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Old December 12th, 2010, 11:00 AM   #11

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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


I regret my late arrival to the party but it looks like there are still plenty of hors d'œuvre left.

My first reaction to Avon’s concise introduction was ‘how the hell do I follow that’. I had already made a few notes along the same line but I totally missed matching Avon’s broad and succinct coverage. So I have been trying to think of another approach.
I began by thinking about the tradition from which Solzhenitsyn grew, of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorki and that whole gang that sprung from the rich nutrient Russian soil.

There was something else in Russian literature that was escaping me. Perhaps the political view was so strong it blocked my thoughts.

Life and death are of course the major theme of all literature, but there has always, in my mind, been something different about the way the Russian mind thinks and writes about these two themes. Not being Russian is definitely a drawback.

Having a mind that is ‘dual-cultural’ gives one an extra appreciation of the ancient truth “culture is learned by ear”. What is paramount in this marvelous classic is the mystical tradition that informs it, and the way Russian Christian asceticism is encountered in the writings of those who preceded Solzhenitsyn: Tolstoy’s Father Serguius, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and his Sonia in Crime and Punishment. That is what I was missing.

The Russian soul is difficult for the Westerner to appreciate. My feeling is that the West is Roman and the East is Oriental. (a bit simplified but bear with me) The eastern church sends it spiritual tap root deep into the soil of spirituality whereas the western church plants seedlings. The Russians appreciate their saintly monks, hermits, pilgrims and holy fools. The West may acknowledge this groups holiness but it is a group that doesn’t get invited to dinner.

The basic theme of this novella that is starting to immerge in my mind is one of asceticism. Even though the novella contains both subtitle and overt themes of Christian cosmogony, mythology, ontology and ritual it is the theme and tradition of asceticism that stands out.

Solzhenitsyn puts these images (not symbols) through out the story with naturalness and without contrivance. For example: the artist who renews the numbers on the caps of inmates is reminiscent of a priest anointing the forehead with holy oil.
Shukhov recalls that the start of the war coincided with Sunday Mass in Polomnia.
And another image to reinforce their common religious roots is the Ukrainian, Pavlo, who crosses himself after a meal. These images are so prevalent through-out that one can only conclude that Solzhenitsyn intended (consciously or not) to write a religious narrative.

Ascetic ideals are the criteria by which our protagonist lives and survives. Preceding the ascetic (in the practitioner) is the awareness of their ethical and religious essence. Survival in this inhuman environment is treated not as a biological stroke of luck but as dependent on the individual’s spiritual reawakening. Or at least the germ of hope.
As a political statement Solzhenitsyn seems to be saying that the spiritual being can stand against a system (the Soviet) that demands allegiance to the false and evil values of totalitarianism.
Like the medieval holy man Shukhov displays fortitude in the face of overwhelming evil and resist the blandishments of the devil in order to obtain a higher level of spirituality.

At this point perhaps a working definition of asceticism is in order.
Ascetic is from the Greek ‘askesis’ meaning ‘spiritual accomplishments’.
There are two aspects to the practice.
One: the abnegation of one’s social self, the abnegation of that being that is in the world.
Two: cultivation of one’s spiritual self.
These two aspects are the center of ascetic doctrines in Christian as well as other religions.
The ascetic withdraws from the world, rejecting it’s values and through constant prayer makes a spiritual path to God. This withdrawal can take the form of individual seclusion or in community with like minded monks.

What is pertinent to our story is that in Russian orthodoxy it is not imperative that an ascetic be fully self-aware of his asceticism. There is a category for this (I forget the name) but it is the one to which “holy fools” belong. Shukhov, while not fully aware of his category, could feel its imperativeness. He was born to the manner.

Ivan Denisovich’s concentration camp is divided into two worlds. That of the inmates (Shukhov = sacred) and those with power (guards = profane). As we follow Shukhov daily routine (on one of his better days) we see the line drawn between the two worlds. We see the images of the spirit and the material. The physical deprivations are simply related in such a way that the reader also feels “in the dark, in the freezing cold, with a hungry belly, and the whole day ahead.”

Outcast and isolated from the world just like ascetics, only our protagonist was not born to it but had it thrust upon him. Just as Shukhov at the hospital had “chosen this uncomfortable place unconsciously, intending to show that he wasn’t at home in sick bay and would make no great demands on it.”

This world of Soviet officialdom, this world in control of the material is The First Circle of hell; a now classic metaphor that Solzhenitsyn also used as a title for a later novel.
A hell built from the real world turned inside out by administrative calculation. This diabolical world is aptly expressed by the thermometer that doesn’t work, “It doesn’t work properly… think they’d hang it where we can see it if it did?”
The two worlds are reflected in Shukhov’s question, “Can a man who’s warm understand one who’s freezing?”

Further on Alioskha reads from the Gospel, : "But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God." This is not only the values that Alioshka subscribes to but it is also the (unthought?) credo of Shukhov whose place is thereby defined in Christian terms in contrast to the cruelty of the camp. While this scene defines the religious level of our protagonists and defines them as martyrs it at the same time marks the camps officials as the “evildoers”.
It is interesting to note that Russia’s first canonized martyrs, Boris and Gleb (1015), did not die for the faith, but were innocent victims of a political crime. Russian spiritual roots are very deep.

The sentries refer to the inmates as the ‘flock’, which is emblematic of the Soviet system assuming the role of ‘Shepard’. Here Solzenitin mirrors Satan’s attempt to control God’s world (The Gospel according to Devisovich?). It also underlines the path of Christian asceticism which is part of the zeks code. Like a monk, the zeks ‘martyrdom’ (a Greek word for ‘witness’) entails a regimen of obedience, brotherhood, and mutual support where deviation from the code determines community status.
These images are found throughout the story.
Another image to reinforce this theme is when Buienovsky’s spiritual awareness replaces his ideological blindness. He screams his new found truth in the guards face, "You are not Soviet people! You are not communists!" It is his first step on the path of enlightenment through suffering; he glimpses that the world is not what he was told it was.

Solzhenitsyn, working in the tradition as Dostoevsky before him, wants his reader to embrace (is embrace to strong a word?) the Christian ideal of an authentic spiritual life which he found affirmed in the camps of the Gulag. Affirmed by offerings its inmates the opportunity to find, evolve, cure and develop their souls. He offers us the hell of the camp not as eternal damnation but as a purifying fire.

This common path through the fire bonds the inmates because of their shared experience, values and a vision of a better life. This gives the camp a religious significance in that the inmates can liberate their soul from the clutches of the profane world.
However spiritual release is not the lot of everyone. Some of the inmates persist in attachment to outside (worldly) values. Tsezar is one who does not share the same thoughts as the others. His worldliness is indicated by regularly receiving packages from home and not having to depend on camp food. He even dares have thoughts of life outside camp. He is centered on the worldly. Even the fact he wears a mustache sets him apart from the group. With minimal suffering he doesn’t even fear returning home as Shukhov does. He has not suffered sufficiently to embrace ascetic values and can not enter into new awareness.

Another exception to the rule (the holy rule of the community) is the scavenger Fetiukov. He licks plates and steals food. He does not contribute to the work team thereby forcing others to do his job. He is the lowest of creatures and incapable even of alleviating his suffering by bribing the guards. He does suffer but with out dignity and therefore like Tsezar he too is lost. These two are the eternal outsiders that never even ask to come in from the cold. They have fallen into despair. There is not an iota of the communal about him. He wants to live by bread alone.

On the other hand is the old zek Yu-81 who embodies the best of asceticism. He retains his identity and value as a human: by not allowing his eyes to dart around, by not dipping his face into the bowl, like the others, but by raising the spoon to his mouth, by refusing to be beaten down, by regularly washing his rag. Small gestures which allows him to retain his humanness, thereby disqualifying him for a trusty position but qualifying him for entrance to a higher spiritual knowledge. Yu-81 is the archetypal ascetic.

The Christian ascetic denounces, gluttony, sloth, lust, avarice, melancholy, anger, boredom, vainglory, and pride as obstacles to the souls ultimate goal. The zeks have the same goals but they have not willed it, for the zeks these denunciation are a necessary condition of survival.

We see these deadly sins at work such as when Buienovsky give vent to his anger (pride) and suffers the consequences. The prime virtue that must be exercised for survival is that of humility. Senka Klevshin puts it this way, “kick up a fuss…and you’re done for…best to grin and bear it. dig in your heels and they’ll break you in two.” Humility is valued because, “A meek fellow… is a treasure to his gang.”
All of which is part of the ascetic tradition and its’ mental discipline with it’s proportioned parts of silence, meditation, contemplation and prayer. (They prayed for blizzards.)

Solzenitin has given us a narrative full of meditations, benedictions, petitions and even several full-length prayers. He even gives us (through Shukhov and Alioshka ) a discussion about the meaning of prayer.
"Alioshka sat silent, with his face buried in his hands. Saying his prayers."

A conversation between Shukhov and Alioshka sums up the basic theme. In the conversation it appears as if Alioshka (the believer) wants to convert Shukhov (the non-believer). But it is only appearance. They both practice the same asceticism, and are both highly ethical. One is the knowing believer and the other is the un-knowing believer. One is the visible saint and the other the invisible saint, one is verbal and the other is mute, one speaks with evangelical fervor and the other speaks in the jargon of the camp.

Alioshka is a Baptist because to belong to the Orthodox church is to also belong to the state. "The Orthodox Church has turned its back on the Gospels—they [Orthodox priests] don't get put inside . . . because their faith is not firm," Alioshka tells Shukhov.

"What good is freedom to you? If you're free, your faith will soon be choked by thorns. Be glad you are in prison." Shukhov senses the truth of these words. Is freedom any longer desired? Thus the theme of freedom is transfigured and defined not by confinement but by the clearness of ones vision; camp survival becomes spiritual survival. Outside the camp, in the cities and villages the citizens go through the motions of a free life with a spiritual numbness.

Last edited by Pedro; December 12th, 2010 at 06:46 PM.
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Old December 12th, 2010, 11:03 AM   #12

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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


P.S. I predict that One Day will one day become a classic of spiritual literature. Let us pray that the Christians donít get a hold of it....
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Old December 13th, 2010, 04:08 AM   #13
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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


Quote:
Originally Posted by avon View Post
'Cold': everything in this book is cold. The cold is the prison. Ivan Denisovich is a cold character with very little obvious emotion. What emotion is there is clearly kept under wraps. Those small bonds of friendship that are detailed in the story are also, similarly, cold and almost evoid of human emotion and personal warmth. This is a book where humanity seems to have been left behind ... but at the same time screams in protest.
Quote:
Originally Posted by vera View Post
As to the lack-of-emotion-cold of this story, I feel it is the very thing that allowed him to survive it.
I don't find the protagonist's behaviour "cold". It actually seems the Buddhist technique of mindfulness in practice, meaning paying attention to the here and now, living every moment with all your senses fully focused on it and thereby leaving no room for your mind to wander into the future or the past. You're so busy living that there's no time to reflect on the state of life, if you like. Almost the same thing the narrator in 'The pit and the pendulum' did. If you're fully absorbed in living life from one moment to the next, no matter what your circumstances, your mind won't get a chance to judge it, and hence go nuts or to overwhelm you with negative emotions. I'm reminded of the verse in John Milton's The Paradise Lost:
"The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven"
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Old December 13th, 2010, 04:28 AM   #14
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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


That's an excellent write-up, Pedro. None of the points you mentioned had occurred to me. I was thinking purely in literary terms, you've give quite the bird's eye view.
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Old December 13th, 2010, 05:30 AM   #15

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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


Thanks to Avon and Pedro for their introduction and comments. Like vera, I read this book over 20 years ago and only remember the broad details.. the harshness of the winter, the brutality of the system and guards and the camaraderie of the group. I had first read Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 as I was interested in World War I then looked into his other works including Ivan. I got stalled in his Gulag Archipelago.

Thanks for putting htis one on the reading list. I want to reread it when I get a chance.
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Old December 14th, 2010, 02:50 PM   #16

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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


Quote:
Originally Posted by Pedro View Post
I regret my late arrival to the party but it looks like there are still plenty of hors d'œuvre left.

...
Now THAT'S a post!! Nicely put, my friend.

Of course, this where I tell you that I gave the theme of asceticism deep consideration whilst reading this book ... but decided to leave it for you to discuss!

Now that you have have mentioned it, it all makes good sense and I think I might be able to add at least one further point.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Pedro View Post
Ivan Denisovich’s concentration camp is divided into two worlds. That of the inmates (Shukhov = sacred) and those with power (guards = profane).
If we consider Solzhenitsyn's other book, The First Circle in Dantean terms, we might note that the profane world of the guards in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich could, ostensibly, represent Hell. More explicitly, this Hell, with its guards and fences and criminals might be intended as a metaphor for the Soviet regime. The 'Evil Empire' (as Reagan once branded it) thus operates within the ugly world of pain and suffering and physical and psychological repression where the inmates (or citizens) always lose out. Just a thought.

Nice post!
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Old December 14th, 2010, 02:57 PM   #17

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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


Quote:
Originally Posted by Rosi View Post
I don't find the protagonist's behaviour "cold". It actually seems the Buddhist technique of mindfulness in practice, meaning paying attention to the here and now, living every moment with all your senses fully focused on it and thereby leaving no room for your mind to wander into the future or the past. You're so busy living that there's no time to reflect on the state of life, if you like. Almost the same thing the narrator in 'The pit and the pendulum' did. If you're fully absorbed in living life from one moment to the next, no matter what your circumstances, your mind won't get a chance to judge it, and hence go nuts or to overwhelm you with negative emotions. I'm reminded of the verse in John Milton's The Paradise Lost:
"The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven"
Perhaps 'cold' is not the right term. 'Detached' better describes what I mean but, given the context, 'cold' is a more appealing word in that respect. Shukhov does a good job of keeping his head down and simply doing what he has to do to get through. To me this is detached (or 'cold'), and did everything in his limited power to avoid being affected by his surroundings. Given Pedro's contribution, we might also consider him acting more than a little hermetically.
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Old December 14th, 2010, 04:36 PM   #18

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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


Quote:
Surely it cannot be the case that English readers cannot appreciate Solzhenitsyn or Tolstoy or Zola or Voltaire quite as much as native reader!! Can it
I might be able to offer an opinion if I read both English and Russian. As I don't,I can't. I think there may be some purists who will disagree with the proposition that a translation can improve an original,especially great literature.

However, I guess that depends on the book.In my experience,few historians write well. Plus, I think it would take deliberate effort to make a translation of say Dan Brown,worse than the original.
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Old December 14th, 2010, 07:01 PM   #19
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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


On the off-chance that some here haven't heard about it, there's a movie out based on this book (same title, too). I thought it did a great job encapsulating 'One Day' in a little more than one hour. And 'cold' certainly is a fitting description of its mood.
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Old December 15th, 2010, 11:57 AM   #20

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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


Quote:
Originally Posted by avon View Post
If we consider Solzhenitsyn's other book, The First Circle in Dantean terms, we might note that the profane world of the guards in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich could, ostensibly, represent Hell. More explicitly, this Hell, with its guards and fences and criminals might be intended as a metaphor for the Soviet regime. The 'Evil Empire' (as Reagan once branded it) thus operates within the ugly world of pain and suffering and physical and psychological repression where the inmates (or citizens) always lose out. Just a thought.
Nice post!
I agree with the consensus here - an excellent write-up by Pedro viewing the matter from a refreshingly different perspective. I personally find it a chore to read concentration camp literature and any approach which opens the door to viewing the material on a less claustrophobic 'metaphoric' plane needs to be applauded. The Dantean reading is very attractive too in light of Pedro's reflections on asceticism but Khruschev, who feted 'Denisovich', and who was instrumental in seeing it pass the censors certainly wouldn't have wished there to be any confusion among Russian readers between Solzhenitysn's critique of 'Stalinism' and the Soviet system as a whole. What Solzhenitsyn intended no doubt was to lambast applied Bolshevism and dig it up from its roots but his prose was sufficiently tightened to satisfy Khruschev that his work would serve the politically expedient task of 'de-Stalinisation'. An "evil empire" certainly, but a more narrowly defined one then we usually associate with the Solzhenitsyn canon.
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