Friday, May 21, 2010

Modern War

Modris Eksteins' Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age begins with Sergei Diaghilev in a dreamlike and timeless Venice and ends in the bunker with Hitler in Berlin, surrounded by Soviet soldiers. Eksteins is continually overstating individual points and making questionable assertions, but the broader argument of the book is straightforward and compelling. The modernist spirit present in the pre-1914 world was intensified, broadened, and transformed by the experience of the war. The Europe that emerged in 1919 is comprehensible only in these terms. Ultimately, the Nazis are themselves to be understood as a modernist phenomena, art made life and life made art, thinkable only in a world dominated by the experience of the front and the trenches.

The final pages of Rites of Spring have troubling implications that point to my larger problem with the book. In particular the fevered passages from Goebbels' diary from the very last days of the war in which we read: “Now that everything is in ruins, we are forced to rebuild Europe...In trying to destroy Europe's future, the enemy has succeeded in smashing its past; and with that, everything old and outworn has gone” (cited on Eksteins 329). Which makes me think of the bitter irony Tony Judt suggests in Postwar—that the post-45 national and supra-national order in Europe found its stability in the massive human suffering inflicted by Hitler and Stalin. Inconvenient populations had simply been moved or eliminated; I believe the phrase from economics is 'creative destruction.'

One might have expected a less elegant and more 'theoretical' writer than Eksteins to make heavy use of the notion of trauma. Certainly the psychoanalytic idea has often been applied to the First World War, but also to wars and conflicts in general. I suspect that, if questioned on the subject, Eksteins would say that the concept of trauma is too decontextualized for his liking. The 'experience' of war described in his book is deeply contextual, depending on the world before, the world during, and the world after. It is neither a simple product of, nor abstractable from, the technical means of making war. The obvious question, though—and this is suggested only very gently by the preface of the book—must be what came after 1945. If the trauma of 1914-1918 (in the historical sense Eksteins might give the word) shapes the decades after it, what about the manifold traumas of the Second World War? Might it be argues that the First World War had a unity of experience that its sequel and continuation lacked? After all, the French, Germans, British, and to a lesser extent Americans, all fought the same sort of war on the same ground. The human cost (a polite war of saying 'body count'?) of 1939-1945 was considerably higher, in particular among noncombatants. But the shape of the war was different everywhere. Someone like Dominic LaCapra might agree that if we take the Shoah as the originary trauma of the contemporary world, it none the less imposed itself in a way totally different from the imposition of the experience of, say, Passchendaele. In what sense are both 'traumas'? I myself as skeptical of any very technical use of the term; none the less the notion of an experience or event that is repressed, that returns repeatedly, insisting on itself, that cannot be 'gotten past' but seems to call out for a 'working through' that always recedes into the distance—this is an image with descriptive power.

Given this, I'd like to ask Eksteins the question of periodization. I like already very much his suggestion that the turn is not with the guns of August, 1914. Rather, the turn takes place deep in the war, in the dark moments of 1916 when the 'true nature' of the senselessness of the war has become plain. Where is the next turn? Perhaps 1968 is a good symbolic year. In terms of Eksteins' framework, though, I think we would be better off seeing the 'lifestyle revolution' of 1968 as something like the very last gasp of the modernist paradigm enforced by the First World World. The real turn would come some time in the 1970s, with the extinguishing of this last revolutionary dream. The 'totalitarian' experience and its broken dialectic of individual and state-enforced totality, this is clearly unimaginable without the front experience. This is probably the limit of what can usefully be said about their relationship. Still, it does seem to me that Eksteins' story demands a sequel to explain how the post-war culture of the 20s and 30s confronted the new war, and the degree to which the world that came after 1945, despite the rhetoric of stunde nul, had indeed escaped from the trenches.

Rites of Spring is a book about modernism, perhaps not modernist art as such, but certainly modernism as a way of life, as an experience. Eksteins is an historian. He uses works of art in the service of a larger argument, rather than bringing history to bear on works of art. Still, there is an implicit argument about the nature of modernism: within the avant-garde, life and art become one, the rational is made to serve the irrational. This is Dada, this is fascism. As interesting comparison might be made to Arno Mayer. At various points, Eksteins insists on the bourgeois nature of the First World War. He also insists on the bourgeois nature of Germany, the most modernist of nations. I'm not convinced that the category 'bourgois' is a very important part of his argument. I think, therefore, it might be interesting, some time in the future, to compare Rites of Spring to Arno Mayer's Peristence of the Old Regime. They disagree, no doubt, about the importance of the avant-garde as a cultural formation. But that's for another day.

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