To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel


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Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age - Modris Eksteins I was spurred to read this book by a discussion in the History of Sexuality class I am teaching this summer. I had assigned some readings exploring how the modern West has responded to political, economic, and social changes through conflicts over sexuality and gender roles. We spent some time discussing how important World War I was as an accelerant to tensions over increased sexual freedom, the roles of the New Woman and the New Man in Western society, etc. It seemed like a good time to delve deeper in these questions, so I picked up Eksteins.

Rites of Spring is an ambitious and creative work of cultural history. In it, Eksteins creates an intricate web, combining examinations of art and literature, major episodes in European cultural history, important literary, political, and cultural figures, along with considerations of culture writ large - the public reaction to the first public performance of Stravinsky's Rites of Spring in Paris, general responses of the home front to the horrors of WWI, the sweeping public support for the Great War in Germany, the European hero worship and public hysteria over Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic. I was particularly impressed by his ability to tie literary and artistic developments with both deep-seated morals and cultural values, and political and military events. He avoids the pitfalls of some works of cultural history, which end up reading more as an annotated who's who list than a coherent discussion of the complexities of culture across a population.

Eksteins' main thesis is that the modern artistic spirit is characterized in the period leading up to WWI by a transition from art as expression of moral commitment to the past, to art as "provocation and event." (23) He depicts German society as exemplifying the modern, progressive spirit -- oriented to the future, valuing the individual's mystic connection to progress over the conservative orientation to history exemplified by France and, especially, England. Eksteins argues that WWI acted as an accelerant on modernization for France and England - although there was still a general commitment to the conservative ideals of duty, honor, and conserving traditions, by the conclusion of the War, the horrors of trench warfare and total war had called into question the relevance of the past for the present experienced by English and French veterans and their families. Eksteins continues to trace this post-war development, using it to explain the rise of a spiritual crisis in the West, marked both by repression and by resistance to repression, as shown by pitched debates over increased sexual freedom, changes in gender roles, and an overall resistance to moral constraints in the 1920s. Eksteins describes the post-WWI modern culture as follows: "There is no collective reality, only individual response, only dreams and myths, which have lost their nexus with social convention." (308) He concludes with a discussion of how Hitler and Nazi Germany rose up out of this modern sensibility.

There are some uneven sections in the book. I felt that Eksteins backed into his discussion of pre-War England, and did not develop as comprehensive a description of English culture as he provided for Germany and France. The chapter on Hitler also seemed rather rushed to me, and the one place where Ekstein fell short in his ability to make certain that the general public got equal consideration with major historical figures. As a whole, though, Rites of Spring is a deeply researched, creative, and provocative approach to cultural history. Highly recommended.

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