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Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Music Critic

November 15, 2009

From Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise comes this fantastic Lenin quote:

“I can’t listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid nice things, and strokes the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell.”

But what did you expect from one of the most murderous dictators in history? But as Ross makes clear, no social group escapes from the 1930s morally unscathed:

For anyone who cherishes the notion that there is some inherent spiritual goodness in artists of great talent, the era of Stalin and Hitler is disillusioning. Not only did composers fail to rise up en masse against totalitarianism, but many actively welcomed it.

Ross hints at the rhetorical power contained in art when he describes the Kurt Weill/Bertold Brecht/Elisabeth Hauptmann operas The Yes-Sayer and The Measures Taken. The Yes-Sayers is about four young people going on a mountain adventure. One falls sick, and the group agrees that the best thing to do is throw him over the cliff. The boy agrees to sacrifice his life for the good of the collective.

The Measures Taken is about undercover Communists in China. One particularly good fellow can’t stop himself from helping the oppressed. His comrades realize that these random acts of kindness have blown their cover. When they tell the young man this, he replies, “You must cast me into the lime-pit, in the interests of Communism in agreement with the progress of the proletarian masses of all lands.”

Weill’s operas may not sound like real crowd pleasers, but Weimar Germany was a strange place. These operas reminded me of the novel What is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. What is to be Done? is about the “new man” necessary to bring about world socialism: relentlessly determined, morally unwavering, and a heart hardened enough to do whatever is necessary. Lenin read this novel multiple times, and Lenin’s awareness of what art can do to one’s emotional resolve shows in the quote above.

Alright, what’s new here? Plato denounced music for its irrational yet persuasive nature thousands of years ago. Which brings us to philosophers: more than fantasies about artists, the myth I cherish most is that academics – or at least philosophers! – would be above the fascistic currents. The life of the mind, and all that. But we know that’s far from true: Heidigger edtion/Arendt edition. And the less said about Rousseau and the French Terror, the better…

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