A parishioner has sent me an address that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave at Harvard in 1978. I confess never to have read anything by the Russian writer and thinker– but perhaps it is time!
Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard address contains the keen cultural critique worthy of a prophet– “prophet” understood as truth-teller, not fortune-teller. Even before delving into the main matter of his remarks, Solzhenitsyn reflects briefly on “truth,” trading on the fact that Harvard’s motto is “Veritas.” He says, “truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit. And even while it eludes us, the illusion still lingers of knowing it and leads to many misunderstandings. Also, truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.”
Excuse me the enthusiasm of the newly converted, but that’s just brilliant– and more pertinent today than when first voiced. What a masterful unmasking of the pretensions of those who possess the truth, as though it was ever possible to hold such an elusive prize by one’s self or by one’s group’s ideology. Note that he’s not saying, like the worst relativists and deconstructionists do, that there’s no such thing as truth. What Solzhenitsyn offers us is something infinitely more interesting: the insight that if we want to approach the powerful seat where truth is found, we must concentrate, and we must be humble.
But there’s more. His concluding sentence is the kind of realism that naively optimistic America needs, if we are to mature as a nation and be more responsible with our remarkable power: truth is often bitter. For a culture based on the denial of death and the disregard of limits, the truth of diminishment and inevitable decline is bitter. For a culture incapable of seeing its complicity in causing others pain, the truth about the suffering that results from our actions is bitter. In many ways– not in ultimate ways, but in many ways– life is tragic. Solzhenitsyn knew this as true, and spoke it.