Lying and Violence: A Nobel Lecture by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
by Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D.
(Published in New Braunfels, Texas newspaper, the Herald-Zeitung’s Opinion page, June 12-13, 2021.)
One of the many values of knowing history is that it often reveals how the present is often a close iteration, even a repetition of the past. History also gives us a perspective on our current social challenges that we might think are happening for the first time. History helps us shake off our naïve “in-the-moment” perspective and widens out to larger patterns that we mortals repeat with great fidelity.
In 1970 a Russian novelist and dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), was awarded the Noble Peace Prize for his unwavering study of and contributions to the tradition of Russian Literature. He sent his speech to Stockholm to be read, fearing that if he left the Soviet Union, he would not be allowed to return to his family.
His idea in the speech was to promote what artists and writers of a culture could contribute to the social and political realms of their time. Artists are the ones, Solzhenitsyn writes, who offer us old truths that endure and that can aid us in understanding “the modern world.” “And when the old truth is told us again,” he affirms, “we do not remember that we once possessed it.” So, like history itself, classic works of literature return our memories to us, both nationally and internationally; they allow us to see ourselves through evocative prisms of what has gone before .
His speech is rich in its variety and in its depth. However, I was particularly interested in his insights at its beginning and its end, on the relation of violence to lies. In contrast to the truths of art, “a political speech, a hasty newspaper comment, a social program can. . . as far as appearances are concerned, be built smoothly and consistently on an error or a lie; and what is concealed and distorted will not be immediately clear.” Art reaches in the other direction, towards what our American writer, William Faulkner, called those “eternal verities” that inform of us the ways the human heart is in conflict with itself.
Towards the end of his thoughtful analysis of the truth of art and the forces that work as lies pretending to be true, he asks us to consider: “What can literature do against the pitiless onslaught of naked violence?” Not an easy question, but he asks us to consider the following: “Let us not forget that violence does not and cannot flourish by itself; it is inevitably intertwined with Lying.”
His comparison leads him to this insight: “Nothing screens violence except lies, and the only way lies can hold out is by violence.” They are, within his personal Russian history, in which he spent 8 years in the Gulag for speaking out against the purges of Stalin, then 3 more years in exile, intimately related. He ends his speech by offering a tighter relation between lying and violence. “Whoever has once announced violence as his METHOD, must inexorably choose lying as his PRINCIPLE.”
Perhaps many forms of violence, he muses, especially if they are to be sustained, “cannot go on without befogging themselves in lies, coating itself with lying’s sugary oratory.” Then, by an indirect move, violence may not move in a straight line, but by indirection; “usually it demands of its victims only allegiance to the lie, only complicity in the lie.” The place and power of the arts, including writing but not limited to it, is that they have the power “to vanquish lies.”
To dispel lies is at the same time to curtail or eliminate violence; they are inseparable in gaining traction; both could be dispelled or modified if the artists’ wisdom were invited into the conversation.
Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D. is Distinguished Emeritus Professor and Adjunct Faculty in the Mythological Studies Program, Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California.