Articles, Essays, and Speeches > Nobel Lecture
In 1970 Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” His worldwide reputation rocketed further upward, but Soviet authorities viewed the award as a Cold War provocation. Newspaper headlines trumpeted yet another dramatic episode in Solzhenitsyn’s life. “Nobeliana,” a riveting chapter in The Oak and the Calf, describes this feverish stage of the continuing battle between author and regime, and it explains Solzhenitsyn’s decision to accept the prize in absentia. The text of his Nobel speech appeared in 1972, and once in exile he went to Sweden to receive the Nobel insignia in person in 1974.
-- by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney, The Solzhenitsyn Reader
Just as the savage in bewilderment picks up . . . a strange object cast up by the sea?. . . something long buried in the sand? . . . a baffling object fallen from the sky?—intricately shaped, now glistening dully, now reflecting a brilliant flash of light—just as he turns it this way and that, twirls it, searches for a way to utilize it, seeks to find for it a suitable lowly application, all the while not guessing its higher function . . .
So we also, holding Art in our hands, confidently deem ourselves its masters; we boldly give it direction, bring it up to date, reform it, proclaim it, sell it for money, use it to please the powerful, divert it for amusement—all the way down to vaudeville songs and nightclub acts—or else adapt it (with a muzzle or stick, whatever is handy) toward transient political or limited social needs. But art remains undefiled by our endeavors and the stamp of its origin remains unaffected: Each time and in every usage it bestows upon us a portion of its mysterious inner light.
But can we encompass the totality of this light? Who would dare to say that he has defined art? Or has enumerated all its aspects? Moreover, perhaps someone already did understand and did name them for us in the preceding centuries, but that could not long detain us; we listened briefly but took no heed; we discarded the words at once, hurrying—as always—to replace even the very best with something else, just so that it might be new. And when we are told the old once again, we won’t even remember that we used to have it earlier.
One artist imagines himself the creator of an autonomous spiritual world; he hoists upon his shoulders the act of creating this world and of populating it, together with the total responsibility for it. But he collapses under the load, for no mortal genius can bear up under it, just as, in general, the man who declares himself the center of existence is unable to create a balanced spiritual system. And if a failure befalls such a man, the blame is promptly laid to the chronic disharmony of the world, to the complexity of modern man’s divided soul, or to the public’s lack of understanding.
Another artist recognizes above himself a higher power and joyfully works as a humble apprentice under God’s heaven, though graver and more demanding still is his responsibility for all he writes or paints—and for the souls which apprehend it. However, it was not he who created this world, nor does he control it; there can be no doubts about its foundations. It is merely given to the artist to sense more keenly than others the harmony of the world, the beauty and ugliness of man’s role in it—and to vividly communicate this to mankind. Even amid failure and at the lower depths of existence—in poverty, in prison, and in illness—a sense of enduring harmony cannot abandon him.
But the very irrationality of art, its dazzling convolutions, its unforeseeable discoveries, its powerful impact on men—all this is too magical to be wholly accounted for by the artist’s view of the world, by his intention, or by the work of his unworthy fingers.
Archaeologists have yet to discover an early stage of human existence when we possessed no art. In the twilight preceding the dawn of mankind we received it from hands which we did not have a chance to see clearly. Neither had we time to ask: Why this gift for us? How should we treat it?
All those prognosticators of the decay, degeneration, and death of art were wrong and will always be wrong. It shall be we who die; art will remain. And shall we even comprehend before our passing all of its aspects and the entirety of its purposes?
Not everything can be named. Some things draw us beyond words. Art can warm even a chilled and sunless soul to an exalted spiritual experience. Through art we occasionally receive— indistinctly, briefly—revelations the likes of which cannot be achieved by rational thought
It is like that small mirror of legend: you look into it but instead of yourself you glimpse for a moment the Inaccessible, a realm forever beyond reach. And your soul begins to ache. . . .
Dostoyevsky once let drop an enigmatic remark: “Beauty will save the world.” What is this? For a long time it seemed to me simply a phrase. How could this be possible? When in the bloodthirsty process of history did beauty ever save anyone, and from what? Granted, it ennobled, it elevated—but whom did it ever save?
There is, however, a particular feature in the very essence of beauty— a characteristic trait of art itself: The persuasiveness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable; it prevails even over a resisting heart. A political speech, an aggressive piece of journalism, a program for the organization of society, a philosophical system, can all be constructed—with apparent smoothness and harmony—on an error or on a lie. What is hidden and what is distorted will not be discerned right away. But then a contrary speech, journalistic piece, or program, or a differently structured philosophy, comes forth to join the argument, and everything is again just as smooth and harmonious, and again everything fits. And so they inspire trust—and distrust.
In vain does one repeat what the heart does not find sweet.
But a true work of art carries its verification within itself: Artificial and forced concepts do not survive their trial by images; both image and concept crumble and turn out feeble, pale, and unconvincing. However, works which have drawn on the truth and which have presented it to us in concentrated and vibrant form seize us, attract us to themselves powerfully, and no one ever—even centuries later—will step forth to deny them.
So perhaps the old trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is not simply the decorous and antiquated formula it seemed to us at the time of our self-confident materialistic youth. If the tops of these three trees do converge, as thinkers used to claim, and if the all too obvious and the overly straight sprouts of Truth and Goodness have been crushed, cut down, or not permitted to grow, then perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, and ever surprising shoots of Beauty will force their way through and soar up to that very spot, thereby fulfilling the task of all three.
And then no slip of the tongue but a prophecy would be contained in Dostoyevsky’s words: “Beauty will save the world.” For it was given to him to see many things; he had astonishing flashes of insight.
Could not then art and literature in a very real way offer succor to the modern world?
Today I shall attempt to set forth those few aspects of this problem which I have been able to discern over the years.
To have mounted this rostrum from which the Nobel lecture is delivered—a platform placed at the disposal of but few writers and then only once in a lifetime—I have climbed not the three or four attached steps, but hundreds and even thousands of them, with almost no toehold, steep, and covered with ice, leading out of the darkness and cold where it had been my fate to survive while others—perhaps more gifted and stronger than I—perished. Only a few of them did I meet in the “Gulag Archipelago,” scattered as it was into a multitude of islands. But under the burden of surveillance and mistrust I could not say much to most of them; of some I only heard; of still others I could only guess. Those who vanished into this abyss when they had already earned a literary reputation are at least known; but how many there were who had not yet been recognized, who had never been publicly named!And almost no one managed to return. An entire national literature remains there, buried without a coffin, even without underwear—naked, with only an identifying tag on one toe. Not for a moment did Russian literature cease! Yet from the outside it seemed a wasteland. Where a congenial forest might have stood, there remained after all the felling but two or three trees overlooked by chance.
And today, accompanied by the shades of the fallen, as with bowed head I permit others who were worthy earlier to precede me to this platform— how am I today to surmise and to express what they would have wished to say?
This duty has long weighed upon us and we knew it all along. In the words of Vladimir Soloviev:
Even in chains we must ourselves complete
That orbit which the gods have traced for us.
In the midst of exhausting prison camp relocations, marching in a column of prisoners in the gloom of bitterly cold evenings, with strings of camp lights glimmering through the darkness, we would often feel rising in our breast what we would have wanted to shout out to the whole world—if only the whole world could have heard any one of us. It all seemed very clear then: just what our fortunate messenger would say and how the world would at once respond in turn. Our field of vision was then filled with distinct physical objects and clear psychological motivations; an unambiguous world seemed to contain nothing which could prevail against this vision. These thoughts came not from books and were not borrowed for their appearance’s sake: They were forged in prison cells and around bonfires in the forest, in conversation with people now dead; they were tested by that life and it is from there that they arose.
But when the external pressures had fallen off, our field of vision grew broader, and gradually, even if only through a tiny crack, that “whole world” became visible and understandable. To our amazement the “whole world” turned out to be quite different from what we had hoped, it was not living by the “right” values, nor was it headed in the “right” direction; it was a world which upon seeing a slimy bog exclaimed: “What a charming meadow!” and of a concrete pillory said: “What an exquisite necklace!” Where some were shedding tears that could not be wiped away, there others danced to the tune of a carefree musical.
How did this happen? Why this yawning chasm? Were we insensible? Or is the world? Or is this due to a difference in languages? Why are people who address each other sometimes incapable of making out distinct speech? Words ring out and fade away, they flow off like water—leaving no taste, no color, no smell. No trace.
As I came to understand this more and more over the years, a succession of changes was introduced into the structure, meaning, and tone of my projected speech. Today’s speech.
And it now bears little resemblance to the one first conceived on those icy evenings in the prison camp.
Man has from the beginning been so constituted that his view of the world (if it is not induced by hypnosis), his motivations and scale of values, his actions and his intentions, are all defined by his experience as an individual and as a member of a group. In the words of the Russian proverb: “Your brother, he might lie; trust instead your own bad eye.” This is the soundest of bases for understanding one’s environment and for acting in it. And for many long centuries, while our world was completely and mysteriously dispersed— before it was interlaced by unbroken lines of communication and turned into a single feverishly throbbing mass—people were unfailingly guided by their own experience within their own circumscribed locality, within their community, within their society, and finally within their national territory. At that time it was possible for the individual human eye to see and accept a certain common scale of values: what was considered average, what unbelievable; what was cruel, what was beyond villainy; what constituted honesty, and what deceit. And even though the scattered nations lived quite differently, and the scales of their social values could diverge as strikingly as their systems of measurement, these discrepancies astonished only the infrequent wayfarer or turned up as curiosities in magazines. They held no danger for humanity, which was not yet united.
But in the course of the last few decades, humanity has imperceptibly and suddenly become united—a unity fraught with hope and with danger—so that shocks or inflammations in one part are instantly passed on to the other portions—some of which may well lack the appropriate immunity. Humanity has become one, but it is not the stable undividedness of a former community or even that of a nation. It is a unity achieved not by means of gradually acquired experience, not from the eye, affably referred to as “bad” in the proverb, not even through a common native language; but rather—surmounting all barriers—this is unity brought about by international radio and the press. Onrushing waves of events bear down upon us: Half the world learns in one minute of what is splashed ashore. But lacking are the scales or yardsticks to measure these events and to evaluate them according to the laws of the parts of the world unfamiliar to us. Such scales are not, nor can they be, carried to us through the ether or on sheets of newsprint: These scales of values have been settling into place and have been assimilated for too long a time and in too unique a fashion in the particular lives of specific countries and societies; they cannot be transmitted on the wing. In each region men apply to events their own particular hard-won scale of values; intransigently and self-confidently, they judge by their own scale and by no other.
There are perhaps not multitudes of such different yardsticks in the world, but certainly several: a scale for close-by events and a scale for far-off ones; the scale used by old societies and that used by new ones; the scale of the well off and that of the unfortunate. The gradations on the various scales diverge drastically, their kaleidoscopic variety makes our eyes smart. To prevent discomfort, we dismiss all alien scales out of hand, as if they were madness and error, and we confidently judge the whole world according to our own homegrown scale. Thus we perceive as more significant, more painful, and more intolerable not those conditions which are indeed all these things—but those which are closer to us. But everything that is far away and does not threaten, today, to surge up to our doorsill, we accept—with all its groans, stifled shouts, destroyed lives, and even its millions of victims—as being on the whole quite bearable and of tolerable dimensions.
In one region not so long ago hundreds of thousands of voiceless Christians laid down their lives for their faith in God amid a persecution that yielded nothing to that of ancient Rome. In another hemisphere a certain madman (and he is undoubtedly not alone) speeds across an ocean in order to free us from religion with a blade-thrust aimed at the Pontiff. He deduced this from his own scale of values for the benefit of us all.
What according to one scale—from afar—seems an enviable and contented freedom is perceived according to another scale—close at hand—as galling coercion which calls for buses to be overturned. What in one land would be dreamed of as an improbable level of well-being, in another land provokes resentment as a barbaric exploitation demanding an immediate strike. Different also are the scales for evaluating natural disasters: A flood with two hundred thousand victims seems less important than a minor incident in our home town. There are different scales for assessing personal insult: In one place an ironical smile or a disdainful gesture can humiliate, in others even a cruel beating can be forgiven as a bad joke. There are different scales for punishment and for wrongdoing: According to one, a monthlong detention, a banishment to the countryside, or “solitary” with white rolls and milk, all stagger the imagination and fill columns of newsprint with wrath. But according to another scale it is both commonplace and forgivable to have prison sentences of twenty-five years, punishment cells with ice on the walls where the prisoners are stripped to their underwear, insane asylums for normal persons, and shootings at the border of countless unreasonable people who for some reason keep trying to flee somewhere. Our heart is especially at ease about that exotic land about which we know nothing whatsoever, from which no tidings ever reach our ears with the exception of some belated and hackneyed conjectures from a few correspondents.
This double vision, this torpid inability to understand someone else’s distant grief, should not be blamed on human eyesight: Man is simply built that way. But for mankind as a whole, compressed as it is into a single mass, such a mutual lack of understanding threatens to bring on quick and violent extinction. Given six, four, or even two scales of values, there cannot be a unified world, a united humanity. We shall be torn apart by this difference in rhythm, the divergence in frequency of oscillation. We could not manage to survive on one earth, just as a man with two hearts is not long for this world.
 In November 1970, Pope Paul VI was attacked at the Manila airport by a knife-wielding man.
But who will reconcile these scales of values and how? Who is going to give mankind a single system of evaluation for evil deeds and for good ones, for unbearable things and for tolerable ones—as we differentiate them today? Who will elucidate for mankind what really is burdensome and unbearable and what merely chafes the skin due to its proximity? Who will direct man’s anger toward that which is more fearsome rather than toward that which is closer at hand? Who could convey this understanding across the barriers of his own human experience? Who could impress upon a sluggish and obstinate human being someone else’s far off sorrows or joys, who could give him an insight into magnitudes of events and into delusions which he has never himself experienced? Propaganda, coercion, and scientific proof are all equally powerless here. But fortunately there does exist a means to this end in the world! It is art. It is literature.
They both hold the key to a miracle: to overcome man’s ruinous habit of learning only from his own experience, so that the experience of others passes him by without profit. Making up for man’s scant time on earth, art transmits between men the entire accumulated load of another being’s life experience, with all its hardships, colors, and juices. It recreates—lifelike—the experience of other men, so that we can assimilate it as our own.
But even more, much more than this: Countries and entire continents continually repeat each other’s mistakes with a time lag—occasionally one of centuries—when, it would seem, everything is so very clear. But no: What one people has already endured, appraised, and rejected suddenly emerges among another people as the very latest word. Here once again the sole substitute for an experience which we have not ourselves lived through is art and literature. Both are endowed with the miraculous power to communicate— despite differences in language, custom, and social structure—the experience of the entire nation to another nation which has not undergone such a difficult decades-long collective experience. In a fortunate instance, this could save an entire nation from a redundant, or erroneous, or even destructive course, thereby shortening the tortuous paths of human history.
It is this great and blessed property of art to which I resolutely wish to call attention today from this Nobel platform.
There is one other invaluable direction in which literature transmits incontrovertible condensed experience: from generation to generation. In this way literature becomes the living memory of a nation. It sustains within itself and safeguards a nation’s bygone history—in a form which cannot be distorted or falsified. In this way does literature together with language preserve the national soul.
(It has lately been fashionable to speak of the leveling of nations, of the disappearance of individual peoples in the melting pot of modern civilization. I disagree, but a discussion of this problem would be a theme in itself. It is here appropriate to say only that the disappearance of nations would impoverish us not less than if all men should become alike, with one personality and one face. Nations are the wealth of mankind, its generalized personalities; the least among them has its own unique coloration and harbors within itself a unique facet of God’s design.)
But woe to that nation whose literature is cut short by the intrusion of force. This is not merely interference with “freedom of the press” but the sealing up of a nation’s heart, the excision of its memory. A nation can no longer remember itself, it loses its spiritual unity, and despite their seemingly common language, countrymen cease to understand one another. Mute generations live out their lives and die, without giving an account of their experiences either to themselves or to their descendants. When such literary masters as Akhmatova or Zamyatin are walled up for their entire lives, condemned till the grave to create in silence and unable to hear any echoes to their work—then this is not only their personal misfortune, but a calamity for the whole nation, a menace to it.
And in some cases this could even be a grievous misfortune for the whole of humanity: whenever such silence causes all of history to become incomprehensible.
At various times and in various countries there have been heated, angry, and refined polemics about whether art and the artist should live for their own sake or whether they must always keep in mind their duty toward society and serve it, albeit without bias. For me the answer is obvious, but I shall not once again rehearse the long train of arguments. One of the most brilliant statements on this theme was Albert Camus’s Nobel lecture, and I happily join in his conclusions. Indeed, Russian literature has for decades been disinclined to engage in excessive self-contemplation, or in flitting about in too carefree a manner—and I am not ashamed to continue this tradition to the best of my ability. Through Russian literature we have long ago grown familiar with the concept that a writer can do much among his people—and that he must.
We shall not trample on the right of an artist to express nothing but his personal experiences and his self-observations while disregarding all that occurs in the rest of the world. We shall not make demands on him—but surely we can be permitted to reproach him, beg him, call him, or beckon to him. After all, an artist develops his gift only partially by himself; the greater part has been breathed into him ready-made at birth. And together with this talent, a responsibility has been imposed upon his free will. Granted, an artist does not owe anything to anyone, but it is painful to see how, by withdrawing into self-created worlds or into the realms of subjective whim, he can surrender the real world into the hands of profit-seekers, of nonentities, or even of madmen.
This twentieth century of ours has proved to be crueler than its predecessors, and its horrors have not been exhausted with the end of its first half. The same old atavistic urges—greed, envy, unrestrained passion, and mutual hostility—readily picking up respectable pseudonyms like class, race, mass, or trade union struggle, claw at and tear apart our world. A primitive rejection of all compromise is given the status of a theoretical principle and is regarded as the high virtue which accompanies doctrinal purity. This attitude creates millions of victims in ceaseless civil wars, it drones into our souls that there exist no lasting concepts of good and justice valid for all mankind, that all such concepts are fluid and ever changing—which is why you should always act in a way that benefits your party. Any professional group, at the first opportunity to get their hand on something extra—though unearned and even unneeded—grabs it, and the rest of society be damned. As seen from the outside, the careening fluctuations of Western society seem to be approaching that amplitude beyond which a system becomes metastable and must disintegrate. Less and less restrained by the confines of long established legality, violence strides brazenly and triumphantly through the world, unconcerned that its futility has already been demonstrated and proven many times in history. It is not even brute force alone that is victorious, but also its clamorous justification: The world is being flooded by the brazen conviction that force can do all, and righteousness—nothing. Dostoyevsky’s Devils, who had seemed part of a provincial nightmarish fantasy of the last century, are now infesting the world before our eyes, reaching lands where they could not earlier have even been imagined. And now, by the hijacking of airplanes, by the seizing of hostages, by the explosions and conflagrations of recent years, they signal their determination to shake civilization to its roots and to bring it down. And they may well succeed. Today’s youth, at an age when they have not yet had any experience except sex, before they have lived through their own years of suffering and reached their own personal understanding—these young people enthusiastically mouth the discredited clichés of the Russian nineteenth century, thinking that they are uncovering something new. The recently manifested degradation of human beings into nonentities as practiced by the Chinese Red Guards is taken as a joyous model by the young. What shallow lack of understanding of timeless human nature, what naïve confidence of inexperienced hearts: “We’ll just oust these vicious, greedy oppressors and rulers, and those next in charge (that’s us!), having put aside grenades and submachine guns, will be compassionate and just.” Some chance indeed! . . . And yet among those who have seen life, who do understand, and who could refute these young people—many do not dare to do so. They even assume fawning attitudes, just so as not to seem “conservative.” This once again is a Russian nineteenth-century phenomenon; Dostoyevsky called it subservience to progressive little notions.
The spirit of Munich has by no means retreated into the past, it was no short-lived episode. I would even dare to claim that the spirit of Munich dominates the twentieth century. A timorous civilized world, faced with the onslaught of a suddenly revived and snarling barbarism, has found nothing to oppose it with except concessions and smiles. The spirit of Munich is a malady of the will of affluent people; it is the chronic state of those who have abandoned themselves to a pursuit of prosperity at any price, who have succumbed to a belief in material well-being as the principal goal of life on earth. Such people—and there are many in today’s world—choose passivity and retreat, just so long as their accustomed life can be made to last a little longer, just so long as the transition to hardship can be put off for another day; and tomorrow —who knows?—everything may turn out to be all right. (But it never will! The price paid for cowardice will only be the more exorbitant. Courage and victory come to us only when we are resolved to make sacrifices.)
We are also threatened by destruction from another quarter: Our physically compressed and cramped world is restrained from merging spiritually; molecules of knowledge and sympathy are prevented from leaping from one half to the other. This blockage of information flow between parts of the planet is a mortal danger. Modern science knows that the blockage of information is the way of entropy and of general destruction. Information blockage renders illusory international agreements and treaties: Within the isolated zone there is nothing easier than to reinterpret any treaty or simply to forget it as
if it had never existed (Orwell understood this well). This isolated zone seems to be inhabited not by earthlings but by some expeditionary force from Mars; these people know nothing about the rest of the earth and are ready to trample it underfoot in the solemn belief that they are “liberating” it. A quarter of a century ago the United Nations Organization was born amid the great hopes of mankind. But alas, in an immoral world it too grew up without morality. It is not a United Nations Organization but a United Governments Organization, where governments freely elected are equated with regimes imposed by force or with those that have gained control by an armed seizure of power. By dint of the self-interested bias of the majority of its members, the UN jealously guards the freedom of certain peoples and completely neglects the freedom of others. Through an obeisant vote it has rejected the investigation of private grievances—the moans, cries, and entreaties of humble individual mere people, who were judged entities just too minuscule for such a great organization. Its best document in the twenty-five years of its existence—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the UN has not taken the trouble to make mandatory for its member governments, a condition of membership, and has thereby abandoned little people to the mercy of governments they did not elect.
One might have thought that the structure of the modern world would be entirely in the hands of scientists, since it is they who decide all the technical steps of mankind. One might have thought that the direction in which the world is to move would be determined by a worldwide concord of scientists, not of politicians. All the more so since the example of individuals demonstrates how much ground they could gain if only they joined forces. But no: Scientists have made no explicit attempts to become an important, independently motivated force within mankind. Entire congresses of them back away from the suffering of others: It is cozier to remain within the limits of science. The same spirit of Munich has spread its enervating wings over them.
What, then—in this cruel, dynamic, explosive world which totters on the brink of destruction—what is the place and role of the writer? We do not, after all, send up rockets, we don’t even push the meanest of supply carts. Indeed, we are held in total contempt by those who respect material might alone. Would it not be natural for us also to retreat, to lose faith in the unshakable nature of goodness, in the indivisible nature of truth? Should not we merely recite to the world our bitter but detached observations about how hopelessly warped mankind is, how shallow people have become, and how burdensome it is for a lone refined and beautiful soul to dwell among them?
But even this escape is not open to us. Once we have taken up the word, it is thereafter impossible to turn away: A writer is no detached judge of his countrymen and contemporaries; he is an accomplice to all the evil committed in his country or by his people. And if the tanks of his fatherland have bloodied the pavement of a foreign capital, then rust-colored stains have forever bespattered the writer’s face. And if on some fateful night a trusting friend is strangled in his sleep—then the palms of the writer bear the bruises from that rope. And if his youthful fellow citizens nonchalantly proclaim the advantages of debauchery over humble toil, if they abandon themselves to drugs, or seize hostages—then this stench too is mingled with the breath of the writer.
Have we the insolence to declare that we do not answer for the evils of today’s world?
But I am encouraged by a vivid sense of world literature as one great heart which beats for the cares and woes of our world, though each of these is manifested and perceived in its own way in its separate corner of the globe.
Apart from the well-established tradition of national literatures, there has long existed the concept of world literature. It was traditionally seen as a curve enveloping the peaks of the national literatures and as the sum total of all literary influences. But there were time lags: Readers and writers discovered foreign authors with a delay, occasionally one of centuries. As a result, mutual influences were held back and the curve encompassing the national literary high points was discerned only by posterity, not by contemporaries.
But today there exists an interaction between the writers of one land and the writers and readers of other lands which, though not immediate, is close to it; I can vouch for this myself. My books—unpublished, alas, in my own country—have in spite of hasty and often poor translations rapidly acquired a responsive world readership. Outstanding Western writers such as Heinrich Böll have devoted critical analyses to them. Throughout these last years, when my work and my freedom did not collapse, when they seemed to hang in midair in violation of the laws of gravity, seemingly supported by nothing at all—except the invisible and mute tension of the cohesive film of public sympathy—all those years I have gratefully and quite unexpectedly come to know the support of the worldwide brotherhood of writers. On my fiftieth birthday I was astounded to receive congratulations from well-known European writers. No pressure upon me could any longer pass unnoticed. In the hazardous weeks when I was being expelled from the Union of Writers, the protective wall erected by the writers of the world saved me from worse persecution, while Norwegian writers and artists hospitably readied a shelter for me in case the threatened banishment from my homeland should occur. Finally, my very nomination for the Nobel Prize was initiated not in the country where I live and work, but by François Mauriac and his colleagues. And more recently still, entire organizations of national writers have expressed their support for me.
And so I came to understand through my own experience that world literature is no longer an abstract enveloping curve, no longer a generalization coined by literary scholars, but a kind of collective body and a common spirit, a living unity of the heart which reflects the growing spiritual unity of mankind. Borders of states continue to turn crimson, heated to a red glow by electrified wire and by bursts of machine-gun fire. Certain ministries of internal affairs continue to believe that literature too is an “internal affair” of the countries over which they claim jurisdiction. Newspapers continue to display banner headlines: “They have no right to interfere in our internal affairs!” But in the meantime—all internal affairs have ceased to exist on our crowded earth! The salvation of mankind lies only in making everything the concern of all. People in the East should without exception be concerned with what people are thinking in the West; people in the West should without exception care about what is happening in the East. Literature, one of the most sophisticated and sensitive instruments available to human beings, has been one of the first to pick up, to assimilate, and to join in expressing this feeling of the growing unity of mankind. And I here confidently address myself to the world literature of today—to the hundreds of friends whom I have never met in person and whom I perhaps may never see.
Friends! Let us try to help if we are worth anything at all! Who in our various countries—torn as they are by the tumultuous discord of parties, movements, castes, and groups—who is it that from the beginning has not been a divisive force but a unifying one? That, in essence, is the role of writers: They are the articulators of the national tongue (that main tie which holds a nation together) and of the very land inhabited by a people; in fortunate instances, they give expression to the national soul.
I believe that world literature is fully capable of helping a troubled humanity to recognize its true self in spite of what is advocated by biased individuals and parties. World literature is capable of transmitting the concentrated experience of a particular region to other lands so that we can overcome double vision and kaleidoscopic variety, so that one people can discover, accurately and concisely, the true history of another people, with all the force of recognition and the pain that comes from actual experience— and can thus be safeguarded from belated errors. And at the same time we ourselves shall perhaps be able to develop a world vision: Focusing on what is close at hand with the center of our eye—just like everyone else—we shall begin to use our peripheral vision to take in what occurs in the rest of the world. And we shall proceed to make correlations, adhering to a worldwide standard.
Who else but writers shall condemn their incompetent rulers (in some states this is in fact the easiest way to earn a living; it is done by anyone who feels the urge), who else shall censure their respective societies—be it for cowardly submission or for self-satisfied weakness—as well as the witless excesses of the young and the youthful pirates with knives upraised?
We shall be told: What can literature do in the face of a remorseless assault of open violence? But let us not forget that violence does not and cannot exist by itself: It is invariably intertwined with the lie. They are linked in the most intimate, most organic and profound fashion: Violence cannot conceal itself behind anything except lies, and lies have nothing to maintain them save violence. Anyone who has once proclaimed violence as his method must inexorably choose the lie as his principle. At birth, violence acts openly and even takes pride in itself. But as soon as it gains strength and becomes firmly established, it begins to sense the air around it growing thinner; it can no longer exist without veiling itself in a mist of lies, without concealing itself behind the sugary words of falsehood. No longer does violence always and necessarily lunge straight for your throat; more often than not it demands of its subjects only that they pledge allegiance to lies, that they participate in falsehood.
The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions! His rule: Let that come into the world, let it even reign supreme—only not through me. But it is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie! For in the struggle with lies art has always triumphed and shall always triumph! Visibly, irrefutably for all! Lies can prevail against much in this world, but never against art.
And no sooner will the lies be dispersed than the repulsive nakedness of violence will be exposed—and age-old violence will topple in defeat.
This is why I believe, my friends, that we are capable of helping the world in its hour of crisis. We should not seek to justify our unwillingness by our lack of weapons, nor should we give ourselves up to a life of comfort. We must come out and join the battle!
The favorite proverbs in Russian are about truth. They forcefully express a long and difficult national experience, sometimes in striking fashion:
One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.
It is on such a seemingly fantastic violation of the law of conservation of mass and energy that my own activity is based, and my appeal to the writers of the world.
Translation by Alexis Klimoff