Conversations with Power: Julian Barnes’ “The Noise of Time”

Cover of “The Noise of Time” — the man with the briefcase is immortalised here

I chose this to buy this most recent book by Julian Barnes because of my somewhat macabre fascination with the history of life under Communism. Happily, “The Noise of Time” didn’t disappoint — I personally felt it brought the terror, claustrophobia and internal contradictions of everyday Communism to life, even if the descriptions became somewhat beleaguered towards the end. Written as a fictional biography of the famous Soviet composer, Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich, the book is framed around three crucial ‘conversations with power’ that shaped the eventual course of his life — the state’s rejection of a controversial opera he writes in his youth and his subsequent relentless persecution by the Stalinist regime; his later forced co-option by the regime, who turns him into an unwilling cultural ambassador of Soviet Russia; and his final submission to power in old age, when he joins the new, ‘reformed’ Community Party under Nikita Khrushchev.

At the heart of the book, is, of course, the theme of terror — the daily terror that comes with living under the thumb of a murderous dictatorship, in which people were taken away in the night by shadowy NKVD officers and never seen again, or forced to confess in staged show trials before being publicly executed. The most poignant image drawn by Barnes of his protagonist captures this sense of ever-present dread — Shostakovich is so certain of his coming death after the government’s condemnation of his opera that he waits every night, fully clothed and armed with his briefcase, by the lift in his apartment block, so that he will be ready when the NKVD men come for him. The mental image that Barnes constructs in our mind is one of a man driven to near-suicidal mania, who knows that he is ultimately powerless against the vast terroristic machinery of the State.

As dark as this may be, I have always found this atmosphere of manic fear that pervaded the Stalinist period very interesting, largely because it highlights how the regime did not just operate politically. The Stalinist regime also operated psychologically, systematically permeating the emotional fibre of its subjects by seeking to fundamentally control the ways in which they thought, spoke and saw themselves. Barnes’ Shostakovich, for example, constructs his sense of self through his interactions with Soviet power; he laments that ‘the line of cowardice was the one thing that ran straight through his life’, bitterly resenting himself for following the edicts of Power despite knowing that he has no choice but to do so. Stalinism — and I would argue more broadly, Communism as a whole — acts as the ideal example of Foucauldian power: as a political ideology, it was never confined to the everyday machinations of politics or government bureaucracy. Rather, it actively aimed to penetrate the consciousness of those who lived under it, forcing them to regulate their behaviour, speech and even thought patterns, according to its laws and moral guidelines. Studies of personal, private diaries from the Stalinist era reveal that its authors had little conception of any division between public and private self; the power of Communist ideology lay in its ability to destroy this barrier, to claim ownership over its subjects’ very sense of being.

At the same time, however, Barnes’ novel, like other nuanced portrayals of life under Communism, highlights the small ways in which people negotiated with the all-encompassing face of power. Barnes’ Shostakovich tells us that he indulges liberally in irony as a way to preserve his sense of independent thought in the face of all-consuming power. One of the best moments of the book is his account of his interaction with his tutor in Marxist-Leninist philosophy, who has been personally appointed by the state to re-educate him, Shostakovich, in the principles of the state following the mistake of his “deviant” opera and his obviously “problematic” artistic tendencies. The tutor tells Shostakovich how fortunate he is that Stalin himself took an interest in his re-education; he ought to be flattered, for who is he, a humble composer, in comparison with the Great Leader himself? The composer replies, with a straight face, “I am a worm in comparison to His Excellency. I am a worm.” The tutor, taking the words at face value, is pleased at the progress of his pupil, and responds, “Yes, you are a worm indeed. And it’s good you now appear to possess a healthy sense of self-criticism!”

I found this anecdote important because of its invocation of the subtle undermining of the mechanisms of power. Shostakovich’s tiny and untraceable defiance was an act that was, in fact, multiplied by people all throughout the USSR on a daily basis. One of the best books I have read on this is Jan Palmowski’s “Inventing a Socialist Nation: Heimat and the Politics of Everyday Life in the GDR, 1949–1990”, which details how everyday Germans in East Germany co-opted the discourse of heimat, loosely translated to ‘love of one’s homeland’, into that of an anti-Soviet, anti-Communist resistance motif. Thus when German villagers danced to folk tunes instead of Soviet motivational music, or when they donned brightly coloured traditional peasant garb instead of sober work brigade outfits, they expressed their deeply buried loyalties to their community, their locality, and their nation, sentiments that had to be suppressed in the face of a globalising and all-consuming Communist imperative. Shostakovich’s act thus resonates as both a mirror and an echo of the actions of the East German villagers, a micro-act of resistance against a macro-discourse of power.

The anecdote is also interesting, however, because of its juxtaposition of humour and irony on the part of Shostakovich with the complete seriousness and dull-wittedness of his tutor, who is unable to get the joke because he takes the project of Communist re-education so seriously. Indeed an undercurrent in Barnes’ book, and one that is expanded on more fully in Milan Kundera’s “The Joke”, about life in Communist Czechoslovakia, is how Communism took itself too seriously — and it was this attitude of over-zealousness, of over-enthusiasm, of over-committment to an ultimately erroneous goal — that of creating a Communist utopia — that eventually led to its downfall. Hence Shostakovich’s labelling of the entire project of Communism as “an optimistic tragedy”, a description which I find to be entirely resonant with the facts of history.

Yet Communism in Russia, emerging as it did out of the ruined political landscape of World War One and the Great Depression, was only one of a series of political ideologies in the 20th century that sought to radically remake society and humanity — as Kapila argues, the 20th century was itself a ‘Nietzschean century’ that has brought Man into a face to face confrontation with History. The attempt to fundamentally rupture with the past and rescript the future according to a grand new utopian design was evident in liberal democracy, Fascism, Communism (both Marxist-Leninist and its later Maoist offshoot), in the Reaganist/Thatcherite neoliberalism that took off from the 1970s, and in the Modernist artistic movement that sought to engineer a better humanity through art, design and culture. This utopian imperative was taken to an extreme in both Fascism and Communism, however, and it subsequently underpinned the disproportionate brutality of Nazism and Stalinism — for human life became nothing more than a necessary sacrifice at the altar of a greater utopian future. As Zizek puts it, the terror of Maoism (and of Communism as a whole) was ‘nothing less than the condition of freedom’.

I suppose ultimately it is this sense of the struggle with History and its ultimate failure that has always resonated most powerfully with me when studying about Communist societies. This is because the Communist experiment speaks so profoundly to an innate urge within mankind to try and control his world, his fate and his history — to try and rescript the past, present and future according to some grand design that will bring about a greater good for himself and society. Singapore itself is no stranger to such an ideology, as a highly technocratic society whose past fifty years of development has often been attributed to the foresight of its first generation of “planners”, men like Lee Kuan Yew, S. Rajaratnam and Goh Keng Swee.

I think the lesson to be learned from Communism is not that planning should be eschewed and replaced with laissez-faire politics — the collapse of liberalism that led to the Great Depression and the outbreak of WW2 have acted as a clear warning against this. Rather, it is that every goal, no matter how noble, has a price, and that we should never lose sight of the human cost that comes even with the achievement of Utopia. This recognition necessitates some humility, for it requires the acceptance that sometimes, no one can be considered fit to decide for the majority what goals are ideal and how these goals should be achieved. Indeed, there may be no ideal goals at all! As Shostakovich points out, the Soviet slogan ‘The engineers of human souls’ eventually ran into two fundamental problems — ‘The first was that people did not want their souls engineered, thank you very much’, while ‘the second problem… was more basic. It was this: who engineers the engineers?’

PS. This piece was supposed to be about another aspect I really enjoyed within the book — Barnes’ discussion of Shostakovich’s attitude towards love and loving— but unfortunately my macabre nature and historical training ultimately reasserted themselves. The quote that first jumped out at me when I read the book was this: ‘This was how you should love — without fear, without barriers, without thought for the morrow. And then, afterwards, without regret.’ Perhaps this is a young person’s view of love, heady and reckless and unrealistic, and I identify with it because I myself am young. Also it is one that Shostakovich himself later revises, in the cynicism of old age. Nevertheless I think it resonates well with the experience of love, to anyone who has ever truly felt it. Not for nothing did Shakespeare write that ‘Love is merely a madness.’

PPS. Some fantastic readings on Communist life, if that is ever something that might be of interest: Milan Kundera’s “The Joke” (worth reading if only for its characterisation and its quasi-Hamlet meditation on revenge, but itself deeply moving and historically insightful, especially about the unique case of Czechoslovakian Communism), Czeslaw Milosz’s “The Captive Mind” (non-fiction, but a beautiful rendition of the intellectual’s struggle with Communism), Heda Margolius Kovaly’s “Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague” (another beautiful memoir, this time from a Jewish lady whose husband Rudolph was murdered in the Stalinist show trials), and Orlando Figes “The Whisperers” (oral histories from the Stalinist era, powerful and graphic enough to make you cry).