Of anthropology, Solzhenitsyn, and a return to the gulag archipelago

If I’ve been quiet as of late, I’ve been bedridden with a severe sinus infection, one that came with headaches so severe that I couldn’t even use my four days off of work to read. Yesterday was the first day in nearly a week I was able to seriously attend to a book! To mark my return to the land of the living, two mini-reviews…

First up, Anthropology: A Degree in a Book, which I read for NetGalleys. My posted review follows:

For those interested in the history of anthropology, the development of its thought, and the areas of most salient interest today, A Degree in a Book: Anthropology recommends itself. It is far more thorough than other books aimed at the layman, like Anthropology for Dummies:: following a general history of the field, the book addresses particularly salient areas of study within anthropology in turn. Each section stresses key concepts and contributors within the field, and the book itself is visually attractive, and never tedious — provided, of course, one is interested in the subject. Even for the non-enthusiast, however, Anthropology is extremely useful, given its careful breakdowns of the subjects and highlighting of those key concepts; a student anxious about reviewing the fundamentals would find this a welcome resource.

“A convict’s thoughts are no freer than he is: they come back to the same place, worry over the same thing continually. “

I like anthropology in general, but I probably should have given that one more thought before I requested it — there’s only so much one can say about a quasi-textbook and not sound like a marketer. Of more personal interest was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Having read The Gulag Archipelago, I wondered if this might not be overkill; what can one day’s experience in the gulag be like, compared to the decades of suffering and abuse that Solzhenitsyn documented so heroically in the Gulag Archipelago? Yet Ivan Denisovich was Solzhenitsyn’s original attempt to communicate the horrors he’d experienced, and I wanted to see if anything was covered in miniature that we lose when panning out to survey the decades. As its title indicates, the novel simply tells the story of one day in the life of a prisoner, a man who was first captured by the Germans but who then escaped, only to be accused of being a German spy. For this ‘crime’, he was sentenced to a tenner, toiling in a work camp in a gang of mostly-innocents (except for one Moldavian spy), putting his skills as a mason to work. Denisovich and his comrades in suffering are not merely prisoners; they are effectively slaves, bossed around every waking moment of the day with the exception of small slivers at meal time. The prisoners, zeks, are subjected to constant humiliation and suspicion by their overseers — turned out of bed for random counts, forced to strip in the winter to be searched, etc. Their lives are full of misery, and yet — Denisovich goes to bed counting himself a lucky man, at least in the day we spend with him; he avoided being thrown into ‘the hole’, or losing wages being sick; he found a piece of steel he could mold into a tool or utensil at some point, and hid it away without being exposed; he managed to get soup that had some substance to it, instead of simply being water. In the harsh conditions of the gulag, his expectations for what counted as ‘good day’ had shrunk dramatically –and so too his contentment. Shored up by an inner dignity, Denisovich never begs for more or bemoans his fate; he simply makes the most of what he has and goes to bed a contented man — a prisoner, but free in his own way.

Reading Ivan Denisovich threw more light onto the inner being of Solzhenitsyn for me, making a biography I read of him a few months back make more sense in retrospect. Joseph Pearce’s Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile is a unique biography of Solzhenitsyn, its author given the rare opportunity of interviewing the man in the flesh, after he had returned to a Russia between Gorbachev and Putin. Pearce and Solzhenitsyn were drawn together through their mutual love of GK Chesteron, and Pearce believes it was his promise to focus on Solzhenitsyn’s spiritual grounding that convinced the somewhat reclusive author to give him a chance. Solzhenitsyn was not born a critic of the Soviet state; as a young man, he freely joined the Soviet army, and was even approached with the offer of joining the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB. Some mysterious reservation kept Solzhenitsyn from saying aye, and later on a slight criticism of Stalin was enough to land the young soldier in the gulag system. There, the errant soldier grew in the course of eight years into a philosopher and an implacable critic of the Soviet state. who turned his talents to not only condemning the evils  of the Soviet government, but to defending the best in humanity and his own Russian heritage.  

In prison,  Solzhenitsyn realized how little possessions have to do with a good life, and even out of it he maintained a very simple domicile — keeping in mind, perhaps, Ivan Denisovich’s observation that “The belly is an ungrateful wretch; it never remembers past favors, it always wants more tomorrow.” Solzhenitsyn became deeply religious during his prison years despite his upbringing, and it was that which informed his critique of the his prison years despite his upbringing, and it was that which informed his critique of the materialism that dominated both the socialist  east and the more open, capitalist west.  When the Soviet Union collapsed,  Solzhenitsyn was vindicated – but not especially delighted at the result, given Russians’ wholesale embrace of the worst of the west, its crime and gaudy consumerism. To Solzhenitsyn, western materialism and Soviet materialism were two halves of the same coin; both ignored the inner life of man to feed only his appetites. Those appetites, however, would not be satiated: no one ever consumed their way to lasting contentment. Solzhenitsyn thus urged Russians to think deeply about how to use this opportunity to re-order society, drawing on its own traditions and other democratic thought. He put forth a vision very similar to the distributism of GKC and Hillaire Belloc, with links to E.F. Schumacher’s small is beautiful and Swiss political organization.  (Pearce was converted to Catholicism after becoming enamored of GKC and Belloc’s socio-economic thinking.) Reading Ivan Deniscovich and experiencing the absolute poverty in which Solzhenitsyn lived for eight years made me better appreciate his turn towards a simple life in the decades that followed his freedom.

Coming this week….I still need to collect my thoughts on How Emotions are Made and The Unbroken Thread, which cover emotions and tradition, respectively; I’m mostly done with a novel set during the Germano-Roman grapple…(er, the Roman empire one, not the Nazis-in-post-Mussolini-Italy-one), as well as a couple of books on contemporary American politics. I’m still planning on focusing mostly on TBR and classics this month, with a couple of NetGalley titles thrown in.

Oh, and during my illness I mostly watched Barbaren. It’s a lot of fun if you’re into Latin and German. (And….stabbing.)

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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4 Responses to Of anthropology, Solzhenitsyn, and a return to the gulag archipelago

  1. One Day was my introduction to Solzhenitsyn many years ago. As a classic I have read it again and again in the years since. It is just that good and I’m glad you recovered and were well enough to experience his ability to portray life in the gulag in such an astounding way. While I’ve dipped into D. M. Thomas’ idiosyncratic bio of Solzhenitsyn I have yet to consider Joseph Pearce’s biography. I’ll add it to my list.

  2. Cyberkitten says:

    Anthropology is a fascinating subject. You can learn a LOT about people by reading that subject!

  3. I read A Day in the Life many years ago. I need to read it again, and I would love to read a good biography of Solzhenitsyn. This sounds like a good one. I’m also going to look into the anthropology book. That’s always been an interest of mine. Great reviews!

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