Roland Stromberg
Redemption by War

What the term 'Age of Aquarius' now typifies was then called the Spiritual Movement (George's circle) or the Lebensphilosophie, Dionysianism. 'The important thing was "to have soul,"' as Jean Guehenno says. The intellect is the soul's enemy. Civilization, meaning intellect, is culture's enemy, Thomas Mann wrote in his thoughts at the beginning of the war. Civilization is urbanity, antiheroism; it is burgerlich, mechanical, and objective. The renewal of art was tied to the recovery of the Dionysian spirit, a sublimated demonism. Art and violence have deep ties at the subconscious level. The sorcerer leading orgiastic rites which prepare for human sacrifice, as in Stravinsky's rite of spring in his 1913 ballet suite of that name, is close to the artist's frenzy of inspiration. Irrationalism related closely to community. In the anomic Gesellschaft 'every truth had become a problem' (Troeltsch), too much rationalization-drying up the springs of creativity accompanied the destruction of a rooted, organic society, in which truth is instinctual and values are understood rather than theorized about.

Thus the destructive joy of rebelling against a sterile culture and of affirming the individual's right to realize himself went, perhaps illogically, along with a yearning to re-create the primitive community where art and instinct rule, and the gnawing ego is subordinated to group purposes. The consistency lay in identifying the existing society with over-rationalization, too much science and reason and objectification and bureaucracy. The war, for most intellectuals, for the university youth who rushed to join it, was a revolutionary act. It is this perhaps which most impedes present understanding of the 1914 war spirit. A half century of deep disillusionment with what happened in 1914-18, when war was stripped of heroism, has obscured the expectations then held. Idealists seeking a cause worth dying for no longer entertain patriotic war between rival Western nations as an option, though they may approve of 'wars of liberation' for non-Western peoples, or war in the streets against their own governments. Rebels against bourgeois philistinism now seem to associate the bourgeoisie with war (this seems to be a grave error, but two generations of simplistic Marxism have planted it deeply), whereas in 1914 the bourgeoisie meant peace. The war 'stripped away the facade of lies of the Wilhelmine, "burgerlich" epoch,' Friedrich Gundolf wrote.

A long list of bored and restless writers (Andre Gide with his pet bird, D'Annunzio with his dogs, Arnold Bennett with his yacht, come to mind as examples of leading European writers wearying of trivial toys), all of whom turned eagerly to the excitement of war, drives home the simple point that an event so vast and so stunningly real had to command their attention. 'But the thing was in full blast!' John Cowper Powys said, explaining what overcame all his cerebral objections to the war; intellectually he assented to Rolland and Russell, but his heart responded to this 'great burning fiery furnace.' Bennett and Freud found life suddenly interesting again, as did other sideline observers like Henry James and Marcel Proust, who soon became completely absorbed in the unfolding drama of the first few weeks. This attraction of the bustle and stir has to be set against both the dullness of peacetime life and the neurasthenia of the intellectual-artist, easily bored and ever on the search for new frissons. Many used war as an excuse for breaking off some intolerable personal situation, like Kokoschka's affair with Anna Mahler; it was 'a release from social bonds' (Quentin Bell), a new 'challenge of life' (Herbert Read), a chance for sexual adventure. Given the erotic revolution just then occurring, this motive can hardly be overlooked. No one will ever know how many joined to escape their families, Shaw quipped. Herman Hesse wrote Rosshalde in 1914, a novel in which the artist-hero, plagued by a disastrous marriage, finally makes the break by going to India, where he hopes to find a 'new atmosphere.' The Western Front, or some sort of war service, supplied a closer and less lonely refuge.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.