A review of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn & The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach world history. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.

📚 A 10-year retrospective on 10th grade English

Tenth grade was one of the few years I had a really fantastic English teacher; Mrs. Costello was the only English teacher I not only liked well enough as a person, but remember as being genuinely good at teaching. She was a veteran who graded papers in sparkly gel pen and thoughtfully took home my painfully emoted teenaged poetry and tried to help me turn it into something better. Lots of English teachers liked me well enough and gave me feedback; Mrs. Costello not only went the extra mile in terms of encouraging me, her competence and patience and passion for the subject matter were unparalleled by any other English teacher I ever had.

She was also the first teacher who ever let me write in a school book – they were getting recycled at the end of the year, but it was still very exciting for me. I'd never annotated a book before that. I still have my well-worn (and oft-annotated) copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It’s a book about the Soviet gulag system under Stalin, written by someone who was imprisoned for the writing stories critical of the government and its leadership.

This book was probably the first time I ever viscerally experienced the idea that governments can not only be oppressive, but that they often can’t be beaten by regular people, and most of us are regular people. So much of American mythmaking is about fighting an oppressive government, and so little of it is “how to survive a grindingly difficult life.”

It was so big and so emotionally punishing that I sometimes wonder who I would be if I hadn’t read it, because it hit me so much harder than other more well-known books about censorship like 1984 or even Harrison Bergeron (which is only sort of about censorship, but still features an all-powerful government forcing people to view things according to a single government-approved narrative).

In 10th grade we also read The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats, which is certainly not my favorite poem[1] but still lingers in my mind not for the lyrical quality of the prose (which I do appreciate in general: see the Endnotes) but rather for the question it asks. I remember remarkably little of the actual poem — something about “a widening gyre” and “will the world end in fire, or in ice?” — but that motif of “things are spiraling, the centre cannot hold” and “how will our world end?” was the first time I ever really grappled with the idea of an apocalypse having relevance beyond providing interesting religious imagery.

Of course, the Second Coming isn’t just about history, it’s also about the anti-Christ and the Biblical book of Revelations, and I don’t have the historical context and literary analysis skills to tell you all of the subtle things that go along with the poem, mostly because I hate analyzing poetry with all of my soul. My proudest achievement in college was getting my degree without taking a single English class, and I stand by the decision.

But I digress; my point is that the word “apocalypse” carries religious connotations for most of the history of the word, as it originates from Revelations etymologically speaking, its synonymy with cataclysm is relatively recent:

Its general sense in Middle English was "insight, vision; hallucination." The general meaning "a cataclysmic event" is modern (not in OED 2nd ed., 1989); apocalypticism "belief in an imminent end of the present world" is from 1858. — Online Etymology Dictionary

But I do tend to think of the word much more in the cataclysmic sense than the religious, in the same way I tend to interpret Biblical texts and religious Renaissance literature through a secular lens. Regardless of gods, demons, fire, or ice, the centre cannot hold, things might devolve into anarchy seemed suddenly plausible in a way none of it had listening to Billy Graham with my grandma before church. The previous year I’d had an international field trip cancelled after we all watched al-Qaeda militants fly planes into the World Trade Center in the middle of Biology class.

Since then, this idea of things are spiraling, the centre cannot hold has cropped up over and over for me.

The news is full of stories about the rise of hurricanes, wildfires, political unrest, global pandemics, supply chain disruptions, and other crises large and small. I’m not criticizing the news — many of these are real crises that it benefits me to know about — but one of the ways I process the stress of it all is through history and fiction. Mrs. Costello is probably one of the big reasons why.

I don’t think this feeling of feeling helpless while watching crises happening is particularly unique to my generation or anything — it feels like every couple of decades there hits a moment where people suddenly realize that their relatively decent life is terribly fragile and can be upended by a crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic was mine, but my great-grandparents had a kid right at the beginning of the Great Depression, and my grandpa fought in the Korean War, which I imagine was a lot worse. My uncle was having kids right as the Vietnam draft was ramping up. So everyone in my family for generations have all had our moments of feeling like we’re helplessly adrift on the tides of history.

But although the Rapture has not happened, in some ways Yeats wasn’t really wrong; his point was probably something about how WWI impacted the world order, and the British Empire has certainly been greatly reduced since his youth. Even more so now than after the Great War; as a result of Brexit and other socio-political factors, the United Kingdom is beginning to show signs of its economy sliding into “emergent market” status, with increased market volatility reducing the government’s ability to function. Empires rise and fall — as a history teacher, the Fall of Rome is always much on my mind — but until I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, it never really meant anything to me on a visceral level.

And until I lived through 2020, I never really “got” what Mrs. Costello was trying to teach me. So many of the books I’ve read encouraged me to empathize with a protagonist destined to be a king, or to right great wrongs, or overthrow a government. But the reality for most of us is that we are much more likely to learn something from a Germanic peasant watching the local leaders wrest control from Rome and trying to gauge how much food he should cache in the mountains for his family to eat if an army comes through and forages in his village.

Centralized authorities will never hold forever, the ceremony of innocence will be drowned and drowned again as the blood-dimmed tides of history flow, and the only question is: will it end in fire, or in ice? Will it end in revolution, or the drip drip drip of increasingly difficult access to goods we used to take for granted? Somewhere in the sands of the desert, an anthropomorphic metaphor is gaining memetic power as the desert spreads and starves and spreads and starves and pushes populations north across the sea toward people becoming vexed by the rocking cradles of immigrant families, who some characterize as rough beasts with blank gazes? (Can you tell I finally looked up the words of the poem?)

Anyway, I hated the poem when I read it in class, but sometimes it’s weird how your brain connects things happening now to the things you learned about years ago, that people said centuries ago, and filters your understanding through that context, ain’t it?

Endnotes, or: my favorite poems

[1] I always have trouble choosing a “favorite” for anything, but I generally prefer British poetry from the Empire era that tells a story, and Yeats is usually more interested in expressing opinions. That’s fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but I prefer things like Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot, Kipling’s Cold Iron, and Lovelace’s To Althea, From Prison. I also adore Poe’s The Raven, which as a Baltimore native I’m basically duty-bound to love — in fact, my only tattoo says “quaff this kind nepenthe,” which is a line from The Raven that has always had particular meaning to me as it’s a reference to the Egyptian potion taken by Helen of Troy to chase away her sorrows. I got the tattoo after my first big breakup, with a guy I started dating during my recovery from acute depression, as a reminder to keep my chin up and do what I needed to do to stay alive.

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