Bits and Pieces

(originally written June 2012)

Shostakovich 10

A wonderful performance of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony by the CBSO under the mesmerising Andris Nelsons. Shostakovich is a site of ideological battle, his music fiercely contested and debated, with every sort of hidden meaning detected which might make it acceptable to anti-communist listeners. At the root of this is a problem they have. How can one explain away the fact that music of such brilliance, such emotional power, is product of an atheist and communist? To manage this feat it becomes necessary to say that Shostakovich was not really either of those things, and that his music is in fact a protest against them. Lying behind this is the further fact – incredible though it may seem to those of us who imbibed a Trotskyite perspective at a young age (let alone those of us with anarchist deviations!) – that it is incomprehensible to many people that one can be a deeply committed anti-Stalinist and yet still a communist and atheist, still a believer in the aspirations of 1917. However – and I speak as a complete musical ignoramus – once those things are accepted (which of course they are no problem for me to accept!), his music makes perfect sense. Of course he satirises Stalin, as he does in the 2nd movement here (while also making the power of his appeal tangible). Of course there are all sorts of ‘deliberate irrationalities and oddities’ (to quote the notes from the programme for this concert) – does the writer think that because one is an atheist and a socialist life is straightforward? The history of 20thC Russia is one of tragedy: the defeat of idealism, the deaths of millions, war, brutality, oppression; in the face of this to preserve one’s individuality, to preserve a spark of hope in humanity, is a massive feat – but Shostakovich’s music does this. It is what gives it its extraordinary emotional power. ‘Irrationalities and oddities’ are the stuff of humanity – that Shostakovich expresses them is at the heart of his genius.

Duh! (or ‘I Told You This Would Happen’)

Another wonderful T-shirt I have bought from Red Molotov (see has a picture of Marx with the slogan ‘I Told You This Would Happen’. I receive (free!) every so often a copy of the alumni magazine of my Cambridge college. My usual interest is in seeing how it demonstrates the ways in which the formation of the British ruling class works; the number of senior positions in politics, business, law, the armed services etc. which various alumni have filled. But in the latest issue there was an article which caught my eye. It was entitled ‘The Human Cost of Economic Policy’ and presents as a great revelation the fact that following the collapse of State Capitalism in the former USSR, and in the wake of the wholesale privatisations which followed there was an appalling medical catastrophe.

Between 1990 and 1995, an estimated 7 million premature deaths occurred in the countries that emerged from the USSR, rivalling the number of deaths attributed to Stalin’s politically induced famine in 1932-1933. Mortality rates rose by 12.8% in men and life expectancy fell to 64 years in 1994, the lowest level in the post-war period.

The research teams responsible for this study have undertaken other studies ‘that trace links between economic programmes and health’ including the effect of the Greek crisis – ‘On the basis of their studies, they argue that political and economic policies and processes can affect the lives of millions’. Ummm – well as any socialist or Marxist would comment ‘You think that’s news?’. Or, indeed, Duh!

Lattimore’s Odyssey

It is a good number of years since I last read Homer and that was The Iliad in Pope’s translation, which I still regard as a monument in terms of working both as an original poem and as a masterpiece of English verse. I decided that it was time to return to The Odyssey and used Lattimore’s translation which I have not read before. Heretical though it may be, I have to admit that I got somewhat bored. This is not to deny the immense merits of the translation, which has a great deal of force and beauty. No it is the story itself. In part this is because one tends to misremember; Ulysses’s travels, which so dominate the imagination (Circe, the descent to hell, Scylla and Charybdis, the sirens, the cyclops etc.) are not so dominant in terms of the space allocated in the saga. Events which take place after his return to Ithaca occupy what sometimes appears to be an almost interminable time. Ulysses’ invented narratives become almost tedious; what is meant to be conveyed by this? That he was a compulsive liar? Lattimore argues in his Introduction that he sees The Odyssey as the work of a younger poet (the arguments about who Homer was or if he existed are endless and I have no intention of entering an area about which my knowledge is miniscule), where The Iliad is the flowering of his mature genius. I hope this is so. I intend to go and read the latter in Fagles’ translation next to see whether it is with Homer or his lesser poem that I felt a nagging dissatisfaction.

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