Rites of Spring: An Avant-Garde War

In Rites of Spring, Modris Eksteins blends the artistic, social and political influences of early twentieth-century Europe in a work that encompasses more than usual for a historical perspective. The book focuses not only on the First World War itself, but also on the prelude to war in France, Germany and England, as well as the war’s aftermath in Germany.

In attempting to mesh various aspects of European history, Eksteins’s self-described goal of extending “notions of the avant-garde and modernism to the social and political as well as artistic agents of revolt” results in a depiction of the war that allows the reader to understand more clearly how such atrocities, both in the First World War and even in the Second, could have had their roots in such a society. Eksteins takes the title of his work as a reference to the performance of “Rite of Spring,” staged by the Russian ballet at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris on May 29, 1913.

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The play supposedly reflects the belief in pagan Russia in the creative power of spring. The ballet caused a stir in France with its abstract form and emphasis on the notion that rebirth can only come about through death. Eksteins draws a parallel here to Europe of the early twentieth century. He writes that his book is not about death and destruction only, but also about “becoming” or “emerging,” about what he calls “modern consciousness. ” At the heart of the emergence is the consciousness of the desire and right to freedom, leading to the struggle for emancipation in social, ethnic and national groups.

Unfortunately, emancipation often requires sacrifice, and that sacrifice is often measured in human deaths. Thus, Eksteins titles his work after a ballet that epitomizes both the struggle and the rebirth (xiv): “The Rite of Spring . . . is, with its rebellious energy and its celebration of life through sacrificial death, perhaps the emblematic oeuvre of a twentieth-century world that, in its pursuit of life, has killed off millions of its best human beings. ” Eksteins has succeeded in connecting the human sacrifice in the First World War to the rebellious energy sparking Europe in the prewar period.

The structure of Rites of Spring is such that it permits the reader a view of prewar Europe – artistically and politically – in a manner that sheds light on its inescapable future. Each section of the book, in turn, provides a basis for recognizing the artistic and social seeds of later events. In Act One, Eksteins looks at prewar Europe, focusing on the three main powers: France, Germany and England. The first act is preceded by a prologue, however, centered on Venice. In the prologue, Eksteins weaves together the stories of Sergei Diaghilev, Richard Wagner and Thomas Mann.

In bringing together these legends of their respective artistic fields, Eksteins reinforces his emphasis on the artistic and the avant-garde influences on this period of history. He also relates it to a major literary theme of the time: where is the line separating fiction and reality? (The question is not exclusive to European artists and writers; Eksteins notes Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe as later examples of writers who blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction).

The reason behind Eksteins’s inclusion of this question at the very start of the book is that he links this eroding lack of fiction/nonfiction distinction to an eroding moral sense (4). The social code, Eksteins writes, was “derived essentially from Christianity and parenthetically from humanism. Action and behavior were to be interpreted in terms of the same principles. That buffer, between thought and action, a positive moral code, has disintegrated in the twentieth century. . . This is why Eksteins has set the prologue in Venice; the city is so beautiful and yet almost unreal, leaving the viewer wondering what is real and what is not. Eksteins refers to Venice as the city of shadow or a ghost, and as a further symbol of humankind, notes that in 1986, a fulsome exhibition was showing while the city itself was eroding and continuing its gradual descent into the sea.

Interestingly, the French and German sections of Act One are entitled “Paris” and “Berlin,” respectively, while the English section is entitled “In Flanders’ Fields. This reflects both Eksteins view of England’s role and his tendency to explore the integration of European influences in different arenas. Most of the French section, for example, centers on Diaghilev and Nijinsky and the Russian influence on France. Given Eksteins’s explanation for his choice of the book’s title, one can read between the lines in Act One when he writes in the French section (36): “It was from Russia that the revival came. ” Eksteins, though, does not restrict himself to only the cultural setting of France; he addresses the social and political realities of Paris as well.

He writes that Paris is, after Venice, the greatest metaphor for western civilization. It is known for its production of high culture while at the same time having produced urban slums. Civil war and internal scandals weakened France by the end of the nineteenth century, while Germany grew in population and influence. While the French section opens with a cultural reference, the German section starts with a more traditional historical viewpoint. Eksteins examines Germany’s influence in Austria’s reaction to the oft-cited stimulus for the First World War, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Eksteins continues his theme of question the distinction between fact and fiction, wondering whether the result would have been the same had the pleasant weather of the summer of 1914 turned cold, hindering public expressions. He tracks the street demonstrations around Germany, attempting to portray the mood preceding the war. He follows this with a fairly straightforward description of the historical political development of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, and then links the social development of German industrial movement to the urban lifestyle of the western world.

Eksteins claims (67-8) that Germany “. . . did more than any other nation to determine our modern urban and industrial landscape, but also in an experiential sense, in that she more intensively than any other ‘developed’ country has given evidence to the world of the psychic disorientation that rapid and wholesale environmental change may produce. The German experience lies at the heart of the ‘modern experience. ’” Only toward the end of the section does Eksteins turn to German culture of the time, and he ends the section with the provocative subtitle “War As Culture. This idea is further explored in Act Two, in the section “Journey to the Interior. ”

In the subsection, “War As Art,” Eksteins notes the connection between war and artistic inspiration. The following subsections, “Art As Form,” “Art and Morality,” and “Avant-Garde,” speak more to the effect of war on art and morals than the tie-in that Eksteins makes between struggle for liberation and sacrificial death. To the contrary, this section seems to indicate that artists of the times were swept into the crisis and used the violence as fodder for the creative juices.

Furthermore, at the beginning of Act Two, in “Reason in Madness,” Eksteins attributes soldiers’ willingness to stay in the trenches to a reflexive action, one that required no conscious thought, and duty to one’s country. Like the bombed terrain, European society and culture had been left with holes after the war, and in Act Three Eksteins attempts to describe how some of these holes were filled. The first event focuses on Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic. Eksteins wonders if the adoration of Lindbergh following his achievement was the result of his unique success or the “desperate” need of the masses (248).

He does not claim that the people needed a God-like figure; rather, he argues that they perhaps had become addicted to sensational news as a result of the war. In addition, the act fulfilled two societal longings: success through individual effort and action through individual freedom. Eksteins claims that the former positive value of working hard to achieve something for one’s family and country, a value that was necessary during the wartime effort, was being overcome by the desire to accomplish something for oneself and having the freedom to do so.

The second event in Act Three, the publishing of All Quiet on the Western Front, also combines the aspects of individual success and effects on the mass-market cultural audience. The section follows Remarque’s personal fame as a result of the publishing and the ensuing changes in publishing. It also notes the shift in war novels to the exploration of the postwar mentality and the effects of the war on the survivors. The book was not intended to tell the truth about the First World War; it was to tell one man’s view of it.

The most provocative section of the Rites of Spring are to be found in the final section of Act Three, when Eksteins connects postwar Germany to the rise of Nazism. The strength of the book for those who were born afterwards, for those of us who struggle to understand what we did not witness, comes in Eksteins discussion of what social and cultural holes were there for Nazism to fill. In a contemporary world where Nazism has become synonymous with “evil,” the section gives the reader a view of what attracted normal people to the Nazi “community.

Patrick Henry once wrote, “I know of no way of judging the future but by the past. ” If our generation and those of the future refuse to understand, as prisoners to the reasonable yet flawed fear that understanding leads to acceptance, what attracted ordinary people to the Nazi party, then we will be helpless to recognize the same attractions when they appear again. In linking Hitler and the Nazi party to the cultural and social picture that resulted from the First World War, rather than just the political development, Eksteins draws together the events from all three acts in the performance that shapes the twentieth century.