The Imitation of Art and Life

Not long after an individual begins to study art and culture, an age-old question comes to mind: Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? Although it is often claimed to be a “rhetorical” question, it does have an answer. In fact, like everything else in this world, the answer that is given to this question ultimately depends on the answer given to another question: Was man created in the image of God, or is he merely the result of time and random happenstance? A wrong answer to this second question makes any answer to the first question irrelevant.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian nationalist and outspoken author, gave a clear answer to the second question: man was indeed created in the image of God. Solzhenitsyn’s truthful answer to this question emboldened him to write the truth in other areas where he saw clearly. His death on August 3, 2008 forced the world—if only for a brief moment—to reconsider his writings and his motivations.

Solzhenitsyn came to the public notice with his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In this short book, Solzhenitsyn introduced the world to life in the Soviet prison camps, which he himself was quite familiar with and spent eight years in for making supposed anti-Soviet and anti-Stalin comments while a soldier in the Red Army. When One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in 1962, it was done so for political reasons. “Its original publication, in November of 1962, was patently permitted by Russian leaders because the book seemed useful as an instrument of Soviet policy, which was directed at portraying the Stalin era in the worst possible light. But to readers outside Russia it also afforded remarkable insights into the problems facing the Khrushchev regime.”[1] While Khrushchev viewed Solzhenitsyn as a victim—clearly Ivan Denisovich was at least partly autobiographical—the rest of the world viewed him as a hero. Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel prize for literature in 1970.

In 1978, Solzhenitsyn was invited to give the commencement address to Harvard University. His famous, or infamous, speech given to the Harvard elite was a rude awakening[2]. His condemnation of western culture, which he was intending as the “wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6)[3], was not well-received and caught the mostly liberal faculty completely off-guard. Because of his anti-Soviet stance, they believed that he would be an ally, a committed Marxist from Marx’s own country and actually somewhat resembled Marx. But they were deeply mistaken. Solzhenitsyn took them to task for almost an hour. They weren’t aware that he didn’t share their answer to the second question.

But it was because of his answer to the second question that Solzhenitsyn was able to write as powerfully as he did. He remained committed to his home country of Russia, even as an exile living in New England. Although his worldview was shaped by his belief that God created man in His image, his art was intended for his own people. The western world looked at him as a study in contrast and contradiction, but he wasn’t writing for them. He remained a Russian, writing for Russians. Although he wrote mainly historical works, his eye was ever to the future. Solzhenitsyn understood that the future would not change until you can help people see their past clearly. His answer to the second question helped him to form his answer to the first question. Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? Solzhenitsyn’s answer, which is the correct one, was: “yes and yes.”


[1] From the “Editor’s Preface” in the 1963 Time Reading Program special edition of the book.

[2] All students of history should carefully read this speech. It is available here.

[3] He made this clear in his introductory remarks: “There is some bitterness in my speech today, too. But I want to stress that it comes not from an adversary but from a friend.”