The Soul and Barbed Wire: An Introduction to Solzhenitsyn, by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. and Alexis Klimoff. ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2008, 300 pp., $28.00, ISBN: 978-1-93385-957-6.
In May of 1967, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in a "Letter to the Fourth National Congress of Soviet Writers":
I am, of course, confident that I will fulfill my duty as a writer under all circumstances from the grave even more successfully and more unchallenged than in my lifetime. No one can bar the road to the truth, and to advance its cause I am prepared to accept even death. But, maybe many lessons will finally teach us not to stop the writer's pen during his lifetime. At no time has this ennobled our history.
As Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn is in the grave, it is time for every serious reader to pick up his books and awaken to the task we face on the road to the truth. The Soul and Barbed Wire is a fitting title for this succinct introduction to Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn's literary, historical, and political works by two distinguished scholars. The title for this work is taken from the fourth part of the seven parts of The Gulag Archipelago, in which Solzhenitsyn "shifts from the downward movement of lamentation to the upward movement of hope."
The authors note that Solzhenitsyn's life was a spiritual odyssey reminiscent of Dante's both as pilgrim and poet, and his purpose as man and poet is to guide his reader through the inferno of the 20th century.
Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
From the straight road and woke to find myself
Alone in a dark wood.
Solzhenitsyn witnessed first-hand the sins which result when "men have forgotten God," by turning to materialistic ideologies to engineer a heaven on earth built upon the ash piles of the holocaust and the bone yards of the gulag and fanned by the spirit of self-destruction and non-existence, as witnessed in the steady growth of contraception, abortion and hedonism.
The book is divided into sections on his "Life," "Works," "Beliefs," and "Reception" in the world, where Solzhenitsyn, fulfilling his duty as a writer, was as welcomed in 20th century's culture of death as the light of Christ's birth was by King Herod.
The section "Life" offers a biographical sketch and is a helpful preface for anyone reading The Gulag Archipelago, The First Circle and Cancer Ward since so much of Solzhenitsyn's writing is autobiographically based. In fact, born one year after the Russian Revolution in 1918, his life story is nearly identical to that of the Russian people, who suffered from being caught in the pincers of the Soviet Union which fed upon their lives like a cancerous growth. At age twelve, he joined the Young Pioneers, a Communist youth group, and his passion begins when fellow members rip the cross he regularly wore from his neck. By eighteen, as an ardent Marxist convert with an enthusiasm for being a writer, he sets himself the task of "describing the Russian Revolution afresh." This foreshadows the The Red Wheel, a ten volume, six-thousand page epic on the Russian Revolution. The reader of this section will be treated to the major points in Solzhenitsyn's own moral transformation from the Marxist-Leninist ideology to the Russian Orthodox Church.
In "Works" the authors present twenty-three informative essays on all Solzhenitsyn's literary works, as well as most of his historical and political essays, which will inspire the novice reader to embrace a thorough read. They explain his "polyphonic" principle of construction used in his literary and historical works. The polyphonic aspect "points to the presence of a multitude of such individual viewpoints and voices within the text." In other words, there is no main character but a variety of thoroughly developed characters. Ericson and Klimoff state that the polyphonic "is a highly effective technique for bringing out the fundamental worldview of each character -- as well as the clashes between worldviews." Be this as it may, Solzhenitsyn's mastery is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky's: both see right into the moral arena of the character's soul. Both authors' characters are the many faces of Adam, of fallen man, each of whom brings out the "fundamental worldview" of an individual turning away from or towards God, right before the reader, who will see in their struggles his own as "god and the devil are fighting . . . and the battlefield is the heart of man."
In his "Nobel Lecture" Solzhenitsyn contrasts two types of literary artists: one starts with his own subjective experience and seeks "an autonomous spiritual world" out of the Enlightenment concept of the autonomous self, which never gets beyond itself to the universal concepts that unite all humanity. "In Solzhenitsyn's view," the authors claim:
. . . this approach, which has many practioners among contemporary writers, is futile, for it ignores those perennial, universal concepts that unite all of humanity.
The other, is the author as a "humble apprentice under God's heaven." This writer's:
. . . creative powers are imbued in him by divine creation. He develops his gifts only partially by himself; the greater part has been breathed into him ready-made at birth.
Ericson and Klimoff see Solzhenitsyn's work, "His creation," as one that "imitates in microcosm the original Creator's making of the real world."
Solzhenitsyn's "creative powers" are revealed in The First Circle, a novel named after Dante's first circle in hell, where the virtuous pagans who are denied salvation by their preceding Christ are housed. This is a fitting title for the former seminary on the outskirts of Moscow, which now is a technical research institute staffed by prisoners who are working on a telephone encryption device, a voice print machine, to capture Stalin's enemies. In this prison, a place where men formerly sought God's grace, their living souls are wrapped in barbwire. (One of my favorite chapters, "Sawing Wood" finds the prisoner Sologdin sawing wood, for lazy prison guards as the sun rises, revealing the hoarfrost on the barbwire, and he "gazed wide-eyed at the miracle and took delight in it" -- they are shrouded in God's grace). The thematic concerns of this work are based on the moral choices presented to everyman. Ericson and Klimoff give a good structural overview of the novel "embedded in the complex interaction among Nerzhin, Rubin and Sologdin." Nerzhin, a stand-in for Solzhenitsyn, is on a search: "he is fiercely committed to developing his own point of view, a goal that to him is more precious than life itself." Rubin is transfixed by the idea that "circumstances determine consciousness," and, stubbornly, offers "a fervent defense of the regime that has imprisoned him, all the while exhibiting genuinely humane instincts." Sologdin is Rubin's foil, and "he relishes reciting the evils of the Soviet system" as he predicts that Nerzhin will come to God, more specifically a "concrete Christian God," with, the authors note, "the full accompaniment of classic Christian doctrines."
In "Beyond Politics to the Moral Universe," from the section "Belief," Ericson and Klimoff draw from the lead essay in From Under the Rubble, noting that politics cannot have primacy precisely because "the state structure [itself] is of secondary significance." Solzhenitsyn sees the "[absolute] essential task is not political liberation, but the liberation of our soul from participation in the lie forced upon us." Solzhenitsyn's framework for his writing is a moral universe where, "human life is carried on against the panorama of a universe that is ordered by moral principles."
The moral universe operates according to two axioms. First, actions and consequences are integrally woven together. Consequently, the sins of the father are visited upon the children and grandchildren. Solzhenitsyn's position is forcefully articulated by Dr. Boris Kornfeld in his last words to Solzhenitsyn after his cancer operation: "I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved." The second axiom of the moral universe:
. . . as Solzhenitsyn sees it, is that actions can and should be measured according to the traditional standards of good and evil . . . [which] are not socially constructed or culturally conditioned; they are simply part of the nature of things and apply universally.
Man is made in the image God and is endowed with a conscience that is the seat of universal moral judgment. In the words of Nerzhin, in The First Circle, "Justice is the cornerstone, the foundation of the universe! . . . We were born with a sense of justice in our souls."
The final section, "Reception," gives a respectable overview of the jubilant welcome Solzhenitsyn received in 1962, when One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published, and conservative Western politicians perceived him to be an ardent anti-Communist and a strong proponent of Western political systems. By 1974, the time of Solzhenitsyn exile, it was obvious to the liberal press that "he was not one of us." Also, Henry Kissinger, "who was promoting a policy of detente with the Soviet Union" at the time, advised against inviting Solzhenitsyn to the White House.
Given that Solzhenitsyn believes literature should tell the truth, he was perceived by modern critics "guided by aesthetic considerations" to be "old-fashioned." This is as would be expected given the "moral relativism that permeates modern thought, and it is incompatible with the postmodernist critics' dismissal of all absolutist convictions in principle."
It is as one would expect when a New York Times editorial, written upon hearing Solzhenitsyn's Harvard University commencement address in 1978, warned its readers against listening to a man who "believes himself to be in possession of The Truth and so sees error wherever he looks."
The positive responses, though few in number, present the task to everyone to decide for himself, after reading the commencement address, for starters, whether Solzhenitsyn is right in diagnosing the spiritual sickness of secularism being that:
. . . man -- the master of this world, does not bear any evil within himself, and all the defects of life are caused by misguided social systems, which must therefore be corrected. *
"I look to the future because that's where I'm going to spend the rest of my life. --George Burns