The great truth dawned: The spirit triumphs over materialist ideology

The great truth dawned: The spirit triumphs over materialist ideology. By Gary Morson.

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. … The reason is that great writers, like prophets, see into the essence of things. …

In assuming the role of “Russian writer,” [Aleksandr ] Solzhenitsyn was therefore claiming a status less comparable to “American writer” than to “Hebrew prophet.” …

Young boys in a gulag, Molotov, USSR (date unknown). Courtesy David Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

But when Solzhenitsyn got to the West and encountered the globalists:

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.” …

A collective autobiography:

But wasn’t Solzhenitsyn himself once an atheist and a Communist? Indeed he was, and The Gulag Archipelago narrates how, bit by bit, he changed his view of life. The book is not only a history but also an autobiography, and because Solzhenitsyn’s experience was shared by so many others, Gulag offers itself as a collective autobiography. I was arrested this way; here are the ways others were arrested. I suffered this brutal interrogation; others underwent these other kinds of torture. As we examine the progress of souls in extreme conditions, a story — or rather a set of closely related stories — unfolds, and these suspenseful narratives command considerable dramatic interest. One way the book works as literature is as a sort of encyclopedia of possible novels. …

Ideology creates monsters:

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. …

Lev Kopelev, the model for Solzhenitsyn’s character Rubin, describes how, as a young man, he went to the countryside to help enforce the collectivization of agriculture. Bolshevik policy included the enforced starvation of several million peasants, and Kopelev describes how he was able to take morsels of food “from women and children with distended bellies, turning blue, still breathing but with vacant, lifeless eyes,” in the ardent conviction that he was building socialism. …

The contrary view, held by ideologues and justice warriors generally, is that our group is good, and theirs is evil. “Evil people committing evil deeds”: this is the sort of thinking behind notions like class conflict or the international Zionist conspiracy. It is the opposite of the idea that makes tolerance and democracy possible: the idea that there is legitimate difference of opinion and we must not act as if God or History had blessed our side as always right. If you think that way, there is no reason not to have a one-party state. The man who taught me Russian history, the late Firuz Kazemzadeh, used to say: remember, there are always as many swine on your side as on the other.

Good and evil exist:

Kopelev, Solzhenitsyn, and others describe the key event of their life as the discovery that just as the universe contains causal laws it also contains moral laws. Bolshevik horror derived from the opposite view: that there is nothing inexplicable in materialist terms and that the only moral standard is political success. …

Many, including Solzhenitsyn, took the next step and accepted God. Why not remain an atheist who believes in an absolute moral law? Here again we must understand the thought-shaping power of Russian literature, particularly Russia’s specialty, the great realist fiction of ideas.

Great novels test ideas not by their logical coherence, as in academic philosophy, but by the consequences of believing them. Novels of ideas … exhibit a masterplot: a hero or heroine devoted to an idea discovers that reality is much more complex than the idea allows. For example, a materialist believes that love is nothing but physiology and that individual people differ no more than frogs, yet he falls deeply in love with a particular woman (the plot of Turgenev’s Fathers and Children). A moralist asserts that only actions, not wishes, have moral value, yet winds up consumed by guilt for a murder he has fostered only by his wish for it (the plot of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov). … Epicurus, the great materialist of the ancient world, had said: “ ‘You should not fear physical suffering. Prolonged suffering is always insignificant; significant suffering is of short duration.’ But what if you are deprived for days of sleep in a box without air? What about ten years of solitary confinement in a cell where you cannot stretch your legs? Is that significant or insignificant?” …

Thinking novelistically, Solzhenitsyn asks: how well does morality without God pass the test of Soviet experience? Every camp prisoner sooner or later faced a choice: whether or not to resolve to survive at any price. Do you take the food or shoes of a weaker prisoner? “This is the great fork of camp life. From this point the roads go to the right and to the left. . . . If you go to the right — you lose your life; and if you go to the left — you lose your conscience.”

Memoirist after memoirist, including atheists like Evgeniya Ginzburg, report that those who denied anything beyond the material world were the first to choose survival. They may have insisted that high moral ideals do not require belief in God, but when it came down to it, morals grounded in nothing but one’s own conviction and reasoning, however cogent, proved woefully inadequate under experiential, rather than logical, pressure. In Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales … a narrator observes: “The intellectual becomes a coward, and his own brain provides a ‘justification’ of his own actions. He can persuade himself of anything” as needed.

Among Gulag memoirists, even the atheists acknowledge that the only people who did not succumb morally were the believers. Which religion they professed did not seem to matter. Ginzburg describes how a group of semi-literate believers refused to go out to work on Easter Sunday. In the Siberian cold, they were made to stand barefoot on an ice-covered pond, where they continued to chant their prayers. Later that night, the rest of us argued about the believers’ behavior. “Was this fanaticism, or fortitude in defense of the rights of conscience? Were we to admire or regard them as mad? And, most troubling of all, should we have had the courage to act as they did?” The recognition that they would not would often transform people into believers. …

The great truth dawned: unexpectedly, astonishingly, this harrowing story of cattle cars and the secret brand has a redemptive ending. A person — not a hero, just a flawed person — finds faith. Everybody has been indoctrinated with the slogan that, in a material world where nothing beyond the laws of nature exists, “The result is all that counts.” But camp experience taught that that was a lie. “It is not the result that counts . . . but the spirit!”

Once you realize this, “then imprisonment begins to transform your character in an astonishing way.” You begin to appreciate friendship differently. Recognizing your own weakness, you understand the weakness of others. When another prisoner relates how he became a Christian, Solzhenitsyn recognizes that when he had been most certain he was doing good he was actually doing evil. He understands “the truths of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (every human being).”