Friday, June 12, 2009

REVISITING SOLZHENITSYN´S `The World Split Apart'—What do we know today, world?

REVISITING SOLZHENITSYN´S `The World Split Apart'—What do we know today, world?

By Alone

We have just passed June 8, the date on which in 1978 Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn gave a Jeremiadic speech at a Harvard Graduation. The speech was called: `The World Split Apart.' At the time, the speech caused quite a stir and aroused rejection in the USA, but not in Western Europe (to whom the speech also appears to have been directed). In contrast, Ronald Reagan used Jeremiadic oratory style often and was loved in America by many for it.

For some reviewers, such as Stoda and Dionisopoulos (2000), the reason why--in the late 1970s and early 1980s--Solzhenitsyn’s prophetic words were so ignored in the USA and pooh-poohed outright by many was because Solzhenitsyn was simply too new, i.e. an outsider to America. Solzhenitsyn had only been settled in a small town in Vermont for about 4 years when he was invited to give that Harvard address. Solzhenitsyn, despite using fairly well the common American jeremiad oratorical tradition was rejected, in short, because he was the wrong man to give it—not because he wasn’t correct or accurate in what he had to say.

On the other hand, Jimmy Carter, the U.S. president at the time, was also rejected in his day for discussing in public America’s “spiritual malaise” or crisis. On the other hand, some thirty-one years later Jimmy Carter is now a much more respected elders statesman of the world—every bit on par with Solzhenitsyn. If Carter would give such a jeremiad today, Carter would certainly receive a lot less criticism.

In a nutshell, was it the man or the message which stumbled in 1978´s America? And why should it matter today?

In many ways, the most obvious reason for the topicality of Solzhenitsyn’s has been the way the content he raised has continued to dominate the world over three subsequent decades. First of all, the speech outlines why fundamentalism needed to make a resurgence onto the world stage. Second, the speech asked the West to do more than go shopping in order to make the world a better or more livable (and just) place. Third, we need to analyze to what degree culture wars, led by extremists, like Al-Qaeda or demagogues like George W. Bush, still employ the same Jeremiadic propaganda to promote there cause. Finally, we need to find out why this sort of Jeremiadic message of Solzhenitsyn’s remains so appropriate and motivating in 2009, even for extremists as well as for moderates in the political and economic landscape.


According to the American Heritage dictionary, a jeremiad is a “literary work or speech expressing a bitter lament or a righteous prophecy of doom”. The word jeremiad harkens to the biblical name of the prophet Jeremiah. The American style Jeremiad is considered the first manifestation of peculiarly North American literature.
According to Mark Stoda and George Dionisopoulos, in their work “Jeremiad at Harvard: Solzhenitsyn and `The World Split Apart´”, outlined the “Puritan jeremiad” of “consisting of a four-part sequence (Johannesen, 1985; Ritter, 1980). The minister would begin by calling the audience's attention to their deviation from the covenant. This was frequently accomplished by quoting directly from the text of the Hebrew prophets, usually Jeremiah. Secondly, the minister would review the current affliction suffered by the community, and remind them that the present suffering was God's response to their sinful violation of the covenant. The sequence next called for a detailed accounting of the people's sin, accompanied by exhortations to repent. `In fact, a minister's reputation for eloquence was often based upon the skill with which he could devise prognostications of a mounting disaster´ (Ritter, 1980, p. 158). The sermon finally predicted the withdrawal of God's wrath and the return of God's reward, in accordance with the covenant. There was hope for relief and promise of blessing only if they turned from their wicked ways. They were ´a people on probation. Having pleaded so long in vain, God was preparing to forsake them. ... But he was offering a last chance´ (Bercovitch, 1970, p. 28). The message of the jeremiad identified present inadequacies along with commensurate requisites for change, that would, in turn, bring the promise of a bright future.”

In short, an American jeremiad requires:
(1) The speaker to be a respected martyr or prophet recognized by the community,
(2) the ills of the community as they pertain to the breaking of a long held covenant must be the focus,
(3) the community must be called to repent after all these sins and their roots have been clarified, and
(4) a prediction for improved conditions must be made by returning to roots or to the recommitment to a covenant.

It is the fourth element, by the way, which is missing most of the time from the more European-style jeremiad speech. It is however, seldom missing from right wing fundamentalist religious zealot leaders, like Osama Bin Laden or right-wing evangelists on the radio in the USA.

Stoda and Dionisopoulos claim that Solzhenitsyn’s address followed the Puritanic jeremiad style very effectively. First of all, the “jeremiad casts the rhetor into the role of a prophet, acting as a kind of intermediary between a god-like authoritative message source and the intended audience. Received by the intermediary in the form of a revelation, it is then re-transmitted in the form of a proclamation of explanation and possible salvation for the intended audience.” Because of his persecution in the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn was seen as a martyr-like being in the West. That is, people listening to his speech recognized him as a living prophet.

Moreover, during his speech, Solzhenitsyn aimed his words at the entire Western World, which to a great degree included the Communist world from which he had come. This means Solzhenitsyn had standing to talk to all in the West. However, according to Stoda and Dionisopoulos, “The jeremiad requires that the speaker constitute the target audience as ´a people´ in a covenantial relationship with the divine. Listeners must acknowledge the existence of the covenant even as they recognize their violation of it, allowing the speaker to complete the form by shaming the audience into obedience.” Americans, dating back to the puritan day and to the start of the American dream, see themselves as a chosen or selected people before God with a covenant in history. This is likely why Americans felt much more spoken to by the prophetic voice of Solzhenitsyn than did any Western Europeans back in 1978.

Second, one of the illnesses which Solzhenitsyn identifies with the West is a lack of courage that comes with too much focus and practice in the world of striving for happiness, i.e. in the form of excess or gluttony. Related to this accusation is the decline in the focus by the West on the spiritual, e.g. our relationship in covenant before God while instead focusing on secular things. This has often led less courage people and leaders to seek out the status-quo--even if the status-quo is unjust, as in keeping dictators in office simply because they are easier to deal with than are democracies (for our large oil firms).

Moreover, a legalistic focus on the law in the West often leave those in charge of the courts, the statesman, and the lawyers as the definers of our rights. In this white political might makes right—with no common understandings of what justice actually means before an omniscient God. This means as long as the high courts can state it is OK to take over the property of another in the name of national security, Western citizens are expected to accept the courts decision. (In this way, the rise of the militia movement and all their fears of the federal state is indirectly predicted in Solzhenitsyn´s oratory. It also leads the way for a jeremiadic speaker, like Ronald Reagan to promise to protect the little people from the big-bad state wolf. In contrast, though to Solzhenitsyn, Reagan would focus on increasing state power and military spending at the same time he offered to protect the same little people from federal bullying.)

Third, as Stoda and Dionisopoulos explain, the “prophetic appeal of the jeremiad is based on the authority ascribed by both rhetor and audience to an acknowledged ´truth.´ This truth unites rhetor and audience within a shared universe of values which sanctifies the audience as a covenant people. It allows the prophet to dictate the nature of their transgression by reminding them of the rightness of the original path from which they have momentarily deviated, and point the way toward salvation through a stringent recommitment to these communal values.” However, “Solzhenitsyn's opening remarks hint that the underlying `truth` grounding his speech is elusive, inviting a quest for its re-discovery. This quest is toward a religious ´ancient truth,´ grounded in ´the heritage of the preceding one thousand years,´ and ´the moral heritage of Christian centuries´ . . . . Solzhenitsyn does not elaborate on the body of religious truths that provide the authority for his remarks, suggesting that he believes them to be self-evident. . . . He does, however, go into detail concerning the West's deviation from the enlightened path.”

Solzhenitsyn calls these misguided paths by various names, including modern man’s “anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of all". Stoda and Dionisopoulos note that Solzhenitsyn “offers the expiation formula that is most in keeping with the genre: salvation can only be attained by a rededication to the principles outlined in the `truth` which grounds his jeremiad. He observes that in the `early democracies, as in the American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted on the ground that man is God's creature... freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility.` The present situation that has granted individuals `boundless freedom with no purpose` other than the `satisfaction of his whims` would have been inconceivable `two hundred or even fifty years ago` . . . .”

Finally, Solzhenitsyn notes that the “West must now return to this path from which it has deviated. It is time `to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.`” That is, as Stoda and Dionisopoulos emphasize, Solzhenitsyn “concludes by labeling the present moment for decision ´a major watershed in history´," demanding of us `a spiritual blaze, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life .... This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but—upward.´”


I feel that the Abraham Lincoln-like oratory by the sanguine Solzhenitsyn needs not to be totally embraced but dissected by present and future thinkers because the oratory is certainly used by all kinds of demagogues successfully because it enables the speaker to take a historical and quasi-religious journey with the audience--an audience who adores a speaker as being above-the-politics dominating in his day and time. Moreover, the content of the speech is fascinating—and still current.

One of the most stinging criticisms Solzhenitsyn is against the journalism and press he had witnessed in the West. Solzhenitsyn states, “The press, too, of course, enjoys the widest freedom. (I shall be using the word “press” to include all the media.) But what use does it make of it? Here again, the overriding concern is not to infringe on the letter of the law. There is no true moral responsibility for distortion or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist or a newspaper have to the readership or to history? If they have misled public opinion by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, even if they have contributed to mistakes on a state level, do we know of any case of open regret voiced by the same journalist the same newspaper? No, this would damage sales. A nation may be worse for such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. . . .” noted Solzhenitsyn.

Moreover, as “instant and credible information is required, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors, and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be refuted; they settle into the reader’s memory. How many hasty, immature, superficial, and misleading judgments are expressed everyday, confusing readers, and then left hanging?” asked Solzhenitsyn.

At the time, Solzhenitsyn may have been focused upon the socialists and western liberals or conservative isolationists who may have wanted to neglect the needed criticism of human rights abuses in the Communist world. However, his critique of the Western press was certainly true in the run up to the war and occupation of Iraq in 2002 and 2003—and not just in the USA, but in dozens of lands, like the UK, the Netherlands, and Poland who made up the so-called coalition-of-the-willing.

NOTE: Even though media and internet have pluralized the institution of journalism, we have a long way to go.

Moreover, Rupert Murdoch’s cronies still own their jobs and their so-called press freedom as much today as they did in 2002 and 2003. In short, no leaders of the major media in the West in 2003 and 2004 took the step of calling day-in-and-day-out for front page headlines stating that the oncoming war with Iraq was certainly totally an unforgivable war crime by those Western regimes involved.

With such evident cowardice at the leadership level in the Western media (and even fascism amongst the media barons there), how can we expect less democratic regions of the globe, like Egypt, Palestine, Burma, Zimbabwe, Cuba, China, and Saudi Arabia to do any better?


In his speech, Solzhenitsyn insightfully indicated in 1978 that the Eastern Europe’s citizens were already underway and busy learning courage while the West had lost its way and preferred or accepted wolf’s who lied over leaders who looked people in the eye and told them the truth.

Solzhenitsyn was right. Instead of seeing great improvements in civic and moral education in the West over the past three decades, only in countries like Poland, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Mozambique, Burma, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic states, and the Soviet Union did the world witness between 1979-1992 heroic struggles and courage to reform a misshapen world. (Only the peace movement activities of millions in Western Europe in response to the Carter-Reagan Arms Buildup in the early 1980s demonstrated any great arousal in the West against its own status quo of excessive lifestyles and mediocre politics.)

Since this time, the world has often been called globalized—not split apart as Solzhenitsyn had predicted. However, in reality the world has remained multi-polar from the end of WWII onwards. This means, for example, that the worlds of people in the “Stans”—Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kurdistan etc. remain far off the Western radar screen—unless oil or jihad are talked about.

This means that Israel appears to be a Western nation if one looks at its neighbors but if one were to look at Israel more accurately, as Solzhenitsyn did in his address, one would have to question whether any state with such religious identity and fixations could truly be called western in identity.

Meanwhile, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Fiji, Burma, and Iran seem to be on their own paths on this planet even as the rest of their own continents seek to embrace some sort of new world order—with China possibly on top (for a while) in coming decades.

Meanwhile, the farcical- and horrible- but supposedly-short wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become quagmires and show that despite supposed globalization, our planet is far from being a single world order. Worse still, in Pakistan, the U.S.A. is facing another war, like in Vietnam or Korea or Iraq.

On the other hand, to some degree, places like Russia since 1992 have certainlz mostly been busy copying the worst vices of Western governments, media, and mafia as described by Solzhenitsyn in his speech. I am certain that if Solzhenitsyn were alive today to discuss the matter, he would certainly ask the West why it couldn’t have returned to its more moral roots sooner and built a better model for the ex-Soviet Russia to emulate.

Likewise, the currently successful or powerful China regime is not copying much—if anything-- of the best of western morals or democracy. China may, however, have its own important spin to provide the West in terms of how to handle crises, such as the economic one the world finds itself in. It may, for example, of its own wisdom and intelligence come to see the threat of global warming and the anomie in modern society to be of more internal concern and act sooner-than-anticipated on these perceived threats to Chinese society. However, only time will tell, and for now, the old model of the West—CONSUME; CONSUME; CONSUME—appears to continue to dominate in Eastern and South Asia, regions which are still trying to catch up to the Western model of consumption and fast-growth rather than buildings a more just and better world full of more opportunities for all.


Bercovitch, S. (1978). The American jeremiad. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press.

Ritter, K. W. (1980). American political rhetoric and the jeremiad tradition: Presidential nomination acceptance addresses, 1960-1976. Central States Speech Journal, 31, 153-171.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich. `The World Split Apart.` given at Harvard Graduation June 8, 1978,

Stoda, Mark and Dionisopoulos, George, “Jeremiad at Harvard: Solzhenitsyn and `The World Split Apart.'” Western Journal of Communication; Winter2000, Vol. 64 Issue 1, p28+.



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