Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Engineers of the Human Soul

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

"What sort of people do they wish to please? And what kind of actions are the means of their success? How quickly time will cover everything--and how much is covered already." Marcus Aurelius, VI, 59. 

The terror was unimaginable. Dmitri Shostakovitch, among the greatest composers of the twentieth century, stood night after night, valise in hand, (a change of underwear, clean socks, two packages of cigarettes) waiting for the arrival of the KGB goons who, he was certain, would drag him to Lubyanka Prison for interrogation, torture, and a bullet to the back of the head. Why? The Great Helmsman had hated Shostakovitch's opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," calling it a "muddle." One bad review in Pravada, one failed interrogation with Power, one "musicologist" intimating an association--however slight--with one of Stalin's rivals (with the doomed Marshall Tukhachevsky, Hero of the Soviet Union, "The Red Napoleon," Shostakovitch's patron, for example), one bitter rival...it didn't matter what the cause...and the victim was  pulled from bed in the middle of the night, "disappeared," wiped clean from the slate of history. Hence Shostakovitch's nightly vigils: better to be dressed and ready than torn from sleep.

And what of the "engineers of the soul"? Or, I suppose in the Soviet context, the "soul"?  With Barnes, I've been rereading my favorite book of wisdom, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I was puzzling over the notorious notion of engineering a soul, the idea of it, the plausibility of doing it, thinking about the phrase itself, presumably first uttered, ironically I think, by Yuri Olesha, when I came upon this passage in Marcus Aurelius:

"If you set yourself to your present task along the path of true reason, with all determination, vigor, and good will: if you admit no distraction, but keep you own divinity pure and standing strong, as if you had to surrender it right now; if you grapple this to you, expecting nothing, shirking nothing, but self-content with each present action taken in accordance with nature and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean--then you shall lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you." [trans. Martin Hammond]

The key phrase, italicized above, is this: "...sed genium tuum purum integrumque servaveris, quasi illum statim esses redditturus...."  I have no wish to be pedantic, but what did Marcus mean by the "soul," and what did Olesha think was being "engineered" by Stalin and Beria and the rest of the Soviet machine of terror?  "Genium" is the accusative singular of "genius," and what Marcus wrote, literally, was that one must keep one's genius, or rather one's character pure in the face of life's vicissitudes. Is it a mistake to equate the soul with one's character, in the sense that character is a synonym for one's unique self? Elsewhere in Meditation III Marcus Aurelius mentions "the god within you," and here he is speaking unambiguously of the divine spirit that resides in each person, rather as a Quaker might talk of that of God within us. And of course, the divine spark cannot be engineered any more than it can be weighed or measured. What Stalin engineered was not the soul, but the external actions of those around him; fear motivated conformity, lies, and betrayals. It still does. Olesha was being ironic, and irony, as Shostakovitch understood, is the lingua franca of truth telling under tyranny.

The Noise of Time: incoherence, lies, arrogance, self-delusion--Shostakovitch lived in a world dominated by noise, a noise he tried to escape by creating music. His life, told by Barnes in brilliant, condensed vignettes, feels as if it were modeled on Marcus Aurelius; it has the same quality of self-examination, self-exhortation, as the does the great collection of thoughts written down by the Emperor in his campaign on the Danube in A.D. 168. Both men were disillusioned, both were melancholy by nature, solitaries even among wives and colleagues. Barnes hones the story of the great Soviet composer to a single point--how do we preserve our genius, our character, from the noise of time? How do we live with, and create, in the face of fear?  Shostakovitch used wit and irony to (sometimes) deflect the demands of Power, but he also capitulated--as, for example, when he denounced Igor Stravinsky, who was, in Shostakovitch's view, the greatest composer of the modern era.  While never an informer, Shostakovitch felt himself compromised at every turn: he wrote music that he hated to satisfy the fondness for the kitsch that appeals to tyrants; he compromised in his love life to please his domineering mother; he spoke in riddles when, more than anything, he wished to tell the truth.

Eventually, under duress, he joined the Party--in his own mind his worst betrayal. Barnes writes with great insight of what it feels like to betray oneself--that Shostakovitch speaks of himself in the third person heightens the sense of self-scrutiny:

"Those who knew him, knew him. Those who had ears could hear his music. But how did he seem to those who didn't know him, to the young who sought to understand how the world worked? How could they not judge him? And how would he now appear to his younger self, standing by the roadside as a haunted face in an official car swept past. Perhaps this was one of the tragedies life plots for us: it is our destiny to become in old age what in youth we would have most despised." (p. 176)

Julian Barnes has been writing brilliant novels since Flaubert's Parrot appeared in 1984--I don't know his earlier work. It felt to me as if The Noise of Time were a valedictory book, as if in speaking for Shostakovitch Barnes was also speaking for himself. Barnes hasn't lived under tyranny, but anyone born in 1946 knows well the folly of the world and the inevitable failures we must come to live with as we compromise our way through life. I loved this passage from the end of the novel:

"Just as he could not control his mind's rememberings, he could not prevent its constant, vain interrogations. The last questions of a man's life do not come with any answers, that is their nature. They merely wail in the head, factory sirens in F sharp. So: our talent lies beneath you like a swathe of peat. How much have you cut? How much remains uncut? Few artists cut only the best sections; or even, sometimes, recognise them as such. And in his own case, thirty years and more ago, they had erected a barbed-wire fence with a warning sign: DO NOT CROSS THIS POINT. Who knew what lay--what might have lain--beyond the wire?"


George Ovitt, Memorial Day, 2017

This link will take you to the Frankfort Symphony Orchestra's performance of Shostakovitch's Seventh ("Leningrad") Symphony., written 1939-1940. 

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