Solzhenitsyn never set out to be a dissident. He was, on the contrary, a loyal Marxist-Leninist until the day he was arrested: what gave him away was a joke. In a private letter, he called Stalin “the bandit”—a fairly common dig at Stalin’s Georgian ancestry, the region being bandit country. This was picked up by the censors and Solzhenitsyn went from a respectable Marxist-Leninist and artillery officer to prisoner. In modern parlance, Solzhenitsyn was a troll, perhaps not as public as today’s trolls but a troll nonetheless. Comedy is always risky because it can reveal more than we intend; at the same time, human societies tend to be so encased in dishonesty that most people operate at a vaguely sarcastic and ironic level at all times. On Twitter an ironic or sarcastic engagement is so common that even when a user agrees with another user it can be taken as an attack, even by mistake.
We lean on irony and sarcasm to decrease social tension; yet at the edge, these traits can bleed into passive aggressiveness and bitchiness. “What do you really mean by that?” This question is raised when a person takes their irony and sarcasm just too close to the edge; and sometimes, as with Solzhenitsyn, this happens without our conscious knowledge. The unconscious is formed, in part, around our schooldays: we wrap ourselves in disdain; it becomes unsophisticated to be too enthusiastic or affectionate. We have to appear sophisticated, and the most obvious way to achieve this is through sarcasm and irony.
The unfortunate people are those—as with Solzhenitsyn—who think that they have got away with it; they think they are on the right side of the line but the line itself is somewhat ambiguous, especially under totalitarianism, and at a certain point they cross it and betray themselves. For Solzhenitsyn, this event led to considerable hardship; it also led to metanoia—a change of heart. Solzhenitsyn had his cocoon—a sarcastic and clever cocoon—shattered in a very profound and violent way. It would take him a decade to shake free from the carapace he had constructed as a stalwart Marxist-Leninist and return to a more authentic engagement with the world.
Nietzsche detested Socrates because Socrates adored irony; for Nietzsche, irony signalled decadence, weakness, and illness. Socrates was an ugly man and his ugliness made him an ironist; he used irony, as a marginal schoolboy does, to deflect the world’s harshness from his psyche. The people who advocate irony and sarcasm disdain authenticity and sincerity; they feel simple affirmations about home, family, and God to be repulsive; and this is, in part, because these simple messages are too powerful. Meditate on these extensively and the tears will come; and so it is much easier to deflect the power into sarcasm and irony, to form an unfeeling cocoon with which to interact with the world.
Since the 1990s, the West has been noted for its irony and sarcasm—both considered to be postmodern traits. The opposite to irony is authenticity—being what you are; and the opposite to sarcasm is sincerity—saying what you mean. These qualities remain in short supply in the West; for Nietzsche, we are too Socratic: we tug our beards, pose clever questions, and never reach a definitive answer. “I’m just a gadfly,” we say, “Socrates was the first troll!”
Yet I think people have a destiny: you often see on the right men who proclaim they are dissidents or are “taking a stand”—rarely are they the real dissidents. The real dissidents are men like Solzhenitsyn, men who never set out on the path consciously; they are regime loyalists, but they are not as loyal as they think: one day their unconscious lets their real views out, at a “safe” moment—and they are betrayed. Destiny kicks them in the pants: this is where you were really going all along. The dissident is born, not made; you cannot choose to make a stand or not.