Posts Tagged 'the first circle'

Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward: “A definite opinion has been established.”

I should start by explaining that Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward is about a cancer ward. The reviewers, like this one in the New York Times, 1968, are going to tell you that the ward symbolizes the Soviet Union, and the cancer the moral rot eating away at the souls of the Soviet people:

As “One Day [in the Life of Ivan Denisovich]” stands for the agony of all Russia under Stalin, so “The Cancer Ward” irresistibly conveys an image of the immediate post-Stalin period when both victims and executioners were confined, all equally mutilated, in the cancer ward of the nation.

…and that Solzhenitsyn was just being cagey when he told the secretariat of the Union of Soviet Writers – who had declined to approve his book for publication – that,

The fact is that the subject is specifically and literally cancer, a subject avoided in literature, but nevertheless a reality as its victims know only too well from daily experience.

alexander solzhenitsyn cancer ward

In that meeting (a transcript is included as an appendix in the Bantam paperback edition of Cancer Ward), whenever Solzhenitsyn was invited to speak he made a point of disavowing his earlier, more explicitly political play Feast of the Conquerors, which had particularly upset the bigwigs. He told them that he now regarded his play as “very dangerous”. [1] He could’ve told them to stuff it – one kind of wishes he had – but at this point he still had hopes of pestering them into greenlighting his new novel.

(They never did. They kicked him out of the union a couple years later.)

So sure, he was being cagey. But I think he meant what he said about Cancer Ward. He must have known that his subject would invite all kinds of speculation about its symbolic significance, but it really is a book about life in a cancer ward. That seems to have been a big part of what annoyed the commissars from the Union of Soviet Writers. Why cancer, comrade? Isn’t it just kind of gratuitously depressing? As a member of the secretariat named Kerbabaev put it,

Why does the author see only the black?

This line of criticism echoes one of the debates within the novel, which begins when a patient named Podduyev, a man of rude and unreflecting vitality, is given a book of short stories. To his surprise, one of the stories seems to answer a question that’s been haunting him for weeks, as he has grappled with the reality of his disease. He decides to share his revelation with the others in the cancer ward:

“Listen, here’s a story,” he announced in a loud voice. “It’s called ‘What Men Live By’.” He grinned. “Who can know a thing like that? What do men live by?”

Treating the title as a riddle, he challenges the other patients to offer their speculations. One suggests that men live by air, water, and food. Another, by their pay. Another, by their professional skill.

In the bed across from Podduyev is a self-satisfied little man called Rusanov, a person of some political influence – for instance, rather than wearing the ill-fitting pyjamas assigned by the hospital, he’s been allowed to bring in his own. Later we’ll learn that Rusanov has acquired his position through the strategic denunciation of neighbours and co-workers.

Relaxing his customary aloofness toward the other patients, Rusanov decides to settle the debate:

“There’s no difficulty about that,” he said. “Remember: people live by their ideological principles and by the interests of their society.”

Discomfited by Rusanov’s tone of certainty, Podduyev attempts to summarize the story in his own words. It’s a fable about a poor cobbler who takes as an apprentice a mysterious beggar who, it soon emerges, may have the power of prophecy.

Rusanov has no patience for such mystical nonsense. He interrupts Podduyev, demanding that he skip to the end and tell them what, in the author’s opinion, men live by.

“What do they live by?” He could not say it aloud somehow. It seemed almost indecent. “It says here, by love.”

“Love? . . . No, that’s nothing to do with our sort of morality.”

Upon being demanded to tell who wrote this sentimental tripe, Podduyev haltingly enunciates the author’s name: “Tol . . . stoy.” Not, it soon emerges, Alexei Tolstoy, winner of the Stalin Prize, but “the other one” – that old pious fraud whose ideological errors had been settled long ago by Lenin, who wrote in 1908 that,

The contradictions in Tolstoy’s works, views, doctrines, in his school, are indeed glaring. … On the one hand, the most sober realism, the tearing away of all and sundry masks; on the other, the preaching of one of the most odious things on earth, namely, religion[.]

Having reminded his listeners of these facts, Rusanov retires complacently from the debate.

But the topic comes up again some days later. Along with Podduyev and Rusanov the ward contains a romantic character called Kostoglotov, a former political prisoner subsequently exiled to a remote village in Central Asia. (The location of the hospital is never spelled out, but is presumably Tashkent, where the author was treated for cancer after his stint in prison.)

A cynic with a long scar on his cheek from a brawl with urkas in the Gulag, [2] Kostoglotov inevitably winds up at odds with the doctrinaire Rusanov. But they have in common a sermonizing bent, which one evening inspires Kostoglotov to hold forth on the healing properties of optimism:

“So I wouldn’t be surprised,” Kostoglotov continued, “if in a hundred years’ time they discover that our organism excretes some kind of cesium salt when our conscience is clear, but not when it’s burdened, and that it depends on this cesium salt whether the cells grow into a tumor or whether the tumor resolves.”

[Podduyev] sighed hoarsely. “I’ve mucked so many women about, left them with children hanging round their necks. They cried . . . mine’ll never resolve.”

“What’s that got to do with it?” [Rusanov] suddenly lost his temper. “The whole idea’s sheer religious rubbish! You’ve read too much slush, Comrade Podduyev, you’ve disarmed yourself ideologically. You keep harping on about that stupid moral perfection!”

“What’s so terrible about moral perfection?” said Kostoglotov aggressively. “Why should moral perfection give you such a pain in the belly? It can’t harm anyone – except someone who’s a moral monstrosity!”

“You . . . watch what you’re saying!”

[Rusanov] flashed his spectacles with their glinting frames; he held his head straight and rigid, as if the tumor wasn’t pushing it under the right of the jaw. “There are questions on which a definite opinion has been established, and they are no longer open to discussion.”

“Why can’t I discuss them?” Kostoglotov glared at Rusanov with his large dark eyes. […]

“If you wish to state your opinion, at least employ a little elementary knowledge.” [Rusanov] pulled his opponent up, articulating each word syllable by syllable. “The moral perfection of Leo Tolstoy and company was described once and for all by Lenin, and by Comrade Stalin, and by Gorky.”

“Excuse me,” answered Kostoglotov, restraining himself with difficulty. He stretched one arm out toward Rusanov. “No one on this earth ever says anything ‘once and for all’. If they did, life would come to a stop and succeeding generations would have nothing to say.”

[Rusanov] was taken aback. The tops of his delicate white ears turned quite red, and round red patches appeared on his cheeks.

In a realistic twist, Kostoglotov soon finds himself contradicting himself – he started out arguing for optimism and now finds himself arguing for facing up to the grim facts:

“Why stop a man from thinking? After all, what does our philosophy of life boil down to? ‘Oh, life is so good! . . . Life, I love you. Life is for happiness!’ What profound sentiments. Any animal can say as much without our help, any hen, cat, or dog.”

And as the other patients jump in with their own opinions, and Rusanov is distracted by a twinge in his tumor, the discussion veers off in another direction.

***

One of the ironies of this scene is that the more sympathetic figure in the quarrel is arguing for what we would now describe as some kind of holistic “alternative medicine” approach to cancer treatment – the kind that many of us, myself included, would wave off as pseudo-scientific quackery. Shortly after proclaiming his right to think and speak freely, Kostoglotov is invited by another patient to elaborate on a folk remedy to which he’d previously alluded:

“Friends!” he said, with uncharacteristic volubility. “This is an amazing tale. I heard it from a patient who came in for a checkup while I was still waiting to be admitted. I had nothing to lose, so straightaway I sent off a postcard with this hospital’s address on it for the reply. And an answer has come today, already!”

Kostoglotov’s correspondent is a country doctor near Moscow, who (the letter explains) observed that cancer was rare among the peasants he treated. Deducing that this immunity was derived from their consumption of a tea made from a birch tree fungus called chaga, the doctor now promotes the fungus as an anti-cancer remedy. His letter contains a recipe for drying the fungus and preparing the tea: Kostoglotov reads the instructions aloud, and the other patients eagerly copy it down.

The catch is that the chaga can only be found on certain birches in northern forests, far from the Central Asian plain:

“He says here there are people who call themselves suppliers, ordinary enterprising people who gather the chaga, dry it and send it to you cash on delivery. But they charge a lot, fifteen roubles a kilogram, and you need six kilograms a month.”

Rusanov is, of course, outraged by such profiteering:

“What sort of a conscience do they have, fleecing people for something that nature provides free?”

But his Communist principles don’t prevent him from joining the other patients in importuning Kostoglotov for the address of the supplier of the miracle cure. Kostoglotov, however, resolves to share the secret only with a few of his closest friends among the patients.

After this, the chaga is mentioned only in passing; one of the patients gets his hands on some, but we never find out whether it helps him.

Equally unknown is whether Solzhenitsyn tried chaga in the treatment of his own cancer – though some seem to think he did. Lately chaga, which also grows in Canadian forests, has been promoted as a “superfood”, leading to overharvesting of the rare fungus. Whether it actually does anything is open to question.

There is another herbal treatment mentioned in Cancer Ward – “the root from Issyk Kul”, an infusion of aconite in vodka. When Kostoglotov’s doctor discovers that he’s been treating himself with the highly poisonous compound, acquired from a medicine man in the country, she insists that he hand the bottle over to her. He resists:

“When I leave the clinic I’ll want the root extract to treat myself with. I don’t suppose you believe it works?”

“No, of course I don’t. It’s just a lot of dark superstition and playing games with death. I believe in systematic science, practically tested. That’s what I was taught and that’s the way all oncologists think. Give me the bottle.” […]

“Oh, I know about your sacred science,” he sighed. “If it were all so categorical, it wouldn’t be disproved every ten years!”

Former president of the American Cancer Society Vincent T. DeVita described how in the early 1970s one of his patients, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, was told by Solzhenitsyn that he credited a similar infusion – not of aconite, but of mandrake root – for the remission of his cancer.

The ambassador, suffering from advanced cancer of the pancreas, brought Dr. DeVita a handful of mandrake root and some 80-proof vodka and asked for his help preparing the medicine per the author’s recipe. DeVita declined – this wasn’t “systematic science, practically tested” – but gave the ambassador leave to try it on his own.

After the ambassador’s death – from cancer, not self-medication – his wife brought DeVita the remainder of the medicine they’d prepared, and asked him to have it analyzed:

I called the chief of our natural products branch, told him the story, and asked if he would do it. His interest was piqued. “Sure,” he said.

A month later he called me, expressing his amazement: “Vince, this stuff contained two cancer drugs we have had under development, VP-16 and alpha peltatin.” […]

“Not only that,” he continued, but the exact concentration of alcohol needed to extract the alkaloids from the roots is the concentration in 80 proof vodka. “And, you’re not going to believe this, but there is enough drug in eight grams of root to provide a therapeutic dose of VP-16,” he said. In other words, Solzhenitsyn’s root-and-vodka recipe had neatly created a version of the medication strong enough to treat cancer.

***

There are two ways to read Solzhenitsyn – well, there are hundreds, I suppose, but let’s stick to the two. You can read him as an uncompromising evangelist for Truth – the Truth that goes on happening while academics and bureaucrats squeak contrary pronouncements from within their clockwork models of ideological clarity. This is the reading typified by the social conservative author and blogger Rod Dreher, who has named his upcoming book Live Not By Lies after an essay Solzhenitsyn wrote in 1974 – shortly before he got kicked out of his country:

If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together the rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and subside.

That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world.

So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously to remain a servant of falsehood … or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.

Whereas I tend to read Solzhenitsyn as an evangelist of Uncertainty. The last time I wrote about him I quoted this passage from The First Circle. The setting is a prison – once again, Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences formed the basis of the story – and the character being described is the prison’s security officer, Major Shikin:

If Shikin had been told – though he never was – that he was an object of hatred because he maltreated people, he would have been genuinely indignant. He had never found pleasure in any form of cruelty or thought that it was an end in itself. It was true that there were such people: he had seen them on the stage and in films. But they were sadists who loved to torture people, and had lost all human feeling. In any case they were always White Guardists or Fascists. Apart from doing his duty, Shikin was concerned only to prevent people committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts.

Like Major Shikin, Rusanov in Cancer Ward is secure in his own well-meaningness: he only wants to protect his fellow patients from being exposed to dangerous falsehoods. We might scoff at his statement that “There are questions on which a definite opinion has been established, and they are no longer open to discussion” – and yet few of us would argue for absolute open-mindedness. The idea that Tolstoy’s supposed ideological errors, as defined by Lenin, should be one of those undiscussable questions strikes us as absurd, just as it would strike Rusanov as absurd that – well, choose your own article of contemporary dogma.

I’m afraid that if I were in that Tashkent cancer ward listening to Kostoglotov prattle on about herbal remedies, I would react much as Rusanov did: “If you wish to state your opinion, at least employ a little elementary knowledge.” (Although I wouldn’t say it out loud.) While Kostoglotov dosed himself with mysterious rural potations, I would defer to the scientific opinions of the doctors. And if I’d been brought up believing that Lenin had scientifically settled the question of Tolstoy’s literary merit, I suppose I’d defer to that opinion too.

M.

1. If Solzhenitsyn’s Feast of the Conquerors has ever been translated into English, it seems not to be online. Nowadays it usually goes by the name Feast of the Victors or The Victors’ Feast. Russian readers can find it here: Пир победителей.

The author made a triumphant appearance at the play’s belated world premiere in Moscow in 1995.

2. The urkas or urki were thieves (my edition of Cancer Ward translates the term as “hoods”) who, as “socially friendly” elements – enemies of private property – were given an easier ride in Soviet prison than the “politicals”. As Solzhenitsyn explains in Part III of The Gulag Archipelago:

Here is what our laws were like for thirty years – to 1947: For robbery of the state, embezzlement of state funds, a packing case from a warehouse, for three potatoes from a collective farm – ten years! (After 1947 it was as much as twenty!) But robbery of a free person? Suppose they cleaned out an apartment, carting off on a truck everything the family had acquired in a lifetime. If it was not accompanied by murder, then the sentence was up to one year, sometimes six months.

Conscious of their privileged status, the urkas would rob and tyrannize the political prisoners while the guards did nothing:

[I]t was much better for the business of oppression; the thieves carried it out much more brazenly, much more brutally, and without the least fear of responsibility before the law.

Much like convicts in American prisons who take it upon themselves to dole out extra punishment to sex offenders, the urkas regarded their abuse of the politicals as a matter of honour. Solzhenitsyn quotes an ex-convict:

I was even proud that although a thief I was not a traitor and betrayer. On every convenient occasion they tried to teach us thieves that we were not lost to our Motherland, that even if we were profligate sons, we were nevertheless sons. But there was no place for the “Fascists” on this earth.

The “Fascists” included reprobates like Kostoglotov in Cancer Ward, sentenced to eight years, followed by permanent exile to Central Asia, for participation in a non-approved university discussion group.

For more on the urkas, this undergrad thesis by Elizabeth T. Klements is worth reading: “Worse Than Guards:” Ordinary Criminals and Political Prisoners in the GULAG (1918-1950)

There must be something about that “Major Shikin” passage from The First Circle that really speaks to me. I first used it in a discussion last year of Jordan Peterson, and a few months later I trotted it out again in a critique of the movie It: Chapter Two. Having used it three times, it’s probably time for me to retire it.

 

It: Bullies in our own minds.

I found It: Chapter Two substantially weaker than Chapter One and barely an improvement on the dopey 1990s TV miniseries. I suspect that the TV version will be fondly remembered as a campy artifact long after the glossier, better acted, but equally dumb big-screen retread has been forgotten.

I had a lot of questions coming out of the theatre – number one being what was that magic sewer clown actually trying to do, anyway? – but they’ve all been explored in depth elsewhere. So let’s scroll down to a less central but still interesting mystery: have these films’ creators ever encountered a bully in the real world?

***

I endured my fair share of bullying as a schoolkid, stood by while others were bullied, and indulged in a little bullying myself.

You may snort that, growing up in a middle-class town in the Canadian prairies, I never faced real bullying of the type that warps its survivors into worldly, battle-toughened souls like you. You’re probably right. But my small-town 1980s prairie childhood, while lacking in sewer clowns, was otherwise quite a bit like the small-town 1980s New England childhood depicted in It. So I feel I’m as qualified as anyone to comment on the plausibility of the bullying depicted therein.

What strikes me about the bullies I’ve met in the real world – as contrasted with the screaming, slavering psychos depicted in movies like It – is how jovial they usually are. I grant that there really are mentally unbalanced sadists who, like Henry Bowers, might like to carve their initials in a fat kid’s belly; but they’re rare – so rare that you’re unlikely to find more than one or two even in the biggest and roughest school. When they do turn up, they tend not to attract admiring entourages because – guess what – they’re scary and no fun to be around. Which means they quickly get ratted on and expelled, or clapped in juvenile detention.

Whereas the cool bully who makes bystanders laugh can go on terrorizing weirdos and outcasts indefinitely. The targets don’t resist, will even laugh along at their humiliation, because it’s not clear where the joshing ends and the cruelty starts. Witnesses and victims are made complicit in the abuse. And when the bully pushes too far he can always fall back on, “Don’t take it so serious, kid, I’m only messin’ around.”

***

Unlike It, Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude is set in a locale and an era that really are foreign to me. Yet it contains the most relatable depiction of juvenile bullying that I’ve encountered in a work of fiction.

jonathan lethem the fortress of solitude

The hero is Dylan, one of just three white kids (his flaky left-wing mother is proud to observe) attending a mostly black public school in a gentrifying part of Brooklyn in the 1970s. Dylan’s whiteness and wimpiness make him a target:

He might be yoked low, bent over, hugged to someone’s hip then spun on release like a human top, legs buckling, crossing at the ankles. Or from behind, never sure by whom once the headlock popped loose and three or four guys stood around, witnesses with hard eyes, shaking their heads at the sheer dumb luck of being white. It was routine as laughter. Yoking erupted spontaneously, a joke of fear, a piece of kidding.

He was dismissed from it as from an episode of light street theatre. “Nobody hurt you, man. It ain’t for real. You know we was just fooling with you, right?” They’d spring away, leave him tottering, hyperventilating, while they high-fived, more like amazed spectators than perpetrators. If Dylan choked or whined they were perplexed and slightly disappointed at the white boy’s too-ready hysteria. Dylan didn’t quite get it, hadn’t learned his role. On those occasions they’d pick up his books or hat and press them on him, tuck him back together. A ghost of fondness lived in a headlock’s shadow. Yoker and yokee had forged a funny compact.

You regularly promised your enemies that what you did together had no name.

***

Once, I believe it was in fourth grade, I was walking to school with a friend a year younger, and for no reason at all, besides the rare opportunity of dominating someone even weaker than me, I jumped on him and ground his face into the snow. He barely resisted. After a few moments I stood up, brushed myself off, and continued on my way. He trailed after me, red-faced and sniffling. I felt bad immediately but, as far as I can recall, never apologized to him.

That’s the one instance I can think of where I physically bullied anybody. But I fear there were other occasions where I took part in or even initiated the mental torture of other kids, which I’ve forgotten because it never occurred to me to file those offenses under the heading of “bullying”.

Some months ago, discussing Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, I shared this passage about a security officer in a Soviet prison who has no qualms about the brutality his job requires him to inflict on prisoners:

If Shikin had been told – though he never was – that he was an object of hatred because he maltreated people, he would have been genuinely indignant. He had never found pleasure in any form of cruelty or thought that it was an end in itself. It was true that there were such people: he had seen them on the stage and in films. But they were sadists who loved to torture people, and had lost all human feeling. In any case they were always White Guardists or Fascists. Apart from doing his duty, Shikin was concerned only to prevent people committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts.

We’re rarely bullies in our own minds. We’ve seen such people on the stage and in films: they’re pop-eyed psychos like Henry Bowers, tormenting harmless oddballs for no reason at all. Whereas we’re merely reluctant defenders of the social order, using mockery, threats, and (when absolutely necessary) a little roughness to scare sneaks and creeps and deviants back into line.

M.

Last year I mentioned my first meeting with a high school sociopath whose icebreaker was, “Are you a Jew?” In 2017 I reflected on how screenwriters can justify any implausible plot point with the mantra “Because. That. Happens.” And way back in 2010 I discussed Jonathan Lethem’s Girl In Landscape, a sci-fi reimagining of the John Wayne flick The Searchers.

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Rye and weeds: Solzhenitsyn and Jordan Peterson.

One afternoon not long ago, as I walked through a quiet residential neighbourhood near my home, I heard a vehicle coming up the hill behind me. It was a pickup truck which, just as I arrived at an uncontrolled intersection, made a left turn across my path.

Seeing that the pickup had plenty of room to pass in front of me, I stepped off the curb without breaking stride. Instead of continuing his turn, the driver stamped on the brakes, coming to a stop in the middle of the intersection. Maybe he hadn’t noticed me until then, or maybe he misjudged my walking speed.

No harm done. It happens to every driver – you start a maneuver, second-guess yourself, hit the brakes, and wind up in a more awkward position than if you’d just carried through. Continuing past the front of his truck, I glanced at the man behind the wheel, prepared to exchange a good-humoured shrug. He was a young blue-collar guy with a short-trimmed beard, one elbow propped in his open window.

“You ever hear of lookin’ both ways before crossing the street?” he said.

This was very vexing, as I not only had the right of way but had seen him clearly. “Nope, that’s a new one on me,” I muttered, keeping my face blank.

“It’s called situational awareness. Look into it,” he yelled, as I reached the opposite curb. I ignored him and kept walking.

A trivial encounter. What amazed me was how agitated I became immediately afterward. I gulped for air, my heart beat faster, my throat seized up. Regretting the clumsiness of my retort, I realized to my shame that even if I’d been able to think of some withering comment to put the pickup driver in his place, I would’ve been too tongue-tied to articulate it.

I lead a very stress-free life. I’m rarely forced to interact with people who challenge me. When I am confronted with an unexpected rebuke – even a trivial one, like this – I find it emotionally overwhelming.

By ducking confrontation I’ve saved myself some pain over the years. But it appears that I’ve lost the protective crust that should allow me to shrug off the gibes of random strangers.

Shuffling home I found myself sympathizing with the coddled college students of right-wing lore who, when confronted with an opinion that challenges their progressive beliefs, can do nothing but curl up in their safe spaces and weep.

***

I have a friend who, measured against the extremely woke crowd she pals around with, is something of a dangerous free-thinker. When she gets tired of watching her friends polish their halos she’ll come to me to vent; and when she’s had a snootful of my melancholy detachment she goes back to her friends and, I suppose, vents about me.

Although broad-minded by 2019 standards, my friend is still pretty credulous about the narratives she imbibes via social media. For instance, on several occasions she’s brought up Jordan Peterson as an exemplar of right-wing demagoguery. In her mind, Peterson is a hate preacher who endangers the mental health of trans people by rejecting the government’s authority to legislate which pronouns we use when discussing them.

When my friend brings up stuff like this, I purse my lips in an ambiguous way, and say nothing.

I don’t know much about Peterson. I’ve read a handful of reviews and an excerpt from his book, and I’ve seen his ideas discussed in various forums, most recently in Rod Dreher’s blog. Based on this limited information, I suspect I sympathize broadly with Peterson’s views, but I’m not interested enough to buy his book or download his podcasts.

Suppose I attempted to convince my friend that Peterson is not the dangerous avatar of unreason that she seems to think he is. As I see it this argument could have two possible outcomes:

I could fail to convince her, sparking a quarrel to no useful purpose; or,

I could succeed, making my life slightly easier (I would no longer have to bite my tongue when she slandered Peterson) but making her life slightly harder (she would now have to bite her tongue whenever her progressive friends slandered Peterson).

Since my friend is at least as sharp-witted as I am, I don’t have much confidence that I would win the argument anyway; and since I place more importance on our friendship than I do on making sure she holds what I deem to be the correct opinions, I’ve opted to evade the issue.

That’s what I tell myself. But you may conclude, having just read about my encounter with the rude pickup driver, that the above rationalizations are pure eyewash, and that the real reason I keep mum whenever my friend brings up Peterson is that I’m scared of conflict.

In any case, I’m probably not doing my friend any favours. If she ever runs into someone who takes issue with one of her snide comments about Peterson, or some other belief she holds because it is accepted unquestioningly among her progressive crowd, she’ll be unequipped to defend herself.

***

I know from Slate Star Codex‘s review of his book that Jordan Peterson, like me, is prone to quoting from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A big part of Peterson’s schtick is the importance of recognizing our own capacity for error; without checking, I can assert confidently that somewhere in Twelve Rules For Life is the famous line from The Gulag Archipelago about how the line separating good and evil passes through every human heart. Peterson emphasizes the need to earn wisdom through adversity; Solzhenitsyn, realizing that his capacity for good had been awakened by the hardships of his time in the Gulag, said, “Bless you, prison!”

alexander solzhenitsyn the first circle

Solzhenitsyn’s semi-autobiographical 1968 novel The First Circle is set in the waning years of Stalin’s USSR, in a “special” prison where political prisoners with technical skills work on projects useful to state security – devising a scrambler for Stalin’s personal phone, for instance, or analyzing voice prints to identify a suspect from a wiretapped phone call.

By the brutal standards of the Gulag these prisoners are in clover. Instead of starving and swinging pickaxes in the far north, they pass their days indoors tinkering with vacuum tubes, and for supper it’s all the black bread they can eat. The book’s title derives from the not-so-bad First Circle of Hell, where Dante placed the pagan philosophers whose only sin was being ignorant of Christianity.

The First Circle doesn’t have a whole lot of plot; it’s mostly a series of interconnected vignettes set over a week or so in the prison and in nearby Moscow. The nearest thing to a central character is Gleb Nerzhin, whose philosophy and experiences roughly mirror those of the author, who was in just such a special prison after World War II, before doing harder time in a Kazakhstani mining camp.

Early in the book, Gleb chats with his young friend Ruska, who has absorbed the older prisoner’s cynical attitude. Gleb regrets the death of his friend’s idealism:

“This kind of scepticism, agnosticism, pessimism – whatever you call it – it all sounds very clever and ruthless, but you must understand that by its very nature it dooms us to futility. It’s not a guide to action, and people can’t just stand off, so they must have a set of positive beliefs to show them the way.”

“Even if they land in a swamp? Anything just to keep going, you mean?” Ruska asked angrily.

“Well, yes…damn it all!” said Gleb, a little unsure of himself. “Look, I think scepticism is very important – it’s a way of getting at people with one-track minds. But it can never give a man the feeling that he’s got firm ground under his feet. And perhaps it’s what we need – firm ground under our feet.”

In a recent essay about George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan I wondered,

If it’s true (as I’m far from the first to observe) that Social Justice is essentially a religious movement, with its own saints, sacred objects, and acts of devotion – and if that creed is in the process of supplanting or has already supplanted Christianity as the dominant creed in the West – then is it disrespectful and petty for a non-believer like me to publicly violate its taboos, in the same way it would be disrespectful and petty of me to disrupt a church service, profane a temple, or masturbate with an icon?

Likewise, if I run into someone who enjoys “firm ground under his feet” thanks to his simple and annoying faith in the words of Jesus Christ, or Karl Marx, or Jordan Peterson, should I hold my tongue lest I accidentally lure him, by my cynicism, into the mire of uncertainty and self-doubt?

If I were a happy person I might say, “Pick away at your convictions one by one, until you’re left with nothing solid but an awareness of your own ignorance – and you’ll be happy like me!”

But I’m pretty miserable. I suspect my misery is unrelated to what I believe – that I was simply wired for anhedonia – but nevertheless I can’t with any credibility recommend myself as a positive example to anyone.

So perhaps I ought instead to tell the believers, “Try not to think too deeply about your convictions, in case they fall apart under close examination, leaving you with nothing but your unbearable self.”

But even that might draw the believers’ attention to the possibility that their convictions are shakier than they suspect. Maybe it would be best to keep my mouth shut altogether.

***

In Twelve Rules For Living (which, to repeat, I haven’t read) Peterson identifies one incontestable, unbanishable fact, “the reality of suffering”, from which he derives his whole moral code:

Each human being has an immense capacity for evil. Each human being understands, a priori, perhaps not what is good, but certainly what is not. And if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good. If the worst sin is the torment of others, merely for the sake of the suffering produced – then the good is whatever is diametrically opposite to that. The good is whatever stops such things from happening. . . . Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering.

The “reality of suffering” – I guess that’s something solid to build on. But it doesn’t take long, piling your philosophy up brick by brick, before you find the structure sprawling onto unstable ground. The various functionaries of the Canadian justice and higher education systems against whom Peterson has waged rhetorical battle are convinced that by shutting down dissidents like him, they can protect trans people from unnecessary pain and suffering.

Solzhenitsyn’s stand-in Nerzhin struggles with such uncertainties. Later in The First Circle he befriends a fellow prisoner, a simple peasant named Spiridon, and listens in awe to his life story, an astounding sequence of misjudgements and reversals guided by no coherent principles besides his untutored sense of right and wrong. Nerzhin wonders whether Spiridon’s seemingly random choices belie “some universal system of philosophical scepticism”. He enquires gently:

“All these years you’ve been thrashing around trying to work things out, haven’t you? What I mean is, what’s your…” – he almost said “criterion” – “what’s your judgment of life in general? For instance, do you think there are people who do wicked things on purpose? Is there anybody who says to himself: ‘I’ll show everybody what for’? Do you think that’s likely? Perhaps everybody wants to do good – or they think they want to do good, but since none of us are blameless and we all make mistakes – and some of us are just crazy, anyway – we do all these bad things to each other. We tell ourselves we are doing good, but in fact it all comes out the other way. It’s all a bit like that saying of yours – you sow rye and weeds come up.”

Spiridon was looking hard at him, as though suspecting a trap. Nerzhin felt he was not expressing himself very well, but he went on:

“Now, suppose I think you’re making a mistake and I want to put you right, and I tell you what I think, but you don’t listen and even tell me to shut up? What should I do? Hit you over the head with a stick? That wouldn’t be so bad if I really were right, but suppose I only think I’m right? After all, things are always changing, aren’t they? What I mean is: if you can’t always be sure that you’re right, should you stick your nose into other people’s business? Is there any way for a man to know who is right and who is wrong?”

Later we will meet the prison’s Security Officer, Major Shikin, who demonstrates Nerzhin’s point about putting people right by hitting them with a stick:

If Shikin had been told – though he never was – that he was an object of hatred because he maltreated people, he would have been genuinely indignant. He had never found pleasure in any form of cruelty or thought that it was an end in itself. It was true that there were such people: he had seen them on the stage and in films. But they were sadists who loved to torture people, and had lost all human feeling. In any case they were always White Guardists or Fascists. Apart from doing his duty, Shikin was concerned only to prevent people committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts.

The canny old peasant Spiridon is untroubled by the paradox of well-meaning torturers like Major Shikin. To Nerzhin he cryptically sums up his philosophy:

“I can tell you,” Spiridon said, brightening up, and as readily as if he had been asked which of the warders had come on duty that morning. “I can tell you: wolf-hounds are right and cannibals are wrong.”

“What’s that again?” Nerzhin said, taken aback by the simplicity and force of Spiridon’s judgment.

“What I said was,” Spiridon repeated with stark conviction, turning his head towards Nerzhin and breathing hotly into his face from under his moustache: “the wolf-hounds are right and the cannibals wrong.” [1]

M.

1. The chapter ends on Spiridon’s words. My edition of The First Circle is haphazardly footnoted, and there’s nothing to explain whether the wolf-hounds and cannibals are common symbols in Russian culture, or whether Nerzhin is as bemused as we are by this nugget of homespun wisdom.

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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