Monday, August 4, 2008

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn - R.I.P.

From what (shamefully) little I knew about Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, he was Tolstoyian. First the beard and haunted eyes; then this writer of surpassing meticulousness became, as Hitchens reminds us, a crank in the last fifteen years, much like the Tolstoy of What is Art? In this tract, Tolstoy lambasted Shakespeare and much of Western art for its moral turpitude: folktales and the Bible, he argued, told the real truth. The Solzhenitsyn who decried the influence of rock music on youth and considered the Renaissance a mistake was plainly in this line. Occasionally, when protesting UN peacekeeping action in the Balkans, morally blind to a stupendous degree. To call him a "useful idiot" of the right would be an insult to so granitic an intellect. I prefer Czeslaw Milosz's remark, quoted in The New York Times' obituary: "Like the Russian masses, he, we may assume, has strong authoritarian tendencies." Given the direction in which Putin has taken Russia since the fall of Yeltsin, this makes sense.

Simply accept that most artists are cranks, and the kind of horrorshow that Solzhenitsyn lived absolved him from feeling anything at all. He lived to see the empire of terror that tried to crush him itself molder. His life made a mockery of Kissingerian realpolitik: what authority can it command when an American president, one of its gleeful enablers, couldn't be seen with Solzhenitsyn in the White House? But he was also human. He could have been Primo Levi, and chose instead Norman Podhoretz as an ideological comrade. No one with a soul can begrudge him this.

Meanwhile, the fearsome edition of The Gulag Archipelago sitting in my closet needs to be dusted. Robert Conquest's The Great Terror, Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, and Martin Amis' Koba the Dread remain suitable preparation.

1 comment:

Hans said...

"A Day in the Life" remains brief and powerful