ELEISON COMMENTS DCCCXXXI (June 17, 2023) : SOLZHENITSYN SEES
Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) was a Russian writer made famous by his strong and clear denunciation of Soviet Communism in his best-known work, “The Archipelago Gulag” (1973). This book in three volumes played a major part in showing to the world the horrors of Communism, and it was the fruit of his own conversion to older values of God and country, which he underwent during the eight years of his own imprisonment in Soviet gulags, or prison-camps (1945-1953). The text below is an extract, slightly adapted, from an address he gave to the National Arts Club of New York in 1993. It shows his clear grasp of modern arts as reflecting a grave lack of spiritual life in souls, in the West as in the East –
Our whole world is living through a century of spiritual illness, which is necessarily reflected in the arts. A sense of confusion about the world has arisen not only in former Communist countries but also in the West, where an unprecedented rise in the material benefits of civilization and ever-improving standards of living, have been accompanied by an erosion and obscuring of high moral and ethical ideals. The spiritual axis of life has grown dim, and there are artists to whom the world now seems to make no sense, like an absurd pile of rubbish. Yes, world culture today is in a very severe crisis.
One way out has been to resort to resourceful new methods, as though there never was a crisis, as though varying the medium can make up for the lack of message. Vain hopes. Nothing worthy can be built on a neglect of higher meanings or on a relativistic view of concepts and culture as a whole. Indeed, something greater than a phenomenon confined to art can be discerned shimmering here beneath the surface—shimmering not with light, but with an ominous crimson glow, like that of a burning city…
For beneath these ubiquitous and seemingly innocent experiments of rejecting “antiquated” tradition, there lies a deep-seated hostility towards any spirituality. This relentless cult of novelty, with its assertion that art need not be good or pure, just so long as it is new, newer, and newer still, conceals an unyielding and long-sustained attempt to undermine, ridicule and uproot all moral precepts. As though there is no God, no truth, as though the universe is chaotic, there are no absolutes, everything is merely relative.
For in these closing decades of the 20th century, world literature, music, painting, and sculpture have exhibited a stubborn tendency to grow not higher, but sideways, not upwards towards the highest achievements of craftsmanship and of the human spirit, but downwards towards their disintegration into a frantic and insidious “novelty”. To decorate public spaces we put up sculptures which pretend that pure ugliness deserves our attention—and we are no longer even surprised. Yet if visitors from outer space were to pick up our music over the airwaves, how could they ever guess that earthlings once had a Bach, a Beethoven, or a Schubert, who are currently abandoned as though they are out of date and obsolete?
If we, the creators of art, will obediently submit to this downward slide, if we cease to hold dear the great cultural tradition of the foregoing centuries together with the spiritual foundations from which that noble tradition grew—we will be contributing to a highly dangerous fall of the human spirit on earth, to a degeneration of mankind into some kind of lower state, closer to the animal world. And yet, it is hard to believe that we will allow this to occur. Even in Russia, so terribly ill right now (1993) — we wait and hope that after the coma and a period of silence, we shall feel the breath of Russian literature reawakening, and observe in our younger brethren the arrival of new and fresh forces coming to our aid.
The artist sees the glow of our “burning city” – But will men turn to God ? No ? More’s the pity !