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Chesterton And Solzhenitsyn

Many of the Solzhenitsyn obituary writers on the left have felt obliged to dwell a little on his post-Cold War politics (which, if they had been paying attention, were the politics he had had before then).  The gist of it has been, “Yes, he was a great and heroic man, but can you believe all the crazy things he said?”  Ross has a perceptive post on how the treatment of Solzhenitsyn’s “mystical reactionary” side misses that Solzhenitsyn was a great dissident and writer because he was the “mystical reactionary.”  As Ross says:

From the Timescomplaining about his “hectoring jeremiads” and puzzling over his willingness to criticize “democrats, secularists, capitalists, liberals and consumers” as well as Communists, to Christopher Hitchens griping absurdly about the “ayatollah-like tones” of his famous Harvard commencement address (the equivalent of comparing Chesterton to Franco), the coverage has often involved a Gopnikesque attempt to seal off the Good Solzhenitsyn from the Weird Solzhenitsyn, and to insist that the eloquent foe of Marxist tyranny can be celebrated even as the mystical reactionary is dismissed. 

This is close to what I was saying yesterday.  In many cases, the obituaries of the famous departed are occasions for self-congratulation and the reinforcement of political norms.  The reason why many of the obituaries have tried to separate the aspects of Solzhenitsyn’s career that the American mainstream admires from those that it finds troubling or dangerous is part of an effort to make clear that Solzhenitsyn was great insofar as he agreed with the American mainstream and was eccentric, irrational and ridiculous when he did not.  That it was actually almost the reverse–that his anticommunist dissent and literary accomplishments were in a way the least important things about him and his agreement with our mainstream was almost accidental when it happened–is just one more way in which Solzhenitsyn remains poorly understood even by those, including Hitchens, who give him grudging admiration.  Moreover, it was Solzhenitsyn’s willingness to reject Western intellectual fads (including, broadly speaking, the Enlightenment) in the conviction that they all partook of the same distorted understanding of human nature and our relationship with God that enabled him to see so clearly through the falsehoods of the most extreme anthropocentric views.

I would take issue with Ross’ equation of Gopnik’s likening Chesterton to Franco and Hitchens’ comparison of Solzhenitsyn to an ayatollah.  The second seems to me to be much worse and I think it is intended to be.  First of all, equating the two does a disservice to Franco, who was, for all of the excesses ever committed by the Nationalist regime, never so fanatical.  Further, when compared to what is said by actual ayatollahs, Solzhenitsyn’s commencement address was a mild, friendly rebuke.  This is the old Hitchensian move of conflating strong religious and moral conviction with coercive fanaticism and then declaring that faith must always lead to oppression.  In this way one of the world’s foremost dissidents can be perversely aligned with an oppressive tyranny.  Ross notes that this comparison is absurd.  However, the other comparison between Chesterton and Franco is not so much absurd as it is inaccurate.  Chesterton probably would have sympathized with the Nationalist cause (as did Belloc and many English literary Catholics who lived to see the Civil War) because he would have understood–correctly–that theirs was at least in part the cause of Catholicism against her enemies.  That wouldn’t have made him the same as Franco; it would have made him a Catholic.  Chesterton probably would have come to similar conclusions as Belloc, for whom

Spain’s civil war merely confirmed him in his realization that the capitalist and the communist alike have always hated any Catholic society far more than they have ever hated each other.    

What is even more strange from my perspective is that Solzhenitsyn’s “mix of Christian humanism, Russian nationalism, and deep skepticism about modernity” is considered politically incorrect.  Of course, my perspective is fairly unusual, so that might account for my puzzlement, but aside from the issue of nationalism Solzhenitsyn’s “politically incorrect” views might very easily be mistaken for the views of a significant number of 20th century conservative intellectuals and writers.  Solzhenitsyn tended to take his critiques farther than others, but this was evidence of his freedom from the imposed constraints that he lamented when he was discussing the quality of Western intellectual life.  Granted, if he had stayed in the United States and not gone back to Russia, I can see how his Russian nationalism might have seemed odd, but he did go back and he was and always remained a Russian.  His Russian nationalism seemed to many in the West to be unattractive, but when you consider that there were, are, three unequal political forces in Russia–the remaining communists, the small batch of liberal “reformers” and authoritarian nationalists–it was unremarkable that he should express Russian nationalist views when the alternatives were obviously anathema to him.  For that matter, the Russian experience in the ’90s, which Solzhenitsyn likened to the Time of Troubles, made nationalists out of a vast majority of Russians.  To then complain that he took positions consistent with this view from his criticisms of Yeltsin’s ineffectual rule to his condemnations of the attacks on Serbia to opposition to NATO expansion is a bit like complaining that he was, in fact, a Russian and Orthodox.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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