Sunday, November 11, 2012

Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins

Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern AgeRites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book for one of my online book clubs.  I don't read a lot of history, despite recently listening to The Disappearing Spoon.  I would never have come across this book on my own, and that, boys and girls, is why book clubs are so amazing.

This well-researched and well-written history spans about 35 years, from the Parisian performance of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" to brief mentions of the end of WWII. Different sections focus in on different elements of the arts and political upheaval, including chapters highlighting specific cultural works, cities, or moments in time. I am still pondering the ongoing connection between societal change that could simultaneously create the environment where such important musical and artistic developments could happen, while also being the same breeding ground for devastating war. This makes me uncomfortable, somehow, as if in appreciating the art I have also condoned the violence.

The trio of Stravinsky the composer, Diaghilev the founder of the Ballets Russes, and Nijinksy the choreographer were instrumental in the infamous production of The Rite of Spring in 1913. Intentionally manufactured for a reaction, the author argues that the audience is integral to the experience of the work.
"Surprise is freedom. The audience, in Diaghilev's view, could be as important to the experience of art as the performers. The art would not teach - that would make it subservient; it would excite, provoke, inspire. It would unlock experience."

Eksteins comes back to this argument about every seminal work he mentions, that it isn't just the work itself, but the reaction to it.

When he discusses the end of "The Great War" in the context of books like All Quiet on the Western Front, Eksteins says, "Art had become more important than history." Events fueled the art, and art played a key role in determining events. This is an interesting parallel to follow throughout the book. There are a lot of other bits I am tempted to quote, but they are bits from other sources that Eksteins used in his well-documented research. (I may need to go back and read more of Ludwig Feuerbach and Rainer Maria Rilke.)

Over all, this is a great read. I did get bogged down a bit in the middle when the emphasis was on life in the trenches, but the constant connection to the arts and philosophy saved it from only being about sand bags filled with rotting corpses.


  1. What are some of the events that Ekstein discusses?

    1. It starts from the premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913, and takes those ideas and tries to trace them up through Berlin and the Kultur movement all the way up through Hitler's successes (and failures.)


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