At the Hoover Institution archives in 1976: "silent, aghast, a simply endless witnessing"
Russia watcher and New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote in 2001: “In terms of the effect he has had on history, Solzhenitsyn is the dominant writer of the 20th century. Who else compares? Orwell? Koestler? And yet when his name comes up now, it is more often than not as a freak, a monarchist, an anti-Semite, a crank, a has been.”
I remember reading my silver-covered Gulag Archipelago, vol. 1, in the backrooms of the Pontiac Press where, as a brand-new intern in the hard, gritty little burg, I was supposed to be compiling the results of a reader survey. I kept snatching a few minutes here and there to read more, and more. It was, as author Richard Wirick wrote, “300,000 words of stupefying revelations — silent, aghast, a simply endless witnessing. Its didacticism, the repetitious parade of exclamations … we have to be reminded that quantity sometimes becomes quality, that the sheer numbers murdered — and of a country’s own people — requires a special category of inimitable evil.”
Somehow, the last few days of research in various and sundry brought me to Wirick’s excellent Bookslut piece on the author’s 2008 death, “Solzhenitsyn: The Last Giant.” Afterward I revisited Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s much-criticized (“scolding,” “hectoring”) 1978 Harvard address.
On the contrary, I find it provocative, often prescient, and at the very least worth another look.
On a legalistic society…
“I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.
And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.”
On human freedom…
“The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations. …
Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually but it was evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent to human nature; the world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems which must be corrected. Strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still is criminality and there even is considerably more of it than in the pauper and lawless Soviet society.”
On the press…
“Here again, the main concern is not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No, it does not happen, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance.
Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified, they will stay on in the readers’ memory. How many hasty, immature, superficial and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification. The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it.”
On intellectual fashions…
“Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. … This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds. Human voices from 17 countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.”
I could go on: “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die.”
One can’t help thinking that Solzhenitsyn’s remarks about Western cowardice, its colossal failure of nerve, were pretty much spot-on. For example, in the 1970s, Henry Kissinger warned President Gerald Ford against a visit from the Nobel laureate, saying the visit would cause controversy, and that fellow dissidents found his positions an embarrassment. Guess who didn’t get an invite. One thinks more recently of the Dalai Lama leaving the White House by the back door, near the garbage. Or the unseemly waffling of nations deciding whether to boycott the Nobels this year, in support of China against the imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo. Or the modern inability to understand much more beyond branding, positioning, marketing, and public relations values — Jon Stewart‘s apparent inability to discern why inviting Cat Stevens to celebrate peace and sanity might not be such a red-hot idea. Or… or … or…
Writing after Solzhenitsyn’s 2008 death, Wirick comments that the writer seems to have outscaled the criticism:
“And yet there he was. After Borges and Beckett, Calvino and Bellow, the man pretty much stood by himself out on the landscape: a chipped, fierce, creaking monument, taunting the wind for its shuddering fall. On the night it came, and a friend called with the news, I closed my eyes and saw my favorite photograph of him, I believe by Harry Benson. It’s the one where he is deeply breathing, hands on chest, the nearly Russian air of his whitened Vermont pastures. It’s a picture that shows a lot more wisdom and self-deprecation than most people see. The superficial view takes the smile on his face and closed eyes to be saying how ‘happy’ he is to finally be in a ‘free’ country. I see him saying something at once richer and lighter, playful and more complex: ‘I’m a writer. I’m a ham. I make mistakes. I just happen to straddle the age like Abi Yoyo. But it is always only a step, as Mr. Nabokov said, from the hallelujah to the hoot. I welcome your snowballs.’”