THE DAZZLING LIGHT FROM THE NORTH

THE DAZZLING LIGHT FROM THE NORTH

Opening Convocation Address at
Rockford College – Rockford, Illinois by
Dr. John A. Howard, President September 15, 1976

“By his very existence, (he) confers moral worth upon the world he lives in…by his faith he moves mountains.” [1] These are comments of Bernard Levin of The(London) Times. George Meany, referring to the same person, declared, “We heed this voice, not because it speaks for the left or right or for any faction, but because it hurls truth and courage into the teeth of total power.” [2] Political scientist Gerhart Niemeyer has said his “appearance is one of those watershed historical events like the French Revolution.” [3] A reviewer in the official Soviet press wrote, “But why is it upon reading this remarkable story not only is ones heart wrung with grief, but a light penetrates one’s soul? It is because of the story’s profound humanity.” [ 4]

The author who evokes this extraordinary praise from such diverse commentators is, of course, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His individual creative acts will, I believe, have a more profound and lasting impact on mankind than the works of any other individual of our age. I suggest, therefore, at the outset of our year-long study of “The Creative Process”, we look to this unique talent as a basepoint for deliberating the theme we have chosen.

Let us begin with a recognition that creativity is one of the glamurous catch-words of the day. There appears to be a widespread notion that the mere creation of something is automatically a beneficial act. A moment’s reflection will identify that supposition as pure nonsense. It is possible to create chains as well as chapels. It is possible to create fear as well as frescoes, bestiality as well as bridges. If civilization is to prevail, any act of creating must ultimately be judged according to the substance and the impact of that which is created. To be sure, the technique utilized in the accomplishment may inspire admiration, but if the outcome is human degradation, that, too, is important, whether one is judging a work of art, an act of government, a decision of a business enterprise, or the deed of an individual.

The moral consequence of human actions is a primary concern of Solzhenitsyn’s work. Candle In The Wind is the title of a play he wrote in 1960. The plot is centered in the work of scientists in the field of biocybernetics or “biofeedback” as it is popularly known today. The protagonist of the play, Alex, is not sure it is wise to tamper mechanically with the human personality, uneasy lest the state of happiness that is artificially induced will dehumanize the patient. In one of the interchanges between Alex and the self-confident director of the biocybernetics laboratory, Alex comments, “You once said you feel like a relay runner — that you would be proud to pass on the baton of Great Physics to the twenty-first century…Well, I’d like to help pass on to the next century one particular baton — the flickering candle of our soul.” [5]

Passing that baton is Solzhenitsyn’s own mission in this world. He is acutely aware that the person who seeks personal advantage at the expense of others, in addition to whatever public damage he may inflict, impoverishes his own life at its very foundation. In the play, a senior scientist who had been riding the crest of fame and fortune on the frontiers of technological experiment, begins to put his life into perspective as death approaches. Ruefully, he says to his daughter, “I’ve lived in this evil den of happy people and it has swallowed me up…That’s how my life’s been wasted, the life everyone calls a happy one.” [6]

The obligation of the conscientious person to consider the consequences of his acts is a recurrent topic in Solzhenitsyn’s public commentary, as well as in his literary works. In various interviews, he laments the tendency of reporters and critics to be more concerned about attracting attention to what they write than about the precision of their statements. At the Stockholm press conference when he received his Nobel Prize, one reporter queried, “In your opinion, Western-style democracy is not suitable to Russia. Why not?” Solzhenitsyn responded, “This, gentlemen, is a perfect example of how hastily and superficially the press oversimplifies people’s views. Today, when we touch on serious questions, I would particularly like to request that if you are not able to report accurately and fully, you should say nothing at all.” [7]

On another occasion he notes,

“Whilst enjoying such great freedom, the journalists and writers lose their sense of responsibility before history, before their own people…The press does not feel responsibility for its judgments; it makes judgments and sticks on labels with the greatest of ease. Mediocre journalists simply make headlines of their conclusions which suddenly become the general opinion throughout the West.” [8]

His distress about thoughtless and irresponsible conduct is expressed with even-handed regret and candor whether the object of his criticism is Communist or Westerner, scientist, journalist, educator or corporate executive. In a speech sponsored by the AFL-CIO, he called attention to certain American businessmen who brought to Moscow a display of their products — sophisticated equipment for crime detection. “The problem being”, as William Buckley wryly observed, “that we were selling our scientific paraphernalia not to the law-abiding for use against criminals, but to criminals for use against the law-abiding.” [9] Solzhenitsyn’s own comment was, “This is something which is almost incomprehensible to the human mind: that burning greed for profit which goes beyond all reason, all self-control, all conscience, only to get money.” [10]

Most recently, Solzhenitsyn, in his acceptance of an award from the Freedoms Foundation, set forth a whole catalog of common activities that are thoughtless and irresponsible and undermine civilized living. That brief statement, made at the Hoover Institution, in my judgment spoke more directly and more eloquently to the ideals of America than any other utterance of our Bicentennial year.

“In a situation like this, it is easiest to give way to rhetoric on the dark abysms of totalitarianism and to sing the praises of the shining strongholds of western freedom. It is more difficult, but almost more productive, to take a hard look at ourselves. If the region of free social systems in the world keeps shrinking, and if huge continents only recently obtaining freedom are being drawn off into the zone of tyranny, then the fault lies not just with totalitarianism — which devours freedom as a function of its natural growth — but also with the free systems themselves which have lost something of their inner strength and stability…

“The concept of freedom cannot be grasped correctly without an appreciation of the vital objectives of our existence. I am an advocate of the view that the aim of life for each of us is not to take boundless pleasure in material goods, but to take our departure from the world as better persons than we arrived at it…that is to travel over the span of life on one path or another of spiritual improvement…

“Regrettably, in recent decades our very idea of freedom has been diminished and grown shallow…it has been relegated almost exclusively to freedom from outside pressure…

“Freedom! to litter compulsorily with commercial rubbish the mail boxes, the eyes, ears and brains of people… Freedom! for editors and film producers to start the younger generation off with seductive miscreations. Freedom! for adolescents of 14-18 years to immerse themselves in idleness and amusements instead of invigorating tasks and spiritual growth… Freedom! for politicians indiscriminately to bring about whatever pleases the voter today, but not what far-sightedly provides for his safety and well-being.”

Having listed eighteen items of freedom abused, he comments,

“All these freedoms are often irreproachable juridically, but morally–all are faulty…

“Genuinely human freedom is inner freedom, given to us by God: freedom to decide upon our own acts, as well as moral responsibility for them.” [11]

Solzhenitsyn is the voice of conscience. Without condescension, but firmly and forthrightly, he applies his immense powers of perception and dramatic expression to challenge people everywhere to anticipate the consequences of their acts and accept responsibility for those consequences. His message is particularly poignant in our era when the distinction between right and wrong has been twisted and obscured by passion, avarice, cynicism and scorn. His own life story is the triumphant proof that no matter how intently individuals and nations may try to deceive themselves with the assertion that virtue has no meaning, nevertheless the force of moral righteousness cannot be suppressed. Imagine! A provincial school teacher and writer whose words achieved such world import that the most ruthless tyranny of modern times was equally afraid to kill him or to permit him to remain in the country.

In the Swiss magazine, Impact, literary critic Jean Dutourd wrote:

“The mark of a great writer, that which distinguishes him from a good writer or a talented man, is the burning and tireless search for truth to which he devotes his life. Truth about people, about society, about the world. Nothing is more dangerous.

“Why? Because a man who sees the truth and proclaims it has but one objective: to be of benefit to other people, to free them, to identify for them that which is wrong and prevent them from embracing it. But that is what people can least tolerate…

“Voltaire, in a burst of gallantry, once wrote to Catherine II of Russia…”in this era, it is from the North that we receive our guiding light”…It seems to me that Solzhenitsyn genuinely deserves such homage. But who in the West truly dares to look up to that dazzling guiding light? [12]

I imagine George Meany was referring to Soviet Russia when he spoke of Solzhenitsyn’s “hurling truth and courage in the teeth of total power”, but as Monsieur Dutourd has so bluntly stated, Solzhenitsyn’s truth and courage have been hurled into the teeth of total power in the West as well. And his message of virtue is about as welcome in the decadent West as it is in the despotic East. Will Americans draw from this source of light only those selected beams which comfortably illuminate each individual’s prejudices, or are there those who dare to receive and welcome his comprehensive compelling clarification of the moral imperative?

That question has some perplexing aspects for an academic institution since respect for the open mind is a cherished and esteemed tradition, and one that has operated to discourage judgments that anything is good or bad. Solzhenitsyn, I suggest, shows us the way to honor that tradition without becoming an ally of either amorality or zealotry. He has not issued a comprehensive encyclopedia of “do’s” and “don’ts”. He recognizes that there are many issues where what is true and right and good is not yet clear. He does move to criticise the cheap, the dishonest and the destructive where the evidence seems conclusive, but in matters that are in doubt he focusses his concern on the questions that must be answered. In Candle In The Wind, Alex phrases his uneasiness about their experiments as a query.

“Every time I go out of my house, I always know where I’m going and why. When I buy anything, I know why. But when it comes to an important action, it’s considered for some reason that you don’t need to know or think about it…Why are we doing all this? No one is able to give me an answer.” [13]

Since our liberal arts studies aspire to contribute to responsible and civilized living, it seems to me that we could not do better than heed the unique and inexorable challenge which Solzhenitsyn has issued to all thinking people. What are the actual consequences of one’s actions? Is the thing which is said or written or painted or accomplished, is that thing adding dignity to human living?–is it a step further along the path of spiritual improvement?-­ or is it contributing to confusion, despair or degradation?

This question, I suggest, not only constitutes a proper context for our study in the abstract of “The Creative Process”, but is equally appropriate as the context for evaluating the specific creative process in which we are all joined, that is, the refinement and strengthening of this college. If that question could somehow become the automatic yardstick for measuring our individual and group decisions, then our college, which has already earned some small reputation in the quest for humane and civilized living, will continue to add to its candlepower as a source of enlightenment.

In conclusion, let us return to the critic with whose quotation we began this discourse, Bernard Levin of The (London) Times,

“So what can we do with Solzhenitsyn? Well, if I may conclude with a modest proposal, I suggest that the West, when he has provoked it a little further, should, possibly under the auspices of the United Nations General Assembly, formally condemn him to death and execute him either by obliging him to drink hemlock or by crucifixion. After all, the two most noted figures in history who respectively experienced those fates we condemned, whatever the ideological niceties involved, principally because they told their own societies truths that made those societies uncomfortable, and since our own society is even more averse to discomfort than those were, it seems only fitting that the man who is…doing much the same thing for us should suffer a like fate. Meanwhile, I can look at the hand that shook the hand of the man who shook the world and say to him, “Aleksandr Isayevitch, do not despair just yet, we understand.” [14]

My hope for the year ahead is that we, too, can say, “We understand”, and strive to deliver on that understanding.

 

Picture of Solzhenitsyn By Verhoeff, Bert / Anefo – [1] Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang 2.24.01.05 Bestanddeelnummer 927-0019, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29177274

FOOTNOTES

1. Levin, Bernard: “Solzhenitsyn: Poison Darts From Among The Pygmies”, The (London) Times, July 17, 1975

2. Solzhenitsyn: The Voice of Freedom, AFL-CIO Publication #152, (undated), page 1, Washington, D. C.

3. Niemeyer, Gerhart: “Solzhenitsyn’s Three Achievements”, The lntercollegiate Review, Fall, 1975, page 3

4. Niemeyer, Gerhart: “The Prophetic Calling of Solzhenitsyn”, National Review, March 15, 1974, page 320

5. Solzhenitsyn, Alexander: Candle In The Wind (excerpts) Intellectual Digest, January, 1974, page 32

6. lbid., page 31

7. Solzhenitsyn, Alexander: “Solzhenitsyn Speaks Out”, National Review, June 6, 1975, page 605

8. Firing Line, “The Vision of Solzhenitsyn”, March 27, 1976, pp. 2-3 Southern Educational Con1.munications Association – Columbia, S. C.

9. Buckley, William F., Jr.” “Editor’s Note”, National Review, page 929

10. Solzhenitsyn: The Voice of Freedom, AFL-CIO Publication #152, (undated), page 5, Washington, D. C.

11. Solzhenitsyn, Alexander: “Remarks Upon Receipt Of The American Friendship Award From The Freedoms Foundation”. Translation distributed to those in attendance at the ceremony. June 1, 1976, Stanford, California

12. Dutourd, Jean: “La Lumiere Qui Vient Du Nord”, Impact, Fevrier, 1976, page 12. (Translation by John A. Howard)

13. Solzhenitsyn, Alexander: Candle In The Wind (excerpts) Intellectual Digest, January, 1974, page 30.

14. Firing Line, “The Vision of Solzhenitsyn”, March 27, 1976, page 1, Southern Educational Communications Association – Columbia, S. C.

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