Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn On the Magical Power of Art
For what purpose have we been given this gift?
When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, I found myself impressed by the caliber of those who preceded him. Like many, I read his Nobel Lecture and found it inspiring. I then went on to read some of the Nobel Lectures by others whom have been so honored.
It’s an uncommon opportunity not to be taken lightly. Many of the best literary minds of the past century have distilled their best thoughts into something others can read and be inspired by.
Kudos to the Nobel committee and this catalog of wisdom and achievement that is preserved for us and available online to any and all.
I’ve been on a Solzhenitsyn jag lately, somewhat astonished at how relevant his writings are today. For this reason I’ve been writing about his work in the hopes that others might revisit this writer’s extensive catalog.
What follows are excerpts from Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Lecture, which has much to say about the importance and power of art. I’ve included a link to the full transcript at the end. If you can find time I’d encourage you to read the whole.
In the first segment he summarizes the artist’s challenge.
But all the irrationality of art, its dazzling turns, its unpredictable discoveries, its shattering influence on human beings — they are too full of magic to be exhausted by this artist’s vision of the world, by his artistic conception or by the work of his unworthy fingers.
A little further on, he states:
Not everything assumes a name. Some things lead beyond words. Art inflames even a frozen, darkened soul to a high spiritual experience. Through art we are sometimes visited — dimly, briefly — by revelations such as cannot be produced by rational thinking.
Like that little looking-glass from the fairy-tales: look into it and you will see — not yourself — but for one second, the Inaccessible, whither no man can ride, no man fly. And only the soul gives a groan …
Dostoevsky’s remark, “Beauty will save the world”, was not a careless phrase but a prophecy… Art, literature might really be able to help the world today.
Solzhenitsyn begins the third segment of his speech with the powerful observation that there have been more gifted and talented artists and writers and thinkers than he, but those voices have never been heard.
“In order to mount this platform from which the Nobel lecture is read, a platform offered to far from every writer and only once in a lifetime, I have climbed not three or four makeshift steps, but hundreds and even thousands of them; unyielding, precipitous, frozen steps, leading out of the darkness and cold where it was my fate to survive, while others — perhaps with a greater gift and stronger than I — have perished.”
Some, he went on to say, who had already achieved a small measure of literary success, disappeared in the abyss, and many more were lost in that darkness before they had ever been heard of. For this reason, Solzhenitsyn states that he does not stand alone to receive the Prize, but is accompanied by the shadows of the fallen, many more worthy than he to receive this recognition.
Even in chains we ourselves must complete
That circle which the gods have mapped out for us.
— Vladimir Solov’ev
What a discovery when we we first see the whole wider world, he says, and the gap between those “who weep inconsolate tears” while others are dancing to a light-hearted musical.
“How could this happen? Why the yawning gap? Were we insensitive? Was the world insensitive? Or is it due to language differences? Why is it that people are not able to hear each other’s every distinct utterance? Words cease to sound and run away like water — without taste, colour, smell. Without trace.”
This is a root conviction I myself have carried a lifetime, a belief that each voice must be heard, that the human story is like the 2000 faces on the eye of a fly, each seeing a different picture which cannot be understood till synthesized in the mind of this fly. So it is that what it means to be human cannot be fully understood until we hear everyone’s story.
But it’s scary to be vulnerable, to listen. To really listen.
And this is why Solzhenitsyn gave his life to telling the stories he told. These are stories we have needed to hear, these stories from behind the Iron Curtain, in the cancer ward and the Gulag.
In the fifth segment of his Nobel speech Solzhenitsyn, after noting that there are competing value systems in the world, asks the question “Who decides?”
But who will co-ordinate these value scales, and how? Who will create for mankind one system of interpretation, valid for good and evil deeds, for the unbearable and the bearable, as they are differentiated today? Who will make clear to mankind what is really heavy and intolerable and what only grazes the skin locally? Who will direct the anger to that which is most terrible and not to that which is nearer? Who might succeed in transferring such an understanding beyond the limits of his own human experience? Who might succeed in impressing upon a bigoted, stubborn human creature the distant joy and grief of others, an understanding of dimensions and deceptions which he himself has never experienced? Propaganda, constraint, scientific proof — all are useless. But fortunately there does exist such a means in our world! That means is art. That means is literature.
In short, the artist carries an awesome responsibility.
And literature, as one of the most sensitive, responsive instruments possessed by the human creature, has been one of the first to adopt, to assimilate, to catch hold of this feeling of a growing unity of mankind. And so I turn with confidence to the world literature of today — to hundreds of friends whom I have never met in the flesh and whom I may never see.
The Russian author exhorts us to consider the power of world literature. Despite our troubled times, literature can help us through, to see life as it is rather than as interpreted by “the indoctrinations of prejudiced people and parties.”
World literature has it in its power to convey condensed experience from one land to another so that we might cease to be split and dazzled, that the different scales of values might be made to agree, and one nation learn correctly and concisely the true history of another with such strength of recognition and painful awareness as it had itself experienced the same, and thus might it be spared from repeating the same cruel mistakes.
In the concluding section of his speech Solzhenitsyn underscores the relationship between violence and falsehood. Those who approve violence as a method will necessarily choose falsehood as their principle, clothing its justification with sweet talk and lies, not only demanding allegiance to falsehood but also complicity.
But writers and artists can achieve more: they can CONQUER FALSEHOOD! In the struggle with falsehood art always did win and it always does win! Openly, irrefutably for everyone! Falsehood can hold out against much in this world, but not against art.
And no sooner will falsehood be dispersed than the nakedness of violence will be revealed in all its ugliness — and violence, decrepit, will fall.
At this point he makes an appeal to artists and writers everywhere. We are at war, a war of values and ideals. We do not have time to live a frivolous life.
Proverbs about truth are well-loved in Russian. They give steady and sometimes striking expression to the not inconsiderable harsh national experience: