Dr. Emily J. Levine
- Associate Professor, 2016
Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age
by Modris Eksteins
Published in 1989, Modris Eksteins’s imaginative Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, presents and urban an aesthetic history of European history from the outbreak of World War I to the death of Hitler in 1945. Rites of Spring occupies a commanding place in my field of cultural and intellectual history. It’s also central in my own evolution as a scholar; the first time I read it I was a freshman in a survey course in Modern European history and my reaction was decisive: I want to do that!
The story begins with the chaos caused by the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky's bold new ballet The Rite of Spring, a ballet that included naked dancers and dissonant chords. The scandalized bourgeois audience were so outraged they booed the dancers off the stage. This disruptive event might have become a mere curiosity in the world of theater. However, in his captivating narrative and impressive analysis, Eksteins uses the ballet affair to begin a journey in cultural connections that travels from Paris to Venice and Berlin, to spin the whole story of Modern European history from the outbreak of World War I to the end of World War II.
Eksteins’s main conclusion — that cultural events and ideas are not idle distractions but have enormous political implications — has provided the intellectual blueprint for my work that continues to revolve around the relationship between ideas and politics, and texts and contexts. Eksteins tells a story about the architect of the German war plan, the aggressive and shortsighted General von Schlieffen, who was rumored to carry a copy of Goethe’s Faust under his arm wherever he went. I have similarly kept a copy of Rites of Spring with me at all times on my journey from academic training to tenure, so I’m delighted for a copy with my commemorative plate to join the library’s shelves on this happy occasion.
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