I recall my perplexity upon finishing Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” for the first time. I knew that the book had won the Nobel Prize for Literature and I believed (and still believe) that its author was one of the true heroes of the 20th century. I was interested in reading it partly because of its status as a work of great literature, and partly because I was interested in its critique of Soviet totalitarianism and ideology. When I finished reading it, I was confused because the book contained no explicit denunciations or critiques of communist ideology. Instead, in simple and straightforward prose, it told the story of a single day in the life of a concentration camp prisoner without ever making any direct commentary on the system that had led to his being present there.
What I recently realized, years later, is that that, in fact, is one of the main sources of the novel’s power. The critique of ideology present in the book is not in the form of an explicit theoretical treatise, but rather in the form of a simple exercise of bearing witness, in showing the reader a snapshot of what is, or was, albeit in fictionalized form. The character of Ivan Denisovich is not a cypher or a symbol of some larger ideal, he is exactly and only what he appears to the reader as in the novel's pages, a human subject attempting to survive and even thrive under conditions of ideologically imposed brutality.
The reason for this, I now see, is that the language of ideology is the language of theoretical abstractions. While theoretical language is an unavoidable and necessary part of writing and speaking, it is more easily detached from the reality of ordinary human experience and therefore, more susceptible to abuse. This is because formulating a set of beliefs about the way the world should be, always involves abstracting away from what is. The ideologue often becomes committed to this vision in a way that makes him or her impervious to the realities of lived human experience, attempting to force his vision onto the world at all costs. When given the power to force others to conform to its vision of how things should be, this fanaticism can lead to oppression and suffering.
It is easy to recognize the destructiveness of particular ideologies and the toll they take or have taken on human beings. Most of us recognize the evils of Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. What is less easy for some to recognize, is that even the critique of ideology can itself become ideological. In the words of Georgetown University professor Patrick Deneen, “Can the principled stand against a politics based upon the application of universalized principle avoid becoming universalized?” Or, as conservative thinker D. G. Hart observes when discussing the conservative critique of ideology,
Conservatism arose as a denunciation of theoretical (read: ideological) approaches to politics, such as the French Revolutionaries’ attempt to rationalize and even mechanize traditional French society. Of course, the temptation for conservatism is to respond with a rival theory of politics for the good society.
This leads us back to Solzhenitsyn’s novel. It’s strength lies precisely in its failure to provide a counter ideology to that of the Soviet system it exposes. It does not give us a theoretical tool that we can abstract and use to advance our own ideological causes. It simply shows us the human reality of life under an ideological tyranny. It presents us with a reality to which we must respond. This is the novel’s lasting power and genius.