05 August 2008

Gulags, Lileks and holidays

Solzhenitsyn's passing

James Lileks struck a chord with me when I first read his blog 4 or so years ago. Along with his narrative skills, I think it is the way his startlingly familiar suburban world is conveyed with such unapologetic dignity and humanity, that makes him read so true. He is such a contrast to the over intellectualised strivings of most of us baby boomers towards urban sophistication and academic hauteur. You feel refreshed and uplifted at his ease in aptly capturing significance in minor insights gleaned from the ordinariness of his days.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn died yesterday. The extraordinariness of this once ordinary maths teacher, lies in his survival through an ordeal of suffering at the hands of implacable oppressive cruelty that might otherwise have defied words, were it not for his great courage and literary genius. A greater contrast with the glossy material mid-western prosperity of Lilek's existence and Solzhenitsyn's tortured spiritual and corporeal Siberian hell, would be hard to conjure. Lileks could easily symbolise all that Solzhenitsyn came to despise in the materialism and seeming superficiality of the West, but there is also a curious parallel between them: their ability to show us how to "hold infinity in the palm of your hand". They both speak to us in a way that William Blake suggested: one a song of experience, the other a song of innocence .

It is fitting therefore that the best tribute to Solzhenitsyn that I have so far read on his passing is by Lileks. It's probably because my experience of the revelations of the almost incomprehensible scale of totalitarian inhumanity under communism through Solzhenitsyn eyes, were not completely dissimilar to Lilek's. I too was a curious but feckless undergraduate whiling away an angst ridden university vacation in suburbia, quietly fuming at an uncaring universe. Here is how Lilek's ineffably puts it:

"In the summer of ’78 I was back home in Fargo between college years – exiled from the civilized world, cast into barbarity. During the day I labored under the hot sun painting giant fuel tanks in the hot sun, next to an auto-body shop that exhaled poison and Eagles all day. A sensitive soul, cast into such grim circumstances. A noble soul, a poet, reduced to living on the gruel of hometown “culture,” almost unable to stir himself each day to face the hopeless allotment that stretched forth until the sun turned its face away.
Naturally, I was in the perfect mood to read the entire Gulag Archipelago. I got all three volumes from the drugstore – which should have told me something about the land in which I lived, that one could buy this work from a creaky wire rack at the drugstore – and it taught me much about the Soviet Union and the era of Stalin. After that I could never quite understand the people who viewed the US and the USSR as moral equals, or regarded our history as not only indelibly stained but uniquely so. Reading Solzhenitsyn makes it difficult to take seriously the people in this culture who insist that Dissent has been squelched. Brother, you have no idea.
The great brooding man is
dead – all those years of trial and disappointment done, ..."

Go Lileks! Thank you Alexander Solzhenitsyn. May your troubled, courageous and sublime soul find true peace at last.

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