EN / PL (for polish scroll down)

The Rite of Spring. The cycle of nature and war – cultural and linguistic analogies

In the dark vastness of Hades souls can only smell
Her whole life is an entire sacrifice to the manifold, everlasting being whereof she forms part.(...) through successive stages, at the almost perfect but pitiless society of our hives, where the individual is entirely merged in the republic, and the republic in its turn invariably sacrificed to the abstract and immortal city of the future.
Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee
Let us look in such a way that the things we look at arrange themselves in a composition created from events – subsequent or dispersed, occurring in history, nature, art, life, language and landscape. Certain events may affect us more than others.
The creation of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet with Vaslav Nijinski’s choreography is one of such significant events, which radiates over the area around it. The circumstances of its creation, its message, music and choreography, so unique for the moment of their appearance, are of particular importance. The Russian original was titled “The Sacred Spring”, but translated to French the title got slightly modified to the “Rite of Spring” and the latter title stuck. Stravinsky’s initial idea was to name the work “Sacrifice”, a word which is going to be crucial here. The first part of the piece, “Adoration of the Earth” presents a spring celebration of an ancient Rus community: young girls and boys,  an elderly woman and wise men perform the rituals of the union between the earth and nature. Still bare after the winter, the soil is being enchanted by a common dance – a simple, rhythmi-cal, coarse even but full of energy. What follows are ritual, not entirelly peaceful scenes: “Rites of abduction” of girls by boys, processions and “Fights between tribes”. The first part concludes with the “Dance of the Earth”, with the Sage as its central figu-re – the dance itself starts slowly, then intensifies. The dancers want to wake the earth up after the winter so that life could resprout from it. The scene is immediately followed by another one, the “Sacrifice”. The title refers to a young woman, a virgin, who – after the all-night rituals – dances her holy dance in the presence of the elderly and eventually sacrifices herself to the unpersonalised god of spring. The dance ends with death, the young woman’s life is offered to win the favour of the powers of nature. Her death is supposed to ensure the revival of the vegetation that supports the life of the entire community. The sacrifice is to secure the future and existence.The unbridled, wild, violent music, full of dissonances and rhythmical changes, the equally broken choreography and the gestures of the dancers were so foreign to the 19th century aesthetical canons, still accepted at the time, that the effect of the performance was pirmarily a shock. The work’s vitality, brutality and counter-aesthetics contributed to its power of expression and dealt a heavy blow to the taste of the contemporary audience. The break with the previous aesthetics was definitive. It was a subversion, a radical and revolutionary work. “The Rite of Spring (...) is integrated with one idea: the mystery and great creative power of Spring” Stravinsky wrote.Spring comes suddenly, it explodes, bringing a violent change. It should, therefore, not come as a surprise that the scandal which broke in Paris in May 1913 is considered one of the greatest in the history of art. “Among the spectators arriving at the theatre at 8:45 PM there were a lot of extremely smartly dressed ones. Everybody felt the excitement.”[1] The expectations towards Diaghilev’s famous ballet group and the artists were  high. Yet, after just a few minutes, the first whistles could be heard, and the performance almost ended in a brawl. After the premiere the press erupted with opposite opinions, from dis-gust to euphory. According to Modris Eksteins, the events and the work itself were part of a much broader phenomenon and did not occur in isolation. The cultural landscape of early 20th century Europe created a suitable background against which the “Rite of Spring” could herald (or even foretell) future events – the Great War, the redefinition of many areas of life and the appearance of a new European order. “One of the best symbols of this century, full of paradoxes and exposed to disintegrating forces, in which – while longing for freedom – we came to possess the power of complete destruction, was the dance of death with its orgiastic and nihilistic irony. The Rite of Spring, which premiered in May 1913 in Par-is, a year before the outbreak of the war, with its revolutionary energy and apotheosis of life through sacrifice was a symbolic oeuvre, a work of the 20th century world, which in its pur-suit of life killed millions of its most valuable human beings.”[2]
The rite of spring, the rite of war
Without any exceptions, death is the experience of every living organism. It is inscribed in the cycles of nature. The cyclicality, or the repetitiveness of the same form, each time according to the same scenario of sequenced stages is associated with rituals. A ceremony, just like any other ritual, has its specific aesthetics, choreography, gestures and objects. It aims at trans-formation and transgression of one’s own circumstances. The repetitiveness of the ceremony guarantees the lasting of what it refers to. Power and vitality, initially so distant, heads inevitably towards destruction, death and decomposition with the proces-ses occurring in repeated cycles. Making sacrifices, so killing, is supposed to guarantee the rebirth and completion of the same circle of transformations. Moving towards life and towards de-ath are coexisting drives. Directed towards destruction, death paradoxically possesses an unbridled creative force, primary and wild like nature. Creation happens through destruction, the new may grow only on the nutrients of the ruins of the old – the life-giving substance produced in the decomposition of old matter or order. To break with the old will mean to transgress the boundaries of imagination and notions. In his book “A Terrible Love of War” James Hillman writes that “War demands from us to take a leap of imagination as extraordinary and fantastic as the war itself. Sin-ce our usual categories of thinking are not capable and broad enough, they reduce the meaning of war to the explanation of its causes.”[3] Pagan rites of spring as well as “The Rite of Spring”, both as a musical piece and an event, corresponded well with this type of rituals which reflect nature and make war part of a common, ritual circle. The observation will become obvious when we realise the coincidence of those two specific events. Their closeness in time makes us understand their close-ness in nature. One could even say that war is actually a festival of spring. The statement is not an ethical judgement on war or the rite. It can be assumed that man – as a species and a com-munity with all its culture that has grown on it – is subject to the same forces and drives.The cycles and rhythms of nature rely on their own laws: the birth, lush blooming, force, drive, pollination, death and organisms that feed on dead bodies of other organisms. There are no moral norms, only laws of nature and hierarchies, relationships and sequences of events that result from the laws. Subsequent events do not have to form understandable narratives starting from the cause and leading to a logical effect and providing the explanation for the appearance of evil or a misfortune. From the cultural perspective, killing symbolises the radicality and power of change, phenomena that elude ethical or aesthetical judgements, or – to speak more generally – the redefinition of all the values accepted within a culture. Modris Eksteins’s specific image of Europe in the early 1900s is characterised by a particular atmos-phere – some widespread and general intoxication with the idea of change. An almost analogical situation can be found in Maeterlinck’s description of honey bee swarming: “It is the ecstasy of the perhaps unconscious sacrifice the god has ordained; it is the festival of honey, the triumph of the race, the victory of the future: the one day of joy, of forgetfulness and folly; the only Sunday known to the bees.”[4] This is the festival of the future!
The energy so released and the hovering spirit of avant-garde in one swoop moved from culture to politics and ideology to finally bring about the war. And, paradoxically, it was the war itself that became the “life-giving” principle. In the chapter titled “War as culture” M. Eksteins discusses this very phenomenon: „Although the equipment was important, the war was seen, especially in Germany, as the highest form of testing one’s spirit and thus vitality, culture and life. In 1911, Friedrich von Bernhardi in his  book that in Germany had six issues over two years also referred to war as >>the life-giving principle<<. It was a manifestation of the highest culture. (...) In other words, it was considered to be the foundation of culture, or the springboard to the higher level of creativity and spirituality, it was an important part of a nation’s pride and image.”[5]
The rite of spring, encoded images
Let us look now at the life of the countryside – a universal scene of an idyllic landscape, serene and pleasant to the eye with fields, a church and a picturesque sea of rape stretching across the horizon, whose yellow tiny flowers attract countless bees and other insects. The image conveys the idea of an idyllic life in a natural environment and the righteousness of working the land. This is the most proper order, the rhythm of life measured by the changes of seasons. Small insects and the air vibrating in the spring sun, the charming blossom and dazzling beauty of late spring plants. Beehives, located at the edge of that sea of flowers, are houses to hardworking bees, collecting pollen from that charming and beautiful fields. The bees are working without rest. This scene does not belong to any specific place or time.
“Does the earth want war” James Hillman asks. “Why is Ares also the ancient god of agriculture and why did Mars have its own plot of land in the country, behind the city walls?”[6] Let us imagine that another image is quickly placed over this scene. An image seen from the perspective of the god of war, who knows very well that in that lush, juicy greenery, in its deepest flesh, close to the earth, the cycles of life and death alternate incessantly. Hillman goes on by saying: “I started to watch cemeteries, where the bodies of those killed in war were buried. Instead of analysing the minds of people to find the reason why those killed lay there, I wondered if the earth that possessed their bodies had not claimed them even before.”[7] The earth demands its sacrifice. Let us continue to place the images on the idyllic scene and imagine that a moment ago the same charming fields were the place of work (or even death) of death camp prisoners. Like any landscape that picturesque scene is tainted and shows us an encoded view. The idyllic countryside landscape creates the ap-pearance of innocence – a typical coordina e system of ordinary, safe and good life: a field, a road, houses on the horizon and a church securing the entirety of the view. Determined by that canonical image, a well organised, simple and pious life may go on undisturbed and in proper order. It is a recurring pattern. But this landscape (like any other) must come under the charge of being tainted. When Martin Pollack speaks about tainted landscapes, he exposes a certain practice and says plainly: “They are landscapes which have been places of mass murders, committed secretly, far from people’s eyes, often in complete conspiration. Incovenient witnesses were liquidated, the pits the bodies were ditched into were filled up, evened and covered with carefully planted trees and bushes to make the mass graves disappear.”[8] According to Pollack, this procedure required “deep knowledge of gardening”. We could even think that the sacrifice of the bodies was made to some god of nature and the ceremony was performed by the mastergardener. Nature was, in turn, supposed to absorb, overgrow and cover everything to finally decompose the corpses covered with soil and create that stun-ning impression of innocence, making the previous landscape return, as if nothing had ever happened there. Natural processes were purposefully harnessed to conceal the crime. The image of the countryside has its cracks. “Do they know what the land they work hides? Did they make a vegetable garden here? Do they grow potatoes? Did they plant onions?” asks Martin Pollack. “We can see only the meadow and a simple, wooden fence, one that can be found in any Polish, Ukrainian or Russian village. Such a fence could be put up in Austria. (...) There were many such places. Infinitely many.”[9] We can then speak not as much about mentally projecting the laws of nature and natural processes on people’s lives or treating them allegorically but even about their strictly practical use. With premeditation and pragmatism. In face of this evidence, comparing and putting together the celebration of spring and war, perceived as rituals (cyclical and aesthetic events) stops being just a metaphor. Too many depressing convergences reveal here. Let us focus for a moment on the issue of language: while looking at that natural convergence from another perspective, it becomes obvious that the language Maeterlinck uses to describe the life of bees or ants closes us in a common universum of events, equally incomprehensible to the insects and us. “Oh, we know well that our fate is similar to theirs, that they are just a feeble and incomplete shape of the force beyond our understanding, the same mighty force that at the same time revives and devours us. It can be formulated that way, no doubt. If scrutinised carefully, the fate of bees is as sad as nature itself and it will remain so until we unravel its mysteries, if it has any, and until we understand them.”[10] There is anoher lingusitc question that needs to be dealt with in this context – another language event in the puzzle we look at. It is an analogy. It occurs here in its purest and most ruthless form, while transposing the imaginarium of the animal world on human reality.
Sacrifice. Lousing
When it comes to words and phrases, the interpenetration of notions and worlds is a natural thing. Language feeds on the richness of its ambiguities, which are at the same time the source of danger. Like an ant lion, language sets its traps for us. Just like in the case of natural processes harnessed to conceal the crime, words in the Nazi or racist language were supposed to serve a particular purpose. They were meant to affect, casue effects and introdcue analogies to the world of tangible facts. Their role was to trap and enslave. To create images in some minds and impose names and qualities on others. Locusts are a plague, the must be eradicated. Insects! Insects are busy and repulsive, they are a plague. Repugnant insects are trampled upon and smashed against the ground with the sole of one’s shoe. Swarms of biting insects put us off. Lice, fleas, biting and blood-sucking parasites multiply and spread disease. Bedbugs and cockroaches are born from dirt. When transferred, such images become a source of violence. It comes straight from the language: we know only too well today that everything starts from calling your neighbour a cockroach.At a certain point, that moving mass of cockroaches was seen as a danger to all good citizens. Everything, the entire community had to be cleansed. It was necessary to the start the de-Jewishing action. Parasite insects are the most repulsive creatures in the animal world. As an analogy, the world of insects was incorporated into the Nazi antisemitic nomenclature and sklifully used. This practice was commented on by Monika Żołkoś in her text titled “Insectosemitism”: “The anti-Semitic language of the Nazis makes a significant shift: parasitic Jews appear to be a community that operates outside moral categories, driven solely by a biological impulse.”[11]  Insects’ way of feeding and reproduction is extremely repulsive. Repulsion is a reflex that makes us get rid of them. Delousing was a method to achieve the purity of the race. Monika Żółkoś also recalls the figure of Alfred Rosenberg – a wellknown extreme anti-Semite and co-author of racist theories.It was him who invented the thesis of the parasitism of Jews and maintained that “it is a biological fact to be spoken about in the same way as the parasitism in the animal or plant world is spoken about.”[12] To put it bluntly, insects and Jews were supposed to be eliminated in a similar – analogical – way. The same mass death by chemicals was intended for both. It was not supposed to pro-voke any sympathy or moral dilemas. “Insects have a special function in the anti-Semitic imaginarium. In the an-thropocentric concept of the animal world, animals are defined as creatures alien to what is human. They are unworthy of attention and care and become the embodiment of existential worthlessness. Killing them, as opposed to a cruel treatment of mammals or birds does not rise any ethical questions (...). Hierarchical thinking, incorporated into the logic of species chauvinism, locate insect at the lowest level of the pyramid of existence.” The Nazi were not the first to deny humanity to Jews “but never before were entomological phantasms used on such a scale.”[13] Such analogies and shifts created a language and terms that captured the general imagination and the entire public life in Hitler’s Germany.LTI: Lingua Tertii Imperii, or the Language of the Third Reich was a title of Viktor Klemperer’s book, published in 1947, just after the war, which provided a unique study of that lingustic neoplasm. He described the reality of the totalitarian state from the perspective of the Nazi’s linguistic creativity and it was a first-hand account. The author – a German philologist and a son of a rabbi – was deprived by the Nazi regime of his position of professor at the University of Dresden, where he taught literature. As the persecution intensified, he was gradually stripped of his civil rights (it was only owing to a lucky coincidence that he did not share the fate of other Jewish citizens). “The man standing next to me on the front platform gives me a stern look and says quietly, right at my ear: – you will get off at the Central Station and come with me. – This is the first time such a thing happens to me, but I know the situation very well from stories of other star-bearers. Perhaps it will finish well, maybe he feels like playing jokes and decided that I will suit him. But I cannot be sure of that in advace, and, as even being treated mildly and jokingly by the Gestapo is not a pleasure, the incident affects me. I am going to louse him – my catcher says to the porter – he must stand here, face towards the wall until I call him.”[14] Depsite the horrifying reality he had to live in, Klemperer observed the mechanisms of that language with professional attention. In his philologist’s diary, he noted: “...stereotypes are now gaining power over us. The language that speaks and thinks for you...”[15]
Rites of spring
It is not the sense of sight but of smell that is of use for the souls in Hades. Smell – the most animal of the senses. Our lives are governed by incomprehensible forces that move the wheels of history – cycles of events. The gods of war and nature act  together, they constantly demand sacrifice. Our thoughts are governed by language.
1   M. Eksteins, Święto wiosny. Wielka Wojna i narodziny nowego wieku, translated by: K. Rabińska, Poznań 2014, p. 29.
2   Ibidem, p. 10.
3   J. Hillman, Miłość do wojny, translated by: J. Korpanty, Warszawa 2017, p. 1 7
4   M. Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee, translated by: A. Sutro, New York 1914.
5   M. Eksteins, Święto wiosny..., op.cit., p. 164. M. Ekstains gives many ex-amples of how much fascination was aroused by the idea of war at the time and how it captured the imagination of so many people: "The Faustian power that Wagner, Diaghilev and other modernists sought in their works was revealed to the entire society. 'This war is an aesthetic pleasure, incomparable to anything’, says one of Glaeser’s characters” (p. 170), "In August 1914, most Germans perceived the conflict in which their country had become involved in spiritual categories. The war was first and foremost an idea, not a conspiracy to expand Germany’s territory." (p. 163).
6   J. Hillman, Miłość do..., chapter: Dygresja: Blisko ziemi, powrót na wieś., pp. 128-129.
7   Ibidem, p. 129.
8   M. Pollack, Skażone krajobrazy, translated by: K. Niedenthal, Wołowiec 2014, p. 20.
9   Ibidem, p. 75.
10   M. Maeterlicnk, Życie..., p. 161.
11   M. Żółkoś, Insektosemityzm, in „Narracje o Zagładzie” 2017 no. 3, p. 55.
12   Ibidem, p. 54.
13   Ibidem, p. 51.
14   V. Klemperer, LTI Notatnik filologa, translated by: J. Zychowicz, Kraków--Wrocław 1983, pp. 194-195.
15   Ibidem, p. 117.


Back to Top