I am presently taking a break from CAF. However, I cannot remain silent about this.
I have no idea how many times I have read the three volumes. Everytime I do, I discover something I did not comprehend before. The “Gulag” volumes are not only about life in the Gulags. Nor are they only about communism. They are about humanity, sanctity, inhumanity and the tracings of good and evil within the human heart. They are about God and about atheism. They are about corruption and redemption. They contain line after line after line that could be and should be guiding principles for all our lives. They are about down-to-earth economics and misguided political romanticism. They are about the human refusal to recognize evil if such recognition is discomfiting to one’s immediate gratification or philosophical predilections. Interestingly, though Solzhenitsyn was Orthodox, he paints very admiring vignettes of devoted Catholics who found themselves in the Gulag, and of the power of Catholicism to transform people. He deeply examines the role of suffering in human lives, and how saintliness is deeply mysterious and can be found both in suffering and in the absence thereof. His description of the mining camps in the Kolyma is chilling. People being driven unshod and clothed in sacks to dig flecks of gold out of iron-hard frozen ground with crowbars in 30 below zero weather, and receiving four ounces of bread daily to eat. But perhaps my favorite line of his runs something to the effect that one cannot become truly saintly until “it is a matter of complete indifference to him whether he is, or is not, in the Kolyma.” He is talking not about a numbed or fatalistic indifference, but of a radical otherworldliness; a focus on our true home…aware of suffering, yet not focused on it. Yet, paradoxically, in “Cancer Ward”, he describes both bread and grilled lamb in terms so evocative it can make one’s mouth water, and gluey, wet, adulterated black bread in the Gulag is, at his hands, made a delicacy. He loved people and the good things of this world. Yet describes the process by which he ultimately divorced himself from being too much “of it”.
He talks about holy and unholy unions of men and women. In one sequence (more than one, really) he talks about people who deemed themselves married spiritually, though the only contact they ever had was a voice through a camp wall, and remained faithful and devoted throughout life. He also describes unions so sordid and self-seeking as to make one ill.
I have long thought Catholic schools should start rather young students’ acquaintence with A.S. by having them first read “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in, say, fifth grade, to be followed by a very in-depth study of “Gulag I, II, and III” in seventh and eighth. The “Gulags” should be revisited in high school and again in college.
I was deeply saddened to learn of his death. In my mind, he is one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Certainly, the greatest of my time.