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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 . . .

17 Comments
  1. George R Crichton #

    Very interesting. It brings to mind the saying. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Meaning well and doing well are to very different things.

    September 27, 2019
    • Luke #

      Doing well for whom?

      Remember, we’re talking about a strictly materialist worldview in which there is no objective truth. So the answer cannot be assumed.

      September 27, 2019
      • Reziac #

        In a strictly materialist system, is “doing well for one’s self” equivalent or opposite of “doing well for the state” ?? Discuss.

        September 27, 2019
        • Mary #

          Insufficient information. Some people’s well-being is more harmonious with the state’s than others.

          September 28, 2019
  2. I’ll have to read it when I’m less tired, but this stood out:

    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.

    Well that hasn’t changed in the least, and it’s rather interesting to see the Left almost religiously unchanging.

    September 27, 2019
    • Reziac #

      And this: “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.”

      Which describes every discussion I’ve ever had with a committed leftist, or yellow-dog Democrat. They don’t want their religion tainted by our heresy.

      September 27, 2019
      • Or facts! Or reality! Or anything that would *gasp! Shudder! Faint!* cause doubt.

        They’re actually worse than the most biased representation of ‘fundie Christian’ I’ve ever seen.

        September 27, 2019
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      I’m fairly certain that ideology is at furthest a near synonym for religion.

      I’m not sure that any mechanism besides religious belief and the portions of group psychology that fall under cultic practices explains why there is such a high mutation rate in cosmetic features, and such a low rate in the features that were useful for the Soviet Union. There seems very near a bimodal distribution. It makes sense if the cosmetic features were understood as tools to smite the unbeliever, and the core features religious dogma. If the soviets were that effective as designing behavioral systems to order, they would never have fallen. So why the success?

      It makes sense if luck, the tyrants or the devil caused it to become a functional religion.

      September 28, 2019
  3. Confutus #

    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.”

    Not just communism, but the less obviously virulent forms of socialism.

    September 27, 2019
  4. Not just American publishing, but America as a whole.

    “Times they are a changin'”

    And the ride isn’t going to be a smooth one.

    September 27, 2019
  5. OldNFO #

    Belief systems DO drive our world. Sadly, rather than open discussion, it’s now in the blame/shame if you dare to disagree…

    September 27, 2019
  6. “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.”

    Gotta be the CBC. For sure. There are no snots that are snottier than Canadian broadcasting royalty.

    September 27, 2019
  7. TonyT #

    Yes, the big publishers do seem very Stalinist, with the same result: propaganda, not literature (and, yes, I include well written genre books as literature). I also think the very concentration of publishers (we’re down to 5 big ones IIRC), mostly in the same insular city (NYC), is a big part of the problem.

    JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis wouldn’t get published today, along with many others.

    For some more thoughts on Russian literature with a rather different point of view than you usually get, read this essay by Eugene Vodolazkin:
    https://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/08/the-new-middle-ages
    I’ve read his novel Laurus (I enjoyed it, but not sure it’d appeal to many MGC readers). He’s an expert in Old Russian (medieval) literature, so a bit of similarity to JRRT, but the end result is quite different.

    September 27, 2019
  8. No doubt the left is ascendant in modern American culture. Their Manichean mindset permeates the media, education, and politics.

    September 27, 2019
  9. I just read the article, and it deals with many of my interests. But I don’t understand it at all. What???

    Quoting sources (the Bible, the Fathers, pagan poetry) is a habit of the earliest Christians, which they copied from both Jewish authors and pagan ones. The Middle Ages quoted because they were educated people. They just had fewer sources than Seneca or St. Augustine. (Unless you run into somebody like Beatus of Liebana, who had a relatively big library to draw on, or St. Albert the Great, who basically read everything everywhere he went.)

    And there’s always a point to ancient and medieval quotes, and usually a witty one. If we don’t see it as funny and clever or as deep and insightful, that’s on us.

    But just because there’s a strong sense of being part of a universe of discourse and sources, that doesn’t make work un-individual or collective. (I mean, unless you’re talking Homer or other anonymous groups of bards — and frankly, anonymous groups of bards were plenty individual to themselves.)

    If anything, your medieval author tends to be a bit competitive with everybody else who has written in his field. Maybe not all as competitive as St. Albert (“Augustine? Wrong! Avicenna? Wrong! Eat it, ancient authors, I had a pet ant lion and I’ve seen polar bears!”), but they are all trying to say something more true or more beautiful or more useful.

    Now, if you want to say that medieval disputations and books and letters are very much the same thing as a bunch of college students on Usenet back in the day, I would agree. But it’s scarcely a collective, sheesh.

    September 27, 2019
    • You’re referring to the Vodolazkin article? If so, I agree with you.

      September 28, 2019
  10. Mary #

    Tangential related but still interesting:
    https://www.city-journal.org/html/why-shakespeare-all-time-12400.html

    September 28, 2019

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