f u g u e s t a t e p r e s s from Stet by James Chapman
p.o. box 80, cooper station
new york, ny 10276
by James Chapman
Opinions are unbeautiful, but we all speak them. Opinions, creeds, advice on how to live, these seep from our pores in this land, and no one is exempt from judgment. Perhaps your feelings have been hurt. If they have been hurt for year upon year, that is not unusual, you are probably an artist or some sort of idiot. But to hurt the feelings of millions, for whole lifetimes, this is Russian, it requires our own special language.
The disposition of this planet is such that impractical people are cut out. If you are an Eastern mystic and you don't even know how to hold your alms-bowl right-side-up, you are going to be tried and judged by your own stomach. If a luminous angel of the Lord plays her golden harp badly enough, the Lord Himself will take the instrument out of her hands and smash it down onto the rocks of the true faith. Let us say you are a shooter, and every day you shoot your gun at the orange target. And you miss every single shot, every day for five years. (We have not said you barely miss the isolate center of perfection on the blackest dot of the target, we say you never in five years hit anything.) Failure means that even the animal pleasure you once took in making a gun go bang is ruined for you, and you become instead a serious person. Criticizing yourself bitterly (suicide is unavailable to one who can't even aim) you will go looking for critique--you turn to a greater expert, a more skillful shooter than you, and beg his guidance. You are willing to deny all you have believed, and to be remade by this man, harsh and snotty teacher though he is. When you discover, a month into your lessons, that your guru has never himself held a gun, that all his knowledge comes from the study of ballistics, you are in luck, my friend, you can respect his advice far more now, he is a pure theorist, he knows shooting as it really is--no form of shooting is more accurate than his. And in time your own shooting will perhaps improve, though certainly never to the satisfaction of your new master.
And what does all this have to do with Stet? God's will, that's what we'll call it: it is God's will that you have never heard of the late ex-filmmaker and enemy of the people Stet, despite everything. God, we say, sends the thunder, and even if thunder is only the sentence passed by hot air upon cool air, we blame Him because blame, itself, is an indispensable instrumentality of heaven.
When a Buddhist immolates himself, using benzene and a match, he remains sitting in the prayer position even after death, because a good performance is an obligation paid to purity. If life is a party, a gathering of brotherly souls, then there are certain forms of performance which are not wanted, and which ought to be left outside. Then again, if life is not a party, this may not apply. For example, what does it mean when you say you love a piece of music? When the music seems to be hovering, you love the hovering part of yourself, unless you are one of those who were taught when young that there is nothing in you to love. When we discuss critics in this country, we are only comparing parents. Do you suppose parents, and their opinions, can be erased? What would erase them? Criticism?
We consist entirely of our opinions, except for those of us with a soul. Consider, please--here we are admittedly talking about Stet--consider a gun shooter who shoots every day, who misses every shot, and whose face daily shines with the glory of important work accomplished--as if missing were a revelation of the purpose of shooting--as if the bullets by not stopping at the target are reaching heaven instead, each bullet a sanctified act, each cooled in a different-color bath of ambrosia, and the face of the untouched target smiling like the virgin who is the morning star. As if we only need listen to the sound his gun makes as he fires it incorrectly, fires it inexpertly, fires it without the qualifications or the authority or the sanction or the right, we only need listen to that shooting to hear the gorgeous bells of the ancient church of futility.
Anyone with the confidence of a young man could take such a smiling idiot of a gun-shooter by the collar, and laugh in his face. And the young man, the laugher, he might feel better, this easy-laugher with his certainty and his crusade against the "annoying," the "irritating." What creates a young man? The judgments of his family, his emulation of his friends, and the rigid imprint upon his soul of the illustrated storybooks he was given to read as a cub.
These storybooks, when you find them again sixty years later, will still seem truthful to you; they taught you facts at a time you could not resist them (that bears can run a collective farm, or that the cruelest wolves speak together in Hebrew), you did not judge the book when you were seven, and today it's too late, you are the book, you can't criticize it now.
The ability to willfully misremember such a book would be the same as freedom.
Here we portray Stet, the parasitic quasi-filmmaker and ineffectual dissident, by narrating his false memory of the most moral children's story of the Soviet era, the story of little Pavlik Morozov:
Children, poor children, you who can believe so many things, believe this: that on the far side of Razliv (the lake) as you row your boat away from Razliv the village, there are beautiful meadows, where was once grown the sweetest hay in the world.
If you were a cow, and if these were pre-revolutionary times, you might rent one of these meadows, hire a poor Finn to do the mowing and stacking for you, and that way gorge yourself all winter, walking from one fragrant haystack to the next, an unlimited feast.
These are not times like that. Today the Finn remains in his own land, eating canned sardines and weeping. The exploiting cow, she went missing from her stable late one night and was not seen again on the surface of the earth. The meadows themselves, caught in a redistribution plan, the judgment of the people having fallen upon certain unnecessarily wealthy farmers, these meadows willingly devoured their old owners, who were buried to enrich the Russian soil, which seems never to consider itself enriched enough.
These meadows are now left to plow themselves. On the field nearest the shore of the lake, there stands a strange hut the shape of a conjurer's helmet. This field is not in need of any curse from the dying breath of its purged landlord, because it was already cursed by the previous tenants. Three people lived last summer in this hut:
Today there is nothing in the hut except a scythe, a rake, a teakettle.
Outside the hut, rank weeds. In the weeds, a broken violin.
The earth is black, children, the black of burnt meat. Black birds walk on the chaff.
Inside the hut it is dark. Nobody can see us inside here. If the black birds fly in, we'll throw dirt at them.
Something is wrong here, it's true--the usual thing. Let's not talk about it. The people of this land are not lucky, you might say. They get into accidents. A man can slip on perfectly flat, dry ground, and fall, and disappear. He can disappear so that nobody ever again mentions his name.
See, across the lake, the little houses of Razliv. Do you see the window the sun is striking? The sun enters that window only a few days of the summer, and it falls on a framed photograph that's not so old but is obsolete. It's a group of sixteen workers, squinting in the sun of an earlier day. Workers in that distant time, two years past, they squinted smiling.
Already seven of the little faces have been blacked-out with India ink.
Judgment falls the way grand pianos fall, at random, from the sky, regardless of one's guilt. Being crushed by a piano must be good, because it is just. Of the family who lived in this hut last year all three are dead now, but not all of them were crushed by the same wise Justice. It turns out that there are different justices, and that to drop a piano can also be unhealthy.
Only the boy's mother, who stayed at home on the other side of the lake, only she survives.
She watched them row away across the lake, she waved from the shore, and she was alone, her husband and her son and her hated father-in-law became infinitely small.
At last she could sing in the evenings, without her husband's father criticizing her singing voice. A song is a small matter, unimportant, that's why it's so fragile. A song can't live inside a withering flame.
That night she sang all the old songs.
Steam rose from the stew of mushrooms and potatoes, and she sang the song about the echo, and the song about the mock turtle, and the one about the man of straw who is punished with fire.
The owl who became a judge, the she-mole who made secret visits to her seven husbands, the building with no foundation.
She sang about perfection (the black tulip). She drank a glass.
The mushrooms were without savor. Mushrooms come out of the ground with no roots, that's what bothers her. You feel in your fingers, picking a mushroom, that it's not real. Toadstools are poison from the grief of bitter souls.
She had borne only one son, and her son would probably grow up to be the kind of man who writes slanders in newspapers. He would kill her with shame.
She sang the song her husband's old father so enjoyed, about Jewish peacocks and Jewish butter turning bad. She sang it as tonelessly, as weakly as any daughter-in-law could.
A poison mushroom can weep only tears of poison. The hours absorbed her, and she absorbed her defeat. The night itself had judged her singing. The night burned her throat, stuffed silence in her mouth.
She went to her bed in the dark, bitterly criticizing her unsteady legs, and when she banged her toe into the iron bedpost, she felt she deserved it.
Across the lake, another world. Standards were being upheld in this hay meadow.
In the middle of the meadow, the upas tree.
The boy was forbidden to go near the upas tree, forbidden to ever touch the tree, neither the lethal bark nor the deadly leaves of this carefully tended tree that intimidated all the sweet grasses. He lay in the evening and gazed, and ordered his imaginary Finnish servants out to touch the tree: his obedient non-existent servants went and stroked and kissed the poisonous trunk, and crawled and died unromantically in the field, while the boy, preparing mentally for an adulthood in which, even in Soviet Russia, he would, yes, have servants, because slavery lives in many forms, this boy named Pavlik watched irritated, a bitter critique in his heart for the weak performances he was witnessing, the low way each of these dozens of dog Finns faced their destiny.
He would never shake and sweat and cry out like that, if he were going to touch the poison tree. He, in fact, would lick the resin and live, now that's a performance. He could chew the leaves and they would taste sweet to him. A man of iron takes pleasure in the worst flavors.
The eyes of the last servant look at the tree, then look at the hut where his implacable boy-master sits. The very sky is a judgment on this slave.
He sweats. His eyes, knowing they are about to die, look like boiled-over membranes of silk. He pulls down the branch, and the leaves and resin exhale upon him, and he says out loud, "The hot wind is good for your health, I can remember that fact, I can think, nobody who can think can die, I'm not dying because I'm too alive," but when he feels his arms both go numb, he's so afraid he can't think anymore.
His master falls asleep, bored. Imaginary servants are the most perfect, their corpses bury themselves while you sleep, while you dream of a better life for yourself.
The boy's father and grandfather have meanwhile eaten their good bread and butter and their "owl's-nest" sausages of gristle, garlic and starch. God loves them both enough to drink vodka with them, and vodka brings the freedom to act, which is the most cruel temptation of God.
Because of vodka, the boy's father plays a tune on the cracked-back violin. It's the ballad called "Trust." You have heard this tune, you know the way it churns slowly, then seems to come to fruit and bring you into the shadow of a second sadness, standing beside your own sadness.
He plays the tune so well, he feels the melody remove him from the sight of everyone on earth, and it is with relief that he starts to shiver.
The sun is on the other side of the world, but it can hear his playing and wants to warm him. The bugs upon the weeds forgive him for his strength. The earth hardens, so that he can never be buried, so he'll never have to die, and time will never end. He will be dandled by all the world, the barley-grass will pet him, all women will hug him in the street and thank and bless him, even sledges and wheelbarrows will want to waltz with him as they see him walking past.
"What was that?" the boy's grandfather says.
The tree stands in the field, making no nice promises.
"Is that the piece I taught you?" says this grown man's old father. "Is that how you play it?"
The violin is thin curved wood in the shape of a violin. All violins look the same, carved according to old wisdom. Nobody builds violins that look different, because they wouldn't be as good. A few of these identical violins sound much better than any other, and nobody knows the reason. There exist people who claim they know why, but then again these people don't go build us perfect violins to prove it.
"If I ask you a perfectly simple question," says the old man, "do you think you can answer it?"
They are sitting on blocks of wood, in the dark of the little fire. A block of wood is a happy thing to be in this life. The man knows very well not to speak at this moment. No, he says silently, I can't answer for myself at all.
He's speaking without speaking, sitting holding a violin and not playing it.
"Are you a threshing-machine?" asks this horrible old man.
"Or are you a free, feeling human being?"
The man could answer, but it would be like laying his head in the fire.
"If you are a human being, if you have a soul, then why don't you play like a human being? Why do you play my violin like you're pissing through it?
"You pretend! You don't really feel this music!" It was time for the exclamations. "You give out all your emotions ready-made! You think our hearts are a big joke!"
The boy, at only eight years old, has to listen to all this, because fate has abandoned him. The boy already knows more about music than these two Krylovian idiots. He knows a stupid song when he hears one, first of all. A stupid boring song nobody needs to make people sit through. Noise. He knows noise when he hears it.
The grandfather explains, carefully and in detail, that if the father is ever to be a decent violinist, he will have to be remade.
"For example your false way of holding the instrument. The grandiosity, the affectation, the unnecessary muscle tension. All this, before you even started playing, already you were lost. You were not behaving inwardly.
"Then, your boring dynamics, your addictive use of only the middle third of the bow, your terrible intonation errors on any note not played on an open string--are you even listening when you play?
"Finally, your lack of emotional involvement in the meaning of the notes. The way each bar went past, note by note, with no natural coherence. The way the overall song lacked any sense of structure, any relationship between its larger sections.
"No strategy, no technique, no vision.
"Now, put down the mistreated violin. You have no right to hold it yet.
"Just stand there.
"Is that how you stand? Your body tells lies all by itself! Find your center of balance! Turn your heels out more! Your knees are stiff! Now you're sticking out your ass! Straighten up! Relax your neck!
"You are standing there, but I don't believe you. You have no true basis for standing there like that.
"What is in your mind?"
Black night across Russia. Russia makes its own darkness. Pushkin, when he was still young, was disgusted, furious, weary, and why? He wrote a letter he would not have written if he didn't have to breathe the black air of Russia:
"Your role has been sordid. You--representative of a crowned head--have played pimp for your son. All his inept behavior, it turns out, has been directed by you…Like a filthy old woman, you lurked in corners to snare my wife, to tell her how much she is loved by your bastard."
How could there not be a duel?
Pushkin wanted a duel, this is what we do to ourselves. We burst our own skins just to hear a true sound.
Shot in the gut, lying on his side, his unfired gun lost in the snow. But the poet propped himself up on his left arm, and took in his writing hand a fresh gun from his second (this was permitted under the rules). Took aim at his stupid aristocratic tormentor, the apparent source of all the poison in his soul, and only winged him.
The poet's last words were
"It is hard to breathe. Something is weighing me down."
For example, not speaking when you want to speak.
Not answering. Silence, for your reply.
Not even silent dissent. No, just silence, acquiescence, a lie.
Leaving your enemy so unhurt, he doesn't even know he's your enemy.
He smears you with shit, and you aren't even allowed to wipe it off.
Attacking yourself. Agreeing with your enemy. Destroying yourself. The prisoner escapes his judge by flying into the arms of a harsher judge.
The man's old father has gone into the hut, and now this man, looking at his sleepy son, forgets how he's standing, and sits, feeling like himself again.
He asks his own son, in complete willingness to accept any reply, What do you think of my violin playing?
"Sentimentality is tsarist," the boy says. "Frigidity is communist, daring, authentic."
The lad is a Pioneer, and has his red scarf, and his brass pins, and his copy of the book about Lenin, Our Very Best Friend.
"Marxism-Leninism teaches us that the violin players of the world are nothing."
He sits on his father's knee, ventriloquized by others.
"Did I say I hated your violining?" says the boy. "Excuse me please, I said no such thing. I only said that in the new world, you will be nothing."
A soap bubble drifts past them.
"Already you are becoming nothing."
The man says: I'm still your father.
"Not at all. Death to the grown-ups!" and the boy runs out into the dark field.
Maybe some of the good children reading these lines live in a family just like this one.
The next day, the man and his old father go out in the field. The hay, to them, means work, while to the boy stacking grass is playing. The two men scythe, waiting for the time they can sit still and drink and try not to argue, because they don't love to disagree, it spoils the drink. To the boy, sitting still is work, and today he has work he has to do, he is a serious lad, a good lad, everyone tells him that.
When the boy, playing at piling the grasses, sees his Pioneer Guide walking along the road that leads past the upas, he runs into the hut and waits, sitting still in the dark. His elder friend from the Pioneers has come to ask a question.
The boy talks to his friend for a long time. He tells him all the reasons--all the possible reasons--he could be worried about the stability and loyalty and faithfulness of his father, a man who has spoken against the school system and against the Pioneers and who defrauds the government out of some of its grain every harvest.
Then the man goes away, and Pavlik returns to a more pensive bundling and tying and stacking. An adult is one who gets things accomplished, and Pavlik has crossed into manhood on the vessel of his mouth.
Very early the next day, before the sun has even come up, a little red lorry drives up to the hut. Two fine strong workers get out of the little lorry and go right into the hut, and they take the boy's father away with them.
The grandfather and the boy stand watching the little red lorry drive away and away off across the field.
The boy knows he has done the right thing, and confesses it all to his grandfather right there in the warm breeze among the short-lived insects, under that moon, a moon that transforms every good deed into something frightening, yet this boy is not at all frightened, because every judge in the land is standing there with him. His grandfather cannot even speak to this brave lad, who goes inside and sleeps like one who has conquered a whole nation of feeble idiots, and when he wakes up later that morning he is proud and happy. He runs out to go pick some berries for breakfast.
Black luscious berries are available to any living soul, and though all dead men without exception are deprived of them, blackberries have been a favorite breakfast for murderers and traitors since the prehistory of Russia. The affinity of this sort of person for blackberries is practically a rule; it may be because the risk they run of any particular berry being sour--a risk no one is protected from--seems to such people a sufficient demonstration that they, too, suffer. The people they killed, the people they betrayed, they were victims of something, sure, but were they really victims of their betrayers? If chance had not judged them, they might have lived. They happened to eat the sour berry, that's all.
On the other hand, thinks the boy's grandfather (who is right now waiting behind the highest bramble with an axe in his hand) a boy is only born by the operation of chance. And an eight-year-old boy has a soul that has only recently occurred, and might still be sent back, a chewed berry you spit on the ground, never swallowed by God or man. It's not too late to prevent all future harvests of this tree of poisonfruit.
When he steps out silently and swings his axe at the cheerful, humming blond lad who had his son arrested, he swings the axe stupidly, up and out like an Englishman golfing, and although he and the boy are both fortunate in that the blow lands under the jaw and kills instantly, without warning, without need for further such sloppy unthought-out blows, still the old man berates himself, sick in spirit not to have done a more intelligent job on this last piece of work he will ever need to do on earth, he is in the blackest mood. He will go to Hell without even having clearly seen how the boy fell, or how the blackberries in the basket scattered, because he missed it, the clear image of his own crime that might have consoled him throughout eternity is only a blur, the same blur that stupid people pass their whole lives within, and yet, the boy's grandfather tells himself, I was not a stupid person.
Returned to the hut, he is playing his violin, the lonely, heartbreaking melody about noxious Jews and their irrational behavior, but he is playing it very poorly, like a man with palsy, like a man deafened by a roaring in both ears, like a man who is thinking of something altogether else.
And that is how the violin ended up in the weeds, flung there by the self-criticism of this old man who had been a journalist (musical critic), a night watchman, a coal stoker's supervisor, and the lab assistant in a morgue. What he had done, he always tried to do well, because the alternative was unbearable.
There is a tradition promulgated in books to this day that the dead eight-year-old lad, Pavlik Morozov, was so admired by all the villagers of Razliv for his steadfast honesty in turning his own father over to the security forces in order to safeguard the state, that the people of the village all crossed the lake carrying hoes and pitchforks and scythes, and set upon the boy's grandfather and cut him open until he was dead, saying "shame," et cetera. In fact there is another opinion that witnessed the old man being trundled away in a red lorry to an unknown destination, which is the way Russian fables end these days.
There is no dispute, though, about the boy's funeral, which was splendid for such a village. Every citizen was directly encouraged to attend it, and every single citizen did so without fail. To pay respect to the brutal little martyr, local officials spoke encomia, and a message was even read aloud from the district official in charge of state security. A bronze statue would soon be erected of the boy, or anyway of a boy with his name and with the calm, trusting, honest face of an unknown 27-year-old paragon in a Pioneer scarf, and let who wishes to do so spit on the ground at the base of that statue, the fact is that a statue lasts a very long time, especially in the minds of children who grow up staring at it.
At his funeral, as everybody knows, even the birds of the village came down to perch on the little coffin, and they sang a song for the lad, which went like this:
Be vigilant and always watch.
Twenty-five years later Josef Stalin has died, and in response a young filmmaker is about to make a pencil-mark on a piece of cardboard. It used to be, when Stalin was alive, that merely to make a certain kind of mark with a pencil could lead one into terrible difficulties. But now--who knows--is it safe? The point of the pencil is on the storyboard. Should it move?
Stet, the filmmaker, sees fingers that aren't his fingers.
Stalin's fingers, in his coffin, holding a little icon. Stalin, dead, dead, his fingers curled around a gold-leaf picture of filmmaker Stet as an old man of 50. The flesh of Stalin's dead index fingers actually touching the depicted cheeks of the gaunt thorn-crowned Stet.
Stalin is really dead? Definitely?
Thousands of citizens are filing through the Great Hall of Columns. They arrive as if scorched by a black enemy. They have come here to compare their charred flesh with the flesh of a man who was never hurt. They are the people of an heroic land, but the land is not called Russia, it is without a name, because it was abandoned by its father at conception. And yet these people still love their father. A woman falls to the floor screaming "My judge! They didn't spare even you!" Her husband doesn't try to lift her, but continues to stare at the dead face of the great Leader and Teacher.
Owing to the condition of film in this unnamable land (think of film as a living man with every bone, including the skullbone, removed by the skill of state surgeons, and now film is a mammalian blob lying on a bright-lit public stage, squeaking every time it tries to inhale, because even air is too ambiguous, too subject to misinterpretation), life itself must now submit to the most egregious of cinematic conventions. The men who prepared the lying-in-state of the great Virgin Father Josef Stalin, these men were unable to think in any terms but the film epic. They saw the lines of mourners as a fine dramatic crowd of extras, and were content to filigree this crowd scene with silent visuals (the dark blue drapes and massive black-hung columns, the silenced Leader's corpse and the stricken faces of young guards of that same Red Army from which he used to carve limbs for his breakfast). Then they panicked, these funeral art directors, when they recognized that the extras were also the audience. An unusual situation! Who can direct an audience to perform? Suppose some of those milling faces, looking upon the dead man, revealed ambiguous thoughts?
So a musical soundtrack was provided, to constantly channel the emotions of this performing audience into the correct path of somber tragedy. A piano was wheeled into a corner, and red ropes put up to symbolize the invisibility and subconscious effectiveness of any good soundtrack, and then it was necessary to call upon the greatest performers to run through these funeral marches, since it would not do to have some Ivan Ivanovich picking out the notes. And then again they had to invite all the great performers (those who were in good political health) or risk offending many important people--so the red rope moved much farther into the room to permit even a full orchestra, the greatest soundtrack ever dubbed onto any funeral.
At this moment there is only one living creature performing, anonymously reinforcing the somber mood, and that is the scrawny fellow at the grand piano, pale, looking down at the keys as if this little piece he's playing were extremely difficult for him, his fingers trembling, mouth not quite daring to grimace--it's enough that he was officially invited here! It is enough that he is still alive in 1953, a worm like that, having dared to outlast the Leader and Teacher! Twice Josef Stalin reached out his hand to personally crush this man, the composer Shostakovich: once in 1934 when there had appeared upon the earth an opera so personally offensive to the Leader that it was necessary for all the newspapers to attack the composer, and for his music to be banned across a vast empire--you can imagine the composer had his bags packed, ready for his trip to Lubyanka Prison--and he would have gone there, too, had not the official whose job it was to arrest him been, himself, arrested just a few days earlier. The composer finally wormed out of it all by calling his next symphony A SOVIET ARTIST'S RESPONSE TO JUSTIFIED CRITICISM. That's the ticket. Still, in 1948 it all happened over again, denunciations again signed by all loyal Soviet composers, Shostakovich fired from his teaching jobs, his music banned everywhere whether it'd won the Stalin Prize or not, the composer having to read aloud in a vast hall full of musicologists a humble self-criticism and repentance for having written "music against the people," symphonies "that in no way can be called musical compositions," music "with absolutely no connection to the art of music"--he read his self-accusation from a piece of paper that was handed to him on his way up to the podium--and yet this man was never arrested, never once! And here he is at the honored post of playing at Stalin's wake, composer Shostakovich, or let us call him the piano-player Shostakovich, yes, he's certainly not here to play Shostakovich compositions, that would be too much, Tchaikovsky is good enough for such a lucky worm to play.
Nobody can know where the music's coming from anyway, the corpse of the great one is too distracting. And this leads to an odd circumstance. The fact is, this Shostakovich used to work in the cinema at night when he was young, playing piano to accompany the silent pictures, improvising (this was the 1920s), freely (the 1920s, understand), to the general irritation and rage of the cinemagoing public, which was the same dim beast then as now. And here, in 1953, working again as an accompanist, he is so overcome by the presence of the corpse of the Beloved Critic that he begins to lose track of the action on-screen, so to say--at this moment he is supposed to be playing the "Dialogue" in B-major of Tchaikovsky, which is a musical depiction of two pre-revolutionary people making tragic remarks to each other, and he is nearly playing it--to Stalin's ears it sounds all right--nobody among the perspiring, crazed spectators seems to notice the music at all--and of course the important Party members present have opinions, but with absolutely no basis, Soviet officials actually outstripping the officials of every other nation on earth in the matter of unmusicality.
In fact, there is really nothing wrong with what Shostakovich is playing--it's only that his ears have gotten confused, and they seem to be hearing an entirely different melody, up in the top three octaves of the piano. This hallucination is so distracting that he turns his eyes to the right end of the keyboard to see if some fool is perhaps playing four-hand piano with him.
What he sees is not so simple to describe. On the storyboard of filmmaker Stet (since this is Stet's unfilmable film we are watching) the composer's vision is depicted as a bald man sitting next to Shostakovich on the piano bench, and this bald man, who looks so cheerful, who is playing a brittle work of his called "Sarcasms" that quite improbably fits in academically impeccable counterpoint with the glum movement Shostakovich is trying to play, is the translucent image of dishonored composer Prokofiev. He consists entirely of dots.
Now, anybody will tell you that Prokofiev and Stalin died on the same day, and had their funerals on the same day. And this is supposed to be an interesting coincidence. But what does it mean, to "die on the same day"? If a young metalworker kills his wife with a hammer, and then commits suicide by taking prussic acid, is it permissible to speak of their having died on the same day, the interesting coincidence of that? Did you marry your wife on a different day than she married you? Prokofiev grew up around Stalin, as all of us did (on the tapestry on the wall, there are trees depicted in the act of trying to grow through an iron grating). Our limbs jammed and stunted for decades, we all felt so strange when the barrier was suddenly removed, that some of us froze in place, waiting for new barriers to rest our twisted parts against. And new barriers were soon supplied. Let us not laugh too hard at each other, in fact let us stop talking now, and look instead into the peaceful peasant faces on these tapestries, and have a moratorium on knowing laughter and the mockery that feels so much like the first cigarette before breakfast, such a joy and relief to destroy something small right after dreaming. In the crowd filing past the coffin, a pair of deformed brothers, joined forever at the foreheads, are crab-walking past, looking sidelong at the body of the Great Physician. There you are, imagine it is you who have had a Siamese brother attached to your brow since birth, a face that has been the largest object to your eyes, the face you see instead of a mirror, he you have hated with the intimacy of self-hatred, and wished out of existence, and struggled against, and screamed at, with no sense of his right to scream at you--imagine that he dies one afternoon. (Shostakovich's head dips lower as he plays, occluding an electric light behind him, all is dark forever.) It is not as if your brother's face now, in death, disappears, revealing the soft sunshine you could never see full-on. No, you are confronted with the same face, blocking you in the same way, not more lovely for being a dead face, its mouth and eyes hanging open in mockery. The doctors will kindly conceal from you the fact that, now that your brother is dead, an inexorable coincidence requires that you too shall die on this very same evening. All you know is that now you can never walk again, because to walk you have always needed the help of the nameless one, the scourge, the delimiter, the trauma, the soulless all-flesh all-opaque all-burdening brother, whose voice and breath were acid to your flesh, who defined how you moved, thought, ate, spoke, who even in your dreams never vanished, though he sometimes became gray and light as a balloon--those were happy dreams with, however, the intensity of nightmares.
Composer Prokofiev, who lived in Paris as the kind of expat who wears a checked jacket, orange bow tie and yellow shoes all at the same time, this pampered cosmopolitan ended up returning to Moscow just at the time the purges and arrests were worst--imagine, he was looking for an understanding audience. To force a sophisticate to write sincerely, that will cause him such suffering that he might, like O. Wilde, become in his suffering an authentic man. "I know what will restore their love for me--I'll write a work to their exact specifications, a work in their image!" Some might even say he became a better composer by acquaintance with tragedy. That's a good thing, right? And what was this tragedy? The easy and instant mutability of his critics. "Why wouldn't they approve this piece of music," he whispers to Shostakovich, "of all things, this outright propaganda in their favor? It is impossible that they would attack such a work--I myself despise it, but it's a perfect ode to the Leader--" (and Prokofiev is playing the theme of his cantata setting of Stalin's speech at Lenin's bier, which by no means blends well with poor Shostakovich's nervous playing--furthermore, Prokofiev is singing a new text to his ode, it's the speech of the prosecutor at the show trials before the war: "Shoot these rabid dogs!" sings the composer nobly. "Death to this gang that hide their ferocious teeth, their eagle claws, from the people! Down with that vulture Trotsky, from whose mouth a bloody venom drips, putrefying the great ideals of Marxism! Let's put an end once and for all to these miserable hybrids of foxes and pigs, these stinking corpses! Let their horrible squeals finally come to an end!" He then continues to sing wordless animal noises, growls and bleats, while Shostakovich beside him turns dead white, his fingers somehow still repeating the brief "Dialogue" over and over, whispering "No, it's all a mistake, so to speak, all a mistake--" But Prokofiev is encroaching on the middle of the keyboard now, singing with the full voice that an invisible dead man might as well adopt--he plays a section of Ivan the Terrible, and the great tapestry against the wall at the head of the bier flickers alive with scenes from the Eisenstein film--unfamiliar scenes, because these are the parts of the film that were suppressed, and Prokofiev is singing
Many years, many years,
order this title