A rare and remarkable cultural history of World War I that unearths the roots of modernism. Dazzling in its originality, Rites of Spring probes the origins, impact, and aftermath of World War I, from the premiere of Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring in , to the death of Hitler in Recognizing that The Great War was the psychological turning point. Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
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His is not a novel attitude, of course. For instance, in a recent book, ''The Modern World: Ten Great Writers'' Viking , Malcolm Bradbury made the disturbing suggestion that Dostoyevsky's murderous student, Raskolnikov, could be seen as a herald of the modern artist.
But in Mr. Eksteins's impressive cultural history of World War I and its aftershocks, the argument goes much further. The author cites as his avatar of the modernist not some fictional character but instead the typical soldier who fought in the trenches. And he calls this soldier ''not just a harbinger but the very agent of the modern aesthetic, the progenitor of destruction but also the embodiment of the future. Eksteins intends this generalization to be as negative as it sounds.
Does this suggest a connection between modern art and Nazism? Absolutely, argues Mr. Eksteins, who teaches history at Scarborough College of the University of Toronto and has written several books on the Weimar Republic.
How does Mr. Eksteins trace this lineage? As his title intimates, he begins with Stravinsky's ballet ''Le Sacre du Printemps,'' as it was produced by the Ballets Russes de Diaghilev and first presented in the new Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris on the evening of May 29, Today, we accept Stravinsky's work as a classic. We've lost all awareness of how extremely it shocked its audience - also of the extent to which it was intended to do so. We've also forgotten that its story depicts a sacrificial murder: in it, the creativity of spring entails destruction.
Eksteins writes, ''was to have participated not simply at another exhibition but in the very creation of modern art. Because of both, art had ''transcended reason, didacticism, and a moral purpose. So it was with Nazism, Mr. Eksteins insists. Like those who produced ''Le Sacre,'' Germany on the eve of World War I was in revolt against the bourgeois rationalism it saw England and France as representing. Alternately, those two countries saw Germany as a threat to the order of Europe.
But the experience of trench warfare changed everything. For both sides, the very meaning of meaning was destroyed. For a time, Mr. Eksteins continues, Europe repressed the war, danced the Charleston in which the position of the feet resembled that of the corps de ballet in ''Le Sacre du Printemps'' and worshipped Charles A. Lindbergh, whose accomplishment of crossing the Atlantic alone in an airplane reminded people of the gods in the sky above the trenches and reflected their dream of a flight from reality.
But then Germany embraced Hitler, the former trench soldier who promised the same vision of creative destruction, the same apotheosis of the irrational, that Stravinsky's ballet had done. Near the very end of World War II, shortly before Hitler killed himself in the Fuhrer bunker, a dance began in the chancellery canteen up above. Eksteins observes that ''soldiers, secretaries, orderlies, menial staff, and other bunker dwellers began to frolic.
Eksteins does considerably better at connecting his Nijinsky-like leaps of logic than such a compact summary can suggest. Though he fails at the command of language and the precision of example that might have made his case both elegant and airtight, he is good at highlighting some of the lesser-known details of the story, like the influence on the European mood of the perfect summer weather in , or the significance of the fraternization between the belligerents on the Western Front that Christmas.
Most impressively, Mr. Eksteins conveys the terrible experience of trench warfare and explains why it so radically altered the psychology of Europe. The only important objection one might raise concerns the absence of any comment on the implications of the book's thesis for contemporary culture. But that subject has been explored before, and Mr. Eksteins's basic message is clear enough as it is. In an essay, ''The Culture of Modernism,'' included in his book ''Decline of the New'' Horizon , Irving Howe deplored the persistence of the modern sensibility's ''nihilism,'' its ability to live on ''through vulgar reincarnation and parodic mimesis.
The obvious response had always seemed to be that the forms created by modernism have long since been divorced from their struggle to come into being. Besides, how is it possible to do any art today without acknowledging these forms through some form of imitation?
What is most disturbing about ''Rites of Spring'' is its implication that simply by acknowledging those forms we are participating in the destructive spirit that created them. It is not a dance of creation we are doing when we celebrate these rites of spring, Mr. Eksteins seems to say. Even if we only follow the beat, we are doing a dance of death. View on timesmachine. TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers.
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Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age
Books of The Times; Modernism: Rites of Spring, Rites of Destruction