Thursday

May 29, 2014

The Want of Peace

by Wendell Berry

All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman's silence
receiving the river's grace,
the gardner's musing on rows.

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.

"The Want of Peace" by Wendell Berry from New Collected Poems. © Counterpoint Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1913 that the world premiere of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps caused a riot at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Known as "The Rite of Spring," the ballet tells the story of a young girl who is chosen as a sacrificial offering to spring and dances herself to death. The Paris of 1913 was caught between tradition and modernity. The opening of the Eiffel Tower had drawn scorn in 1889; telephones and elevators were beginning to creep into everyday life. In the arts, Picasso and Gertrude Stein were testing the limits of representation and narrative. On the evening of May 29, 1913, two types of people had gathered for the debut of this ballet: the wealthy, who expected beautiful music and choreography; and the Bohemians, who were eager for something bold and new. Stravinsky's opening called for a bassoon to "play higher in its range than anyone else had ever done." The audience stirred. The curtain rose on dancers dressed not in elegant, drifting tulle, but in heavy, drape-like fabric. And they did not leap lightly. They stomped about the stage. Audience laughter drove Stravinsky to the wings, where choreographer Vaslav Nijinksy had to shout his directions to the dancers, so loud was the reaction from the audience. The music was dissonant and jarring; there was no melody. There were catcalls and hisses, fistfights between patrons. Forty people were ejected, but not before the audience had turned on the orchestra. The musicians patiently played on, even as they were pelted with vegetables. Stravinsky once confessed his schooldays were lonely: "I never came across anyone who had any real attraction for me." The debut of the ballet changed that; within days, he was the most famous and sought-after composer in the world. The Rite of Spring is now considered a masterpiece of 20th-century music.

On this day in 1914, Edgar Lee Masters (books by this author) published the first poem of what would later be published as The Spoon River Anthology (1915). Masters was a lawyer in Chicago when he began writing short poems about the townspeople of "Spoon River," a fictional place he based on his hometown of Lewiston, Illinois. Afraid that the people in Lewiston would take offense to his unflattering characterization, he published all 244 of his free-verse poems individually and then as a book under the pseudonym Webster Ford. It was an immediate commercial success. But the monologues were often cynical and showed the hypocrisies of small-town life, making Masters an outcast from the small towns where he grew up. He also hadn't changed the last names of several characters, and many residents were outraged by his unflattering depictions of them. Still, The Spoon River Anthology became one of the best-selling books of poetry in American history. Remarking on the anthology, Ezra Pound said, "At last the American West has produced a poet strong enough to weather the climate, capable of dealing with life directly, without circumlocution, without resonant meaningless phrases."

It's the birthday of the writer known as Max Brand (books by this author), born Frederick Faust in Seattle, Washington (1892). Brand was one of several pseudonyms he used over a career that produced thrillers, love stories, and melodramas, but it was the Western he became famous for, even though he knew nothing firsthand about frontier life. He is best known for his novel Destry Rides Again (1930), which was later made into a movie staring Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart.

During the Great Depression, he was one of the highest-paid pulp fiction writers in America, earning five cents a word. He managed to finish a full-length novel every week, making about $100,000 a year at that rate. As time went by he was ashamed of his novels, and he only used his real name to publish poems. The pseudonyms were originally born of practicality; after WWI, he was afraid that Americans wouldn't want to read books by a person with a German last name. When World War II began, he called in favors to get himself posted as a correspondent for Harper's, hoping to finally serve as he'd dreamed of doing years before. He was sent to the front lines, and he died of a shrapnel wound in Italy among soldiers who'd grown up reading his stories.

It's the birthday of German philosopher Oswald Spengler (books by this author), born in Blankenburg, Germany (1880). He studied the history of civilizations; his theory was they all undergo an organic blossoming and withering over the course of 1,000 to 1,200 years, and that, by studying the past, it was possible to predict the future of all civilizations. "Each culture," he wrote, "has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return."

He put his theory forward in his book The Decline of the West (1918), in which he asked: "Is there, beyond all the casual and incalculable elements of the separate elements of the separate events, something that we may call a metaphysical structure of historic humanity, something that is essentially independent of the outward forms — social, spiritual, and political — which we see so clearly? ... Does world-history present to the seeing eye certain grand traits, again and again, with sufficient constancy to justify certain conclusions?" He examined six cultures — Egyptian, Chinese, Hindu, Greco-Roman, Magian (mostly Arabic), and Western — and he believed that Western civilization had already experienced its creative flowering; it was in a period of reflection and material comfort, and that it had, at most, 200 more years. He believed that you could no more revive a dying civilization than you could bring a dead flower back to life.

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