The Russian author Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature in the year 1970. Sadly, like Pasternak before him, Solzhenitsyn did not go to Stockholm to receive his prize, fearing that he would not be allowed back into Russia. Tragedy is when Russia’s greatest writers fear their own government enough to avoid offending it. Comic-tragedy is when America pats itself on the back for fine education, even though we have not produced a first-rank writer in decades.
In his famed Nobel Lecture he discussed the purpose of art. Like a savage holding a new tool, modern man held Art in his hands and imagined that he understood it. Dividing artists, including writers, into two parts, Solzhenitsyn argued that one type.
One artist sees himself as the creator of an independent spiritual world; he hoists onto his shoulders the task of creating this world, of peopling it and of bearing the all-embracing responsibility for it; but he crumples beneath it, for a mortal genius is not capable of bearing such a burden. Just as man in general, having declared himself the centre of existence, has not succeeded in creating a balanced spiritual system
Like the philosophers of old, it is only they who acknolwedge the Divine Source of all being, Truth and Love, who are able to understand and elucidate the meaning, nature and end of human existence. Augustine, Pascal and Aquinas perceived more than did Bacon, Rousseau and Locke. We may compare these with writers, Dostoevsky Hawthorne and Solzhenitsyn himself; Ayn Rand and Leo Tolstoy. Again, the former perceive more because they acknowledge, either explicitly in their words or assumed in their writings, that they are not the sole or sufficient creators of the world they craft. For those who take a more humble approach to art, Solzhenitsyn says this:
Another artist, recognizing a higher power above, gladly works as a humble apprentice beneath God’s heaven; then, however, his responsibility for everything that is written or drawn, for the souls which perceive his work, is more exacting than ever. But, in return, it is not he who has created this world, not he who directs it, there is no doubt as to its foundations; the artist has merely to be more keenly aware than others of the harmony of the world, of the beauty and ugliness of the human contribution to it, and to communicate this acutely to his fellow-men. And in misfortune, and even at the depths of existence – in destitution, in prison, in sickness – his sense of stable harmony never deserts him.
Not all men are fools, nor are all men fools all the time, though all men are fools some of the time. In the world of literature, in the world of artistic creation, there are many sorts of writers, some good and some ill. A few have profound abilities and yet produce works which are in some sense lacking in humane vision. Tolstoy’s great heroine Anna Karenina, a character I find personally fascinating and rather incomprehensible, is a deeply flawed figure. Not only does she have an affair with a handsome nobleman, in the end she commits suicide in the false belief that her lover is being unfaithful. Tolstoy does not condemn this sin in his writing, as do Hawthorne and Sigrid Undset in their novels. The historian and critic Paul Johnson notes in his book Intellectuals, that Tolstoy’s work seems to lack a humanness and warmth that is possessed by his contemporary Dickens. I am inclined to agree.
“In vain does one repeat what the heart does not find sweet.” This great statement by the Russian Jeremiah is mirrored in Dr. Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare where the critic noted, “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.” The reality of modern literature is that it has wandered far afield from the hearts and souls of men and women. Literary figures seem to have tired of aiming words and ideas at the deepest affections of mankind chosen the follies of an ages ‘terrible simplifiers’. Paralleling this development, artists and architects have tired of beauty, philosophers have tired of Truth and theologians have tired of God. The mass of mankind may be fools, and politicians may fool them, but common men and women, the citizenry of nations, are seldom capable of being utterly fooled. I have heard intelligent men and women disgustedly reject the follies of our age, common sense traded for common foolishness.
Your Humble Servant. C. McDonald