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The Gulag Archipelago, Part III: A zeitgeist ​of our civilization

By Charlotte B. Cerminaro
web posted August 24, 2020

If the great poet from Stratford-upon-Avon could have had a glimpse of the twentieth and early twenty-first century society, to what would he have compared it? Certainly not a beautiful summer’s day; it’s both unlovely and intemperate. Our very language has de-evolved into a strange mix of PC and catastrophizing, full of sound and fury, yet signifying nothing. Would words have failed the bard, in the face of such unfathomable cultural and moral decay? The degeneration of language that began in the latter half of the twentieth century is appalling and confusing to most logicians and historians, let alone writers. Surely the trend toward linguistic annihilation is a very telling clue to our current heading. As the basic tool of communication and a powerful mode for accurate reasoning, learning and emotional expression, we are crippled by its paucity. Spoken and written language is hardwired in our basic operating systems. Information essential to our survival, in the form of language, has been handed down through generations for millennia. Words have also conveyed knowledge of things abstract and intangible but no less real: universal and elemental ideas such as truth, good and evil, the nature of and reason for our existence, understanding and communing with our Creator. So, if language is a necessity for our existence and continuation as a species and its current form has changed dramatically—much can be deduced about the degeneration of ideas, critical thinking, ethics, culture and government, not just language and writing as an art. 

Language, like any mode of artistic expression, communicates vital information as a cultural barometer and a mirror through which the state of humanity is reflected. As such, the epic historical novels of this past century should be able to inform, and possibly transform, what we see. The Gulag Archipelago,​ written by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, is one such novel. 

It was in 1970 that the Nobel prize in literature was awarded Solzhenitsyn for his work. A former Gulag prisoner and a powerful writer with a prolific memory, he shocked the world by unveiling one of the most horrific events in history—from the Bolshevik revolution to the establishment of the Soviet Union, the previously unknown story of an untold holocaust was a secret kept for nearly 40 years. As a political dissident and enemy of the Soviet government, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was one among millions who were either executed or exiled. Most exiles were sent to Siberian “re-education” camps, located in a remote and desolate chain of islands. Aside from working as slave labor (think concentration camps) they were re-educated in social compliance by learning a new vocabulary, one that redefined communist ideology as a common good, and the enforcement of this ideology as beneficial, even humane. The Soviet leadership under Joseph Stalin disguised their brutal, genocidal behavior in a cloak of secrecy by closing off all avenues of communication. No media, no writing, no talking or reporting. Instead, the Soviet government became the media propaganda machine--and the rest of the world was largely ignorant of the unthinkable tragedy that was unfolding just over Russia’s borders. 

They defined their reality with their words, and changed their words to hide the true nature of their reality. Until 1970, no one knew the full magnitude of the atrocities and crimes against humanity that left over 15 million people dead. Solzhenitsyn understood that the mindless, petty bureaucrats and low-level interrogators were “just following orders” (a ubiquitous phrase in post-war Germany as well) and that behind the lesser acts of human cruelty lay a much greater evil. The visible figurehead of oppression and injustice, Stalin himself was, unfortunately, not a singularity but a symptom. Soviet Russia was only one among many sites where this growing ideology seemed to defy every law, every code of morality, where humans became monstrous forces of destruction, possessing unthinkable power and malevolence. 

Three hundred years after Shakespeare walked the earth, another poet—one with uncanny insight on world history—wrote a short description, chilling in its accuracy and potent use of biblical narrative. The violent geopolitical events that heralded the first World War would only be faintly visible, approaching in the distant horizon when this poem was written, yet it continues to be quoted, excerpts used for book and movie titles and for current political commentary. The reader is faced with a grim reality, the moral insanity and spiritual illness of a world already beyond its tipping point, and the dark, ancient entity at its epicenter. And this is W.B. Yeats’ conclusion:

...Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world; 

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. 

Surely some revelation is at hand...

Hardly are those words out when a vast image troubles my sight: Somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and head of man, 

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about Reel shadows of indignant desert birds. 

The darkness drops again; but now I know 

That twenty centuries of stony sleep 

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, 

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? 

-
W.B. Yeats   The Second Coming ESR

Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing. © 2020

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