Sobering

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I finally finished reading the abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The abridged version is 470 pages long, and it still gives the impression that we are only scratching the surface of all that happened with the camp system in the century since the Russian Revolution. Solzhenitsyn himself writes with regret about the fact that his account is sadly incomplete:

Those whom I asked to take on particular chapters would not do so, but instead offered stories, written or oral, for me to use as I pleased. What we really needed was a well-staffed office. [But] not only could I not spread myself like this; I had to conceal the project itself, my letters, my materials, to disperse them, to do everything in deepest secrecy. I even had to camouflage the time I spent working on the book with what looked like work on other things.

I must explain that never once did this whole book, in all its parts, lie on the same desk at the same time! In September, 1965, when work on the Archipelago was at its most intensive, I suffered a setback: my archive was raided and a novel impounded. At this point the parts of the Archipelago were already written, and the materials for the other parts, were scattered, and never reassembled: I could not take the risk, especially when all the names were given correctly.

I have stopped work on the book not because I regard it as finished, but because I cannot spend any more of my life on it. Besides begging for indulgence, I want to cry aloud: When the time and the opportunity comes, gather together, all you friends who have survived and know the story well, and write your own commentaries … Only then will the book be definitive. God bless the work!

The full list of those without whom this book could not have been written, or revised, or kept safe cannot yet be entrusted to paper. They know who they are. They have my homage.

pp. 469 – 472

No Triumph Here

There are many words that could be used to describe the experience of reading this book. Horrifying, overwhelming, and in parts, inspiring. But I have chosen sobering because that is the overall impression that it left with me. No book about the systematic arrest, imprisonment, degradation, and murder of millions of people — and the suppression of their stories — can end on a triumphant note. Even when the triumph that has happened is that their stories have finally been told:

We could not foresee what it would be like: how for no visible compelling reason the earth would shudder and give, how the gates of the abyss would briefly, grudgingly part so that two or three birds of truth would fly out before they slammed to, to stay shut for a long time to come. So many of my predecessors had not been able to finish writing, or to preserve what they had written, or to crawl or scramble to safety — but I had this good fortune: to thrust the first handful of truth through the open jaws of the iron gates before they slammed shut again.

Like matter enveloped by antimatter, it exploded instantaneously!

Only too rarely do our fellow countrymen have a chance to speak their mind … and former prisoners still more rarely. Their faith had proved false, their hopes had been cheated so often — yet now they believed that the era of truth was really beginning, that at last it was possible to speak and write boldly!

And they were disappointed, of course, for the hundredth time …

When Krushchev, wiping the tear from his eye, gave permission for the publication of [my novel about the gulags] Ivan Denisovich, he was quite sure that it was about Stalin’s camps, that he had none of his own.

I myself was taken by surprise when I received a stream of letters — from present-day zeks [prisoners]. These letters, too, were a single many-throated cry. But a cry that said, “What about us!!??” And the zeks set up a howl: What do you mean, never happen again? We’re here inside now, and our conditions are just the same!

“Nothing has changed since Ivan Denisovich’s time” — the message was the same in letters from many different places. “Any zek who reads your book will feel bitterness and disgust because everything is just as it was.” “What has changed, if all the laws providing for twenty-five years’ imprisonment issued under Stalin are still in force?”

After reading all these letters, I who had been thinking myself a hero saw that I hadn’t a leg to stand on: in ten years I had lost my vital link with the Archipelago.

pp. 451 – 453

Human Psychology is Universal

Though I have never lived under an oppressive socialist regime, many parts of this book felt familiar because human psychology is the same. For example, in an early chapter Solzhenitsyn describes how common it was for people to be arrested because they had been accused or betrayed by a jealous spouse. A man secretly accuses another man who he suspects is having an affair with his wife. A wife accuses her husband so she can get rid of him and live with her lover. This is the same phenomenon we now see on campuses where bitter exes will use the university’s sexual-harassment reporting system to take revenge on each other. And it’s not just about women vs. men: I recently saw a case where a lesbian used it to take down her ex, who happened to be a professor, after the relationship went sour. The problem is that when you set up a bureaucratic “justice” system that can be easily used to ruin people, the temptation to use it on your personal enemies is almost overwhelming.

Here are some other things that felt oddly familiar: When Solzhenitsyn’s book A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich came out, the Soviet newspapers grudgingly praised it: “an explosion of newspaper articles — written with gritted teeth, with ill-concealed hatred and resentment: an explosion of official praise that left a sour taste in my mouth” (p. 451). This, in turn, caused former prisoners to assume that the book was not an actual expose, but rather “controlled opposition” put out by the regime as more propaganda.

“The prolonged absence of any free exchange of information within a country opens up a gulf of incomprehension between whole groups of the population, between millions and millions. We simply cease to be a single people, for we speak, indeed, different languages.” (p. 432)

The mildest and at the same time most widespread form of betrayal was not to do anything bad directly, but just not to notice the doomed person next to one, not to help him, to turn away one’s face, to shrink back. They had arrested a neighbor, your comrade at work, or even your close friend. You kept silence. You acted as if you had not noticed. (For you could not afford to lose your current job!) And then it was announced at work, at the general meeting, that the person who had disappeared the day before was … an inveterate enemy of the people. And you, who had bent your back beside him for twenty years at the same desk, now by your noble silence (or even by your condemning speech!), had to show how hostile you were to his crimes.

p. 323

May God Prepare Our Hearts

Because if we ever face anything like this, our own character will be our downfall.

Those people became corrupted in camp who had already been corrupted out in freedom or who were ready for it. Because people are corrupted in freedom too, sometimes even more effectively than in camp.

If a person went swiftly bad in camp, what it might mean was that he had not just gone bad, but that that inner foulness which had not previously been needed had disclosed itself.

Yes, camp corruption was a mass phenomenon. But not only because the camps were awful, but because in addition we Soviet people stepped upon the soil of the Archipelago spiritually disarmed …

p. 319

When people express vexation, in my presence, over the West’s tendency to crumble, its political shortsightedness, its divisiveness, its confusion — I recall too: “Were we, before passing through the Archipelago, more steadfast? Firmer in our thoughts?”

And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!”

p. 313

Quote: A Liar Telling the Truth

Chad smiled a sad, pastoral smile. Rourke looked at him, sympathetically impressed. Man, this guy was good. But Rourke had been on the force for many years, and he was just as good. Rourke tightened the muscles in his jaw. That man across the desk is telling the truth for now, just this moment. But he is a liar telling the truth, and it almost suits him.

So Rourke just sat and watched admiringly. Chad chose his words with care, but with a carefree care. Everything was parsed, but it looked as though it was spontaneously lying about. Shabby chic.

Evangellyfish, by Douglas Wilson, p. 49

Quote: Survive!

One’s own order to oneself, “Survive!”, is the natural splash of a living person. Who does not wish to survive? Who does not have the right to survive? Straining all the strength of our body! An order to all our cells: Survive! …

They lead thirty emaciated but wiry zeks [=prisoners] three miles across the Arctic ice to a bathhouse. The bath is not worth even a warm word. Six men at a time wash themselves in five shifts, and the door opens straight into the subzero temperature, and four shifts are obliged to stand there before or after bathing — because they cannot be left without convoy. And not only does none of them get pneumonia. They don’t even catch cold. (And for ten years one old man had his bath just like that, serving out his term from age fifty to sixty. But then he was released, he was at home. Warm and cared for, he burned up in one month’s time. That order — “Survive!” — was not there. …)

But simply “to survive” does not yet mean “at any price.” “At any price” means : at the price of someone else.

The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, p. 302

Quote: Stay Edgy

“Don’t water so much, boy. These plants are like people, they need to be a little scared.”

“They need to be scared?”

Black Mesa nodded. “If the seedlings aren’t scared, they won’t sink their roots deeply into Mother Earth. Then when the droughts come they’ll blow away without a fight. If you want to save them, don’t make their lives easy, force them to prepare for the worst.” He nudged Poor Singer with his elbow. “Hurting makes everybody stronger.”

People of the Silence, p. 265

Quote: Alternatives Actually Available

Judicially expanded “rights” to appeal state court decisions to the federal courts led to an increase in such appeals for habeas corpus from fewer than 100 in 1940 to more than 12,000 by 1970. … This is not to say that there are literally no innocent men ever convicted in a country with a quarter of a billion people. It is simply to raise the question whether extended federal second-guessing of state apellate courts will turn up many or any … and at what cost, not only in terms of money, but in terms of innocent people sacrificed as victims of violent criminals walking the streets longer and longer, while legal processes grind on slowly in a seemingly interminable way.

In short, while saving some individuals from a false conviction is important, the question is whether it is more important than sparing other, equally innocent individuals from violence and death at the hands of criminals. Is saving one innocent defendant per decade worth sacrificing ten innocent murder victims? A hundred? A thousand?

Once we recognize that there are no solutions but only trade-offs, we can no longer pursue “cosmic justice,” but must make our choices among alternatives actually available. These alternatives do not include guaranteeing that no harm can possibly befall any innocent individual. The only way to make sure that no innocent individual is ever falsely convicted, is to do away with the criminal justice system and accept the horrors of anarchy.

Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed

I realize this might seem a little esoteric, but I’m posting it for two reasons. 1) I love Thomas Sowell, and 2) This theme of having to choose between existing options, none of which are perfect and all of which may be awful, is a major theme of both my second and (freshly drafted) third novels.

New FAQ from a Reader

A reader recently asked me this, and I have added it to my FAQs page.

Q. I’ve heard writers say “I was going to do X, but then the character did Y.” I always think, Wait, aren’t you the one who makes up what the character does?

A. Well, it may sound strange, but when we are writing fiction, the characters do “come to life” and do things the author wasn’t completely planning. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if this does not happen, then the story is not working. All the richest parts of my own stories have come about as a result of this phenomenon.

Of course, the author still has to “make up” what the character is doing in a sense, and write it down. But it seems to come from somewhere else at the same time. This is similar to what happens to actors and musicians when they talk about “being in the zone.” They still have to play the notes or say the words, and they need to be talented and to have practiced. But something more is also going on. This is the reason that ancient poets and storytellers used to invoke the Muse before embarking on their art.

I’m not sure this phenomenon is experienced by every single fiction writer. Perhaps there are some very meticulous plotters who don’t experience this and who still write perfectly good books. But this “characters coming to life” thing is definitely a part of my own process, and I’ve heard many other authors talk about it, so I know I’m not the only one.

On a related note, I’ve heard that some people write up “character sheets” before they begin drafting their novel. They come up with details about the character’s personality, back story, etc. In my case, I don’t do this kind of thing before I start drafting; instead, it’s part of the drafting process. I observe how the characters react in the situations I place them, and they reveal back story as we go. It wasn’t until after writing The Long Guest, for example, that I was able to tell that Nirri is an ESTP on the Meyers-Briggs. And MBTI typing him, by then, was just more a silly, fun exercise than a part of character development.

Fellow authors, please chime in about whether and how you have experienced this phenomenon. Do you count on your characters coming to life during the drafting or outlining process? Or is it something that occasionally happens, and you enjoy, but that you can get through a novel without? Has a character ever become so recalcitrant that you had to re-work your entire plot?

Chronic Pain: Poorly Understood

Chronic Pain Could Have a Unique Genetic Basis in Women

You might think this article is going to tell us that women are more likely than men to suffer from chronic pain, or to be underdiagnosed for it.

It’s not.

My main takeaway is that the causes and manifestations of chronic pain are super duper complex, tied up with immune and psychiactric stuff, and (this is the only new bit of information) on a genetic level they appear to operate very differently between the sexes.

We already know, based on our experience living in the world, that women in general are more likely to get sick than men in general. We know that female athletes are more likely to suffer injuries. But this doesn’t mean that men don’t get sick or injured, just that the circumstances are usually different.

We know that different people experience pain very differently and that pain can be made worse by a variety of factors, including being clinically depressed; being hormonal or pregnant (trust me, it’s true); having red hair (sorry, Dutch and Irish ancestors!); or suffering the effects of diseases such as dengue, malaria, fibromyalgia, or Lyme disease. We know that amputees can experience pain in their missing limb, which seems really unfair, and that pain can take on a life of its own and linger in a person’s system long after the initial cause has passed.

The bottom line is, I think we all would like a world where no one experiences chronic pain. Failing that, we’d like to help sufferers as much as possible, above all by believing them. This article nudges us a little closer to that, mostly by confirming: Yep, it really is really really complicated.