“Alexei must be condemned to the pointless, loveless, and finally false freedom of a spinning limbo, as unfinished and unfinishable as the best Bakhtinian polyphony.”
1. The Gambler’s Utterance: Between Eisensteinian Montage and Bakhtinian Polyphony
When I was about twenty, and still ambivalent about what appeared the risible unrealities of opera’s “sung dialogue,” the discovery of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky’s Melodiya recording of Prokofiev’s The Gambler (after Dostoevsky’s novella) proved revelatory for me. Though I harbored a passion for the inimitable balance of dissonance and melody in Prokofiev’s orchestral writing, my interest in Prokofiev — and classical music in general — stopped conspicuously at the threshold of opera; I felt about it as perhaps Stravinsky and Diaghilev did when they, confronting a bankrupt legacy of soliloquizing arias and pantheistic Wagnerian valor, prematurely declared opera’s demise and championed the biophysical, carnivalesque energies of ballet.1 But The Gambler‘s montage-like vocal designs captivated me. Paradoxically, the work’s fragmentary, ascetic, yet wholly narrativistic conceit seemed to me far more redolent of a totalized dramaturgy than the bloated Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. But what seemed paradoxical at first would make transparent sense soon enough.
Progressives of the day not enthralled to Stravinsky’s dicta were ecstatic over Prokofiev’s plans for a dialogic music drama that foregrounded rhythm above monologic characters. Meyerhold went so far as to claim The Gambler would “overturn the entire art of opera.”2 Just as Dickens was revealed to be the seed of Eisenstein’s montage of dialectical collisions in the filmmaker’s classic essay “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today,” so did I, too, believe the violent yet intelligible dialogic collisions of The Gambler‘s roulette sequence to be the germ of a new, quasi-cinematic opera that, owing to the work’s plagued production history, never came into being. Indeed, The Gambler‘s progressiveness for 1917 — the year the opera’s first version was completed — compels one to wonder what, in the words of inveterate Prokofiev skeptic Richard Taruskin, “Prokofiev might have achieved in the theater had there been no Russian Revolution, no years of wandering, no prodigal’s return, no Stalinist horror.”3
I listened rapt to the opera each day for sixth months (an act that, even in comfortable retrospect, still seems more autodidactic than obsessive), and when I emerged, opera’s purpose at last seemed clear — it was no longer the Romantic posturing and “absurd . . . rhymed texts” Prokofiev had railed against,4 but a great antagonism, a setting of beautiful clashes both disorienting and constructivist. Prokofiev’s musical anticipation of montage in 1916 was a prophecy that went unnoticed for years. Had the original production not been aborted by the exigencies of the 1917 Revolution and Bolshoi performers not been discontented with Prokofiev’s dissonances, the “vocal montage” of Prokofiev’s climactic gambling scene, where singers’ voices disharmoniously clash, tumble, and yet remain distinctly understandable, could have prefigured the revolutionary dialectics of Lev Kuleshov’s famous montage experiments circa 1917-1918.5 But because the opera, in its revised version, received only a belated 1929 Brussels premiere, its Slavic Sprechtstimme and breathless dialogism hardly seemed revolutionary in a post-Wozzeck environment, and Prokofiev’s would-be aesthetic revolution became yet another footnote to history’s unfulfilled promises.
Prokofiev’s insistently rhythmic discourse in The Gambler may be unexpectedly relevant, too, for a contemporary operatic world seeking a path that diverges from both backward neoromanticism and the radicalism of absurdist cum deconstructionist operas such as Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy and Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre. At the same time, Prokofiev’s character-driven rhythms rescue the notion of musical pulse from the late 20th century’s unmelodious and ritualistic minimalism, which reduces the musical heartbeat — and perhaps time itself — to a structuralist, mathematical quasi-objectivism (all in the name of tonality, of course). In an operatic career still characterized — rightly or wrongly — as politically compromised (War and Peace), shrewdly opportunistic (Semyon Kotko), or only flippantly anti-authoritarian (The Love for Three Oranges), The Gambler could well represent Prokofiev’s one truly progressive gesture.
It’s still difficult to say exactly what Prokofiev’s ideological intentions were in The Gambler, apart from the goals of rebuking, equally, the poetic legacy of Wagner and the anti-humanistic path of Stravinsky. Ideally, the notion of musicalizing prosaic speech renders moot the stale polarity between narrativistic recitative and emotionalistic aria, and, by analogy, the binaristic, unproveable, but still dominant philosophical division between logos and pathos, the Apollonian and Dionysian. Yet there is nothing inherently new in composers challenging this moldy division. As many commentators have observed, The Gambler‘s prose had an older point of reference in the “naturalist” recitative of Mussorgsky’s unfinished The Marriage (1868), which Prokofiev knew from a 1909 St. Petersburg performance (with piano accompaniment). Mussorgsky’s prose was itself influenced by the lyricized dialogue of Dargomïzhsky’s unfinished The Stone Guest, which, adapting Pushkin’s blank verse dialogue with little alteration, sought to fuse arias (that give voice to characters) and recitative (that, in effect, speaks the author’s exposition through a thin disguise). Prokofiev, however, was interested here in the “new” subjectivities of expressionism, not resuscitating 19th-century naturalism. Into this preexisting dialogic foundation, which neutralized the distinction between expository narrative and characterization, Prokofiev introduced motor rhythm — the primeval, poetic heartbeat — as an expressionist device at a time when operatic expressionism was dominated by the oversized Austro-German orchestra’s psychologized colorations.6The Gambler‘s incessant pacing starkly opposed the Second Viennese School’s removal of regularized rhythm — and, by extension, objective time — from its psychological and emotive vocabulary. Prokofiev’s pulsatility also offered a more viable and widely applicable expressionism than that proposed by the merely idiomatic rhythms of, say, Krenek’s jazz hybrid Jonny spielt auf. If it seems a historical hyperbole to suggest that The Gambler did for rhythm and cadence what Tristan and Isolde did for harmony, there is nonetheless an unexamined grain of truth to it.7
While the dialectal fusing of song and speech may be a “synthetic” mode of expression, there is nothing Marxist about The Gambler‘s ultimate goals, despite the Bolshevik Meyerhold’s enthusiasm for the “clashing yet intelligible” vocal montage of the climactic roulette sequence. To the degree that Prokofiev’s multilingual roulette scene mainly serves to recontextualize and expose Dostoevsky’s hero Alexei as only one of an international madding crowd of obsessive gamblers against whose neuroses Alexei’s compulsions seem quite tame, the opera here achieves something more akin to unresolved Bakhtinian polyphony and subjective destabilization than any kind of single-minded goal-directedness (the gamblers’ contrasting voices do not result in synthetic ideas, musical or narrative). The Gambler‘s dramaturgy becomes more “completely” dramatic — and less bourgeois — than that proposed by heroic Wagnerism because it, even if only for the gambling scene, radically disrupts the narrative’s (and our) subjectivity, demoting Alexei’s heroic voice to one fragmentary utterance among many, rendering his existentially and erotically doomed soul more a specimen of psychopathology to be studied than a romantic antihero with whom we ally. Alexei thus objectivized, the audience is free to re-imagine and newly glimpse the world in which he simultaneously acts and is constructed, recognizing, in the words of literary scholar Simon Dentith, Dostoevsky’s “double emphasis . . . on the irreducibility of the individual and the recognition of the complex social determinations that make the individual unique.”8
The Gambler remains the prime example of Prokofiev’s technique of fragmenting melody into temporally curtailed, recurring cells, in effect reorganizing Wagner’s endless melody into cubist bits and pieces. As with the odd-numbered movements of Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto, it is the listener’s responsibility to piece together, after many hearings, holistic melodic ideas from the contrapuntal fragments Prokofiev has strategically littered throughout the score. Following the terminology of musicologist Boris Jarustowski, Harlow Robinson has characterized The Gambler‘s cinematic “leit-cues” as “more verbal than emotional, and not leitmotifs in the complex Wagnerian sense.”9 The Prokofievian leit-cue, particularly as represented in The Gambler‘s roulette scene, may thus share affinities, or at least sympathies, with the Bakhtinian notion of the utterance, insofar as each gambler’s anxiously curtailed and unresolved utterances around the gambling table create a domino effect of escalating retorts, until their piled musical responses resolve into a heated polyphony wherein each individual voice is still discernable. Indeed, it was Prokofiev’s intent not to have the roulette scene devolve into a chorus or overlapping ensemble, as in, say, the famous ending of Act Two of Verdi’s Falstaff. Here, Prokofiev’s melding of fractured exclamatory gesture with declarative, snowballing response comes closer to a pure, unpoliticized multi-voicedness than do so many recent Bakhtinian interpretations of Shostakovich, which turn multi-voicedness into the Janus face of surface acquiescence and hidden political resistance.
It is perhaps in an overly literal sense that The Gambler‘s roulette sequence foreshadows what Bakhtin has famously identified as the polyphonic element in Dostoevsky’s thinking: “A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices”10 [italics original] that negates the notion of a unified subject with whom the reader solely (or at least primarily) identifies.11 While Rita McAllister suggests that the opera’s grotesque crowd of gamblers is “faceless,”12 it seems to me that in the chorus-less13 gambling scene’s organized chaos and aural montage, Alexei is swallowed up by, not made distinct from, the colorfully physiognomic mob, which emerges as individuated musical subjects with distinct leit-cues (though not, of course, Wagnerian leitmotifs or fleshed-out, novelistic narrative threads).14 Even if the assorted gamblers are not as “fully” formed as a true Bakhtinian would like, the simple fact that their voices are distinct — and beg a response from the other gamblers — makes them characterful enough. Besides, it’s easy to envision beyond the diegetic action each grotesque character’s own history, for in our free imaginations they can become polyphonically authentic. We could, for that matter, theoretically reverse the dramatic scenario, temporarily foregrounding any of the gamblers’ narratives and subordinating Alexei to a supporting role in their potential climactic gambling scene. As this rearrangement of subjectivities moves us closer to seeing the characters as interchangeable and anonymous, we move away from, as Bakhtin says, “a passionate philosophizing with the characters” and toward “a dispassionate psychological or psychopathological analysis of them as objects.”15
Russian literary scholar Alexander Makhov17 has defended Bakhtin against accusations of improperly borrowing musicological terms to describe linguistic events. Polyphony, Makhov insists, is in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics only one part of a holy trinity of ideas that also includes simultaneity and eternity — both terms that, in a Christian sense, pointed to man’s coexistence and interaction with divinity even before polyphony became musicalized in medieval chant. When seen as linked to simultaneity and eternity, polyphony becomes not only an ideal sociology but an ideal metaphysics, pointing (theistically) upward rather than strictly (humanistically) inward. If polyphony attempts to make harmonious the ambiguities of horizontal human communications in the material world, it must also enact a vertical reconciliation between the enigmatic word of God and the limited comprehensions of earthly man, in either case facilitating communions beyond what dialogue normally can do. Certainly, it is no accident that mostly atheist scholars have downplayed the role of eternity in Bakhtinian polyphony — they want polyphony’s proto-deconstructionist fluidity without its theistic and universalizing baggage. It is true that The Gambler barely appears in the novel-focused Problems, save as an example of the carnivalesque. Yet Bakhtin should not have excluded The Gambler merely because it is a novella, not a fully fleshed and historicized novel, for he himself viewed the novel not as a genre but as an overriding, expressionistic spirit, which The Gambler clearly epitomizes.
It is true that no two-hour opera, no matter how harmonically advanced or expressionistically innovative, can accommodate as much pure communicative-dialogic information as a wide-ranging novel.18 While the polyphony of Bakhtinian utterance uses music as its metaphor, musical polyphony is qualitatively different from the linguistic variety. Because it is mathematically rational and nonlinguistic, musical counterpoint, even at its most complex, can be sorted out intelligibly by most attentive laypeople. But the introduction of language changes everything: unless one has memorized the libretto beforehand, overlapping threads of speech instantly become nonsense even if spoken in regular meters. (Thus did Pope John XXII, in his 1324 Docta sanctorum partum, permit only monophony in liturgical music, lest the human novelty of counterpoint become an affront to God’s transparency.) It is arguably easier to understand works for multiple, asynchronous, and spatially dispersed orchestral groups — such as Stockhausen’s Gruppen, Ives’ posthumous Universe Symphony, and the massive works of Henry Brant19 — than to comprehend random snatches of speech overheard on a bus. We are thus stranded between the perhaps unlimited possibilities of polyphonic yet rational music and a severely limited understanding of clashing (if not necessarily simultaneous) languages — any narrative that exegetically emerges from, for example, the six orchestras of Ives’ Universe Symphony becomes either a post hoc invention of the listener or an outgrowth of Ives’ program notes. Prokofiev’s The Gambler, then, may be a rare instance in music when the apparently “chaotic” activity of linguistic polyphony lines up very closely with the rational activity of musical polyphony, most notably, again, in its roulette sequence, which we’ll more closely consider later.
Seasoned Bakhtin scholars will rightly observe that the modest kinships between Bakhtin and Prokofiev’s Gambler drawn thus far remain superficial and one-dimensional. Because Alexei’s recontextualization in the roulette sequence as only one of a passionate crowd is short-lived, whatever “multi-centeredness” (to use Wayne C. Booth’s term20) results cannot truly de-subjectivize or disrupt his centered heroism. I would suggest, though, that the singular revelation of Prokofiev’s gambling scene offers a cathartically sudden shift in our subjectivity; were there many gambling scenes occurring at measured intervals, as there are in Dostoevsky’s novella, our subjective expectations would operate more regularly, and Prokofiev’s revelatory and destabilizing “singular shock” would be lost. Nevertheless, the “limited” polyphony of Prokofiev’s Gambler fails to satisfy Bakhtin’s more radical, extra-textual demand — the hero must not only lose his privileged place within a polyphonic narrative, but the author must sacrifice his monologic voice, allowing his characters to interact as consciousnesses free from authorial interventions and a foisted narrative closure. Moreover, a true sacrifice of authorial voice is here doubly difficult, for in a musico-dramatic hybrid that practically has two authors (Dostoevsky and Prokofiev), the heteroglossic hero, who at once speaks his own thoughts and acts as the two authors’ proxies, must overcome the sadistic controls of dual, only partially overlapping monologies.
If the elevation of the Dostoevskian novel’s decentered and all-embracing polyphony seems a theistic fallacy on Bakhtin’s part, it was a necessary measure in arguing against Nietzsche’s mischaracterization of pathos as effete, and rebutting the 19th-century German fetishizing of scientism. Either way, Dostoevsky would be the first to admit that he, as an author, is incapable of the transcendent and unique objectivity to which, in a Kantian frame of reference, only God has access. Even if characters can exist in polyphonic harmony with each other, they are unlikely (or lack the true freedom) to resist the overweening egotisms of their eternally biased creators. Simon Dentith has observed that it’s “in fact . . . impossible to imagine a novelist who does not sort the words of his or her characters into some hierarchy of significance [or else] they would indeed be in danger of falling into that relativizing indifference from which Bakhtin is so keen, rightly, to disassociate Dostoevsky.”26 If we were to follow this “relativizing indifference” to its logical conclusion, we wander into postmodernism and its fantastic-utopian erasure of the subject — a far cry from Bakhtin’s moral imperative to merely destabilize and reimagine subjectivity. Thus have critics advanced more pragmatic views of what Bakhtin must be suggesting. Influentially, Julia Kristeva had marshaled intertextuality to posit polyphony as a composite phenomenon existing among texts rather than exclusively within them, transferring the moral responsibility to engage in polyphonic even-handedness from author to reader. Elsewhere, Morson and Emerson suggest (if I understand their ultimate meaning) that polyphonic characters are only partial proxies for an authorial voice that inevitably leaks through characters’ supposed objectivities, for in the polyphonic text “the author must be able to confront his characters as equals . . . [even as] his own ideology may receive expression in the work.”27
Given the infinite improbability of an objective polyphony in a relativistic (and, for me, atheistic) world, the “sudden shock” Prokofiev employs to temporarily destabilize Alexei’s heroic subjectivity in the gambling scene may be an adequate compromise, forcing us (in an admittedly ungenerous manner) to reassess the hero’s subject position. Nevertheless, the gesture results in what was arguably as objectivized a presentation of an opera hero as would have been seen circa 1916, and the polyphony of Prokofiev’s existentialistic roulette scene clearly goes beyond the mere “whirlwind movement of events” that Leonid Grossman used to define (inadequately, in Bakhtin’s view) Dostoevsky’s contribution to the novel.28 Prokofiev’s tense intermingling of Alexei with the disparate gamblers at the roulette wheel may even echo the cornerstone of Bakhtinian polyphony: “For [Dostoevsky], to get one’s bearings in the world meant to conceive all its contents as simultaneous, and to guess at their interrelationships in the cross-section of a single moment.”29 That the known quantity of Alexei comes into contact with the unknown quantities of the previously unseen gamblers precisely mandates our “guessing” at their potential intersections in the heat of an existential moment. If, as Bakhtin claims, “the important thing in Dostoevsky’s polyphony is precisely what happens between various consciousnesses,”30 what happens “in between” when The Gambler is turned into an opera could well be the music itself, creating an interstitial reality that carriers the work from one medium to the next.
This sort of imagistic split, however, was already prefigured in the polyphony implied in Meyerhold’s notion of simultaneous actions that, occurring live on a multipart or multi-tiered stage, afforded the viewer’s eye a “democratic” freedom of movement (though Meyerhold, in his Marxist way, encouraged the audience to make syntheses from polyphonic actions that Bakhtin would rather see left uncombined, undirected, and truly free). Thus was Jacques Tati’s celebrated Playtime (1967) truly revolutionary for its visual polyphony, creating subjectivities inspired not by forceful montage or vicarious identifications, but the mobility of the theater patron’s eye, free to look well beyond, or even ignore, the actions of the ostensible hero. Tati’s humanist clown Mr. Hulot, seen mainly in lengthy, objectivizing long shots, no longer initiated comic chaos, but was reduced (or elevated) to being a participant in a chaotic world, “weaving in and out of the action,” as Dave Kehr says, “much like the Mackintosh Man in Joyce’s Ulysses.”32 Through his magnanimous surrender of ego (though not of auteurism), Tati makes the audience Playtime‘s hero, able to optically wander through static frames where equally weighted actions occur simultaneously in the background and foreground.33
With the limits and goals of the polyphonic now laid out, let’s proceed to see how Prokofiev’s Gambler has fared in its only incarnation (to date) as cinema.34
2. The Gambler on Film
While many of the abridgements in the Bogatirenko-Rozhdestvensky film are merely cosmetic, or even arbitrary, one cut is crucial, altering, arguably, the significance and interpretation of the whole opera. Missing is the sardonic, antibourgeois tirade that Alexei delivers to the General in Act 1, wherein the browbeaten Russian nomad offers a scathing critique of German families willing to sacrifice their sons’ happiness for the sake of the family business and “guldens, guldens, guldens.” Prokofiev knew that Alexei’s political speech was vital — he not only afforded it the catchiest cadences in the whole opera, but it was the first passage he set to music, in the autumn of 1915. It is no accident that, in attempting to supplant the caricatures of Wagnerian supernature with the proto-existentialism of Dostoevsky, Prokofiev chose, as Sigrid Neef says, “the study of a domestic infected with the ideals of freedom and equality.” “For the first time in Russian opera history,” Neef continues, “the domestic became the hero in a tragedy.”39 By removing the speech, the lowly tutor Alexei’s impetus to “freedom and equality” is elided, and the source of his ressentiment is transformed from economic bitterness and class subordination to the more prosaic and uncomplicated tragedy of his masochistic love to upper-class Polina.40 In other words, the film reduces subaltern Alexei’s improbable pursuit of “freedom and equality” to “freedom” only, wherein the climactic spins of the roulette wheel signify not a blind quest for ungodly justice but an act of desperate, erotic self-fulfillment.
The shift away from the sociological element of “equality” to the psychological one of “freedom” also invites one to return to more traditional interpretations of The Gambler, including those autobiographically rooted in Dostoevsky’s own gambling addiction and obsessive relationship with the twenty-three-year-old student Apollinaria Suslova, or the psychoanalytic interpretations that have stemmed from Freud’s influential yet ill-founded essay “Dostoevsky and Parricide.”41 The economic argument in The Gambler also makes it difficult not to monologically sympathize with the hero. In the novella, Alexei’s clear class opposition to the bourgeois dignity of the General, the criminality of the usurious Marquis, and the amorous irrationality of Polina make him a relative voice of sanity in a den of decadence. The existential crisis of his exiled Russian soul may manifest itself as a pathological compulsion, but Alexei’s disorders seem comparatively rational, or at least explicable, compared to the inbred sexual hysterias of the Western European upper class.42 In Prokofiev’s version, too, class remains a dominant theme, and thus Alexei’s voice should be central to an economic critique. That the film version significantly removes Alexei’s anti-capitalist speeches, however, has the ironic effect of diluting Dostoevsky’s social critique while simultaneously intensifying its polyphony, for in the absence of his soulfully Russian antibourgeois scorn Alexei’s voice becomes less ideologically (or at least characterologically) compelling and, therefore, less centrally heroic.
We might ultimately dispense with the bifurcation between individualistic psychology (the singular hero) and anti-monadic sociology (many polyphonic individuals), just as Prokofiev’s (and Mussorgsky’s) musical prose erases the distinction between sung emotionality and spoken rationality. I am hesitant to overly emphasize Alexei’s absent “economic” speech, which Joseph Frank sees not as emblematic of real political dissent but evidence of “Dostoevsky’s best vein of satiric grotesquerie.”43 As far as Prokofiev’s account of The Gambler is concerned, commentators seem unable to decide whether he was attempting expressionist tragedy, ironic tragicomedy, or a negotiation of both (an ambiguity deliberately abetted by Prokofiev’s severe, overstated timpani and low brass, which evoke mockery and horror in equal measure).
The masturbatory futility of Alexei’s confrontations with the roulette wheel — to which are displaced the unstable sexual energies he and Polina can never successfully express — is in keeping with the self-loathing and anti-materialism of Dostoevsky’s underground man. A moralist in his ideas (or content) but a nihilist in his behavior (or form), the underground man believes freedom, like objectivity, is morally necessary yet practically unachievable. Existential despair becomes materialized here in the arbitrariness of roulette, whose only goal, paradoxically, is negation of rational choice. As Joseph Frank, carrying forward the argument of D. S. Savage, says of Dostoevsky’s source novel, “Gambling is a revolt against . . . determinism, similar to the revolt of the underground man, and the soul of the gambler is thus drawn toward [now quoting Savage] ‘an ultimate irrational and groundless freedom, which, containing equally within itself every possibility, is devoid of the power to actualize any of these possibilities, and can give birth only to an ineluctable necessity.'”46 Whether in Dostoevsky’s or Prokofiev’s telling, Alexei’s winning at roulette cannot be a real victory, for then gambling would become a rational, goal-directed enterprise. Yet neither can it be a suicide, for that, too, has its ultimate goal; Alexei must be condemned to the pointless, loveless, and finally false freedom of a spinning limbo, as unfinished and unfinishable as the best Bakhtinian polyphony.
Painfully self-conscious not the point of irony but of self-negation, Alexei desires, irreconcilably, both the relativism of absolute freedom and the absolutism of natural justice. But Prokofiev, never the despairing soul Dostoevsky was, hints at a hope the novella denies him. Missing from the opera is Dostoevsky’s denouement, which finds Polina receiving an inheritance from her late Grandmother, and a nomadic Alexei, still a compulsive gambler addicted to the whirling vacuum of fate, displacing his romantic interests onto the vapid Blanche, a woman whose love is, unlike Polina’s, too easily purchased (and thus painless, worthless, nonexistent). Mr. Astley, the voice of English rationalism, finally visits a destitute Alexei — all his winnings squandered by Blanche — to chide him both for his fatalistic misappreciation of Polina’s love and his ultimate descent into antisocial malaise:
You have not only renounced life, with its interests and social ties, but the duties of a citizen and a man; you have not only renounced the friends whom I know you to have had, and every aim in life but that of winning money; but you have also renounced your memory.47
If Alexei’s scorn of the elite class is seen by the General and Astley alike as the naive oppositionality of an angry young man, Astley’s final rebuke is equally improbable: to the degree that Astley soberly and rationally recognizes the roulette wheel as the fruitless pathology it is, he could never have provided Polina the particularly neurotic love she requires. When the Alexei of Dostoevsky’s Gambler, after being scolded by Astley, insists, “Even if she [Polina] should do no more than learn that I can still play the man, it would be worth it,” we no longer believe a future exists for him as a man, even a feigned one. But Prokofiev’s Alexei, not having debased himself before Blanche, still retains, perhaps, a shred of the humanity necessary to define his atheistic condition as tragic rather than entirely psychopathological.
Prokofiev’s individuation of the gamblers’ voices — not to be confused with a full sense of individualism — is highlighted and exacerbated by the editing of the gambling scene in Bogatirenko’s film, which visualizes the collage of voices in terms of (an unfortunately rudimentary) throwback to the rhythmic montage of the 1920s,48 which Eisenstein believed was among montage’s lowest forms of expression, lacking the dialectical charge of the “tonal” and “intellectual” varieties. Though Bogatirenko’s shots are merely dictated by which singer is presently onscreen, the literalism of his montage suggests that the quasi-cinematic nature of Prokofiev’s dramaturgies, often cited in connection with Romeo and Juliet and the Soviet-era opera Semyon Kotko — and which might have achieved fruition in the unrealized folk-opera Khan Buzay49 — begins more fervently here. Accentuating each character’s utterances, Bogatirenko’s montage, though blatant, necessarily places Prokofiev’s leit-cues in an “alternating” visual counterpoint that distributes Prokofiev’s cell-like motives across film cells. Yet Bogatirenko misses far greater opportunities for montage, since The Gambler is unique in its presentation of mostly static action set to persistently speedy music (just as Satie, in either a visionary or perverse frame of mind, contrarily set the characteristic back-and-forth of the Platonic dialogue to arhythmic music). This internal tension between a rhythmic form (the music) and an often actionless psychological narrative (the prosy libretto) calls, arguably, for a counterintuitive montage that draws out meanings from static action through discontinuous cutting. Sadly, Bogatirenko’s humdrum film grammar forestalls any counterintuitive audiovisual relationships.
As appropriations of the carnivalesque had become a cliché of 1980s and 1990s postmodernism (with its focus on “difference”), I am loathe to rehearse what is now likely a stale theme. Yet Prokofiev’s account of The Gambler‘s roulette scene is, in fact, far more carnivalesque than Dostoevsky’s. If Alexei can only win (yet, ultimately, lose) when gambling for himself (not Polina), he experiences freedom, too, only when assimilated into the throng hungrily gathered around the roulette wheel’s nihilist whims. While Bakhtin mainly limits himself to oral consumption in Problems — a Rabelaisian understanding of the carnivalesque — the frantic energy of Prokofiev’s score draws out the sexual energies of Dostoevsky’s novella, as tense, only slightly tangled vocal lines suggest not only the erotic longings Alexei and Polina attempt but never fully consummate, but the unconsummated desires of all the bathetic gamblers. If we here understand pleasure in a Freudian sense — one that polymorphously encompasses all pleasures — and not a Rabelaisian one, all of the music’s displaced energies, erotic, economic, and otherwise, could be fitted into a broader notion of the carnivalesque (Simon Dentith’s disparaging notions of broadly “sociological” readings of Dostoevsky notwithstanding).50 So feverish is Prokofiev’s gambling scene that its erotic energies — had audiences been able to experience them in 1917 — would have proved to the doctrinaire Stravinskians that organic, carnivalesque spirits were (in terms of the theater) not exclusive to primitivistic-folkloristic ballet.
It is worth turning, finally, to the film version’s (very) poorly synchronized sound dubbing,51 not so much because it is a technical flaw (the unmatched lip-synching is self-evident), but because it highlights a tenacious problem in sound film that is both ideologically contentious and relevant to a polyphonic experience of the work. Like most opera films, Bogatirenko’s Gambler uses an entirely looped, post-synchronized score, which, eliminating all traces of natural ambient sounds, room tones, and incidental noises (footsteps, door squeaks, etc.), incredibly posits the dubbed music track as the film’s sole audio reality.52 Ideological realists have often lambasted the dubbed film’s alienation between image and sound as immoral — Jean Renoir regarded dubbing as nothing less than an aesthetic sin signifying a devilish split in the film’s audiovisual soul. Arguing less theistically, if no less didactically, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet have suggested that dubbing “is not only a technique . . . but an ideology of . . . lies, mental laziness, and violence” that robs viewers of the organic knowledge of natural sound and forces them to submit to a dictatorially imposed auditory experience.53
For moralists like Straub and Huillet, dubbing is the tool of a monologic and fascistic conscience. But classical film realism — which fobs off deliberately framed and technologically mediated sounds and surface images as an augmented or transcendent “reality” — has equally delusional and anti-intellectual consequences.54 (On the other hand, the dubbed soundtrack at once offers an idealization of reality and, by dint of its obvious falsehood, a simultaneous critique of that ideality.) Straub and Huillet claim it was necessary to film their version of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (1975) in a deep crater to capture natural acoustics while avoiding wind noise and other pitfalls of direct-sound recording. For them, the naturalistic reproductions of sound must pay proper respect to the film medium (which seems an unnecessarily anthropomorphic move to me — the “medium” doesn’t care one way or the other). But if we appreciate The Gambler as an expressionistic work wherein Prokofiev’s orchestra overstates, angrily or sarcastically, the emotions bubbling beneath the dialogue — the brass section’s unwarranted violence when the General dismisses Alexei’s services in Act 2 is a key example — Bogatirenko’s naive post-sync dubbing reflects not only the differential between lost ideal and compromised reality in the soundtrack, but the same differential in the minds of the characters as well.
The listener of the dubbed soundtrack finds himself in a meta-narrativistic quandary that inverts the narrativistic predicament of our existential hero. Whereas Alexei hovers between a desired yet unreachable freedom and an artificial game (roulette) that conflates will and will-lessness, those who experience dubbed sound imagine a lost reality (the original sound) while powerlessly lost in a sound-world artificially imposed from without (for Alexei no more invents the rules of roulette than we control the audiovisual synchronization of lips). Whereas Tati’s magnanimous Playtime enfranchises the spectator’s eye with its static objectivity, the dubbed soundtrack’s irony invites one’s mind to roam those spaces in between that which should not exist but does (badly dubbed voices) and that which should exist but does not (the “lost” original voices). Skirting the territories between the patently false and the idealized, we may have the freedom to approach truth more than when subjected to the reductions of rationalist cum “democratic” direct sound, which offers no hermeneutic spaces of meta-narrative to wander. In this sense, realist direct sound is more coercive than allegedly fascistic post-synchronization.
Of course, the more superficial coercions of dubbing remain, making us take recourse in our imaginations; there is nothing of the high-minded and anti-egoistic spirit of a Tati or Dostoevsky. Confronted with the dual impossibilities of freedom and objectivity, we ultimately search for polyphonic cues within a text, and realize that, if Bakhtinian polyphony is to forgo authorial voice and intentionality, true polyphony concludes in the spectator’s ongoing consciousness. Here, Dostoevsky’s “Christian” understanding of polyphony turns out to be surprisingly useful, as we reject a material, horizontal, and impossible polyphony that cannot exist for a metaphysical, more vertical polyphony of our own manufacture (though, certainly, not an entirely or truly vertical one, which for Dostoevsky would issue only from God). If, like Alexei, we must play the cards we are dealt, we must be content with the imperfect compromises our imaginations conjure, just as Prokofiev’s merely “temporary” destabilization of subjectivity imperfectly challenges the monologic authority of egoistic authors or, for some, an egoistic God whose dictatorship is barely (or imperfectly) challenged by the cold, random number generations of roulette.
3. A Brief Conclusion: Shattering Cinema’s Crystal Palace
The all-encompassing range of the novel, for Bakhtin, gives best birth to the polyphonic because the reader can maintain an imaginative autonomy over its epic cast of characters in an autodidactic process: the reader, at his own pace and through his many interior, performative voices, controls the action’s tempi, the dialogue’s cadences, and the drama’s emphases with as little intermediation as possible. Such first-person freedoms can never be realized on the stage, of course, where the spectator is beholden to the singular and unassailable representations of actors, directors, editors, lighting and prop men, and anyone, really, whose artistry lies beyond our reimagining. The static nature of a film, preserved in historical aspic, only exacerbates our lack of interpretative control, thus prompting entire fields of media study dedicated to besieging — and sometimes apologizing for — the spatiotemporal sadisms of montage, assorted nefarious gazes, perverse directorial intentionalities, and so on. If the reader’s autonomy and freedom from authorship-auteurism becomes key, the directionality of the Bakhtinian utterance is equally important, for the utterance must be answered not only internally by an egalitarian constellation of novelistic characters, but by the reader himself as he, in his reader-response usurpation of the auteur position, assumes a role at once omniscient in form (the performance of characters’ voices) and supplicatory in content (the reader’s attempt to learn from characters that, thus given voice, are themselves freed).
If Bogatirenko’s film is an instructive negative example of how banally sadistic montage eliminates the possibilities of liberating interstitial spaces between a work and its receivers, we may wonder if any montage — even the contrapuntal and alienating audiovisual relationships theorized by Hans Eisler, for instance — could open up interstices as spacious as those offered through Bakhtinian polyphony. The multipart stage of simultaneous action, as represented by Meyerhold or Tati’s Playtime, certainly comes closer to shifting interpretive autonomy to the reader’s shoulders. Even here, though, the text’s performance and staging remain historically inert rather than timeless, and hence divine, projects of the reader’s consciousness. Because Bakhtin takes seriously the metaphysical implications of Dostoevsky’s notion of autonomous voices — both textual and extra-textual — in vertical intercourse with divinity, the purely horizontal (i.e., materialistic) communications of montage will always come up short. Without recourse to metaphysics, we secularists cannot rebel against the tight, stifling frictions of editing. Our only, rather limited way to respond would not be with films of our own, as Godard once suggested, but by re-dubbing the film’s sound ironically, creating a polyphonic space between the film’s audial and visual “voices”; or (less polyphonically) to physically reassemble the film we’re given, reusing the very sadistic tools of montage we’re trying to escape.
In relatively advanced countries, where economic, social, and technological modernization are dynamic and thriving, the relationship of modernist art and thought to the real world is clear . . . even when that relationship is also complex and contradictory. But in relatively backward countries, where the process of modernization has not yet come into its own, modernism, where it develops, takes on a fantastic character, because it is forced to nourish itself not on social realities but on fantasies, mirages, dreams. (235-236)55
But the alienations of postmodernity, it turns out, also suffuse modernist “reality” with this fantastic, dreamlike character. We secularists, who have long since abandoned progressive propaganda for fluidities far more anarchic than Bakhtin would ever prescribe, still persist under the culturalist spell of cinema — for the dream projections cinema affords are all our American dystopia can manage.
Picking up where Dostoevsky’s underground man leaves off, we thus reject the faux rationalism of the utopian Crystal Palace just as we mount righteous ressentiment against a still-urbanized postmodernism whose attempted polyphonies leave us answerless. Believing that Dostoevsky’s paranoid underground man overstates his case, Berman suggests that the Crystal Palace is not a rationalizing monolith that crushes polyphonous dissent, but a graceful edifice redolent of “a late Turner painting . . . particularly . . . Turner’s Rain, Speed, and Steam (1844), fusing nature and industry in a vividly chromatic and dynamic ambience.”56 Yet that is perhaps the problem: the technological optimism Paxton imagined when he constructed his Crystal Palace was a fantasy, entirely without social exploitations, wage inequities, pollutants, and other materialist byproducts. The Crystal Palace’s aesthetics and gracefulness were its very lie (a lie that, in turn, would be answered materialistically by Lenin’s naiveté). So if we underground men shatter without a second thought the false promises of over-rational, too-beautiful crystal, what prevents us, who persist without false consciousnesses, from setting ablaze cinema and all its oppressive monophonies? Do we, less divine than Dostoevsky, have any other choice?
Note: I would like to thank Caryl Emerson for her comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this essay.
- Of course, by the late 1920s, numerous composers had discarded Stravinsky’s premature pronouncements about opera, as variously demonstrated by Berg’s Wozzeck, Milhaud’s Christophe Colomb (a negotiation of grand opera and Les Six aesthetics), Hindemith’s Cardillac, Thomson and Stein’s idiosyncratic Four Saints in Three Acts, etc. [↩]
- Prokofiev, Sergei. Diaries 1915-1923: Behind the Mask. Trans. and ed. Anthony Phillips. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008, p. 141. [↩]
- Taruskin, Richard. “Prokofiev and the Might-Have-Beens.” The New York Times,March, 18, 2001. See here, downloaded February 10, 2008. Admittedly, even if The Gambler had been successful, it is possible that Prokofiev’s penchant for avoiding idiomatic repetition in his works might have led him in other, non-dialogic directions anyway (indeed, all Prokofiev’s operas are idiomatically diverse, despite their common use of prose texts). [↩]
- As Prokofiev had said, “the orchestration [of The Gambler] will be transparent, so that each word will be audible — especially desirable in view of the incomparable Dostoevsky text. I feel that the convention of writing operas on rhymed texts is a completely absurd convention.” See Robinson, Harlow. Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography. New York: Viking, 1987, p. 119. [↩]
- Certainly, it is difficult to compare in abstract terms Prokofiev’s techniques with visual montage — Prokofiev’s “sound montage” seems, in Eisensteinian terms, primarily rhythmic and tonal, not a synthetic intellectual montage. However, each process seems based on analogous principles of the “meaningful clash,” however one wishes to compare the meanings gleaned from visual and non-visual media. [↩]
- The original 1916-1917 version of The Gambler is markedly different in its orchestration, particularly in the final scene, in which Prokofiev employs a thickly orchestrated expressionism clearly Germanic in its influences. While brief sections of the orchestration are extremely advanced for 1917 — the two entr’actes, featuring wailing trombones, are more dissonant than the analogous sections in the revision — the influence of German expressionism here impeded his ultimate rhythmic intentions, which are more clearly realized in the revision. [↩]
- This bold claim was suggested to me by Torontonian musicologist Michael Morse. [↩]
- Dentith, Simon. Bakhtinian Thought: An Introductory Reader. Florence, Kentucky: Routledge, 1995, p. 63. [↩]
- Robinson, p. 104. [↩]
- Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, p. 6. [↩]
- If Rozhdestvensky’s recording of the original 1916 version is a reliable guide, the polyphony of the voices in the gambling sequence is harsher in Prokofiev’s revision of 1927; perhaps by the late 1920s, the cinema had influenced Prokofiev‘s montage, in turn. [↩]
- From McAllister’s program notes to an English National Opera production of The Gambler. Published by the English National Opera, 1990. [↩]
- The chorus that immediately follows the roulette scene belongs only to the revision. The entr’acte music in the 1916 original instead features Prokofiev’s attempt at over-inflated, “Germanically” expressionistic orchestral writing. Though both entr’actes are musically effective, each seems to compromise an attempt at polyphony. [↩]
- Exactly how the disparate voices in the gambling scene take formalistic shape against one another in terms of musical notation is an inquiry better left to someone more of a musicologist than myself. [↩]
- Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, p. 9. [↩]
- Ibid, pp. 223-224. [↩]
- Makhov, Alexander. “The ‘Music’ of the Word: From the History of a Certain Fiction.” Voprosy literatury (Questions of Literature), September-October 2005, pp. 101-23. Thanks to Caryl Emerson for sharing her (English-language) insights on Makhov’s Russian-language article. [↩]
- Bakhtin’s championing of the novel as a vehicle for polyphony may be pragmatic — while Prokofiev can efficiently create distinct leit-cues for various characters, developing each minor character’s plotline would result in a 10-hour opera. [↩]
- The liner notes to a recording of Brant’s Northern Lights Over the Twin Cities reveal a kind of polyphonic thinking: “The gastronomic equivalent of his music, Brant says, would be a sumptuous meal where Mexican enchiladas, New York steak, and French bouillabaisse were prepared simultaneously . . . If you would put them together in a bowl, you would kill them all. If they are sufficiently separated, you can enjoy them all even if they’re eaten — or, in this case, played — at the same time.” See “The Henry Brant Music Collection, Vol. 1.” St. Paul, MN: Innova, 2003. [↩]
- From Booth’s Introduction to Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. p. xxi. [↩]
- In the limited terms of opera, perhaps Henry Cowell’s Atlantis (1926), in which the human voice is reduced (or, indeed, elevated) to non-linguistic, primordial grunts and bellows is anti-subjective in another sense — yet the negation of language is still far from the negation of subjectivity, deconstruction notwithstanding. [↩]
- Booth, xxiv. [↩]
- Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ibid, p. 34. [↩]
- In Vertov’s experimental classic, the intent is obviously to subordinate the individual to Soviet cultural-industrial ideology. [↩]
- Perhaps Frederick Wiseman’s “pure,” minimally edited, styleless documentary objectivity, which usually crisscrosses among multiple characters over several hours, more closely approaches an egoless yet non-intertextual polyphony. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 45. [↩]
- Morson, Gary Saul and Emerson, Caryl. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990, p. 239. [↩]
- Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, p. 15. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 28. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 36. [↩]
- See, for instance, Richard Bare’s Wicked, Wicked (1974), a rare film to use a split screen for the film’s entire duration; while the technique opens up other “avenues” for the audience to investigate, within each split-screen exists a montage that conventionally orchestrates our identifications with a centered hero. [↩]
- Kehr, Dave. “Jacques Tati.” The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. New York: Putnam Publishing Group, 1984, p. 531. [↩]
- Mike Figgis’ Timecode (2000) employs a screen forever split into four equal squares, with minimally edited action occurring within each frame. Unfortunately, the self-indulgent Hollywood plotline is a far cry from Tati’s sublime clowning. Tati’s genius is that his objectivism ultimately makes the viewer into a clown, too. [↩]
- I have not seen Károly Makk’s The Gambler (1997), a biographical gloss on Dostoevsky’s real-life passion for gambling. [↩]
- The film is available on an English-subtitled DVD on the Capriccio label, released in 2007 (catalog no. 93510). I’ve been able to find no significant information (in English) about the film’s production history. [↩]
- It is unnecessary — and would be inordinately time-consuming — to enumerate the film’s every curtailment of Prokofiev’s score; particularly frustrating, however, is the absence of the orchestral climax that should occur at 23:54 on the Capriccio DVD, during Alexei’s dialogue with Mr. Astley, and before the Grandmother makes her entrance. [↩]
- For instance, the orchestral interlude and chorus in Act 4 are shortened considerably. [↩]
- Robinson, p. 118. [↩]
- Quoted from the liner notes to the Capriccio DVD release; Neef’s remarks were originally published in Handbuch der russischen und sowjetischen Oper (“Manual of Russian and Soviet Opera” [no date given]). [↩]
- Analogously, a less intellectually meaningful masochism would remain in Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel if its metaphysical elements were stripped away. [↩]
- Freud’s “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” a typical stew of Oedipal anxieties and repressed homosexuality, uses The Brothers Karamazov and Dostoevsky’s supposedly hysterical elliptic seizures as evidence of the author’s parricidal guilt; the more sociological or “economic” bent of The Gambler obviously complicates a Freudian reading, despite the work’s openly autobiographical elements. [↩]
- Joseph Frank has stressed the psycho-ethnographic characteristics of The Gambler, wherein Alexei’s poetic and exilic Russian soul is weighed against the coldly capitalistic and patriarchal German mindset, with the uptightness of the English (Mr. Astley) and the cunning worldliness of the French (the Marquis) as middle-points in the ethnic-ethical spectrum. See Note 47 below. [↩]
- Frank, Joseph. “The Gambler: A Study in Ethnopsychology.” Freedom and Responsibility in Russian Literature. Eds. Elizabeth Cheresh Allen and Gary Saul Morson. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1995, p. 71. [↩]
- Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Gambler. Andrew R. MacAndrew, trans. and introduction. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1964, p. 13. [↩]
- Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Gambler. Trans. C. J. Hogarth. Project Gutenberg Edition, p. 15. Downloadable here. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 76. [↩]
- Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Gambler. Trans. C. J. Hogarth. Project Gutenberg Edition, p. 127. Downloadable here. [↩]
- Similarly, the film’s opening credits visualize a multitude of superimposed hands reaching over gambling tables, recalling superimposition techniques common in German expressionism (e.g., The Last Laugh , etc.). [↩]
- Harlow Robinson has briefly discussed the cinematic scenography (i.e., short, flowing, interconnected, cell-like episodes) Prokofiev had intended for his unfinished folk opera of 1936. A detailed analysis of the extant musical fragments of Khan Buzay seems unavailable in English. Robinson, p. 413. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 13. [↩]
- The post-sync dubbing of Bogatirenko’s relatively low-budget Gambler is considerably less competent than better-known, higher-budgeted Soviet opera-films from the period, such as Gerbert Rappaport’s Cheryomushki (1963) and Roman Tikhomirov’s Prince Igor (1969). [↩]
- The old practice of post-sync dubbing, pioneered by Busby Berkeley, was once necessary to liberate noisy talkie cameras from the immobile soundproof booths in which they were encased (hence, the static nature of the earliest talkie features in 1928-1930). [↩]
- Straub, Jean-Marie and Huillet, Danièle. “Direct Sound: An Interview.” Film Theory and Criticism, eds. Mast, Cohen, and Braudy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 320. [↩]
- That opera is inherently unrealistic anyway is another matter. [↩]
- Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts into Air. New York: Penguin, 1982, pp. 235-36. [↩]
- Ibid., 237. [↩]