Paula's Reviews > Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age

Rites of Spring by Modris Eksteins
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Jan 31, 2010

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bookshelves: non-fiction, history
Read from January 17 to 31, 2010

Interesting yet unsatisfying on several levels. I read along enjoying the review of the era, but acquiring few new insights, except perhaps in Ekstein’s depiction of the general mood at the opening of WWI as largely euphoric/ heroic / romantic, unlike the mood fraught with a sense of futility, waste and negation of the war that came afterward and which infused the post-war literature about WWI. My own exposure to the period comes largely from that literature and some contemporary fiction, such as the novels of Pat Barker. I was disappointed with the book at least partially because it strikes me as one more version of “his story”(and yes, I am aware that the etymology of the English word history has nothing to do with maleness). Ekstein makes scant mention of women throughout, never really including them in his discussion and theorizing about either European Avant-garde or popular culture before and after the war. As his touchstones, he chooses all males: Diaghilev and Nijinsky, director and primary male dancer of the Ballets russes; American pilot Charles Lindbergh, idolized for his solo flight across the Atlantic, and German novelist Erich Maria Remarque, whose All Quiet on the Western Front was (and still is) an all-time bestseller. And of course, closing out the modern era, Adolph Hitler (that is, if postmodernism commences post-WWII). Ekstein does briefly mention Josephine Baker (whose succès fou in Paris in the 1920s certainly rivaled that of Nijinksy earlier) and Isadora Duncan, but that’s about it. Women, even if not combatants, certainly both acted in and were acted upon by the war. The scientist Marie Curie with her x-ray unit that she drove from one field hospital to another and which eventually led to her death from cancer caused by radiation exposure comes to mind. As for the Moderns themselves, what about Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein? I also find the circularity of Ekstein’s argument regarding the subjective or Self centered aestheticism of modernism tedious, even tendentious. Subjectivity is not always solipsism. An aesthetic of non-sense or even art for art’s sake does not necessarily preclude social or political engagement on the part of an artist. Solipsism, disengagement, or flirtation with (or even adherence to) fascism are not to my mind, the only possible effects of a breakdown of tradition and a celebration of innovation. Ekstein’s evidence sometimes seems to follow rather than precede his conclusions.
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