But What For Takeaways - No. 025

"One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world." Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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This Week from But What For?

I stumbled across Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1970 Nobel Prize lecture a few months back, put it on a list of things that I should go back and read, and proceeded to forget about it for too long. I’m a fan of Solzhenitsyn’s writing (though I still always have to double-check that I get his name spelled correctly…)… and also think his translator (Thomas P. Whitney) for the Gulag Archipelago did a fantastic job - deserving an award in his own right.

Pulling this speech back out, I got curious if there were any other names on the list of Nobel Prizes in Literature that I would recognize. I pulled together a few below that I thought were recognizable individuals with speeches that were also interesting reads.

Looking forward, I don’t have any specific topic planned for next week yet - shoot me a note if you have come across anything interesting recently. I always appreciate suggestions!

I hope everyone has had a great week thus far,

— EJ

Latest from But What For?

Last Thursday I mentioned that I wanted to share a little bit about a “particularly competent and undeservedly unknown man” from the late 1800s / early 1900s. John D. Rockefeller, who, as we will discuss, eventually entrusted his philanthropic activities to him, said that this man combined “business skill and philanthropic aptitude to a higher degree than any other man I have ever known.”

Quiet the compliment from one of the most successful businessmen in history.

This man was Fredrick Taylor Gates – and the University of Chicago, Rockefeller University, the Rockefeller Foundation, and America’s model of medical school education and medicine research can all be tied back to his steadfast efforts and uncommon common sense.

There are many more stories that we could go into where Gates made a difference – such as the killing off of a good portion of hookworm globally and the founding of black high schools in the South to support equal education opportunities (his uncle was a noted abolitionist and judge in New York – Cyrus Gates), but I think the picture is clear.

Gates was an uncommonly gifted individual, for sure – but he was also a curious learner and hard worker who knew how to take what he learned and apply it in the real world. Because he happened to do so, the world is a better place – even if his name is not commonly known.


(Underlined titles are links to sources)

  • Takeaway: Art can connect those otherwise unconnected

Poetry is usually considered the most local of all the arts. Painting, sculpture, architecture, music, can be enjoyed by all who see or hear. But language, especially the language of poetry, is a different matter. Poetry, it might seem, separates peoples instead of uniting them.

In the work of every poet, there will certainly be much that can only appeal to those who inhabit the same region, or speak the same language, as the poet. But nevertheless, there is a meaning to the phrase «the poetry of Europe», and even to the word «poetry» the world over. I think that in poetry people of different countries and different languages – though it be apparently only through a small minority in any one country – acquire an understanding of each other which, however partial, is still essential. And I take the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature, when it is given to a poet, to be primarily an assertion of the supra-national value of poetry. To make that affirmation, it is necessary from time to time to designate a poet: and I stand before you, not on my own merits, but as a symbol, for a time, of the significance of poetry.

  • Takeaway: If you are afraid, you cannot create

He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.

Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

  • Takeaway: Rewards come, if at all, to those who do for the sake of doing

No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.

  • Takeaway: One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world

In order to mount this platform from which the Nobel lecture is read, a platform offered to far from every writer and only once in a lifetime, I have climbed not three or four makeshift steps, but hundreds and even thousands of them; unyielding, precipitous, frozen steps, leading out of the darkness and cold where it was my fate to survive, while others – perhaps with a greater gift and stronger than I – have perished. Of them, I myself met but a few on the Archipelago of GULAG [Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in Stalinist Russia along with other writers], shattered into its fractionary multitude of islands; and beneath the millstone of shadowing and mistrust, I did not talk to them all, of some I only heard, of others still I only guessed…

And as I stand here today, accompanied by the shadows of the fallen, with bowed head allowing others who were worthy before to pass ahead of me to this place, as I stand here, how am I to divine and to express what THEY would have wished to say?

This obligation has long weighed upon us, and we have understood it. In the words of Vladimir Solov’ev:

Even in chains we ourselves must complete

That circle which the gods have mapped out for us.

As the Russian saying goes, “Do not believe your brother, believe your own crooked eye.” And that is the most sound basis for an understanding of the world around us and of human conduct in it.

But now during the past few decades, imperceptibly, suddenly, mankind has become one – hopefully one and dangerously one – so that the concussions and inflammations of one of its parts are almost instantaneously passed on to others, sometimes lacking in any kind of necessary immunity. Mankind has become one, but not steadfastly one as communities or even nations used to be; not united through years of mutual experience, neither through possession of a single eye, affectionately called crooked, nor yet through a common native language, but, surpassing all barriers, through international broadcasting and print. An avalanche of events descends upon us – in one minute half the world hears of their splash.

But the yardstick by which to measure those events and to evaluate them in accordance with the laws of unfamiliar parts of the world – this is not and cannot be conveyed via soundwaves and in newspaper columns…

And if there are not many such different scales of values in the world, there are at least several; one for evaluating events near at hand, another for events far away; aging societies possess one, young societies another; unsuccessful people one, successful people another. The divergent scales of values scream in discordance, they dazzle and daze us, and in order that it might not be painful we steer clear of all other values, as though from insanity, as though from illusion, and we confidently judge the whole world according to our own home values. Which is why we take for the greater, more painful and less bearable disaster not that which is in fact greater, more painful and less bearable, but that which lies closest to us. Everything which is further away, which does not threaten this very day to invade our threshold – with all its groans, its stifled cries, its destroyed lives, even if it involves millions of victims – this we consider on the whole to be perfectly bearable and of tolerable proportions.

We shall be told: what can literature possibly do against the ruthless onslaught of open violence? But let us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE. At its birth violence acts openly and even with pride. But no sooner does it become strong, firmly established, than it senses the rarefaction of the air around it and it cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk. It does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.

And the simple step of a simple courageous man is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions! Let THAT enter the world, let it even reign in the world – but not with my help. But writers and artists can achieve more: they can CONQUER FALSEHOOD! In the struggle with falsehood art always did win and it always does win! Openly, irrefutably for everyone! Falsehood can hold out against much in this world, but not against art.

And no sooner will falsehood be dispersed than the nakedness of violence will be revealed in all its ugliness – and violence, decrepit, will fall…

Proverbs about truth are well-loved in Russian. They give steady and sometimes striking expression to the not inconsiderable harsh national experience:


Take care and have a great rest of the week,

— EJ

But What For? Writing about anything, as long as it’s interesting

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