A trial by images: Solzhenitsyn on literature and salvation
Writers can “defeat the lie” that underpins violence, caused by our deficient, fractured moral sense.
I hadn’t read Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel lecture until this week. Not surprisingly, it’s a tour de force. Written nearly a decade before his famous Harvard commencement address (and delivered only on paper, since he was afraid to leave the Soviet Union for fear of expulsion), the Nobel lecture articulates similar fears, albeit in a less foreboding tone.
You’d be tempted to think that Solzhenitsyn, as a Russian writer in the line of Dostoevsky, would excel most at the long form. And perhaps he does; The First Circle and Cancer Ward are unimpeachable novels, to make no mention of his various, monumental works of nonfiction. But in just a handful of pages, and in a few short moments, he’s able to depict grandiose world views punctuated by no small number of subtler, striking insights.
Global, social values
One such perforation rends the usually impervious struggle for a concept of shared social values. In a globalized world, a “common scale of values” is deemed achievable, even requisite. But modern unity, he says, is accomplished “not by means of gradually acquired experience … not even through a common native language; but rather — surmounting all barriers — this is unity brought about by international radio and the press.” As a result, “waves of events bear down upon us.”
But lacking are the scales or yardsticks to measure these events and to evaluate them according to the laws of the parts of the world unfamiliar to us. Such scales are not, nor can they be, carried to us through the ether or on sheets of newsprint: These scales of values have been settling into place and have been assimilated for too long a time and in too unique a fashion in the particular lives of specific countries and societies; they cannot be transmitted on the wing. In each region men apply to events their own particular hard-won scale of values; intransigently and self-confidently, they judge by their own scale and by no other.
And even a few different systems of measurement are enough to throw things off catastrophically. Discomfort becomes the sole, common metric. “To prevent discomfort, we dismiss all alien scales out of hand, as if they were madness and error, and we confidently judge the whole world according to our own homegrown scale.”
But, what to do? “Man is simply built that way.” What can possibly save us?
The miracle of literature
Art and literature, says Solzhenitsyn, “hold the key to a miracle: to overcome man’s ruinous habit of learning only from his own experience.” It’s a fresh exegesis of Dostoevsky’s “Beauty will save the world.” Literature is beauty bound to the human experience; it is “one of the most sophisticated and sensitive instruments available to human beings.” Yet it holds the power to transmit “the entire accumulated load of another being’s life experience, with all its hardships, colors, and juices.”
In a special way, literature even becomes “the living memory of a nation” — a sort of articulation of the common good, and a standard for communicating its “scale of values” from one generation to the next. But if national literature disappears — by force, as in Solzhenitsyn’s Russia, or because of globalizing technology far more potent than radio or the press could ever have foreshadowed — it is like “the sealing up of a nation’s heart, the excision of its memory.”
A nation can no longer remember itself, it loses its spiritual unity, and despite their seemingly common language, countrymen cease to understand one another. Mute generations live out their lives and die. […] And in some cases this could even be a grievous misfortune for the whole of humanity: whenever such silence causes all of history to become incomprehensible.
‘Defeat the lie’
Solzhenitsyn expresses hope that “world literature” will rise to this occasion. For him, that word signifies “no longer a generalization coined by literary scholars, but a kind of collective body and a common spirit, a living unity of the heart which reflects the growing spiritual unity of mankind.” And if this is true, he continues:
World literature is capable of transmitting the concentrated experience of a particular region to other lands so that we can overcome double vision and kaleidoscopic variety, so that one people can discover, accurately and concisely, the true history of another people, with all the force of recognition and the pain that comes from actual experience — and can thus be safeguarded from belated errors.
The unique ability of writers in a globalized world, then, is to “defeat the lie” that underpins violence, caused by our increasingly deficient and fractured moral sense. “Violence cannot conceal itself behind anything except lies, and lies have nothing to maintain them save violence.” Thus, Solzhenitsyn concludes with a forceful call to arms for all writers: “We should not seek to justify our unwillingness by our lack of weapons, nor should we give ourselves up to a life of comfort. We must come out and join the battle!”
A ‘trial by images’
Ultimately, the goal of all art is truth. And artists have a tremendous, albeit a very fine, weapon at their disposal:
It is merely given to the artist to sense more keenly than others the harmony of the world, the beauty and ugliness of man’s role in it — and to vividly communicate this to mankind. Even amid failure and at the lower depths of existence — in poverty, in prison, and in illness — a sense of enduring harmony cannot abandon him.
This is what gives art, and literature in particular, its power over violence and lies — “art carries its verification within itself.”
On the other hand, artificial and forced ideas “do not survive their trial by images; both image and concept crumble and turn out feeble, pale, and unconvincing.” For this reason, “in the struggle with lies art has always triumphed and shall always triumph! Visibly, irrefutably for all! Lies can prevail against much in this world, but never against art.”
Quid est veritas?
Sadly, world literature today seems once again to be, largely, something of an academic generalization. And whatever genuine literary impetus remained in 1970 is now effectively immobilized by a barrage of competing, ‘communicating’ forces so multifarious that it can realistically be nothing other than a “fog of lies.” Solzhenitsyn’s charge to “join the battle” has indeed been met, but in many of the wrong ways. There is hardly any attempt to vividly convey “a sense of enduring harmony” about the world, and man’s place in it.
Everyone’s a writer of sorts. But there are very few artists.
Rather than experiencing a moment of Dostoevskian bliss, drawn from struggle, we only suffer the struggle. We are the objects of the Underground Man’s lament:
Why, we don’t even know what living means now, what it is, and what it is called? Leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once. We shall not know what to join on to, what to cling to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise. We are oppressed at being men — men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalised man. We are stillborn, and for generations past have been begotten, not by living fathers, and that suits us better and better. We are developing a taste for it. Soon we shall contrive to be born somehow from an idea.
Whatever the truth that fortifies art, that allows it to carry its “verification within itself,” we’ve managed to lose it. And I wonder whether we’ll ever find a natural means to recover it.