Essays: This awkward problem of freedom |
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This awkward problem of freedom

IN a week’s television not otherwise notable for moral content, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Panorama, BBC1) bulked large. He was interviewed by Michael Charlton, who probably did as good a job as was possible, considering that there is no way of extracting Solzhenitsyn’s message in condensed form.

The interview was preceded by a lightning tour of Solzhenitsyn’s career. A measure of his success in writing books which evoke recent Russian history in its full horrific force is that such summaries now seem hopelessly inadequate. In the interview proper Solzhenitsyn spoke Russian, with a translation dubbed over. This intensified, I found, the already slightly other-worldly feeling induced by his appearance, so evocative of both Lincoln and Dickens — men who spoke roundly on ethical issues, a largely vanished practice. That Solzhenitsyn should engage in such an old-fashioned activity is a reminder, difficult to assimilate, that the Soviet present branches off from somewhere in our past — it is a parallel universe, different and inimical. Talking to us about moral regeneration, he sounds like Dr Arnold of Rugby. A bit dated. After all, we’ve got beyond all that. We’re all the way up to Hugh Hefner.

The question of Solzhenitsyn’s pride in his mission was raised when he told Charlton that his personal experience was vital to the West but won’t be understood by it. Knowing Solzhenitsyn’s books reasonably well, I believe that he is being humble when he speaks like this, but I can easily see how he might appear the opposite, especially to those who will be basing their opinions of him on watching ‘Panorama’ rather than knuckling down to the admittedly formidable task of reading his collected works.

What Solzhenitsyn means here, I think, is not that he is some lofty exemplar of a difficult principle (later in the interview he repeatedly rejected Charlton’s suggestion that he might see himself as a redeemer, an anti-Lenin) but that historical lessons can’t be transmitted intact. He makes it clear in ‘Gulag Archipelago’ Volume 1 that he has no faith in the ability of the truth to propagate itself automatically, even under ideal conditions of freedom. His remarkable humility consists in addressing himself with such heroic resolve to a task of which he has no false expectations.

Solzhenitsyn declared himself unable to comprehend how the West can possess freedom and not value it. This was a telling rhetorical point but as a tenet in his position — which it is, recurring throughout his work — it has some awkward logical consequences. For example, if freedom is valued most when it is nearest to being extirpated, and least when it is most prevalent, then perhaps freedom needs to be threatened in order to be conscious of itself. It’s a high price to pay for consciousness.

There is no possibility of over-valuing freedom, but there is the possibility of valuing it wrongly, and I think that to a certain extent Solzhenitsyn does so. He is on sure ground when he warns against tyranny but weak ground when he laments that liberty has not made us morally aware. Liberty can’t do that: political freedom means nothing unless it is extended to those who are incapable of valuing it. Warning the West against the East, Solzhenitsyn can hope to be of some effect. Warning the West against itself, he is surely addressing himself to the wrong object. The West lacks a common moral purpose because it is free, so there is no point in his attacking our lack of moral purpose unless he attacks freedom too.

Similarly, his doctrine concerning the undividable nature of freedom has awkward consequences for his line of argument about what the West should do. It might well be that the Soviet Union will attempt to dominate the world. But that doesn’t mean we should allow ourselves to be repressed by our own leaders in order that the threat might be countered — not if we believe that freedom is undividable. For the West, the political meaning of the Vietnam war lay in the refusal of an American generation to let its Government subvert the Constitution by suppressing specific freedoms in the name of an allegedly greater good. In the eye of history, which does not take sides, this might well prove to have been part of a disastrous chain of events in which the West destroyed itself by trying to preserve its free institutions.

But my point is that Solzhenitsyn can’t have it both ways. One of the great lessons of his life and work is that the only thing ensured by giving up freedoms for a greater good is that the greater good will be evil when it arrives and the freedoms will be impossible to retrieve. To be worried about the KGB doesn’t mean we should stop being worried about the CIA. In fact being worried about the CIA is probably the most effective way of being worried about the KGB, since the West will never be able to defeat totalitarianism by going totalitarian — it will always arrive second — but might possibly stand a chance by remaining liberal.

Talking of the West’s imminent collapse, Solzhenitsyn is paradoxically enrolling himself in a millenarian tradition which includes Marx. He is likely to be no better than his forerunners at predicting history. Solzhenitsyn’s strength — his majestic strength — lies in his capacity to recover the past. He is the survivor of an historical catastrophe so violent that it would be understandable if he were insane. And yet when you look at what he has achieved, the first thing that strikes you is the human tone, the lack of messianic rant.

Primus inter pares in what he called on ‘Panorama’ the ‘fight for our memory’, he is at one with comparably brave writers like Evgenia Ginzburg and Nadezhda Mandelstam in being true to what he knows, and beyond them in being able to extend that great personal awareness to what he did not himself experience. He has given facts the force of imagination and made history a work of art, while being aware that a work of art is the most intense possible revelation of the assumptions which inform it. As he said in his Nobel Lecture, ‘conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force — they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.’

Meanwhile, back in the West, the British Campaign to Stop Immigration said its piece on Open Door (BBC2). Ladies in terrible hats said that there were too many of Them. Close-ups of Them showed Them to be indeed unprepossessing, although surely not quite so unprepossessing as the ladies in the terrible hats. One electrifying sequence showed a woman in a sari feeding fish under a sign reading ‘Do not feed fish.’ Thus They undermine our way of life. All the complainants had a viewpoint and some of them even sounded quite sensible, but admiration was fairly easy to withhold. Free speech in action: messy, shallow and secular. You can’t expect anything from it except a load of grief if you let it go.

The Observer, 7th March 1976

[ A shorter version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]