Solzhenitsyn on art, justice, and God

Professor Dan Mahoney is a professor at Assumption College, Worcester, Ma. He is the editor of the Solzhenitsyn Reader. Last evening I spent some time with Dan talking about Newman and Solzhenitsyn. He shared with Gavin Colvert and I some of his favorite passages.

The editor’s introduction has a great introduction to the thought of Solzhenitsyn, including a section on the artist’s vocation, through an analysis of the Nobel lecture, included in the volume. Solzhenitsyn compares two accounts of the artist — the modern account posits the artist as the creator of an autonomous spiritual world. But there is here the great danger of confounding man with God; Solzhenitsyn thinks that the artist recognizes a higher power above himself and “joyfully works as a humble apprentice under God’s heaven.” He rejects subjectivism and self assertion. And Mahoney says this — “this artist recognizes that the world is shrouded in mystery.” The artist, “rather than attempting to impose his will on reality, responds with receptivity and gratitude to the mystery of God’s creation.” (xxxii) I refer to these passages because they fit well with Newman’s account of faith and mystery. To be sure, Mahoney points out that Solzhenitsyn was not a “dogmatist” in the sense that he was not an ideologue pursuing a rigid line of argument or interpretation. His form of writing followed a new “experiment in literary investigation.” But this too respects the contours of reality, and especially the mystery of the human person.
Professor Mahoney noted that Solzhenitsyn’s two best characters are peasant type who live humbly, and justly. Ivan Denisovitch is well known through the book, One Day; but included in this Reader is his shorter, and perhaps lesser known, “Matryona’s Home.” I read the story on the plane today and was overcome by the beauty of his prose and his insight into the depth of a person. The story ends with this: “We had all lived side by side with her and never understood that she was the righteous one without whom, as the proverb says, no village can stand. No any city. Nor our whole land.” (56)

Solzhenitsyn was not engaged in mere romanticizing of the peasant. Their commitment to justice was shaken to the core by the Marxist ideology and won back at great price. In the First Circle we can find an argument between Rubin, a Marxist, and Nerzhin, who refuses to succumb to the ideological juggernaut. Rubin bullies him insisting that freedom is bourgeois illusion and justice is a class concept. Nerzhin said “Are they, hell! . . .  justice is never relative.” Rubin jumps up as if to hit him and claims again “It’s a class concept! Of course it is.” Nerzhin waves his arms and proclaims “Justice is the cornerstone, the foundation of the universe!” (127) There are many other great sections and passages in this Reader about the just, about conscience, and the virtues.

And so too are the theological attainments of Orthodoxy, and historic Christianity. As we read through excerpts from the Red Wheel, we found this advice of a priest to someone seeking counsel — “In each of us there is a mystery greater than we realize. And it is in communion with God that we are able to catch a glimpse of it.” (398)

Mahoney also insisted that we read the three early poems of Solzhenitsyn — they are stunning. One of them was written the very month and year I was born, February 1952. He was in a prison camp recuperating from surgery and he realized he had received a new lease on life. It is called “Acathistus,” meaning a song of praise and it is quite Augustinian and Newmanesque, because deeply Christian:

When, oh when did I scatter so madly
All the goodness, the God-given grains?
Was my youth not spent with those who gladly
Sang to You in the glow of Your shrines?

Bookish wisdom, though, sparkled and beckoned,
and it rushed through my arrogant mind,
The world’s mysteries seemed within reckon,
My life’s lot like warm wax in the hand.

My blood seethed, and it spilled and trickled,
Gleamed ahead with a multihued trace,
Without clamor there quietly crumbled
In my breast the great building of faith.

Then I passed betwixt being and dying,
I fell off and now cling to the edge,
And I gaze back with gratitude, trembling,
On the meaningless life I have led.

Nor my reason, nor will, nor desire
Blazed the twists and turns of its road,
It was purpose-from-High’s steady fire
Not made plain to me till afterward.

Now regaining the measure that’s true,
Having drawn with it water of being,
Oh great God! I believe now anew!
Though denied, You were always with me. . . .

Many thanks to Professor Dan Mahoney for this Reader, a tremendous labor of love for Alexander Solzhenitsyn..

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