Alexander Solzhenitsyn died on August 3, but if reigning English professors and textbook editors have their way, his writing will soon be disappeared.
The murder of 100 million by communist regimes during the twentieth century is a fact ignored or rationalized by leftists everywhere, of course. In political science and history, a few like Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes fight such prevailing revisionism with fact.
But in literary studies, the propagandizing comes under the clever cover of theories that purportedly embrace multiplicity and openness. While the most influential professional group, the Modern Language Association, has been the butt of jokes even by the New York Times for its annual convention, and while many dismiss its journal PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association of America) as irrelevant, jargon-laden musings of a priestly caste of academics, we cannot ignore the very real harm they do to intellectual life. A direct line connects the MLA, the disrepute of Solzhenitsyn, the loss of literacy, and the decay of our civilization.
Take, for example, the March 2007 issue, which I picked up among the outdated editions of textbooks free for the taking on a table in my English department. Although I had not read PMLA in years, it was like clicking on a soap opera after a long absence: One is quickly plunged into an ongoing plot propelled by lust, love, betrayal, and sickness. In its own way, the influential in the profession are driven by a lust for power and betrayal of the very culture that entrusted them with passing on its heritage. They set out, instead, to undermine the traditional reasons most people read, as articulated by Horace’s prescription for the writer: “to instruct and delight.”
The gatekeepers seek to prescribe for readers something beyond the age-old, tried, and true. According to PMLA editor Patricia Yaeger, “contemporary readers have a different agenda”: “the art of polyphony.” (But, as recent studies indicate, “contemporary readers,” especially those who are young, have simply stopped reading and signing up for English electives in college.) The critics, since Roland Barthes made his famous statement about the death of the author — or the notion of an individual creating a work with an intentional meaning — have promoted literature as a multi-voiced product of environmental forces expressed through an identity-less mouthpiece. Hence, Professor Yaeger intones, “As category confusion accelerates, we gravitate toward interstices and traces rather than clean causalities, binaries, or arrays.”
Like everyone else writing for PMLA and like tenure-guaranteeing journals, Yaeger puts into question “binaries” (like good and evil, truth and falsehood) and “arrays” (orderly arrangement, such as cause and effect, and the beginning, middle, and end of a plot). Yaeger also interprets a piece of “art” by Kehinde Wiley that graces the cover of the issue. Here, “black youths” in the attitude and costume of rappers take the place normally given to gods and saints in heavens depicted in eighteenth-century rococo paintings. “Just as these young men have become heaven’s jewels, so the heavens turn into a backdrop or accessory, like a scene in a music video,” she proclaims with subversive delight. Yaeger, like her fashionable colleagues, provides multiple readings in such merging of the sacred and the profane: “(1) these guys are just hanging out with the rococo; (2) they are signifying on white tradition and tilting its Euro values; (3) they participate in a polyphony as a sampling — the eighteenth-century sky a borrowed instrument or motif, their dharma halos aglitter with baroque surprise, their Nike swooshes and inversion of Mercury’s wings — with all the velocity of hip-hop adornment.” Wiley’s work is displayed at the Brooklyn Museum, made notorious for the 1999 exhibit, Sensation, which featured, among graphic depictions of naked children with distorted bodies, Chris Ofili’s painting of the Virgin Mary splattered with elephant dung. As in visual art, so in literary that increasingly turns to the visual, we have Professor Yaeger’s attempt to bring down the high and noble.
The attitude of Professor Yaeger trickles down to what the college freshman or sophomore will read in his literature anthology and hear in class lectures. Which brings us back to why these pedagogues have been so intent on undermining Solzhenitsyn’s work.
First off, he is “authoritarian,” which to these authorities with Ph.D.s is the worst thing one could be. The sophomore using the widely popular Norton Anthology of World Literature would find in the introductory remarks to Solzhenitsyn’s short story “Matryona’s Home,” about a peasant woman displaying Christian charity in her cruel collectivized village, these sentences: “Since Solzhenitsyn is such a dedicated anti-communist and anti-Marxist, many Westerners have jumped to the conclusion that he is in favor of the Western democratic system. Such is not the case. He looks back to an earlier, more nationalist and spiritual authoritarianism represented for him by the image of Holy Russia.” The editors refer to his famous 1978 Harvard commencement address, where Solzhenitsyn points to the need for a moral, spiritual basis to carry society forward — a hardly suspect sentiment that echoes our own founding fathers’ calls for religious faith.
In any event, for the typical college student, with declining reading levels and skills, and well-trained in “tolerance and open-mindedness,” the mention of “authoritarianism” is bound to sound off warning bells.
The student going to the publisher’s website for further background won’t find anything about the resistance Solzhenitsyn expressed from his eight years as a political prisoner. Rather, he’ll be informed about “Western colonialism” in a section where several writers, including the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, are referenced: “Colonization and decolonization were generally savage (to use a colonialist term) from the perspective of colonial and postcolonial subjects.”
The editors do point to those who were affected by “internal developments”: “Though social-realist movements varied considerably within the context of Chinese, Indian, and Soviet contexts, in general they denounced the bourgeois and colonialist values expounded in Western art and literature.” Well, yes, those that were approved by the communist censors. But what about the denouncements made so desperately, at the risk of life itself, against the Soviet regime? Not one word on that. The other major publisher Prentice-Hall simply ignores Solzhenitsyn among its Russian offerings. So does the new upcoming Bedford anthology.
In fact, under “classroom strategies” in the Norton instructor’s manual, teachers are told that they are likely to encounter the problem of students accepting the “truth” of what Solzhenitsyn has to say: “Because the story answers to most of the myths and preconceptions Westerners already have about Soviet life, the problem will be to make sure that students read it with the same degree of resistance with which they would normally confront any other piece of fiction.” Here we have the apologists for communism directing teachers: All that you’ve heard about the brutality of communism is merely part of our “myths and preconceptions.” Students must be reeducated to “resist” the testimony of Solzhenitsyn as dramatized in his fictional account.
No such “resistance,” however, is asked for the selections from Marxist authors, native American tribes, or the “colonized” writers like Wole Soyinka who extol the African tribal custom of having the king’s horseman commit suicide after the king’s death (a practice to which Christian “colonizers” insensitively object). Instructors are told to “Discuss the meaning of ritual suicide among the Yoruba as it is explained in Soyinka’s play,” and then ask students, “Under what circumstances may suicide be the right choice?”
It is this kind of sophistry that Solzhenitsyn had in mind when he said in his commencement speech at Harvard in 1978, “Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges.”
What is not fashionable today is a Judeo-Christian moral view, even if backed up by firsthand accounts and historical evidence. The hiring and editorial gatekeepers make sure that such a view does not make its way into the college classroom unaccompanied by tortured counterfactual explanations. Increasingly, such authors are “disappeared” to make way for fashionable writers, like the ubiquitous Castro-loving Alice Walker. On their own territory, Solzhenitsyn told the Harvard professors and graduates, “Many people living in the West are dissatisfied with their own society. They despise it or accuse it of not being up to the level of maturity attained by mankind. A number of such critics turn to socialism.” He traces the progression: “As humanism in its development became more and more materialistic, it made itself increasingly accessible to speculation and manipulation at first by socialism and then by communism.”
The college student, taught as he has been by those like Patricia Yaeger who undermine the good, the true, and the beautiful, has a very slim chance of fair exposure to the real import of Solzhenitsyn’s work. Solzhenitsyn suffered much in order to bring us his testimony about the evils of communism. The communists did not succeed in killing him, but the fashionable tenured academics quietly dispose of his work through their own “memory holes” of excision and distortion.