New Babylon I

Posted 4th December 1999

Louis Blois writes: "Fay makes it clear that the reasons for New Babylon's ultimate failure was a combination of political and musical difficulties. Fair and complete enough." I'm sorry to have to disagree. Almost all of what Fay says about the "failure" of New Babylon revolves around technical problems. Nor has she explored the context sufficiently deeply to comment on the reported mismatch between the artistic principles of FEKS (Kozintsev and Trauberg's Theatre of the Eccentric Actor) and the expectations of Soviet cinema audiences, let alone to reveal anything of the political background, which, in 1929, was tense and ominous. Shostakovich, though, specifically cites political "interference" as a key factor: "My troubles on the political side began with New Babylon... The KIM [Communist Youth International] leaders decided that New Babylon was counter-revolutionary." Although Laurel Fay declines to quote from Testimony, she would nevertheless have been wiser to deal with this political "interference", since ignoring it risks the suspicion that she has deliberately played it down.

Quoting this passage from Testimony in 1994 in DSCH Journal, John Riley (the leading expert on Shostakovich's film music) did not mix his words in saying that "the New Babylon affair was one of several [similar flashpoints] that pointed to a change in Soviet artistic life in the late 1920s and early 1930s as the avant garde/proletarian split was forced together and pushed down the proletarian path". Indeed, as Riley reports it (DSCH Journal 1 [Summer 1994]. pp. 31-2), "the New Babylon affair" became something of a politico-cultural cause celebre: "[KIM] denounced it as counter-revolutionary, though RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) defended it, with Alexander Fadeyev's signature heading the letter. There were calls for a public debate (a common way of addressing issues in the 1920s) and for its makers to be put on trial for 'jeering at the heroic pages of revolutionary history and the French proletariat'." That is to say: some Leftist critics, having interpreted FEKS's and Shostakovich's juxtaposition techniques as satirical attacks on the Communards (sacred ikons in Soviet mythology), indignantly demanded that the film's creative team be arrested and arraigned before a Soviet court. Not surprising, then, that Shostakovich in Testimony recalls, "things could have ended very badly and I was only in my early twenties then". This was, after all, the start of the Cultural Revolution. Within months, other artists would be similarly denounced and put on trial in just this way.

Riley continues: "Factory workers to whom [New Babylon] was shown disagreed about its quality, and newspaper opinions were divided, some urging their readers to see it and some calling for the makers to be punished [sic]. The level of hostility can be gauged from an article by Pavel Petrov-Bytov ["Why We Have No Soviet Cinema", Zhizn Iskusstva, 21/4/29]. New Babylon is mentioned rarely by name -- [Petrov-Bytov] prefers to speak of the poor general state of cinema -- but it is obvious that [New Babylon] was the catalyst, and the article foreshadows many criticisms that would be made of artists in the following years."

Petrov-Bytov wrote as follows: "I am not denying the virtues of these films [New Babylon, Eisenstein's October, and others]. The virtues do of course exist and they are not negligible. Great formal virtues. We must study these films just as we study the bourgeois classics'." Riley, however, observes that Petrov-Bytov nevertheless "subtly denounced [these films] as irrelevant, or even positively harmful, to the revolution. Retrogressive and possibly counter revolutionary, [in P-B's view] their only 'virtue' was the possibility they gave of learning from their mistakes."

New Babylon was premiered just as Stalin's proletarianisation campaign was reaching its peak. At that time, to be denounced as "alien to the People" or "divorced from ordinary life" was, by inference, to be condemned as "bourgeois" or tainted with the "depraved and unprincipled" values of NEP. Petrov-Bytov voiced just such criticisms: "The people who make up Soviet cinema are 95% alien, aesthetes or unprincipled. Generally speaking none of them have any experience of life." There is no doubt that, by this, he meant to attack, among others, FEKS and Shostakovich.

Riley notes: "[Petrov-Bytov's use of] the word 'alien' -- and [his] plea not to 'transform the Russian language into Babylonian' -- echo the xenophobia encouraged by [Stalin's] policy of Socialism in One Country. [With] Soviet life [becoming] increasingly seen in physical terms, [the] aestheticism and lack of experience [of the film-makers whom P-B was attacking] meant that they could have no role in the revolution." Only by a process of ideological rehabilitation could they be "re-generated" so that "their hearts [could] beat in unison with the masses". Addressing his enemies directly, Petrov-Bytov concluded: "I am sorry, but you will not lead [the masses] with Octobers and New Babylons, if only because people do not want to watch these films." (That this proved to be true was blamed by FEKS and Shostakovich on the technical problems caused by late cuts enforced by the Moscow film censorship committee, and by the hostility of cinema bands -- which is all that Laurel Fay reports of this whole "affair".)

John Riley adds: "This sort of criticism had been mounting for some time and, though it was probably not orchestrated by the government, they certainly encouraged it. As early as May 1924 Stalin had noted that 'Things are going badly in the cinema. The cinema is the greatest means of mass agitation. The task is to take it into our own hands.'" Riley shrewdly concludes (re the situation in 1929) "Shostakovich must have seen what was happening and began to take an active part in the productions of the Leningrad Youth Theatre, whose proletarian credentials were beyond doubt. Up to this point 'other work' had been his excuse for doing no work for them in two years, despite being on the musical staff, but the time had come to buy some time and he quickly knocked out music for a couple of frankly propagandist ["proletarian"] plays..." [These were The Shot, Opus 24, and Virgin Land, Opus 25.]

That Fay fails to address what amounted to Shostakovich's first clash with Stalinist ideological aesthetics is, on the face of it, another case of misrepresentation by omission -- the familiar methodology of anti-revisionism. Allan Ho has already shown me her treatment of From Jewish Folk Poetry, which seems largely to repeat the evasions and misrepresentations of her ill-starred New York Times article of 14th April 1996 (see my criticisms in Shostakovich Reconsidered, pp. 686-720). I gather that Louis Blois has, with admirable fairness, conceded that Fay's conduct in this instance is questionable, to say the least. I shall be interested to learn of his verdict on her treatment of "the New Babylon affair" as reported by John Riley in DSCH in 1994 (and, in case she missed it, again in DSCH Journal 4 in Winter 1995).

Indeed, to these two cases of ostensible misrepresentation, I must add a third -- right opposite the paragraph dealing with New Babylon, on p. 51. This concerns Shostakovich's next work, his incidental score for Mayakovsky's The Bedbug, which Fay describes as a "scathing satire of the new bourgeois spirit" (i.e., Nepovshchina, the ethos of the New Economic Policy, or NEP). I wonder if she bothered to read this play? If she did, she has misunderstood it; if she did not, she has presumably followed the judgements of earlier musicologists who accepted the disingenuous Soviet interpretation. In fact, it's standard in Mayakovsky studies that The Bedbug embodies not so much an attack on Nepovshchina as an appearance of this designed to accommodate the expression of its author's rejection of the increasingly coercive collectivism of the Soviet regime under Stalin and his Left proxies. (E.g., Sally Laird, Voices of Russian Literature [OUP, 1999], p. 19: "[Mayakovsky] became disillusioned with the development of the new regime, a scepticism expressed in satirical plays such as The Bedbug. Despair at the Stalinist clamp-down on literary experiment, compounded by personal difficulties, led to his suicide at the age of 37.") In fact, Mayakovsky was hounded by RAPP for counter-revolutionism during 1929-30. Eventually he joined RAPP in a desperate effort to escape persecution, but they would not leave him alone and he shot himself three months later. This persecution began with the Left's furious reaction against The Bedbug. The play, to musical accompaniment by Shostakovich, can fairly be said to have ultimately cost Mayakovsky his life.

Since Fay has presumably read my book (1990), she must have seen the passage in it about the background to The Bedbug (pp. 58-60). The New Shostakovich is out of print, so here it is:

"[The Bedbug] was the theatrical debut of the legendary Mayakovsky, whose notorious willingness to place his muse at the disposal of every whim of Soviet propaganda must have been, if nothing else, a phenomenon of pressing curiosity to Shostakovich. As a boy, Shostakovich had, like most of his contemporaries, admired Mayakovsky's pre-Revolutionary verse. However, the poet's later role as a mouthpiece for the Central Committee had alienated much of his audience and none more than Shostakovich's literary friends, who no doubt let their feelings concerning the proposed collaboration be known to him. (Nor would their case have been difficult to make. Some of Mayakovsky's work of this period resembles recruiting notices for the GPU, and lines like 'Think / about the Komsomol.../ Are all of them / really / Komsomols? / Or are they / only / pretending to be?' were bringing vers libre into disrepute.) An additional source of potential tension lay in the fact that the composer, as rising star of Soviet music, was poised to inherit the poet's mantle as figurehead of Soviet youth culture. Under these circumstances, their meeting was bound to be chilly.

Mayakovsky, whose musical taste was rough and ready, appears to have treated Shostakovich as a jumped-up bourgeois poseur, which, whether or not true at the time, was certainly an instance of bickering amongst soiled kitchen utensils. The dislike was mutual and the description of Mayakovsky given by the composer to Literary Gazette in 1956 as 'a very gentle, pleasant, attentive person' appears to be one of his deadpan jokes. (Eugene Lyons recalled Mayakovsky as 'a burly, bellowing fellow', whilst to Max Eastman he was 'a mighty and big-striding animal -- physically more like a prize-fighter than a poet -- and with a bold shout and dominating wit and nerves of leather... probably the loudest and least modulated thing and nearest to the banging in of a cyclone that poetry ever produced'.) The irony is that, professional jealousy aside, the two artists almost certainly had something important in common: disaffection with the ruling regime.

Western musicologists, who have either never read The Bedbug or are insusceptible to its sarcasm, tend to accept the line, fed them by Soviet critics, that the play satirises the NEPmen or 'grabbers' of the mid-Twenties private enterprise culture. This is untrue. Like Olesha, Katayev, and Ilf and Petrov, Mayakovsky was using apparent satire on NEP as a front for satirising the government. The poet's disillusion with Communism set in after his idealised view of progress had foundered on first-hand acquaintance with it during a visit to the industrial heartland of America in 1925. By 1929, his revulsion against the soulless banality of the Collective was bitter and -- owing to his compensating interest in alcohol -- incautiously frank. Though The Bedbug uses the yurodivy technique of voicing its criticisms through the mouth of a buffoon (in this case, the Mayakovsky-like drunkard Oleg Bard), they are open and become steadily more blatant as the play proceeds.

Shostakovich thought the piece 'fairly lousy' and few would disagree with him. A hasty, manic, and finally insufferable farce, The Bedbug was knocked out chiefly in the hope of earning its author enough foreign royalties to pay for a sports car. On the other hand, it is also, in parts, a funny and occasionally brilliant satire, at least some of which must have rung a reluctant chuckle from the composer. (Serious, too. The scene where the 'Zones of the Federation' block-vote on whether to 'resurrect' the cryogenically-preserved hero Prisypkin alludes to the Soviet regime's liberal recourse to capital punishment. 'We demand resurrection!' chorus the conformist Zones where, a few years before, they would just as confidently have demanded death.)

Doing The Bedbug partly for the money and partly to please Meyerhold, Shostakovich was himself too much the satirist not to have known exactly what Mayakovsky was saying and must therefore have still been sufficiently naive to imagine that there would be no repercussions to himself for having participated in the project. If this is true, he was soon cured of his illusions. Opening in Moscow in February 1929, The Bedbug was attacked by the Proletkult for its form and by the Komsomol for its content. Meyerhold's theatre was soon finding audiences hard to come by and Left activists marked Mayakovsky down for special treatment. His passport was confiscated and, within a year, they had hounded him to suicide.

I must own that it puzzles me that Laurel Fay should be content to recycle the old Soviet whitewash about The Bedbug being an attack on Nepovshchina -- unless she has done this to further reinforce the thesis (which she proposes with Richard Taruskin) that Shostakovich was a nobly earnest "civic servant" who became embittered in his old age (subsequently turning to late musical dissidence in works like the Eighth Quartet and the Thirteenth Symphony).

--Ian MacDonald

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