In visible silence

23 February, 2015

This week On the Reading Rest I have two essays from 1931 and 33 respectively. Next autumn a new series of banknotes is introduced in Sweden. The national bank – Riksbanken – takes the opportunity to link these notes with a Swede hopefully and probably recognizable in- and outside Sweden. On the 500 SEK note we see Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. This choice has been criticised, because one may always wonder whether it is possible to separate Wagner’s late operas from his anti-Semitism (1).

Birgit 500SEK

When I was a child my mother told me that one had to see or listen to one opera by Wagner and one by Richard Strauss, after that one could do as one pleased. I listen to Salome and Die Walküre on records because the local opera couldn’t stage them. By 1960 I had stopped listening to Wagner except to compare Wagner’s and Schumann’s setting (both 1840) of Heine’s poem Die beiden Grenadiere (1820). And although one could argue that Wagner’s pompous setting purposely destroys the irony that hides inside the grandiosity of Heine’s over-exaggerating grenadiers – Wagner taking grandiosity for granted – it doesn’t amount to anti-Semitism. It is just a measure of egocentric misinterpretation on Wagner’s part – a step in Wagner’s development, but not anti-Semitism. Schumann’s music and Heine’s text on the other hand complemented each other creating more where Wagner created less. The way Schumann ends Heine’s lied about the two French grenadiers, who are engaged in defeat, one dying of his wounds, as well as in creating a myth about Napoleon, is very much to the point.

Schuman kadans

Spotify will allow you to listen for yourself.

Thinking of the 1960s, of Wagner and Heine I remembered Anatoly Lunacharsky. In the 1960s subscribing to Sovjet Literature before I left school, I also bought a collection of his essays. Since I couldn’t read Russian my interest in modern Russian literature referred me to Sovjet publications in English although I see that my Danish copy of One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich was a Christmas present in 1963. I found my copy of Lunacharsky’s essays in a moving box in the outhouse.

Lunacharsky lit and art omslagLunacharsky, Anatoly Vasilyevich. (1965). On Literature and Art. Moscow. Progress Publishers. Acronym: OLA

When Lenin formed his first government in 1917 he chose Anatoly Lunacharsky for the post of the Commissar of Enlightenment (2). In the midst of revolution one might have thought that Lenin would have preferred a tougher man, not least while Lenin hadn’t always agreed with Lunacharsky’s ideas, to say the least. Nevertheless, he did appoint him in 1917, being of the opinion that in matters of culture, nothing is as harmful as hate, arrogance and fanaticism. In these matters great care and tolerance must be exercised. This is a very Lunacharskian opinion and not surprisingly, as told by Isaac Deutscher in a sketch of Lunacharsky’s life: After a few days in office he resigned (as Commissar) in order to protest against the alleged firing by the Red Guards at the Kremlin in Moscow, during the October insurrection, which had damaged the walls. He published a fierce Manifesto denouncing this ‘act of vandalism’, and appealed to the working class to take under its protection all architectural monuments and treasures of art. He resumed office only after he was reassured that the Kremlin had suffered no damage during the insurrection (3). Lunacharsky would have been proud of those who four years ago stopped the thugs in the Egyptian Museum next to Tahrir in Cairo.

Lunacharsky halvprofilThat Lunacharsky immediately stepped down when the revolution threatened Russian heritage, must also be seen as a reflection of the fact that he was content not to take a leading role among the top political leaders of Sovjet Russia. Culture and education were his fields and he had strong opinions about them. But he was cautious too. In 1919 he published a book called Revolutionary Silhouettes featuring Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Martov and Kamenev, all of whom he knew. He introduced the sketches with an account of his own ‘Party history’. In 1924 the book was enlarged and slightly altered. His party history and the silhouette of Kamenev had disappeared, but the silhouettes of Plekhanov, Sverdlov, Volodarsky and Uritsky were added together with silhouettes of F. Kalinin and Bessalko. However, there was no silhouette of Stalin, who was actually mentioned only once and en passant. It could be argued that Lunacharsky didn’t know Stalin as well as he knew the others and lacked the necessary personal reason write about him. Nevertheless, the absence was ostentatious.

Lunacharsky was a great revolutionary speaker and having cut out himself from the list of revolutionaries he could describe the others with an emphasis on their performance. His descriptions allow us to liken the revolutionaries to great composers, conductors and musicians, virtuosi, concertmasters, chamber musicians and members of the orchestra – competent and performative characters. They all participated to the revolution despite their individuality, political differences and capacities. Fyodor Kalinin and Pavel Bassalko at the very end of the book were members of the orchestra, but also the protégés of the Commissar of Enlightenment and silhouettes of exemplary new proletarian cultural workers, who developed the cultural identity of the proletariat without forgetting pre-revolutionary heritage or the contributions of its intellectual elite. Kalinin and Bassalko didn’t live to become great front figures (both died 1920), but in Revolutionary Silhouettes they signify the cultural and educational spirit of the future as well as Lunacharsky’s visions. Their fate could also be said to echo the difficulties of the Prolekult — Lunacharsky’s cultural project. Obviously, including them in Revolutionary Silhouettes says a lot about how Lunacharsky ranked Stalin.

Not surprisingly, Lunacharsky lost influence when Stalin came to power, but he didn’t rock the boat and although from 1929 he was no longer Commissar of Enlightenment, he was still used, for instance as delegate and diplomat. He was appointed ambassador to Spain in 1933, but died in Menton on his way to Madrid.

In the 1960s, when being a revolutionary, a close friend of Lenin’s and unable to remember Stalin, became politically correct, Revolutionary Silhouettes were published once again. The book was accompanied by a volume called On Literature and Art. Revolutionary Silhouettes had lost half of its revolutionaries and the editor of On Literature and Art felt obliged to end his ‘From the Compiler’ telling his readers that:

The compiler has never considered abbreviating any of the articles published here, or publishing extracts from these articles. This is not merely because Lunacharsky’s articles represent in themselves a unique manifestation of art: the ‘spirit of the times’ becomes organically revealed in Lunacharsky’s works, and very often some fleeting remark about some fact or other of the social life of those years turns out to be an essential detail which recreates in our minds the epoch which gave us Lunacharsky’s talent OLA:6.

This is more than reassuring. When an editor tells you that he hasn’t tampered with the text because it is difficult, then most readers will think that he is lamenting the difficulties he encountered in his work, rather than the reason why he didn’t consider making some changes. Let’s suggest that the concluding remarks are the compiler Cand. (Phil. Sc.) A. Lebedev’s way of telling us that, believe it or not, he actually had to make some corrections, not just a correct collection, and that Lunacharsky’s technique made it difficult – so, read between the lines.

In the years around 1930 Lunacharsky, who was a prolific writer, was able to write about complex questions and to die of natural causes. It stands to reason that he wrote about Heine as well as Wagner in a way that may be interesting today when double standards next to outspoken neo-fascism and nationalism is once again a public phenomenon.

Reading the essays on Heine and Wagner, which Lebedev conveniently puts next to each other, I will do it with reference to Lunacharsky’s method in Revolutionary silhouettes – look for his opinions in the unobtrusive formulations in the end of the essays.

The essay about Heine is actually a speech from 1931 a lecture is seems, to listeners who will understand the meaning of impressionism, be acquainted with a series of Marxist concepts and listen carefully to a number of quotations used to analyse Heine’s character and attitudes. On the other hand, the audience is supposed to be informed and educated when told the significant historical background of the expression ‘gallows humour’. Lunacharsky is probably wrong when he refers to the criminals in Old England, but this allows him to avoid the obvious references to Jewish humour developed in the late 19th century, that is, during a period of oppression.

Lunacharsky is educating an elite giving his listeners an overview. In the beginning he is quite critical of Heine, who after all wasn’t a communist, despite his acquaintance with Marx. The major part of the essay, therefore, gives the reader a large number of interesting and analytical facts about Heine pointing out a number of shortcomings not least concerning Heine’s ever-present wit. Two pages from the end of the essay Lunacharsky concludes that Heine lacked the real social perspective and will. The social will of an individualist (i.e. Heine’s) is equal to nothing (OLA:336). This is a bit harsh, but very politically correct, and needed in order for the essay to end in a coda that only a reader, who unlike the listener is not carried away by Lunacharsky the speaker, would notice. To introduce his coda Lunacharsky introduces an undogmatic Karl Marx, who at some point in time defended Heine. Then Lunacharsky jumps to Pushkin, something completely different and quotes him as a misunderstood author and then as a parallel he quotes Heine’s poem Enfant Perdu (all six strophes) in German (OLA:338f.) (4).

And then in the last lines of the essay he concludes:

This glorious poem shows how Heine – for all the variety of his lyrics and the tremendous place which a free attitude to his surroundings and his inner world occupied in his work – evaluated his social role; it shows the significance which he attached to himself as a political poet. And we have the right to say that, in praising Heine as one of the most outstanding poets of inner freedom, we are introducing him into the pantheon of the great precursors of the genuine revolution – the proletarian revolution which we have the great honour and fortune to be accomplishing (OLA:339).

This is not a necessary conclusion and not one we would necessarily have expected, but there it is in the last six lines. Formally speaking, Heine is not in the pantheon since we need to praise him before we invite him in and some may not do that. The speech is over and there is a minimal silence before the ovation. Comparing Pushkin in Russian with Heine in German is not straightforward and probably only a few would have heard the dissonance in the middle of Lunacharsky’s last sentence. A reader, nevertheless, gets his drift.


If we turn to the essay about Wagner, written at the 50th anniversary of his death, and jump directly to the end we may read the conclusion: Wagner could at times channel his exalted musical and dramatic force to serve ideas that were wrong and even harmful, thus making this great power poisonous, but he never demeaned it to become a reflection of the petty, he never debased it to the level of the trivial or the casual (OLA:354).

Wagner i Petersburg 1863Indeed, Wagner knew what he was doing, and Lunacharsky, who defines Wagner as a ‘thinker’ (OLA:343), goes on to say that Russian composers possess ‘Wagner’s ability in a very small measure’. This is lack of Wagner’s method, not a lack of music, but lack of an ‘exalted musical and dramatic force to serve ideas’, that is, method. Lunacharsky goes on to lament that although there is a need, there is no major opera about the revolutionary passion (OLA:354). Lunacharsky had appriciated Wagner’s method during the first decades of the 20th century and Wagner was staged in a futurist production 1918 (6). However, by 1933 during Stalins cultural revolution, lamenting this lack of Wagnerian method doesn’t ring true anymore (7). If we look at Revolutionary silhouettes (the 1924 edition) once again, we shall find that Lunacharsky’s revolution was no longer about Wagnerian Art and Revolution (8), passion and method cast as futuristic rather than nationalistic revolution and future. Nevertheless, in 1933 under Stalin and nationalism, there was still a need for Wagerian method, so great in fact that the lack of such an opera about revolutionary passion, stands out as a sign of intellectual reluctance or betrayal. Shostakovich didn’t and wouldn’t use the method nor the type of musical performance that goes with it. He wrote Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District instead (it’s on Spotify as Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk). In 1934 his opera was a great success, two years later it was officially condemned.

Lunacharsky, writing in the beginning of the Stalin era cannot risk pointiing out that Heine, one of the great German authors, was a Jew, and Wagner an outspoken nationalistic German anti-Semite. Instead, as in any period in which the obvious is reluctantly admitted to, he writes in a convoluted way. Indeed the confessing compiler, Phil. sc. Lebedev, in a similar period of insecure change, may have figured out that under such circumstances there could be a point in juxtaposing Heine and Wagner. Be this as it may, today, fifty years later, I still subscribe to Lunacharsky’s opinion that Wagner’s work is primarily method – musical and dramatic method. When Wagner applies this method as the powerful method of his Niebelungen theatre and drama, then, owing to this method, the result becomes an expression of his anti-Semitism. Music is not per se anti-Semitic, but methods may well be.

Contrary to Wagner, Lunacharsky prefers an indirect method. This approach makes it possible for his readers to discuss Wagner in such a way that they don’t need to judge Wagner the person, the composer or the anti-Semite; suffice it to discuss his method as that of a thinker. Indirectly, however, analysing his method rather than his work, that is, applying silence rather judgement, will make Wagner’s anti-Semitism ever present and inevitable. In  Stalin’s cultural revolution this way of reasoning, applying silence rather than judgement, is dated.

The Swedish banknote exhibits a result of Wagner’s seductive method pretending that the design of the note recalls a scene, which Birgit Nilsson would have been proud of as proof of her being a great singer. Riksbanken, the national bank, has been silent about all this, but having pushed forward a former chairman of a committee under its General Council (5), we understand that the bank will not change the design of the note, drawing for instance on Tosca instead of Die Walküre, in order to contextualize Birgit Nilsson. This means that again and again and again and again this banknote will demonstrate Lunacharsky’s point that Wagner’s method and its inherent anti-Semitism is powerful.


(1) The matter can be looked up at:

(2) Lunacharsky and the ‘The Commissariat of Enlightenment’ can be looked up on the www, e.g. Wikipedia. Presently, this article doesn’t mentioned that Lunacharsky wrote a two volume work Religion and Socialism (2 vols, 1908, 1911). It was immensely unpopular with Lenin, but important if we are to understand how Lunacharsky thought about socialism, cf. In this blog entry neither education nor socialism is in focus, but one could argue that writing essays about literature and art Lunacharsky continues his way of thinking about socialism, consciously steering clear of religion.

(3) Isaac Deutscher Introduction in Michael Glenny ed. Revolutionary Silhouettes — Anatoly Vasilievich Lunacharsky London 1967. Allen Lane The Pinguin Press. cf.

(4) The poem is on the web .

(5) Link to the council

(6) Cf. Carnegy, Patrick. 2006. Wagner and the Art of the Theatre. New Haven. Yale University Press. p.311f.

(7) O’Connnor, Thimothy Edward. 1983. The politcs of Soviet Culture. Ann Arbor, Michigan. UMI Research Press has a chapter on Lunacharsky and Stalin with a discussion of the Shakhty affair, the end of the NEP cultural politic and the beginning of Staöin’s cultural revolution 1928 (p. 89f.). See also Fitzpatrick, Shiela. 1967. A. V. Lunacharsky: Recent Soviet Interpretations and Republications Soviet Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Jan., 1967), pp. 267-289.

(8) Cf.


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