Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Rites of Spring: The Great War and Birth of the Modern Age - Modris Eksteins

One of the characteristics of the first decade of the 21st century has been the increased polarization of politics and religion. "Pragmatism" and "compromise" have become dirty words and descriptors of "muddled thinking" and "luke-warm faith." While for the most part I have sought to distance myself from such ideological positions, it is true that on some issues I am more "conservative" while more "progressive" on others. I suspect that this is true for most people. But as we move closer to "silly season", otherwise known as election time in some of the western democracies, it is helpful to see some of the cultural and social histories and analyses written about previous eras to get a perspective on our own.

I have mentioned the works of the noted liberal historian Tony Judt in previous posts. Another significant historical study is Margaret Macmillan's book Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World.  Recently I read another such book by Modris Eksteins entitled Rites of Spring: The Great War and Birth of the Modern Age. Wrongheaded at times but never dull, Eksteins explores the first half of the twentieth century in three parts or "acts" as part of a battle between tradition or history on the one hand and progress or freedom on the other. Taking the so-called Great War as the signal historical feature of the twentieth century and using the arts, social development, cultural artifacts and psychoanalysis to inform his historical argument, Eksteins has woven a tapestry which is both interesting and provocative. His strongest sections describe the horrors of World War I trench warfare and the impact of the life in the trenches among the ordinary soldiers; his weakest the significance of the contribution of historical anti-semitism to the rise of Nazi Germany. But Eksteins' depiction of the incredible suffering of soldiers on both sides of the conflict beggars belief. It is not surprising that so many survivors came back to their homes broken and tortured people. But it is some of the other elements of the book which grabbed my attention and gave me pause and suggested parallels to our contemporary situation. For example, the mood immediately after the war is described in vivid terms by Eksteins"

        "On July 14, 1919, Bastille Day, Paris manufactured an official 'victory' parade. Its size was grand; its emotions were not. America refused to ratify the treaty and even to embrace Woodrow Wilson's political offspring, the League of Nations. The United States retreated into isolationism and abandoned Europe to her wheelchair.
   The gargantuan effort, especially the motional intensity, of the war could not possibly be sustained in effecting the peace, and Europe slumped into a monumental melancholy. The homes promised its heroes remained fictional places, and the utopian social dreams evoked by wartime rhetoric were brutally erased by inflation, unemployment, and widespread deprivation, not to mention an influenza epidemic that ravaged the world in 1918-1919 and killed more people than the war itself. Disillusionment was the inevitable upshot of the peace.
   Faced by the horrendous idea that the war might not have been worth the effort, people simply buried the thought for a time. And if one was to bury that thought, one also had to bury the war. So be it. The war was buried. Robert Graves and T. E. Lawrence had an agreement at Oxford that they would not discuss the war. Edmund Blunden tried to write his memoirs in the immediate aftermath and found that he simply could not. And so, after composing a fragment, he stopped. One mourned loved ones, but avoided thinking about the object for which one had paid such a price. Nine million dead. Twenty-one million wounded. Economies in ruins. Godless Bolshevism in Russia and threatening central Europe. Civil strife in Russia, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Ireland, Italy - everywhere, it seemed. Turkey and Greece at war. the middle east inflamed. "Lest we forget" was intoned on every conceivable occasion, but forget was what everyone wanted to do." (pp.253-54)

In the post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan world of today, one could substitute different names and places and say much the same thing about the mood of the supposed victors of the war against terror. In a world such as ours, the western democracies, fatigued and deeply wounded as they are by international combat, international economic turmoil, and disagreement over tactics and goals, this description of the mood of the times sounds eerily familiar. Our world seems to be crumbling. The dominance we as the wealthy nations once had over others seems to have evaporated. We're (rightly) tired of war, and (wrongly) tired of giving leadership and looking out for others. Now apparently we are the ones who need the strong man, the one to give us hope, the one to lead us to safety and prosperity, the one to re-establish our standing in the world.

As was true for Germany in the '20's and '30's, this is a dangerous time for all of us because we think there are easy answers. Anyone who offers easy answers should be mistrusted. The jingoism of an all-to-predictable turn to nationalism and/or patriotism will only offer false hope and confidence. This is where the churches be clear about the times we live in and and the dangers we face. We need to remember that we are people of hope and reconciliation. We need to continue to challenge our leaders to do the right thing, seeking peace amid conflict and finding ways to work with others toward the common good. I would suggest that for us now is the time to be especially vigilant. Now is the time to remember and take care.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Summertime Blues

Although I always await summer with eager anticipation, I usually end up disappointed at the end of it. Some of that disappointment I attribute to the unrealistic expectations I load on to it. For example, the spring weather preceding it will be warm, rainy at the right times, the soil ready for planting in late April, no mosquitoes, and the lengthening of days will be accompanied by visits with dear family and friends, evenings on the deck and great conversation. The summer then will be characterized by a good vacation away from home, the cultivation and neverending supply of fresh produce from a bountiful garden, long days and warm nights, the reading of books on the summer reading list, coffee with friends, and, combined with the reflection about the year just past, the preparation for the church year ahead. For various reasons, these ideals are never met, at least to my satisfaction. I almost immediately regret lost opportunities, lack of discipline, and the pressure of events and external developments encroaching on the present and potential enjoyments of summer living. And so, half way through the summer, I begin to recognize that my dreams will remain unfulfilled and I become jaded over the prospects of the rest of the summer getting any better. Thus, disillusioned and devoid of hope, I limp toward the end of the holidays thinking of next year.

This summer I have tried to alter my approach and practice. Travel, the getting away completely from routine or familiarity, is a way of introducing newness and the unfamiliar into the well-established routines of living. Living more intentionally with short-term goals and projects rather than always being focussed on the future or the "big picture" invests present activities and goals with more significance and enjoyment. Finally, the absence of mosquitoes in the garden or on the deck, even in the evening has a way of brightening every day throughout the summer. Reading for delight, not just for purpose, watching the backlog of films and DVDs I've built up over the course of the year, and of course, having extended conversations over a shared meal with good friends and fellow travellers rounds out many of my hopes and dreams for the remainder of the summer.

But of course, this too can be a pretext for avoiding the deeper things of the spirit. I like to drive around the countryside on a regular basis, surveying the fields of grain and other crops as they first develop and then mature. Part of the rural and agricultural world in which I grew up still draws me to its own rhythms and I use it as a devotional and spiritual exercise to open myself to the inner workings of Spirit as I reflect, pray and intercede for my congregation and my community. That's been my experience this summer. It has turned out better then I hoped. This has been a good summer. I am grateful.