Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Solzhenitsyn's Harvard Commencement Address

About 29 years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave the commencement address at Harvard. I cannot express to younger readers how much uproar it created in the academy at the time. Solzhenitsyn was a lion, who had proved by his imprisonment and persecution in the Soviet Union that he had both courage and fortitude. The press and many of the public intellectuals of the day had succeeded by their pressure and influence in liberating him from the Soviet Union and securing him a place in the West. He was a darling of both the Left and the Right, but especially of the media, for he had published under persecution, and thus accomplished what they dreamed.

In his commencement address he criticised in bold terms both journalists and intellectuals, who felt they deserved only his gratitude. The press tried immediately to portray his remarks as being ungrateful to America and the West. They attempted to equate his criticism of their work as a disparagement of a free press in general. At the time I, who had been deeply shaken as a child by the early TV production of One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch, swallowed the media line that the great novelist had become merely a crank since coming to the West, and never read the text of the speech until the 1990's. I claimed it said what others had told me it said. I still admired the Russian's writings, but "only the Early Solzhenitsyn," pretending to a familiarity with his work that I did not (and still do not - I have read only two more of his books, plus some writing about him by respected others) have.

The speech was prescient. On the matter of intellectual fashions he wrote:
Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevent independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life. There is a dangerous tendency to form a herd, shutting off successful development. I have received letters in America from highly intelligent persons, maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but his country cannot hear him because the media are not interested in him. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of petrified armor around people's minds. Human voices from 17 countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.

If you cannot read the whole speech, scroll down at least to read "Convergence," and "The Direction of the Press."


Anonymous said...

From what little I've read, I gather that Solzhenitsyn is a hard-core Russian nationalist who, although he was glad to have the freedom to speak and publish here, never felt that America was his Promised Land. To him, Russian culture is deeper, more spiritual, and wiser due to the Russian people's history of suffering - the kind of suffering Americans never experienced and could never understand. He never intended to stay here. He never became proficient in English and really couldn't wait to get back to his beloved homeland.

I don't think the American intelligentsia understood this dedication to Russia, the land that had treated him so badly. They tended to think of him as crusader for universal human rights (their favorite abstract cause), when he was really about freeing his home from the anti-Russian, anti-Orthodox domination of the Communists. He didn't fit the stereotype of the Oppressed Third-Worlder, so liberal minds couldn't process him.

Anonymous said...

According to Solzhenitsyn, "rationalistic humanism" had been widely adopted in the West. Consequently, the West had lost it's spiritual moorings and was on the verge of decline.