“After the sufferings of many years of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.”
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, “A World Split Apart,” Harvard Commencement Address 1978
Solzhenitsyn’s speech is uniquely gripping. When he analyzed Western society in 1978, coming as he had from communist Russia, he offered a unique angle of insight. He reflects on various aspects of the impoverished state of Western culture, and how inadequate it is to fulfill the deeper desires of the human soul—especially the souls of those who had suffered under communism.
I’m not sure just what he means by the “invasion of publicity”—he doesn’t explain it here. But I wonder whether these lines from earlier in his address give a clue:
Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day.
Here he continues his reflection on media (in the broad sense of news, entertainment, journals, etc) in America. While it is not subject to formal censorship as it was in his homeland, it nonetheless tends to be under the lock of current fashions in thinking.
Perhaps the invasion of publicity refers to how the general fashions of thinking are made almost irresistible; they are pressed upon us—and especially upon the young—with a force so effective that the fashions don’t seem to be forced, or don’t even feel like ‘fashions.’ They feel like simply the way things are. This is a revolting invasion.
What might Solzhenitsyn offer as an example? Later in the lecture he notes, “Everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life didn’t have any superior sense.”
How do we begin to reckon, for instance, with the fact that we are not just encouraged but practically forced to think about our own selves and lives in terms of “physical well-being and accumulation of material goods,” rather than goods “of a subtler and higher nature,” such as our life in the home, our true friendships, our intellectual refinement, or our interior life?
What comes next is very instructive, as he notes two means of the invasion: “by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.” Solzhenitsyn chooses his words carefully. Stupor can be defined as a near unconsciousness or insensibility. In other words, in a stupor a person is uncomprehending of reality around him. He cannot sense or perceive things as they really are.
There are various things that can induce a stupor. Probably what he calls TV stupor is what now might be called a social-media-virtual-reality-constantly-connected stupor. The nature and power of intolerable music must also be reckoned with. In an age in which we pride ourselves on the maturity and progress of our civilization, it is remarkable how strong the forces that work against our perceiving the real gift of what it is to be human, and our enacting a truly authentic human life.
But Solzhenitsyn keeps returning to the reality of human nature itself. There is a powerful longing rooted deep within us, and it is imbued with the nobility of its objects, “things higher, warmer, and purer.” What lovely words, and what a lovely reality! Things higher, warmer, and purer.
Nothing can take away our longing—unless we give it up. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn indicates that suffering can increase it. Human longing points to higher things, things which surely are there and are attainable. The final words of the lecture are powerful and hopeful: “No one on earth has any other way left but—upward.”
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) was a major Russian literary figure whose works include The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. His 1978 Harvard commencement address established him as a controversial critic not only of socialism and his native homeland but also of the western ‘free’ world.
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It is certainly a gift that perceptive people like Solzhenitsyn can point out things that need pointing out – e.g. that heavily ingrained characteristics of our present culture and society tend to greatly hinder our prospects for sustained happiness – and yet may escape our critical attention simply because we are *in* that society and lack the candid appraisals of those outside it, whose own non-western backgrounds offer them a an opportunity to see certain things. Incidentally, this points to the importance of the Catholic Church and the integrity of its identity, and the potential precariousness of excessively letting present cultural mores determine, e.g. the liturgy, without discernment. More broadly, I am reminded of a lecture you gave (subsequently published as an online video) in which you discussed the importance Plato gave, in his dialogue “The Republic,” to making sure that cultural elements of the city-state, e.g. music, truly tended toward the ultimate good of the citizens. You remarked that it is difficult to raise children in a wholesome way *against* cultural trends that are entirely inimical to genuine human flourishing – although it is possible to do so, those cultural trends can easily influence the education of the young.
Brian, I really like your point of how difficult it can be to get an accurate assessment of our own milieu. It is indeed a gift to have someone like Solzhenitsyn come in from the outside. Thanks for all your thoughts here!
Thank you for revisiting a speech that received mixed reviews at the time. As I remember it, we in the West expected Solzhenitsyn to simultaneously condemn communist control and praise our capitalist freedom. Instead, he condemned both East and West for their gross neglect of the human spirit, the former via coercion, the latter via consumerism. What they shared was materialism, and in his speech, as in his writings, Solzhenitsyn stood in the shoes of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and other great Russian authors whose worldview, focused on “things higher, warmer, and purer,” whose words poignantly pointed us “upward.” How desperate we are today for thinkers of this stature with a similarly uplifting metaphysical orientation. Again, this is a most welcome and timely piece that will, I believe, be appreciated by many
Newton, You are remembering well the main points. I had never read it all the way through, and I have enjoyed it immensely. Some consider it a masterpiece as a lecture. I hope you’re correct that more now will appreciate it.
“I know of no country inw hich there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. In any constitutional state in Europe, every sort of religions and political theory may be freely preached and disseminated; for there is no country in Europe so subdued by any single authority, as not to protect the man who raises his voice in the cause of truth from the consequences of his hardihood….”
“(If he dares to speak unpopular opinions)… he is loudly censured by his opponents, whilst those who like him, without having the courage to speak out, abandon him in silence. He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoke the truth.”
– Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Tom, That’s remarkable. I’m going to go back and look more at this part of Democracy in America. Thanks for sharing this!
We tend to take for granted the things offered and available to us in our modern Western culture, but their greatest value is when they help to foster the “higher things” that nourish our spiritual life. The way that leads upward. It seems for the most part, however, that this freedom that we enjoy, becomes a license for selfishness and leaves our fellow citizens moving in another direction, to an impoverished state.
Frank, Well said. This is certainly a point for constant self-examination. Are our possessions weighing us down, or lifting us up? Thanks.
If the Russian language is anything like the Romance languages, by “invasion of publicity” Solzhenitsyn probably means the ubiquity of advertising in public spaces, print, television and radio, leaving the citizen without a place to escape the attempts at being sold something. If what I’ve seen about the Soviet Union is correct, it could be either similar (or maybe parallel) to the revolutionary propaganda that permeated the equivalent media in Russia. And, as you said, it leads to something akin to, in today’s language, the “oppression of the fashionable”, a preoccupation with making sure that we have the latest thing and agree with the latest thought.
For this use see, for example, here: https://www.franceculture.fr/economie/linvasion-de-la-publicite and here: https://amorfosfilms.com/2011/01/09/la-invasion-de-la-publicidad/
Alfredo, I like your read of this! The ubiquity of advertising is indeed an invasion. It is also encourages our seeing all things as measured by a monetary price. Thank you.