Saturday, August 5, 2017

Irony & Totalitarianism in Solhzenitzyn's First Circle

I have grown dull to the irony of the communist dissident. That such is the case does not therefore reduce Solhzenitzyn as a writer, but let us take seriously for a moment the right of a mature reader to react this way when pondering the psychological portrait of Joseph Stalin which Sohlzenitzyn paints in his First Circle.


My resistance to irony is not the result of some ex-post facto anticommunist triumphalism now common in Poland, but simply the result of the passage of time, of having worked through certain things, and of course no doubt of the spirit of the times themselves.

As part of the last generation to be born under communism, I was spared its horrors in any but the most remote fashion and came of age at its zenith, when irony was in full blossom as the safest of comportments amongst Poles. It was the age of Stanisław Bareja. In retrospect, the atmosphere of Bareja's films is foreign to my sensibilities. They leave a bad aftertaste. I prefer the historical dramas of Ryszard Filipski or Jerzy Kawalerowicz. I find psychological dramas such as The Last Day of Summer superior to the pervading irony of late communism and its child: triumphant anti-communism.

As soon as I really understood Bareja's films, I realized that they offered a kind of retreat from the madness of everyday life under communism that was at once romantic on account of being rebellious, but acceptable in communist society on account of being aimless. When all the stages of ideological fanaticism have been torn away, nothing can maintain social order as well as popular aimlessness. Yet like skepticism, irony leaves us defenseless when confronted by serious moral problems. Ironically, irony is susceptible to becoming fanaticism because irony destroys the emotional temperament which yearns for serious thought with regard to tragedy, but it cannot erase the emotional scars of tragedy. Irony makes us victims. Victims seek easy solutions and the safe superiority of vengeance upon the dead.

Times have now changed. Ironic aimlessness has been replaced by a new form of fanaticism: the tardy heroism of a historical truth that owes its fanaticism to the fact that it never had to face the conditions which it now ignores when pronouncing judgment upon those who bore those conditions in favor of those who lost their lives under them. To use an analogy: a Polish variant of Sohlzenitzyn would today be condemned as a communist stooge or worse for the simple crime of daring to survive the Soviet Union. After all, the only true and worthy heroes can only be those who died on account of acts of direct defiance. Men like Sohlzenitzyn - Red Army soldiers who went on to artistic success within the communist system - must surely be unworthy of any recognition. In modern Poland, the current spirit of the times is to bask in self-congratulatory heroism for the simple fact of not breathing the same air as anyone who lived under communist times breathed.

Irony is no longer acceptable, it has been replaced by something worse. It, along with every stage of the progressive "thaw" in the life of the communist states, is now seen as simply yet another excuse for perpetuating communism in one or another form. Such is the current intellectual climate in Poland and, one suspects, in Eastern Europe to some extent. Influenced by this state of affairs, I am myself no longer interested in being ironic about communist times. Yet unlike many of my fellow Poles, I do not rush headlong into a heroic triumphalist anti-communism precisely because I hate virtue which is easily gained. I thus reject irony as well as triumphalism in favor of...well...in favor of the truth - whatever that may be. Not the truth of nations or history, but of the individual soul.

This truth is on display in Sohlzenitzyn's portrayal of the Zeks in the шарашка. It is hardly on display in Sohlzenitzyn's psychological portrait of Stalin. Hardly because I do not detect any irony only in those sections of Sohlzenitzyn's writing on Stalin where the dictator' s relationship to God and Russia are brought up. I interpret this not so much as any kind of reverence for Stalin on Sohlzenitzyn's part, but as a gravitas and realism with regard to human nature and the question of the Divine. Sohlzenitzyn's portrayal should not be mistaken as some sort of indication that Stalin was strong in his faith, but rather that he was weak in his humanity, that even he could not shake himself free of the nature of his construction as a human being and child of God.

When Stalin throws himself into prayer following the German invasion, when he instinctively reverts to the "brothers and sisters" of his pastoral youth in an important address to the Soviet peoples, when he fears God - I do not detect that irony omnipresent in the remainder of Sohlzenitzyn's account of Stalin's routine at 70. Certainly when Stalin contemplates his love for Russia because only Russia of all the Soviet nations was willing to suffer for him during the Great Patriotic War (unlike Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states all of which - in Stalin's eyes - greeted Hitler with open arms) - certainly here we spy for a moment a very Slavic kind of temperament which has, despite being embodied in the vanguard of world revolution, not been fully consumed by it.

In all else, Sohlzenitzyn's portrayal is the tired irony common for the times. It is not bad writing, it is simply so familiar to me now that even reading The First Circle for the first time, I find that I am able to predict each sentence of each paragraph of each chapter having to do with Stalin. It may be because I myself have studied Stalin's biography and, as a Pole, internalized that irony common to the final twenty five years of communism in Eastern Europe, but whatever the reason - this ironic writing falls flat. It is not bad writing, no! No! It is a worthy portrait both in a historical sense and in the sense that readers unfamiliar with communism can glimpse that ironic atmosphere so characteristic of its later stages - it is just that for me, as a reader, I am far more interested in the chronicles of the Zeks than in this very familiar irony.

The chronicles of the Zeks have an enduring quality in them. One cannot be ironic about the Zeks. The Zeks are the seeds which will blossom into the cultural future of Russia, while this fashionable irony that Sohlzenitzyn's portrait of Stalin displays will no doubt remain as a mere historical curiosity.

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