More Enduring Than Politics or History Is Art

May 26, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

EVIAN-LES-BAINS, FRANCE — Alexander Solzhenitsyn is returning to Russia. His fellow dissident, Mstislav Rostropovich, remains in the West. Retired from conducting the National Symphony in Washington, he is installed here in this faded but once-fashionable spa on Lake Leman, where for the last 19 years he has conducted a notable spring music festival with an emphasis on American music schools and young American performers, this year from Philadelphia's Curtis Institute.

The conductor owes his exile from his native Russia to his friendship with Mr. Solzhenitsyn, and to the support he and his wife, Galina Vishnievskaya, gave to the Solzhenitsyns in their persecution. The Rostropoviches took the Solzhenitsyns in when the Soviet authorities deprived the latter of their home.

Mr. Rostropovich has described the act as motivated by human solidarity rather than politics, but it was inevitably an act of political defiance, and it earned him and his wife places in the melancholy Russian tradition of politically motivated victimizations of artists, a tradition that originated long before there was a Soviet Russia. It was a phenomenon of the czarist period, from the time, early in the last century, of the romantic rebellion against absolutism.

The preoccupation of despots with writers is logical. Writers, whether they are novelists, playwrights, poets or political intellectuals, deal with the human plight in terms that have implicit if not overt social and political significance and commitment. The intentions of Mr. Solzhenitsyn as novelist have been moral and properly artistic, rather than directly political, but for that reason he has had more explosive political effect than had he been a simple polemicist.

He has written to tell the truth about the experience of Russia during his lifetime and before, a truth whose expression inevitably proved intolerable to the Soviet authorities, and very often even to readers in the West, who had imposed upon Bolshevik Russia ideological preconceptions of their own, suiting their own agenda, whether of left or right.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn was a subversive force with respect to all of them -- and may become one again, in the Russia of Boris Yeltsin, as he returns. An intense controversy has broken out in Russia over the ostentatiously symbolic return of Mr. Solzhenitsyn, by way of the Russian far east and the city of Magadan, where prisoners destined for the Gulag were classified and dispatched to their destinies. He will then travel across Russia, according to his wife, ''in order to understand the realities of life in his country today.''

He has been attacked in the press as returning ''in ceremonial robes,'' expecting adulation, and has been defended in equally passionate terms. He has already made clear his harsh opinion of the imported ''hamburger culture'' of Moscow today, and of the alliances of ex-Nomenklatura with ''financial sharks'' and ''nouveaux riches.'' He has also said that the present borders of Russia are ''wrong'' and that Ukraine, Belarus and much of Kazakhstan properly belong inside Russia.

Music has always presented a different problem to authoritarian regimes. It provides another and more subtle articulation of truth than the writer does, becoming political mainly when it is confronted with totalitarian demands for conformity and ideological correctness -- which is to say, when authority demands spiritual submission.

However, music, like all the arts, is a practical affair in that it makes things -- compositions and performances. It is work, a tangible accomplishment, at the same time that it is also part of the persisting effort of men and women to perceive and penetrate to the center of reality. In that respect it discomforts any political regime that claims to define the meaning and purpose of human action.

It scandalizes because it transcends, without doing so in any overtly political way. The kind of contemporary Western artist who sets out to scandalize audiences by presenting what ordinary people find blasphemous or disgusting considers him- or herself a political activist.

These artists are actually trivially re-enacting that attack on conventional sentiments that had a purpose in the 19th century but a century later has become not only cliche, but a cliche that claims and finds subsidy from the very bourgeoisie it purports to attack. It thereby consolidates the power of those it pretends to attack, and it is rewarded accordingly.

There is no transcendence in that. Music disturbs convention and authority because it transcends, and because it is not explicitly political, it is a source of true subversion. Mstislav Rostropovich's art is more profound than that of Alexander Solzhenitsyn because it has no conscious political mission.

Art is more important and enduring than politics or history.

This is a difficult admission for politicians, historians or journalists to make. But the truth is that when everything else is buried and windswept, lost to archaeology and myth, art survives -- the vase, the statue at Delphi on which human consciousness dawns, the text of the tragedy, the poem, the quartet's score -- even the memory of a Rostropovich performance.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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