Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘human nature’

IMG_20190412_223801

A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 1918-2006 was a Russian writer, intellectual, and Nobel Laureate, also a decorated officer with the Soviet Army during the Second World War. He was arrested in 1945 for comments he made in a letter to a friend in which he criticised the prosecution of the war, and Stalin’s part in it. Although he counted himself a patriot and was loyal to the revolution, he was betrayed as a subversive and spent the next eight years in a prison system that amounted to slave labour, one in which millions perished. Solzhenitsyn survived and wrote about it, an act for which he was eventually exiled.

His magnum opus, a three volume work called the Gulag Archipelago, appeared in 1973. It was not intended as a political work, though it certainly earned him the rank of political dissident, and made him a fresh target for the Soviet authorities who even tried to poison him. It was more an historical expose and a careful analysis of the Gulag system, also a study of mankind, and of himself.

The work is important because Solzhenitsyn teaches us the Gulag and the system that gave rise to it is not a peculiarly Soviet thing, rather it’s something at the heart of us all. Call it a weakness or an inherent tendency, given the right circumstances, the Gulag can occur anywhere. Also, not only can we all fall victim to it, but – important point this – we can all fall in as perpetrators and accomplices.

Solzhenitsyn observed that evil could not simply be identified in a small percentage of the population, because then the bad people might easily be isolated from the rest of us, then destroyed and evil along with it. But it doesn’t work like that; evil persists throughout time; the camp-guards, the interrogators, the torturers, they could be any one of us, and the trick of evil is to prevent us from imagining a scenario whereby we might indeed be drawn into committing those extremes of harm to our fellow beings.

The Gulag system was a vast network of camps spread across the entire Soviet Union, and from which no one was safe. If labour was needed, quotas would be sent out, the state security apparatus would then pursue the necessary arrests, and victims would be found, guilt concocted as needs be and verified by confession signed under torture. Incarceration would then last eight, ten or twenty five years. Terms were nominal though and in reality many were worked to death in unimaginably harsh conditions.

We learned of the camps in 1966 on the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s first book, “A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch.” This is a short book, but sharp, like a lance through the brain, and tells, as the title suggests, of just one day in the camp-life of prisoner Ivan Denisovitch. The men wake, they march out to work on building a power station, then they march back. Falsely accused of being a German spy, Denisovitch has lost everything, or has he? What is it that defines a human being and grants him purpose, and meaning? What is it that redeems him?

The story could merely have been a raging indictment of the system, which in part it is, but in the main it’s an observation of humanity, of its adaptation to extraordinarily harsh circumstances and how small things can take on a massive significance in a man’s life. On his return march, Denisovitch comes across a scrap of broken band-saw blade and smuggles it into camp. It’s a triumph, one that lights up his day, and he will spend the coming weeks painstakingly grinding it on a stone to fashion a knife – not to harm others, or to facilitate his escape, but merely because a knife is a useful tool to have in camp life, and under such reduced circumstances, it bestows more dignity on a man than a fancy car or a beautiful house.

Remarkably , “A day in the life” was published in Russia, with permission of the State. But by then Stalin was dead, and there was a change of mood, a certain rapprochement between the State and its people. But Solzhenitsyn was already working secretly on his next book, the altogether more explosive Gulag Archipelago.

The three volume, unabridged version is perhaps a little too much for the average reader, though an important source for scholars, in that it goes into great detail. It names names, places, dates. But there is also an “approved” abridged version, and this is more suited to the general reader. The book documents Solzhenitsyn’s own confinement, the horrors and the humiliations he both suffered and witnessed, also what he learned by a process of self reflection and from the observation of his fellow prisoners, how they coped, how they held body and soul together, how they protected their dignity. His conclusion was as profound as it was unexpected, that he could not view the Gulag as an alien system, one that had been unjustly imposed upon him by some external agency, that indeed he was in some way responsible, not only for his confinement within the system, but for the very existence of that system in the first place.

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung, warned us that man himself was the danger, not just some men but all men – that we carry within us the seed of our own destruction, that evil follows us around because we are unable to see it in our own hearts, and that without at least a rudimentary process of self reflection that dark seed will grow to do untold damage either to us, personally, or to those around us.

In the absence of religion, we think we can entrust the development of the psyche and the control of our excesses by a secular ideology, be that Marxism or Free Market Capitalism, but there’s something in us that seeks what, for want of a better term, we must call spiritual growth. There is a religious function within us that seeks knowledge of ourselves and our place in the universe. If ignored, we fall prey to the shadow forces within us; we are easily seduced, easily manipulated by the darker archetypal patterns of behaviour; a newspaper headline screams “death to the traitors”, and we see red, and wish death upon all traitors, however loosely they be defined. Only reflection bids us pause, bids us think, and grants sufficient space for the better side of our nature to win through.

Religion once fulfilled that role, but given the mess of the last few centuries it’s clear it didn’t do a very good job in sparing us from ourselves. In the absence of religion, psychoanalysis and various self help movements offer an alternative, but we’ve had a century of those and things only seem to be getting worse. Perhaps then evil is like any other pestilence that circles the world. It’s simply a fact of nature and, like Solzhenitsyn achieved, by a process of strenuous and unrelenting self analysis, all any of us can do is recognise the potential for evil in our own hearts and find the best way of subverting it, even if it takes us to the end of our days.

Read Full Post »

baywatchOkay, sorry about that. But now I’ve got your attention, here’s a sexy Schatz and Sohne torsion clock, made in West Germany, circa 1973 – and until recently, broken. I saw it on “The Bay” over Christmas, popping up of a sudden with a “buy it now” option, so, this being my sort of thing, I bought it. It cost me £15, and I’ve spent about £10 on bits and pieces to get it going. It was reluctant to run at first, but a good clean, a light oiling and a bit of tinkering seems to have released the life in it. There’s quite a lusty swing to the pendulum now and it looks just grant sitting on top of my bookcase. I wound it fully on Saturday and it shouldn’t need winding again until next February.

schatz

You can get virtually anything on Ebay of course. The upside is this helps to keep old things, like my broken clock, in circulation, things that might otherwise end up on the tip. That ugly wooden duck ornament? Those jeans that no longer fit? That hat you bought for a wedding and don’t know what to do with now? Rest assured someone, somewhere in the world wants it and will buy it from you – they just have to know it’s there, and Ebay facilitates that knowlege very well. But there is another side to Ebay that says much about human nature, and you see it when you start bidding for items.

Bidding isn’t like the “buy it now” option. Not all items are listed as “buy it now”. “Buy it now” is just online shopping, while “bidding” is more a competition in which stuff is no longer “bought” but “won”.

When bidding you decide first what’s the maximum you’re prepared to pay, then enter small bids up to that limit. Clearly, if someone is prepared to pay more than you, and puts in a higher bid than your limit, you are no longer winning; you are losing, and nobody like to lose. It’s at this point you should walk away, but instead you are tempted to forget what you think a thing is actually worth, and you switch to an ego driven mindset based upon how much you want it. And how much we want a thing increases in proportion to the degree we think we are being denied it. When that happens, there are no longer any limits.

There was another broken clock I fancied on the Bay last weekend. It had been on for about a week, with a single enticing bid of just £3. I began to bid on Sunday morning, the day the auction ended. I offered an initial £3.50, while setting my automatic maximum bid to £15, because that’s the most I thought it was worth, and I wasn’t going to budge beyond it. I was outbid immediately, my limit burned away by a bidder far more determined to have it than I was. Then I sat back as other bidders joined in the frenzy, and I watched in disbelief as the “value” of that £3.00 broken clock ran up towards £40. I hope the winner was happy with their prize, and thought it worth the money; I’m sure the seller will be even happier.

It was interesting, observing the desire to “win” flickering in my own breast. It was tempting to join in, to not be denied this thing I’d been watching for days. And as the time ticked down to the closing of the auction, I hovered on the brink of upping my bid. I could have put a maximum of £100 on it, and probably won, but that would have been to take leave of my senses. This is why auction houses are so successful. On Ebay there’s no auctioneer adding their own helium to inflate prices even further, but it’s still the perfect forum for demonstrating the power of want over need, and the relegation of a thing’s actual value to the human desire for its possession.

It’s fun, Baywatching, but when it comes to bidding, beware that ego; you really have to know when to walk away. It’s much safer to watch out for those “buy it now” items, and if the price is fair, go for it. Don’t get caught up in a bidding war, because no matter how much you might want that piece of junk, it’s probably not worth what you’ll end up paying for it.

And just when I thought it was safe to go back into the water: a new listing! A Bentima torsion clock with a lovely little Kern movement, all for a fiver and a “buy it now” button. Okay, losers, this one’s mine!

Here it is, in bits:

bentima
That should keep me quiet for a while.

Read Full Post »