Wednesday, July 19, 2017

шара́шка: Nasza Szaraszka - Our Shades of Grey

While I realize that the setting of Solhzenitzyn's First Circle is an experimental design and research bureau made up of intelligentsia who once inhabited gulags, I cannot help my mind from racing towards comparing the  "шара́шка" to the modern world we inhabit.

"Szaraszka" (the Polish translation from the Russian) roughly translates into "grey world" in English and connotes the Russian etymology which apparently suggests an ad hoc, disorganized and random group of trouble makers. The шара́шка is indeed grey, indescript - a type of moderation that is less of a virtuous mean between extremes and more of an average of all vicious extremes.

This hasty comparison on my part is the result of both experience and erudition which have led me to conclude with Evelyn Waugh that the Nazi and Communist totalitarianisms were the embodiment of a radical modernism which, having overwhelmed the old world like a tidal wave, have now settled into the deluge of contemporary democratic life. Or, to pose my hypothesis in the form of a question: do we all now live in Sohlzenitzyn's poorly organized, bungling шара́шка? 

The question is not without merit. Alexander Kojeve, (the brilliant Russian philosopher who pretended to be a Frenchman in order to make himself more palpatable to Western sensibilities), opined in the Strauss-Kojeve correspondence contained in On Tyranny that The United States of America are a model communist country in many ways. One ought not have to go into the details of these comparisons; it is enough to merely note that liberalism, communism and fascism are all variations upon modernity. 

If the "szaraszka" is a more humane stage of communist totalitarianism than its Siberian predecessor (the taiga), then could the modern world we now inhabit be an even more advanced and complex form of a more humane stage of totalitarianism? We do not, I think, appreciate just how radically totalitarianism succeeded in completely sweeping away the old world. We often view the totalitarian regimes of the early twentieth century from the perspective of their failures to build utopian ideals in practice - but never from the perspective of their vast success in annihilating the previous world. Human culture itself was altered - for the worse - and the repricussions of the radical totalitarianism which swept our planet in the early twentieth century will be with us for quite some time.

One repricussion, immediately visible in Sohlzenitzyn's prose, is the mixing of cultures into a common surrealism and absurdity. The German zeks and their Jewish Communist counterpart, though they began their journey in life on radically opposing sides of the totalitarian divide, are now all prisoners together. They have not so much discovered their common humanity as they have traveled across the very thin line dividing totalitarian moral absolutism from totalitarian moral nihilism. Their journey was from utopian idealism to surrealistic absurdity. This is essentially the journey that the entire human race was taken on by modern totalitarianism. Like the Germans and the Jew, we too are now caught in our absurd little шара́шка.

We instinctively recoil at the suggestion that the fate of the zeks has anything to do with our lives today. We take solace in the idea that In the First Circle is autobiographical, and as such a good opportunity to make ourselves feel good about "Western democracy" or "Western freedom" while taking pity on poor Solhzenitzyn and others for suffering such horrible tyranny. Yet we would be doing a profound injustice to Solhzenitzyn as a thinker if we convinced ourselves that his aim was merely to reflect upon the dismal state of Soviet life. Some examples suffice to demonstrate the point:

"All free workers in this building were officers of the Interior Ministry. Free workers, according to the constitution, had a variety of rights, amongst others the right to work. Yet this right was limited to eight hours a day. Furthermore, their work was not the productive multiplication of goods, but was limited to monitoring the zeks. On the other hands, zeks, who were deprived of all other rights, had a greater right to work than free workers. Zeks had the right to work twelve hours a day. This difference - with the addition of supper breaks (so from six in the morning until eleven at night) had to be made up by free workers in rotating shifts, since it was necessary to maintain oversight of the zeks."
 If this is a description of a more humane Soviet prison- then we can safely say that most of the modern world is simply a more humane Soviet prison, and we are all zeks and free workers. The question really does become who is better and who worse off? The zeks - or the free workers? Don't the constitutions of all of the modern "liberal democracies" ooze with rights of all sorts - including the right to work? And isn't work - particularly productive work - exactly what is lacking in modern "liberal democratic" societies? Aren't those of us who are "free workers" compelled in fact to work more than a mere eight hours - despite the promise of an eight hour day? And to what extent is our work really productive? Are we not simply overseers of the zeks of our time?

Who are the zeks of our time? They are likewise the intellectuals - the intelligensia - without patronage or social status - the zeks of the modern democratic world are not so visible as those in Solhzenitzyn's book. They have not been rounded up in one place in a rather disorganized attempt to make use of them. Instead, they are dispersed and relatively useless to society at large. This goes not only for our humanists (who have always been considered useless to society at large despite their great use as political philosophers who imagine and shape the best regime and the best citizens), but men of science as well. For how does the modern world engage our men of science? Are they engaged primarily in the advancement of space exploration, medicine, education, housing and the like - or in the creation of new past times and pleasures which serve to satisfy and placate entire populations to maintain a dull order akin to the order of the шара́шка?

"Towards the end of their education, the girls did not really know mathematics or physics very well (they realized in their senior years that the school directors would routinely berate teachers who failed students, forcing them to give passing grades..."

How is this essentially different from the educational system generally prevalent in the developed world? We too all have the right to an education and young people are obliged to finish school up to a certain age. The grim reality is that not everyone is capable of excelling and thus standards are lowered and pressure applied on teachers and academics to allow for the nominal passage of generation after generation of students through the school system.

One could go on. One could also recoil against the tendency to associate Sohlzenitzyn's prose with the modern world, to make of them merely a report about a specific time and place, a condemnation of Soviet tyranny. But the title itself, the author's own aspirations to tie his autobiography with the theme of suffering in Dante's First Circle, that is with a universalized contemplation of human suffering appears (in my view) to demand of us as readers that we do not shy away from seeking the essential outlines of totalitarianism in Sohlzenitzyn's work and then holding them up to our own times in order to ask whether or not we are indeed free - or simply further along the path from the depths of totalitarian evil towards a more humane tyranny?

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