“Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”
This is the central theme of the novel by Julian Barnes exploring Shostakovich’s experience as a composer living in Soviet Russia. He starts the novel waiting by the elevator with his suitcase, ready to be taken by Power to the Big House, from which no one generally returns. He has smoked a number of cigarettes and he does this every evening for a time until his conviction that Stalin is to stop his life in its tracks lessens and he returns to his bed. There is a sense that he is not the only one who waits like this, determined to go with some dignity and not to have his family disturbed by the imposition of the powerful State.
The Stalin era has been one that has interested me for some time, since reading Simon Seabag- Montefiore’s biography, followed by Orlando Figes’ “The Whisperers.” They paint a powerful picture of a people turned against each other for the benefit of Power, the State being able to control those who live too close to have privacy and to persuade people to tell tales on their neighbours if there is any thought that they might be acting outside the interests of the regime. There is some irony in those who supported revolution to free the people from the tyranny of the aristocracy creating a tyranny of their own, but my interest is in how people lived, loved and thrived in that situation, because they did.
Shostakovich may have worried about being taken away, being killed by the State, but it did not stop him from making music that has lived on. It did not stop him from having a wife or child or loving them, however imperfectly. He found a way to absorb the difficulty of feeling hunted or watched and discovered a way to add to the whisper of history. He was disturbed by Stalin’s reaction to his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, finding himself ostracised from the source of permission to perform his music. His opera and he fell out of favour but still he did not disappear. He wrote and worked and lived, visiting the United States where he met fame and the vision of freedom, all the time knowing he would return to his family.
I have been fascinated by the effect of power and government control on thinking and how that translates into the art of the day. It seems to me that the Stalinist government in Soviet Russia and the McCarthy movement in the United States held much in common. Both wanted to push a particular ideology, to tell people how they should think, who they should celebrate, what they should do with their lives. Both wanted to restrict freedom but art in its purest form is an expression of nothing else. The art we make is borne out of our unique ways of exploring the world we find ourselves in. Whether it is painting, sculpture, music, writing, theatre or poetry the artist wants to capture the essence of their experience and set it free from human restrictions. It is the sound of our souls.
And is that what becomes the whisper of history? It is intriguing to me that the sound of God, or the universe or whatever it is that is beyond us is often described as a still, small sound not a trumpet fanfare or a blaze of fireworks. In voiceover the Voice of God roles involve the powerful announcement of people on to a stage. But the voice of God we listen for is quiet and still and can only be heard if we really pay attention, removing distractions and taking ourselves out of the noise of our time.
This time is full of noise. The various results of the EU referendum and the election of President Trump have created a noise storm fuelled by news and opinion and many people wanting to control what we think, seeking to limit our freedom, and in so doing drowning out the sound of our souls. This is not a situation I want. I do not want my children or grandchildren to look back on this time, my time, seeing nothing but flares and hearing nothing but clanging cymbals. I want for them to see the kindness, the generosity, the will to help still surviving the pain of war and the difficulty of separation. I want them to hear the gently spoken stories of those who faced difficulties and with help from others found a way to thrive again.
I have my own opinions about the elections and how I would have liked them to be resolved. But that, for me, is not the most important thing about living in a free democratic society. If I am to have my freedom to think and explore and discover my world as I will then I have to afford others the same courtesy. That is not to say that my voice should be silenced but that it is only part of the song, part of the art we make with the lives we live among each other. There will be times when, like in Shostakovich’s music, the harmonies are dissonant and harsh but it is only by working through those conflicts that we find a way to peace.
So that is the situation we all face. It seems as if the world is divided into two camps if you listen to the noise. People are slaves or masters, democrat or republican, right or wrong, hunter or hunted, my side or yours. Is that not too simple for us? We are each more than our categories, aren’t we? So if that noise is silenced or turned down, what remains? The whisper of our souls asking for love, wanting to belong, desperate to be understood. The song of humanity survives the stranglehold of power to remain a song of hope, echoing throughout eternity.