In many of my courses I ask my students to explicate certain key passages from the texts we read — to dig in to the details, to see how the passages do their work. Here’s a selection from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago — the chapter called “The Ascent” — that some of my students are writing about: 

You are ascending…. 

Formerly you never forgave anyone. You judged people without mercy. And you praised people with equal lack of moderation. And now an understanding mildness has become the basis of your uncategorical judgments. You have come to realize your own weakness — and you can therefore understand the weakness of others. And be astonished at another’s strength. And wish to possess it yourself. 

The stones rustle beneath our feet. We are ascending…. 

With the years, armor-plated restraint covers your heart and all your skin. You do not hasten to question and you do not hasten to answer. Your tongue has lost its flexible capacity for easy oscillation. Your eyes do not flash with gladness over good tidings nor do they darken with grief.

For you still have to verify whether that’s how it is going to be. And you also have to work out — what is gladness and what is grief. 

And now the rule of your life is this: Do not rejoice when you have found, do not weep when you have lost. 

Your soul, which formerly was dry, now ripens from suffering. And even if you haven’t come to love your neighbors in the Christian sense, you are at least learning to love those close to you.

Those close to you in spirit who surround you in slavery. And how many of us come to realize: It is particularly in slavery that for the first time we have learned to recognize genuine friendship!

And also those close to you in blood, who surrounded you in your former life, who loved you — while you played the tyrant over them….  

Here is a rewarding and inexhaustible direction for your thoughts: Reconsider all your previous life. Remember everything you did that was bad and shameful and take thought — can’t you possibly correct it now? 

Yes, you have been imprisoned for nothing. You have nothing to repent of before the state and its laws. 

But … before your own conscience? But … in relation to other individuals?