Solzhenitsyn, “As Breathing and Consciousness Return,” 1973

In honor of this incident, I thought I’d post an excerpt from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s As Breathing And Consciousness Return, the first essay in his samizdat anthology From Under The Rubble.

It’s a pity I don’t have time to type more of this piece, but From Under The Rubble can be bought for a penny at many fine online bookstores. Inside the ellipses is Solzhenitsyn’s great attack on Andrei Sakharov, for his “socialism with a human face” moderate dissidence.

Solzhenitsyn says: reject all the lies, not just those that contradict “world progressive opinion.” The “world progressive opinion” of 1973 being not at all different from the mind of Harvard, 2010. Indeed for the reader of 2010, Solzhenitsyn does not attack Sakharov so much as pass through him—like a bullet through a stick of butter. Remaining lethally relevant, as Sakharov’s Brezhnev-lite bromides grow comically dated:

The transition from free speech to enforced silence is no doubt painful. What torment for a living society, used to thinking for itself, to lose from some decreed date the right to express itself in print and in public, to bite back its words year in and year out, in friendly conversation and even under the family roof.

But the way back, which our country will soon face—the return of breathing and consciousness, the transition from silence to free speech—will also prove difficult and slow, and just as painful, because of the gulf of utter incomprehension which will suddenly yawn between fellow-countrymen, even those of the same generation and place of origin, even members of the same close circle.

For decades, while we were silent, our thoughts straggled in all possible and impossible directions, lost touch with another, never learnt to know each other, ceased to check and correct each other. The stereotypes of required thought, or rather of dictated opinion, dinned into us daily from the electrified gullets of radio, endlessly reproduced in thousands of newspapers identical as peas, condensed into weekly surveys for political study groups, have made mental cripples of us and left very few minds undamaged.

Powerful and daring minds are now beginning to struggle upright, to fight their way out from under heaps of antiquated rubbish. But even they still bear all the cruel marks of the branding iron, they are still cramped by the shackles into which they were forced half-grown. And because we are intellectually isolated from each other, they have no one to measure themselves against.

As for the rest of us, we have so shriveled in the decades of falsehood, thirsted so long in vain for the refreshing drops of truth, that as soon as they fall on our faces we tremble with joy. “At last!” we cry, and we forgive the dust-laden whirlwind which has blown up with them, and the radioactive fallout which they conceal. We so rejoice in every little word of truth, so utterly suppressed until recent years, that we forgive those who first voice it for us all their near misses, all their inexactitudes, even a portion of error greater than the portion of truth, simply because “something at least, something at last has been said!” […] The state system which exists in our country is terrible not because it is undemocratic, authoritarian, based on physical constraint—a man can live in such conditions without harm to his spiritual essence.

Our present system is unique in world history, because over and above its physical and economic constraints, it demands of us total surrender of our souls, continuous and active participation in the general, conscious lie. To this putrefaction of the soul, this spiritual enslavement, human beings who wish to be human cannot consent. When Caesar, having exacted what is Caesar’s, demands still more insistently that we render him what is God’s—that is a sacrifice we dare not make!

The most important part of our freedom, inner freedom, is always subject to our will. If we surrender it to corruption, we do not deserve to be called human.

But let us note that if the absolutely essential task is not political liberation, but the liberation of our souls from participation in the lie forced on us, then it requires no physical, revolutionary, social, organizational measures, no meetings, strikes, trade unions—things fearful for us even to contemplate and from which we quite naturally allow circumstances to dissuade us.

No! It requires from each individual a moral step within his power—no more than that. And no one who voluntarily runs with the hounds of falsehood, or props it up, will ever be able to justify himself to the living, or to posterity, or to his friends, or to his children.

In this case, the lie is the proposition of human neurological uniformity (HNU). It’s not just that HNU is rebutted by a considerable weight of evidence—that’s relatively unimportant. It’s that it is supported by no evidence at all. Yet your government requires you to believe it. Quite effectively, as we see. 150 years ago, Froude had much the same problem with the Thirty-Nine Articles. Transubstantiation redivivus.

But as an act of mandatory faith, HNU is no less subject to Chesterton’s observation: when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing. They believe in anything. The task of understanding the world we live in, without the assumption of HNU, is gargantuan. It is not just a matter of putting a Confederate flag on your pickup truck. It requires both tremendous mental energy, and tremendous analytic judgment. It is too vast for any individual; too dangerous for any organization.

So? What is the first step? Simply to discard the lie, and to realize that you have proceeded from a state of false knowledge, to one of true ignorance. The frame of your television is broken; you have no television; the illusion of omniscience vanishes. Eyes you have, and a brain. They are small. The world is large. History is even bigger. So what? You are not first, and not alone.