Posts Tagged 'vladimir ilyich lenin'

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.

 


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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