Calamities of Exile: Said and Solzhenitsyn

Cover00 Cover001 Keith Gessen in bookforum:

Edward Said and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, dissident heroes of two sharply divergent political traditions, had a surprising amount in common. Both came from cultures that had been violently uprooted and dislocated; both were exiled, their lives threatened; both found refuge eventually in the United States—and became outspoken critics of this country. Both fought the regimes they opposed with words and the application of counternarrative. Both wrote famous accusatory tomes—Orientalism (1978), The Gulag Archipelago (1973)—that, through the sheer accrual of evidence, fundamentally altered the worlds they described.

Most interesting of all, both lived to see their political projects succeed to a degree they could never have anticipated. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991; Israel acknowledged the existence of the Palestinian people, and their right to a state, in the 1993 Oslo Accords. And both writers were, immediately and thoroughly, critical of what had once seemed their fondest wishes: While the West celebrated the Yeltsin regime, Solzhenitsyn warned that it was in irresponsible free fall; at almost the same moment, Said denounced Oslo as “a Palestinian Versailles.” Both, sadly, were right.

Two new books give us a sense of where the legacies of these men stand. The Soul and Barbed Wire, an overview of Solzhenitsyn’s life and works by two American scholars, is pure hagiography. While quasi-academic in form and published by a quasi-academic press, the book is willing to acknowledge that Solzhenitsyn had his critics only to label their criticisms “manifestly unfair.” The most relevant thing, claim Edward E. Ericson Jr. and Alexis Klimoff, is that Solzhenitsyn is the equal of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. You might have predicted, if you were a sociologist of academe, that two Solzhenitsyn specialists would say approximately that.

William V. Spanos’s The Legacy of Edward W. Said is something else altogether. It is much crazier, more entertaining, and clearly engaged in a live battle for Said’s legacy.