Can you learn from someone else’s experience? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has repeatedly raised this question about the Russian experience and its impact on other nations, but we Americans could also ask it about ourselves. Can we learn from each other in our increasingly polarized nation? A new volume, edited by David P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson, continues Solzhenitsyn’s investigation and prompts the reader to re-examine (or approach for the first time) his work, as well as that of other Russian writers. In honor of the late Solzhenitsyn scholar Edward E. Ericson Jr., Solzhenitsyn and American culture: The Russian soul in the West approaches the study of Solzhenitsyn “not only as an intellectual pursuit, but also to learn how to best live” .
In 21 essays on various facets of Solzhenitsyn’s work, the larger Russian tradition, and the influence of both on American culture, the volume’s authors take seriously the claim that the Russian experience can and should appeal to a Western audience. America may still be a liberal regime, but we are no less immune to ideological and totalitarian impulses, as the goals of today’s demolition culture can attest. So we should think carefully about the lessons Solzhenitsyn and other Russian thinkers learned from living under a totalitarian regime, and this volume provides a good starting point. Indeed, his reflections on Solzhenitsyn’s understanding of human nature, his argument for the central importance of reversal in political life, and his belief in the power of art to bridge cultural and political chasms, challenge ourselves and our shared home in the To examine the light of his thinking.
Solzhenitsyn testifies to the almost indestructible importance of the divine image in the human soul and shows, as Daniel J. Mahoney expresses in his contribution to the volume, “that totalitarianism has never really succeeded in subjugating the human spirit”.
The line between good and bad
It has become alarmingly common on both ends of the political spectrum to denounce one’s political opponents as morally, even irrevocably, depraved. Solzhenitsyn knows well this type of moral certainty and its tendency to breed terror and tyranny. The classification of the opponent as evil or incarnate injustice, like the Soviet Union with its “enemies of the people”, makes it much easier to justify attempts to silence them or to defeat them completely.
It is dangerous not only to divide groups of people into those who fight for good, but also those who fight for evil. Solzhenitsyn argues that it also betrays a misunderstanding of the human relationship with good and evil. As he confesses in the Gulag archipelago,
It was gradually being revealed to me that the dividing line between good and evil does not run through states, or between classes, or between political parties – but through every human heart and through all human hearts. This line shifts. It vibrates in us over the years. And even in hearts that are overwhelmed by evil, a small bridgehead of good remains. And even in the best of hearts there still remains … an uprooted little corner of evil.
As Ralph C. Wood explains in his contribution on Solzhenitsyn and American culture, Solzhenitsyn’s interpretation of human nature bears a distinctly Russian Orthodox mark. Instead of understanding man as ever completely evil or completely redeemed, the Orthodox Church claims that “[a]At every moment human life participates more or less in the life of God. “This follows from the representation of man’s creation by God in Genesis in his image and likeness. While the image of God is given and established in every human being, our likeness to God includes “the freedom to either become more or less the image in which we are made”.
Solzhenitsyn’s own experience reflects both aspects of this dual nature. On the one hand, his freedom to more or less resemble the divine image in him made him angrier and use Solzhenitsyn’s own words: “In the intoxication of youthful successes I felt infallible, and that too was cruel. In excess of power, I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my worst moments, I was convinced that I was doing good and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. “And yet Solzhenitsyn never completely lost the little bridgehead of goodness in his soul. In his willingness to sacrifice his own well-being in order to deviate from the Communist Party’s ideological justification for tyranny and terror, Solzhenitsyn testifies to the near indestructibility of the divine image in the human soul, demonstrating as Daniel J. Mahoney in his contribution to the tape it says: “Totalitarianism has never really succeeded in subjugating the human spirit.”
The most obvious political lesson of Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of human nature as solid and mixed is his stern warning against the brutal violence against body and soul emanating from a regime based on a misunderstanding of human nature as infinitely malleable. Equally important is the theme of repentance that accompanies his double vision of the human soul. David Walsh’s contribution to the volume explores this topic in Solzhenitsyn’s historical epic The Red Wheel. While the work clearly laments Russia’s “descent into revolutionary madness,” its inclusion of glimpses of good amid evil, such as the confession of an adulteress who has burdened herself and those around her, suggests the possibility of repentance (and forgiveness) for even the deepest betrayal.
Repentance is always possible because of the indelible divine image within us. Even more radically, Walsh argues that Solzhenitsyn’s vision of our mixed natures extends to our actions: “Giving up the great obsession that the [Russian] The revolution will include the recognition that it wasn’t all bad. It could only have as much success as it did because it relied on good. That is the key to overcoming. “Repentance and forgiveness not only require the acknowledgment of the good, however small or weak it may be, that remains in every human heart, but according to Walsh it also requires the acknowledgment of the love of the good,” albeit a perversion of its True Form ” that drives horrific acts of its own.
William Jason Wallace and several other authors of the volume point out that, for Solzhenitsyn, repentance is the only means for individuals and nations – both East and West – who are in the grip of ideology. However, repentance is particularly difficult for modern man. We are ashamed of the idea that anything in man may be flawed or corrupt, and we deny the evil within us for which we must repent. “Traditional notions of” good “and” bad “are exposed to cynicism and ridicule,” notes Wallace, and a moral relativism takes their place. At the same time, the gross evils multiply without having to check the license. We can’t help but notice them, but who can we blame? We direct our unlimited anger towards systems, classes and parties and produce what Wallace calls “a penniless tyranny of hatred”. Without repentance, which requires an acknowledgment of the evil in ourselves as well as an acknowledgment of the good in our enemies, our hatred will destroy us.
Learning through literature
If, as Solzhenitsyn states and contributor Julianna Leachman repeats, “the habit of repentance is lost for our entire numb and chaotic age,” can it be restored? Solzhenitsyn argues that art, and literature in particular, is uniquely suited to facilitate such recovery. One reason for this, as James F. Pontuso points out in his contribution to the volume, is that literature is limited by the human scale in a way that a treatise on abstract ideas is not. Stories convey ideas, but also illustrate the concrete consequences of these ideas in the lives of their characters. While ideology requires that we manipulate reality in order to conform it to theory, true art subordinates theory to reality. Pontuso notes that this is a goal of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag archipelago: “What happens to real people when Marx’s ideas are put into practice?”
Solzhenitsyn’s art exposes the lies of communism not by offering an alternative ideology, but by giving voices to competing ideas through different characters, thereby showing the complexities of human nature that totalitarian ideologies like communism deny. Jessica Hooten Wilson argues in her contribution to the tape that it is Solzhenitsyn’s use of polyphony in his fiction that is his most potent weapon against lies. While an ideology like communism allows a single view of things, “Solzhenitsyn’s novels show dozens of perspectives, all in conversation with one another and not in harmony.” Solzhenitsyn’s polyphony is far from celebrating pluralism for its own sake, and asks the reader to examine the characters ‘experiences as well as the merits and flaws of their arguments and to assess the characters’ own assumptions.
By showing us our own vices in a different way, good literature gives us the distance to judge the disordered desires, thoughts, and actions to which we ourselves succumb and invites us to take a first step toward repentance. On the other hand, by bringing us closer to other people’s experiences, literature also brings out our understanding and appreciation of the good in their souls and invites us to take a first step towards forgiveness. As Micah Mattix explains in his contribution to the volume, this “ability to change the way we think and act” is “what Solzhenitsyn calls the” miracle “of art.”
The authors of this volume welcome Solzhenitsyn’s assertion of the ability of art to “experience the [an] whole nation to another nation. “Not only do they show how Russian literature has taught Americans, from Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Day to Alain Locke and Richard Wright, but they also encourage a new generation of American readers to turn to Russian writers, to assert oneself and to be inspired. Of course, one of these writers is Solzhenitsyn, whose insight into human nature and the fundamental need for repentance apply very strongly to our political and cultural circumstances today. After Solzhenitsyn’s leadership, may we take to heart what he describes as Socrates’ most important moral insight: “Know yourself!”