Before there was Rage Against The Machine, there was Dimitri Shostakovitch. Unlike contemporary members of RATM, Shostakovitch was up against a real machine that killed you if you were critical of it, not permit you to live a lavish life of ingratitude. Stalin ran this machine, and millions of unmarked graves testify to the consequences of even appearing to, or being mistaken for, raging against his machine. These thoughts arose Sunday afternoon as I was snatched out of my humdrum life by a performance of his 5th symphony, the final notes of the 2013-14 season by the Kansas City Symphony, conducted by Michael Stern.
I suppose the question I am raising is whether that symphony by Shostakovitch represents a rage against the criticisms written against him by the Stalinist press, a capitulation to it, or neither. And maybe the further question about whether raging against any machine makes a lot of sense. During his lifetime, the stirring and heroic-sounding 5th symphony must have sounded like a capitulation, or at least a canny heeding of the criticisms raised in the middle 1930s about his use of excessive dissonance and unwillingness to demonstrate “socialist realism” in his works. In this symphony, and also the 10th, I hear bitterness, despair, and deeply hidden mockery, but not open defiance. Stalin’s machine would have preferred cheerleading of the glorious socialist ideals, and its glorious leader, but, failing that, would settle for morbid resignation, which was not likely to provide a ticket to the gulags, in most cases. In his posthumously published autobiography, Shostakovitch sets the record clear about the symphony, and his decision to choose satire and subterfuge in certain of his compositions, while providing the requisite claptrap in others, such as the bombastic 7th symphony meant to celebrate the heroes of Leningrad, though written in advance of the famous 900-day siege of the city in World War II. And even in that symphony, meant, in parts, to depict the brutality of Hitler, it is open to interpretation whether the actual brutality to which Shostakovitch refers is that of Stalin. So maybe we should conclude that Shostakovitch chose to Snark Against The Machine. Does that make him morally suspect? Are the only options open rage or whimper?
The authority of Dylan Thomas seems to imply that, and clearly sides with rage. In the case of old farts like me, rage, rage, against the dying of the light. Well, I don’t know about the rest of you old farts, but I don’t like some young drunk telling me that I am required, for the good of my soul, to rage at evening’s end. I know the light is fading, in a way that Thomas probably did not. I’ve lived 73 years through growing light and growing darkness. It makes as much sense to rage against the dying of the light as it does to rage against the tides, or ad hominem fallacies (I threw a nice one in a few lines up to see if any of you was paying attention). The machine of nature is something only immature romantics or contemporary Republicans seem inclined to rage against. It’s a losing proposition, and if rage is intended to have any consequences beyond one’s own self-righteousness, an act of futile narcissism, like starting a blog at the end of one’s life, there ought to be some realistic wager that changes will proceed.
Personally, I am glad Shostakovitch didn’t rage against the machine. Had he done so, he surely would have disappeared and left us devoid of the chilling 10th symphony, most of the preludes and fugues, and half the string quartets. The expressive content of the 20th century would have never had those gaps filled by Sibelius or Copland. And, like Mozart and Schubert before him, we would have wondered what startling, or moving, or redundant sounds might have issued from the last half of a life cut short; a premature exit into that good night, like that of Thomas himself.
But maybe the larger question concerns when rage is something that makes sense. And if it doesn’t, should we indulge it anyway? This is not the blog of a young man, so this will not be the answer of a young man, even the young man I was a half-century ago. I think Shostakovitch gives us the answer — my answer — and Thomas does not. And that answer is consistent with the Stoicism of the philosopher Epictetus I have come to admire in the past twenty years. Rage against the processes of nature is foolish futility. Learn about nature, accept its direction, come to grips with its verdict. And you will come to love it, as you may be able to come to love the dying of the light.
However, you might ask, what about Stalin and his machine? There was nothing natural about that, and I would agree with you. Then why not rage? Two reasons, one from Epictetus and the other from Shostakovitch. The former cautions us that the activities of another person, while mutable, are not mutable by me (or you, reader, unless they are your activities). All the rage against Stalin did not change what Stalin was intent upon doing. All the Rage Against The Machine by RATM did nothing to derail whatever the machine is against which they directed their rage, though it did leave all the band members financially secure while the machine continued to widen the economic and political gap between those who are helpless and those who are not. Affect what you can affect. What is that, then? What is inside you. And that is the lesson of Shostakovitch; don’t rage against the machine, create against the machine. Creation is not capitulation. Capitulation is a term favored by those who also favor the fallacy known as False Dichotomy. Creation is in a different category from wins and losses, except that it might be claimed that one who creates always wins.