I can’t forget Solzhenitsyn, because he refused to forget anything

by Mr. Sheehy

With his recent death and the fact that I’m on page 280 of 615 in The Gulag Archipelago, I have lately been thinking a lot about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (pronounced, by the way, “Sol-zhen-eet-sen”). He has taught me more than I can write in this blog and given me pause about many parallels I see between our world and that of Stalin’s totalitarian Soviet Union. He is so effective especially because as a writer he is so beautiful. To read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is to read a song, a dirge lamenting the loss of so many precious Russians:

Oh, how many ideas and works had perished in that building–a whole lost culture? Oh, soot, soot, from the Lubyanka chimneys! And the most hurtful thing of all was that our descendents would consider our generation more stupid, less gifted, less vocal than in actual fact it was. (137)

Another striking characteristic of The Gulag Archipelago is the overwhelming number of details Solzhenitsyn used to present his case. Name after name and incident after incident fill his account of the crimes done, creating an avalanche of truth. How, I often wondered, could he have kept all this straight? How could he do it? I caught a glimpse of what he did in his own book, where he discussed how his “War Diary” had been seized by authorities and how it endangered the lives of many of his friends and comrades because it mentioned their names. He chastised himself and patronizingly admitted

These diaries constituted my claim to becoming a writer. I had not believed in the capacities of our amazing memory, and throughout the war years I had tried to write down everything I saw. (136)

Just how amazing our memory is I didn’t appreciate until I read Michael Kaufman‘s obituary of Solzhenitsyn in the New York Times. He describes the system Solzhenitsyn used to retain passages he’d written when he had no paper or pencil:

At Ekibastuz, any writing would be seized as contraband. So he devised a method that enabled him to retain even long sections of prose. After seeing Lithuanian Catholic prisoners fashion rosaries out of beads made from chewed bread, he asked them to make a similar chain for him, but with more beads. In his hands, each bead came to represent a passage that he would repeat to himself until he could say it without hesitation. Only then would he move on to the next bead. He later wrote that by the end of his prison term, he had committed to memory 12,000 lines in this way.

In light of Solzhenitsyn’s achievement, it’s funny to me that I somehow hesitate to bring memorization further into my classroom. It’s a practice–memorization–and it seems to me that the more one does it, the easier it becomes (likely I would think because we get into the practice of it and improve our memorization “study skills” by using them often).

So I ask myself, why not do more? Why don’t I take the time to require the memorization of more poetry, more Shakespeare, or more vocabulary words? Why don’t I take the time myself to commit more to memory?

I suppose my answer would be that it has not always proved useful to memorize material, since I seem to forget it so quickly, like the speaker in Billy Collins’s poem ” Forgetfulness“:

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

But despite my tendency to forget things (like everyone from high school–I read my yearbook last week and didn’t recognize more than half the faces. It was only 12 years ago!), I always seem to return to memorized material with familiarity and friendship. Today I could not quote back to you verbatim Casey at the Bat, or the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, but whenever I turn to those texts, I can read them with one eye directed to the page and the other directed to my memory, where a dusty and well-loved copy of those texts is hidden away. In a sense, memorizing a text made it mine in a way that just reading it could not, even reading it repeatedly.

Projecting that ownership to Solzhenitsyn’s own experience, I imagine how valued those words which he wrote became to him, and how precious was their repetition to his soul. I see this photo of him as a political prisoner in his own beloved country, the sadness in his eyes, and it is no wonder that the words that emerged from that time, and likely many of the ones committed to memory on those bread-beads, composed one of the saddest songs in modern history.

May we learn from him so we won’t have to compose another.

Thanks for reading.


As a bonus I am embedding an animation paired with Billy Collins’s reading of “Forgetfulness.” It’s worth watching and considering as an inspiration for students’ creative responses to poetry.