I remember quite well, sometime in 1970, strolling into the university bookshop looking for inspiration. I was quite fully occupied studying physics, but while being blasted from all sides by quantum theory, thermodynamics, Maxwell’s equations and ever more abstruse and esoteric mathematics, there seemed, nevertheless, to be something missing.
What was bothering me, as I realized many years later when I came across C P Snow’s idea of Two Cultures, was that I was involved with only one half of human intellectual experience, that being Science, and only a subset of science at that. All of the Arts, literature, drama, languages, history etc were alien unknown territory.
The Greeks, Aristotle in particular, made no distinction between the arts and the sciences in their learning and studies. Anthony Gottlieb lists the subjects upon which Aristotle wrote: ethics, political theory, rhetoric, poetry, constitutional history, theology, zoology, meteorology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, scientific method, anatomy, the foundations of mathematics, language, formal logic, techniques of reasoning and fallacies, to mention only some.
It was normal practice when I was at school – and I don’t think much has changed – to choose, after ‘O’ level, whether to pursue arts or sciences to ‘A’ level and thence to university. One thereby declared oneself, at the tender age of sixteen, one side or the other of the arts/sciences divide. This is a choice that for most of us lasts forever.
Back in 1970, and literature being possibly the easiest of the arts subjects for a non-specialist to appreciate, I had come into the bookshop looking for something ‘arty’ to read. I came across a large pile of books on the floor with the notice: “Nobel Prizewinning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s new book, The First Circle”. I was vaguely aware that Solzhenitsyn was a Russian dissident author; also, that he was a Nobel laureate. The book seemed ideal for my purpose, and so it proved to be.
Solzhenitsyn had served eight years in forced labour camps for criticizing Stalin in a letter he had written to a friend while on active service during the war. He spent part of this time in the Siberian Gulags, providing him with material for his most famous book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But he served some of his sentence in a ‘special scientific’ facility – he had studied mathematics at university – and a fictionalized version of this establishment served as the backdrop for The First Circle. The title is a quotation from Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s Hell consisted of nine circles, each one lower and more unpleasant than the one above, but the first circle of Hell, was reserved for ‘virtuous pagans’. It was a prison, but of a superior type.
Solzhenitsyn's ‘First Circle’ was a multi-disciplinary research station within a prison in Moscow tasked with analyzing and identifying human voices on the telephone, and designing Stalin a workable telephone scrambler. The inmates were primarily scientists and engineers but also included language specialists. All of them, with the exception of the guards and other prison functionaries, were intellectuals with knowledge of the arts and literature as well as the sciences.
To me, the book was astonishing; the fact that highly intelligent and educated people could flourish and not be spiritually downtrodden in such an oppressive environment, and that the ‘two cultures’ seemed not to exist for them, was a true revelation.
I went on to read Cancer Ward, also largely autobiographical, which described Solzhenitsyn’s time in a hospital in Soviet central Asia (where he had been banished after completing his prison sentence). There, the inmates battled the twin ogres of cancer and the Soviet State. This book too was inspirational, showing that one can retain one’s dignity and humanity when life itself is at stake.
Solzhenitsyn’s early novels are life-affirming, and even though the Soviet Union is long gone, they remain as relevant now to the way we live, as when they were first published during the bleak depths of the Cold War.