Antiformalist Scallion

I’m going to take a little time out from my usual posts about various projects or concerts to tell a little story.

You might have noticed I am a huge fan of the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. (Really?)

Music aside, there are an awful lot of people in the world that want to make him out to be either a complete Soviet lackey or a daring dissident who privately hid all kinds of messages in his music.

The truth is somewhere in between, complicated by the fact that the man is an unreliable narrator of his own life and had a sense of humour so dry that it would make the Sahara look like a floodplain. I read an article about him recently about his relationship with a young student in which he described an instructor at the local conservatory to whom the young man had been assigned as “volatile.” In fact, the instructor dozed off during his first meeting with the student, who subsequently looked in vain for some sign of what must be some kind of hidden fire that might suddenly explode from this mild, somewhat pudgy professor. It never did.

It wasn’t until years after Shostakovich’s death that the young man realized he’d been joking. He was so completely deadpan and serious that this earnest young man took his words at face value.

From other sources, we learn that Shostakovich, who had a prodigious memory, and an ear for the rhythm of speech, developed a particular skill for mocking Soviet bureaucratese. This was a skill that would serve him well any time he needed to write an ideologically correct article (when it wasn’t simply written by a ghost writer). Again, it is always hard to tell where the realism ends and the dry humour starts. He heard the music in these statements (such as they were), and knew their rhythm. He was also apparently a gifted storyteller who liked to exaggerate. His friends knew this (and probably encouraged it.)

A dry, deadpan sense of humour could be of enormous use in the Soviet Union, especially to anyone who lived through Stalin’s terror(s) and was denounced and forced to make public admissions of “formalist” tendencies (read: not socialist realist) not once, but twice–and after the second time, who was required to go to New York and face a barrage of attacks from an unsympathetic New York press for not trying to defect.

It was about this time that what I would contend was one of Shostakovich’s masterpieces was born. In English, the title is usually given as Antiformalist Rayok. A rayok was a kind of a circus puppet show, usually farcical. Probably over the next couple of decades this work evolved. His closest friends knew about it, and it apparently circulated and was even performed furtively in private homes a few times, doubtless fueled by copious amounts of vodka and cigarettes. The rest of the time, it was buried in Shostakovich’s metaphorical (or maybe not) desk drawer.

What Antiformalist Rayok is is wonderfully sharp, biting, and dead-on satire. Three voices (in English, they more or less translate as “One-ski, Two-ski, and Three-ski) conduct a class about how music should be in the Soviet Union. Through various mannerisms, ways of speaking, and musical references, it is very clear just who these three people actually are. One of them is Stalin himself; the other two are officials who made life difficult for Shostakovich. There is also a hilarious preface to the work that makes scatological puns and indicates that the work itself was found in the latrine. There are people who claim that Shostakovich did not write the libretto, but his influence is all over it.

This, much more than the supposed memoirs allegedly dictated to a young musicologist, show without a doubt how masterful satire can be in the hands of one who lacks true power. And the work did not come completely to light until years after Shostakovich’s death. Here, unlike in so many of the things he wrote, ever conscious of the eyes who might not have had his best interests at heart, there is no mistaking the meaning of the words.

My favourite performance of the work dates to that brief period in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union and the complete rise of the kleptocracy that rules today. Boris Yeltsin is in attendance. The laughs about sending people to the camps land because the memories are so fresh. I doubt whether it could be performed in Russia today.

So–given that in his later life, Shostakovich was relatively free to pursue the projects he wanted, and as a Party member had access to perks others didn’t–and given that he was also criticized by a new generation of more outspoken dissidents who had come of age in the Thaw, why didn’t he just use his position of privilege to speak truth to power?

Any student of Soviet history, even a casual one, will know the answer to that: it’s precisely the most honoured elite that had the biggest targets on their backs during Stalin’s era. Popularity and acclaim meant nothing. Shostakovich likely squeaked by because the regime found him useful and because, unlike literature or poetry or even songs with words, it was far more difficult to find enough concrete evidence in music to really damn an artist. You might be called a “formalist,” but explaining what that meant was often more difficult. So they censured you, and took your job at the Conservatory away, but if you were good, they might toss a few film scores your way, or reward you with a Stalin prize for a piece of (admittedly well-written) dreck, and you took it because otherwise your family might starve. And if a person complied in public, it was completely possible to dissent in private–so long as you knew exactly where that line was. And so, Antiformalist Rayok didn’t just go into the desk drawer with the 4th Symphony and violin concerto no. 1 and the infamous Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, it went into the metaphorical false bottom in that desk drawer. But it was certainly shared with people that Shostakovich could absolutely trust.

Satire rings true when the author is fully immersed in the culture they wish to satirize. They know the names and the nuances, the rhythm of the rhetoric, the dull, heavy drumbeat of a system running along like a 30′ tall triple expansion reciprocating steam engine running the Titanic. And they know just where the iceberg is. They know how to use a good metaphor, how to make up a fake name, how to allude and elude, how to draw on a single incident or many to tell a tale. The goal may be to get the readers to lighten up, to take themselves a little less seriously, or it may be to expose injustice to the light of day in a way that pulls back from direct confrontation–being both specific and general at the same time.

Satire is not a debate about the facts. Satire is about perception. Great satire does not need to depend on the fame or status of the writer, because bad satire will be ignored and die in darkness. Great satire will be shared. It will not stop because of rules or the anger of the perceived targets; in fact, either will ensure it travels even further, and will spread by word of mouth and circulate in breathy asides long after it is published. Other satirists or humourists may pick up the language and weave it into the common parlance of society. And that’s fame for the anonymous satirist. They seek renown only for the words, not for themselves, and hope that those words may provoke both laughter and thought–and maybe lead to change.

Which leads us to “The SCA’s fynist news source”– the Scallion. No, let’s go back to the root (pun intended): The Onion. America’s Finest News Source. Yes, it’s intentional. The Onion has been in the satire business for at least 25 years, and I’ve always suspected there were, at one point, people intimately familiar with the SCA on its staff. Anyone remember when the SCA took over Russia? (Ah, another link to that brief moment of time in the 90s–not far removed from the performance of Rayok above–when Russia was fun.) Some of the articles in the Scallion show an intimate knowledge of the SCA’s history and institutions that could only come from a long-term member. Or members. I do expect this is a group effort.

The scallion is, of course, a relative of the onion. And like its modern counterpart, the Scallion has published several types of satire–gentle, silly, and biting–much of it dead on, some of it better than others. And there have been people apparently demanding that the authors reveal themselves and reveal their credentials that make them qualified to write satire. There are even a few people pulling the “bullying” card.

Did I mention that sometimes satire writes itself?

In any case, I would suggest that we all have our desk drawers (or since this is the SCA, perhaps they’re oubliettes) where we keep our real opinions away from the nosy and powerful, away from those who might, at best, tease us, and at worse, make the SCA a living hell for us. Those of us who have been around for awhile and witnessed the foibles and antics of our peculiar hobby likely have quite a few stories that we tell furtively, amongst our friends. And when something like the Scallion comes along, seemingly having raided those oubliettes and done the work of skillfully revealing those stories to the world–but at no risk to our place on the Order of Precedence or even our physical or emotional health–in a way that makes us laugh–is it any wonder that it spreads like wildfire?

The Scallion says the things that, too often, cannot be said. Long may it live and prosper.