Lesson for Liberals: Doctor Zhivago

 

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? 

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @TimothyPatton

    I need to strongly recommend the book “Hitler Youth” by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. The book is at a high middle school to high school reading level but it is so rich in detail and facts. No other book has more clearly or simply captured the disaster of statist, fascist Germany and its cult of youth.

    Last year, this was the perfect book for my 8th grade US History students that never happened. I say it never happened because I teach in a country that bans discussion of Jews or Israel in the classroom (Bahrain).

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    @DanielPerez

    How about Wilt by Tom Sharpe? This is the one that got me started in my teens.

    The main character (a college lecturer who is forced to teach “high-brow” literature to construction apprentices at a community college) is probably the most demoralized character I have ever read in any novel. He eventually triumphs over all circumstances in probably the most fulfilling, and yet quiet ending ever.

    Although the novel may focus on comical misinterpretations and the repressed english societies of the 70´s, this was one of the first works to make me think about the general ineptitude of government institutions and socialised education. Besides being very funny and a very easy read, it is also quite subversive.

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    @AlbertArthur

    Well, I’ll go with the obvious: Animal Farm. Unfortunately, I think the Occupy crowd would read Animal Farm and conclude that the answer is more government.

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    @NickStuart

    Animal Farm and Brave New World surely.

    But I would also recommend for sci fi readers Kage Baker’s “Novels of The Company” starting with In the Garden of Iden.

    The “B story” depicts a future world where political correctness and environmentalism have run to their reductio ad adsurdum.

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    @MelFoil

    Darkness at Noon.

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    @Pseudodionysius

    I’ll play skunk and say that I think its unusual, outside of Rand, to encounter a conservative who’s worldview changed solely due to works of fiction. I think you may be the exception Maura, though I’d be interested in hearing any theories that there’s a male-female difference in whether works of non-fiction or fiction are the path to an epiphany.

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    @MauraPennington
    etoiledunord: Darkness at Noon. · Dec 4 at 2:31pm

    Yes! I read that in a high school history class and it taught me more than anything in a textbook.

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    @MauraPennington
    Pseudodionysius: I’d be interested in hearing any theories that there’s a male-female difference in whether works of non-fiction or fiction are the path to an epiphany. · Dec 4 at 2:39pm

    I think fiction can enlighten people in non-political ways and it works for both men and women. As for a political conversion, you’re right, it will probably happen rarely because it’s tough to get someone to pick up a book that doesn’t already fit their views. Sometimes a work of fiction can sneak the message in, though.

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    @Pseudodionysius
    Maura Pennington, Guest Contributor

    Pseudodionysius: I’d be interested in hearing any theories that there’s a male-female difference in whether works of non-fiction or fiction are the path to an epiphany. · Dec 4 at 2:39pm

    I think fiction can enlighten people in non-political ways and it works for both men and women. As for a political conversion, you’re right, it will probably happen rarely because it’s tough to get someone to pick up a book that doesn’t already fit their views. Sometimes a work of fiction can sneak the message in, though. · Dec 4 at 2:53pm

    Channelling CS Lewis, I think you’re right, though I wonder if memoir (the Gulag Archipelago for example) accomplishes the goal for more people? I think a lot of literature profs could reduce even Dostoevsky to the simplisitic jingo:

    “And remember kids, don’t elect those crazy theocrat Rethuglicans if you want to avoid this playing out at home.”

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    @JohannesAllert

    Perhaps dated and more in line with the classic writings from the 19th century — works by Fydor Dostevsky or Leo Tolstoy..?

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    @VonBismarck

    I’d second Johannes. Pretty much anything by Dostesvky. You couldn’t ask for better cautionary tales about human hubris and the dead ends it leads to.

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    @PaulARahe

    There is a fabulous movie entitled The Lives of Others. Behind it, I suspect, there is a novel. If I am wrong in my suspicion, have the people in your group watch the movie.

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    @

    The film of Pasternak’s novel works this way as well. Having enjoyed it as a child on television, and only recently watching it at home to introduce my wife to it, after having been away from it for many years, I was astonished at the anti-anti-individualist, anti-totalitarian, and anti-communist message it sends, without beating you over the head. All the while letting someone think it is just a sweeping love story, I was lead to seek out the newer Russian mini-series version, which is also quite powerful. Dostoevsky, J. R. R. Tolkien, Anthony Trollope, and Alexandre Dumas (the elder): I think his Count of Monte Cristo and Corsican Brothers interesting meditations on conservatism, justice and the individual, as well as Dorothy Sayer’s and Somerset Maugham, all help reinforce my conservatism and illustrated what is lost with the rise of modernism in varying times, places and manifestations.

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    @CalebTaylor

    Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy. Specifically, the last one.

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    @

    Yes, I just saw Dr. Rahe’s post – The Lives of Others, was an astonishing film, please help people to see it. I don’t think there was a novel behind it, National Review had two wonderful articles on the film, a review, and I believe an interview or expose about the director. It was his first film, and he was not film school trained, both articles were excellent as I recall. Also, not so well done, but also powerful was Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, about a student caught up in the anti-Nazi White Rose Society in 1943.

    I think there is a problem, and that is many liberal will see these films and reflexively think, ah yes, that is what will happen if the conservatives ever consolidate power.

    How does one combat that notion?

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    @MauraPennington
    Johannes Allert: Perhaps dated and more in line with the classic writings from the 19th century — works by Fydor Dostevsky or Leo Tolstoy..? · Dec 4 at 3:01pm

    It’s not a coincidence that I’ve ended up on Ricochet with Diane Ellis after studying Russian together. There’s something about the literature of a people who never experienced life free from an autocrat. They understand the human condition with more devastating accuracy than anyone else. There’s a message of freedom in all of it.

    Okay, now: what works of literature do a disservice to the conservative cause, i.e. reenforce progressive ideals? I’ll start: A Christmas Carol. It’s a tradition in my house to watch the Muppet version, so I love it. Although… Magical know-it-alls come and convince a businessman that he’s being greedy. Subtle yet sinister message :)

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    @CoolHand

    Animal Farm and Farenheit 451 laid bare the fraud of collectivism/totalitarianism for me when I was about 11 or 12 years old.

    I’m sure even the simplest of minds from the OWS crowd could digest them if they tried.

    While Atlas Shrugs is spooky in that it pretty well follows our current economic and political debasement (God help us if the rest comes true), it really serves more as Libertarian “Thought Porn” than as a convincing argument to folks from the other side.

    If you’re inclined to agree with the premises from the start, you’ll love the book. If you are not, you won’t last three chapters, and you’ll hate every word, which makes it a poor choice to send to people who haven’t a clue what they really believe (or who need to be persuaded that they are wrong).

    Brave New World is good as well, but few books I’ve read distill the basic premises as well as Animal Farm. It is short, easy to read/understand, and very sharply to the point. Orwell at his finest.

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    @
    Maura Pennington, Guest Contributor

    Okay, now: what works of literature do a disservice to the conservative cause, i.e. reenforce progressive ideals? I’ll start: A Christmas Carol. It’s a tradition in my house to watch the Muppet version, so I love it. Although… Magical know-it-alls come and convince a businessman that he’s being greedy. Subtle yet sinister message :) · Dec 4 at 3:52pm

    Wait a minute – Dickens, like Hugo, often seeks public action (whether or not that would translate into public policy action akin to socialist tendencies is debatable), but their is a difference between a conservative and libertarian reading of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is greedy, cold, un-feeling, and at heart a Malthusian. Dicken’s solution in A Christmas Carol is the application of Christian Charity from private sources to relieve those in suffering, last time I checked that strikes me as a conservative solution. One that many liberal critics of the novel have noted.

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    @

    Additionally, the greatest ire in Dicken’s novella, and in Oliver Twist is for government programs that don’t work because they disrupted and damaged existing provisions for the poor that had been the responsibility of the gentry and church.

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    @DavidFoster

    I second the recommendation for Darkness at Noon. Koestler also wrote a much less-well-known novel, The Age of Longing, which deals with the West’s loss of civilizational-self confidence and the attraction of lost souls toward totalitarianism, but it is probably best read by those who are already well along on the path from leftism. I reviewed it here: sleeping with the enemy.

    Ayn Rand’s novel We the Living, which deals with everyday life in the Soviet Union, is better from a literary standpoint than her later work; the characters are better-developed and there are fewer (and shorter) set-piece speeches.

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    @DavidFoster

    Someone mentioned the film Sophie Scholl–the Final Days. There was an earlier German film about Sophie and her circle which I think is extremely good–made in the late 1980s, IIRC.

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    @katievs

    Movies really are great for disabusing friends of collectivist illusions.

    The Lives of Others, yes. And the perhaps equally great, East/West. And Inner Circle. And Eminent Domain. Then there’s On the Waterfront.

    Beautiful movies that present an entirely different worldview—one that highlights the reality of individual moral choice—also great: Jean de Floret/Manon of the Spring; Babette’s Feast; The Scarlet and the Black.

    As for books, I especially love those written from the perspective of those who endured the costs of totalitarianism: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; The Diary of Anne Frank; The Hiding Place; Wild Swans…

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    @DavidFoster

    It’s not a novel, but Eugenia Ginzburg’s story of her arrest and exile to Siberia reads like one. There are two books: Into the Whirlwind, and Within the Whirlwind.

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    @Pseudodionysius
    Maura Pennington, Guest Contributor

    Johannes Allert: Perhaps dated and more in line with the classic writings from the 19th century — works by Fydor Dostevsky or Leo Tolstoy..? · Dec 4 at 3:01pm

    It’s not a coincidence that I’ve ended up on Ricochet with Diane Ellis after studying Russian together. There’s something about the literature of a people who never experienced life free from an autocrat. They understand the human condition with more devastating accuracy than anyone else. There’s a message of freedom in all of it.

    I meant to raise this point before: I read a fair whack of Dostoevsky all at once only when I knew what I was looking for and had access to the Richard Pevear translations. Without a Russian studies background like you and Diane have, I doubt I would have attempted them unless Richard John Neuhaus had mentioned them at First Things. And I found Demons a freakier novel than Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov.

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    @GeorgeSavage

    Flashback is scifi writer Dan Simmons’s dystopian look into a near future where the citizenry of a debt-ridden United States never bothered to look up the definition of the word “unsustainable” until it was too late.

    An interesting wrinkle: most U.S. citizens are addicted to a drug, Flashback, that permits the user to relive with perfect fidelity any past experience. Think of the addictiveness of crack cocaine and then crank the dial up to eleven.

    A perfect antidote to “yes, we can,” Flashback extends the current sovereign debt trend line past the point of inevitable collapse and details a possible aftermath.

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    @MikeVisser

    Lord of the Flies freaked me out as a kid and made me wary of mobs of young people. Reading it again as a teenager destroyed any notions of wisdom in youth or wisdom in group-think (thankfully) which inoculated me before going to college. I do see how a different lesson might be taken away from that book; that credentialed managers are necessary to heard the masses least they devolve into the racist, sexist, bigoted troglodytes they really are.

    As to your second question, Steinbeck immediately comes to mind. He could powerfully paint a picture of suffering and misery and make the case for the inhumanity of profit driven capitalism.

    Jack London also attempted this, but not as successfully in my opinion. His work Martin Eden tried to argue the life of individualism was lonely and not fulfilling and lead to only one logical conclusion (I wont give away the ending).

    I am torn as to whether fiction could actually change my world view or political philosophy. Appeals to emotion, while they may tug on the heart-strings, have never made me challenge my own fundamental beliefs.

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    @katievs
    Mike Visser: I am torn as to whether fiction could actually change my world view or political philosophy. Appeals to emotion, while they may tug on the heart-strings, have never made me challenge my own fundamental beliefs. · Dec 4 at 4:51pm

    Now, hang on. Great literature is not “appeal to emotion”. It touches a human depth deeper than superficial reasoning, but it is eminently rational.

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    @EThompson

    Milan Kundera’s The Joke.

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    @JollyRoger

    Dr. Zhivago is indeed impressive. A novel I personally would consider on a similar plain is Quo Vadis.

    For non-fiction that resemble novels some conservative nominees are Frankl’s memoirs, Man’s Search for Meaning and McKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

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    @Fastflyer

    Since we are also doing movies, then “THX 1138” by George Lucas depicts the ultimate progressive society. The book that set me free was “Half Past Human” by T. J. Bass, published in 1969. Again, an egalitarian society carried to its ultimate extreme. Yes, I cast the first vote of my life for Johnson, an act I rue to this day. Who wants to live in a hive where everyone is equal and shares equally, but are no more at liberty than ants. Evidently, the OWS people.

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