Strangely enough over the last few weeks—just as I’ve begun, for quite unrelated reasons, to settle into the newly published, complete edition of his novel, The First Circle—voices familiar to me have arisen, speaking the name of Solzhenitsyn.
It’s a wonder, in many ways, that more of us weren’t made aware of the sexy dissidence of this Soviet subverter as youngsters—at the very least, that I wasn’t acquainted with him at some point before my mid-twenties. Even with the slightest background, there’s hardly a more convincing paradigm of poetic magnanimity than Solzhenitsyn: decrier (and long-suffering victim) of the gulag, and brazen ambassador of the human spirit.
Indeed, other admirers more informed and dedicated than myself have already painted that picture with greater vigor and detail than I could ever hope to achieve. And they have helped to improve the man’s stature in popular culture—even if his place in the history books (or at least the Nobel records) was already shored up.
The wonder I speak of, on the other hand, relates not to Solzhenitsyn’s popularity or historical embodiment, but mostly to his personality—to the substrate that gave us the author of The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
I wonder why, above all, the man who addressed the faculty and recent graduates of Harvard in June of 1978 was someone I’d encounter almost nowhere, beyond this rinky-dink webpage and a worn-out book.
From what I hear, many of the fortunate auditors that day wondered most earnestly about how they could rid themselves of the very man I wish I knew—of the very substrate that gave us the author of Cancer Ward and The First Circle. Here, I suspect, lies the conundrum: namely, that the worldly divide of which Solzhenitsyn spoke that day—one “perceptible even to a hasty glance”—says very much more about the quality of one’s glance than the fact of its haste. (Surely, he prepares us for this with an opening comment, which reminds us that despite their apparent austerity, his remarks come “not from an adversary but from a friend.”)
Reflecting on that now (in)famous Harvard address, we can’t work hard enough to grapple with the disposition evinced by its author. It is, after all, a disposition that permitted Solzhenitsyn to rebuke the West openly and plainly, just moments after assuring us of his amicable purposes. He calls us cowards, fat-and-happy organisms waiting to be devoured, and small-minded legalists, incapable of seeing beyond the minutae of a framework “not quite worthy of man.” He rejects our very desire for survival, denounces the viability of Western society en masse, threatens our joy, and even employs the name of that most sacred cultural icon—the television—in vain.
Yet Solzhenitsyn doesn’t expect us to understand. “To defend oneself,” he says, “one must also be ready to die.” He intends this, on the surface, to describe the implausibility of our national security. He means it, I think, on a deeper level with respect to the ineptitude of our response to his challenges. If we can’t reflect meaningfully on what we are as a society, how can we be prepared to lay down our lives so that it may persist?
Solzhenitsyn’s doubts are well founded; indeed, they might even merit claims to a more scientific certainty. The pending peril of Western civilization, he says, rests squarely on the fact of our detachment from “moral criteria.”
Only moral criteria can help the West against communism’s well planned world strategy. There are no other criteria. Practical or occasional considerations of any kind will inevitably be swept away by strategy. After a certain level of the problem has been reached, legalistic thinking induces paralysis; it prevents one from seeing the size and meaning of events.
In spite of the abundance of information, or maybe because of it, the West has difficulties in understanding reality such as it is.
The failure of the West, in Solzhenitsyn’s telling, is a failure of spiritual magnitude. “Through intense suffering,” he remarks, “[the Soviet Union] has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.” Even the liberal freedoms perfected by Americans to great hedonic benefit are, in light of communist materialism, “extremely saddening.”
On the contrary, it seems that what Solzhenitsyn would advocate as a model for future human development is not Western progress, but instead the dolors of a social and cultural purgatory. His position as friend rather than adversary, I think, tells us that he believes the latter is inevitable; there is no need to hasten its advent, only to prepare while there is still some time.
Thus, the meaning of Solzhenitsyn’s liberal spirit is disclosed most plainly. After decades of forced labor and political exile—and even a short stint in the mountains of Vermont—his heart longed for the same nation that victimized him, suppressed his writings, and at times broke his spirit. It wasn’t the relent of Stalinism that freed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; it was its full vigor and brutality. In the gulag he learned to see things as they were. He learned the virtue of haste in times of necessity, but was spared its pathological effects.
That most citizens of the West are unable to appreciate—or even to recognize—the true “split in today’s world” is symptomatic of the “psychic disease” of hastiness and superficiality that infects us all through our worship of the media, and our submission to the therapy of rational absolutes. Sure, we can tell “us” from “them”; sometimes our perceptions even align with deeper realities, as in the case of same-sex marriage and infanticide. But exceptions don’t make rules, and the incidence (albeit a fortunate one) that permits certain clear divisions on questions of great social worth doesn’t offer inroads on the causes of these divisions—or of their worth.
The glance to which Solzhenitsyn calls us, and which he knows mostly to elude us, is not just that of an inwardly liberated spirit. It is also the glance of the anti-materialist metaphysician—not of the spiritualist, but of the Christian. Solzhenitsyn’s gaze does not ignore or lessen the significance of the material world; rather, it places that meaning on one side of a coin, shared on the reverse by complementary principles of hylomorphism.
In short, Solzhenitsyn is an academic realist of the highest and purest order. He is also a long sufferer—in turn, a realist more than in theory, but even in practice. The rejection of the man by so many non-realists, then, is mostly a rejection of his practice; not of his ideas. It is a rejection of the realization—and I mean that in the strictest way—that only when the world is turned upside down can it be known and loved for what it is.
Perhaps it is going too far to imply that Solzhenitsyn’s testimony is necessarily of goodness and the highest moral worth. It is, however, what is minimally necessary for those things to be actively sought and successfully attained. It is a practical wisdom of the most supreme sort, which is all too easy to reject, and entirely impossible to summarize.
I suspect that that reason I never heard much about Solzhenitsyn before late is that to condense his contributions into a sound bite is peculiarly infeasible. And because of that, his legacy and insights are something I am committed more and more to exploring and sharing.