Monday, March 12, 2007

Solzhenitsyn, Arch-Enemy of Totalitarianism, Attacked Out of Shallow and Transparent Adherence to Anti-Telos World Blindness

From the First Things blog for today, with my coments interspersed:

"Solzhenitsyn reiterated a claim that was central to his controversial commencement address at Harvard University in 1978: “if there are neither true or false judgments, man is no longer held [accountable] for anything. Without universal foundations, morality is not possible.” For this, as much as for his defense of a humane and self-limiting Russian patriotism, the author of The Gulag Archipelago, the most powerful and sustained critique of totalitarianism ever written, was denounced as an enemy of liberty and the spiritual architect of a new authoritarianism."

[This seems to hit on a central point of struggle between the teleological and the anti-telos worldviews. The charge of authoritarianism and coercionism seem to be aimed at each other, from both sides. The liberal voluntarist position which emphasizes self-creation and freedom from moral limits cries “theocracy!” when the older tradition in politics is urged, one which included in its politics the aim of instilling in its citizens civic virtues necessary for self-government. This seems to me the temporary victory of the anti-telos, Nietzschean perspective.]

"As I argued in a 2004 article in First Things, “Traducing Solzhenitsyn,” these tendentious assaults helped shape a “new consensus” about Solzhenitsyn. Moreover, this consensus has been remarkably resistant to correction on the basis of a balanced critical analysis of what Solzhenitsyn actually says in his writings. …

Which makes it all the stranger that the review of the book in the March 9 issue of the Times Literary Supplement could have appeared in Syntaxis thirty years ago.

Written by the émigré novelist Zinovy Zinik, the review recycles all the same tired charges of “stale traditionalism” in literature and politics, authoritarianism, and neo-Stalinist rhetoric—as if the old fights have to be re-fought one more bloody time. But this time they are presented without deep conviction and with plenty of internal evidence that contradicts the author’s claims.

Thus Zinik readily concedes that Solzhenitsyn a literary innovator, but somehow a “stale traditionalist” anyway. It would be “preposterous,” he says, to call Solzhenitsyn an anti-Semite, though he goes on to insinuate it anyway. Solzhenitsyn has given support to the most “reactionary” elements in Russian politics and literature, Zinik insists—even while noting Solzhenitsyn’s continuing denunciations of the “maladies of Russian nationalism” and his unflagging opposition to the Red-Brown coalition of unrepentant communists and racialist nationalists.

In his only reference to the actual contents of the Reader, Zinik concedes the accuracy of the portrait of Solzhenitsyn’s views found in our “comprehensive preface” and “informative introductions to each part” of the volume. He admits that the Solzhenitsyn who emerges from the book is a “moderate conservative, a religious but tolerant old-fashioned thinker.”

But it turns out that none of this is of any importance. Instead of analyzing Solzhenitsyn as a writer, historian, and moral philosopher, Zinik issues a thunderous, if a rather passé, attack on a man whose views are disqualified by his moralizing, “theocratic” character.

Zinik can assert all this only by saying nothing, absolutely nothing, about the actual contents of the seven-hundred-page book. If he had to refer to real texts he would have to concede that Solzhenitsyn is a critic of “stale traditionalism” in both politics and literature. As Solzhenitsyn wrote in his 1993 “Playing Upon the Strings of Emptiness,” the task of a “healthy conservatism” is to remain “equally sensitive to the old and to the new, to venerable and worthy traditions, and to the freedom to explore, without which no future can ever be born.” Zinik sees no need to consult texts since he believes Solzhenitsyn has been excommunicated from civil discussion by his unwillingness to confuse human freedom—an inestimable good—with the tenants of relativistic ideology.

Zinik ends his review by insinuating that Solzhenitsyn is a prisoner in an authoritarian Russia of his own making (although once again he concedes—quite rightly— that Solzhenitsyn’s “most cherished” political idea is that of “saving Russia by strengthening the independence of local government, Swiss-style”).

In truth, Solzhenitsyn remains—as he has been for decades now—a thoughtful and passionate advocate of “repentance and self-limitation,” a critic of the “lie” in all its forms, an advocate of what he calls a “clean, loving, constructive Patriotism” as opposed to a radically nationalist bent” that “elevates one’s nationality above a humble stance toward heaven.” In contrast to the consensus that increasingly dominates in both liberal and conservative circles in the West, Solzhenitsyn saw Russia in the 1990s—with its criminal corruption, unholy alliance of oligarchs and unrepentant communists, its betrayal of the rule of law and a genuine market economy in the name of a misguided “market ideology”—as a new “Time of Troubles” for his beloved homeland. He has a balanced view of Russia today in no small part because he does not identify the 1990s as a period of true democratic reforms as so many people mistakenly do in the West. "

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