Don’t Stop The Dance

The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age
By Modris Eksteins
Lester and Orpen Dennys; 396 pp.

In the first days of August 1914, on the eve of one of the most unspeakable things the world has ever seen, from London to Petrograd Europe toasted the future in jubilation.

The crowds crushed into Trafalgar Square and the Gare de l’Est and Nevsky Prospekt, cheering and ecstatic. In Berlin the beer gardens overflowed, and the men who would be mown down by Vickers machine guns danced and drank till dawn. The continent was going to war, and it embraced the conflict giddy with enthusiasm.

From the vantage of the present, it was a naive and pathetic celebration. When the next war comes, the next Great War (between a nervous NATO and a new Stalin? between the Great Satan and an atom-armed Islam?), we may man the ramparts dutifully and march to sandbagged basements out of necessity, but no one on our side is going to be thrilled at the prospect.

That’s what marks the summer of 1914 as the last cotillion of a bygone era, and the years of bombardment and entrenchment that followed as the crucible of the modern age. Something about the West has changed forever.

Appropriately, Modris Eksteins’s sweeping cultural history of the Great War begins and ends with a dance. It opens with the debut of Diaghilev’s ballet Le Sacre du Printemps, music by Stravinsky, choreography by Nijinsky, on May 29, 1913. It closes with an impromptu dance in the canteen of the Reich chancellery on the evening of May 30, 1945, just as the Red Army was entering Berlin and the Fuhrer was putting a pistol in his mouth.

Between the two is a desolate stretch of horror and madness, interrupted only briefly by the beat of the Charleston.

Rites of Spring is not a conventional history of the First World War, one preoccupied with politics and strategies and blunders. Nor is it purely a social history, of life at home and death at the front. Rather, Eksteins builds on both in an attempt to divine the deep current of modern times. The book is history at its most ambitious and grandiloquent: an account of how events come about because of the ways whole peoples think.

Its closest cousin is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). Like Fussell, Eksteins sifts through the writing the carnage produced to reveal the scars left on the collective psyche. And like Fussell, he argues that those scars have become the predominant features of Western culture. They’ve given rise to our art, our politics, our subsequent wars. They are, in short, modernism in all its disfigured glory.

But whereas Fussell concentrated on the poetry and prose of the war – the texts it left behind – Rites of Spring treats the war itself as text. Eksteins subjects the flow of history to the analysis normally reserved for fiction: he looks for the eddies and undertow of motif and metaphor and narrative. What’s more, he finds them.

That’s why the book proceeds through the years like a stone skipping across water. Each chapter is a self-contained study of a discrete moment: Opening night of Le Sacre at Le Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. The declaration of war, a year later. Christmas in the trenches, 1914. Charles Lindbergh landing at Le Bourget, May 21, 1927. The 1929 international best-selling phenomenon of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The last days of the Reich.

Eksteins’s accomplishment is not simply that he makes sense of these disparate events, but that he shows how they made sense of us. Each in its own way captured the truth of its time, and each in its own way left an imprint on what followed.

The link is that they all mark stages in the rise of modernism. What began as a marginal, too-strident artistic sensibility would grow to envelop Western thinking (just as fascism, the offspring of a small gang of zealots, would become the steel spine of 1930s Germany).

Now that a state of compulsory revolt has settled in as the official culture of the 20th century, it’s difficult to appreciate the shock modernism delivered to fin-de-siecle Europe. Suffice it to say that this was revolt when revolt actually meant something.

The movement made sense only in opposition to the culture it swore to demolish. Hence the scandal of Le Sacre, a knock-kneed, pigeon-toed ballet whose discordant score was an assault on the mannered sensibilities of the 19th century. It triggered such pandemonium on its opening night that the music could barely be heard; the audience became bit players in a choreographed near-riot, and that too was part of the spectacle.

Eksteins’s thesis is that the Great War itself can be understood as a modernist artifact: just as Diaghilev and the agents of the avant-garde sought to tear down orthodoxy, so Germany went to war to make a modern world, while the Allies defended the traditions of the past. One of the myriad ironies of the conflict was that Germany lost in the field, but the Allies failed to preserve what they were fighting for. Once the guns fell silent, there was nothing left for the West but rootlessness and revulsion: modernism had become the century’s reigning orthodoxy.

In this light, the spontaneous mass hero-worship of Lindbergh becomes understandable. Why should the young American have struck such a chord in entire nations, causing delirious celebrations reminiscent of August 1914? He was not the first to fly the Atlantic – Alcock and Brown had done so eight years before him – but he was the first to do it alone. One man in a cramped cockpit, utterly isolated, without even a radio – that was what electrified the crowds. The only heroes the modern age could tolerate were those who owed nothing to anyone.

Rites of Spring is a remarkable book, not merely because it allows the reader to see a grand, heretofore hidden pattern to the events of the century, but because it provokes one’s own analysis and critique. Other academics may contest his reading, but there can be no doubt that Eksteins, a historian at the University of Toronto, has written a beautiful and important chronicle of a grotesque time.

And although it stops in 1945, the book sheds a good deal of light on the present, the so-called post-modern moment. Post-modernism is supposedly marked by the absence of any over-arching guarantor for the way things are. If the social and political theorists are to be believed, we occupy a world without a world view. All the old legitimations have been trashed by modernism, and nothing is left to give meaning to the moment. Not God, not the state, not science or art.

Not even

Montreal Gazette April 22, 1989