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Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address

August 21, 2006

“The Pitiless Crowbar of Events”

Wretchard is pleased to discover Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s address to Harvard students, Thursday, June 8, 1978. He includes the full text in Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs. Since I have barely any time to blog lately, I urgently ask you to spend some time with this precsient essay.

I myself was first introduced to this adress in 1985 or 86 when I was a senior in High School. My English teacher, the wonderful and eccentric Bernard Cody of Del Campo High School in the Sacramento area, had the audacity to ask us to read it and provide a  one page summary. I believe my summary is lost, but I have kept hold of that old xerox to this day as it seemed so important to me, even at the time. I have kept a number of my writings from college and high school; but I believe this is the only xeroxed copy of anything given to me still in my posession. After reading it again online last night, I went to the farthest reaches of my garage to the box where I knew it would be and pulled it out. To my delight, I had underlined some sections and made a few notations. I am still interested in the same passages.

Solzhenitsyn wrote with an authority I had never experienced before, and perhaps since. That I knew. What else I thought of the essay, it’s hard to say. I know what I think now, but it’s hard for me to believe I understood it correctly at the time. I was not a Christian, for starters. Neither was I politically aware in any mature way. All I know was Ronald Regan was a doddering old fool and it was uncool to be a Republican. (Or was it? I remember my old friend Ken, now staunch Democrat, being quite intoxicated with the experience of attending some Regan event. How times and people change.)

I wish I had more time to comment – perhaps later, but I’d be very curious what you all think. Many of the comments at Belmont Club are quite good too- especially pointing out some things that Solzhenitsyn perhaps got wrong. After all, this was written in the dark hour of the Carter administration; Regan and the fall of the Soviet Union was still in the future. I think it seemed like very far in the future at the time, how could anyone have guessed that in little more than a decade the world would change. And that it would change again on 9/11.

I think Solzhenitsyn was wrong about the Spiritual strength of Russia; it did not rise up to judge us a predicted. Islam- or at least a frighteningly large portion of it- has in it’s stead, the true East. Communism was more of an extension and fullfillment of the Western ideal. It seems to have snuffed itself out- but will it take the rest of the West with it, with a push from radical Islam? That is the danger we face, and it is amazing that Solzhenitsyn saw it almost 30 years ago. That and the dangerous role of our media, which he describes absolutely correctly.

What’s also fascinating to me is the realization that this critique would now be considered conservative. That idea never crossed my mind until I re-read the essay last night.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tim C. permalink
    September 3, 2006 10:38 pm

    As promised, A few thoughts…

    First that Aleksandr’s speech was pretty amazing.

    As I read the speech it is a pretty scathing critique of Modernism, and a call for (and a prediction of)something “post-modern” — even though when the speech was given, “post-modernism” as a school of thought was barely a few years old. I very much doubt if he would have used those terms, but I think they fit to what he is saying.

    But firstly, though as you said Grec, you have to note that he got a number of things just wrong. He wrongly thought it an illusion that US and Russian conflict “may be abolished through successful diplomatic negotiations…” and said that the Soviet Union couldn’t “be transformed into the other without the use of violence.” Which of course on both counts were wrong.

    Diplomacy not violence did win the day, and the Soviets for better or worse do look more transformed like the US than ever before in their history.

    And he was also wrong that the US leaving vietnam would cause “a hundredfold Veitnams” to loom over us. Actually the next conflict after vietnam was Gulf War I some 18 years later.

    But with that said, I think he very accurately saw a troubling view of the what “defects” he saw in the “Western view” and in the “modern era.”

    He starts by describing rightly (to my view) that Modernity was based on conquest and power, but that dominating use of power, though it had the appearance of efficacy, was short sighted and unwise, and our modernist colonial adventures would later turn around to bite us:

    “How short a time ago, relatively, the small new European world was easily seizing colonies everywhere, not only without anticipating any real resistance, but also usually despising any possible values in the conquered peoples’ approach to life. On the face of it, it was an overwhelming success …Western society expanded in a triumph of human independence and power.”

    “…And all of a sudden in the twentieth century came the discovery of its fragility and friability. We now see that the conquests proved to be short lived and precarious, and this in turn points to defects in the Western view of the world which led to these conquests…but it is difficult yet to estimate the total size of the bill which former colonial countries will present to the West.”

    He then spends much of his time describing the various key ways in which Modernity has served us badly as a people:

    Modernity as hyper-competitive: “Active and tense competition permeates all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development….

    Modernity as Spiritually Poor or “Exausted” but Materialisticly Rich:

    …So who should now renounce all this, why and for what should one risk one’s precious life in defense of common values, and particularly in such nebulous cases when the security of one’s nation must be defended in a distant country?…Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually but it was evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent to human nature…”

    …man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer. In the past decades, the legalistically selfish aspect of Western approach and thinking has reached its final dimension and the world wound up in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse. All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the Twentieth century’s moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as in the Nineteenth Century.

    He accurately to my view, saw that Modernity suffers from info-overload…much of it not of credible value, and the Info-glut allows groups shut out ‘Inconvenient Truths’ that don’t fit the view of the world that is their prefrence or fashion:

    “Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified, they will stay on in the readers’ memory. How many hasty, immature, superficial and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification…There is a dangerous tendency to form a herd, shutting off successful development….This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era.”

    And then in essence he begins his big closer with that brave statement that Modernity — that is emeshed in most of the Western political, scientific, and religious thought — at it’s very root, is fundamentaly defective:

    This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him.

    And then to finish it off, he predicts a huge cultural shift, “a major turn in history” beyond “the Modern era” — he comes very close to even using the term “post modern era.”

    He accurately compares the shift to be as big as the one from the middle ages world view to the modern one. And as predicted the Post-modern view is an inherantly spiritual not mechanistic or humanisitc or communistic one. (Now spiritual relativism has it’s own problems, but it’s remarkable how accurate Alexandr was)

    And the hope he seems to have for a post-modernity that is more open to God, more open to a balance of both social/physical and spirtual needs not being trampled upon, and more open to “a new height of vision” is one I share deeply.

    “If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.”

  2. Witheroney permalink
    November 7, 2006 8:48 pm

    Dude, don’t remember reading Solzhenitsyn, but I had Mr. Cody for 4 years! Drama, English, Drama, AP English…

    Real poor, you drama teens! C-minus! He lost our papers so often that once a semester you could get away with not writing one, and he would be convinced that he’d lost it.

    Del Campo, ’83

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