Book Review: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn was awarded in the 1970 Noble Prize in Literature, according to the citation accompanying the award, “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” Both elements of that citation, the ethical force and the abiding and pervading connection with the Russian literary tradition, are evident throughout each page of this short but tremendous work.

Here, the reader is introduced to Ivan Denisovich, who, in the gulag, goes by the name Shukhov. Shukhov was a loyal Russian soldier captured by the Germans during World War II. He and several other Russian soldiers were able to escape from Germany captivity and return to the Soviet Army, only to be arrested and accused of treason. Sent to the gulags for his “crime,” Shukhov serves out his lengthy sentence in the cold winds of Siberia, laboring and scheming along with hundreds of other prisoners day in and day out. We, the readers, are offered a briefly glimpse into this miserable existence, an existence which many thousands of Russian men and women endured under Stalin in the Soviet Union.

In his telling of the story, Solzhenitsyn makes the gulag, so distant, so terrible, and so inhumane, seem, in a sense, immediate, even intimate, and quite human. The people we meet in the gulags are not people unlike ourselves. On the contrary, the people we meet there are the people meet anywhere we go; the key difference, however, is that these people have been thrust into a struggle for their very survival which few of us will ever experience. It is in times like these that men reveal their true selves. They do not become different people. They show to the world who they really were all along. Through recounting the experience of the gulag, Solzhenitsyn reveals us to ourselves.

My struggle with PTSD and the existence of evil

On November 5, 2009, I was assigned as the Non-Commissioned Officer in charge of the 24-hour staff duty at my unit’s barracks on Fort Hood, Texas. Typically, this duty is one of the most mundane activities of military service. Your job is, in essence, to sit, along with two junior enlisted soldiers, for 24 hours straight, occasionally making rounds in the barracks area to pick up cigarette butts and, on the weekend, corral drunk young soldiers. Your biggest challenge is simply staying awake for the duration of it. That night, however, was different. That was the day Major Nidal Hasan opened fire on a group of soldiers in a building across the street from my unit’s barracks.

We could hear the gunshots from where we stood in my unit’s barracks area. The sound of a firing weapon is no novelty on the United States’ largest military base. Eventually, the sounds of weapons, humvees, helicopters and other loud military equipment becomes mere background noise to most soldiers. There is a sense of security that envelops you when you are on a stateside post. You are surrounded by the finest men and women you have ever met, men and women you trust with your life and well being. There is no sense of community quite like the sacred bond between uniformed service members. That is precisely why these particular gunshots were so disturbing. They were different. They were closer than they should have been, nowhere near a firing range. And the sense of uneasiness they at first sent through us was quickly validated by a call from our superiors, ordering us to place the soldiers in the barracks on lock down and informing us that there had been a shooting on post. The sacred bond had been violated; a soldier had attacked his fellow soldiers at their most vulnerable moment, sitting in a waiting room waiting to be medically cleared to deploy and fight for their country, side-by-side with their comrades.
We spent the afternoon in a haze of rumor and worry. Each of us struggled, in spite of clogged phone lines, to get through to our friends and family in and around Fort Hood, verifying one at a time that each was safe. While we waited for more information from those in the know, we did our jobs to secure our own area and speculated on what might be happening. There was talk of a team of shooters. There were rumors that the shooting had continued in a housing area, a particularly nasty rumor given that soldiers’ wives and children were home alone in those housing areas.
Finally, in the evening, we sat outside of the barracks and watched the miles-long traffic as soldiers, who had spent their entire day locked down on post, headed home to their worried families in the on-post housing areas and the neighborhoods in the surrounding community. It was perhaps the only night we spent on staff duty in which none of us nodded off to sleep. We stayed up the whole night pondering the motives and the consequences of the atrocity we had been so near. Even when I drove home the following morning, after nearly 30 hours without sleep, I found it difficult to lay in my bed and rest.
The shooting yesterday at Fort Hood brought back the vivid memories of that afternoon and evening nearly five years ago. I stayed awake much later than I should have, watching the online live feed of the Killeen, Texas, television news station, reading over and over again the meager details of what had occurred on the post at which I had spent the majority of my military career. What affected me most as I watched and read was the frequent reference to the possibility that the shooter may have had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The agenda of the media was obvious from very early. At the initial press briefing by Fort Hood’s commanding general, Lieutenant General Mark Milley, reporters asked ridiculous questions about soldiers carrying concealed weapons on post and, again and again, about the mental health history of the shooter.
Last night, I believe I felt much as people with Asperger syndrome must have when the media collectively felt the need to mention again and again that Adam Lanza, who opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, had been diagnosed with Asperger’s. There was talk about how people with Asperger’s are incapable of feeling empathy, how this might have been the reason he did what he did. This was the preconceived narrative reporters were already concocting only minutes after the shooting at Fort Hood. He had PTSD and PTSD makes you a stone-cold killer.
I was diagnosed with PTSD a little over two years ago. My tours in Iraq had taken a toll on me. I found myself unable to deal with or control my anger, at times, or my sadness, at others. I had trouble sleeping and when I did finally sleep it was fitful and filled with nightmare images of things I had seen, people I had known and lost. I still struggle with this. The nightmares are less frequent, but they have not gone away. I still cannot watch movies with much violence. If I find myself in a crowded place, I enter a state of hyper-awareness in which I can hardly manage to think or breathe. While driving to work through downtown Savannah, Georgia, I scan the roadside for improved explosive devices (IEDs/roadside bombs); my fists tighten into a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel when I get caught in rush hour traffic. I struggle with all of this. But I am not a murderer. I am not an “active shooter incident” waiting to happen. I am a soldier who, like most other soldiers I know, deals the best he can with what he has seen, knowing that I was there for the right reasons, even if few Americans appreciate it and even fewer understand it.
At the heart of the media’s agenda in the aftermath of shootings like that which occurred yesterday at Fort Hood is a distorted approach to ethics in the modern world. In an America now almost 50 years after the upheavals of the 1960’s and the imposition of radically different ways of viewing human being and activity, we have lost our moral compass. The rapist is “sick” and the murderer is “psychotic.” For a short time after I left the military, I worked in a prison where I saw this approach up close and personal. Men who had murdered in cold blood, men who had sexually molested young children and others of a similar moral caliber were “treated” as if what they had done were the unavoidable symptoms of a disease. The result was that the men themselves came to believe this. Rather than seeking forgiveness and redemption, they instead sought a “cure” for their “sickness.” Of course, this cure was entirely personal. It did not involve begging those they had harmed to forgive them, nor did it involve repentance before a just yet merciful God. Instead, more often than not, it involved medication that numbed their senses and meetings in which they prattled on about their feelings for hours, shortly before they went back to their cell blocks to watch hours of television, much of which celebrated the very crimes they had committed.
The man who committed that horrible atrocity at Fort Hood yesterday was not sick. He was not insane. He did not do what he did because he had PTSD. American news media: the word you are looking for is “evil.” What he did was evil and, just as virtuous men do virtuous things, it is evil men who do evil things. The victims here are the three soldiers he murdered, the 16 he injured, their families and every soldier everywhere who has now had that sacred bond of trust between warriors shattered. The shooter is not a victim, whether of his own disease or of the military which gave him the orders to go to the place he acquired it. We must return to the proper language used to describe and define human activity, the language of ethics. He chose evil and so became evil.

A Chinese Buddhist monk visits India under the Guptas

The people are numerous and happy; they have not to register their households, or attend to any magistrates and their rules; only those who cultivate the royal land have to pay (a portion of) the grain from it. If they want to go, they go; if they want to stay on, they stay. The king governs without decapitation or (other) corporal punishments. Criminals are simply fined, lightly or heavily, according to the circumstances (of each case). Even in cases of repeated attempts at wicked rebellion, they only have their right hands cut off. The king’s body-guards and attendants all have salaries. Throughout the whole country the people do not kill any living creature, nor drink intoxicating liquor, nor eat onions or garlic.

Faxian (circa 400-412), quoted in Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, p. 26

Self-interested puritanism and delinquency

Delinquency, controlled illegality, is an agent for the illegality of the dominant groups. The setting up of prostitution networks in the nineteenth century is characteristic in this respect: police checks and checks on the prostitute’s health, their regular stay in prison, the large-scale organization of the maisons closes, or brothels, the strict hierarchy that was maintained in the prostitution milieu, its control by delinquent-informers, all this made it possible to canalize and to recover by a whole series of intermediaries the enormous profits from a sexual pleasure that an ever-more insistent everyday moralization condemned to semi-clandestinity and naturally made expensive; in setting up a price for pleasure, in creating a profit from repressed sexuality and in collecting this profit, the delinquent milieu was in complicity with a self-interested puritanism: an illicit fiscal agent operating in prohibition countries, or more recently drug trafficking show a similar functioning of this ‘useful delinquency’: the existence of a legal prohibition creates around it a field of illegal practices, which one manages to supervise, while extracting from it an illicit profit through elements, themselves illegal, but rendered manipulable by their organization in delinquency. This organization is an instrument for administering and exploiting illegalities.

Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 279-80

Review: Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, like all of Dostoyevsky’s work, is, of course, a classic and, I believe, a must-read for the modern reader. In this book, Dostoyevsky explores the themes that run throughout his work, including sin and redemption, the meaning of modernity, and the search for meaning in modernity, and, in another typical Dostoyevsky move, all in the midst of a novel about a murder mystery and family drama. Like all great novels, this book provides another means by which we can understand ourselves and others. Dostoyevsky’s insights into the human mind precede and surpass those of modern psychologists. The introduction and afterward to this version of the book are also very interesting and insightful.

View all my reviews

Catholic and Protestant obscenity

It is worth pointing out that the mention of bodily function is likely to be more shocking in a Protestant than in a Catholic culture. It has often seemed to me that the offensive language of Protestantism is obscenity; the offensive language of Catholicism is profanity or blasphemy: one offends on a scale of unmentionable words for bodily function, the other on a scale of disrespect for the sacred. Dante places the Blasphemous in Hell as the worst of the Violent against God and His Works, but he has no category for punishing those who use four-letter words.

The difference is not, I think, national, but religious. Chaucer, as a man of Catholic England, took exactly Dante’s view in the matter of what was and what was not shocking language. In “The Pardoner’s Tale,” Chaucer sermonized with great feeling against the rioters for their profanity and blasphemy (for they way they rend Christ’s body with their oaths) but he is quite free himself with “obscenity.” Modern English readers tend to find nothing whatever startling in his profanity, but the schoolboys faithfully continue to underline the marvels of his Anglo-Saxon monosyllables and to make marginal notes on them.

John Ciardi, note on Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, The Inferno, Canto XXI (pp. 112-3)