Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul and the West
Edited by David P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson.
University of Notre Dame Press, 2020.
Hardcover, 400 pages, $60.
Reviewed by Jeremy A. Kee
The world is not changed by those whose voices are joined to the clamor of common opinion, but rather by those who stand athwart it offering another way. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was one such man. The burden of such a role, however, is that of persecution, alienation, and controversy. A contemporary example might be found in Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, the Canadian clinical psychologist whose notoriety can be first attributed to his principled opposition to a piece of legislation the aim of which was to mandate the use of gender pronouns, and to charge as hate speech any deviation therefrom. Both Solzhenitsyn and Peterson chose to stand for certain long-held truths because they possessed the proclivity to look down the path of least resistance and saw mostly the type of darkness for which mankind seems fated.
The events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, pointed to the poisonous fruit that can come from the tree of ideology. We saw what happens when otherwise honest and well-meaning men and women lose sight of a higher order and commit themselves to the muck and the mire of strong men, false gods, and a lack of meaning. We see the beginnings of the world that gave us Solzhenitsyn, but only by forgetting all about which we were warned. A recently released collection of essays from the University of Notre Dame Press on the work and thought of Solzhenitsyn, Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul and the West, makes this point, among others, as it aims to provide a fuller view of the man while in the process making the case for why not just his work, but indeed his counterintuitively Russian worldview, may be exactly what the West needs to survive.
Perhaps this painful situation is necessary to recover a higher order. It is an unpopular opinion held by Solzhenitsyn. It is, to the point of cliché, a profoundly “Russian” idea. As Joseph Pearce notes in his contribution to the collection, quoting an interview he conducted with Solzhenitsyn:
In the West there is a widespread feeling that this is masochism, that if we highly value suffering this is masochism. On the contrary, it is a significant bravery when we respect suffering and understand what burdens it places on our soul.
Solzhenitsyn and American Culture brings together essays from a variety of Solzhenitsyn scholars to offer a fuller understanding of Solzhenitsyn beyond just his political reputation. Over the span of twenty essays, the group assembled in this volume aim to demonstrate that the primary thrust of his collected life’s work was, in the storied tradition of Russian literary figures, primarily spiritual in nature, though the boundaries between the political and the spiritual have today been blurred. The reduction of everything to a matter of base politics was the result of the unrelenting expansion of ideology, not just in his native Russia, but in his adopted home, the United States. As Daniel J. Mahoney points out in the book’s fourteenth chapter, “Judging Communism by All Its Works,” quoting Natalia Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr’s wife:
… the book [The Gulag Archipelago] is about the ascent of the human spirit, about its struggle with evil. That is the reason why, when readers reach the end of the work, they feel not only pain and anger, but an upsurge of strength and light.
One might think that the only way to read a book about life in the Soviet prison camps would be through a decidedly political lens, but then, one would be wrong in doing so. Perhaps the most enduring idea from Solzhenitsyn’s body of work is that which deals with good and evil, more specifically, the fact that no man, however good, is incapable of great evil, nor any villain incapable of great good. As Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, in Gulag,
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart … even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an uprooted small corner of evil.
Given the precarious position in which the world presently finds itself, with the worst pandemic in a century only adding insult to the already ruinous injuries suffered at the hands of ideologues at home and abroad, having such conversations as these is a matter of critical importance. Uncomfortable though they may be, it is incumbent upon us to live as if what we claim to believe is, in fact, true.
Solzhenitsyn, even in his own time, was viewed as “a freak, a monarchist, an anti-semite, a crank, a has-been.” Such views he found irritating not just for the charges themselves, but for the fact that they represent a failure to understand who, and therefore what he was. “No one has ever given a single quotation from any of my books as a basis for these accusations.” This is because, despite how widely read Gulag was in its time, it was taken as a political manifesto rather than how it was intended: a work deeply entrenched in the Russian literary tradition. Solzhenitsyn, then, was something that the Western archetype cannot readily understand. Solzhenitsyn was a Russian writer.
As Gary Morson points out in his essay “Solzhenitsyn’s Cathedrals,” “In taking literature so seriously, Solzhenitsyn claimed the mantle of ‘Russian writer,’ which, as Russians understand, means much more than a writer who happens to be Russian.” He goes on to point out that to be a Russian writer is less about being a writer of Russian nationality, as one might be an American or a German writer, than it is to be a Hebrew prophet.
This theme of being a writer and, more to the point, a Russian writer, is one that is born out repeatedly throughout Solzhenitsyn and American Culture. One of the most interesting essays contained in the collection is the book’s twelfth essay, “Kindred Spirits: Solzhenitsyn’s Western Literary Confreres,” by Solzhenitsyn biographer, Joseph Pearce. Pearce draws suggestive connections between the thrust of Solzhenitsyn’s work, with its emphasis on humane striving for spiritual ascension, and several literary figures well established within the Western canon. Among the most interesting, and admittedly unexpected involves the spiritual and intellectual camaraderie between Solzhenitsyn and English medievalist J. R. R. Tolkien.
Recounting the trip that he took to Solzhenitsyn’s home upon return from exile, Pearce writes of having discussed this very topic (Russian and Western similarities) with Solzhenitsyn. Pearce turned the conversation to Tolkien, another figure about whom Pearce has written extensively, and presented several excerpts from the works and personal correspondence of Tolkien over the years. As Pearce notes in the essay, “Tolkien and Solzhenitsyn also share a preoccupation in their work with the ennoblement of souls through the trials and tribulations of adversity,” to which Solzhenitsyn is reported to have responded,
It is not only the pure souls that are able to rise but those which have resilience and strength. Long periods of wellbeing and comfort are in general dangerous to all. After such prolonged periods, weak souls become incapable of weathering any kind of trial. They are afraid of it. But strong souls in such periods are still able to mobilize and to show themselves, and to grow through this trial. Difficult trials and sufferings can facilitate the growth of the soul.
Such views may just as easily be expressed about any of the poor zeks from Gulag as it may about Tolkien’s four intrepid Hobbits as they leave the over-comfortable hills and dales of the Shire for war-ravaged hellscapes of parts unknown. And yet these two men never had an opportunity to meet as anything other than passing lights in the ethereal places of the collective Christian unconscious.
Despite suggestions to the contrary and snorts of derision, our age is one of immense spiritual tension, conflict, and discord. All of our debates, while they may begin on relatively benign matters of policy, eventually devolve into charges of moral depravity and vacuity. For decades this trend has been on the upswing, but until recently either side stopped short of using overtly spiritual language, resting instead at pronouncements of good or bad, right or wrong. Something has changed, however, in recent years, and pronouncements of the righteousness and evil of one side or the other are more commonplace. Compounding the trouble is that in spite of being immersed in a spiritual conflict, we still seek to apply political solutions. Solzhenitsyn saw first hand what damage can be done when a spiritual movement masquerades under a political banner. Using the language of the socialist, the USSR managed to utterly decimate the Russian spirit.
Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson, one of the book’s co-editors, in chapter eight, “How Fiction Defeats Lies: A Faithful Reading of Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle,” quotes Solzhenitsyn as follows, “In the eighteen years I have been publishing, my work has almost never received a serious literary analysis anywhere. In the large volume of commentary on my work, almost all of it has been concentrated on the political side.” This, says Wilson, missed “the integral connection between his techniques and his ‘message,’ or what may more accurately be termed his prophetic vision” (emphasis mine).
This view of Solzhenitsyn as existing on the rarified plain of the prophet is not an isolated one. In fact, the comparison is drawn myriad times throughout Solzhenitsyn and American Culture. It is not a claim to bandy about lightly, but as several of the contributors go to great pains to point out, it is a claim that suffers no abuse of overuse. In short, to read Solzhenitsyn through a political lens is appropriate, but to do so without giving at least equal consideration to the spiritual dimensions and implications of his work is to read Romeo and Juliet as nothing more than a story of two annoying children. Solzhenitsyn was first and foremost a spiritual writer. As a Russian, he was honor-bound to be no less.
To be a Russian writer is to live in tension. Particularly in the modern era, to be a Russian is, quoting noted Solzhenitsyn scholar Edward E. Ericson, Jr. speaking of Solzhenitsyn and fellow Russian writer Boris Pasternak, to “live in a land in which man is officially defined in terms of his collective capacity,” very much a holdover from their time under Socialist oppression. Solzhenitsyn, however, is united into the great tradition of Russian writers, which is to say that he writes with a preeminently humane focus. Continuing with Ericson,
However, for these writers the ultimate category is not politics. They are first of all human beings, and their primary concerns are human and moral and even religious ones. They are concerned about human values which transcend political categories, and it is in this light that they should be read.
Ours is a curious period in Western, and indeed in human history. It seems as if some seismic thing is fundamentally out of balance. All feel it, and react in various ways. It is at times such as these, times which are, if I may be so bold, the natural continuation of those through which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lived, that voices such as his are of such critical importance to us now. Not only do these prophetic voices offer an outside critique from a different time, unmoored from the tensions of our time, but particularly in Solzhenitsyn’s case he holds up a mirror to society (to borrow a tired cliche).
To read Solzhenitsyn unaffected by public opinion polls or contentious elections is a harrowing experience in which the reader will experience the unfathomably dark depths of human depravity, only to be brought back into the searing light of hope. The West, having grown fat and ugly on its own sense of self-security, may gaze into such a mirror only to have it shatter at first glance.
This shattering, painful though it may be, is the value of studying Solzhenitsyn. As he so famously said to the assembled crowd of present and future world leaders on a rain-drenched stage in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1978, “truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter. There is some bitterness in my today’s speech too, but I want to stress that it comes not from an adversary, but from a friend.”
Jeremy A. Kee writes from Dallas, Texas, where he serves as a manuscripts editor for a local university. He is also the founder and editor of Further-In.com. His writings have appeared at The Imaginative Conservative, Real Clear Politics, and The Daily Caller, among others.