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Man's Tragedy in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch

 

Solzhenitsyn's turning to history has extremely important consequences

for his total literary heritage. As he himself has said, "Literature that is

not the very breath of contemporary society does not deserve the name of

literature." To be true literature, "the pain and fears of society must be

held before it, society must be warned against the moral and social dangers

which threaten it."

 

History to Solzhenitsyn, as to Leo Tolstoy, is the theater and the arena

in which the abominations as well as the glories of human behavior are

revealed at their most powerful and on the grandest scale. This is not to say

that Solzhenitsyn actually "writes history," meaning by that a formal history

text. Rather, his novel August 1914 is a vehicle for the telling the larger

story of the human condition. As in One Day, characters are minutely

inspected in order best to understand the historical environment in which they

participate as well as being affected by it. In other words, history at its

present juncture provides Solzhenitsyn with concrete, "living" referents or

the actual background against which the moral fiber of realistically depicted

characters are not only revealed but above all tested and tempered. As in the

later work, Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's historical novel about

Leninist-Stalinist terror and the labor-camp system, so in August 1914 events

do not simply "happen," as though they were products of the action of Fate. It

is precisely over the issue of Why Events Happen that Solzhenitsyn parts

company with the great Russian writer, Tolstoy, who himself used history (War

and Peace) as a means of dissecting the human spirit and human character.

 

For Solzhenitsyn, the tragedies of individual men and women-say, as found

in forced labor camps-are not decreed by Fate or by heaven. These individual

tragedies are seen as parts, packets, or "knots" (uzly, Solzhenitsyn's term)

of a larger Tragedy, capital T. People are often seen as victims of

institutionalized distortions of humanity-whether such institutions be Lenin's

revolutionary tribunals, Leninist-Stalinist censorship, or the Gulag

Archipelago. But note that the institutions themselves which debase the

victims are not the inexorable result of "historical necessity." Such

institutions are not only avoidable, but the author strongly implies,

eradicable, even though they have become deeply entrenched as, for example, in

Soviet society.

 

Not that Solzhenitsyn is a "revolutionary," in the usual sense of that

word. Indeed, he could never dedicate himself to revolution, implying as it

does the unleashing of violence and of "vranyo" (Russian for deceitful

ballyhoo and propaganda), of paying servile homage to cults, either of

leaders, ideologies, or of the State and the Party. Such particular "Causes"

or "The Cause" frequently disappoint and disillusion their followers (as

happened on a small scale as described by John Simon Kunen in The

Strawberry Statement, for example), despite their pious-sounding goals and

alleged "self-transcending devotion."

 

Solzhenitsyn is tuned in on a more distant, yet more proximate drummer:

his Muse. As an artist, his metier is the calling up of vivid images, even

when he is retelling the history of twentieth-century Russia. At all times it

is the stark, unadorned reality of the world, and of the people living in it,

which interest Solzhenitsyn. But as he tells of the results of the foregoing

events, of the decisions and personalities (including Tsar Nicholas I, his

ministers and generals, Lenin, Stalin, et al.) participating in history,

Solzhenitsyn also seeks out the causes (causation) which have brought about

the historical consequences. Most of the major actions occurring in history,

as Solzhenitsyn views it, are due to conscious human initiation motivated

by consciously defined purposes.

 

In short, Solzhenitsyn's Sense Of Tragedy is distinctly non-classical as

well as non-Tolstoyan. Heroic characters are not "tragically-flawed" or

innocent victims of unconscious or unknowable forces or enigmas.

Solzhenitsyn's is faintly Manichaean viewpoint, in which the world and the

historical terrain are populated with persons-whether at the grassroots or

at the very summit of power-who appear to be intrinsically, almost

genetically, either evil or on the other hand, good. For Solzhenitsyn, there

are demonic natures and humanitarian natures. To him, the evil-doers may

outnumber the benefactors of mankind, at least in contemporary political and

social life, but they do not ultimately defeat them. This view is not only

non-classical, it is also non-nineteenth century. In the preceding century,

more times than not, history was viewed, whether by trained historians or by

the writers of fiction and philosophy, as a "process." It could be studied

"scientifically" as though it were an environment resembling the Galapagos

Islands where Darwin studied natural processes. Indeed, to the

nineteenth-century historian, history was often viewed as a law-bound

evolution. Terms such as "process," "historicism," "determinism," "impersonal

forces," "inevitability," etc., were employed to give scientific-better,

scientistic-credence to the telling of history. In What is History? Edward

Hallett Carr has called this tendency in historiography a misunderstanding of

the nature of science (whether natural science or social science), the failure

to appreciate that historians advance "progressively from one fragmentary

hypothesis to another," not by means of dogmatic insistence upon "historical

law" and "ultimate truth."

 

So, for Solzhenitsyn, man's Tragedy does not consist in his being ground

under by an historical juggernaut, a dumb force guided by inexorable

historical laws, impersonal forces, economic determinism, and so forth.

Instead, man makes his own history. Ideologies, religions, policies do help

shape the lines along which history will be made, but above all for

Solzhenitsyn, it is men who make history. It is they who can be blamed. So can

the makers of ideologies be blamed for the postulates they develop and the

consequences which result from them. "Who is to blame?" the author of Gulag

Archipelago asks in the chapter entitled, "The Law Becomes a Man." He answers,

with bitter irony: "Well, of course, it obviously could never be the Over-All

Leadership!"

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