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Customer Review

80 of 90 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Conservative Interpretation of 20th c. European Culture, June 22, 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Paperback)
This is a profoundly conservative critique of modern culture that takes Germany as its starting point. The author's contention is that, during the twentieth-century, Germany was the most modern nation. Modernity, in turn, is understood as "emancipation:" sexual, political, legal, and artistic. The author contrasts German modernity, with its emphasis on subjective experience and the gradual trend of this into narcisism, with the ethos of Great Britain. In the latter country, the normative 19th c. state, discipline and the subordination of the ego were paramount. Law, a social construct in which all share, took precedence over personal affirmation. The 20th c. came to regard such self-restraint as "bourgeois," and sought to replace it with a cult of self based on experience and sensation.
This "liberation" took several forms. For the author, the "Ballet russes" is a good starting point, especially its rendition of Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps." The essential figures are Diagilev and Nijinsky. The homosexual milieu that informed the entire "corps" is, in effect, another major character. With its celebration of sacrificial death, its unconventional form, and -- to the ears of the time -- its outlandish music, the ballet separated it from European tradition. It was brilliant and innovative. It was also death-obsessed and both sexually and socially amoral.
The relative stolidity of British life is contrasted with the turgid self-expression that emerged in German "kultur" early in the century. The author is in no doubt as to which was the more "modern." The discipline, self-restraint, and social integration of the personality inherent in Anglo-French civilization would be replaced by the sensationalism, narcissim, and, ultimately, nihilism that lay within German life and thought.
The Great War provided the opportunity for German egoism in the arts to transform the modern European world. It so discredited the old world that long-revered words such as "duty," "courage," and "honor," became a stench in the nostrils. The nihilistic experience of the western front wiped the slate clean of the old "bourgeois" world and allowed a new, intensely personal vision to substitute for the old pieties that were external to the self. Sexuality, for instance, was liberated from "repression." Too late, Europe would discover that the seemingly "artificial" nature of these "repressive" restraints was exactly what made them socially responsible. They hedged the ego and tamed the "self."
The ultimate personal vision turned out to be that of Adolf Hitler -- the ultimate nihilist. The atavistic, ritual-loving, ego-affirming creed of the Nazis simply completed the process begun earlier (symbolically, of course) by the Ballet russes. National Socialism, in the author's view, was thus not the reactionary movement earlier historians described. Rather, it was truly revolutionary, radical, and ultra-modern. It took the cult of individual sensibility, introspection, ego-affirmation, and experientialism that marked 20th c. European thought and gave it definitive political expression. One observer of the Nazi's theatrical rallies saw at once their essential spiritual affinity with the Ballet russes.
Emancipation, in the author's view, has been the 20th century's great theme: and it has nearly ruined us. Homosexuality was primal to this process since it defied the ethos that had, quite adequately, sustained human social life since time out of hand. But, the intelligensia bears much of the blame as well. Its sneering dismissal of "bourgeois" civilization and emphasis on what was new and, above all, experiential led to the casting off of the restraint that marked European civilization up until then. The Hololcaust would have been impossible at any earlier time in European history. The complete emancipation from history, tradition, and responsibility -- a necessary concommittent of the great crime -- came only with the 20th century's fascination with the self.
The book is well-written but the argument frequently wanders off into prolonged digression. We know that the Great War was horrific. Pages on this point are superfluous. The book begins with a survey of French culture on the eve of the Great War but drops the subject almost entirely for the postwar years. And, the author frequently makes sweeping statements that lack documentation. Much of his argument consists of assertion rather than demonstration.
The author's ambition is much greater than Paul Fussel's seemingly similar "Great War and Modern Memory." The latter book is a spendid analysis of the impact of the war on the arts. The present book, however, is essentially an indictment of 20th c. European culture. Atavism and ego in the arts produced the Ballets russes. In politics, it produced the Nazis. This, implies the author, is what constitutes our modernity.
Given what some belived to be the colossal egoism of American culture and its own emphasis on emancipation -- sexual, feminist, political, whatever -- the book is, indeed, food for thought.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 7, 2013, 1:05:24 PM PDT
Gandalf says:
Well done. I believe you have made a critical point regarding "modern" history and culture. I look forward to reading this book, having lived with and seen the fruits of the tree of modernity for the last five decades.

Posted on Nov 1, 2014, 10:16:08 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Nov 3, 2014, 12:23:52 AM PST
Excellent review. But, that's it? That's his entire thesis? That emphasis on individual liberation, the narcissistic cult of the self, that this was the essential determinant in Germany's descent into barbarism, and the rest of the Western World more or less going to hell in a hand basket ever since?

Why doesn't he start with the French Impressionists? Or, for that matter, Beethoven? It seems that every new turn in culture meets with similar derision from those entrenched in the status quo; the Academy has been making similar arguments throughout recorded history.

While he was at it, why not throw in T.S. Eliot? (Oops; he was a strongly conservative member of the British elite, wasn't he; doesn't fit the narrative.) Eliot's poetry is considered as liberating, groundbreaking, as "modern" as any of the cultural icons the author cites (despite his conservative politics). This argument seems essentially the same as that of Roger Penrose in "The Emperor's New Mind," in which Penrose spits out a similar diatribe against all things "modern," including T.S. Eliot, whom he dismisses primarily on the grounds that he (Penrose) cannot understand him. He catapults post-Romantic Era Music (Stravinsky, Schoenberg, et al) to the cultural dustbin similarly, for similar reasons; it all sounds like noise to him.

That line of argument is as old and banal as it is silly. Thanks for the heads-up.

Posted on Nov 2, 2014, 6:25:56 PM PST
Lawguy says:
Interesting, I'm probably going to get the ebook since it is on serious sale, but I'm not sure that this kind of an analysis makes a lot of sense, but still interesting as I said.
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