The Eternal Life of Ivan Denisovich: Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

Image from BBC - Russia pay respect to Solzhenitsyn

Image from BBC - Russia pays respect to Solzhenitsyn

These tears are tears of gratitude more than of grief. Although I’m not inclined to shed shallow tears over the deaths of public figures whom I’ve never met, for the past two days since the death of Alexandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn I have recurrently become overwhelmed – but more by gratitude than by grief, and more by joy than by sorrow. The gratitude and joy are over the completion of a rare exemplar of a well lived, heroic life of towering stature, from whose heroism I have personally benefited in ways I cannot presently confide to my readers.

But as Solzhenitsyn’s life and character were inseparable from those of his country, the story of his life AND of his country during the 20th century stand as reproaches to that of China, to this day. How so? Here’s how:

Solzhenitsyn’s first muckracking novel, “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was published in the USSR, under state authority and approval, in 1962. The period of the subject matter of that book, the conditions of the Soviet forced labour camps, was contemporaneous with the early years of Mao’s China. But in 1962, any such muckracking publication would have been unthinkable in Mao’s China. Then for several years after that publication, Solzhenitsyn remained essentially unmolested (even though harassed) by his own government, free to write and to enjoy the full – even though relatively limited – scope of civil liberties of Soviet citizens. But in the 1960s, any Chinese writer whose work had been similar to Solzhenitsyn’s would have been (and many were) “disappeared” into Nacht und Nebel (the Gestapo’s “night and fog”), remaining mostly unknown to their own countrymen and to the wider world. And yes, indeed Solzhenitsyn was exiled from Russia in 1974; yet he remained unharmed, unmolested, as cannot be said of any Chinese dissidents of that time.

Now 14 years after Solzhenitsyn’s triumphant return to Russia, he, whom the Soviet state called an enemy of his country just one generation ago, is regarded by his government and his compatriots as one of the greatest Russian patriots of his time. This, in a country which China’s propaganda organs continue to misrepresent as a land of “economic disaster” and “chaos”, despite the contrary truth that Russia has acheived an authentic economic miracle AND political stability AND a scope of civil liberties approximately equal to those of most Western liberal democracies, and perhaps even greater liberties than those of America in the age of Bush.

But if, for the sake of argument, we posit the CCP’s premise that Russia is an “economic disaster”, then how do Russia’s dramatically improved civil liberties post-1991 square up with the CCP argument – shared and promoted by the CCP’s Western apologists – that China’s “economic development” will inevitably give rise to greater civil liberties?

What the hell is China waiting for? If post-Communist Russia is in fact an “economic disaster” which nonetheless has been able to achieve civil liberties similar to those of the great liberal democracies, then why can’t China do the same – NOW! -based on its so called “economic miracle”?

Something is missing in the CCP’s and Western China-boomers’assumptions and equations. If it’s true that “economic development” is the foundation for improved civil liberty, then the evidence of Russia’s greater civil liberty indicates that Russia is NOT the “economic disaster” that the CCP propagandists say it is – and furthermore, the greater civil liberty of Russia would thereby indicate that Russia’s economy is stronger than China’s, given the CCP’s mechanistic and materialist premise. Or, on the other hand, the alternative explanation is that the CCP and its Western boosters are simply mistaken in their assumptions about the relationship between “economic development” and civil liberty. One or the other of those two beliefs may be posited, but not both.

I know what Alexandr Isaevich would say. He would not even countenance any equation between “economic development” and civil liberty, an equation which the recent history of his own country has devastatingly disproved, and if anything demonstrated an inverse relationship between Communist “economic development” and liberty and order, not to mention civilization and decency. Alexandr Isaevich would, in fact, scornfully and contemptuously have very little to say at all by way of advice to the Chinese Communist Party, except to tell them summarily to repent from their crimes and their lies and to reform themselves spiritually – their first and most fundamental task being to stop their habit of lying and cultivate a habit of truth, the habit he personified – after which reform of politics and economics will follow as inevitably dawn follows night.

And he would be right, and his life, and the life of Russia, has proven him right.

I drink to the Life of Alexandr Isaevich, and proffer this song to send him home to the only country more vast and large spirited than Great Russia, God’s Kingdom, of which Alexandr Isaevish is one of the precious few natives this world has seen in our time:

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10 Responses to The Eternal Life of Ivan Denisovich: Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

  1. justrecently says:

    Does “large spirited”, re Russia, represent something beyond words, or is it something one can discuss? I don’t mean to come across as ultra-secular, but that’s probably what I am. I’m certainly curious.

  2. Ned Kelly says:

    The phrase is meant poetically.

  3. justrecently says:

    OK.

  4. Ned Kelly says:

    Well, JR, furthermore it IS something you can discuss if you wish.
    Catherine and I, although both professed Christians, are not theocrats. 😉

    Is there necessarily a contradiction or inconsistency between being “secular” and using the good old word “spirit”? Or between being a materialist (not meaning “acquisitive”, but rather one who believes all is material and “empirical”, like the partly-great Marx) and acknowledging the reality of some kind of “spirit”?

    To my mind, the essence of Marx’s “materialism” was his (in my opinion, mistaken, but laudible) attempt to explain AND TO PROMOTE
    human “spirituality” in a materialistic, “empirical” (or so he thought) way, in order to CULTIVATE even GREATER, and more authentic, “spiritual” life among Humans.

    You see, this is what I really love and admire about Marx. He was not against “spirit” at all. In his mind, he thought that what he was doing was to make the Human experience – aka “ontology”, of spirit MORE AUTHENTIC! I disagree with his strictly materialist assumptions about the foundation of ontological “spirit” – but I love and respect Marx for how he, after all, tried to make the ontology of Human spirituality more authentic, more real, more tangible.

    I think Marx attempted this – even if in a mistaken way – in the same way that Jesus said that he came so that all Humans could have “have life, and to have it MORE ABUNDANTLY!”

    So, to reprise my question: Is there really any essential, categorical contradiction or inconsistency between “secularism” (and/or materialism) versus an acknowledgement of “spirit”? I submit to you, that Marx would say that there is none.

  5. justrecently says:

    Hi Ned,

    Sunday isn’t a bad day to contemplate the “spirit”.
    I agree that secularism and spirituality are no opposites – my impression is that spirituality is much more genuine in secular states, than in theocracies. Turkey may be a good example. Most people there seem to be faithful Muslims, but the ones I know aren’t wearing their religion on their sleeves. There are obviously good reasons that Russian orthodoxy survived some seventy years of Stalinism and state-capitalist materialism without any apparent abatement.

    That said, I can’t say that I like it. It’s looks pretty mixed-up with Pan-Slavism, earthly (not secular!) power, and it also played its own ugly role in keeping most of the people down before the November Revolution.

    I’m not religious myself, so I should approach the question in my own way. There is the quote that by their fruit you will recognize them. I have a lot of respect for Solzhenitsyn, but I believe that while he was a man who followed his own conscience, this conscience itself was pretty compromised, and that he wouldn’t have disagreed with fruits like these.
    Spirituality in itself doesn’t save people. Does it?

  6. Ned Kelly says:

    JR, you asked,

    “Spirituality in itself doesn’t save people. Does it?”

    And so now I will give you a conventional Roman Catholic answer to that question – even though I am not a “good” Catholic – but I know Catholic theology/cosmology VERY well indeed! (And I agree with most of it, for very subtle AND SCIENTIFIC reasons!)

    So here is my response to your question, and my response is informed by 2,000 years of the Catholic Church’s EMPIRICAL experience – very “scientific”, as “scientific” as any empirical data is! Thus, I respond to your question this way:

    “Spirituality”, according to the Roman Catholic Church AND all other tradtional Christian sects, IS MORALLY NEUTRAL! Because Satan and all of the fallen angels – ie, the demons of Hell – are all 100 percent SPIRITS!

    Thus, according to traditional Christianity, “spirituality” can be, and often is, evil and untruthful. Satan and all of the demons in Hell are PERFECTLY “spiritual”. Thus, “spirit”, in traditional Christianity, is A-moral, morally neutral. “Spirit”
    can be morally good OR evil, as Satan and all of the demons of Hell ARE “spirits”.

    Thus, in traditional Christianity, “spirit” is neither good NOR evil. “Spirit” is a quality, and a substance. And whether Spirit is good or evil, depends upon free will.

    And modern science has proved the reality of free will, in an empirical way. But you won’t understand that, unless and until you study a hell of a lot of theoretical physics, REAL science!

  7. Ned Kelly says:

    PS, JR,

    Here’s another question for you to contemplate. If “spirituality in itself doesn’t save people”, then what evidence is there that “science” saves people? Or that ANYTHING saves people?

    Furthermore, IF you are a true secular materialist who does not believe in any kind of transcendence at all, then WHY THE HELL DO YOU EVEN CARE about whether ANYTHING can “save people”?

    I mean, JR, that IF you care at all about people being “saved” – in any way, even if in a “material” way – then aren’t you acknowledging a love of SOME kind of transcendence of the material
    Human condition?

    You can’t have it both ways. Either you believe in SOME kind of transcendent value beyond mere DNA replication and amoral, meaningless existence, or not.

    Even some materialists, like Karl Marx, believed in SOME kind of “salvation” of the Human spirit, SOME kind of transcendence.

    So please don’t even ask me about anyone being “saved”, unless you believe in SOME kind of transcendence, like Marx did. Either admit that you are totally amoral and that you believe in NO transcendent values whatsoever, or else admit that you DO believe in SOME kind of “spirit” above and beyond mere replication of DNA, even if it’s a materialistic value of some kind of transcendence.

  8. justrecently says:

    Hang on, Ned. Just a while ago you explained to me why a spirited guy may choose either good or bad. Now you want to tell me that a materialist is inevitably a cold-hearted asshole who doesn’t care when other specimen of his own endangered species are systematically harmed, because he can make no choices? Naah. I can’t see why I should “admit” that. You may believe that there are no ways beyond faith or spirituality to have a concept of decency, but I don’t agree with this idea. Actually, the assumption that there is no life on the other side of the cupboard doesn’t devalue life on this side of it. Quite the contrary.
    I think this is a question that I can answer without much thought. After all, I have spent some thoughts about it before (been around on this beautiful planet for some time myself), I’m not a potted flower, nor do I think that others who walk on two legs, who speak or just feel are.
    As for your comment before, #6, I’ll have to think for a while.

  9. justrecently says:

    Please meet Wolf Singer, a brain researcher. I’m not trying to judge if his position is correct, and if the Economy-point.org description leaves the impression that Singer rules conscious decision-making out, it certainly leaves a wrong impression of his ideas.
    I’m using Singer as an example because if the Catholic Church has empirical evidence about the “Free Will”, Singer certainly has evidence of his own that conflicts with theologicans’ views, and theologicans are in fact his harshest critics.
    That didn’t keep the Vatican from appreciating Singer’s work though, as you can see from his membership in the papal Academy of Sciences in Rome.
    From my own experience, I would say that my “free will” is limited in that I wasn’t born as a completely dark horse without any genetic attributes, and that education certainly took another toll on my free will. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about education at all. But the values and policies that I have developed so far aren’t simply mine. They’ve been thought by others long before I thought them, and communicated to me through words, example, sometimes coercion, and through my peoples’ DNA. Both compliance and resistance, rejection and acceptance of what approaches me is a reaction to what other people have defined.
    If there weren’t strong limitations to my “free will”, I would end up making no decisions at all. Don’t you think so?

  10. Ned Kelly says:

    JR, that’s interesting. I’ll be preoccupied for a few days but will respond.

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