Primitive impulse and mechanized slaughter: Rites of Spring

August 16, 2010

One of the things by which I find myself dismayed is the relative dearth of manifesto issuing on the part of artists of the current era. Particularly compared with the positive frenzy of ever changing, always fervent manifestos one may find from the earlier part of the 20th century. My goodness. Absolute statements proliferated at a brisk pace, declaring new approaches and then declaring those approaches to be dead. When a new artistic paradigm was proclaimed to the world, it was with a revolutionary fervor, a certainty that the world as it appeared was to be shattered. And when an artistic paradigm was derided, it was with fervor, as decadent, false, bourgeois and venal.

People said, in all sincerity, that ornament was dead. People heralded straight lines as the only spiritually viable response to the horrors of modernity. People like Isadora Duncan rejected ballet because it was contrary to nature, attempting to subsume all innate and intuitive expression into rigid, formalized movements. And then people like the Dadaists condemned the naked, ecstatic dancing of Isadora Duncan and her students as too personal, too much an art. Apparently, in the intervening 10 years or so between her rise to prominence and theirs, individual artistic experience and expression had become outdated. Personal affirmation, via a reconnection with nature through some inborn desire to dance or by any other means, had become irrelevant. All that remained were livid and senseless assaults on the very notion of rationality. They called upon the aimless of the world to unite.

Perhaps the Futurist movement exemplifies this tendency better than any other. Before a single canvas had borne a single drop of paint, before a single line of a play had been authored, before any tangible product that could be termed “Futurist art” existed, they announced to the world that they were ushering in a new epoch in the form of a manifesto. They wrote:

“At last Mythology and the mystic cult of the ideal have been left behind. We are going to be present at the birth of the centaur and we shall soon see the first angels fly! We must break down the gates of life to test the bolts and the padlocks! Let us go! Here is the very first sunrise on earth! Nothing equals the splendor of its red sword which strikes for the first time in our millennial darkness.”

Below is an image of a painting by the Italian Futurist Carlo Carrà:

Funeral of the Anarchist Galli, Carlo Carrà, 1911.

I think I like this painting, but I really am not so certain that I would go so far as to characterize it as the first sunrise on earth. I just think it’s noteworthy that these folks felt the need to write such an earnest announcement of their forthcoming work, promising in all sincerity to “demolish museums and libraries” and “fight morality”. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that what I like about Futurism the very best is not any of its particular artistic output, but its manifestos.

Me, I can’t stop writing manifestos of precisely these types. I can’t stop attempting to construe the works of art of myself and my peers as a serious assault on the foundations of modern civilization. This being the case, it is curious that I have not approached any sort of earnest study of the early 20th century avant garde sooner. I finally remedied this by reading Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of  the Modern Age.

I think this book is fairly amazing. As the title indicates, it discusses the ballet piece the Rites of Spring, and the larger artistic avant garde it may be seen to represent, and the wholesale slaughter of World War One. The book approaches these two seemingly disparate things as aspects, in a sense, of a single impulse. This may be a contention that seems a bit difficult to swallow at first. Especially if you’re the kind of person who likes groundbreaking performance art rooted in primordial vitality and ceremony and thinks of industrial warfare as characteristically the sort of thing you do not like. I am one such person. Nonetheless, such an analytical approach immediately begins to shed light on certain relationships and to find a relevance in far flung corners of culture and history, to such an extent that it really can not be ignored.

Rites of Spring was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, an early 20th century ballet virtuoso of legendary charisma and talent. Nijinsky had been enjoying tremendous renown in Paris and throughout Europe dancing pieces choreographed by others, in the Ballets Russes. When it came to be that he was choreographing work of his own, it was decidedly more challenging of convention, and was met with wide disdain. The piece is ritualistic, an expression of reverence for life, fertility and sacrifice necessary for renewal to take place. Its aesthetics are overtly pagan. This all may very well have gone over fine with the Parisian balletgoers of 1913, but the music and choreography were also radical deviations from convention. The music had no particular melody and bar after bar had different time signatures. The dance featured heavy stomping and body postures of cocked heads and knees pointing in on themselves, in direct contravention of typical ballet poise.

Accounts of the premiere of Rites of Spring vary. In some cases, the negative audience response has been exaggerated into a virtual riot. But there can be no doubt that there was a ceaseless din of shouts and cries of disapproval for the entire duration of the performance. Audiences were shocked as a new sensibility that was emerging in the civilized world was being revealed to them. A sensibility that seemed, just as industrialization was transforming the world into a bright place with a certain future, to reject all of civilization’s sensible values for primitive impulse and ritual. For the sacrifice of a virgin to herald spring.

Here is a video of the Joffrey Ballet’s beautiful recreation of the Nijinsky piece:

The piece may undoubtedly be said to be a very early example of modern ritual performance, the phenomenon of artistic experimenters tapping archaic themes. This is a phenomenon in which I avidly participate.

Let us juxtapose two images. The first is of Dadaist Sophie Taeubert dancing at the opening of the Galerie Dada in a costume of striking contrasts. She wears a primitive looking mask painted with ox blood, but her arms are enclosed in stiff, awkward cardboard tubes terminating in metal pincers rather than fingers.

The second is of anonymous French soldiers in World War One, masked and encumbered with the awkward protrusions and burdens of a flamethrower:

No doubt, what is clear here is that both art and life are exhibiting an extension of the body into profoundly awkward, constricting, clumsy machines. The mechanization of life is occurring in these decades, and people are experiencing a drastic alienation from their own bodies and from the world around them. Their actions no longer take place, or have effect, on any sort of immediate and human scale. Rather they are amplified, conveyed, distorted by the machines upon which they increasingly rely. One may no longer trust one’s own senses and one’s own strength, for a person’s actions have become disembodied, taking place in the incomprehensible domain of advanced technology.

But one may ask why juxtapose these two particular images, for the image of the soldiers exhibits no particular archaisms. It is purely an example of alienating technology in uneasy conjunction with the body. But one could certainly answer that the very actions in which the soldiers, and the larger armies and nations, are engaged in is precisely the kind of hysterical, senseless frenzy of emotion and action for which Dada and other elements of the avant garde are known.

A fully mechanized Hugo Ball during a Dada performance in Switzerland

The point would be this. The artistic elements of society found themselves, at the advent of modernity, increasingly inclined towards two simultaneous and seemingly completely disparate impulses. One was a resurgence of archaic concerns, of bloody ritual, spirit possession, frenzied dancing. The other, though, was a sort of delirious abandonment to technological innovation, to newness, to ceaseless motion, to increasingly drastic expressions of the prominence of technology. And mass society found itself similarly occupied. These dual impulses certainly surfaced, with a fury, in World War One. By World War Two, with Fascism and Nazism, the fused impulses of the very archaic and the very modern would reach their paramount. When we find that people simultaneously reach, with a sort of senseless desperation, toward the distant past and the distant future, we must assume that the present is unbearable.

I can think of no particularly good reason for World War One. This may seem like an absurdly simple statement, lacking nuance. Certainly, if people in power had been possessed of any sort of principle of human decency, any measure of  integrity whatsoever, it could not have happened the way it did. But the datum that someone whose politics are radical, such as myself, may be less inclined to acknowledge is that there was a massive outpouring of support for the war throughout the combatant countries.

Indeed, the leaders of Germany were somewhat pressured into a costly and debilitating war by public opinion. When Serbia turned down Austria’s harsh ultimatum on July 25, 1914, the German public seemed to largely assume that they were going to war. Massive, spontaneous demonstrations took place in numerous parts of Berlin, and over the course of the next few days the emotion swelled to such a point that there were small scale riots. Russia, France and England experienced similar displays in the summer leading up to the war.

Well known photo of crowd in Munich cheering Germany's entry into World War One, detail shows young Hitler.

This is a curious situation, for certainly, it is not as if all of this sentiment is coming from deep seated feelings about the relations between Serbia and Austria, the ostensible source of the massive conflict that ensued. No doubt, much of the crowd of any nationality would not have been able to coherently characterize the nuances of this somewhat insignificant squabble. Nor does most of the rhetoric seem to have focused on it. The talk about the war is possessed of a psychotic sort of grandeur and monstrous sense of scale. People spoke of the clash of civilizations, the remaking of the world in a new image.

Eksteins quotes no less a poet than Rainer Maria Rilke, who at the beginning of the conflagration that would consume Europe, wrote of the “War God”:

“And we? We glow as one,

A new creature invigorated by death.”

The proliferation of sentiment toward conflict, and the resulting annihilation, may be seen as something that existed for no particular reason other than for its own existence. The politics seem incidental. The inexplicable desire for the washing of the world in blood, and its emergence renewed, seem the real motivation for the mass hysteria. The war seems something of a tantrum, a frantic and violent reaction to a modern condition that people could neither bear nor understand. A desperate need to change something, to do something, to achieve a radical transformation. It looks very much like how an individual who would be characterized as suffering from trauma might behave, but on a massive scale.

Let us now return to the Futurists. To understand much of modern history, such as Nazis and Fascists and their ilk, one must only read the Futurist Manifesto. This first point is particularly pertinent:

“Let us leave good sense behind like a hideous husk and let us hurl ourselves, like fruit spiced with pride, into the immense mouth and breast of the world! Let us feed the unknown, not from despair, but simply to enrich the unfathomable reservoirs of the Absurd!”

“We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.”

“We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”

“Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.”

And finally:

“We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.”

Dada was born in World War One, and so one could conceivably argue that, rather than being subject to a similar impulse as the mad world around it, Dada was simply responding to, reflecting, the mad world. Dadaists were, after all, horrified by the wholesale and purposeless slaughter consuming the continent. However, Martinetti wrote his manifesto in 1909. Futurism and its doctrine were born before World War One, before Fascism, before the tendencies so explicitly outlined in the manifesto were actually born out by numerous political movements throughout the world. It seems plausible that we could say that because they were artists, the Futurists were able to be honest about the impulses to which they were subject in a way that, say, Hitler could not be. They were able to say, simply and starkly, that they sought widespread and savage violence simply for the sake of testing the limits of experience, a life of ceaseless action and unleashed energy for its own sake. Futurists at some point started a political party in Italy, and that party was eventually subsumed within the Fascist party that took power in that country.

A new messiah heralds the birth of a new sun

If the first world war is inexplicable in simple political terms, the second is even more so, particularly in terms of German sentiment. In Nazism, we find a resurgence of archaic motifs, from Roman imperial aesthetics to an obsession with heathen Germanic mythology and ritual. This excellent British documentary covers the more primitive/traditional themes within Nazism:

But we also find, of course, a hyperfuturistic reality. A regime devoted to the perfection of technology, to technical precision, to the awe inspiring might of their roaring machines. When we see the crowds giving the seig heil and cheering at the Nuremburg rallies, when we watch their eyes roll back in dazed rapture, do we really think stopping the tide of Bolshevism is what’s on their minds? Or anything purely political at all? It is not about any particular events in the external world, because in the modern world people are frighteningly disconnected, rootless. Rather, the collective hysteria looks like a search for meaning, an assault on whatever robbed their lives of it, an attempt to make the world sacred again.

If one were to venture into the present, could one find these same juxtapositions of archaic and futuristic themes? Of course; one must look no further than the avant garde. One could perhaps look to neofolk music. This burgeoning genre utilizes acoustic instrumentation and archaic, usually European, spiritual themes, but almost invariably seems to also feature distorted electronics, synthesizers, sounds of post-industrial deterioration. And what of the archaic mask, the dancer, and the mechanical body? For a parallel, one could certainly look to Douglas Pearce, one of the founders of the neofolk genre, with his project Death In June:

A carnival mask and a military uniform coincide in Death In June

Those World War One soldiers who were clearing the trenches in the previous picture have finally found the archaic mask that is so suiting of their actions.

Neofolk is a particularly overt example of the impulses being discussed here, for it not only features themes of European heathenry and industrialism, but, in the case of many of the most prominent musical acts, makes incessant reference to Nazism and World War Two. But these dual impulses can also be seen in the broader experimental music/ritual performance underground in which I find myself immersed. One may attend performances where the most archaic of aesthetics combine with modern technological methods and soundtracks of distorted noise. I myself have smashed icons of suns with giant bones while collaborators played harsh electronics over PA systems.

Toward the very modern and the very ancient, wherever one desperately reaches, it is away, away from the unbearable moment. We are looking for a way out of the truly untenable reality of the present. Me, I’m typing away on my laptop and spending the rest of my time in the forest practicing my aim with stones, planning my escape.

Meghann Rose as captive spring and myself as the captor/liberator, MirrorMilk performance 2010

Photo above by Sarah Hoyt

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