Friday, November 4, 2016

Friday BookReview: SOLZHENITSYN

[first published January 29, 2016]

"I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me." (Saint Paul's Letter to the Philippians)

The following lines are from the beginning of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich:
"At five o'clock that morning reveille was sounded, as usual, by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters. The intermittent sounds barely penetrated the windowpanes on which the frost lay two fingers thick... 
The clanging ceased, but everything outside still looked like the middle of the night when Ivan Denisovich Shukhov got up to go to the bucket... 
Shukhov never overslept reveille. He always got up at once, for the next ninety minutes, until they assembled for work, belonged to him, not to the authorities, and any old-timer could always earn a bit -- by sewing a pair of mittens for someone out of old sleeve lining; or bringing some rich loafer in the squad his dry [felt boots]... 
Shukhov always arose at reveille. But this day he didn't. He had felt strange the evening before, feverish, with pains all over his body. He hadn't been able to get warm all through the night. Even in his sleep he had felt at one moment that he was getting seriously ill, at another that he was getting better. He had wished morning would never come. 
But the morning came as usual."

When Minnesota's winter winds start blowing -- and I impatiently hunt down my long underwear in the morning, or curse the cold car with its frosted windows -- I realize it is time to pick up my copy of Doctor Zhivago or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's tale of Ivan Denisovich.
Great sons of Mother Russia, such as Solzhenitsyn (who died in Moscow in 2008), can quickly help a Westerner put things into perspective.

The power of this story -- of Ivan, a typical zek trying to survive the relentless sufferings of Siberian imprisonment -- knocks me over every time I read it.

Here is Ivan taking pride in his work of laying block, surrounded by frozen tundra:
"At the spot he was working on, the wall had previously been laid by some mason who was either incompetent or had stunk up the job. But now Shukhov tackled the wall as if it was his own handiwork. There, he saw, was a cavity that couldn't be leveled up in one row; he'd have to do it in three, adding a little more mortar each time. And here the outer wall bellied a bit -- it would take two rows to straighten that."
One of the supporting characters in the novel is Alyosha, a faithful Baptist whose demeanor is a quiet challenge to Ivan to be better:
"You could count on Alyosha. Did whatever was asked of him. If everybody in the world was like that, Shukhov would have done likewise. If a man asks for help why not help him? Those Baptists had something there."

[I was amazed recently, while driving through suburban Saint Paul, to see a large new "Russian Baptist" church.]

And this from the closing pages:
"Head on the pillow, stuffed with shavings of wood; feet in jacket sleeve; coat on top of blanket and -- Glory be to Thee, O Lord. Another day over. Thank You I'm not spending tonight in the [punishment] cells. Here it's still bearable. 
"He lay with his head near the window, but Alyosha, who slept next to him on the same level, across a low wooden railing, lay the opposite way, to catch the light. He was reading his Bible again."

With his wife Natalia

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918, several months after his father had died. He was raised by his mother and an aunt.

After serving as an artillery captain in World War II, he was arrested for criticizing Joseph Stalin in private letters -- and served more than eight years in assorted prison camps.

Exiled from the USSR in 1974, he was unable to return to his homeland for twenty years.

I remember being enthralled, as a teenager, picking up the Minneapolis Tribune newspaper during the many days they ran selections from The Gulag Archipelago -- the towering nonfiction account of the Soviet labor camps.

A few of its most famous lines:

*  "Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life... I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul."

    *  "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 un-uprooted small corner of evil."

    In 1978 Mr. Solzhenitsyn was invited by Harvard to deliver the commencement address:
    "A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage... Must one point out that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the first symptom of the end? ...  
    "It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations... No, I could not recommend your society as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through deep suffering, people in our own country have now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive...  
    "On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. It is trampled by the party mob in the East, by the commercial one in the West... Only by the voluntary nurturing in ourselves of freely accepted and serene self-restraint can mankind rise above the world stream of materialism."

    UPDATE: When Cardinal Robert Sarah was asked by a recent interviewer whether he wasn't being too harsh about the increasing sterility and 'spiritual destitution' of the Western nations as they turn their backs on God -- he quoted from one of Solzhenitsyn's books:
    "The Western world has arrived at a decisive moment... You have forgotten the meaning of liberty. When Europe acquired it, around the eighteenth century, it was a sacred notion. Liberty led to virtue and heroism. You have forgotten that... For this ghost of the former liberty, you are no longer capable of making sacrifices but only compromises... You are engaged in a formidable battle, and you behave as though it were a ping pong match."

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