No Comment, Quotation — August 16, 2008, 9:36 am

Solzhenitsyn – The Challenge of the Modern Age

repin-ivan-grozny

Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?

If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.
This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, Commencement Address at Harvard University, June 7, 1978.


I remember Solzhenitsyn among other things by this amazing and carefully provocative speech he delivered at a Harvard commencement. The speech fell during a period of growing anti-militarism on university campuses that followed the Vietnam War. Solzhenitsyn was one of two historically significant voices of criticism that the Soviet Union produced in this era–the other, still more powerful voice was Andrei Sakharov’s. Each in a sense followed in the path of one of the two great intellectual movements that have dominated Russian thought since the time of Peter the Great: Solzhenitsyn was the bearer of the Slavophile tradition, and Sakharov of the Westernizers. For Americans who followed Solzhenitsyn’s critique of the excesses of the Soviet Union, the Harvard speech may have come as something of a shock. Like a discourteous guest, he took aim at some of the things about America that troubled him and that mattered. He disdained the nation’s pervasive materialism, the secularism of its society, and the lack of moral courage to stand for its values. His words seem, from the distance of thirty years, well crafted and his criticisms ring true on many points. Solzhenitsyn was a man with a powerful gift of insight and an uncanny ability to express truth about great injustices in simple human terms. But when it came to the expression of a coherent political vision, he faltered and sometimes seemed maladroit–as has been the case with many great artists in human history. Still, his words spoken at Harvard are patient words of criticism from a well-meaning visitor, and this is a time to remember them.

Shortly after posting this, I noticed that Harvey Mansfield had written an essay on the same Harvard speech in the Weekly Standard. This essay is well worth reading, as is the critique that Larisa Alexandrovna wrote noting where Mansfield goes off the tracks. Mansfield’s attempts to place Solzhenitsyn in the tradition of classical antiquity don’t work in my mind. He is very deeply rooted in another tradition, that which would make Moscow the Third Rome. Solzhenitsyn was, in a sense, the last Russian monk. We was an important, though imperfect, voice.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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