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Miniatures, 1996-99

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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In Twilight

I well remember the very widespread custom, back in the South, of "twilighting." Carried over from before the Revolution, it might have also been fortified by the meager, perilous years of the Civil War. Yet this practice had come about much earlier. Was it born of the months-long warmness of the Southern dusk? Many became accustomed never to rush lighting their lamps, yet, having completed their chores (or tended to the livestock) before nightfall, they were in no hurry to get to bed. Instead, they emerged outside to sit on dirt ledges or benches, or just lounged inside with the windows wide open-no light to draw in bugs. One after another they would sit softly down, as if lost in thought. And long remained silent. If someone did speak, it was quietly, delicately, unobtrusively. Somehow, in those exchanges, no one got fired up to argue, or to reproach spitefully, or to quarrel. Faces could barely be made out, then not at all; and, lo, one began to discern in them, and their voices, something unfamiliar, something one failed to observe through the prior course of years.

A feeling would take hold of everyone, of something impalpable and unseen that descended gently from the dimming after-sunset sky, dissolved in the air, streamed in through the windows: that profound seriousness of life, its unfragmented meaning, that goes ignored in the bustle of day. Our brush with the enigma that we let flit away.

Rooster Song

With the depopulation, abandonment, and extinction of our villages, we have forgotten, and younger generations have never even heard, the many-voiced rooster roll call of midday. In sunny summertime, from one yard to the next, across the street, and farther, beyond the village outskirts, how marvelous is this chorus of triumphant life.

Little else can bestow such tranquility upon the soul. Not drowned out by any noisy bustle, this vivid, vibrant, succulent, stalwart cry conveys to us that throughout these parts there reigns a blessed peace, an untroubled calm. That's how today has unfolded so far, and why shouldn't it continue? Carry on, everyone, your benign pursuits.

Right here, somewhere, he saunters about proudly, all white and orange, with his sumptuous, knightly scarlet comb.

Comports himself gloomlessly.

If only we could.

Nocturnal Thoughts

It's one thing in a labor camp: You break your back the livelong day and, just you lay your head on a straw pillow, you hear: "U-u-u-up you get!" No nocturnal thoughts here.

But in the merry-go-round of our modern life, so frayed and fragmented, thoughts have no chance to ripen and settle during the day, and are abandoned. It is at night that they return to claim their due. No sooner does your mind's fog begin to lift, they lunge, they flood your flattened consciousness, jostling with each other. And one of the more caustic and audacious of the lot coils in front, ready to sting. But your resistance, your dignity-is not to give yourself up to these gusts, but to master the dark torrent and guide it toward that which heals. For there is always a thought, often more than one, that introduces a tiny element of tranquility, like those control rods inserted into a nuclear reactor to impede a meltdown. Just learn to find this element, this saving ray of God-or even have it on the ready-and hold on to it.

Then your soul and reason are cleansed, those gusts disperse, and into the troubled world of insomnia step beneficent, spacious thoughts-ones you could never have approached in the bustle of day. And thank insomnia: From this lookout even the insoluble can be solved. Power over self.

Remembrance of the Departed

It is an act bequeathed to us in deep wisdom, by men of holiness. We come to understand its purpose not in vigorous youth, amidst the company of loved ones, family, friends; but with age.

Parents have passed; peers now pass as well. Where go they? It seems unguessable, unfathomable, beyond our grasp. Yet as with some foreordained clarity, it dawns for us, it glimmers-no, they have not vanished. And no more shall we learn of it, while we live. But a prayer for their souls-it casts from us to them, from them to us, an impalpable arch of measureless breadth yet effortless proximity. Why, here they are, you can almost touch them. Both unknowable are they and, as ever, so familiar. Except, they have fallen back in years: Some were older than we, but now are younger.

Focusing, you even inhale their answer, their hesitation, their warning. In exchange, you send them your own earthly warmth: Perhaps we too can help somehow? And a promise: We shall meet.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize for - literature in 1970. His works include The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. These "Miniatures," previously unpublished in English, were translated by Ignat and Stephan Solzhenitsyn for The Solzhenitsyn Reader (ISI Books), a new volume edited by Edward E. Ericson Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney.

Copyright (c) 2006 First Things (December 2006).

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Posted: 22-Mar-07



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