...... Shostakovich in Casablanca

...........Slavoj Zizek

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Gorgias, Not Plato Was the Archi-Stalinist

A Letter Which Did Not Reach its Destination (and thereby saved the world)

In the last decade and a half of his life, Prokofiev was caught in the Stalinist superego at its purest: whatever he did was wrong. When he stuck to his modernist roots, he was accused of "anti-people formalism" and bourgeois decadence. When, thereafter, he tried to do his best to bow to the pressure in his infamous Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution. using texts by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, the cantata was again criticized for "Leftist deviation and vulgarity" (i.e., for dragging Marx and Lenin into it). Desperate to contribute something - anything - to the 20th anniversary, Prokofiev quickly threw together a concoction of folk-tunes and Party singalongs entitled Songs Of Our Days; the work was again dismissed as "pale and lacking in individuality" - which, of course, was true. "Prokofiev must by now have been utterly bewildered. If he wrote like a simpleton, he was a depersonalized Left deviationist; if he wrote like Prokofiev, he was a mercenary Formalist. Individual, non-individual... there must have seemed no rhyme or reason to it - and, of course, none existed." [1]But there definitely WAS a "rhyme and reason" to it: the rhyme and reason of the Stalinist superego in the eyes of which one is always guilty... However, the problem was a deeper one: the paradox of Prokofiev's late style was that the logic of his immanent musical development which led him away from expressionist pathos towards "new simplicity" strangely reverberated with the official demands for the easy-to-listen music accessible to ordinary Soviet people.

In the case of Prokofiev as well as in the case of Shostakovich, the reason why the critics are so desperately looking for the ultimate proof of their secret dissidence is to avoid a highly embarrassing truth: their most popular works today in the West overlap to a surprising degree with the very works which got the greatest official (not only popular) support from the regime: Shostakovich's 5th, 7th, and 11th symphony, Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" and the Romeo and Juliet ballet. Even among Shostakovich's chamber music, his Piano Quintet which got the Stalin prize in 1940, is his most popular piece! How can this be? Here enters the dissident hermeneutics and shows the way out. Shostakovich's 5th symphony, the most often performed XXth century symphony also in the West? It has to be discovered that the triumphant finale is really meant ironically, mocking the emptiness of the Stalinist triumphalism! The enduring popularity of the 7th symphony (Leningrad)? It has to be that the inexorable brutal marching progress in the first movement does not "really" render the German conquest of Russia in 1941, but the Communist conquest of Russia! Shostakovich 11th symphony ("1905") a hit? It has to be quickly confirmed that 1905 is just a pretext, that the revolutionary explosion "really" refers to Hungary in 1956!... But what about the Shostakovich symphonies which were effectively unacceptable for those in power, like the 13th ("Baby Yar") and the last, 15th? The answer is clear: in a supreme twist of irony, the 13th caused such a stir at its premiere precise and only because of the political circumstances - it functioned as a gesture of political defiance -, NOT because of its artistic strength. These works are today respected and praised, but not really enjoyed.

The publicity text for the new recording of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto by Leila Josefowicz says that she "pays homage to the struggles Shostakovich faced under Stalin's regime" - the patent absurdity of this claim confirms Michael Tanner's thesis that "there is almost no other composer for whom the life-and-works has achieved such orthodox status." [2] Tanner is fully justified in pointing out how the endless debates on how are some symphony-movements to be read, with serious pathos of as ironic subversion, on which victorious finales are meant to render the victories pyrrhic, "tell us, in fact, what the music itself fails to achieve." There is no greater monument to Shostakovich's artistic failure than the obsessive search for some private (extra-artistic) document that would definitely prove his intimate anti-Communist stance. This is why, in the ambiguities in which this politically-engaged background no longer resonates, Shostakovich's music is simply "uninterestingly enigmatic," like the references to Rossini and Wagner in the last symphony - there is no deeper meaning to be discovered here, the "enigma" is musically flat. The irony here is that the very search for the extra-musical "smoking gun" demonstrates the truth of the Stalinist accusation about the "formalist" character of Shostakovich's music - not, of course, in the sense in which it was intended by Zhdanov et consortes, but in the sense that his music is neutral with regard to social engagement (which is why one has to look for extra-musical signs to pin it down).

So what if we read Shostakovich's popular symphonies along the lines of how one is to read great Hollywood classics? In the well-known brief scene three quarters into Casablanca [3], Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) comes to Rick Blaine's (Humphrey Bogart's) room to try to obtain the letters of transit that will allow her and her Resistance leader husband Victor Laszlo to escape Casablanca to Portugal and then to America. After Rick refuses to hand them over, she pulls a gun and threatens him. He tells her, "Go ahead and shoot, you'll be doing me a favor." She breaks down and tearfully starts to tell him the story of why she left him in Paris. By the time she says, "If you knew how much I loved you, how much I still love you," they are embracing in close-up. The movie dissolves to 3 1/2 second shot of the airport tower at night, its searchlight circling, and then dissolves back to a shot from outside the window of Rick's room, where he is standing, looking out, and smoking a cigarette. He turns into the room, and says, "And then?" She resumes her story...

The question that immediately pops up here, of course, is: what happened in between, during the 3 1/2 second shot of the airport - did they DO IT or not? Maltby is right to emphasize that, as to this point, the film is not simply ambiguous; it rather generates two very clear, although mutually exclusive meanings - they did it, and they didn't do it, i.e. the film gives unambiguous signals that they did it, and simultaneously unambiguous signals that they cannot have done it. On the one hand, a series of codified features signal that they did do it, i.e. that the 3 1/2 second shot stands for a longer period of time (the dissolve of the couple passionately embracing usually signals the act after the fade-out; the cigarette afterwards is also the standard signal of the relaxation after the act; up to the vulgar phallic connotation of the tower); on the other hand, a parallel series of features signals that they did NOT do it, i.e. that the 3 1/2 second shot of the airport tower corresponds to the real diegetic time (the bed in the background is undisturbed; the same conversation seems to go on without a break; etc.). Even when, in their final conversation between Rick and Laszlo at the airport, they directly touch the events of this night, their words can be read in both ways:

RICK: You said you knew about Ilsa and me?
RICK: You didn't know she was at my place last night when you were... She came there for the letters of transit. Isn't that true, Ilsa?
ILSA: Yes.
RICK: She tried everything to get them and nothing worked. She did her best to convince me that she was still in love with me. That was all over long ago; for your sake she pretended it wasn't and I let her pretend.
VICTOR: I understand.

Well, I certainly DON'T understand - is Rick saying to Victor that he had a consummated affair with his wife or not? Maltby's solution is to insist that this scene provided an exemplary case of how Casablanca "deliberately constructs itself in such a way as to offer distinct and alternative sources of pleasure to two people sitting next to each other in the same cinema," i.e. that it "could play to both 'innocent' and 'sophisticated' audiences alike." [4] While, at the level of its surface narrative line, the film can be constructed by the spectator as obeying the strictest moral codes, it simultaneously offers to the "sophisticated" enough clues to construct an alternative, sexually much more daring narrative line. This strategy is more complex than it may appear: precisely BECAUSE you knew that you are as it were "covered" or "absolved from guilty impulses" [5] by the official story line, you are allowed to indulge in dirty fantasies - you know that these fantasies are not "for serious," that they do not count in the eyes of the big Other... So our only correction to Maltby would be that we do not need two spectators sitting next to each other: one and the same spectator, split in itself, is sufficient.

To put it in the Lacanian terms: during the infamous 3 1/2 second, Ilsa and Rick did not do it for the big Other, the order of public appearance, but they did do it for our dirty fantasmatic imagination - this is the structure of inherent transgression at its purest, i.e. Hollywood needs BOTH levels in order to function. To put it in terms of the discourse theory elaborated by Oswald Ducrot, we have here the opposition between presupposition and surmise: the presupposition of a statement is directly endorsed by the big Other, we are not responsible for it, while the responsibility for the surmise of a statement rests entirely on the reader's (or spectator's) shoulders - the author of the text can always claim "It's not my responsibility if the spectators draw that dirty conclusions from the texture of the film!". And, to link this to pychoanalytic terms, this opposition is, of course, the opposition between symbolic Law (Ego-Ideal) and obscene superego: at the level of the public symbolic Law, nothing happens, the text is clean, while, at another level, it bombards the spectator with the superego injunction "Enjoy!", i.e. give way to your dirty imagination. To put it in yet another way, what we encounter here is the clear example of the fetishistic split, of the disavowal-structure of je sais bien, mais quand même...": the very awareness that they did not do it gives free rain to your dirty imagination - you can indulge in it, because you are absolved from the guilt by the fact that, for the big Other, they definitely did NOT do it... And this double reading is not simply a compromise on the part of the Law, in the sense that the symbolic Law is interested only in keeping the appearances and leaves you free your exercise of dirty imagination, insofar as it does not encroach upon the public domain, i.e. insofar as it saves the appearances: the Law itself needs its obscene supplement, it is sustained by it, so it generates it.

Maltby is thus right in emphasizing that the infamous Hollywood Production Code of the 30s and 40s was not simply a negative censorship code, but also a positive (productive, as Foucault would have put it) codification and regulation that generated the very excess whose direct depiction it hindered. Indicative is here the conversation between Josef von Sternberg and Breen reported by Maltby: when Sternberg said "At this point, the two principals have a brief romantic interlude," Breen interrupted him: "What you're trying to say is that the two of then hopped into the hay. They fucked." The indignant Sternberg answered: "Mr. Breen, you offend me." Breen: "Oh, for Christ's sake, will you stop the horseshit and face the issue. We can help you make a story about adultery, if you want, but not if you keep calling a good screwing match a 'romantic interlude.' Now, what do these two people do? Kiss and go home?" "No," said Sternberg, "they fuck." "Good," yelped Breen, pounding the desk, "now I can understand your story." The director completed his outline, and Breen told him how he could handle it in such a way as to pass the code. [6]So the very prohibition, in order to function properly, has to rely on a clear awareness about what really did happen at the level of the prohibited narrative line: the Production Code did not simply prohibit some contents, it rather codified their cyphered articulation.

And, back to Shostakovich, what if exactly the same holds for his popular symphonies? What if they also operate at two levels simultaneously, one, public, level intended for the ruling ideological gaze, and another level which transgresses the public rules, but remains, as such, its inherent supplement? One can thus appreciate the ambiguity of these lines:

Since the Stalinist assault against his music in 1936, Shostakovich had developed a sort of double-speak in his musical language, using one idiom to please his masters in the Kremlin and another to satisfy his own moral conscience as an artist and a citizen. Outwardly he spoke in a triumphant voice. Yet beneath the ritual sounds of Soviet rejoicing there was a softer, more melancholic voice - the carefully concealed voice of satire and dissent only audible to those who had felt the suffering his music expressed. These two voices are clearly audible in Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony /.../ which received a half-hour ovation of electrifying force when it was first performed /.../. Beneath the endless fanfares trumpeting the triumph of the Soviet state in the finale, /.../ the audience must have felt its sadness /.../ and they responded to the music as a spiritual release. [7]

A strange hermeneutics indeed - a "carefully concealed voice" which is nonetheless clearly understood by thousands? Were the official censors really so stupid not to get it? So what if we have to read the fragile co-existence of these two idioms along the lines of the ambiguity inscribed into the night encounter scene from Casablanca? What if the Stalinist rejection of both Prokofiev's propagandist and intimate works was right on its own terms? What if what they wanted from him was precisely the co-existence of two levels, propagandist and intimate, while he was offering them either the first or the second? After World War II, Prokofiev withdraw increasingly to the intimate domain of chamber music, where he could find expression for his private sadness - was this an act of silent defiance, writing music "for the drawer," as Shostakovich would have put it? How then that the most moving and desperate of these works, his Violin Sonata in D Major whose haunting opening movement was meant to sound "like the wind in a graveyard," was awarded the Stalin prize for 1947? Orlando Figes claims that the award was meant "ironically" [8]- however, what kind of strange irony is this? Back to Shostakovich, can we really be so sure that the public bombast music is meant ironically, while the intimate confessionary mood is meant sincerely? What if the irony is objective and we have to read this music in the same way Marx read the attitude of the Party of Order in the French Parliament after the 1848 Revolution? Recall Marx's brilliant analysis of how this conservative-republican party functioned as the coalition of the two branches of Royalism (Orleanists and Legitimists) in the "anonymous kingdom of the Republic". [9] The parliamentary deputies of the Party of Order perceived their republicanism as a mockery: in parliamentary debates, they generated royalist slips of tongue and ridiculed the Republic to let it be known that their true aim was to restore the kingdom. What they were not aware of is that they themselves were duped as to the true social impact of their rule. They unknowingly established the conditions of bourgeois republican order that they despised so much (by for instance guaranteeing the safety of private property). So it is not that they were royalists who were just wearing a republican mask: although they experienced themselves as such, it was their "inner" royalist conviction which was the deceptive front masking their true social role. In short, far from being the hidden truth of their public republicanism, their sincere Royalism was the fantasmatic support of their actual republicanism - it was what provided the passion to their activity. Is it not, then, that the deputies of the Party of Order were also feigning to feign to be republicans, be what they really were - in exactly the same way that Shostakovich was feigning to feign to be a faithful Communist?

Nonetheless, the subjective position of Prokofiev is here radically different than the one of Shostakovich: one can propose the thesis that, in contrast to Shostakovich, Prokofiev was effectively NOT a "Soviet composer," even if he wrote more than Shostakovich's share of official cantatas celebrating Stalin and his regime. Prokofiev adopted a kind of proto-psychotic position of internal exclusion towards Stalinism: he was not internally affected or bothered by it, i.e., he treated it as just an external nuisance. There was effectively something childish in Prokofiev, like the refusal of a spoiled child to accept one's place in the social order of things - he returned to Soviet Union in 1936, at the height of Stalinist purges, was driving around in his imported American car, dresses eccentrically in fancy clothes delivered from Paris, ordered books and food from the West, ignoring the madness and poverty around him. This is why, in contrast to Shostakovich, he never really "got into" the Stalinist superego double-talk idiom of combining external accommodation with inner bitterness and sadness. Even the melancholy and despair of his late violin sonata is not a reaction to Stalinist oppression: the same style and mood are there already in his pre-revolutionary works. The different reaction of the two composers to Zhdanov's attacks in 1946-7 is exemplarily here: Prokofiev simply did not understand what the charges are about, he did not internalize the tension. When, in 1947, he was forced to attend a meeting of the Composer's Union and to listen to Zhdanov's speech attacking him and other Soviet composers, he came drunk, made loud rude comments interrupting the speech and then fell asleep on his chair in the midst of it - miraculously, nothing happened, to such an extent was his eccentricity accepted).


[1] Ian MacDonald, "Prokofiev, Prisoner of the State," available online at https://www.siue.edu/~aho/musov/proko/prokofiev2.html

[2] Michael Tanner, "A dissenting view," in The Grammophone, July 2006, p. 23.

[3] Richard Maltby, "A Brief Romantic Interlude: Dick and Jane go to 3 1/2 Seconds of the Classic Hollywood Cinema," in Post-Theory, David Bordwell and Noel Carroll, eds., Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1996, p. 434-459.

[4] Maltby, op.cit., p. 443.

[5] Op.cit., p. 441.

[6] Op.cit., p. 445.

[7] Orlando Figes, Natasha's Dance, London: Allen Lane 2002, p,. 492-3.

[8] Op. Cit., p. 576.

[9] Karl Marx, "Class Struggles in France," Collected Works, Vol. 10, London: Lawrence and Wishart 1978, p. 95.

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

Slavoj Zizek's Chronology

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