Literature through Russian eyes – and what it says about political correctness
Today I’m not going to say much myself. Instead, I’m going to quote several paragraphs from a very long, but very thought-provoking, analysis of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and other Russian authors, and how literature came to represent a moral crusade for them, and for their fellow countrymen. It’s in the New Criterion, titled “How the great truth dawned“, written by Gary Saul Morson. It’s very different from our Western attitudes towards literature, but I think it offers a perspective from which we could learn.
That’s particularly important in an era when political correctness is more than ever a determinant of what’s put out by traditional publishers. One’s work usually has to conform to “contemporary priorities” or “modern understanding” if it’s to have any chance of acceptance by a publisher. By those standards, the Big Three of science fiction – Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein – wouldn’t stand a ghost of a chance. Neither, of course, would Henry Miller, Dorothy Parker, and a host of other greats. Nor would Solzhenitsyn.
If you’re serious about writing, I urge you to take the time to read this article in full. To whet your appetite, here are a few excerpts.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s three-volume opus, The Gulag Archipelago, which some have called the most important masterpiece of the twentieth century, is subtitled: “An Experiment in Literary Investigation.” Consider how odd that is. No Westerner would call such a work “literary,” lest someone discount its documentary value. Literature is one thing, truth another, isn’t that correct? But Solzhenitsyn insists that absolutely everything included is strictly factual, a claim validated when the Soviet Union fell and archives were opened. What, then, is literary about the book?
. . .
We usually assume that literature exists to depict life, but Russians often speak as if life exists to provide material for literature. Russians, of course, excel in ballet, chess, theater, and mathematics. They invented the periodic table and non-Euclidian geometry. Nevertheless, for Russians literature is in a class by itself. The very phrase “Russian literature” carries a sacramental aura. The closest analogy may be the status of the Bible for ancient Hebrews when it was still possible to add books to it … If Americans want the truth about a historical period, we turn to historians, not novelists, but in Russia it is novelists who are presumed to have a deeper understanding.
. . .
Once in the West, Solzhenitsyn was understandably bewildered when Westerners were put off by his moral earnestness, which for him was essential to any significant author. They didn’t like “how closely I identified with what I was portraying. In the West nowadays, the colder and more aloof the author, and the more a literary work departs from reality, transforming it into a game . . . the higher a work is esteemed.” He had sinned against both existing literary norms and “political decency.”
The very intellectuals who had once defended Solzhenitsyn condemned him when they discovered he did not share some of their views. They could not entertain the possibility that they had something to learn from a very different set of experiences. No, no, it was only his experience that was eccentric, while theirs reflected the way things really are! Foolishly, this survivor of Communist slave labor camps revealed himself “to be an enemy of socialism.” Solzhenitsyn recalls a Canadian TV commentator who “lectured me that I presumed to judge the experience of the world from the viewpoint of my own limited Soviet and prison-camp experience. Indeed, how true! Life and death, imprisonment and hunger, the cultivation of the soul despite the captivity of the body: how very limited that is compared to the bright world of political parties, yesterday’s numbers on the stock exchange, amusements without end, and exotic foreign travel!”
What most disturbed Solzhenitsyn was a “surprising uniformity of opinion” that life was about individual happiness—what else could it be about?—and that it was somehow impolite to refer without irony to “evil.” Still worse, Solzhenitsyn traced this trivializing of human existence to “the notion that man is the center of all that exists, and that there is no Higher Power above him. And these roots of irreligious humanism are common to the current Western world and to Communism, and that is what has led the Western intelligentsia to such strong and dogged sympathy for Communism.” After the Gulag, such ostensibly sophisticated sympathy seemed at best the most hopeless naïveté.
. . .
Why is it, Solzhenitsyn asks, that Macbeth, Iago, and other Shakespearean evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses, while Lenin and Stalin did in millions? The answer is that Macbeth and Iago “had no ideology.” Ideology makes the killer and torturer an agent of good, “so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors.” Ideology never achieved such power and scale before the twentieth century.
Anyone can succumb to ideology. All it takes is a sense of one’s own moral superiority for being on the right side; a theory that purports to explain everything; and—this is crucial—a principled refusal to see things from the point of view of one’s opponents or victims, lest one be tainted by their evil viewpoint.
If we remember that totalitarians and terrorists think of themselves as warriors for justice, we can appreciate how good people can join them.
There’s more at the link. Highly recommended reading.
If the last paragraph cited above doesn’t explain the current state of American publishing, I don’t know what does . . .