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Dionysus in the Trenches

In his masterly Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver (who was fond of the long view) marked the decline of the West from the late 14th century with the development of William of Occam's doctrine of nominalism. In the short view, though, it is obvious that the Great War was the watershed of modernity: what remained of the center was destroyed forever. The role of modernism in the culture that plunged into the trenches is a relatively unexamined one. Modris Eksteins argues in Rites of Spring that inasmuch as modernism represents "the principal urge of our time," it figures prominently in the orgy of slaughter that has given this century its nightmarish quality.

On May 29, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysees, the Stravinsky- Diaghilev-Nijinsky ballet Le Sacre du printemps opened. Eksteins' thesis is that this ballet, which Stravinsky had originally titled The Victim, constitutes "One of the supreme symbols of our centrifugal and paradosical century . . . with its rebellious energy and its celebration of life through sacrificial death, [it is] perhaps the emblematic oeuvre of a twentieth-century world that, in its pursuit of life, had killed off millions of its best human beings." Le Sacre du printemps, moreover, tokened the radical shift in artistic intention that we have come to associate with modernism; with this work, Eksteins says, "Art...

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