Revolt at the ballet — and everywhere else

A dancer in “The Rite of Spring.”
A dancer in “The Rite of Spring.”

The world we live in was born 100 years ago this week, and a glance back at that birth can help make a better world going forward. The threshold event was the premiere in a Paris theater, on May 29, 1913, of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring.” Discordant music, wholly unconventional choreography, and narrative incoherence led to a near-riot in the audience, and a sensational argument among critics. That the instigators of this outrage were Russian artists politicized the aesthetic revolt: “We were all revolutionists,” said Stravinsky’s collaborator Sergei Diaghilev. And what revolutions followed!

If Stravinsky’s music seemed anarchic, so did his theme — old men in whose approving presence the young are destroyed. The ballet’s segments moved from “the ritual of the rival tribes” to “the great sacrifice,” during which the chosen maiden thrills the elders by dancing herself to death. That Stravinsky’s original title for the piece was “The Victim” soon resonated with the experience of a generation.

Only in hindsight does “The Rite of Spring” emerge as a cultural marker, a kind of forecast of the moral anarchy of World War I. That connection informs the title of historian Modris Ekstein’s 1989 book, “Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age.” The sinking of the Titanic took on retrospective symbolism once Europe had suicidally wrecked itself at the Western Front, and so did Stravinsky’s prophetic assault on convention. The old men of Europe sacrificed the continent’s young, who, like the maiden, willingly gave themselves to death.


From the vantage of a full century later, when that tragic epoch is regularly evoked through a nostalgic haze in blockbusters like “Downton Abbey” and the latest movie version of “The Great Gatsby,” both “The Rite of Spring” and World War I can be seen as flags of a moral transformation that is still unfolding today.

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Gatsby, as Brooks Brothers reminds us, is a timeless American type, even if his story is set in 1922. Gatsby’s nihilism reeks of the trenches. Those who survived the Western Front became the Lost Generation, and the loss remains. They “told us the war was over,” one veteran wrote. “That was a laugh. We ourselves are the war.” From Verdun to Warsaw to Hiroshima to Bach Mai to Sarajevo to Chechnya to Baghdad to Damascus — we human beings have ourselves become the war. How?

Stravinsky’s work generated an effervescence of dispute which was thrilling to those caught up in it. The start of the Great War did something similar, at least at first; a cry resounded in the streets of Europe, “It’s on!” For Germany, the war promised purification of decadence. France foresaw “La Grande Manifestation” of national glory. Britain aimed, in a phrase coined by H.G. Wells, at the war to end all wars. For the United States, it would be, in Wilson’s slogan, the war to make the world safe for democracy.

Each projection was millennial, with the destruction, no matter how total, expected to usher in a kind of secular salvation. That subliminal mysticism, foreseen by Stravinsky, locked itself on the human imagination. For the 100 years since — in death camps, bombed cities, torched villages, blown-up cafes, booby-trapped roadsides, airliners-turned-missiles, and the sights of unmanned drones — the apocalyptic principle of salvation through destruction has ruled, and still threatens us today.

“The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” as Willa Cather put it. Fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism all emerged from that break. At great cost, they were defeated. But the crack in the world remained, and humans kept trying to fill it with the corpses of enemies. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” regeneration depended on violence, as if there were no life but through death. The primacy of death was Stravinsky’s outrageous idea, which he offered as a warning. Yet it played out quite literally among “rival tribes” on the century’s battlefields.


With lessons learned, the next 100 years can be different. Wars rage today, yes. But they outrage, too. Our species is suddenly capable of truly global communication and transnational economic cooperation. Borders mean nothing to the Web. Our planet has itself become the universal village — which means no more saving the village by destroying it. Millennial illusions, on which total war depends, are unsustainable. The world that broke in two can be one again, the lost generations found.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.