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How Fast The World Ends

In both Covid-19 pandemic and World War I, resulting radical social changes hard to foresee
Gargoyle guise

New unemployment numbers are out today. After reading them, I told my wife, “If a soothsayer had shown up on New Year’s Eve and said that by summer, 40 million people would be unemployed in this country, we would have thought he was crazy.”

A global economic crash like 2008, sure, that we could understand — but even then, the job losses weren’t this bad, and they happened over 18 monhts. This thing, though? Forty million made jobless in 10 weeks? Seriously, if someone had told you that this was going to happen, and you believed them, what kind of plausible scenario would you have come up with to explain this catastrophe? I don’t know if most of us could have done it.

And yet, here we are.

An aside: it’s a tale that has been told many times: how World War I destroyed European civilization, and ushered in modernity in full force. I don’t know when I last read it told with such insight than by the historian Modris Eksteins in his acclaimed 1986 book The Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, which is available on Kindle for just over seven bucks. I downloaded it the other day after reader Rob G. recommended it. It’s very hard to put down. Eksteins begins with the 1913 Paris premiere of the Nijinsky ballet of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a scandalous event at the time. To have been present in the hall that night, he says, was to witness the violent birth of modern art. This essay tells you what happened, and why it happened. Excerpt:

What is certain is that the audience was shocked – and with good reason. Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring contradicted every rule about what music should be. The sounds are often deliberately harsh, right from opening Lithuanian folk melody, which is played by the bassoon in its highest, most uncomfortable range. The music was cacophonously loud, assaulting the ears with thunderous percussion and shrieking brass. Rhythmically it was complex in a completely unprecedented way. In the ‘Ritual of the Rival Tribes’ the music unfolds in two speeds at once, in a ratio of 3:2. And it makes lavish use of dissonance, i.e. combinations of notes which don’t make normal harmonic sense. ‘The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,’ wrote one exasperated critic.

Then there was the dance, choreographed by Nijinsky. According to some observers this was what really caused the scandal at the first night. When the curtain rose the audience saw a row of ‘knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down’ as Stravinsky called them, who seemed to jerk rather than dance. Classical dance aspired upwards, in defiance of gravity, whereas Nijinsky’s dancers seemed pulled down to the earth. Their strange, stamping movements and awkward poses defied every canon of gracefulness.

Both the music and the dance of The Rite of Spring seemed to deny the possibility of human feelings, which for most people is what gives art its meaning. As Stravinsky put it, ‘there are simply no regions for soul-searching in The Rite of Spring’.

The Paris premiere was 107 years ago this week. Just over a year later, Europe was at war. Four years after that, the old world was dead, dead, dead.

I am still reading the book, and have just reached the end of the war in the narrative. I expect I’ll have more to say about it when I finish the book, but here, let me simply say that it never fails to shock me how innocent Europeans were of what they were about to do to themselves.

This isn’t in Eksteins’ book, but it is in my upcoming book. It’s a toast that Serge Diaghilev, the impresario behind the Ballets Russe (and the 1913 Rite of Spring ballet), gave at a banquet in the Hotel Metropol in 1905:

We are witnesses of the greatest moment of summing-up in history, in the name of a new and unknown culture, which will be created by us, and which will also sweep us away. That is why, with fear or misgiving, I raise my glass to the ruined walls of the beautiful palaces, as well as to the new commandments of a new aesthetic. The only wish that I, an incorrigible sensualist, can express, is that the forthcoming struggle should not damage the amenities of life, and that the death should be as beautiful and as illuminating as the resurrection.

Eksteins writes about how this mentality was everywhere in pre-war Europe — this idea that the old world was past its prime, and that a new world — a world of speed, of sensuality, of passion, of the machine — was going to clear away the rottenness in the system, and replace it with something fresher and more vital. War, especially in Germany, was seen as a source of life and renewal. So too was sexual permissiveness. Eksteins writes that the artists and intellectuals of the era believed that Christian sexual morality was anti-life. Prostitutes, homosexuals, and others that bourgeois society regarded as outlaws became heroes. Eksteins writes:

Despite a fascination among the avant-garde with the lower classes, with social outcasts, prostitutes, criminals, and the insane, the interest usually did not stem from a practical concern with social welfare or with a restructuring of society, but from a desire simply to eliminate restrictions on the human personality. The interest in the lower orders was thus more symbolic than practical. The search was for a “morality without sanctions and obligations.”

The ballet [Rite of Spring] contains and illustrates many of the essential features of the modern revolt: the overt hostility to inherited form; the fascination with primitivism and indeed with anything that contradicts the notion of civilization; the emphasis on vitalism as opposed to rationalism; the perception of existence as continuous flux and a series of relations, not as constants and absolutes; the psychological introspection accompanying the rebellion against social convention.

Germany was the epicenter of the sexual revolt among artistic and intellectual elites:

None of this is meant to suggest that Germans welcomed or were prepared collectively to tolerate homosexuality publicly — they were not — but the relative openness of the movement in Germany does indicate a measure of tolerance not known elsewhere. Moreover, homosexuality and tolerance of it are, as many have suggested, central to the disintegration of constants, to the emancipation of instinct, to the breakdown of “public man,” and indeed to the whole modern aesthetic.

Sexual liberation in fin-de-siècle Germany was not limited to homosexuals. There was a new emphasis in
general on Leibeskultur, or body culture, on an appreciation of the human body devoid of social taboos and restrictions; on the liberation of the body from corsets, belts, and brassieres. The youth movement, which flourished after the turn of the century, reveled in a “return to nature” and celebrated a hardly licentious but certainly freer sexuality, which constituted part of its rebellion against an older generation thought to be caught up in repression and hypocrisy.

In the 1890s Freikörperkultur, or free body culture — a euphemism for nudism — became part of a health-fad movement that promoted macrobiotic diets, home-grown vegetables, and nature cures. In the arts the rebellion against middle-class mores was even more dramatic: from Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, which celebrated the prostitute because she was a rebel, through Strauss’s Salome, who beheaded John the Baptist because he refused to satisfy her lust, to the repressed but obvious sexual undercurrent in Thomas Mann’s early stories, artists used sex to express their disillusionment with contemporary values and priorities and, even more, their belief in a vital and irrepressible energy.

Again: Eksteins writes that prior to the Great War, the fascination with war as a source of renewal was widespread. In the summer of 1914, as Europe lurched toward the abyss, the German public in particular was ecstatic. Finally! They weren’t the only ones, either. Interestingly, Eksteins says it’s not fair to blame the war on German aristocrats. It was above all the middle class that wanted the war, and wanted it to be “total war.”

It is well known that the European powers expected the war to be quick and decisive. It was anything but. The casualties of that war still shock: around 10 million military, and between 8 and 13 million civilians. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1916), over 19,000 British soldiers died. Eksteins said Germany went to war to fight for spiritual and ideological ideals of what it thought the world should be, while Britain fought to defend a legacy, a historical and cultural order. Though Britain and its allies won the war, they really lost. The incomprehensible savagery of the war, especially trench warfare, obliterated the ability of many people to take the prewar order and its values seriously.

I’ll write more about the Eksteins book when I finish it. As I said, I’m only halfway through it. The reason I bring it up in context of the Covid-19 pandemic is that Europeans had no idea what had overtaken them. Their blind optimism — see Diaghilev’s toast — that whatever was coming had to be better than the exhausted forms and beliefs of the old world kept them from seeing their own fragility. Eksteins understands that the Rite of Spring prefigured the annihilation of the Great War by revealing the passions roiling beneath a cultural order that was dying.

Admittedly this analysis can only go so far. The war was an act of the will by states and peoples; the coronavirus pandemic is a natural occurrence. The comparison is only really valid in that both events are extreme catastrophes that will have massive effects for a long time to come. It is unlikely that this pandemic will kill anywhere close to the numbers that died in the Great War, but it doesn’t have to to have a civilization-altering effect. I was talking to my mom on the phone last night, and she expressed her conviction that “this thing” is going to end soon. She has no reason to think so; this is what she is telling herself, because she can’t bear to think that it will go on for much longer. You can imagine what was on my mind listening to this, given my reading of Eksteins.

Forty million suddenly unemployed, with no prospect of them regaining employment soon, and with the likelihood that many more will join the ranks of the unemployed before the virus burns out — no society can go through a trauma like that without grave repercussions. We all hope that scientists can deliver a cure, or protection, as soon as possible, but at this point do we have solid reason to think that this will happen? I don’t see that we do. The Great Powers all figured that their troops would be back home for Christmas 1914. They failed to imagine the civilizational catastrophe that was upon them.

Mind you, I stress that I don’t think that this pandemic is going to be the epochal event that the Great War was. I think it will be more like the Great Depression. But remember, the Depression affected an America that was much more cohesive as a society, and bound, however imperfectly, by a common religion. Today, the radical individualism, including the valorization of outlaw sexual behavior, that was avant-garde in the early years of the 20th century is now mainstream. The rise of totalitarianism was a direct effect of World War I and the destruction of the old order. My sense is that the pandemic and the economic catastrophe it is causing, and will yet cause, will change our world far more than most of us can yet imagine, and in ways in which we can only guess.

Think about it: if 40 million people can lose their jobs in 10 weeks, from a threat that was on almost nobody’s radar four months ago, what’s next?