The Ascent

On May 13, 2010, in Culture, History, Politics, Religion, by marc

One of the most famous chapters in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is titled “The Ascent.”  The chapter is included in The Solzhenitsyn Reader, and I excerpt this portion for you:

Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag

Solzhenitsyn during his years as a Zek

Looking back, I saw that for my whole conscious life I had not understood either myself or my strivings.  What had seemed for so long to be beneficial now turned out in actuality to be fatal, and I had been striving to go in the opposite direction to that which was truly necessary to me.  But just as the waves of the sea knock the inexperienced swimmer off his feet and keep tossing him back onto the shore, so also was I painfully tossed back on dry land by the blows of misfortune.  And it was only because of this that I was able to travel the path which I had always really wanted to travel.

It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good.  In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel.  In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor.  In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments.  And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that  I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.  Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.  This line shifts.  Inside us, it oscillates with the years.  And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.  And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an uprooted small corner of evil.

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being).  It is impossible to expel evil from the world it its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

And since that time I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history: They destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well).  And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more.

The Nuremberg Trials have to be regarded as one of the special achievements of the twentieth century: They killed the very idea of evil, though they killed very few of the people who had been infected with it.  (Of course, Stalin deserves no credit here.  He would have preferred to explain less and shoot more.)  And if by the twenty-first century humanity has not yet blown itself up and has not suffocated itself – perhaps it is this direction that will triumph?

Yes, and if it does not triumph – then all humanity’s history will have turned out to be an empty exercise in marking time, without the tiniest mite of meaning!  Whither and to what end will we otherwise be moving?  To beat the enemy over the head with a club – even cavemen knew that.

“Know thyself!”  There is nothing that so aids and assists the awakening of omniscience within us as insistent thoughts about one’s own transgressions, errors, mistakes.  After the difficult cycles of such ponderings over many years, whenever I mentioned the heartlessness of our highest-ranking bureaucrats, the cruelty of our executioners, I remember myself in my captain’s shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: “So were we any better?”

When people express vexation, in my presence, over the West’s tendency to crumble, its political shortsightedness, its divisiveness, its confusion – I recall too: “Were we, before passing through the Archipelago, more steadfast?  Firmer in our thoughts?”

And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!