Portrayals of Nihilism in Turgenev and The Big Lebowski
Ivan Turgenev certainly did not invent the philosophy of nihilism, but he provided an early fictional representation of a nihilist in his novel Fathers and Sons. Turgenev’s character Bazarov is a self-proclaimed embodiment of nihilism. Bazarov has no room in his life for ethics, morals, authority, principles, art, fantasies, emotions, familial ties, or romantic relationships. It would not be out of the question to read Fathers and Sons as a condemnation of the cold, unfeeling nihilist lifestyle. The 1998 cult classic film The Big Lebowski also explores nihilism alongside scenes of bowling and clever dialogue.
How are the nihilists portrayed in The Big Lebowski? There are several groups of antagonists throughout the film, but the nihilists are strikingly more sinister-looking than the others. They wear all black and they look like burglars. This appearance acts as a precursor to their motivations of self-interests, as well as a catalyst to heighten the viewer’s awareness of their level of evil. Furthermore, they resort to violence as a means to an end. The trouble with the nihilistic philosophy, it would seem, is that no moral compass stops nihilists from hurting others. This can be seen when the nihilists threaten The Dude.
We can see this same negative portrayal (albeit underplayed significantly) in Fathers and Sons. The character Bazarov does not dress in black like the nihilists in The Big Lebowski, but he frequently argues angrily with other characters and refuses to internalize his impolite comments about his friend’s family. Violence also briefly breaks out during Bazarov’s duel with Pavel.
The key to understanding the Coen Brothers’ thoughts on nihilism lies at the end of the film. During the film’s climactic scene, the nihilists complain of the unfairness in not receiving the money they want. Walter points out that the idea of justice and a fair outcome is inconsistent with their alleged nihilist philosophy. The fact that the group has ideas about what is fair shows that nihilism is incompatible with real life. The Coen Brothers appear to be highlighting the fact that no one can realistically go through life with no belief in certain moral or ethical ideas.
Similarly, we see the shortcomings of nihilism in Fathers and Sons, when Bazarov realizes that, in spite of advocating an existence free of love or beauty, he has fallen in love with Anna. Bazarov must attempt to reconcile his romantic feelings with his now stifling and problematic worldview. Ultimately, his philosophy prevents him from finding romance, since he is unable to communicate effectively with Anna due to his desire to cling to nihilism.
So, in both works, nihilism is portrayed as harmful to others and to the self. The creators behind these works do not paint nihilism positively, and they thereby indirectly advocate ethics and morality in place of pure ideological nothingness. It is not surprising that Fathers and Sons, a didactic “novel of ideas,” presents the reader with moral advice. What is perhaps more unexpected is that The Big Lebowski strongly advocates morality behind its façade of strange humor and erratic plot points.
Coen, Joel. The Big Lebowski. Gramercy, 1998. Film.
Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Sons. New York: Modern Library, n.d. Print.