Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Book Reviews

Realism Confronts Utopia

“One word of truth outweighs the world.”

Richard Hughes Gibson

THR illustration; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn speaking at the State Duma in Moscow, 1994.

Announcing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s selection as the Nobel laureate for literature in October 1970, the prize committee highlighted “the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” The Soviet government, however, did not jump for joy at hearing praise for this writer, much less for Russian literature. In the authorities’ eyes, the author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and other works airing awkward truths about life under Soviet rule was a liability rather than a national treasure, and the award a provocation by the West. Solzhenitsyn was stuck. He worried that if he made the trip to Stockholm, he would be denied reentry into the fatherland. But as a condition of accepting the prize, he had to write a speech.

Having failed to get the writer to the ceremony (which he would finally attend in 1974, at the beginning of his long exile) or to bring a ceremony to the writer, the Nobel committee had to settle for Solzhenitsyn’s undelivered address, which was published in the international press in 1972. It quickly won admirers around the world—including Dorothy Day, who found it “beautiful”—and its penultimate sentence, a Russian proverb, is still often cited: “One word of truth outweighs the world.” The performance is vintage Solzhenitsyn, his voice booming from the pages as he vindicates the writer’s vocation as a truth teller. “Who could impress upon a sluggish and obstinate human being someone else’s far off sorrows or joys,” he asks, “who could give him an insight into the magnitudes of events and into delusions which he has never himself experienced?” With a clear nod to his homeland, the laureate argues that “propaganda,” “coercion,” and “scientific proof” are “useless” on this moral terrain. Only art and literature can “overcome man’s ruinous habit of learning only from his own experience.” But Solzhenitsyn doesn’t stop there. Art and literature, he continues, also work at the national level, conveying collective experience for the benefit of other nations and later ages. In the most fortunate instances, literature “could save an entire nation from a redundant, or erroneous, or even destructive course, thereby shortening the tortuous paths of human history.”

From a contemporary perspective, especially an American one, the whole scenario likely seems absurd. What were Soviet officials so worried about? How much havoc could a novel or some poems really cause? And while we may piously nod at the writer’s point about using books to foster empathy among individuals, who isn’t inclined to smile, just a bit, at Solzhenitsyn’s claim that literature can redirect the course of nations and thus history? In short, why did literature—a pastime of declining importance in our world—loom so large in the Russian imagination?

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