Politics & Policy

A Long Way From ’78

And yet "more relevant than ever."

EDITOR’S NOTE: June 8 marks the 25th anniversary of “A World Split Apart,” the commencement address delivered by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn at Harvard University. Last month, Harvard staged a conference commemorating this event, at which Jay Nordlinger, among many others, spoke. In the below remarks, you will see references to “Stephan” and “Ignat.” These are two of Solzhenitsyn’s sons (and they both attended, and addressed, the conference).

It’s a pleasure to be here, among so many I admire. It’s a further pleasure to be a representative of National Review. This is a magazine that was pro-Solzhenitsyn before pro-Solzhenitsyn was cool. Is it unquestionably cool now? I think so — cooler, at least.

National Review actually published “A World Split Apart,” in its issue of July 7, 1978. When we laid out the title, we had the words “split” and “apart” spaced quite far apart. Aren’t we clever?

Like many here, I’m sure, I had the experience not long ago of re-reading “A World Split Apart,” for the first time in a very long time. I must say, I found it “more relevant than ever.” That’s a terrible cliché, but one I feel I can use unapologetically. The speech incorporates many of the things that make Solzhenitsyn great, such as his boldness and his devotion to the truth, certainly as he sees it.

He begins that way, doesn’t he? “Truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.” He went on to play his role of truthteller, no matter whom it discomfits. As Charles Kesler remarked in an essay later, “Solzhenitsyn was arresting because he spoke of the truth as if it were true.” Lovely line, and insight, that. Kesler also quoted another great foreign friend of America, Tocqueville, who said, “Enemies never tell men the truth.”

I have a little story about Solzhenitsyn and truth — or rather, Solzhenitsyns and truth, because the apples didn’t fall very far from the tree. Stephan, you may not know, is a minor celebrity in New York. He made the press — even the tabloid press! — in some scandal a couple of years ago. Stephan took the wrong side in some environmental controversy. By “wrong,” of course, I mean anti-hard green, as Peter Huber might say. One of his opponents chided, “Didn’t he learn anything from his father?” Stephan retorted, “Yes — mainly that the truth isn’t always popular.”

Let it not be said that Solzhenitsyns can’t do soundbites.

“A World Split Apart,” of course, is a religious speech. Barely into it, he was quoting Jesus: that a house divided against itself cannot stand. No, that wasn’t Lincoln, originally. Nor was “a shining city on a hill” Reagan — or John Winthrop, for that matter.

A short while later, Solzhenitsyn cautions against assuming that all peoples strain for liberal democracy, as we know it. No End of History for him, quite. He speaks of terrorism, and whether a free people has the nerve and self-respect to fight it. He speaks of self-sacrifice, alertness to danger, the false ideal of stability (when stability means continued oppression, no boat-rocking from freedom-seekers). You see what I mean by relevance. There are echoes of September 11th — or let us say “pre-echoes” — all over this speech. I thought it was eerie, at times.

Of course, there are some things in Solzhenitsyn’s address that are hard to swallow — even for his most dedicated admirers. But all of these things need to be pondered, hard. In the column he wrote shortly after the speech, Bill Buckley said, “Such is the debt of free spirits to Solzhenitsyn that we owe it to him at least to consider anything he asks us to consider.”

Perhaps most important in “A World Split Apart” is this business of courage — and its decline. In reviewing the speech, we should remember where we are. Or rather, when we are. Nineteen seventy-eight was perhaps not the West’s best year ever. Three years before, the helicopters had taken off from the embassy roof in Saigon — despite President Ford’s plea with Congress not to abandon the country that 58,000 Americans had just finished dying to save. This same President Ford, however, had denied Solzhenitsyn admission to the White House. About a year after the speech, the current president — Carter — would be in Vienna, kissing General Secretary Brezhnev (literally). This is the sort of thing that once caused Mr. Buckley to write a column titled, “For Moderation in Osculation.”

Solzhenitsyn says, “The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and of course in the United Nations.” I love that “of course,” before “in the United Nations.” For me, it is one of the most priceless parts of the whole speech. I have been studying the U.N. with particular concentration lately, and I am incessantly quoting Solzhenitsyn. If he received royalties, he’d be even richer: The United Nations is not so much the united nations as the united governments or regimes, no better and no worse than those regimes on the whole.

I can’t help thinking what Solzhenitsyn would have made — indeed, did make — of his comments on courage after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. That was a strange and unexpected presidency. And the United States has progressed a long way from the atmosphere of 1978. After the first Gulf War, President Bush the Elder proclaimed that we had “kicked the Vietnam syndrome.” Now, we have . . . what? Kicked it senseless to make sure it was dead?

On re-reading this speech, I was struck — as I’m sure many others were — by the speaker’s repeated use of the word “evil.” It must have fallen strangely on ears at Harvard in 1978. I didn’t count the uses in the speech, but there must be, what, eight of them? Ten? A dozen? When Ronald Reagan said “evil,” in an important speech during his first term, the roof practically caved in on him. People in all parts of the world denounced him for his simplicity, crudeness, and primitivism. Henry Steele Commager said it was the most embarrassing utterance in presidential history. Today, of course, George W. Bush says “evil,” “evildoers,” and so on freely. It doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, even post-9/11.

I confess that, as I went back over this speech, I was astonished at how true it was. Even obviously so. I kept writing in the margins, “True.” “So true.” “Still true.” “Blindingly true,” I wrote once. (I believe this had something to do with the press.) I knew that “A World Split Apart” was one of the most controversial and notorious speeches in modern history. And yet I found it fairly unremarkable. No doubt this says more about me than about Solzhenitsyn’s speech.

I’m reminded of a story, which I hope you’ll find relevant. It concerns how historical events grow into myth, and get distorted. Stephen Ambrose, when he was doing his biographical trilogy on Nixon, went back and watched The Last Press Conference — or listened to it, I forget which. You remember that this is the press conference that Nixon conducted after he lost the California gubernatorial race in 1962. It is remembered that this was a low point for Nixon, that he was out-of-control, surly — probably drunk. Ambrose was shocked to discover that, in reality, he had been composed, gracious, “appropriate,” as we would now say. The line “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any longer” was delivered with a smile and a wink, to appreciative laughter.

Go figure. (And, by the way, those “[expletive deleted]”s in the Watergate transcripts were pretty tame, according to Ambrose.)

There are so many things worth commenting on — let me just make a few points. Side points, you might call them. Solzhenitsyn, of course, is very hard on materialism, as well he should be: Anything that retards or blocks spiritual growth is his enemy, and ours. But I’d like to share with you a rather cheeky anecdote starring V. S. Naipaul. It comes from my friend and colleague David Pryce-Jones, who was there. Not long after winning the Nobel Prize, Naipaul was speaking at a conference in India. During the Q&A, someone stood up and said, “Sir Vidia, we are in the home of the spirit. India has always been the home of the spirit. Don’t you think that this materialism that encroaches from the West damages our home?” Naipaul thought for a second and replied — in his inimitable fashion — “I rather like materialism: The poor need it.”

A point concerning this business of law, or rather legalism, which provoked so much controversy. It should have been less controversial. Solzhenitsyn says, “One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of the legal frames.” Can anyone awake in America for the last many years doubt that this is true — truer than when Solzhenitsyn spoke those words?

And I must say that I see the expression of mindless, soulless legalism in chatter about “international law” — one of the major shibboleths of our time. “International law,” not English — or French — is the lingua franca at the United Nations. Kofi Annan provided a parody of international legalism several weeks ago when he was asked about suicide bombers, or homicide bombers, if you like. “Most people” in the world, he said, would regard their attacks as “illegal.” Well, that was a relief.

And consider, for a moment, one of the most famous passages of the speech. Some people here may know it by heart: “The human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, exemplified by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.” I pause over that phrase “the human soul longs for things higher . . .”: It reminds me that Allan Bloom’s surprise bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, was originally entitled “Souls Without Longing” — at least that’s what Bloom wanted to call it. And, aside from that marvelous phrase “TV stupor,” how about “intolerable music”? This criticism was much remarked on after the speech. And the most remarked-on portion of Allan Bloom’s book would be his excoriation of contemporary pop music. The subject touches a nerve, obviously.

Cognoscenti may expect a National Review hand to say this, but Solzhenitsyn, in his speech, sounds, to me, very much like Whittaker Chambers. At the core of Chambers’s life and thought was the question, “God or man?” It was that stark: Would we have a God-centered world or a man-centered one? Solzhenitsyn puts the same question. For that matter, so does Paul — who, in the words of his King James translators, asks whether we will serve “the creature” or “the Creator.”

I say again, more broadly this time: How must this speech have fallen on the ears of its hearers that day! Those 10,000 souls — souls without longing? — sitting in the rain. We were in the Me Decade, remember. And here Solzhenitsyn was talking about self-restraint, sacrifice, God, and all that stuff. As Harold J. Berman, a law professor here, put it, “Solzhenitsyn seemed like a man from Mars.” News reports tell us that there was frequent applause, and some hissing, chiefly from the student section.

The First Lady, Rosalynn Carter, used the National Press Club to defend her country against Solzhenitsyn’s blasts. No, she insisted, “the people of this country are not weak, not cowardly, and not spiritually exhausted.” How’s that for playing to the peanut gallery? This same Rosalynn Carter, however, did not feel so good about the American people after November 1980. Asked to explain Reagan’s success, she said, “I think he makes us comfortable with our prejudices.”

Mary McGrory, too, rose to the defense of America: Not the least of Solzhenitsyn’s achievement at Harvard was to wring a flag-waving column out of Mary McGrory. Not sure she’s written one since. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for his part, posed the question, “Can Solzhenitsyn really believe that bombing the Vietnamese back to the Stone Age is a test of courage?” Somehow, I don’t think bombing them back to the Stone Age was what Solzhenitsyn had in mind for the Vietnamese. I think he had in mind sparing them what they in fact got.

In 1980, the Ethics and Public Policy Center published its volume Solzhenitsyn at Harvard: The Address, Twelve Early Responses, and Six Later Reflections. It is to the speech’s credit that it occasioned much excellent and probing writing. As Sidney Hook put it — in a typically powerful essay called “On Western Freedom” — “Rarely in modern times . . . has one man’s voice provoked the Western world to an experience of profound soul-searching.” The speech was scrutinized a thousand different ways, from a thousand different angles. One question I asked myself while reading the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s volume was, “Can any single speech — general as it must be — survive such scrutiny? Or at least come out unbruised?”

Let it be remembered, however, that Solzhenitsyn never much cared what his critics said. Frankly, he never much cared what his admirers said. It was fine that he was immune to criticism, but it was probably finer that he was — to use Book of Common Prayer language — “immune to praise.” For a piece I did two years ago, Ignat told me that his father never read a single word that his critics penned, except in one instance, when he answered them in one fell swoop. As Ignat put it, “He could have written The Red Wheel or kept up with his critics — but not both.” He almost never did anything to defend himself, or explain himself, or elaborate a little. Maybe he should have. But he got a lot of work done, didn’t he?

If I may stray off the topic of “A World Split Apart” for just a second. Solzhenitsyn has inspired both ordinary men and extraordinary ones. Let me tell you about an extraordinary one. She is a woman, actually — Youqin Wang, a lecturer in Chinese at Chicago. But that’s merely her day job. She has devoted her life to memorializing the victims of the Cultural Revolution. She collects her work on a website, www.chinese-memorial.org. It bears the message, “We Will Never Forget You.”

Youqin was inspired by two writers: Anne Frank and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. When she was young, in Beijing — in the teeth of the Cultural Revolution — she read Anne’s diary, and determined to keep one of her own. Mind you, it was forbidden to keep a diary: People died as a result. She addressed her diary as “Kitty,” just as Anne Frank had. Unlike Anne, she destroyed her entries shortly after she wrote them — it was too dangerous to keep them.

It was at Beijing University that she found Solzhenitsyn. When she read Cancer Ward, she thought she was reading of her own experience. She was astounded that Solzhenitsyn could understand her — and her fellow Chinese — so well. The first night, she told me, she was so excited by what she was reading, she couldn’t sleep. Then she managed to get a hold of one of the very few copies of The Gulag Archipelago in the whole of China. When she read it, she knew what she had to do with her life: commit the lives of the lost to historical memory.

I like to think of that woman out in Chicago, with probably the two greatest witnesses of the century at her back: Anne Frank and Solzhenitsyn.

And I can’t keep myself from mentioning Armando Valladares. The author of Against All Hope, he is often called “the Cuban Solzhenitsyn.” I met him here at Harvard, in 1986, I believe. He had come to speak on the reality of Communist Cuba, and a lot of folks didn’t like it. In fact, Harvard had another man on the podium with him — a professor, charged with providing “balance.” The school did not want such a wild man to give his story unrebutted, despite the credentials of having been imprisoned and tortured for years. That episode has always stayed with me. And the Q&A, incidentally, was shockingly hostile to Valladares. He was a living, breathing rebuke to many present that day.

A couple of years ago, Valladares told me that he looked forward to Cuba’s liberation, not least because it would open everyone’s eyes. It would be like Germany in 1945, exposed before the entire world — gas chambers and all. Armando is fairly licking his chops. I hope he’s not disappointed, if he lives that long. The capacity for self-deception, and self-justification, is large.

Finally, I should say that I’m writing these remarks after a visit to the House of Terror in Budapest — I mean, a couple of hours afterward. This is the museum meant to commemorate the Communist brutality from which thousands suffered. To go through this museum, with its cells, instruments of torture, photographs, films, and documents, is a grueling experience. Best about the museum, for me, is that it includes a wall covered with photographs of victimizers — not just victims. Many of them are still alive. You see the birth year, then a dash — nothing else!

The authorities in Hungary have tried to shut down the House of Terror many times. They come from Left parties, and this past is embarrassing to them. They are supposed to represent the “post-Communist Left,” but many people wonder how “post-” they really are. The director said she had to fend off a new attack every day. Witness is hard. Courage is hard. Man seems to bottom out, time after time.

But then, we hear that no one on earth has any way left but — upward.

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