Slowly Arkady's heart sunk. To complete the picture, the peasants they met were all in tatters and on the sorriest little nags; the willows, with their trunks stripped of bark, and broken branches, stood like ragged beggars along the roadside; cows lean and shaggy and looking pinched up by hunger, were greedily tearing at the grass along the ditches. They looked as though they had just been snatched out of the murderous clutches of some threatening monster; and the piteous state of the weak, starved beasts in the midst of the lovely spring day, called up, like a white phantom, the endless, comfortless winter with its storms, and frosts, and snows.... 'No,' thought Arkady, 'this is not a rich country; it does not impress one by plenty or industry; it can't, it can't go on like this, reforms are absolutely necessary ... but how is one to carry them out, how is one to begin?'
O father, tell me, what is it like to feel the imperative of changing the world for the better?
My son, ask me not that question until first you have considered those who have set out loudly on the journey of social change and then have quietly given up and directed themselves towards other goals.
O father, then explain it in that light.
My son, it is the story of renewal without remembrance. Those who come newly to the idea of social change eagerly absorb the narratives of optimism. However, after a number of life experiences within that peculiar context, such narratives no longer suffice as explanations of their situation. For reason of this insufficiency, they then slip quietly away.
O father, so from the very beginning, and unknown to themselves, they are looking for a way to shed the troublesome burden of wishing to change the world for the better?
My son, we are all seeking a means to, if not reconcile ourselves with the ways of the world, then at least arrive at an accommodation with it. At some point, we all realise that we cannot go on as before. Negotiations are ever ongoing. A post-phd position usually does the trick.
O father, it seems that the student protests of 2010, the events of the Arab Spring and of Occupy have already receded into the distant past. Were these the work of an older generation of optimists who have now since left the milieu? And yet, the legacy they have left behind, for later generations, is one of unrestrained optimism. There is no literature describing their exiting of the milieu.
My son, whilst optimistic delusions are eternal, the optimists themselves are only ever passing through. Their radicalism survives for two to five years, and then their life-energies are directed elsewhere.
O father, if only the record of their inevitable disillusion was preserved. For each of those who have become otherwise distracted it must seem as if they have made a personal decision in favour of relinquishing their demands, and yet there is a society-wide pattern in it. If only we could study the pathways of their disengagement.
My son, who in the world would wish to pathologise hope?
O father, this is no time for sentimental nostalgia. The acceptance of loss, and the inclusion of certain failure from the very beginning, is the only means in the present by which we may proceed, by which we may think about social change. Tell me now, before I grow a minute older, what is it like to feel, from the other side, the impulse to change the world for the better?
My son, it is to perpetually stare perpetual defeat in its perpetually rotting face, forever.
'No, there is a difference, just as between the sick and the healthy. The lungs of a consumptive patient are not in the same condition as yours and mine, though they are made on the same plan. We know approximately what physical diseases come from; moral diseases come from bad education, from all the nonsense people's heads are stuffed with from childhood up, from the defective state of society; in short, reform society, and there will be no diseases.’