A PROPHET'S DEATH makes our shallow infotainment culture even less tolerable than usual. To see the man's passing become just another item on the ticker, juxtaposed with the latest developments in the unretirement of Brett Favre or the fascinating Paris Hilton-John McCain contretemps. To endure some dimwitted anchor's mangling of the few "facts" about his life on file in the newsroom. ("Solzhenitsyn was awarded a Nobel Prize last year," reported Headline News, mistaking 2008 for 1971.) To see his legacy reduced to predictably "neutral" journalistic synopses. ("Some thought him a hero, but others spied a dangerous fanatic ...")
It was all so unworthy of the great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He devoted his life to struggling against not just the lies of communism but, more fundamentally, the peculiarly insidious lies of secular, anthropocentric modernity, of which communism was one of the most ugly--because most ruthlessly logical--manifestations. And so, not surprisingly, in the last three decades of his life, when he was not mocked, ridiculed, or misrepresented, the perversely uncooperative Solzhenitsyn was almost entirely ignored by the news and culture industry. The tasty morsel of his death provided-finally--some usable Solzhenitsyn material. It even provided an opportunity for genuine gratitude: despite your many faults, thank you, Solzhenitsyn, for helping us overcome so unprofitable a system as communism.
Fortunately, as he once said of himself in another context, Solzhenitsyn has proved indigestible. He was not a man given to compromises. With the astonishing worldwide success of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962, and as the famously courageous author of The First Circle (1968), Cancer Ward (1968), and The Gulag Archipelago (1973-76), Solzhenitsyn could, after his exile from the Soviet Union in 1974, have had his choice of publishers for the rest of his working life. All he had to do was not deviate too much from the pattern that the West had set out for him. Had he just played the game a little bit--moderate this, mute that, and could you give us something a little bit shorter?--all would have been fine. Who could have blamed him?
But Solzhenitsyn was a man of conviction and calling. By August 1914 (1971), Christian themes had become important in his work. This discomfited his secular Western audience, and the "problem" of Solzhenitsyn's profoundly Christian outlook would only deepen over time. Mistrusting and feeling betrayed by the liberal--and to his mind unpardonably stupid--Western media after his exile, he rarely gave interviews after his emigration to the United States. Then, in his Harvard commencement address of June 8, 1978, he remarked at length upon the West's self-satisfied and lazy misuse of its freedom and prosperity, "its cult of material well-being" and manifold other sins. "No, I could not recommend your society as an ideal for the transformation of ours," confessed Solzhenitsyn. "Through deep suffering, people in our country have now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.... After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today's mass living habits, introduced as by a calling card by the revolting invasion of commercial advertising, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music."
This was not the dissident that the West had ordered up. When the speech was published, liberals spat, rinsed, and--except for occasional scurrilous asides--moved on. Many conservatives also kept their distance. For a while, Solzhenitsyn was valuable as a hammer in the Cold War toolbox, but after 1989, the American Right, too, had little use for his counsel. Not only was he a critic of our wealthy (he would say materialistic) liberal democracy, which was bad enough, he was a principled advocate of local self-government and a Russian patriot to boot--none of which was on-message with the end-of-history, America-as-the-universal-nation conservatism that became predominant in the 1990s.
He was the greatest-souled writer ever to make his adult home in the United States--not excluding Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, or any other American figure you might name--and no one who mattered seemed to care. Frightened by his unorthodox Orthodoxy and the blasted seriousness of his work, American publishers gradually lost interest. No one picked up March 1917 or April 1917, the last two "knots" of The Red Wheel. After lengthy consideration at least one major university press turned down Two Hundred Years Together, Solzhenitsyn's scholarly history of the troubled relationship between ethnic Russians and Jews. Everyone passed on Russia in Collapse. No one even thought to ask about the short stories published by Solzhenitsyn in the 1990s or the lyrical prose poems known as "miniatures" or A Minute a Day or any of the other works that have appeared in Russia, France, and elsewhere since his return to Moscow.
When I became an editor at ISI Books eight years ago and began to make inquiries about Solzhenitsyn's oeuvre, I was astonished to learn how much had yet to be translated into English. After a couple of false starts, I engaged Solzhenitsyn scholars Edward Ericson Jr. and Daniel Mahoney to compile The Solzhenitsyn Reader, which included almost 200 pages of previously untranslated material, including poems, short stories, miniatures, and excerpts from books such as Russia in Collapse, Two Hundred Years Together, The Red Wheel, and the full, 96-chapter version of The First Circle. Thanks to David Remnick's interest in Russian literature and history, The First Circle was excerpted in the New Yorker. That got the attention of the slumbering HarperCollins, which after years of neglect suddenly remembered that it owned the rights to the book, asserted that claim forcefully, and finally announced last month that it would publish the full, newly translated version in 2009.
ISI Books will publish the first volume of Solzhenitsyn's two-volume memoir of his life in the West in 2009--the title's literal translation is something like "The Little Grain Fell Between Two Millstones," which gives some indication of the author's sense of underdog isolation. There are plans to publish additional Solzhenitsyn works in the future. So perhaps a renaissance has begun.
But the truth is, we shouldn't have needed a renaissance.
Soon after Aleksandr's exile from the Soviet Union, the Solzhenitsyns bought a property near Cavendish, Vermont. Having considered several other options, did they know that, from a cultural standpoint, in New England they had chosen the perfect place to settle? Imagine Solzhenitsyn in the Midwest, with pies being delivered every day and obliging folks directing inquirers his way with a smile, just sure that he could use the company. Vermonters understood Solzhenitsyn in their bones. Did he have a peculiar kind of stubborn cussedness about him? Maybe. But Solzhenitsyn wasn't a grump. He was just focused--intensely--on what he knew to be his life's work. It was extensive, and he didn't have much time.
That life work, he always believed, revolved around what might be called an imaginative but entirely accurate literary history of the events leading up to the Russian Revolution. The Red Wheel, as a consequence, commanded the majority of his time during his 20-year sojourn in the United States. No matter how history finally judges that massive work, the short stories and miniatures published after his return to Russia are perhaps more revealing of Solzhenitsyn's reflective, rooted, humane traditionalism. In "Rooster Song," for example, he writes:
With the depopulation, abandonment, and extinction of our villages, we have forgotten, and younger generations have never even heard, the many-voiced rooster roll call of midday. In sunny summertime, from one yard to the next, across the street, and farther, beyond the village outskirts, how marvelous is this chorus of triumphant life. Little else can bestow such tranquility upon the soul. Not drowned out by any noisy bustle, this vivid, vibrant, succulent, stalwart cry conveys to us that throughout these parts there reigns a blessed peace, an untroubled calm. That's how today has unfolded so far, and why shouldn't it continue? Carry on, everyone, your benign pursuits.
Now he is gone, 63 years after he was sentenced to the labor camps, 55 years after he was left for dead in a cancer ward in Uzbekistan, 46 years after the spectacular publication of One Day, 19 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 14 years after his triumphant return to the Russia he loved.
For reasons even his biographers have been unable to pinpoint, Solzhenitsyn's spirit was stiffened beyond human breaking by the gulag. He didn't just tell the truth; he refused to be implicated in lies, and he made no exception for the happy-face, tantalizingly plausible lies that we Westerners, in particular, like to tell ourselves about man, the divine, and nature. His battle against late-modern anthropocentrism and his unshakeable integrity made Solzhenitsyn different from you and me, and it is why, with his death, so many have felt such a terrible sense of loss.
Let us pray for Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, pray for us.
Jeremy Beer is the coeditor of American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and editor in chief at ISI Books, which has just published The Soul and Barbed Wire: An Introduction to Solzhenitsyn, by Edward E. Ericson Jr. and Alexis Klimoff.…