Reading about the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, we are reminded of his epic force of will -- despite the threat to life and limb posed by the Soviet police state -- to bear witness, to document, to record everything he could about totalitarianism in the USSR.
Then, reading about Random House Publishing Group, which called off the publication of a romance novel about Muhammad "for fear of a possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims," we should be reminded of something else: How apt was Solzhenitsyn's much-maligned critique of the West, which he excoriated for, among other things, a decline in "civil courage" that was "particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elites."
In the week after Solzhenitsyn's death, accounts of his determination and toil filled the news. When he had a typewriter, he typed single-spaced on both sides of a sheet; when he had pen and paper, he wrote in miniscule print. When he had neither -- as at a remote penal colony in Kazahkstan -- he devised a memorization technique involving a rosary made of bread in which each "bead" came to represent a passage of work that he committed to memory. He would later write that he memorized 12,000 lines this way.
By 1973, microfilms of The Gulag Archipelago, the writer's massive history of the Soviet prison camps, had been smuggled out of the USSR to publishers in New York and Paris. Solzhenitsyn asked them to delay publication, however, hoping to see the work come out first in the Soviet Union. But then he changed his mind.
Why? Solzhenitsyn had learned that the KGB, after interrogating his typist Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, had found a buried copy of the book. She hanged herself soon afterward. The author quickly approved the immediate publication of his 300,000-word indictment of the communist system.
This is the most serious stuff of history, epoch-changing events on which the wheel actually turned. What happened with a romance novel at Random House this summer isn't going to change any epochs -- but it may tell us something about how much our times have already changed.
As the Wall Street Journal reported, author Sherry Jones also "toiled," writing weekends since 2002 to tell a "tale of lust, love and intrigue in the prophet's harem" through a fictionalized story of Aisha, Muhammad's 9-year-old bride. All was well enough until Random House sent out galleys of the book to seek endorsements from writers and scholars. Among them was Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas at Austin. According to the Journal, Spellberg read the novel and became "frantic," explaining, "You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft-core pornography."
You can't? Says who in our free-speech world?
Says Islam in our formerly free-speech world. (That's what I mean about how much our times have changed.) Whether Spellberg is herself a Muslim isn't clear, but she certainly went on the warpath (jihadpath?) over this bodice-ripper (burqa-ripper?), activating a chain of Muslim bloggers and Web sites that spread the word, as one Islamic Web site put it, about a "new attempt to slander the Prophet of Islam." Soon, there was a "seven-point strategy" online to ensure "the writer withdraws this book" and apologizes to "Muslims across the world."
But that turned out to be unnecessary. Spellberg also e-mailed her editor at Random House -- did I mention Spellberg has a contract with another Random House imprint to write a book called "Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an"? -- labeling the Jones novel nothing less than "a declaration of war," "a national security issue," and "far more controversial" than either "The Satanic Verses" or the Danish cartoons. She said the book should be withdrawn "ASAP."
And so it was after Random House consulted "security experts and Islam scholars" -- possibly the same ones who urged the U.S. government never again to use the words "Islamic" or "jihad," but I digress. Thomas Perry, deputy publisher at Random House Publishing Group, said the company received "cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some of the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."
So, Perry, by all means, just give in to this thuggish blackmail. In fact, why not just stop publishing altogether?
It's too late to ask Solzhenitsyn for his opinion of this capitulation by our elites. But then again he already offered it long ago.
"Should one point out," he asked, "that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end"?