For the advanced writer of our time,” Diana Trilling wrote twenty-five years ago in “The Moral Radicalism of Norman Mailer,” “the self is his supreme, even sole referent.” The specifically American literary history of this immoralism, moral anarchism, or relativization has been remarked or traced by a number of our finest literary critics, including F. O. Matthiessen, Mark Van Doren, and Quentin Anderson, whose 1971 book on the subject bore the revealing title The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History.

Yet even thirty years before Matthiessen had worried about the egotism and solipsism of our “Transcendentalists”—Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman—deploring their romantic “nineteenth-century belief in every man as his own Messiah.” Also in the 1940s, Van Doren pointed our Hawthorne’s mistrust of these self-absorbed romantics, with their “arrogance of spirit”; Hawthorne “merely knew,” in Van Doren’s words, that they were “wrong when [they] said with Emerson that self-reliance is a sufficient virtue comprehending all other virtues.” Of Emerson’s self-deification, Anderson wrote: “For all such endeavors Hawthorne’s contempt and loathing is obvious. The plurality of our obligations . . . and the demand that we love our neighbors as ourselves were inescapable for him.” And of Whitman, who first sang the “Song of Myself” that is noisily and endlessly with us everywhere now, Anderson wrote that Whitman was attacking the traditional “consciousness which characterizes Western man”; he was engaged in “a rejection of Christianity in behalf of an emotional egalitarianism” which entailed “a rejection of the idea that the self was internally structured by conscience”—i.e., that we are moral beings. Given this transcendental egotism and romantic self-absorption, life takes on the nature of an “aesthetic phenomenon” that is “beyond good and evil.”

The link with European atheistic, existential aestheticism is clear, and it was Jorge Luis Borges who pointed it out very succinctly: “Nietzsche wrote that he felt himself so close to Emerson that he did not dare praise him because it would have been like praising himself.” But if Nietzsche is the most eloquent and obvious evangelist of self-deification and immoralism and aestheticism, he was only one of the many nineteenth- and twentieth-century atheistic “masters of suspicion,” grandchildren of the philosophes, who saw the “death of God” as the means of human “liberation,” however differently conceived or defined. “Honor, power, wealth, fame, and the love of women—the aims of life,” wrote Freud; and the aristocratic Nietzschean contempt that he meant by “honor” might be detected in his remark to the Rev. Oskar Pfister: “I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or none at all.”

But an even more powerful psychologist, and a great perennial adversary of atheism and immoralism, is Dostoevsky. He understood, and profoundly and unforgettably depicts, the atheistic self “beyond good and evil,” who oscillates, like Nietzsche, between joy and despair at his liberation from ethics. With insight so profound as to be foresight, the prophet Dostoevsky foresaw with uncanny accuracy the modern consequences of the “drama of atheist humanism.” Thus Mussolini and Hitler drank at Nietzsche’s well, and the brilliantly feckless Marxist/Existentialist J.-P. Sartre wrote that “man is the being whose project is to be God” and that “human effort is the pure effort to become God.”

A century after the death of Marx and the passing of Nietzsche’s sanity, their atheistic liberation programs have left a world littered with corpses, slaves, and simple or sophisticated immoralists. At the conclusion of his great historical study Main Currents of Marxism, the ex-Marxist Leszek Kolakowski wrote: “The self-deification of mankind to which Marxism gave philosophical expression has ended the same way as all such attempts, whether individual or collective: it has revealed itself as a fatal aspect of human bondage.”

The greatest contemporary witness to and scourge of this bondage is an heir of Dostoevsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a writer who speaks with an authority, eloquence, and moral depth that properly locates and situates for us the real “worth” of highly praised moral mud-larks and “imperial selves” such as Mailer, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, W. S. Burroughs, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Yet ever since his 1978 Harvard Commencement Address, Solzhenitsyn has been less and less welcome in the West. His message, repeated in interviews and his 1983 Templeton Address, is that “Godlessness [is] the first step to the Gulag” and also to the death of common civilized decency in the West. Solzhenitsyn’s theistic views have grown more and more obnoxious to the morally “liberated” intelligentsia who control the major American communications media. Yet he is far from alone in his assessment that a post-theistic world is inevitably a post-moral and post-human one. The same analysis was made by G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Malcolm Muggeridge, Flannery O’Connor, and a host of other major writers.

But the Eastern Europeans have been the most eloquent in their recovery of the theistic vision in the late twentieth century, and many of them are explicit disciples or heirs of Dostoevsky and of the theologians, philosophers, and critics who have studied and praised him, from Nicholas Berdyaev to Mikhail Bakhtin. In the 1982 edition of Trevor Beeson’s book on “religious conditions in Russia and Eastern Europe,” Discretion and Valor, the author noted the large black market in Russia for books by such authors, as well as for Russian translations of G. Bernanos, Graham Greene, Lewis, and Chesterton.

A great Russian and Polish literature has spoken from this revived and recovered religious tradition—it includes Boris Pasternak (the centennial of whose birth is this year), the Mandelstams, A. Sinyavsky, Irina Ratushinskaya, Joseph Brodsky, and Czeslaw Milosz, as well as Solzhenitsyn, the first one and the last three being Nobel Price winners. In addition, the remembered vision of the Godly Jews of Eastern Europe has animated the work of another Nobel Prize winner, Isaac Bashevis Singer. The Polish Catholic émigré Milosz has praised the Polish-Jewish émigré Singer: “I feel great affinity with Singer because we both came from religious backgrounds. . . . We both constantly deal with similar sorts of metaphysical problems.” So, too, the Polish philosophers Leszek Kolakowski and Pope John Paul II have come to deal with these “metaphysical problems” that Western liberal positivism and commercial pragmatism have dismissed with frosty indifference.

Kolakowski’s 1982 book Religion was subtitled “If there is no God,” and the book is haunted by the famous assertion of Dostoevsky that “if there is no God, everything is permitted.” Dostoevsky dramatized this view in a number of places and characters in his novels, and Solzhenitsyn clearly follows him in August 1914 in depicting the victory of this nihilistic concept in the mind and behavior of the student Bogrov, who assassinated Prime Minister Peter Stolypin in 1911 and thus helped to push Russia into the weakness and poor leadership that led to World War I and that catastrophic toxin, the Bolshevik Revolution. The great Dostoevskyans follow not only Dostoevsky in this view of the nihilistic consequences of atheism, but also the theist Burke, who wrote in 1790: “For what is liberty, without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils.” And for Burke wisdom and virtue were to be found only in the attempt to discern and follow God’s will.

Yet the great Russians and Poles have had so horrifying a history at the hands of Nietzschean Nazis and Marxist Communists that they have observed and proved these truths in their own lives: They have been tried in the furnace of affliction. Thus in an apparent paradox that is a profound vindication of the Judeo-Christian tradition of belief, psychology, and anthropology, Nadezhda Mandelstam has written that “the feeling of sinfulness is the basic ‘wealth of man’ because the awareness of the actual responsibility for one’s destiny and that of others makes a person spiritually free and brings him back in touch with life.”

For all these writers, as for Eliot, the death of God means the death of the Good in any stable, sane, objective, believable sense, thus the death of ethics (“After Virtue”) and, consequently, the death of the human person (“the abolition of man”) as a moral entity having a created and inalienable value. “The relativization of the Absolute,” the Russian émigré philosopher Levitsky put it, “leads to the absolutization of the relative.” This “relative” may be a class, a nation, a party, or an individual. Ayn Rand was a refugee from Bolshevik barbarism who promoted the opposite extreme of Nietzschean libertarian immoralism, the “imperial self” relocated to California.

It is Solzhenitsyn’s great achievement to have unearthed, revitalized, and embodied in imaginative forms of great power a Judeo-Christian understanding of God, nature, society, and the human person that avoids all these terrible, heretical “-isms” of modernity, and which occupies the humane and Godly space between the extremes of anarchic individualism and tyrannical collectivism. It is sometimes forgotten that one of the great prophetic novels of the early part of our century, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), commences with an epigraph from the Dostoevskyan Berdyaev, has its moral center of gravity in Shakespeare and Cardinal Newman, and paints as its gruesome objects of satirical attack a libertine, consumerist, drugged pornotopia and a techno-bureaucratic “scientific socialism” drawn together from tendencies Huxley observed in the West and the East, respectively. Solzhenitsyn’s polemical nonfiction writings, like those of the contemporary French Protestant philosopher Jacques Ellul (whose work Huxley helped get translated into English), have the same targets. Precisely in the way that Reinhold Niebuhr thought appropriate to the prophet, Solzhenitsyn in his polemical prose “afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.”

In his fiction, Solzhenitsyn combines Dostoevsky’s beliefs and intentions with Tolstoy’s realistic narrative method. Yet if he employs Tolstoy’s method, he does not much like the man, especially in light of the uses to which the Bolsheviks put his pacifism, romantic primitivism, and heterodox Christian socialism. In August 1914, Solzhenitsyn depicts Tolstoy in his later years as a kind of bogus guru, a terrible simplifier of issues of considerable complexity, such as the differences between a state and a family and between Christian “communist” ideals and practical political and economic realities. Solzhenitsyn’s political views, mutatis mutandis, would be very much in the vicinity of Christians such as Chesterton, Lewis, Niebuhr, and the southern Agrarians (not for nothing in Why the South Will Survive [1981] did Marion Montgomery write of “Solzhenitsyn as Southerner”). Distributism, a tolerant but profound Judeo-Christian realism, a non-aggressive, non-expansionist, non-chauvinistic patriotism, and a sense of prudent civic duty are very much Solzhenitsyn’s prescription for the ills of Russia, and of the West generally.

These ideals he sees and depicts in August 1914 in the life of the great Russian pre-revolutionary Prime Minister Peter Stolypin (1862–1911), whose life and reforming project were cut tragically short by assassination. Solzhenitsyn’s vast Tolstoyan narrative is surely in the great tradition of the nineteenth-century realistic novel that attempted to see and depict life “steadily and whole.” Like only the greatest of writers, Solzhenitsyn taxes his reader and changes his expectations; he creates his audience in the sense of changing and developing its taste and emotional-moral disposition of attention and concern. Ever since the advent of what Czeslaw Milosz calls the “sly aestheticism” of Flaubert and of Stendhal, augmented and continued by Joyce, Forster, Hemingway, and a host of others, modern readers have learned or been encouraged to spurn or mock moral earnestness (unless Marxist), to become instead liberated “connoisseurs of chaos.” Solzhenitsyn, in the tradition not only of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Pasternak, but also of Manzoni, Dickens, and George Eliot, will have none of this. Our century is too tragic; the stakes are too high. As Saul Bellow memorably put it in Herzog:

A merely aesthetic critique of modern history! After the wars and mass killings! You are too intelligent for this. You inherited rich blood. Your father peddled apples.

Raised in poverty, fired in the furnace of affliction in war, slave-labor camp, and cancer ward, Solzhenitsyn has seen life in extremis, denuded of affluence, comfort, and illusion. A “merely aesthetic critique” will not do; fashionable moral nihilism—what Raymond Aron called “the nihilism of the aesthete”—will not do. “The idea that there actually couldn’t be a moral debate in a literary work,” William Empson wrote, “amounts to a collapse of the Western mind.” However much E. M. Forster is credited with an exemplary, liberal, agnostic humanism, the real core and implication of his homosexual aestheticism is, as F. R. Leavis argued, far from wise or good. Here is the perverse epiphany in A Passage to India: “Pathos, piety, courage”they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.”

Here is the “collapse of the Western mind,” in spades. Perhaps one may be forgiven for doubting that it is either true, good, or beautiful, in any sense that those words can intelligibly carry. These words of the weary, sophisticated, sybaritic Cambridge pederast could not be wrung out of the breast and mouth of the Russian witness and Zek. Cheap mockery of “the importance of being earnest” is not enough to deter or intimidate into silence the survivor of Soviet “scientific socialism.”

Moral debate—the essence of all our greatest literature—takes place not only in August 1914 as a whole, but within each of the major characters, especially the assassin Bogrov. In understanding and depicting this inner duality, this bellum intestine, Solzhenitsyn is the heir not only of Shakespeare (consider the great soliloquies) and Dostoevsky (consider characters such as Kirilov in The Devils ”clearly a model for Bogrov), but also of the deepest religious-moral sources and texts of the West, such as St. Paul and Seneca. In dramatizing the conflict within the mind and soul of young Bogrov, Solzhenitsyn reaches a depth of moral and psychological realism that only literature (and liturgy) can plumb, but which is the humanizing legacy of all great psychologists and moralists in our tradition. The understanding of the duplicitous self, of homo duplex, of the self as an abyss of good and evil that is only made into what it ought to be by choice, will, faith, and grace, puts Solzhenitsyn in fact very close to the Augustinian Eliot, who warned in “The Rock” of the illusions of liberal and Marxist progressivism:

They constantly try to escape

From the darkness outside and within

By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one

will need to be good.

In a similar vein, Chesterton noted “the colossal contrast between the completeness of man’s machines and the continued corruption of his motives,” and “the fact that no social progress really seems to leave self behind.” This is the classic, orthodox point of Solzhenitsyn’s great “Ascent” chapter in volume II of The Gulag Archipelago.

But such somber and sobering Augustinian-Dostoevskyan insights into the complex dualities of the human person do not leave Solzhenitsyn pessimistic or quietistic. In fact, devoted Orthodox Christian that Solzhenitsyn is, the cultic, superstitious, passive possibilities of a quietistic and excessively transcendental Christian theism are nevertheless harshly depicted and implicitly condemned in August 1914. Both General Samsonov, victim of the great Tannenberg defeat of August 1914, and Czar Nicholas II himself are depicted as sincerely but excessively and superstitiously religious and fatalistic—the kind of believers for whom the idea that “it’s all in God’s hands” is used as an excuse for inaction. Both men pray and adore and venerate icons; Nicholas frequently attends divine service and constantly implores God’s help. But both men—Nicholas more than Samsonov—are harshly judged for this passive dereliction of duty, for their incapacity or unwillingness to exert themselves energetically and prudently to prosecute affairs in the messy “in-between” state in which we all must live much of our lives. Nicholas emerges, tragically, as sincere but not saintly: as weak, feckless, self-indulgent, and foolish. Anyone who thinks of Solzhenitsyn as a romantic Czarist or uncritical apologist for or admirer of the Old Regime cannot have read this book.

If Samsonov and Nicholas are superstitious, weak, and religiously fatalistic, the portrait of Lenin shows us the dedicated fanatic, the revolutionary despot in the making. He has no doubt, piety, or passivity, but a furious, audacious certainty about his own motives, plans, and abilities. Solzhenitsyn’s brilliant portrait of Lenin reminds one of the estimates of him by Bertram D. Wolfe (Lenin as “selfless egotist”), Edward Crankshaw (“one of the most detestable men who ever lived, [whose] contemptuous dictatorship [was] a disaster for Russia and mankind”), and A. J. P. Taylor (“He wanted to know how to get to the right end of a gun and stay there”), as well as of Dostoevsky’s moral fanatics in The Devils, published in 1872, two years after Lenin’s birth.

Lenin and Bogrov are both types of what Michael Polanyi called “moral inversion,” an idea that Polanyi, an émigré Hungarian-Jewish chemist in England, was forced to recognize in discussions in 1935 with the Communist Nikolai Bukharin, then a leading theorist of the Soviet Communist Party, though later, like so many, purged by Stalin. This is a type that Polanyi also observed in Dostoevsky’s novels. “The morally inverted person,” Polanyi wrote in Meaning (1975), “has not merely performed a philosophic substitution of material purposes for moral aims; he is acting with the whole force of his homeless moral passions within a purely materialistic framework of purposes.” Marxism, alleging itself to be “scientific socialism,” is, in the words of the German historian Willi Schlamm, “scientism gone political,” and the greatest and most lethal heresy of the twentieth century, akin to “National Socialism” in its idolatry and warped misunderstanding and misuse of scientific ideas.

The assassin Bogrov is more sympathetically portrayed by Solzhenitsyn than is Lenin. As with Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and Kirilov, Bogrov’s fantasies wildly oscillate between delusions of grandeur and depression. He alternately sees himself as a Napoleonic-Nietzschean “great man” who can change history and earn fame, and as a nobody. Adding to Bogrov’s ambivalence is his Jewishness, which scalds and brands him with a sense of agonized differentness from the Russians around him and pushes him toward the hypothetical universalism of revolutionary Marxist messianism. That many Jewish youths in Russia and all over Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries felt this agonizingly sharpened hyper-consciousness and sense of grievance is a theme carefully explored in such works as Robert S. Wistrich’s Revolutionary Jews from Marx to Trotsky, John Murray Cuddihy’s The Ordeal of Civility, and David Biale’s Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History.

The most unfair and misleading estimate of Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of Bogrov is Irving Howe’s charge, in the New York Times Book Review (2 July 1989), of an “ugly” anti-Semitism. As painful as the fact may be to some, large numbers of Jews have always—for quite understandable reasons—been attracted to Marxism. Norman Podhoretz has judiciously discussed the subject of Solzhenitsyn and anti-Semitism in his book The Bloody Crossroads:

I can well imagine that in [Solzhenitsyn’s] heart he holds it against the Jews that so many of the old Bolsheviks, the makers of the Revolution that brought the curse of Communism to Russia, were of Jewish origin; and in general he . . . seems to ignore the mordant truth behind the old quip (playing on the fact that Trotsky’s real name was Bronstein) that “the Trotskys make the revolutions, the Bronsteins pay the bill.” Still, whatever there may be in his heart, there is no overt anti-Semitism in any of his translated works.

Podhoretz also notes that Solzhenitsyn has always been a defender of Israel.

Bogrov’s Jewishness accentuates his alienation and makes him vulnerable to Marxist promises, but his essential character is that of the “morally inverted” Russian nihilist student depicted with various degrees of sympathy, and in various postures of ferocity or fanaticism, in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, and The Devils. And in fact the disproof of the charge of anti-Semitism against Solzhenitsyn is found in another character in August 1914, the noble, hard-working Jewish engineer Ilya Isakovich Arkhangorodsky. This Jewish engineer and his friend Obodovsky give an impressive and moving defense of political, social, and economic views that must be Solzhenitsyn’s own. This aspect of Solzhenitsyn’s work could not have appealed to Irving Howe since it includes careful criticism of socialist slogans and shibboleths. A radical in his youth, the engineer Obodovsky has changed his mind about political economy, now holding commonsense free-enterprise views. “What worried me most at one time,” he says,

was how to [distribute] what was produced with no help from me. Now I mainly worry about creating something. The best heads and hands in the country must devote themselves to that, poorer heads can attend to distribution. When enough has been created, nobody will be left without a share even if distribution is erratic.

The two engineers are lonely voices in the novel, overwhelmed by various extremes: a feckless, self-indulgent aristocracy, for one; for another, a “radical chic” intelligentsia and their radical student followers, hungrily impatient for “heroic” revolutionary action and excitement. The engineer Arkhangorodsky patiently tries to explain elementary economic and political truths to his rudely transgressive daughter and her radical friends, all of them full of the “terrible simplifier’s” self-righteous haste, hell-bent on developing their own “styles of radical will”:

How impatient you are to have your revolution. Of course, shouting is easier and making a revolution is more fun than building Russia up, that’s too much like hard work. . . . No one with any sense can be in favor of revolution, because it is just a prolonged process of insane destruction. The main thing about any revolution is that it does not renew a country but ruins it, for a long time to come. And the bloodier, the more protracted the revolution is, the more dearly the people have to pay for it”the better its claim to be called a “Great Revolution.”

Trying to remain patient with the young revolutionaries at his table, Arkhangorodsky has a premonition of disaster:

The more violent the storm, the better, eh? That’s simply irresponsible. I’ve built two hundred mills, steam or electric, in southern Russia, and if a violent storm breaks, how many of them will still be grinding? What will people, including those around this table, do for food?

If, he goes on, you really care for the country, with all its faults and sins, and wish to improve it, “you must gear yourself to the laborious process of history: work, persuade others, and gradually change things.” But in an ominous and enormously poignant conclusion, he ruefully concedes the implications for Russia of the lethally intoxicating fanaticism common to the Marxist revolutionaries on the left and the Jew-baiting reactionaries on the right:

His hands held edgeways on the table illustrated his point as he said in a trembling voice: “On this side you have the Black Hundreds, and on this side the Red Hundreds, and in between”—he cupped his hands to represent the hull of a ship—“a handful of practical people are trying to make their way through. They aren’t allowed to!” He parted his hands and brought them together with a loud clap. “They will be crushed! They will be squashed flat!”

And so they were: In his book on The Russian Civil War of 1917–1920, Evan Mawdsley has estimated that the civil war alone cost Russia seven million lives, not to speak of the famines, reprisals, and mass murders that came after it.

Unlike the imperial selves of modern literature, Solzhenitsyn is interested not in the “liberated self” but in the moral self, and in his Jewish engineer we see a noble example. In greater detail he provides two additional portraits of the moral individual on whose existence any sane and decent society depends for its preservation. These are the Prime Minister, Stolypin, and a young officer at the front in the early days of the war. Colonel Vorotyntsev—the first a historical figure, the second a fictional one, though probably modeled on Solzhenitsyn’s father. The portraits of both are extraordinarily gripping and effective artistic achievements, but the portrayal of Stolypin has more than artistic significance. Stolypin’s political program, according to the historian Geoffrey Hosking, bears some striking resemblances to the one Solzhenitsyn published in 1974 in his Letter to the Soviet Leaders. As Hosking points out:

Both place great emphasis on private property, encouragement of industry, peasant resettlement in Siberia (which Stolypin promoted to good effect), and on peaceful Russian patriotism, avoiding all unnecessary international entanglements.

Solzhenitsyn’s thinking on these matters may well have consequences for the future of his country, now in the midst of developments that he predicted and encouraged.

In a narrower context, August 1914 in its new augmented form is simply a great historical novel, one of the great narratives of public and private life in the twentieth century. In its insistence on the importance of individuals and individuality in history, and on the conditioned and conditional but real freedom that individuals possess, it undermines the extremes of social determinism and post-moral, anarchistic individualism—the extremes of Marxism or Structuralism and of the radical, post-moral, “self-reliant” individualism promoted by Carlyle, Emerson, Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Norman Mailer, and other “imperial selves.” If Solzhenitsyn has helped give back to Russian readers their real history, obscured and lied about for so long by Communist propaganda, he has also given to Western readers something equally precious—an unforgettable example of the moral imagination at work, with the resources of, and in the light of, the Judeo-Christian tradition. In contrast to our avant-garde Establishment, Solzhenitsyn is no degenerate son, no “connoisseur of chaos.”


M. D. Aeschliman is Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Virginia and author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism.

Articles by M. D. Aeschliman

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