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Rites of Spring

Modris Eksteins

Translation: Igor Barbosa

Publisher: See Editorial

462 p.

The Art between the imitation of Life and the consecration of Death

by Ricardo P Nunes

   To better understand any historical fact, we must obviously consider above all the implications of a series of factors, chronological events and social, political and economic agents that preceded it, so it is, with some more sophisticated or experimental variables, the natural dynamics of historical approach. In The Rite of Spring, which has the subtitle: The Great War and the Birth of Modernity, considered since its release in the USA in 1989, one of the most enlightening works on the First World War (1914-1918), the Latvian- Canadian Modris Eksteins adds an unsuspecting factor to this approach; and a factor that, in addition to being unsuspected, would also be decisive: the aesthetic dimension surrounding the events, the artistic awareness of individuals. Such a perspective would only become possible from the end of the century. XIX, that is, since the advent of modern art.  

   This “version” of Eksteins, of course, is not entirely original. In antiquity, Hesiod had already experienced something similar when he noticed a kind of sacredness in the work in Os Trabalhos e os Dias. But the founding prototype of the perception that inspires Eksteins was consolidated once and for all in the middle of the 19th, not exactly in the work, but in the aphorisms of the great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt. It was inspired by this, of those who devotedly attended classes in his youth, that Nietzsche would later declare in The Origin of Tragedy that there is no other perennial justification for existence and the world except as aesthetic phenomena. In this respect, of course, Nietzsche did not go far beyond the aphorism either. But this was certainly one of Eksteins' hooks, who tried to demonstrate it through the relationship between the trend that was beginning to dominate the manifestations of European art in the pre-war period and the sociocultural and political-economic tensions that would give rise to a conflict on a scale global.  



Eksteins: aestheticism as an effort and not as a lightness of life

   It is worth remembering that in those same century beginnings. XX, in a famous theory, Max Weber sought to mold the spirit of capitalism through what he called the Protestant ethic, his weltanschauung, a kind of semi-spiritual vision of the world. Something similar was also projecting itself in the intuition of the avant-garde in art, the inclination to perceive and represent the world without a determinant objectivity, as a human creation or of art itself, as, in philosophy, Schopenhauer had glimpsed a century earlier. This tension, this desire for rupture, dissolution and restart that came to constitute the spirit of the time spilled over into the forms of art, became the determining factor in the way human actors were performing their role and would express themselves in the most eloquent in the outbreak of Guerra.  

   Eksteins opens the book by drawing an apparently casual parallel: the controversial presentation in Paris of the Russian ballet The Rite of Spring, in May 1913. of latency. The ballet, produced by one of the enterprising sons of the Russian aristocracy, Sergei Diaghilev, was subtitled Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts. As the title and subtitle suggest, Stravinsky's purposefully dissonant music, Nijinsky's wild choreography, and Roerich's primitive costumes provoke the audience into the crisis of civilization and its destructive overcoming symbolized in a ritual of pre-Christian sacrifice to Spring, which, grateful for the offering, it provides the rebirth of things in their respective season of the year. At this point comes the content that will permeate Eksteins' book to the end: the crucial analogue of this allegory lies in the repressed feeling of primitive revolt that he attributed to German culture at the beginning of the century; a feeling accumulated since the opposition that the Germans had been making of their Kultur (a sense of culture) as something very different from the sense of civilization that prevailed in the rest of the European powers of the time, France, Russia and, above all, England. This psychological, almost metaphysical reason, its explosion, is what will set the tone of enthusiastic euphoria that will flood Germanic minds and hearts eager for the fight that will precipitate the world into the First War. The rapid and overwhelming German economic and industrial ascent since the unification under Bismark in 1871, would perhaps have provided only the propitious occasion for the confrontation that would lead those people to the spring benefits of a new era, freed from the shackles of a civilization marked by the oppression of the bourgeois pretense and hypocrisy supposedly imposed by British imperialism.


Thought, representation and reality: three phases of an unrestrained search

   According to Eksteins, the fierce war that raged in the trenches and the feeling of isolation of the fighters when they returned home is also a reflection of those same feelings. The description of the battlefields, despite the rot and horror, is full of imagery that seeks solace in the artistic. The "lost generation" would not be a fair epigraph, but the synthesis of the symptoms of the postwar emptiness on both sides of the contenders, of silence and the absence of glory, adventure and the aesthetic feeling of the instinctual fervor that had dominated the "land no one's” on the battlefields of Verdun, Ypres and Somme. Something else was behind the pragmatic interpretation of mundane events, and bold conclusions about this hidden sphere have given Freud his prominence ever since. In the field of witnesses, it was only in 1929, after the nausea had passed, that, in search of clear answers, interest in the meanings of the War was formed; and the novel Nada de Novo no Front , by Erich Maria Remarque, a former German combatant, was until then one of the best-selling and acclaimed books of all time. The portrayal of the “truth about the war”, as the advertisement for the launching and dissemination of the work said, aroused the sympathy even of those who had fought against Germany, but aroused the ire of a large part of Remarque's countrymen, who saw in the sentimentality of the universal soldier painted by the author a betrayal of the true Germanic spirit in the War, and the pity he had aroused in his enemies just one more aggravating factor in the humiliation suffered in defeat. What little was known, and is known to this day, as Eksteins reveals, is that Remarque was a false hero who was not qualified to be the spokesman for the generation that perished with pride in the War, that he had acted only in the rear of the front and only for eighteen months, half of which in a field hospital recovering from a self-inflicted wound. At this point Eksteins turns to Faulkner, who declared in 1931: "America was conquered not by German soldiers who died in the French and Flemish trenches, but by German soldiers who died in German books." Art again played its role in representing the world. Just as it would later in the individual sphere of the failed artist seeking redemption in a Spring to whom the sacrifice had already been made in the First War: Hitler. The same scenarios and circumstances, but other intimate experiences under the guise of collective aesthetic motives would have formed the personality and yearnings of the indefatigable courier under the crossfire of trenches in the First World War and who, two decades later, would become the harbinger of practical achievement of the most hallucinatory that the spirit of the world of Hegel possessed, and that of the most cruel and contempt for life contained the Nietzschean tyrant hero.

   Eksteins embarks on a rather complex subject and seeks a perspective that is not very uncommon to crystallize into aphorisms, but rather prone to stumbling when daring to coin it into practical examples. The vast “war literature” produced so far on the subject was one of the stumbling blocks he managed to avoid when dwelling on the most singular chronic cases of day-to-day combat, when horror becomes habitual and the sense of humor returns. to flourish, which also provided him with tools that prevented him from spilling the broth, prolonging itself more than it should in the, say, psychocultural analysis of the time. But Remarque's case and Faulkner's quote, for example, betray his initial theoretical conception, which runs through much of the book, as they refer to a more trivial dimension of art, make-up, forgery, and non-revealing of reality, either whatever drives feed it, yesterday or today. Furthermore, symbols and parables, precisely because they are synthetic, static representations, do not fully reveal their content to those who only see them from the outside: although Diaghilev's ballet (which maintained a homo-affective relationship with Nijinsky) presented the same sign of oppression of instincts as Germanic aspirations evoked something very different.  Likewise, the vision of art as transfiguration and transience perhaps does not encompass more than the worldview of the very aestheticians who produce and enjoy it, very different from the cosmovision of the thousands of ordinary citizens who clamored to take up arms at the time. Another trap seems to go unnoticed by him, a ubiquitous catch of the disciplines of history and political science: the eternal tensions between vitalism and rationalism which he attributes to the opposing currents that actually went down the path in War, are not entities in themselves; that is to say, adopting a vitalist or rationalist view, whatever meanings you give them, depends on the moment or side on which you are in the dispute. Germany was looking for a place in the sun, Britain to keep hers. As José Ortega y Gasset would say in A Rebelião das Massas, in the spring of that same year of 1929: “being on the right or on the left is just one of the ways a man can choose to be an idiot”.

  The dense journalistic and epistolographic documentation of the time, on which Modris Eksteins based his arguments and organized the chronology, constitutes a virtue apart from his book, which, by the way, also has a touch of historical romance and recalls the investigation detective. Whichever angle you choose to look at the events that Eksteins outlines, even the aesthetic or the philosophical, The Rite of Spring always brings something to the surface from a little deeper in the misty waters that surrounded the First World War and the advent of modernity, whether because of the sheer magnitude of that deluge of fire, or because even today we are somehow far away living in the aftermath of its developments, as we always will be in relation to the salvation boards of the past, if we want to understand it. 

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