Solzhenitsyn: The Moral Vision
by Edward E. Ericson, Jr.
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980.
Hardcover, 239 pages.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has something important to say to mankind—this is generally conceded, even though there is little agreement on what he has to say, or on the validity of his thought. It is disturbing, therefore, to ascertain just how few people have read Solzhenitsyn carefully and widely over the body of his work. Fashionable talk about the great Russian is much more common than knowledge of him.
Professor Ericson has contributed greatly to a solutionof this problem. He has written a definitive guide to Solzhenitsyn, of real value to specialist and layman alike. An introductory section is followed by chapters analyzing each of Solzhenitsyn’s works which are available in English translation. The general arrangement is chronological in terms of date of composition, though Solzhenitsyn usually has several works in progress at once, often picking up and working on one project on many occasions over a period of years.
Each work is placed in relation to the others, and analyzed in terms of the main purposes behind it. Characters and plot in fiction, and philosophical themes in non-fiction are sketched broadly. Chapter by chapter, an horizon-wide picture of Solzhenitsyn against the backdrop of our times gradually takes shape. By the end of the book, this shape in the sky, Ericson’s Solzhenitsyn, takes on a reality of its own, rivaling the Russian himself while not contradicting him, much as Boswell’s Johnson merged with the real Johnson and brought him to the margin of comprehension for his contemporaries.
The book is equally valuable for the cognoscente searching for a fresh approach, for the layman who has never read Solzhenitsyn (whether or not he goes on to read the major works), for someone currently reading one of those works, and for someone who has finished one of them and would like to think it over and collect his impressions. Ericson has made Solzhenitsyn much more accessible to the average reader; if this guide is widely distributed and widely known in churches and libraries and schools and homes, it should triple or quadruple the number of souls who will be touched directly by one who may be the greatest literary artist, historical analyst, and spiritual guide of this age.
The literary artistry of the great exile, and the filtering effect of that artistry on his political and religious thought, is exemplified in the “polyphonic” technique of projection through a multitude of characters (foreshadowed by Tolstoy’s War and Peace), and through the presentation of characters and events in a constantly shifting mutual play of coefficients.
Ericson defends Solzhenitsyn the political commentator and analyst against the accusation from the liberal elite of the West that he is antidemocratic. The charges are shallow and glib, automatic libels against that which is too deep for the New Class of the West to comprehend. But all Ericson can bring up in defense is to note that Solzhenitsyn is not actually opposed to the technique of nose-counting and majority rule when it is used to appoint and confirm rulers, and that he may even approve of free elections for this limited purpose, when and where the people have had some “practice.”
A wise reader, willing to swallow hard at first in order to avoid indigestion later on, would be better advised to accept Solzhenitsyn’s indifference, if not hostility, to democracy, and his affinity with Continental conservative thought, the stream of Bonald and De Maistre. But he speaks from outside that mainstream; he speaks as a Russian—not as a Russian nationalist, but like Dostoevsky, as a voice of the great Russian Culture, a culture and a way of looking at the world which may always be somewhat opaque to men of the West. One of Spengler’s great insights was that the Russian Culture and civilization was born several hundred years after the birth of the West, and that it is today only in its early summer, while the last leaves are coming down in the West’s November. Like the Syriac civilization which Spengler saw as warped and distorted by the overwhelming material and organizational forms of the mature classical world, this flat-plains-oriented Russia has been twisted and starved by the immense shadow of the mature West with which it has had to live so closely. Solzhenitsyn could well echo Spengler’s description of “the alien executioners of the Russian spirit, from Peter the Great to Lenin.”
Another service that Ericson provides isto indicate the predominant position which August, 1914 and its two unpublished sequels occupy in the final summing up of Solzhenitsyn’s insight. The spotlight Ericson points at Samsonov is invaluable for understanding the “Russianness” of the author’s perspective—a perspective that suddenly reduces Vorotyntsev, the typical Western hero, to no more than the co-star of the novel. The publication of April, 1916 and October, 1917 will be pivotal dates in the West’s and Russia’s understanding of themselves and each other, and perhaps in man’s comprehension of man.
And here lies Ericson’s greatest achievement: he perceives and convinces us that Solzhenitsyn is at bottom a great Christian of the dimensions of Pascal, Luther, and Augustine. Solzhenitsyn as writer and as lover of God is in itself a testimony to the truth and the concomitant undying validity of Christianity. It may be that Ericson does not sufficiently distinguish the writer’s neglect of God’s grace, and his almost Pelagian trust in man’s capacity to change himself out of his own resources. But what difference the degree to which Solzhenitsyn leans between Faith and Works, against the Johannine Light which shines through his sentences! It is remarkable that Solzhenitsyn’s works are not piled on the main tables of religious book outlets in the United States. Perhaps his acceptance by ordinary American Christians will be a measure of the survivability of contemporary American religion.
It is easy to look at Solzhenitsyn’s sad eyes and long beard and to listen to his denunciation of our own society’s shortcomings as well as the viciousness of Communism, and to call him, in faint or blatant mockery, “a prophet.” But that word should bring us up short. Is it not at least possible that God might still show such mercy and compassion on his creatures as to use one of us, weak and errant though he may be, as a Messenger? Who can read the little prayer which Ericson brings to centrality without hearing, at the faint edge of the world, the rustle of Wings?
And now with measuring cup returned to me,
Scooping up the living water,
God of the Universe! I believe again!
Though I renounced You, You were with me!
(The Gulag Archipelago, vol. II, pp. 614–615)
John W. Bowling was a retired army officer who taught at Troy State University in Alabama.