Literary courage vs. literary cowardice

Diana West writes a telling contrast between the courage of the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the cowardice of today’s literary establishment, as evidenced by Random House withdrawing at the last minute a book about Muhammad’s 9 year old bride due to fears Muslims will not approve. From Free Speech Jilted by Muhammad Romance Novel ‘Warpath’:

Reading about the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, we are reminded of his epic force of will — despite the threat to life and limb posed by the Soviet police state — to bear witness, to document, to record everything he could about totalitarianism in the USSR.

Then, reading about Random House Publishing Group, which called off the publication of a romance novel about Muhammad “for fear of a possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims,” we should be reminded of something else: How apt was Solzhenitsyn’s much-maligned critique of the West, which he excoriated for, among other things, a decline in “civil courage” that was “particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elites.”

Read the whole account, which details both what Solzhenitsyn went through to write about Communism (including the KGB’s murder of his typist), and the skittish, politically-correct, Islamophilic behavior of the Random House editors. The column closes with another quote from the great Russian novelist:

“Should one point out,” he asked, “that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end”?

Absolutes or Relativism

In a tribute to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Masha Lipman describes two worldviews:

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a premodern giant who defied the limits of human ability and the forces of nature. His world was that of ethical absolutes, unshakable values, spiritual discipline and self-sacrificial commitment. . . .

Solzhenitsyn’s life and his writing were an uncompromising war against the communist regime. His grim courage and selfless devotion, comparable to that of early Christians, gave him moral superiority over his communist adversaries. He defeated Brezhnev’s Politburo, and, instead of being killed or jailed, was expelled from the country.

But for all the admiration his books and personality inspired, his teachings sounded too rigorous to his contemporaries, at home and abroad. For his part, he couldn’t accept the relativity and uncertainty of modern life.

Russia’s destiny was more than a literary or a scholarly subject to Solzhenitsyn — it was his mission. The perennial Russian debate of the past 150 years has been between Westernizers and Slavophiles, or those who promote nationalist ideas of Russia’s special path. Solzhenitsyn’s opponent in this debate was the only other man of an equal moral stature — Andrei Sakharov, the academic and human rights activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. Both men sought to liberate Russia from communism, and both were almost inhumanly brave in their challenges to the regime. But Sakharov, a Westernizer, saw a solution in “convergence” with the West, which he regarded as a world of liberty and justice, while Solzhenitsyn, a nationalist, looked for Russia’s salvation in its historical, cultural and religious roots.

So there is the choice: absolutes or relativism; premodernism or postmodernism. What the article misses–and perhaps Solzhenitsyn realized–is that relativism and postmodernism can yield a totalitarianism of its own, a realm of absolute, morality-free power. And that Western civilization ultimately rests on the absolutes.

Solzhenitsyn on our secular legalism

From Solzhenitsyn’s commencement address at Harvard that so enraged students and faculty:

Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law. . . . Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames. An oil company is legally blameless when it purchases an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to buy it.

I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.

And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.

HT: Nathaniel Peters at First Things

Christian Samizdat?

Speaking of Solzhenitsyn. . . .At the Circe conference, Barbara Elliott spoke about the role of writers in bringing down Soviet Communism, something she documents in her book Candles Behind the Wall.

Though Writers and Artist Unions could give creative folks a good, prestigious living as long as they conformed to socialist ideology, those who did not were consigned to prison camps or insane asylums. (When I was in Estonia, I attended a birthday party for a poet who had just been released from a mental hospital where he spent many years for writing an anti-communist poem.)

A number of dissidents, though, resolved to bypass the totalitarian culture and create a “second culture.” They would write novels, short stories, plays, essays, and create other works of life that were committed to just “telling the truth” about life under communism. They would bypass the official publishing houses and distribute their work via secret printing presses and illegal copy machines. This was called “samizdat,” or “self-publishing.” People would get a manuscript, read it, then make more copies and distribute them to their friends. After awhile, denizens of the communist empire began seeing through the lies and fallacies of the regime until they no longer took communist ideology seriously. Eventually, the communist house of cards collapsed in an unprecedented peaceful revolution.

Do you think the time might come–or is now here–when Christians might oppose and undermine our secularist culture with a samizdat movement that promotes a “second culture”? This would entail not just writing evangelistic stuff that could not be published in the mainstream but “telling the truth” about the culture today. I could see stories that reveal what abortion is, satires of contemporary education, critiques of the intellectual establishment, films that anatomize what is happening to our families, poems against sexual immorality, music and art that express a Biblical worldview, and on and on.

The process of Samizdat is easier now than ever with the internet giving, in effect, everyone a printing press and a distribution outlet. Most Christian writers and artists currently seem to be caught in the syndrome of trying to make it in the mainstream or of trying to find commercial success. What if Christians set aside commercialism entirely and created for free? Obviously, things are not so bad yet as under the Soviet Union, but are there things Christians could learn from Solzhenitsyn and company?

The pen over the sword

Alexander Solzhenitsyn has died at 89. The literary giant, a Christian, did much to overthrow Soviet Communism through his novels and his nonfictional exposes of the gulag, which Sozhenitsyn had experienced first hand. He demonstrates how the pen really can be more powerful than the sword.

Sacramental theology & the imagination

The notable Christian thinker Peter Leithhart has written an essay entitled Why Evangelicals Can’t Write on the difficulty evangelicals seem to have in writing good fiction. It all comes down, according to Leithart, to the colloquy at Marburg where Zwingli rejected Luther’s affirmation of the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Leithart, who is Reformed and not Lutheran, sees Zwingli’s split between reality and meaning as having huge consequences for the Protestant imagination. You need to read the whole essay, but here is an excerpt:

Blame it on Marburg. More precisely: Blame it on Zwingli. A Zwinglian poetics leaves us with three choices: Either a flat mimetic realism that gives literary expression to “the real” without attempting to penetrate beyond the surface; or a flat didacticism that ignores the real in its haste to get to the point; or an allegorism that forges arbitrary links between the real and the symbolic, and in the end swallows up the real in its meaning. (Mr. By-Ends, Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, Faithful, and Hopeful are mere symbols, silhouettes of characters rather than characters.) Although, to give Bunyan his due, he was here following a typical (and very Catholic) medieval pattern in literature, while adding the astounding innovation of homely and realistic dialog. Nevertheless, the cardboard charactizations strike us the way they do for a reason.

In a Zwinglian poetics, things cannot be both themselves and also—simultaneously, without ceasing to be what they are, for the very reason they are what they are—something else. Zwinglian will not permit something to be both real and symbolic, to be both wholly itself and yet, because of what it is, to disclose something more than itself. Zwinglian poetics does not permit Southern customs to be Southern customs and yet, precisely because they are Southern customs, to be haunted by Christ.

The renewal of literature, like the renewal of the world, begins in worship. The renewal of literature, like the renewal of the world, begins from the pulpit, to be sure. But the pulpit will renew literature only when it is nestled where it should be nestled, between the font and the table.

Leithhart contrasts this split of the imagination with Roman Catholic and Anglican authors who do have a sense of the sacramental.

A Zwinglian could counter, OK, so where are all of the great writers on the other side of Marburg, the Lutheran authors? Well, we would have to go to Germany and, especially, Scandinavia, where I suspect there are some good ones. Bo Giertz. Hans Christian Andersen? Most of us English speakers are oblivious to authors in different languages. Our own Lars Walker, who is a good novelist himself, might alert us to some. In English, Walter Wangerin is a fine writer, and his work has far more of the tangible universe than many other contemporary Christian authors from other traditions.

HT: Scott Stiegemeyer, who offers some of his own insights on the subject.