Monday, July 04, 2005

The Ships of the Archipelago

I just went in to work and finished off a whole heap of stuff that I’ve had overdue for some time now. A great weight has lifted as if I had a pterodactyl perched upon my shoulders which has now taken flight in search of a more stable support. That was a really terrible metaphor… What makes having completed my work a truly wonderful thing is that I have all next week off. I decided at the start of the week that I needed some R&R so I put in for leave. I intend to spend the next week reading my books and the paper, watching movies, walking, catching up with friends and hopefully blogging every day. Now that I’ve knocked all my work off I can really get into those things without my pesky conscience nagging away at the back of my mind.

My week off is not, however, the reason for this post. The reason that I’m posting is that I wanted to jot down a passage from ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ by A Solzhenitsyn. I’m not going to go into the whole book in detail now – I plan review it at a later stage – I just want to note down a particular paragraph for posterity. What struck me about this portion of writing is the authors amazing positivity in looking at the very grim reality of prison life during the oppressive Stalinist era. Solzhenitsyn manages to tilt the prison experience (an experience so horrific that 66 million people died as a result!) from one of grim horror into a kind of spiritual purification of the soul. Solzhenitsyn isn’t just writing from some abstract theoretical position here either: he endured 10 years in the prison camps himself. Basically, what he proposes is that the deprivations, humiliations and physical punishment inflicted upon a prisoner can serve as a kind of spiritual emancipation. Being starved? You are now free of your gluttonous ways. Forced to parade naked in front of your fellow countrymen? You have learnt humility. Stripped of all your earthly possessions? Your mind is now free to contemplate the eternal and the divine.

To set the scene; Solzhenitsyn is talking about ones first encounter with the camp and the way in which one must learn to deal with the loss of property, liberty and luxury:

“Own nothing! Possess nothing! Buddha and Christ taught us this, and the Stoics and the Cynics. Greedy though we are, why can’t we seem to grasp that simple teaching? Can’t we understand that with property we destroy our soul?
Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag. Use your memory! Use your memory! It is those bitter seeds alone which might sprout and grow someday.
Look around you – there are people around you. Maybe you will remember one of them all your life and later eat your heart out because you didn’t make use of the opportunity to ask him questions. And the less you talk, the more you’ll hear. Thin strands of human lives stretch from island to island of the Archipelago. They intertwine, touch one another for one night only in just such a clickety-clacking half-dark car as this and then separate once and for all. Put your ear to their quiet humming and the steady clickety-clack beneath the car. After all, it is the spinning wheel of life that is clicking and clacking away there.”


Elevatorstars said...

That's an awesome quote. Nikolai Gogol eluded to a similar ethos in Diary of a madman. Those wacky Russian authors, they knew everything and hid it well.

Don Quixote said...

I'm reading a history of Russia at the moment - it is very interesting discovering the reasons why literature, in particular, flourished amongst the arts within Russia.