Monday, 8 August 2016

What Eric Hoffer, Jung and Solzhenitsyn had in common - apart from being three of my heroes

Our head of History at King's - a bearded left-winger from the Midlands who went on to become the headmaster of a comprehensive - once exclaimed, in reference to Peter the Great, "There was a man!" (The only other thing I clearly remember him saying, after asking us how we'd have voted in the 1970 general election had we been old enough, was "What a bunch of little Tories!") The reason "There was a man" stuck in my mind was that I instinctively knew what our teacher meant, without being able to put it into words. Looking back, I suspect Jeff (Geoff?) Taylor meant that P the G exhibited a blend of vigour, certainty, belief, vision, clear-mindedness, willpower, and a refusal to settle for the easy option: not only was the emperor who dragged his country into the Age of the Enlightenment a man - he was his own man.

In The Seventies, a collection of his journalism published in 1980, Christopher Booker wrote that the two true adults of the previous decade had been Pope John Paul II and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Again, one knew what he meant: both men seemed like colossi among pygmies.

When Bernard Levin interviewed Alexander Solzhenitsyn for BBC 2 in 1983, western politicians and intellectuals had begun to revisit their initial adulatory attitude to the writer because, instead of being slobberingly grateful for their efforts to get him out of Russia, he had refused to publicly embrace every aspect of the liberal democratic system, had accused the West of not having the testicular or moral fortitude necessary to destroy Soviet communism, and, of course, like the Pope, he - embarrassingly - actually seemed to believe in God. And, unforgivably, he seemed to be a (gasp!) social conservative! Bernard Levin, though, remained a believer in the Great Man. Perhaps partly because of that, the great frozen-faced Russian prophet of the Apocalypse surprised us by abandoning his normal public persona, and (there's no other word for it) actually twinkling! As someone who'd read everything of his that had been translated into English by 1983, this was something I hadn't been expecting. Instead of sternly hurling warnings from on high, like a god dispensing thunderbolts, he was emotionally engaged, smiley, good-humoured - and lively in the sense of being fully alive. Despite everything having to be translated, this was a real conversation, a dialogue, rather than an address, and his intellectual vitality practically shattered the TV screen. "There," I thought, "is a man: a real, rounded, strong, vigorous man."

Unfortunately, that marvellous Levin interview isn't available on YouTube (or anywhere else online, as far as I can tell), and neither is another one with Malcolm Muggeridge which was shown a few weeks later. If you missed them, you'll just have to take my word for Solzhenitsyn's startling dynamism. or you can take Peter Ackroyd word, who, reviewing the Muggeridge interview wrote that "[Solzhenitsyn's] convictions animate him and in this short interview he seemed entirely self-assured, with a directness of glance and an economy of gesture which are the marks of someone who has ‘come through’.”

I experienced a similar reaction last week when, after writing (yet) another post about Eric Hoffer, I looked him up on YouTube (I can't think why I hadn't done it before) and found The Passionate Mind, a 1966 CBS programme mainly consisting of an interview with the feisty little bull of a ex-stevedore conducted by the urbane Eric Sevareid. The force of Hoffer's personality - his sheer vigour - is almost overpowering. The programme is split into five sections: Part 2, in which the author of The True Believer warns of the danger of handing power to intellectuals, is probably a good place to start:

In  turn, Eric Hoffer's sheer presence reminded me of yet another of my intellectual heroes, Carl Gustav Jung, who, in interviews conducted when he was a relatively old man, came across as a fascinating, vigorous and - yes - twinkly genius. The 1990 documentary The World Within - C.G. Jung in His Own Words - contains segments of a number of interviews from the 1950s: if you can't face an hour-long programme, the three-minute clip starting at 1'20" gives a flavour of the man:

I don't know if it's significant, but all three of these 20th Century giants went through periods of great suffering in their lives: Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag and through two further decades of persecution by the Soviet authorities; Hoffer lost his sight for eight years after his mother died when he was seven, and, as a young man, he spent ten years on Skid Row; and Jung suffered an extended psychotic episode which began in his 39th year.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find any interviews featuring Peter the Great online. 


  1. Ah, Peter the Great, Polymath, Man of Vision. What a wonderful character. Yet, I've always been puzzled by the fact that, when he came to England on a fact finding tour, everyone was told who he was and not to recognise him as he wanted to be incognito. At well over six foot, he towered head and shoulders above everyone he met, and of course they all recognised him, but he was apparently assured that no-one did. Does this imply an element of self-delusion or am I being picky?

  2. Dr Strabismus (whom God preserve) of Utrecht12 August 2016 at 11:38