I was driving to the library when my middle son called to tell me he was reading The Gulag Archipelago, one of those rare books we can honestly say has changed the world. He was again struck by the brazen, unapologetic nihilism of the Soviets and their toadies, and by Solzhenitsyn’s zeal in documenting it. The three volumes possess another rare literary quality – they remain relevant, that often ballyhooed and seldom pertinent virtue that was becoming fashionable when I was in high school.
Michael proposed that Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, at least the abridged version, be incorporated into the curriculum of American high schools. This simple idea is too commonsensical ever to be adopted. The historical memory of many Americans has almost evaporated, leaving it eminently inflatable with hogwash. Think of the other books we might usefully add to Michael’s list – Nadezhda Mandelstam’s two volumes of memoirs, Aleksander Wat’s My Century, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. And they barely touch the twentieth century’s other monumental atrocity, the Holocaust. Such volumes are the essential primers on totalitarianism, of course, but also on the basics of human nature. Take this passage from Part I of the Gulag, Chapter 4, titled “The Bluecaps,” which might help dispel our pervasive naïveté about ourselves:
“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.”
At the library I found a posthumously published collection of essays and articles by Roger Scruton, Against the Tide (ed. Mark Dooley, Bloomsbury, 2022). Included is a column Scruton wrote in 1983 for The Times, “The Virtue of Irrelevance.” It’s a bracing assault on the ongoing trivialization of education, now underway for more than half a century. Universities have turned into nursery/vocational schools. Scruton is ever the genteel contrarian in his defense of the humanities:
“The more irrelevant a subject, the more lasting is the benefit that it confers. Irrelevant subjects bring understanding of the human condition, by forcing the student to stand back from it. They also enhance the appetite for life, by providing material for thought and conversation. This is the secret which civilisation has guarded: that power and influence come through the acquisition of useless knowledge.”
Scruton dismisses such fashionable silliness as “women’s studies” and concludes:
“The value of such a subject is precisely that it destroys education. It keeps the student's mind so narrowly focused on his random and transient political convictions that, when he ceases to be obsessed with them, he will lack the education through which to discover what to put in their place.”