Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Message of the Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation
The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: 
An Experiment in Literary Investigation 

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

What kind of a book is The Gulag Archipelago? While it is encyclopedic in its breadth it also demonstrates the characteristics of autobiography, history, and the epic while using a novelistic literary style – and what else? In a certain sense Solzhenitsyn’s writings may be classified in many ways. The Gulag Archipelago is important for its relationship with each type of work the author has undertaken, and thus it should be considered as central to his literary endeavors. 

The abridged version is divided into Seven “Parts” (The original was three separate volumes of more than a thousand pages in total). There are many events, issues, and ideas covered in the book. Here I only mention selected topics, while there are many more that could be noted. He opens with “And those who, like you and me, dear reader, go there to die, must get there solely and compulsorily via arrest.” (p 3) Somehow I was reminded of Kafka's The Trial.

The selection process was political but there was a sort of classification process – noting such issues as quotas, the bureaucratic inconsistencies, propagandists, and the war against the bourgeoisie. He discussed the nature of Interrogations: including the inquisition, investigation, and psychological torture/games. And in most cases one could not be prepared for the departure:
“So what is the answer? How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared?” (p 63)

The were the guards - the “Blue Caps” - which reminded me of “The Guardians” from Plato's The Republic. And there was a reference to Socrates: “Socrates taught us: Know thyself! Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren't.” (p 75)

Somehow it was possible for Solzhenitsyn to develop thoughts that prison “was not an abyss for me” and how it was a turning point in his life. In every person and place one would encounter Orwellian moments like trying to discern the difference between a "sentence" and "an imposed administrative penalty." From time to time the author would talk directly to the “compassionate reader”. These comments, usually personal notes, were not really significantly different than the rest of the text. The voice of the author was often personal and while the text as a whole read like history, it could have been some other type of literature?

Forgetting and remembering: “We forget everything. What we remember is not what actually happened, not history, but merely that hackneyed dotted line they have chosen to drive into our memories by incessant hammering.” (p 120) There was Stalin and the Show Trials: “Even if Stalin had killed no others, I believe he deserved to be drawn and quartered just for the lives of those six Tsarskoye Selo peasants! . . . 'The peoples of all the world remember him as a friend.' But not those on whose backs he rode, whom he slashed with his knout.” (p 132)

He wondered - does the person behind bars have a soul, or is it hidden or purged by the rigors of confinement? And yet the catalog continued: The Ports: “this is after all a whole epic, another ten volumes of Remembrance of Things Past: to describe the perturbation of a human soul placed in a cell filled to twenty times its capacity and with no latrine bucket,” (p 161)
The Caravans: “the red trains can go into emptiness: and wherever one does go, there immediately rises right next to it, out of the sea of the steppe or the sea of the taiga, a new island of the Archipelago.” (p 167)

The camps were like a malignant cancer, spreading across the steppes, forming an “Archipelago”. Yet, the story of the camps was hidden. How was that possible – and who was complicit in hiding? This was a conundrum. The Archipelago “metastasizes”, it “hardens”. And there was a comparison to Serfdom: “And we agree with that: there are more differences. But what is surprising that all the differences are to the credit of serfdom!” (p 216)

What was worse? The monotony or the deadly daily struggle and the life of work without end. Then there were the “dogs”, the “camp keepers” where he provided insight into the camp bureaucracy. Even satire appears in the book. The discussion of the profitability of the camps was one such topic; also I was moved by a comment about the beauty of the lack of meetings.
One Dostoevsky reference was fascinating: “Our teachers, who had never served time themselves, felt for prisoners only the natural sympathy of the outsider. Dostoyevsky, however, who served time himself, was a proponent of punishment! And this is something worth thinking about.” (p 304)

Yet Solzhenitsyn would go on to discuss the nature of katorga, penal servitude – as if they needed special camps for the “traitors”. Ultimately there was release, but did it have any meaning? “But there is a curse on those “released” under the joyless sky of the Archipelago, and as they move into freedom the clouds will grow darker.” (p 444)

There was even some political history when he described the connections between the camps and the changes in the political regimes from Lenin and Stalin to Beria and Khrushchev. “Nikita had only just allowed the screws of his very own system to be turned no less tight. . . Rulers change, the Archipelago remains.” (p 457)

Monday, November 16, 2020

A New Land

The Secret River
The Secret River 

“This place had been here long before him. It would go on sighing and breathing and being itself after he had gone, the land lapping on and on, watching, waiting, getting on with its own life.”   ― Kate Grenville, The Secret River

On the last day of the previous century I was concerned as to what might happen when the new century began. There were warnings that computer systems might fail and "Y2K" plans had been underway for months to deal with this issue. As I started to work on that day, I turned on my computer and pulled up the website for Sydney, Australia, which booming city was already celebrating the new century with fireworks. All was well as I returned to my work in Chicago. 

I note this episode because the Sydney in Kate Grenville's novel, The Secret River, is set at the beginning of the nineteenth century and it is a city of ramshackle buildings and tents, more like our old west than the metropolis it has since become. “It was a sad scrabbling place, this town of Sydney.” (p 75) This contrast highlights the changes that were started in large part by the prisoners, like William Thornhill and his family, who were exiled to Australia and formed the beginnings of that country.

Sent to Australia because he tried to steal from his boss in London, William Thornhill became one of the first settlers in the Australian wilderness. The novel describes the conflict between the earliest settlers of the country and the natives of Australia as they clashed for ownership of the land. Themes include ownership, racism, social class and hope.

Thornhill grew up poor in London but dreamed of a better future. He thought he was on his way to this better future when Mr. Middleton took him on as an apprentice as a waterman. He completed his apprenticeship successfully and married Sarah “Sal” Middleton, his childhood sweetheart. His father-in-law gave Thornhill his own boat as a wedding gift. Things were going well for the new couple until both Mr. and Mrs. Middleton got sick and died. Their care used up all of the money the two had in savings. Their property, including the boat Mr. Middleton had given Thornhill, had to be sold to pay their remaining debts. As a result Thornhill had to go back to working for others and was unable to make a living for his family. He was caught stealing in an attempt to feed his family and was sentenced to death by hanging.

Thornhill received a pardon for his crime and was allowed to go to Australia to serve his sentence. The place was described as something “out of a dream, a fierce landscape of chasms and glowering cliffs and a vast unpredictable sky.” After one year of service with his wife as an overseer, Thornhill earned his ticket of leave allowing him to work for whoever he wanted. He eventually partnered up with Thomas Blackwood an old friend from London who transported crops and supplies to and from the settlers along the Hawkesbury River. Thornhill fell in love with a piece of property he saw along the river during his first trip. He convinced Sal they could earn enough money to return to England if they claimed a plot of land and farmed it. Eventually, though, Thornhill “saw what he had never seen before: that there could be no future for the Thornhills back in London.” (p 175) With this came the sad realization that he could not share this feeling with his wife who continued to dream of their eventual return.

Once they were on the land in the wilderness, the Thornhills were regularly threatened by the natives who once had freely roamed the land. Although other settlers abused and even killed the natives, Thornhill just wanted to be left alone. Even though he wasn’t purposefully cruel to the natives, they came and stole most of his corn one day. After he and his workers ran them off, they returned that night and set fire to what was left. The author portrays the differences between the aborigines and the settlers in a way that reminded me of the contrast between the image of Rousseau's natural man and the Weberian concept of the Protestant work ethic. The two views of life did not mix well at all.

When he was asked to assist a group of men going to ambush a camp of natives Thornhill agreed to go along and help. He knew his life would never be the same after he stooped to the level where he would help kill other human beings. After the natives were cleared from the area Thornhill and his family became successful on their land in Australia. They became the gentry they’d always dreamed of being in London. Even with his prosperity, Thornhill still used his telescope to scan the woods looking for the natives that once called that land their home.

The book conveys the emotions of those transported to New South Wales with a sensitivity that is transcendent. As they determine to make their place livable Thornhill thinks: “How had his life funnelled down to this corner, in which he had so little choice?” But, in this new land, he did have a choice and in choosing to defend his land and live he and his family became one of the founders of a new country.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020




Man is his own star; and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man,
Commands all light, all influence, all fate;
Nothing to him falls early or too late;
Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.
(Epilogue to Beaumont and Fletcher's Honest Man's Fortune.)

Emerson urges his readers to follow their individual will instead of conforming to social expectations.
This requires belief in your own thought in decision-making and identification of the truth, for your truth is the truth for all. This means thinking for yourself and trusting your own thoughts. You should realize that imitation is false. You have no obligation to others except for those with whom you have a "spiritual affinity". Conformity in a few particulars is the same as in all - to be self-reliant requires non-conformity.

Emerson draws on examples of historical geniuses—such as Plato and Milton—in arguing for the importance of individualism.
The great thinkers of the ages thought for themselves. For each individual there is no need to fear consistency unless it is a foolish consistency - trust your own emotion. This includes obedience to "the eternal law" namely, be yourself.

Emerson posits the effects of self-reliance: altering religious practices, encouraging Americans to stay at home rather than looking toward Europe and the old world and developing their own culture -  focusing on individual rather than societal progress.

This means living life for yourself, focusing on what concerns you and not others. One should remember the value of maintaining solitude for oneself even when in the midst of a crowd. It is being genuine in your actions for then they will not require any explanation. The essence of virtue and the life of spontaneity is found in your intuition. The emphasis is on the importance of going alone - in a spiritual sense – and in relying on one's own soul. Trusting one's own self is difficult, but necessary to avoid the failings of ordinary society.

Concluding he observes the necessity of an American culture of self-reliance. Noting that “Contemplation of life from the highest view” and rejection of regret is the essence of prayer.