Saturday, November 20, 2010

`The Heart of Every Human Being'

This would be even funnier if it weren’t so appalling:

“And so it is with the Russian Revolution. Was it perfect? We all know it wasn't. Was it a huge step, a 73-year-long series of huge steps, toward building the kind of society we all want, the kind of society that the whole planet needs if it and we are to survive? It most certainly was.”

It reads like parody but is written in a spirit of deadly earnestness. Thanks to Cynthia Haven I’m reading Stalin’s Genocides by Norman M. Naimark, who writes in his introduction:

“As the result of Stalin’s rule in the 1930s and early 1940s, many millions of innocent people were shot, starved to death, or died in detention and exile. It is long since time to consider this story an important chapter in the history of genocide.”

How damning of our species that such reminders remain necessary. I tried an informal name-recognition test on four of my fifth-grade reading students this week. Not one had heard of, let alone identify with some degree of detail, some of the last century’s leading killers -- Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Castro, among others. Hitler they knew, vaguely.

A friend in Houston writes:

“I thought of you the other day. I was in a very fancy hair salon, getting my roots touched up. You may not know anything about this, so I will tell you that it's a tedious process involving harsh chemicals and many pieces of foil wound through the hair. You have to sit still for about a half an hour, so I always have a book. This time I was reading a hardbound copy of The Gulag Archipelago, and I was lost in it.

“I gradually became aware that several other women were near me, and when I lifted up my eyes I saw their look of horror. It turned out that they were reacting to the large photograph of Solzhenitsyn on the back cover, which, to be fair, really is kind of scary. They were baffled as to why I would be reading such a thing, so I gave them about a three-minute exegesis. Now they were truly mystified. It does sound like a ghastly thing to read, doesn't it?

“In a fumbling effort to justify my choice to these extremely chic ladies, I stammered out what I think is one of the most important things in Solzhenitsyn's writings, the quote that ends with `the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.' To my very great surprise, this hit them like a bombshell. All three vigorously exclaimed the truth of it and wondered that they had never thought of it. Then they wandered back to their chairs for blow-drys. I don't know what to think.”

Here is the larger passage in The Gulag Archipelago my friend excerpts from – Part I, Chapter 4, “The Bluecaps”:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

“During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn't change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

“Socrates taught us: `Know thyself.’

“Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren't.

“From good to evil is one quaver, says the proverb.

“And correspondingly, from evil to good.”


Anonymous said...

Thanks for another great post. I identify with the woman in the foil!
Re: Lenin, Stalin, etc., Here is a site that is not for the faint of heart:


Cynthia Haven said...

Wonderful passage from Solzhentisyn. He's been much-disparaged as a writer, but as Brodsky points out, it's not as a writer we remember him.

This passage reminds us what an utterly indispensable witness he is.

Thank you, as always, Patrick.