] artiness’ (34), succumbed to passion declaring his love to Anna (103).  His cri de coeur was not warmly received, prompting Bazarov’s swift departure.

The end of the novel occasioned for a slightly reformed Pavel, who encouraged his brother Nikolai to marry the mother of his child, the daughter of his previous servant, and even began to think Bazarov was right in reproaching him for his aristocratic views and vanity (163).  Arkady married a young woman who viewed Bazarov as ‘untamed’, consequently effacing Arkady’s nihilist notions.  However, Arkady still devoted himself to the pursuit of truth but searched for his ideals somewhere different (176).  For Bazarov this was understandable, as he believed Arkady was ‘not made for the bitter, sour-tasting, rootless life of people like [himself]’, as Arkady lacks the daring and anger and is just a soft liberal not willing to fight (181).  Bazarov hoped that by relinquishing all traditional notions of institution, religious, political, and familial, society could assess itself without any preconceived principles of right or wrong.  Unfortunately, Bazarov meets his fate in the form of Typhus.  His father is incredulous to the diagnosis, yet Bazarov does not let emotion cloud his scientific knowledge, asserting that his chances are nil; ‘I’m infected and in a few days you’ll be burying me’ (189). 

Turgenev’s nihilism was primarily of a political and social nature in its attempt to negate political authority and class hierarchy.  Bazarov succeeded in stimulating individuals to think and be critical of society and tradition, causing many to feel uncomfortable as they flirted with nihilism.  The death of God and negation of Christian values immediately evoke the terrifying question - ‘has existence any meaning at all?’ (cited in Ansell-Pearson 1994: 45).  This question, and the implied credence toward a world devoid of meaning and moral axioms, has a tendency to induce feelings of immense depression and despair.  And it is in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Whatever where we encounter a modern character living the ‘bitter, sour-tasting, rootless life’ Bazarov endures.

Houellebecq’s anonymous narrator, the main character, is a morbid computer analyst who exhibits a profound distaste for modern life.  Young and well paid, he does not connect with others on a social level most would consider adequate.  He is bitter, depressed, and becoming increasingly impervious to happiness.  Activities that he once enjoyed are no longer stimulating, evoking only tediousness and an ‘ever-increasing recurrence of those moments when your total isolation, the sensation of an all-consuming emptiness, the foreboding that your existence is nearing a painful and definitive end’ (11).  These factors combined plunge him ‘into a state of real suffering’ (11).  It is obvious that the ‘meaninglessness’ and futility of existence has consumed and overwhelmed the narrator, agitating him as he watches life slowly disintegrating.  His life appears to occur without him, as though he is merely an apparition in someone else’s skin, unable to connect and absorb life - ‘The days slip by indifferently, leaving neither trace nor memory; and then all of a sudden they stop’ (46).  His vocation as a computer analyst seems to influence his life philosophy, believing that:

‘the world is becoming more uniform before our eyes; telecommunications are improving; apartment interiors are enriched with new gadgets.  Human relationships become progressively impossible… and little by little death’s countenance appears in all it’s glory’ (14).

The sum of one’s existence is reduced to ‘gadgets’, and its termination exalted as glorious.

Impassive to the devastation surrounding him, he remarks that his work is located in an area of Paris that appears as if World War III had just happened.  And that Paris generally is ‘a horrible city’ because ‘people don’t meet’ and are ‘not even interested in their work, it’s all so superficial’.  He continues ‘they all go home at six, work done or not, nobody gives a damn’, even if you ‘drop dead on the street, nobody gives a damn’ (25).  A city where one walks past cadavers nonchalantly is a city where God does not exist.  For our narrator, Paris on a Sunday is sad, ‘especially when one doesn’t believe in God’ (126). 

Upon meeting his only friend, ironically a parish priest, for lunch, he must endure a lengthy intimate sermon.  The priest, Jean-Pierre Buvet, believes humanity’s obsession with pornography is merely artificial, with everyone pretending to have an interest ‘out of a bizarre inverted hypocrisy’ (29).  People think there are no morals; hence they conform to a fabricated ‘vogue’ immorality.  He goes on to comment that torpor and weak desire define our present civilization, unlike the times of Louis XIV, when an individual practiced asceticism, resulting in a greater appetite for living.  A life void of pleasure and of the flesh results in ‘imperfect joys’, thus, ‘the only true source of happiness was in God’ (30).  All the ‘adventure and eroticism’ society seeks today is merely an attempt to fill the void of God, a weak attempt to confirm our Godless lives as exciting and fulfilling.  Jean-Pierre Buvet then advises our narrator that Jesus is the only answer to a ‘rich and active life’; one must accept his divine nature. 

The reader then begins to observe a psychologically decaying anti-hero.  The company of the ‘relatively painless boredom’ with which our narrator is content with accommodating throughout his ‘usual gestures of life’ slowly transforms into ‘feelings that are acutely more painful, of true pain’ (46, 47).  He is sent to train civil servants in the use of a new computer service, and is accompanied by his colleague, an extremely ugly Raphael Tisserand.  The narrator finds himself smoking copiously, commenting that smoking is his only true freedom, his ‘one ambition’ (61).  Upon observing the foreign city’s urban structure, he sees only slabs, edifices, and shapes with no form to which he can ascribe an identity.  He observes and scrutinizes passers-by, discerning ‘quizzical smiles’ and ‘moronic looks’, as they consume goods to ‘contribute… to the consolidation of their being’ (69).  He feels alienated from these people, yet is unsure of the nature of his isolation.  He confides within himself, ‘I don’t like this world.  I definitely do not like it.  The society in which I live disgusts me…’ (82).  It is clear his life is severely hollow and void of any meaning.

The narrator then embarks on a twisted project of manipulation as he encourages Raphael Tisserand, whose sexual overtures have just been rejected for an innumerable time, to take vengeance on what is most precious to women, their life.  The plan is hatched, however, Tisserand cannot go through with the task.  From here the narrator descends into a dark reality, such as cutting himself with glass splinters for pleasure, flirting with the idea of cutting off his penis, or tearing his eyes out with scissors, and pondering suicide, believing that is all that remains for him.  At work he is unpredictable, slapping a co-worker in the face because she commented on his smoking habits.  He then decides to commit himself to a mental institution.

In presuming that ‘everybody must be unhappy’, the narrator was perplexed as to what was the force that drives a human’s desire to live (147).  His interpretation of the world as a duel system, the masculine - ‘based on domination, money and fear’ and the feminine - ‘based on seduction and sex’, left him yearning for something deeper - ‘Is it really possible to live and to believe that there’s nothing else?’ (147).  The nature of modern civilizations exacerbates feelings of dread.  Societies obsession with ageing and death, notions antithetical to the human being’s existence, occasions people to take on sovereign proportions consuming their consciousness and in doing so, we are constantly confronted with the limits of human existence (148).  ‘Desire itself disappears; only bitterness, jealousy and fear remain (148).  Stressing the deluge of bitterness in modern society, the narrator defines the ‘contemporary mental state in a word… bitterness’ (148).

Nietzsche believed that when man is free to satisfy his desires, free from suffering and tyranny, a life void of meaning ensues rendering man ‘ridiculous and contemptible…’ making his ‘destruction desirable’ (citied in Hibbs 2000: 12).  Houellebecq’s protagonist, free from political tyranny and social constraints, clearly demonstrated this scenario.  In the absence of a totalitarian or religious government, secular democracies have put the onus on the individual citizen to participate in their local community, engage in democratic action, and abide by a religious morality.  The ties between the individual and the social have weakened and can be ascribed to many elements - especially the rise of a consumer culture.  This creates a political and existential vacuum characteristic of a superficial reality.  In abdicating their political and social responsibilities, citizens focus inward, rejecting objective reality whilst propagating a hyper-individualism where one lives according to their own morality.  Nietzsche believed that to suffer is to develop (citied in Hibbs 2000: 12).  Living under a totalitarian regime defined by a hierarchical social structure and religious mores, Bazarov lived a life of political and existential suffering, determined to subjugate all bastions of authority.  He strove to achieve the freedom to live accordingly to one’s own morality. 

In describing the nature of nihilism, this paper has revealed two nihilists’ interpretations of life.  Through the discussion of two novels more than one hundred and thirty years divided, the consequences of an amoral life have become evident.  It raises the fundamental question, is it better to live an illusion - prostrating oneself to universal principles?  Or is it better for man to educate himself on morality, as Bazarov asserted (34), and risk becoming suffused with immense bitterness that, not unlike Houellebecq’s narrator, may await us in a world void of any meaning?


Ansell-Pearson, Keith (1994) An Introduction to Nietzsche as a Political Thinker, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Carr, L. Karen (1992) The Banalization of Nihilism: twentieth-century responses to meaninglessness, New York: State University of New York

Glicksberg, I. Charles (1975) The Literature of Nihilism, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, Inc.

Hibbs, H. Thomas (2000) Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld, Texas: Spence Publishing Company

Houellebecq, Michel (1998) Whatever, London: Serpent’s Tail

Turgenev, Ivan (2008) Fathers and Sons, Trans Freeborn, Richard. Oxford: University Press