Sunday, July 23, 2017

Solhzenitzyn's Concept of Happiness

"A marsh extends along the mountain-chain, That poisons what so far I’ve been achieving; Were I that noisome pool to drain, 'Twould be the highest, last achieving. Thus space to many millions I will give. Where, though not safe, yet free and active they may live.."
- Goethe, Faust II, Act V


"Listen! The happiness of endless victory, the happiness of triumphant satisfaction of our desires, the happiness of satiety - this is suffering! This is spiritual collapse, this is like constant moral heartburn! It's not the Ved philosophers or the sankhja, but I - I in my own personhood, I the prisoner of five years, Gleb Nierżyn, have attained to such a stage of development in which evil comes to be seen as good - and I personally agree with the statement that people do not know what it is they really want. They waste their energies wrestling to gain a bit of earthly goods and then they die never having understood their spiritual richness. When Leo Tolstoy dreamt of being thrown in jail - he understood things as a truly visionary and spiritually healthy person should."
-Nierżyn (the autobiographical Solzhenitsyn)
In the First Circle, chapter 9

Is it really a coincidence that upon reading "the most outstanding novel of Polish romanticism", Zygmunt Krasiński's Letters to Delfina Potocka, I find that Poland's greatest poet bard begins his work with a consideration of the exact same theme and the exact same quote from Goethe's Faust with which Solzhenitsyn begins his autobiographical In the First Circle? It is not that Polish and Russian philosophy are the same (the two are in fact radically different). Rather, it is that Polish and Russian philosophy pose the same questions.

In Solzhenitsyn's case, the Faustian concept of the greatest happiness understood as that moment which a man would desire to last eternally is posed as a linguistic riddle rooted in the Russian word for happiness, transcribed into the Latin alphabet as schastie which itself connotes "Its' own time" (siego czasu in Polish). It is this etymological riddle whereby the Russian word for happiness is tied to a moment in time that leads the Jewish Communist Rubin and the mathematician cured of Communist illusions Nierżyn to consider the question of happiness in Faustian terms and - like Krasiński towards the beginning of his Letters - express perfect happiness as that moment which we would wish to last forever, that moment towards which, with Faust, we would call out "Stay awhile, you are so beautiful."

For Krasiński, that moment is a woman. For Faust, it was the draining of the swamp and purification of Mankind (something Rubin interprets literally as the primacy of the social over the individual as defining human happiness, but Nierżyn doubts this, given that Faust makes the claim when old, insane and possibly dying in the full knowledge that he dooms himself in doing so). For Solzhenitsyn however, this Faustian notion of happiness is a tragic irony and a prelude to a radical reevaluation of all values.

Rubin accuses Nierżyn of skepticism and cites Lenin, which disgusts his interlocutor because Lenin's language is seen to be as base as Hercen's thinking about Russia (Hercen's thoughts were best described by Henryk Krzeczkowski as loving Russians not as they are, but as he thought they should be - a description befitting of Lenin as well). Rubin makes the claim that the iron laws of Material History could not possibly have been altered by the mere fact that he - firm adherent to Communist dogma - has found himself jailed by the Communists. In their ensuing discussion, Nierżyn does not attempt a logical refutation, only a personal one. We as readers, however, know that Nierżyn has a profoundly logical explanation for the ensuing state of affairs:

"For a mathematician there are no surprises in the history of the year 1917. After all, the tangent at the parameters of a 90 degree angle, rising into infinity, falls immediately into the abyss of negative infinity. It is the same with Russia which as the first in the world rose to the heights of a freedom unknown in history only to fall into the worst of all tyrannies."

Nierżyn may find it safer to be a skeptic than a mathematician in the шарашка. Nevertheless, it could be inferred that his logic has led him to conclusions quite contrary to Lenin, conclusions born out by his war-time experience which, having cured him of his emotional attachment to the Communist mystique, has sobered his mind to the extent that mathematics not only explains recent history in superior fashion, but also reveals Lenin for what he was - a demagogue rather than a dialectician.

Yet even if we accept this alternative explanation for the recent history of Russia from 1917 to 1945, Nierżyn's mathematics do not offer him a path forward. Rubin spies skepticism therein, seeing no moral alternative to Leninism - particularly at this stage of history, when to admit the absurdity of Dialectic Materialism in history would be to reduce the suffering of the Second World War and its aftermath into a meaningless ocean of blood. Nierżyn nominally agrees. He refuses to carry the label of what Lenin would call "a form of the movement from democracy to feudalism, to a dirtier kind of liberalism."

Nierżyn does not mount a defence of liberalism (though he identifies it simply as freedom), but rather raises what - for Solzhenitsyn - would become the central point of the Communist experience in Russian history: an unintentional purification and training of the soul that would create human types who are in every way superior to the human products of Western comfort. This is a theme Solzhenitsyn would return to in the future, most famously during his address to Harvard University. It is a point that evokes controversy, but has become - by the 100th anniversary of the 1917 revolution - an indisputable reality just as Solzhenitsyn prophesied it would: the souls of Russians and Eastern Europeans - trained by Communist suffering - have become the souls of a humanity that is excellent in all ways compared to Western Man.

Krasiński, himself a prophet who wrote vividly in his Memorial to Napoleon III that the Tsar is the Robespierre of Russia and foretold a red wave of blood and destruction sweeping across Europe, emanating from Russia, had a very different conception of Western Man and of the Faustian problem of happiness which his Letters to Delfina Potocka share with Solhzenitzyn's In the First Circle.

Krasiński, in the manner characteristic of Polish Catholic political thought, associates the soul of Western civilization with Roman Catholicism. Thus while the poet recognized the aberrations growing in Western society that Russian writers like  Stiepan Pietrowicz Szewieriow attributed to Western decadence as a fundamental trait of European society, Krasiński interpreted all that was wrong with the West as a turning away from its Catholic roots. This may explain why Krasiński treats the Faustian problem of happiness as a Christian warning against the fate of lovers in Dante's Fifth Circle, in contradistinction to Solzhenitsyn's notion of the Faustian problem of happiness as a tragic irony.

Krasiński (naively?) recognizes the danger of the Faustian bargain, but is both incapable of resistance against its manifestation in his love towards Delfina while at once irrationally convinced that the power of his Christian faith will somehow see him through so long as he is honest and mindful about just how close to the edge of the abyss he skirts. Solzhenitsyn's comportment is not naive, but rather morbid. It is Dostoyevsky' s happiness at his death penalty and subsequent Siberian exile. Thus the Polish and the Russian heart share an affinity for the same questions, a disagreement about the nature of the Western soul and answers which find themselves poised between the distinct extremes of naivety and morbidity.

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