August 3, 2008

FROM THE ARCHIVES: TAKE THAT SOLZHENITSYN!

Mark Steyn takes on A World Split Apart (Mark Steyn, American Enterprise, July/August 1998)
The important thing to remember about Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard speech is that it was given by a Vermonter. So when, after being asked if he could recommend the West as a model for his country, he says, "I would frankly have to answer negatively," the reasonable response is, "Are you crazy, man? You live in Cavendish, Vermont, for Pete’s sake!" Like most Granite Staters, I have fundamental differences with my Green Mountain neighbors over taxes, education, Ben and Jerry, and a zillion other issues. But compared to anywhere but New Hampshire—certainly compared to Mother Russia, Chechnya, Georgia, Romania—Vermont looks pretty good.

Alas, Solzhenitsyn is enough of a Soviet man that he seems to have absorbed the old Communist habit of discussing "the people" without the tedious bother of actually coming into contact with any of them. Real people—like his fellow townsfolk in Cavendish—are curiously absent from his speech. This helps to explain why, though everything he says is right in theory—indeed, his remarks about "TV stupor," press "superficiality," and "legalistic relationships," are unexceptional—yet here we still are, doing…O.K.

What Solzhenitsyn never seems to notice, at least not in a Western context, is the resilience of the people. Despite our descent into "the abyss of human decadence," the most popular forms of liquid manure in America are actually unchanged in their bourgeois sentimentality from a century ago: Today, "the people" enjoy Celine Dion singing the big ballad from Titanic, The Bridges of Madison County, "Touched by an Angel," and the like. The only difference is that, whereas a hundred years ago our betters told us to put down our parlor ballads and listen to Schubert, now they tell us we should be watching Natural Born Killers and The People vs. Larry Flynt. These films open to rave reviews and small loyal audiences in a handful of metropolitan fleshpots, but on general release across the country, they flop. When they come to Lebanon, New Hampshire, or Barre, Vermont, no one from Cavendish goes to see them. There is no commercial imperative to produce these films, only the dreary obsessions of our vulgarized elites.

Solzhenitsyn notes of Communism that "Western intellectuals still look at it with considerable interest and empathy, and this is precisely what makes it so immensely difficult for the West to withstand the East." The key word in that sentence is intellectuals—which is why, in democratic America, it proved immensely easy to withstand the East. Even in hippy-dippy Vermont, no avowed Communist could ever be elected as Cavendish Town Clerk or School Board Chairman. [...]

"West" and "East" are, of course, generalizations. Within the "West" there are vast differences between Continental Europe and the English-speaking world—and even between the British Commonwealth and the United States. But you can’t help but notice that those countries which attempt to insulate their peoples from rampant materialism and the barbarities of commercial culture are the ones sunk in the deepest slough of spiritual poverty. The obvious reason would seem to be that those societies which most regulate the media and consumer products tend to regulate everything else, too.

Why did Solzhenitsyn never see anything outside his door that he could commend as "a model to my country"? Perhaps because he rarely peered outside his door. The most striking thing about Solzhenitsyn’s place in Cavendish was the fence—not, as elsewhere, a low white picket, a decorative skirting for the clapboards and shingles. In an area where few lock their homes and many don’t even have keys, Solzhenitsyn had a formal security fence. In the early days, it was assumed he feared a midnight wake-up call from rogue kgb agents. But as time went on, it became clear that he was as much concerned to keep Vermont out. If Solzhenitsyn had wanted something to put on the mantel alongside his Nobel Prize, he could easily have won an Ugliest House in Vermont competition. There is, in other words, more than one form of spiritual poverty.

For 18 years Solzhenitsyn endured a sort of self-imposed cabin fever, which the up-market essayists who sought him out in Cavendish dignified as "reclusiveness." Not far away in Stowe, there’s another model of artistic exile—the Trapp Family Singers, refugees from the century’s other great tyranny. They never made much money from The Sound of Music, but they run a popular ski lodge and Elisabeth von Trapp still sings every Christmas on wdev radio. They at least understand the virtues of a culture secure in itself.

When Solzhenitsyn returned to Moscow, it was to a new dacha in a compound enclosed behind an eight-foot barrier, with the Moscow cable company supplying him with mtv, cnn, and all the other American TV he couldn’t receive in uncabled Cavendish. Perhaps, behind his steel door in a toxic society far more spiritually enfeebled than America, he regrets his speech. Maybe he realizes that the best anyone could hope for is that Russia turns out half as agreeable as the Vermont he never quite lived in.

As we Westerners like to say, you wanna get outta the house more.

Usually my eyes glaze over whenever tracts like A World Split Apart or philosophers like Leo Strauss are discussed. Thank God for Mark Steyn, a man who can render pretty much any subject worth reading and has an uncomfortable (for his critics) tendency to see how well their positions are justified by plain common sense. [originally posted: 2003-06-09] Posted by M Ali Choudhury at August 3, 2008 3:37 PM
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