Friday, 20 November 2015 13:38

Remembering Solzhenitsyn with Dr. Thomas Sutherland

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Remembering Solzhenitsyn with Dr. Thomas Sutherland

Thomas Martin

Thomas Martin teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. You may contact Thomas Martin at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on August 3 reminded me of a conversation with Dr. Thomas Sutherland, the former Dean of Agriculture at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. As you may remember, he had been kidnapped by Islamic Jihad members and held captive for 2,354 days. In March of 1992, my wife Linda and I went to hear Dr. Thomas Sutherland speak at the "Fort Kearney Cattleman's Ladies Night Banquet." We went to see him for a couple of reasons: my father-in-law and his wife are first cousins, and we wanted to welcome an American home.

We arrived at 6:30 for the Social Hour. At quarter till seven Dr. Sutherland appeared, surrounded by former teachers, students, and friends from the University of Nebraska. We went over and introduced ourselves; my father-in-law had called and told him we were coming to hear his talk. The three of us then spent the next twenty minutes locked in conversation.

For over seventy months, he was chained to a wall with a group of men. The chain which was anchored to the wall ran through their leg irons. Most of his captivity was spent with Terry Anderson, whom at first, he confessed, he resented. You see, Dr. Sutherland was a college professor, and most recently a Dean, and Anderson was a journalist. Thomas resented the fact that Anderson knew more than he did, a common problem with PhDs, as Anderson had "read everything" and could discuss ideas. "I am a scientist," he told us.

For the most part I studied animals; you separate some cattle from others, run tests, do a statistical analysis and that's that. However, when I was with Terry Anderson, for the first time in my life I understood what it was to be educated. He had read everything. He became my spiritual inspiration.

What honesty!

I mentioned that Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the author of the Gulag Archipelago, thought his time in solitary confinement to be one of the richest moments of his life, as all the external concerns that trouble the mind were removed and he was free to think. Dr. Sutherland's eyes lit up. He had been able to read Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle in captivity as their Jihadist guards had kindly brought them boxes of books. [The First Circle is a book about scientists, mathematicians, linguists, and academics who are thrown into a special prison where they work on government projects for Stalin. If they are successful, they may be allowed to return to their family; if not, they would be sent to Siberia into forced labor and likely die.] Dr. Sutherland said that he and Terry Anderson had discussed the book together. They had also read Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. What a find.

We did not have time to discuss what exactly they had discussed, so as I was writing this back in my cell, I pulled down The First Circle and turned to the chapter "The Fifth Year In Harness." I thumbed to an idea that Sutherland and Anderson would have come across. Keep in mind as you read this passage that these men are chained together to a wall; they may even be in "the fifth year of their harness," and they do not know if they will ever again see the light of day.

When I was free and used to read books in which wise men pondered the meaning of life or the nature of happiness, I understood very little of those passages. I gave them their due: wise men are supposed to think. It's their profession. But the meaning of life? We live -- that's the meaning. Happiness? When things are going very well, that's happiness, everyone knows that. Thank God for prison! It gave me the chance to think. In order to understand the nature of happiness we first have to analyze satiety. Remember the Lubyanka [a prison] and counterintelligence? Remember that thin, watery barley or the oatmeal porridge without a single drop of fat? Can you say that you eat it? No. You commune with it, you take it like a sacrament! Like the prana of the yogis. You eat it slowly; you eat it from the tip of the wooden spoon; you eat it absorbed entirely in the process of eating, in thinking about eating -- and it spreads through your body like nectar. You tremble at the sweetness released from those overcooked little grains and the murky liquid they float in. And then -- with hardly any nourishment -- you go on living six months, twelve months. Can you really compare the crude devouring of a steak with this?

When Dr. Sutherland remarked about being educated, as opposed to "doing research," he was referring to this sort of passage which is packed full of ideas. Being educated means communing with the spiritual side of life, the side of man that is touched in the privacy of his own reflections on the artists and authors who speak directly to his soul.

Now reread the passage from Solzhenitsyn and look at what he says. Read carefully, be patient, and remember you are fixed to the wall; there is time to mull over the words and digest the ideas housed in them. Nerzhin, to whom these words belong, says that he had read men who pondered the meaning of life, but he never understood what they said, what they meant. The meaning of life? We live. What else is there? Happiness? When things are going my way, that's happiness. Then Solzhenitsyn throws you a curve. Keep in mind you are chained to a wall; you probably have even thought about taking your own life -- this idea will cross a man's mind, especially after months in confinement. Ready. "Thank God for prison! It gave me the chance to think." Now notice the analogy, thinking has to do with satiety, with being full, with being "thoughtful." Having the time to think is like eating soup in the Lubyanka prison, that thin watery barley without a single drop of fat. No excess. You do not eat it, you commune with it; you take it like a sacrament, savoring even the tip of the wooden spoon as you absorb the nectar of life.

As Sutherland read down the page he undoubtedly ran into this idea. Ready. Here it is:

Satiety depends not at all on how much we eat, but on how we eat. It's the same way with happiness, the very same. Lev, friend, happiness doesn't depend on how many external blessings we have snatched from life. It depends only on our attitude toward them. There's a saying about it in the Taoist ethic: "Whoever is capable of contentment will always be satisfied."

What are the odds of the Scotsman Sutherland and the American Anderson being chained to a wall, reading a Russian quoting the Tao and understanding what it means? [International Education?] The Russian Solzhenitsyn has been where you are, too, although it was in the depths of Siberia, and he is offering encouragement. He is saying to Tom Sutherland, as Tom is reading:

Your happiness does not depend upon your external blessing; you know this, you are chained to a wall; your happiness is a matter of your attitude, it is not how much you eat, but it is how you eat.

When Terry "talked" with Solzhenitsyn I would venture that he heard much the same, and maybe Terry realized that his life had been filled with books, but he did not have time to listen -- I do not know. Anyway after they read these lines, maybe Thomas and Terry read the passage aloud and then discussed it. They thought about their situation and maybe they were inspired by the words of Solzhenitsyn quoting the Tao, the Way, to go about living a life even while chained to a wall. I do not know if they were inspired by these ideas, and I do not pretend to understand their ordeal. These ideas are between them and Solzhenitsyn, and this is the wonder of being educated, the wonder of the "life of the mind," as a sacred form of communion where a person understands something clearly, perhaps for the first time in his life, as though it were a sacred message from his soul.

What is the Way? Read on. Solzhenitsyn has Nerzhin continue to speak:

On the planet of philosophy all lands have long since been discovered. I leaf through the ancient philosophers and find my newest discoveries there. . . . The books of the Sankhya say: For those who understand, human happiness is suffering.

These words in the Sankhya, a Hindu work, echo "Take up your cross and follow me." Joy in suffering! Life is a paradox. Solzhenitsyn goes on to explain:

Listen! The happiness of incessant victory, the happiness of fulfilled desire, the happiness of success and of total satiety -- that is suffering! That is spiritual death, a sort of unending moral pain. It isn't the philosophers of the Vedanta or the Sankhya, but I personally, Gleb Nerzhin, a prisoner in harness for the fifth year, who has risen to that stage of development where the bad begins to appear the good. And I personally hold the view that people don't know what they are striving for. They waste themselves in senseless thrashing around for the sake of a handful of goods and die without realizing their spiritual wealth. When Lev Tolstoi dreamed of being imprisoned, he was reasoning like a truly perceptive person with a healthy spiritual life.

An important man will not hear these words. He is too busy. In the university, for example, one can be consumed by activities outside the classroom and end up thrashing about in meetings that go nowhere, working on program reviews which will not be taken seriously, or in "assessment" which is like studying cattle, separating steers from bulls, doing a statistical analysis and storing the data in some administrator's office in anticipation of some team of evaluators who will appear and look at the numbers with all the wisdom of blind men reading the entrails of a sacrificial bull to decide where we should go from here. As though one could objectively measure what goes on in a student, or a professor, who is locked in soulful reflection and assign a number to it. The man who thinks education to be a public enterprise lives in a land where everything has been turned upside-down. Topsy-turvy-dom. He thinks happiness comes from "how much you eat," so he ends up serving Mammon for "thrashing after goods" that will be lost at death. Will the people "outside of education" ever realize the privacy of the endeavor? It is "how you eat" as in "how you think"; it is not "how much you eat" as in "how much you talk." When you talk "about" education, you do not participate "in" education.

In another passage of The First Circle, Sologdin says to Nerzhin:

You ought to find out where you are, spiritually, understand the role of good and evil in human life. There's no better place to do it than prison.

The life of the mind, the time to understand the role of good and evil from the inside, as Dr. Sutherland noted, is not available to scientists through their research, their "way." They can, however, enter into education by realizing that "spiritual wealth," the nourishment of the soul, is forged in reflection over ideas and images like those Solzhenitsyn presented to him and Terry Anderson chained to a wall in a cell. If a man is "in" education, he does not need to be in prison to be awakened to "the life of the mind." When a person reads for his life, he voluntarily imprisons himself; he shuts off the outside world for the inside world where he reads and subjects himself to the ideas of authors, poets, and philosophers. When he focuses his mind on ideas of consequence to his life, he communes through words filled with the spirit of souls distanced by time or miles from his own.

In conclusion, I am reminded of what Richard Mitchell, an English teacher and publisher of The Underground Grammarian, said about reading great books:

When we do sit among those best minds, we find that people we know to be "dead," no longer "meeting current needs," are, strangely, not dead at all. They speak to us with far greater power and effect than we can expect from most of the "living," whatever that might mean. And it is to us that they speak; we do not merely overhear them "meeting the needs" of their time and place and forming components compatible with their systems. They had us in mind, but not in our roles as temporary life-forms subject to the necessities of time and place. It is as though, out of something that is not bound by time and place, they spoke to the same something in us, knowing it would be there. And it is. I do not think it preposterous to say that they spoke as souls to souls. I don't know a better word.

Nor do I. *

"Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas." --Calvin Coolidge

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