Commentary Magazine


Re: Death of an Oak

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an almost impossibly large figure for us to comprehend, a man who shaped both the literary and political world in ways that are extremely rare in history. And the tributes to him, like this elegant one by John, are well deserved. Solzhenitsyn helped to vanquish one of the mightiest and most wicked regimes the world has ever known, and he did it not with armies or weapons, but with the power of words.

It was an extraordinary achievement.

He was not simply a writer of unparalleled power, but a beautiful, gifted one, able to make piercing insights about the human condition. There are far too many words he has written over the years for us to re-read and reflect upon. But consider just these, from The Gulag Archipelago (in Volume II, in the chapter “The Ascent”):

It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me 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 line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil….

When people express vexation, in my presence, over the West’s tendency to crumble, its political shortsightedness, its divisiveness, its confusion – I recall too: “Were we, before passing through the Archipelago, more steadfast? Firmer in our thoughts?”

And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!“… All the writers who wrote about prison but who did not themselves serve time there considered it their duty to express sympathy for prisoners and to curse prison. I… have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!” (And from beyond the grave come replies: It is very well for you to say that – when you came out of it alive!) [emphasis in the original]

And this, from his 1970 Nobel Prize Lecture:

In mounting this platform to deliver my Noble Prize Lecture, I appreciate that this is a chance made available to by no means every writer, and then only once in a lifetime. And it is not by three or four well-carpeted steps that I have climbed up on this stage, but by hundreds or even thousands of them, steep, unyielding steps, slippery with ice, up out of the darkness and the cold which it was my fate to survive while others, perhaps more gifted and more powerful men than I, lost their lives…

And this (also from his Nobel Lecture):

Dostoyevsky once made the mysterious remark, “The world will be saved by beauty.” What does it mean? For a long time I thought it was just a phrase. For how is it possible? When in our blood-stained history has beauty saved anyone from anything? Beauty has ennobled and elevated, yes, but whom has it ever saved?

However, there is this characteristic in the essence of beauty, this characteristic in the position of Art: a truly artistic work is completely, irrefutably convincing and bends to its will even the heart which resists it. A political speech, a piece of one-sided journalism, a plan for a new social system or a new philosophy – all of these can be smoothly and efficiently composed, it seems on the basis of a mistake or a lie. Nor is it immediately clear what has been distorted or hidden. And then some quite contradictory speech, newspaper article or plan appears, some quite differently structured philosophy, all just as smoothly and efficiently presented, just as flawless. This is why people trust these things – and yet they do not trust them.

It is useless to state what one’s heart does not feel.

But a work of art carries in itself its own checking system. Strained, invented concepts do not withstand the image test. Both the concepts and the images collapse. They are shown up as pale and feeble. They convince nobody. But works which have drawn upon the truth and presented it to us in live, concentrated form capture us and draw us compulsively in. And never, even centuries later, will anyone be able to refute them.

Can it be that the old trinity – Truth, Goodness and Beauty – is something more than a well-worn, forlorn cliché, as it seemed to us in the days of our self-reliant, materialistic youth? The wise men of old used to say that the crowns of these three trees merge, while the branches of the Truth tree and the Goodness tree, being too obvious and too straight, are crushed, lopped off and not allowed to grow. But if this is the case, maybe the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected branches of the Beauty tree could fight their way through the rest and right up to the same place, and thus achieve the task of all three?

Then surely Dostoyevsky’s words, “The world will be saved by beauty,” will emerge not as a slip of the tongue but as a prophecy. For it was given to him to see many things. He was amazingly inspired.

And then perhaps Art and literature really will be able to help today’s world?

These are the words of a giant among men.

I do think it’s fair to say, though, that with the benefit of hindsight, his 1978 Harvard commencement address, “A World Split Apart,” looks to have been far too pessimistic in its assessment of the West in general, and of America in particular. If you read the speech in its entirety, there is an unmistakable sense that the West is a place of mediocrity and moral chaos, lacking both will and character, and on a steep, downward trajectory toward decay. He saw all of our failures, it seems, and none of our strengths. There is also an underlying contempt for democracy and freedom which failed to take into account, I think, why liberty, despite its shortcomings, often leads to human flourishing and excellence. There is a reason the United States, and Solzhenitsyn himself, outlived Soviet communism. And so I agree with others that on the crucial question of the merits of liberal democracy, Solzhenitsyn’s fellow dissident, Andrei Sakharov, was more prescient and wise.

Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard address, like everything he wrote, is worth reading, and reading again. Despite its unremitting hostility toward the West, it contains deep and moving insights. And there can be no question that Solzhenitsyn was, as his sometimes critic Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. said at the time, a man of exemplary nobility and extreme bravery.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was among the handful of the most significant and estimable people of the 20th century, and his words and his contributions will be remembered by every generation that follows. He was that important.

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