Monday, August 7, 2017

Anton's Reminiscence: Memory & Truth in the work of Sohlzenitzyn

It is worthwhile to pause briefly on the brief chapter featuring Anton Janukov's reminiscence of his youth alongside Agniya by the St. Nikita orthodox church in Moscow. This brief scene tells us something very important about Sohlzenitzyn's vision of the proper relation of mankind to history; namely that history is not synonymous with truth, but that it is truth which must guide us in coming to terms with history.


As Anton drowns his sorrows in the escapism of a chilly Moscow dawn, he wanders by the old St. Nikita orthodox church and recalls his romantic love for the mysterious Agniya. This recollection contains within it all of the elements proper to the mystery of the individual and his relation to history. Anton was surprised by Agniya' s Orthodox predispositions, he reminded her of the evils and acts of cowardice committed by the Orthodox church in the past and above all of the glorious egalitarian promise of the communist future. To this Agniya replies not with a polemic upon history, but with the taut fact that what is of concern to her is the present.

Agniya' s family is that honest type which reccurs in volatile political regimes and is without any ideological qualifications. Her family helped the Narodovolni and the Social Democrats out of a conviction that the weak must be protected from the strong. Agniya decides to help the Orthodox for the same reason and, attending the services, unwittingly discovers the first inkling of the mystical relation between God and the Russian soul.

Anton's family, nominally bourgeois, has (as is the case of all bourgeois households) taught Anton to adapt and survive. This is why Anton feels compelled to voice his anti-clericalism, his faith in the communist future and his contempt for bourgeois institutions. Anton does not turn his back on bourgeois materialism by becoming a fanatical communist. He acts according to the fundamental common motive underlying capitalist and communist society: material security.

The lovers part ways, until like some Soviet Willy Loman, Anton finds himself back in what is left of the Orthodox church. He is at the pinnacle of his career and thus is primed for the fall from grace in the cycle of murder and exploitation that Stalinism has worked upon Russia. While Anton does not perhaps realize the weight of his reminiscence, we as readers should.

Agniya' s insistence upon  the primacy of the present over the past and future in determining the morality or immorality of an action is quintessentially Christian and, more than anything, humane. History is a vast and complex creature and there is only one thing we can be sure of when venturing to understand it: history cannot be changed. To make moral decisions on the basis of some historical cannon (for example based on the historical evil or historical virtues of the Russian Orthodox church) is to make a coward's retreat from the difficulty of moral choices.

Agniya understands that morality is tied to the recognition of the innocence of the weak and the duty of the strong. Justice, in Agniya's view, is the opposite of what Thrasymicus attempted to argue in the first book of Plato's Republic: justice is not the rule of the strong, it is the responsibility of the strong towards the weak. Seeing that under communism the once almost omnipotent Orthodox church had been reduced to such weakness and persecution, Agniya recognizes that morality in her time is to stand with the church. Agniya does not thereby absolve the church of its historical sins - she separates the interpretation of history from the moral choices of the present which she judges not on the basis of history, but on the basis of a natural truth that lies outside of history.

Anton takes the opposite path. He justifies the present persecution of specific individuals of the Orthodox faith who had nothing in common with perceived historical sins of the past on the basis of those presumed sins and condemns them on the basis of a philosophy of history which claims to know the future and judge all present events not by the standards of natural right, but rather as stages of historical progress. This is not merely a case of fanatical communism. It is not merely a case of revolutionary dogmatism: it is above all the materialist creed of the bourgeois taken to its logical conclusion in the materialist philosophy of history of the communist. It is what is called "conuncturalism" in Poland (from the Latin conunctura, meaning the economic, material conditions influencing human action).

A conuncturist is a man whose behavior is exclusively a function of material, economic circumstances. Anton had to become a fanatical communist because his class origins were subject to suspicion. Yet like all conuncturists, he ends up participating in a race to the bottom. He ends up on the brink of destruction in a system of material competition driven to a murderous extreme. Agniya's choices take her on a very different path.

It is perhaps not wrong to suggest that Sohlzenitzyn's sympathies are closer to Agniya's path. It is not merely on account of this path being Orthodox Christian, but above all because this is the path of truth. The question of historical interpretation will forever remain open to deliberation, but human beings are confronted by the pressing need to make moral choices in the present. These choices cannot be deliberated into infinity and so they are either made correctly or not. The correct moral choice is rooted in the best understanding of the truth that an individual possesses, and the truth itself is the responsibility of the strong and the innocence of the weak. This is what Agniya tried to reach Anton - and what one hopes Sohlzenitzyn has taught us.

Historical references:

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