Know yourself

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. If all you have read by him is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I recommend that you dip into his other works.* He follows in the tradition of Tolstoy and Chekhov with his fresh prose and insights into people. Like Tolstoy, he tends to write long. But you can read just a few pages and have a full meal. Here is a tasting from Volume One of The Gulag Archipelago. It’s a work of history, not memoir or fiction. Yet it reads like a thousand short stories, like a Russian version of Scheherazade’s Arabian tales.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people
somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were
necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.
But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of
every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place;
sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

Socrates taught us: Know thyself!

Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those
who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.

*Assuming that 650 pages of Russian history [in just Volume One] puts you off, you might want to try starting with Cancer Ward. It’s a more intimate book about a group of cancer patients, one of whom says, “We always think of death as black, but it’s only the preliminaries that are black. Death itself is white.”


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