Wednesday, March 22, 2017
There we sat, totally silent over the last few lines of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, a passage where that long-bearded writer and prophet goes on and on about the near sacramental character of his prison experience, thanking the Lord for piling on the burden of suffering which, miraculously, brought him to faith that pulled him through.
There we sat in an old classroom--after all, it wasn't yet outfitted in expensive, cutting edge technology, one of the few that isn't. There we sat in a fine enough clothes for suitably dressed middle-class kids and their profs. There we sat, each of us having just eaten lunch, replete with choices. There we sat, each of our expensive books opened on each of our desks.
There we sat--me too--in silence before an idea that's been arising so often these days that I'm starting to wonder myself whether I'm good with God. After all, I haven't, like Solzhenitsyn, been unjustly imprisoned for eight years, suffered the horrors of the Gulag, watched those who weren't strong enough die. I've had it pretty good, really; never suffered through a Dust Bowl or a Pearl Harbor, never engaged in a firefight in Khe Sanh or out in some desert plain in Afghanistan, never stalked the countryside for daily bread or walked a mile for a cup of water.
Writers who are believers--and I'm thinking especially of some I've read recently, like Solzhenitsyn, like Gina Ochsner, like Andre Dubus--hold that theme in common. Each of them in their own fictive worlds like to nudge the reader along to an acknowledgement that's very much in the air these days before Easter, the notion suffering can well be sacramental, a blessing, that makes us vastly more resilient against the darkness in the valley of the shadow.
But it's not easy to talk about in 21st century America. What do you say about it to 20-year-old kids who are worried about jobs and relationships and identity? Must we all suffer sometime like Solzhenitsyn? Is getting knocked down a prerequisite to growing up? Must some old man die so the new man rises? Really? Is all of that true?--and if it is, how do we then live?
There we sat in silence.
Literature--my chosen field for the last forty years--pulls us into questions that have no easy answers. That's what the Gulag does. The story doesn't stay on the pages of that expensive book but leaps, agile as a deer, into our hearts, into our minds, into our souls. Even though I've never been to Russia, know very little of the old Soviet system, and nothing about Siberia or work camps, when I read some thing like the Gulag, it begs me in to make it my own. I'm led to think not just about what the writer says but to think even more about what the writer says means to me. That's where the process begins, in fact.Literature does its best work when it asks questions, I think. It's not particularly good at answering them; if it were, it would be preaching. Lit makes us think about what it is we believe, how it is we act, how it is we form our lives.
And there we sat in the kind of prickly silence that Solzhenitsyn spread over us. Maybe that's right where he wanted us, right where we should have been.
This morning, once more, I'm thankful for literature, even though, like life, it sometimes leads us to places we'd rather not have been.