Monday, August 4, 2008

A Giant Dies

"When beggars die, there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes."
Shakespeare 'Julius Ceasar' Act 2 Scene 2

On August first there was a solar eclipse in the far arctic North. The deep night moved across the Earth. The ancient Romans believed in portents that pointed to every important event or death and if we were to take Plutarch or Livy as a guide, as Shakespeare did, this omen presaged the death of one of the great geniuses of world literature. The media is misreporting this story hideously because as important as 'Gulag Archipelago' was in the course of the Cold War it is shunned by the glitteratti and ignored by the prestigious universities, which are far more likely to offer a course deconstructing 'Batman' than one exploring the 'Gulag Archipelago'.
'Gulag Archipelago' is not a book about the Stalinist prison system. There are plenty of fine books that explore the brutality of the Stalinist years. "I Chose Freedom' by Victor Kravchenko is one. 'Soviet Gold' by Vladimir Petrov is another. More penetrating looks into the true nature of the regime and the way that it thought were given in Malcolm Muggeridge's 'Winter In Moscow' or Eugene Lyon's 'Assignment In Utopia'. The stark, murderous cruelty of the Soviet regime was graphically portrayed by Nicoli Tolstoy in 'Stalin's Secret War' and 'The Great Betrayal'. Robert Conquest wrote several books on the subject well worth reading. So what makes 'Gulag Archipelago' different than all of these books? Why is Solzhenitsyn a genius who will live forever?
Solzhenitsyn explores the effect of utopian Marxism on the human spirit; both that of the obvious victims and on the perpetrators as well. He makes no bones about the absolute moral superiority of the Christians who were steadfast in their faith to their fellow prisoners and their guards. He describes, at one point, the effect of sincere belief acting on the brutal and bloodthirsty guards like a cross on a vampire. One old woman laughs at her interrogator, "You're afraid of your boss and all the people who work around you. You're terrified of failure but I know that I'm going to heaven and I'm not afraid." And the oaf backed off!
The first two books don't deal with the Gulag camp system at all. The first one is about arrest, interrogation and trial. Solzhenitsyn holds the Soviet penal code up to a scathing analysis, showing how abandoning the basic concepts of common law lead to complete, unrestrained brutality in the name of The Collective. The second is about transportation into the world of the camps.
The third book is about life in the camps broken down by subject; work, informing, food , children, women, all the various 'waves' of prisoners, life in the Gulag during The War and then the surge of inmates as the war ended and the secret police moved into Eastern Europe.
The fourth book, 'Soul And Barbed Wire', is about redemption. It tells how the camps were, in a way, the most free places in the Soviet Empire. A person could use their complete lack of material possessions and the freedom from the endless lies of a horrifyingly brutal and stupid ideology to become a wise, reverent and good person with a spiritual strength that stands in contrast to the moral squalor around him.
The last three books describe the road out of the Gulag and the death of Stalin.
I read the eight-page obituary in the New York Times. It was completely worthless. The writer didn't speak of Marxism or Socialism or Christianity or anything to do with the philosophical questions Solzhenitsyn raises in all his books about the evils of socialist ideology and in his later years the corrosive evil of modern consumerism; "our mass-living habits" as he described them in 'A World Torn Apart'. The obit-writer didn't go into the cataclysmic effect the books had in the intellectual life of Europe of the 1970's, where Marxist apologists for Soviet aggression and brutality were isolated and the satellite communist parties of the West began to decline. 'Gulag Archipeligo' explained why Marxism is wrong in the moral sense and wrong because it's a failure as a workable system. It's a part of history the Eastern Establishment was and is on the wrong side of. Also, because it questions the sense of the direction our elitists want to take us, Solzhenitsyn's works are very disturbing to the Modern Reader. You can't help but notice that the people who write for the New York Times had their equivalents in Tsarist Russia. The ruling class and the intellectual and artistic elites dabbled in a fashionable neo-Socialism, eventually discrediting and bringing down the corrupt and feeble ancien regime. The happy parlor revolutionaries then became the first victims of a New Order that labeled them as 'class enemies' , scooped them up like rats and herded them into brutal interrogations to break their spirits after which they were dispatched to lives as starving slaves in filthy, freezing prison camps living on the edge of survival. The thread that holds civilization together is called morality and the works produced by Solzhenitsyn are about what happens to a nation which removes that thread. Like the socialists are doing in this country now.
This is a giant. He stands shoulder to shoulder with the greatest writers in human history. Because the theme of good and evil in the human heart is a universal one his work will be read in a thousand years, if books are read at all. Only Orwell, in the Twentieth Century, can be compared to him. The shadow of the moon that ripped across the empty ruins of the Siberian death camps was a omen that one of the titans of human history was about to leave this world.

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