A good idea from ... Turgenev

  • @alaindebotton
YOU SHOULD never trust a person who doesn't blush. So suggested the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in a letter to a friend in 1865. I've been fascinated by the sentence ever since I read it a few years ago. How odd for Turgenev to locate a moral quality in a strange facial tic - which those of us who are afflicted by it normally view as simply a terrible nuisance?

In Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, every likeable character is prone to blushing: the father, Nikolai Petrovich, blushes, as do both his first and second wives, his son Arkady and his wife Katya. While the baddies in the book - Pavel Kirsanov, Bazarov and Odinstova - retain a standard paleness at all times.

In Turgenev's analysis, we blush in situations where we can't hide from ourselves, but more importantly, believe that we can't hide from others, a disjunction between who we are supposed to be and who we in fact are. We are supposed to be nice and responsible while chatting innocently to a colleague by the photocopier, but we are in fact desperate to throw our documents aside and kiss them passionately on the lips. Or we are supposed to be intelligent and not desperate for approval, but we laugh too early on in an anecdote from a manic desire to be liked. Yet this alone is not enough to make us blush. For the blood to rise to our cheeks, we must also feel that other people have spotted our sexual urges or our supine nature - and disapprove. We don't blush simply because we harbour inappropriate or shameful thoughts, we blush when we harbour them and think that others have noticed.

Turgenev liked blushers because he liked modesty. Blushers cannot forget that they are not as exalted as they would like to be - and they are pained by this, rather than blustering or proud. Turgenev's blushing male characters are aware that when they fall in love, their love has both a tender, gentle side, and a cruder, sexual one, and they can't help but blush at the disjunction. Bazarov, a negative character in Fathers and Sons, sarcastically remarks on meeting a beautiful woman: "What a sumptuous body she's got! I'd just love to get into her anatomical theatre." The more likeable Arkady, similarly struck by her beauty, blushes.

Though it may be awkward to blush, the capacity to do so indicates all sorts of noble traits - an awareness of how one appears to others, a critical stance towards oneself, modesty, sensitivity; all echoing that lovely french word pudeur, which sadly has no direct English equivalent.

But because blushing can also be crippling, Turgenev hoped that art could to some extent help the sufferer through it. Like all good things, it is possible to blush too much; to feel that one has more to blush about than one realistically does. Works of art can reconcile us to what we are by discussing and hence normalising situations which in daily life (by the photocopier) might otherwise seem exceptional, and exceptionally embarrassing.