Solzhenitsyn’s Warning and the Importance of Art
The route towards a spiritually developed society
Last weekend the Center for Ethics and Culture hosted their flagship annual event, the Fall Conference. This year, the conference theme, “Higher Powers,” was inspired by the life and work of Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn’s prolific writing presented a seemingly endless fund of works for the hundreds of scholars who attended the conference to consider. However, one particular piece—representative of Solzhenitsyn’s most famous public moment—seemed to unavoidably come up in the lectures, panels, and conversations which comprised the conference: his 1978 Harvard Commencement Address.
In the address, the man famed for his experience in the Soviet gulag and robust critiques of communism, began by warning the hopeful Ivy League graduates and the watching world that his speech contained “some bitterness,” but asked his audience to remember that “it comes not from an adversary, but from a friend.” What followed was a deep critique of the West, complete with attacks on the “revolting invasion” of consumer culture, an “unstable and unhealthy” social system, technological progress at the cost of “moral poverty,” and even on values central to Western liberal democracies such as freedom of the press.
At the core of his address is the idea that, although the Cold War world was palpably “split apart” with respect to ideologies and military alliances, it was lamentably united in the “disease plaguing its main sections.” Namely, Solzhenitsyn stressed that, though in a different way than the East, the West was no less effectively “being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.”
At the time, Solzhenitsyn’s diagnosis of the condition of Western society garnered virtually unanimous scorn from the Western press and academia, meaning that his warning was essentially ignored. Today, however, it is evident that his words were, if not prophetic, eminently true. Worrying increases in depression rates among millennials, a serious crisis of friendship, evident partisanship and deception in the media, a general sense of inability to keep up with the ever-changing world, the corruption of the family’s role in society, and scant church attendance are all issues that have gained attention, though not much as they deserves, in today’s world. At the same time, they are precisely the symptoms that Solzhenitsyn warned about all those years ago. His warning—famous though it is—has not yet generated a sufficient response.
Since the core of his warning is that a corrosive humanism is diminishing the sense of supernatural meaning in society, it is worth looking into another important theme in Solzhenitsyn’s work: the meaning in suffering. When explaining why he would not recommend the Western system for his home country, Solzhenitsyn writes that “through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.” The fact that Solzhenitsyn places suffering at the core of spiritual development raises an interesting, yet discomforting, question: will the West be able to adequately respond to the Solzhenitsyn’s critiques without undergoing the kind of suffering seen in fallen regimes, such as the Soviet Union, or is such an experience of suffering necessary to a real spiritual awakening?
I had the opportunity to ask Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr’s son, what his father’s view on such a question might have been. Careful not to put words into his father’s mouth, Ignat noted his father’s belief that, instead of having to actually experience deep physical and material suffering, a society could encounter the importance of the spiritual life through the art produced by societies which have experienced such suffering. Whether in literature, music, painting, or other forms, art—Solzhenitsyn had believed—had the power to relay deeply human experiences to people far removed from experiences portrayed by the art.
It seems, then, that if we want to begin properly addressing Solzhenitsyn’s warnings, and avoid going down a route which could have dire consequences, we ought to consider the role that art plays in our society. I can’t help but fear that the diminishing attention spans, obsolete reading culture, and general superficiality which characterize the current moment will render it difficult to make genuinely deep experiences of art a prominent part of our society. However, if we take Solzhenitsyn seriously, the difficulty of the task at hand should not deter us from trying.
Nicolas is a sophomore studying in the Program of Liberal Studies with a second major in philosophy. He strongly believes that any movie worth watching should not be started after 7:30pm.