Skip to comments.A Long Way from ’78: Remembering Solzhenitsyn's Critique Of Western Weakness And Global Terrorism
Posted on 11/14/2004 6:11:21 PM PST by O.C. - Old Cracker
EDITORS NOTE: June 8  marks the 25th anniversary of A World Split Apart, the commencement address delivered by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn at Harvard University. Last month, Harvard staged a conference commemorating this event, at which Jay Nordlinger, among many others, spoke. In the below remarks, you will see references to Stephan and Ignat. These are two of Solzhenitsyns sons (and they both attended, and addressed, the conference).
Its a pleasure to be here, among so many I admire. Its a further pleasure to be a representative of National Review. This is a magazine that was pro-Solzhenitsyn before pro-Solzhenitsyn was cool. Is it unquestionably cool now? I think so cooler, at least.
National Review actually published A World Split Apart, in its issue of July 7, 1978. When we laid out the title, we had the words split and apart spaced quite far apart. Arent we clever?
Like many here, Im sure, I had the experience not long ago of re-reading A World Split Apart, for the first time in a very long time. I must say, I found it more relevant than ever. Thats a terrible cliché, but one I feel I can use unapologetically. The speech incorporates many of the things that make Solzhenitsyn great, such as his boldness and his devotion to the truth, certainly as he sees it.
He begins that way, doesnt he? Truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter. He went on to play his role of truthteller, no matter whom it discomfits. As Charles Kesler remarked in an essay later, Solzhenitsyn was arresting because he spoke of the truth as if it were true. Lovely line, and insight, that. Kesler also quoted another great foreign friend of America, Tocqueville, who said, Enemies never tell men the truth.
I have a little story about Solzhenitsyn and truth or rather, Solzhenitsyns and truth, because the apples didnt fall very far from the tree. Stephan, you may not know, is a minor celebrity in New York. He made the press even the tabloid press! in some scandal a couple of years ago. Stephan took the wrong side in some environmental controversy. By wrong, of course, I mean anti-hard green, as Peter Huber might say. One of his opponents chided, Didnt he learn anything from his father? Stephan retorted, Yes mainly that the truth isnt always popular.
Let it not be said that Solzhenitsyns cant do soundbites.
A World Split Apart, of course, is a religious speech. Barely into it, he was quoting Jesus: that a house divided against itself cannot stand. No, that wasnt Lincoln, originally. Nor was a shining city on a hill Reagan or John Winthrop, for that matter.
A short while later, Solzhenitsyn cautions against assuming that all peoples strain for liberal democracy, as we know it. No End of History for him, quite. He speaks of terrorism, and whether a free people has the nerve and self-respect to fight it. He speaks of self-sacrifice, alertness to danger, the false ideal of stability (when stability means continued oppression, no boat-rocking from freedom-seekers). You see what I mean by relevance. There are echoes of September 11th or let us say pre-echoes all over this speech. I thought it was eerie, at times.
Of course, there are some things in Solzhenitsyns address that are hard to swallow even for his most dedicated admirers. But all of these things need to be pondered, hard. In the column he wrote shortly after the speech, Bill Buckley said, Such is the debt of free spirits to Solzhenitsyn that we owe it to him at least to consider anything he asks us to consider.
Perhaps most important in A World Split Apart is this business of courage and its decline. In reviewing the speech, we should remember where we are. Or rather, when we are. Nineteen seventy-eight was perhaps not the Wests best year ever. Three years before, the helicopters had taken off from the embassy roof in Saigon despite President Fords plea with Congress not to abandon the country that 58,000 Americans had just finished dying to save. This same President Ford, however, had denied Solzhenitsyn admission to the White House. About a year after the speech, the current president Carter would be in Vienna, kissing General Secretary Brezhnev (literally). This is the sort of thing that once caused Mr. Buckley to write a column titled, For Moderation in Osculation.
Solzhenitsyn says, The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and of course in the United Nations. I love that of course, before in the United Nations. For me, it is one of the most priceless parts of the whole speech. I have been studying the U.N. with particular concentration lately, and I am incessantly quoting Solzhenitsyn. If he received royalties, hed be even richer: The United Nations is not so much the united nations as the united governments or regimes, no better and no worse than those regimes on the whole.
I cant help thinking what Solzhenitsyn would have made indeed, did make of his comments on courage after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. That was a strange and unexpected presidency. And the United States has progressed a long way from the atmosphere of 1978. After the first Gulf War, President Bush the Elder proclaimed that we had kicked the Vietnam syndrome. Now, we have . . . what? Kicked it senseless to make sure it was dead?
On re-reading this speech, I was struck as Im sure many others were by the speakers repeated use of the word evil. It must have fallen strangely on ears at Harvard in 1978. I didnt count the uses in the speech, but there must be, what, eight of them? Ten? A dozen? When Ronald Reagan said evil, in an important speech during his first term, the roof practically caved in on him. People in all parts of the world denounced him for his simplicity, crudeness, and primitivism. Henry Steele Commager said it was the most embarrassing utterance in presidential history. Today, of course, George W. Bush says evil, evildoers, and so on freely. It doesnt sit well with a lot of people, even post-9/11.
I confess that, as I went back over this speech, I was astonished at how true it was. Even obviously so. I kept writing in the margins, True. So true. Still true. Blindingly true, I wrote once. (I believe this had something to do with the press.) I knew that A World Split Apart was one of the most controversial and notorious speeches in modern history. And yet I found it fairly unremarkable. No doubt this says more about me than about Solzhenitsyns speech.
Im reminded of a story, which I hope youll find relevant. It concerns how historical events grow into myth, and get distorted. Stephen Ambrose, when he was doing his biographical trilogy on Nixon, went back and watched The Last Press Conference or listened to it, I forget which. You remember that this is the press conference that Nixon conducted after he lost the California gubernatorial race in 1962. It is remembered that this was a low point for Nixon, that he was out-of-control, surly probably drunk. Ambrose was shocked to discover that, in reality, he had been composed, gracious, appropriate, as we would now say. The line You wont have Nixon to kick around any longer was delivered with a smile and a wink, to appreciative laughter.
Go figure. (And, by the way, those [expletive deleted]s in the Watergate transcripts were pretty tame, according to Ambrose.)
There are so many things worth commenting on let me just make a few points. Side points, you might call them. Solzhenitsyn, of course, is very hard on materialism, as well he should be: Anything that retards or blocks spiritual growth is his enemy, and ours. But Id like to share with you a rather cheeky anecdote starring V. S. Naipaul. It comes from my friend and colleague David Pryce-Jones, who was there. Not long after winning the Nobel Prize, Naipaul was speaking at a conference in India. During the Q&A, someone stood up and said, Sir Vidia, we are in the home of the spirit. India has always been the home of the spirit. Dont you think that this materialism that encroaches from the West damages our home? Naipaul thought for a second and replied in his inimitable fashion I rather like materialism: The poor need it.
A point concerning this business of law, or rather legalism, which provoked so much controversy. It should have been less controversial. Solzhenitsyn says, One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of the legal frames. Can anyone awake in America for the last many years doubt that this is true truer than when Solzhenitsyn spoke those words?
And I must say that I see the expression of mindless, soulless legalism in chatter about international law one of the major shibboleths of our time. International law, not English or French is the lingua franca at the United Nations. Kofi Annan provided a parody of international legalism several weeks ago when he was asked about suicide bombers, or homicide bombers, if you like. Most people in the world, he said, would regard their attacks as illegal. Well, that was a relief.
And consider, for a moment, one of the most famous passages of the speech. Some people here may know it by heart: The human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by todays mass living habits, exemplified by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music. I pause over that phrase the human soul longs for things higher . . .: It reminds me that Allan Blooms surprise bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, was originally entitled Souls Without Longing at least thats what Bloom wanted to call it. And, aside from that marvelous phrase TV stupor, how about intolerable music? This criticism was much remarked on after the speech. And the most remarked-on portion of Allan Blooms book would be his excoriation of contemporary pop music. The subject touches a nerve, obviously.
Cognoscenti may expect a National Review hand to say this, but Solzhenitsyn, in his speech, sounds, to me, very much like Whittaker Chambers. At the core of Chamberss life and thought was the question, God or man? It was that stark: Would we have a God-centered world or a man-centered one? Solzhenitsyn puts the same question. For that matter, so does Paul who, in the words of his King James translators, asks whether we will serve the creature or the Creator.
I say again, more broadly this time: How must this speech have fallen on the ears of its hearers that day! Those 10,000 souls souls without longing? sitting in the rain. We were in the Me Decade, remember. And here Solzhenitsyn was talking about self-restraint, sacrifice, God, and all that stuff. As Harold J. Berman, a law professor here, put it, Solzhenitsyn seemed like a man from Mars. News reports tell us that there was frequent applause, and some hissing, chiefly from the student section.
The First Lady, Rosalynn Carter, used the National Press Club to defend her country against Solzhenitsyns blasts. No, she insisted, the people of this country are not weak, not cowardly, and not spiritually exhausted. Hows that for playing to the peanut gallery? This same Rosalynn Carter, however, did not feel so good about the American people after November 1980. Asked to explain Reagans success, she said, I think he makes us comfortable with our prejudices.
Mary McGrory, too, rose to the defense of America: Not the least of Solzhenitsyns achievement at Harvard was to wring a flag-waving column out of Mary McGrory. Not sure shes written one since. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for his part, posed the question, Can Solzhenitsyn really believe that bombing the Vietnamese back to the Stone Age is a test of courage? Somehow, I dont think bombing them back to the Stone Age was what Solzhenitsyn had in mind for the Vietnamese. I think he had in mind sparing them what they in fact got.
In 1980, the Ethics and Public Policy Center published its volume Solzhenitsyn at Harvard: The Address, Twelve Early Responses, and Six Later Reflections. It is to the speechs credit that it occasioned much excellent and probing writing. As Sidney Hook put it in a typically powerful essay called On Western Freedom Rarely in modern times . . . has one mans voice provoked the Western world to an experience of profound soul-searching. The speech was scrutinized a thousand different ways, from a thousand different angles. One question I asked myself while reading the Ethics and Public Policy Centers volume was, Can any single speech general as it must be survive such scrutiny? Or at least come out unbruised?
Let it be remembered, however, that Solzhenitsyn never much cared what his critics said. Frankly, he never much cared what his admirers said. It was fine that he was immune to criticism, but it was probably finer that he was to use Book of Common Prayer language immune to praise. For a piece I did two years ago, Ignat told me that his father never read a single word that his critics penned, except in one instance, when he answered them in one fell swoop. As Ignat put it, He could have written The Red Wheel or kept up with his critics but not both. He almost never did anything to defend himself, or explain himself, or elaborate a little. Maybe he should have. But he got a lot of work done, didnt he?
If I may stray off the topic of A World Split Apart for just a second. Solzhenitsyn has inspired both ordinary men and extraordinary ones. Let me tell you about an extraordinary one. She is a woman, actually Youqin Wang, a lecturer in Chinese at Chicago. But thats merely her day job. She has devoted her life to memorializing the victims of the Cultural Revolution. She collects her work on a website, www.chinese-memorial.org. It bears the message, We Will Never Forget You.
Youqin was inspired by two writers: Anne Frank and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. When she was young, in Beijing in the teeth of the Cultural Revolution she read Annes diary, and determined to keep one of her own. Mind you, it was forbidden to keep a diary: People died as a result. She addressed her diary as Kitty, just as Anne Frank had. Unlike Anne, she destroyed her entries shortly after she wrote them it was too dangerous to keep them.
It was at Beijing University that she found Solzhenitsyn. When she read Cancer Ward, she thought she was reading of her own experience. She was astounded that Solzhenitsyn could understand her and her fellow Chinese so well. The first night, she told me, she was so excited by what she was reading, she couldnt sleep. Then she managed to get a hold of one of the very few copies of The Gulag Archipelago in the whole of China. When she read it, she knew what she had to do with her life: commit the lives of the lost to historical memory.
I like to think of that woman out in Chicago, with probably the two greatest witnesses of the century at her back: Anne Frank and Solzhenitsyn.
And I cant keep myself from mentioning Armando Valladares. The author of Against All Hope, he is often called the Cuban Solzhenitsyn. I met him here at Harvard, in 1986, I believe. He had come to speak on the reality of Communist Cuba, and a lot of folks didnt like it. In fact, Harvard had another man on the podium with him a professor, charged with providing balance. The school did not want such a wild man to give his story unrebutted, despite the credentials of having been imprisoned and tortured for years. That episode has always stayed with me. And the Q&A, incidentally, was shockingly hostile to Valladares. He was a living, breathing rebuke to many present that day.
A couple of years ago, Valladares told me that he looked forward to Cubas liberation, not least because it would open everyones eyes. It would be like Germany in 1945, exposed before the entire world gas chambers and all. Armando is fairly licking his chops. I hope hes not disappointed, if he lives that long. The capacity for self-deception, and self-justification, is large.
Finally, I should say that Im writing these remarks after a visit to the House of Terror in Budapest I mean, a couple of hours afterward. This is the museum meant to commemorate the Communist brutality from which thousands suffered. To go through this museum, with its cells, instruments of torture, photographs, films, and documents, is a grueling experience. Best about the museum, for me, is that it includes a wall covered with photographs of victimizers not just victims. Many of them are still alive. You see the birth year, then a dash nothing else!
The authorities in Hungary have tried to shut down the House of Terror many times. They come from Left parties, and this past is embarrassing to them. They are supposed to represent the post-Communist Left, but many people wonder how post- they really are. The director said she had to fend off a new attack every day. Witness is hard. Courage is hard. Man seems to bottom out, time after time.
But then, we hear that no one on earth has any way left but upward.
Wow. I have to quote mhking: Just Damn. Thanks for the link.
It's difficult to be objective when your husband leaves behind a trail of failure, eh Rosalynn? During an interview with Larry King on November 15, 2002, Jimmy Carter said the following:
"I think there is a sense that the United States has become too arrogant, too dominant, too self-centered, proud of our wealth, believing that we deserve to be the richest and most powerful and influential nation in the world," Carter said. "I think they feel that we don't really care about them, which is quite often true."
He added, "They all know -- the ones that are educated -- that among the developed, industrialized nations on earth, the United States is at the bottom, way at the bottom, in providing humanitarian aid for peace and for human rights and for housing and for health and education."
Carter, who will receive a the Nobel prize on December 10 in Oslo, Norway, also noted that the United States gives only one one-thousandth of its gross national product for international assistance, while the average European country gives four times as much.
"For every time an American gives a dollar, a citizen of Norway gives $17," he said. "Foreign aid in this country has a bad name, but in other countries, it's a right thing for the government to do. And that's where we at the Carter Center quite often have to turn."
Andre S. provided some of the best reading and account and reflection.The deaths of many hundreds and thousands by way of political power structure corrupt is not lost nor is the delicate.The power of man to find and coexist and ultimately command. Andre S's address at that time was dead-on as a friend and not to be used by third powers who are so intertwined now.Ultimately the coersion and duplicity of recent times may trouble and lay before us a stranger mental path by which his and your input is required.
That as%hole Carter is only figuring govt money, not private contributions, which flips the scales completely, he knows this, why then say it as fact but to denigrate his homeland. May he die a gruesome death soon.
You need to calm or chill as they say.This man was once elected president of this Country and deserves the respect that those who elected him deserve.Now where,is this grave piss-on festival?This is rather gross! Now is arafat coming to him? Now that would be a urinal carnival.
Are you a big Jimmy Carter fan? If so, you may want to check out Democratic Underground. DU has adopted Carter as something of a patron saint. On Free Republic, bad presidents, or even good ones that make the occasional bad decision, are not spared from the required flogging. Sometimes, even keelhauling is required.
By the way, who is Andre?
Solzhenitsyn, for me, has been a top hero. The truths he wrote in "Warning to the West" and "A World Split Apart" have had a great deal of influence on me.
Thanks for posting this..
"Bill Buckley said, 'Such is the debt of free spirits to Solzhenitsyn that we owe it to him at least to consider anything he asks us to consider.'
Hi O.C. To be a jimmy carter supporter I'd be like an athletic supporter lined with those blue tacks.Andre S. was a name in some of Mr. Solzhenitsyn's novels. Andre was a popular name like john or robert here.As he wrote many in secrecy with torture and death awaiting him if discovered, he did not use folks' real names where he cared about they or their family.Andre S. was him and often written in the third person. I would suggest if one enters du they protect themselves and their family's cpu.
I kinda forgot You posted the arcticle.Well something about carter must have set you off.That is a problem we see in the news and in daily commute.Millions of us citizens are dangerous fools.Perhaps a few just lose a link and need guidance.Do not send them to du without counsel.
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