Will beauty save the world?

1 Nov

In many parts of the world right now, governments are introducing new laws to combat terrorism. In the name of protecting our freedoms, new laws will remove those very freedoms. People may be detained, without even the right to notify their family where they are.
In Australia, our government proposes new laws, but the public is not to know in advance of these bills coming to the parliament what is actually in them.
Again I find myself in despair. There is no effective opposition. To raise one’s voice is to risk the consequences of these laws. Fear has won. Terror has terrorised our democracy, and our governments are acting out of fear – even the fear that they must not be seen to be doing nothing, and the ‘opposition’ acts out of the same fears.

What will have to happen to change this situation? To whom, to what, where can we turn, to find some other way, some hope, some peace, some justice?
It may seem odd, but I have found fresh encouragement in the thoughts coming from a man from the Gulag prisons of the Soviet regime, in some of its most repressive years.
These thoughts were expressed by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his Nobel Prize for Literature lecture in 1972. There he holds out the hope that it is beauty, in the form of art and literature, that can save us.

Early in the lecture Solzhenitsyn quotes Dostoevsky as having remarked, ‘The world will be saved by beauty.’ The lecture wonders whether art can have such power. Fro sure, art may ennoble and elevate, ‘but whom has it ever saved?’
The broad argument of the lecture explores some of the critical issues of the later twentieth century, including the questions of whether nationalism will forever divide humanity, and whether religious and political differences are impossible to overcome. (All very topical!) Solzhenitsyn sees in art a ‘universal’ language, which the power elites hope to control, to colonize for their own purposes.
The artists are left with the choice of how they will respond. Should they retreat into their own ‘world’, or how do they engage the universal needs of humankind – universal, despite all the differences of context and cultures?
In the closing pages of the lecture, Solzhenitsyn evoke what he calls ‘world literature’, as the continuing and dynamic potential of art and writing, in the face of all these forces.
‘I have therefore understood and expereinced this truth in my own life: that world literature as a unifying force is no longer an abstract sum of influences or a generalisation constructed by literary experts, but a common body and a common soul, aliving unity of heart in which the growing spiritual unity of mankind finds a reflection.’
From this deeply religious, faithful vision — using ideas which might well have been used of the church, that is, the idea of the Christian community, a living body of spiritual life …  — he then calls on ‘friends’ to give it a try.
‘Friends, let us try and help, if we are worth anything at all. In our own countries, which are torn by conflicts of opinion among parties, movements, castes and groups, who was there from the very beginning who was not a divisive force but a unifying one? That is the quintessance of the writer’s position: he is there to give expression to the national language, which is the main clamp that binds a nation; to give expression to the very land occupied by the people; and if he is lucky, to give expression to the national soul.’
‘In my opinion it is within the powers of world literature in these torubled times to help humanity to comprehend its own nature in spite of what is being instilled into people’s minds by biased persons and parties. …
‘And who, if not wrtiers, can censure not only their own inadequate leaders (in soem states this is the easiest bread of all to earn; anyone who is not too lazy is busy doing it), but also their own society, whether for its cowardly self-humiliation or for its smug weakness?’
Then Solzhenitsyn makes his greatest move: he then declares that the violence we all fear is itself deeply linked with ‘the lie’: ‘But let us not forget that violence does not exist alone and cannot survive in isolation: it is inevitably bound up with the lie.’
‘ Between them there is the most intimate, most natural, fundamental link: violence can only be concealed by the lie, and the lie can be maintained only by violence.’
So the fundamental call is made, to each of us and all of us: to refuse to be part of the lie. Do not support the deceit. ‘Let the lie come into the world, even dominate the world, but not through me.’
Then Solzhenitsyn declares that Art, especially the art of writers,  can vanquish the lie. ‘The lie can withstand a great deal in the world but it cannot withstand Art.’
‘Once the lie has been dispersed, the nakedness of violence will be revealed in all its repulsiveness, and then violence, become decrepit, will come crashing down.’
To conclude, Solzhenitsyn turns again to his own tradition: ‘In Russian the most popular proverbs are about truth. They express the not inconsiderable and bitter experience of the people, sometimes with astonishing force. One word of truth outweighs the whole world.
On this truth, Solzhenitsyn bases his appeal to the writers of the world.
Here too is my appeal. My conviction is that the Spirit of God inhabits the world, in her quest for truth and beauty. Her wisdom, her justice, her courage call us to live for that word of truth, to expose the lies, and to open the way for peace and hope, for all people.

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