CANCER WARD: “Either Tyrant or Traitor or Prisoner”

Cancer Ward (1968) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

cancer-ward

          At certain moments in a nation’s history, the body politic can become irrevocably sick. They catch a fever that spreads across the country by invading the moral fiber of the populace, turning individuals against each other, and then multiplying and dividing like so many cancerous cells. At some point, treatment cannot stop the spread, and the body necessarily breaks down.

          Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward is an allegory of the disastrous impact of Stalinism on the Russian people, and the lasting damage of the “tumorous” labor camps, which might no longer exist, but have nonetheless left a lasting scar on the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn’s observation is one that we are well advised to heed: even if a nation survives the cancer of totalitarian rule, the body politic remains forever damaged.

solz

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gulag mugshot, 1953

          The novel’s protagonist, Oleg Kostoglotov, is a labor camp exile (much like Solzhenitsyn was beginning in the late-40s) who is hospitalized with stomach cancer. His fellow patients are in varying emotional states, from denial to resigned acceptance. The primary atmosphere of the ward is overwhelming helplessness — not only from the perspective of the patients, but also from the staff. Both try to distract themselves from the painful reality that the men on the ward will likely die no matter what treatment is offered. Recognizing the symptoms and the nature of the disease do nothing to curb its spread or even provide comfort. As a result, the staff finds itself suffering as much as the patients. In one case, the head doctor becomes ill herself from the very type of cancer she treats. As another doctor tells her, “It’s the truest of all tests for a doctor to suffer from the disease he specializes in.” It’s a test insofar as the doctor in question must acknowledge the limitations of her own expertise, for even the experts can’t cure the disease. It strikes all equally.


“But can there really be a whole nation of fools? No, you’ll have to forgive me. The people are intelligent enough, it’s simply that they wanted to live. There’s a law big nations have — to endure and so to survive. When each of us dies and History stands over his grave and asks ‘What was he?’ there’ll only be one possible answer, Puskin’s:

‘In our vile times

…Man was, whatever his element

Either tyrant or traitor or prisoner!'”

Oleg started. He didn’t know the lines, but there was a penetrating accuracy about them. Poet and truth became almost physically tangible.

–Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


          Those rare few who survive are neither stronger nor well ever again. The sickness of Stalinism lingers as a lifelong scar for the survivors, who must grapple with their own place in the historical context of the times. Did they stand up and fight against the illness, or did they put their heads down and ignore it? Or, even worse, did they take part in the denunciations and purges, enabling the illness to spread unchecked?

          Solzhenitsyn’s novel forces us to question where we stand when our social and political position appears to be helpless, even while acknowledging that our response might very well be in vain. If, by chance, the body politic survives the cancer, then the sickness still hasn’t ended, but has only just begun. Even so, do we still stand up and fight? Which role do we choose for ourselves: tyrant, prisoner, or traitor?

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