Fathers and sons
Modernity, the defining character of our age, can be understood in many ways. To be clear, it’s not about science and technology per se, elements that powered ancient empires from Rome to China. Instead, it’s about the increasingly hegemonic role of technological disruption in determining the foundations of social organization. Today’s most powerful men are not presidents and generals, but billionaire geeks in Silicon Valley.
It’s also not about globalization per se, since the ancient “Silk Road,” connecting the Far East to Europe via the Middle East, could be traced back to Persia’s Cyrus the Great and also the Mongolian Empire, which dominated much of Eurasia. Instead, it’s about what Karl Marx aptly described as “annihilation of space by time.”
Notice how quickly the COVID-19 pandemic managed to bring the whole world to its knees, thanks to a world connected by flights and ubiquitous flashes on our mobile screens?
On the most fundamental level, modernity is the clash between embracing uncertainty, based on a future-oriented orientation, and submitting to an established truth, based on faith in traditions and historical memory. It’s precisely here where modernity is, metaphorically at least, a showdown between “sons,” the agents of change and discontent, and “fathers,” the embodiment of the status quo.
If there is one country that witnessed this titanic clash at its most brutal and traumatizing, it’s Russia. As the 20th century philosopher Isaiah Berlin pointed out, Russian intellectuals were at the heart of this most modern drama, which culminated in the bloody downfall of tsardom and the subsequent rise of an even more brutal Stalinist regime.
In “Fathers and Sons” (1862), Ivan Turgenev painfully captured the progressive alienation between a once loving father and son, Nikoláy and Arkády, amid political upheaval and the attendant emergence of disruptive ideological outlooks, most horrifically represented by the ultra-nihilist Bazárov.
In perhaps his greatest work, “The Brothers Karamazov” (1880), Fyodor Dostoevsky pushed the envelope by delving into the theme of patricide. The book chronicles the tragic fate of three brothers torn apart by a disintegrating and oppressive order, represented by their reactionary and abusive father whose brutal murder under mysterious circumstances eerily anticipated the collapse of the Russian monarchy.
More than a century later, this searing “fathers and sons” drama is equally ferocious, now playing out on a far larger and variegated landscape, from the progressive “Black Lives Matter” revolt against the deracinated Democratic establishment to Alexei Navalny’s direct challenge to Vladimir Putin’s desiccated regime.
Lest we forget, modernity is, to use the term of the great sociologist Karl Polanyi, a “double movement”: Just as progressive and young leaders challenge an oppressive order, exposing fault lines at the heart of once glorious nations, there are also countless young and passionately reactionary voters who place their faith in populist father figures, upending some of the largest democracies in recent years.
But there is a way to transcend the tragic clash between fathers and sons, best chronicled by Russian novelists, and the even more disastrously mindless submission to self-serving demagogues, best chronicled by today’s social scientists. This realization gradually washed over me during Father’s Day over the weekend.
As the scorching sun blazed through the once snowy mountains gracing my morning vista, I reflected on the immense sacrifices of my father, the agonies of his youth, his tragic helplessness between revolutions and wars, and his immeasurable suffering for the sake of his only son and his family.
I recalled, with crystalline awareness, how tenderly he held me in his arms throughout my childhood, how he protected me from bullies and took me home after school, how he patiently taught me the fundamentals of language and world politics, and how he nurtured conscience and sincere humility in my heart.
And in that moment, I realized that the best way, perhaps the only way, to overcome the tragedy at the heart of modernity is to cherish our fathers — to find common ground, to nurture intergenerational solidarity and shared courage in our common quest for a purposeful life against the twin evils of nihilism and oppression.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.