So excited to be here! By way of an introduction, I’m starting a Sunday evening book club.
Something unheard-of, something unprecedented is approaching. Before it overtakes us, here is my wish for you. When it comes, God grant that we do not lose each other and do not lose our souls.
This excerpt comes from the most recent, and in my opinion the best, English translation of Boris Pasternak’s epic novel Doctor Zhivago. Pasternak was a poet and that is clear in many passages, but he also portrays in terrifying prose the gritty, gruesome reality of life in Russia during and after the First World War when communism supplanted a people’s entire mode of existence.
While I would recommend this literary work to anyone (because it changed my life and set me on the course I am now on), I believe that it has particular value for a class of people we know well: the seemingly well-meaning, socialism-idealizing liberals. The open secret of my life is that I was a Democrat at the start of college. I soon soured on the party and on the principles of progressivism and I’ve never really looked back. So, I know how a lot of liberals think, or tell themselves that what they’re doing is thinking. And if they took the few evenings it would require to read Doctor Zhivago, I believe it could change their lives too. I’ll offer a few examples.
The title character Yury Zhivago is conscripted into the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. He is forced to stay in their camp, divided from the people he loves.
Despite the absence of fetters, chains, and guards, the doctor was forced to submit to his unfreedom.
While this might be too subtle for the casually Marxist left-winger, I think every human being shudders a bit at the word “unfreedom.” It’s not a word in any dictionary, but we all know what it means. And the idea that a person can be unfree without chains only makes it that much more frightening. Liberty takes centuries to preserve and seconds to steal.
Then untruth came to the Russian land. The main trouble, the root of the future evil, was loss of faith in the value of one’s own opinion. People imagined that the time when they followed the urgings of their moral sense was gone, that now they had to sing the general tune and live by foreign notions imposed on everyone. The dominion of the ready-made phrase began to grow—first monarchistic, then revolutionary. This social delusion was all-enveloping, contagious.
If we’re talking about ready-made phrases, I would hope that “Yes, we can” would pop into our readers’ heads, not necessarily from any sense of self-awareness, but more because it’s hard-wired into their nervous system now from believing so fervently in it.
The ban on private enterprise was lifted, and free trade was permitted within strict limits. Deals were done on the scale of commodity circulation among junkmen in a flea market. The dwarf scope of it encouraged speculation and led to abuse. The petty scrambling of the dealers produced nothing new, it added nothing material to the city’s desolation. Fortunes were made by pointlessly selling the same things ten times over.
Even aspiring wealth redistributors have to understand this devastating and absurd result of subverting the economy, disrupting the market, and spending years making “profits” a dirty word to where people no longer understand it.
And finally, not to deprive you or our nannying friends of a glimpse of the central love story, here is how Lara thinks of Yury:
She wanted, with his help, to break free, if only for a short time, into the fresh air, out of the abyss of sufferings that entangled her, to experience, as she once had, the happiness of liberation.
Pasternak uses the language of freedom throughout the novel. The point he makes is that love and a personal, private existence are more powerful life-giving forces than the cold, cruel mechanisms of the state, even and especially when the state claims to be benevolent. We should be thankful we don’t live in a Soviet society and we should be wary of people touting the same supposed ideals of enforced egalitarianism.
So, here’s my question for our club: What work of fiction (not all Ayn Rand, please) would you recommend for those with more collectivizing tendencies? Are there enough works of fiction out there?