Monday, August 04, 2008

On Solzhenitsyn

I thought I would sit down and write an appreciation of the man this evening.

I don't even know where to begin.

Has there ever been such a combination of literary genius and personal courage?

The best expression of the particular kind of moral courage that Solzhenitsyn embodied comes, I think, from Barack Obama, although Obama seems to have been setting out the words by which he aspires to live rather than praising some other person. "I find comfort," says Obama, "in the fact that the longer I'm in politics the less nourishing popularity becomes, that a striving for rank and fame seems to betray a poverty of ambition, and that I am answerable mainly to the steady gaze of my own conscience." I feel impelled to hold that quotation up as a quite perfectly phrased description of the man who does what he believes is right without worrying about what other people think -- and to hold up Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn as perhaps the most perfect example of such a man as the twentieth century was able to offer. No man ever cared less to flatter the opinion-makers who drive to and fro the winds of celebrity popularity. No man ever was driven more by the steady gaze of his own conscience, and by absolutely nothing else, than was Solzhenitsyn. And when you see Solzhenitsyn going for years without bothering to read a word of his own press clippings or to respond (except in one memorable instance) to his critics, all because he had too much of importance to accomplish to waste time on such trivialities -- surely it is clear that the fire that was Solzhenitsyn's soul blazed with hunger for deeds that would make the occupancy of the Presidency seem a children's plaything. Any fool can become President -- hell, Jimmy Carter and Dubya both made it. Solzhenitsyn played for far greater stakes.

And he won.

We need heroes; we need people who embody the great virtues, or else there can be nothing behind the words with which we label virtues. Barack's quotation is a lovely quotation, very aptly phrased, and when you hear it, you think, "Yes, it would be good to be such a person." But it is Solzhenitsyn who shows you what it really means to be such a person; and without persons such as Solzhenitsyn to give solid content to the eloquent phrasings, the words would be mere counters in a self-deceptive verbal game. I knew what great moral courage, and the willingness to stand alone in defense of the truth when all other voices spoke for lies...I knew what those looked like long before I heard Obama's felicitous phrases; for I had read GULag and The Oak and the Calf. Now, I could never have expressed it as well as Obama did, and I am genuinely (listen, I'm not being at all sarcastic here) grateful to Obama for his having found exactly the right phrase to describe the special type of virtue that one sees in Solzhenitsyn (and for that matter Socrates). But I knew what that virtue was, and I had a yardstick against which to measure my own behavior and an example to admire and, as best I could, to imitate; and that knowledge and that yardstick were there before Obama showed up to describe it.

But without the example of men like Solzhenitsyn and Socrates, I would never have understood that type of virtue no matter how long and with what eloquence I was harangued, no, not if Obama or Reagan or JFK had talked about it for a week.

And if the example of Solzhenitsyn has unfortunately caused Obama's rhetoric, for me personally, to have had the opposite effect that I suspect he wanted it to have...well, Obama doesn't need to lose much sleep over it. It's quite true that on the day I first read Obama's little burst of self-admiration, that my instantaneous reaction was not, "Wow, I'm very impressed with Obama's disdain for popular acclaim," but instead was, "Yeah, sure, Barry boy, why don't you come back and try that line on me again when you've started behaving quite a bit more like Solzhenitsyn and quite a bit less like George Clooney." (Yes, that was, really and truly, my instant and characteristically cynical first reaction; but then by the time I got around to reading the Obama quote he was in full-blown Obamessiah presidency-by-celebrity mode; and besides I dislike all politicians on principle.) But Obama shouldn't feel bad -- of the six billion people in the world there are, what, maybe ten or fifteen people who wouldn't look bad compared to Solzhenitsyn?

See, I know that Obama didn't intend to compare himself implicitly to Solzhenitsyn, and that he would not pretend to be Solzhenitsyn's moral equal. (At least I don't think he would; I admit that his self-regard appears to be, shall we say, extraordinarily healthy, but I don't think he's that conceited.) It's just that it is practically impossible for me to hear anybody refer to the particular kind of courage and single-mindedness that Barack was describing, and not think instantly of Aleksandr Isayevich, as I in fact did upon hearing the Obama quote. And that's my point -- not that Barack is no Solzhenitsyn, but that Solzhenitsyn was the very embodiment of the particular kind of virtue that Obama described so eloquently, so much so that for years I have been unable to hear that kind of virtue mentioned without thinking of Solzhenitsyn.

As another literary giant might have put it, at least if he had had no regard for metrical niceties:

"Here was a Solzhenitsyn. When comes such another?"


Post a Comment

<< Home