William Shakespeare wrote: [As You Like It, Act II, Scene vii].
All the world is a stage
Well from the plethora of literary and narrative representations of characters in prison, one could equally state:
All the world is a prison.
From Viktor Frankl’s work “Man’s Search for Meaning” to Sohlzenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich“, to Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption“,
and added to by prisoner of war movies such as “The Great Escape“, J G Ballard’s “The Empire of the Sun” and more recently the biopic of Louis Zamperini, “Unbroken” the list of prison dramas goes on and on and on.
Men and women trapped within a confined space with others of diverse backgrounds and with complex stories, facing chafing constraints, hardship and oftentimes abusive treatment from powerholders – seem to carry the strongest metaphors for the experience of living.
Narratives of mental asylums as prisons go even deeper.
Consider “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” and Scorcese’s bad but good “Shutter Island.” Throw in a bit of madness and give the crazy ones the dialogue that makes the most sense.
Oppose this by giving the sane, dialogue full of subterfuge and chicanery and the metaphors escalate.
Shakespeare saw his world as a play; madness, hubris, revenge, love and lust were all played out upon the dusty boards of a theatre and observed by a crowd for their entertainment, edification and esteem.
More modern narratives see this world as a madhouse, a prison of sorts, ruled by despotic guards, nurses and gatekeepers. No great narrator rules this universe, the protagonists struggle for hope, alone with other inmates for cheer.
Prison it seems a perfect platform to explore existential meaning for each generation. Within the constraints, tension, trials and suffering of this petri-dish, the characters explore what it is to “be” and find their “why” for living.
Prison dramas at their best bring out the why of living.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote:
I couldn’t help but share this post from favourite Seth Godin.
When did being called a ‘realist’ start to mean that one is a pessimist?
Sometimes, people with small goals call themselves realists, and dismiss those around them as merely dreamers. I think this is backwards.
I guess I’m more of a realist than you,
I guess I’ve discovered that a positive attitude, a generous posture and a bit of persistence makes things better than most people expect.
Hope isn’t a strategy, but it is an awfully good tactic.
You can follow Seth’s blog here.
“ The Soviet Union was destroyed by information
– and this wave started from Solzhenitsyn’s One Day ” —Vitaly Korotich
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Оди́н день Ива́на Дени́совича or Odin den’ Ivana Denisovich) is a novel written by Aleksandyr Sohlzenitsyn , first published in November 1962. The story is set in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s and describes a single day of an ordinary prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Written semi-autobiographically after Solzhenitsyn’s own 8 year imprisonment, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is an innocent unjustly sentenced for supposed political dissidence .
The novel follows the character through a simple day. This day begins with Shukhov waking up sick and for waking late, he fears he will be placed into solitary confinement. However, he is simply forced to clean the guardhouse a relatively minor punishment. When Shukhov is finally able to leave the guardhouse, he goes to the dispensary to report his illness. Since it is late in the morning by this time, the orderly is unable to exempt any more workers, and Shukhov must work.
Shukov manages to gain an extra piece of bread at breakfast time which he sews into his mattress before heading out to work. He takes pride in his work, laying bricks as perfectly as possible, hiding his mortar trowel during the break time so no other prisoners could take it from him. During the freezing work he finds a piece of metal and conceals it in his mitten for later, to create a knife. At the end of the day, Shukhov is able to provide a few special services for Tsezar (Caesar), an intellectual who is able to do office work instead of manual labor. Shukhov is able to get a small share of Tsezar’s dinner ration and packages by standing in lines for him.
Shukhov’s day ends up being productive, even “almost happy”: “Shukhov goes to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day.” (p. 139). The novel closes with the observation that this was but one of 3653 days of Shukov’s sentence.
The book’s publication was remarkable as it was the first published account of Stalinist repression.
Its motifs are powerful – the prisoners are assigned numbers for easy identification and in an effort to dehumanize them, the conditions are sub zero, prisoners are encouraged to report each other for reward. Despite this, Solzhenitsyn shows that a surprising loyalty exists among the work gang members, a warmth and camraderie despite individual selfishnesses. Shukhov in particular shows that the way to maintain human dignity is not through outward rebellion but through developing a personal belief system. At meal time, no matter how hungry he is, he insists on removing his cap before eating. No matter how ravenous he becomes, he never stoops to scrounging and begging for scraps.
At the close of the novel, Shukov thanks God for his day. Alyoshka the Baptist hears his prayer and urges Shukhov to pursue things of the spirit rather than things of the flesh. Shukov follows Alyoshka’s advice in giving him one of his biscuits, spontaneously showing gratitude for the young man. He sleeps with an inner peace considering the day a good day.
Sohlzenitsyn’s literature is a form of subversion of the most powerful type for it encourages hope. The short novel novel depicts human dignity against the harshest of immoral treatment and finding hope in the darkest place. The Nobel Prize Foundation reports:
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1970 was awarded to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”. – http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1970/index.html