August 5, 2008

BLESS YOU, PRISON:

The Bleat (James Lileks, 8/04/08)

In the summer of ’78 I was back home in Fargo between college years – exiled from the civilized world, cast into barbarity. During the day I labored under the hot sun painting giant fuel tanks in the hot sun, next to an auto-body shop that exhaled poison and Eagles all day. A sensitive soul, cast into such grim circumstances. A noble soul, a poet, reduced to living on the gruel of hometown “culture,” almost unable to stir himself each day to face the hopeless allotment that stretched forth until the sun turned its face away.

Naturally, I was in the perfect mood to read the entire Gulag Archipelago. I got all three volumes from the drugstore – which should have told me something about the land in which I lived, that one could buy this work from a creaky wire rack at the drugstore – and it taught me much about the Soviet Union and the era of Stalin. After that I could never quite understand the people who viewed the US and the USSR as moral equals, or regarded our history as not only indelibly stained but uniquely so. Reading Solzhenitsyn makes it difficult to take seriously the people in this culture who insist that Dissent has been squelched. Brother, you have no idea.


The Dissident (Stephen Brown, 8/5/2008, FrontPageMagazine.com)
That The Gulag Archipelago was published at all is something of a miracle. The KGB had desperately tried to stop its 1974 publication in the West. It had interrogated a woman, one of the four Solzhenitsyn used to type the secretly-written manuscript, for four days to discover its whereabouts. After revealing the location, the woman committed suicide. For all its intimidation, however, the KGB failed to prevent the book’s publication in the West.

Its immediate effect in the West was profound. Solzhenitsyn’s philosophy for dealing with Soviet tyrants was straightforward: The harder you hit them with the big fist, he once said, the better they understood. In exposing communism’s then-unknown crimes against humanity to a worldwide audience, Solzhenitsyn dealt a severe blow to the Soviet state.

The Kremlin was stunned, and failed to react for several days. But it eventually stripped Solzhenitsyn of his citizenship and expelled him from the Soviet Union. Cast out from his country, the reasoning went, Solzhenitsyn would fade into oblivion. Instead, he changed history.


Moral Giant (Rich Lowry, 8/05/08, National Review)
In The Gulag, he showed how the Soviet system wasn’t perverted by Stalin in the 1930s, but was murderous from the beginning, the sulfurous spawn of a Vladimir Lenin determined to rid Russia “of all kinds of harmful insects.” He argued convincingly that Soviet communism was as evil and destructive as Nazism. But the central insight of Solzhenitsyn’s work is not political or historical, but moral.

In his suffering, he gained insight into the twistedness of the human heart. “Gradually it was disclosed to me,” he writes, “that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”

This deeply humane understanding of evil is anathema to a political ideology like communism that draws bright, artificial lines between the chosen people and their enemies, thus justifying unimaginable acts of sadism. “Thanks to ideology,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions.”

Solzhenitsyn’s suffering in the camps saved him from ideology: “It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.” And for that, he made the astonishing exclamation, “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”

Such a man wouldn’t bend to any party or fashion. Soon after his exile, he gave the commencement speech at Harvard. He began by noting that “truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter,” then proceeded to scourge the West for its moral decadence.


The West Should Heed Solzhenitsyn (Quin Hillyer, 8/5/2008, American Spectator)
Here, though, is where not just the conservative appreciation for Solzhenitsyn but also the more general Western appreciation of him became more difficult to sustain. Oh, sure, conservatives were thrilled that Solzhenitsyn railed against the communists. And even European "social Democrats" ended up very glad that he blew the whistle on the Soviets who menaced them. But anti-communism was only part of the Russian Nobel laureate's message. As harsh as he was in denouncing the gulag, he was almost as harsh in denouncing not just the diplomatic weakness (up until then) of the West but also its moral decrepitude. Again in the Harvard speech, here's what he said:

"It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations. Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counter-balanced by the young people's right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil."


Somewhere between the age of Churchill and today we lost the idea that freedom obliges us, all of us, to expend "blood, toil, tears and sweat." Somewhere between the rationing of World War II and the Age of the Shopping Mall we forgot that a 5.7 percent unemployment rate after eight rocky months is a phenomenal achievement rather than a crisis. And somewhere along the way we forgot that while every one of 4,000 American deaths in a foreign land is a tragedy, they are collectively the mark of a nation that protects its soldiers amazingly well while freeing the world from a dangerous megalomaniac. Solzhenitsyn himself probably saw, personally, at least as many of his compatriots killed in any one of several bad weeks while fighting on the front lines against the invading Nazi death machine.

Thirty years before Phil Gramm complained that we have become a nation of whiners, Solzhenitsyn said much the same thing. One can almost hear him sneer as he noted to the Harvard grads that "the center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin, then, the social system quite unstable and unhealthy." One wonders what he made of the looting after Hurricane Katrina, and of the political buck-passing that accompanied the botched responses thereto. [...]

Solzhenitsyn clearly was no fan of consumerist American modernity. He said that it in its own way it was as dehumanizing -- or, perhaps more accurately, as de-spiritualizing -- as almost anything the gulag could engender. Yet in all of his complaining, in all of his cultural criticism of both the Free World and the communist one, this great Russian thinker's underlying message remained redemptive. As truly awful, by ordinary standards, as Ivan Denisovich's day in the labor camp had been, Ivan went to sleep thinking that "nothing had spoiled the day and it had been almost happy." After all, "he'd had a lot of luck today. They hadn't put him in the cooler....He'd finagled an extra bowl of mush at noon....And he'd gotten over that sickness."

With God's help, human beings have a remarkable capacity to find hope in the thinnest gruel. We have the capacity, he believed, to get over our sickness.


MORE:
-OBIT: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1918–2008: Russian traditionalist, Nobel laureate, feted in the West for criticism of Soviet Communism, then spurned for rejecting liberal materialism (Andrew Cusack, 3 August 2008, Norumbega)
-OBIT: The death of Solzhenitsyn: The Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov on how the author of the Gulag Archipelago, who related the terrible truth about Soviet totalitarianism, outlived his era to become something of a living monument to Russia's past (Andrey Kurkov, 05 August 2008, New Statesman)
-In Memoriam: Solzhenitsyn's Life And Writings (Forbes, 8/05/08)
-INTERVIEW: Alexander Solzhenitsyn On The New Russia (Paul Klebnikov, May 9, 1994, Forbes)
-ESSAY: The Prophet at Harvard (Dinesh D'Souza, 8/05/08, AOL News)
-OBIT: The man who shook the Kremlin: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died this week, was instrumental in bringing the Soviet Union to its knees, and he never wavered from his belief in a writer's moral responsibility to truth and beauty (Alexander Nazaryan, 8/05/08, Salon)

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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 5, 2008 7:24 AM
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