Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Gulag of Self-Restraint

Another of Andrew Sullivan's citations has some scolding to do:

If, as claimed by humanism, man were born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to death, his task on earth evidently must be more spiritual: not a total engrossment in everyday life, not the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then their carefree consumption. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become above all an experience of moral growth: to leave life a better human being than one started it.
It is imperative to reappraise the scale of the usual human values; its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President’s performance should be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or to the availability of gasoline. Only by the voluntary nurturing in ourselves of freely accepted and serene self-restraint can mankind rise above the world stream of materialism ... - Alexander Solzhenitsyn, address to Harvard, 1978.
If, as claimed by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, human beings are born to eke out a mirthless, restrained life oriented toward a permanent, earnest duty to moral improvement, then it's not clear why he found the Soviet system so distasteful. Every jot and tittle of a life so conceived could be fulfilled in the darkest, bleakest, most forgotten of prisons, and just as readily in "internal exile" in Kazakhstan, and I would guess that his Stalinist persecutors conceived of their punishments as aimed at nothing less.

I also wonder if the speaking engagement at Harvard is a fitting occasion to rail against worldly attainments and demand a reappraisal of human values. Harvard famously attracts and cultivates certain kinds of ambition, and was known to entertain reappraisals of values of various kinds before Solzhenitsyn showed up to demand it in the late 1970s. Suffice to say results have been mixed, but the point is, it's considered a pretty high honor to be invited to speak at Harvard, reserved for the higher reaches of the world's fancy-pants elites bearing the biggest of Big Ideas. Wouldn't serene self-restraint involve sending a polite letter declining the offer to speak, let alone any offer of fee, room, or board, with their materialistic taint?

That's the thing about programs of scolding austerity imposed from the outside: it so rarely feels welcome on the inside.

The bigger problem is one of regress: if we imagine Solzhenitsyn's vision of the good life played out over time, we get people grinding out lives of moral austerity, then having kids who grow up to grind out lives of moral austerity, who have kids who grind out lives of moral austerity, and on through the generations. At the end of it, some great great great great (...) grandchild would be justified to look back over the long line of duty-burdened wretches before him and wonder if it would be better to break out of the gulag and accept a little materialism.

1 comment:

jm said...

If one restrained oneself, one wouldn't have any children to grow up to be miserable.