Rites Of Spring: The Great War And The Birth Of The Modern Age

by Modris Eksteins
396 pages,
ISBN: 0886192005

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Historical Romance
by Paul Stuewe

LESS THAN two pages into Rites of Spring, Modris Eksteins announces that such philosopher-historians as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee have a new rival in the sweeping generalization sweepstakes. "Like all wars," he opines, "the 1914 war, when it broke out, was seen as an opportunity for change and confirmation." 'Me blithe confidence of "Like all wars," the awkward redundancy of "when it broke out," and the failure to either qualify or justify such an absolute conclusion are all too characteristic of this often extraordinarily banal book.

Rites of Spring takes its controlling metaphor from the tumultuous reception of the Stravinsky-Diaghilev ballet Le Sacre du printemps in 1913 Paris. Arguing that this sharp conflict between the avantand derriere-garde symbolizes the grave condition of an old world pregnant with the new, Eksteins concentrates upon the British, French, and German experiences during a period of massive historical and cultural change.

Many of the book's difficulties stem from the desperate intensity with which Eksteins flogs his central thesis. Convinced that the First World War is the crucial event in the emergence of the modern consciousness, he adopts both the language and the logical methods of those cultural observers who have decided that novelty is synonymous with significance.

An early case in point is his contention that the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky was "truly revolutionary" in becoming a. male "object of lyrical worship." The cult followings of Chopin, Liszt, and Wagner, to mention only figures from musical history, exemplify the romantic adulation with which many l9th-century male performers were showered; nor is one's confidence increased by the implication that the operatic tenor Enrico Caruso born 17 years before Nijinsky and a world favourite by his 30th birthday - was any less .widely and devoutly worshipped than the Russian ballet dancer.

This compelling need to establish a dichotomy between the pre- and post-war eras is all the more irritating for being largely unnecessary. You'd have a hard time coming up with serious arguments against the idea that the First World War years were a traumatic and momentous time of transformation, and thus Eksteins is to some extent in the position of flogging a straw man. But flog him he does, and the result is a style of argument that often seems calculated to stimulate disbelief rather than elicit assent.

Even such generally accepted notions as Germany's national ebullience at the outbreak of war are trivialized in Eksteins's version. Describing the country's mood as "essentially aesthetic," he ascends into 'a cloud-cuckooland where

Geist and Macht, spirit and might, would be reconciled in a state of surreal harmony, of Dionysian activity together with Apollonian tranquility.

No matter what your tolerance for flightily figurative language, it seems to me that .surreal harmony" is by itself sufficient reason to begin questioning the validity of his observations.

Or we might take his treat ment of the strict Victorian and Edwardian social codes that once fettered Great Britain, whose existence is if anything an even more widely accepted piece of conventional wisdom. But in his description of them as "both were ages seeking certitude," Eksteins manages to make a contentious issue out of what should be an aside leading up to less mundane conclusions.The point, surely, is that Victorians - and to a lesser extent, Edwardians - were confident of having achieved certitude; the seeking of it is an obvious feature of the contemporary as well as many past scenes, and hardly qualifies as a distinctive aspect of pre-war society.

This characteristic imprecision of language makes it extremely difficult to read Rites of Spring without being constantly brought up short by infelicities of thought and expression. Its author's need to impose absolute interpretations upon his evidence even extends to the treatment of a quotation from Roland Barthes. Eksteins gives it as "I think cars today are the cultural equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals"; but readers who consult Barthes's "The New Citroen" essay in Mythologies will discover that what he actually said was "I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals." The deletion of the qualification is an exact - and perhaps even cultural - symbol of Eksteins's methods in Rites of Spring.


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