Sunday, February 13, 2011

Solzhenitsyn's Speech and Our Fragmented Stories

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian writer whose two most famous novels exposed the Soviet Gulags (state labour camps) and revealed something of the lives and pains of the people forced to work within them. I have been meaning to read him for quite some time, and have already told you the extent of my knowledge of the man. But at a used book sale this week I picked up a copy of the speech he gave upon reception of his Nobel Prize for Literature, and am finding it fascinating. Here's an excerpt:

I have mounted this platform from which the Nobel Lecture is delivered - a platform made available to by no means every writer and that only once in his lifetime - not by means of three or four well-carpeted steps, but by climbing up hundreds, even thousands of steps, unyielding, steep, slippery with frost, steps leading up from the darkness and cold where fate decreed that I should survive, while others - perhaps more gifted and stronger than I - perished. Of those who perished, I myself me only a few in the Gulag Archipelago, a scattered, fragmented multitude of islands; under the millstone of surveillance and mistrust I could not speak freely with everybody, some I only heard about, others I only guessed at.

Those who already had a literary reputation when they sank into that abyss are at least known - but how many died totally unknown, never once publicly named? And hardly any of them ever returned. A whole national literature has been left there, buried without a coffin, without even any underclothes, naked, just a name-tag tied round one toe. Russian literature continued its uninterrupted flow, while from outside it appeared a desert. Where a healthy forest might have grown, after all the felling nothing remains but a couple of trees overlooked by accident.

And how am I today, accompanied as I am by the shadows of the fallen, bowing my head as I stand aside to let those other men who deserved this honour before me take their place on this platform - how am I today to guess and put into words what they would have wanted to say?

This obligation has long lain heavy on us, and we have long known it. In the words of Vladimir Solovyov:

But e'en in chains, ourselves we must complete
That circle which the gods have fore-ordained.

During the painful marches of our camp life, in the convicts' column, in the midst of the evening frosts with the strings of lights shining through, the words we would have shouted for the whole world to hear, had the world been able to hear a single one of us, often rose to our throats.

At that time it seemed self-evident what our lucky ambassador to the world outside would say, and how the world would immediately respond in sympathy. Our field of vision was peopled with distinct physical objects and distinct spiritual forces, and in an unambiguous world we saw nothing to counteract them.

Those thoughts did not originate in books, they were not selected for their attractiveness: they were born in prison cells and by camp-fires in the forest, in conversation with people now dead; they have stood the test of that life, they grew in that environment.

But when the external pressures slackened, my horizon and all our horizons widened, and gradually, if only through chinks in the fence, we saw and got to know the 'world outside'. And we were startled to find that the 'world outside' was quite different from what we had hoped: it lived by the 'wrong' rules and values, it progressed in the 'wrong' direction; it exclaimed 'What an enchanting lawn!' at the sight of a boggy swamp, and 'What an exquisite necklace!' on seeing the concrete stocks imprisoning people's necks; and while tears ran unchecked down the faces of some, others tripped along in time to a carefree hit-tune.

How did this happen? What caused this yawning abyss? Were we the insensitive ones, or the world? Or was it all due to the difference in our respective languages? Why are people unable to understand every word distinctly spoken by others? Words die away and run off like water - tasteless, colourless, odourless - without trace.

As I came to understand this over the years, the content, the sense and the tone of my potential speech - my speech of today - changed. And now it scarcely resembles the one originally drafted during those freezing evenings in the camp.

This reminds me of the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel, in which the world is fragmented into languages (and thus cultures) by God in order to restrain its own unified plundering of earth and heaven for personal gain. Unsure whether to consider Babel a blessing or a curse, I imagine we see in globalism the opportunity to reverse Babel, retreat from it, or find some other resolution to its fragmentations.

To my mind it seems that from Prophets to Pentecost to Revelation we are getting a vision of a reconciliation which celebrates and understands diverse communion under the bonds of a peace which surpasses understanding but comes to the world nonetheless. Stirred by this the Christian imagination ought neither to presume itself capable nor cease to pray (and strive) for the kingdom of heaven to come on earth.

Solzhenitsyn's speech reminds me of the complexities of all this in an as-yet broken world. And yet it also tells me of the importance of telling and retelling and listening to and reflecting on one another's stories. It is here that we not only encounter the other but also begin perhaps to understand ourselves. As Solzhenitsyn indicates, we can imagine this, often only vaguely, only to be frustrated when we try. But I do think that when our stories are enfolded in Christ's we have more hope in that regard. In fact I think it is at the heart of the Christian imperative to greet, and really meet, one another in Jesus' name.


Dave M said...

It's really interesting how isolation made these artists develop an idealized view of society. I guess you need to in order to want to return to it.

Dave M said...

Hey, Arcade Fire, great.

Now if only Uncle Boonmee could win best picture the world could be in order.

Jon Coutts said...

The speech gets really interesting. Basically: Literature can save the world. I might post another excerpt sometime.

Who is Uncle Boonmee? Sorry, I must be holding the world back by not knowing that. Right this egregious wrong and tell me what to see!