2024-06-22 8:34 AM

Finale: Beauty Trumped By the Great War

nfbentonpicAs 100th anniversary commemorations fade recalling the Guns of August (the title of Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning history of World War I) that triggered the deadliest tandem of wars in the history of the planet – far less acknowledged in the U.S. than in Europe, even though the combined wars were truly global in their impact – this series by me on the subject has focused on the frightening parallels between the lead up to the August 1914 commencement of hostilities and the fast paced events of the world today.

Aside from the millions of lives lost, the greatest loss was the obliteration of two centuries of uneven and imperfect but substantial cultural development mostly on the European continent but forming the basis for the American revolution and republic from the onset of the Enlightenment in the late 1600s to the “Belle Epoque” at the end of the 19th century.

Science, reason, high-minded sentiment, incredible achievements in the edifying arts of composition and architecture, and the practical applications of the inventions of modern medicine and engines for creating national and super-national rail, maritime and aviation infrastructures had been dazzling the collective spirit of the civilized world.

Yet, all of this was dashed and splattered, ground under within days of the onset of the all-out war, ripping apart cultural networks and all their roads to humanistic progress.

Indomitable though the human spirit is, undertones of a deep cultural depression and pessimism have animated social brutality in the century since. Fascism, totalitarianism and genocide of innocents, crass materialism, phony religious superstitions, ugly postmodern disdain for fundamental notions of love and beauty and periodic genocides: the human psyche was and remains wounded far more than most today realize.

Yet it was no natural disaster that brought about the sudden onset of such massive destruction in August 1914. It was a sequence of human decisions by educated persons of leisure and privilege. Contemplating that, we urgently ask how it could have happened.

Short of a convulsed opening of a gaping orifice unleashing the hordes of hell itself, how in the world did the Great War ever actually happen?

In concluding this anniversary series, this remains the most critical yet enigmatic point. Historians can only describe what but not why, and the rants of stupid moralists don’t help. I propose for consideration two prescient clues in the lead up to the war.

First, the April 1912 Titanic disaster, was a perfect harbinger of the Great War. Civilization’s highest achievement, a super ship, became her greatest tragedy in a way like the Great War.

The Titanic sank in April 1912 not because of the massive assemblage of technology that constituted that ship, but because of the highly flawed personalities in charge who pushed the boat further and faster than they knew they should have. Similarly, in the war, pent up testosterone and egos caused the cataclysm as the war was not fought to eradicate a social evil. It was fought among rivals.

Second, on a different scale, was the 1912 publication of the troubling novella by German author Thomas Mann entitled Death in Venice, perhaps signaling the death of the culture’s passion for ideal beauty.

In those days, people were not so terrified, as they are today, of beauty. In this novel, it wasn’t too much testosterone, it was too little ability to express man’s highest sensibility for beauty.

Death in Venice was not in essence about a homoerotic passion. It was about a mute button, so to speak, being jammed on a creative artist. The main figure is a composer of great music who’d lost his creative spark.

Smitten by the unusual beauty of a teenage boy while on holiday in Venice, he was struck dumb, indicative of his creative block. The story is about his inability to find words, even a single word, to emit in the face of such a challenge.

Eventually, the pathetic composer contracted cholera and died on the beach as he gazed helplessly upon his beauty.

Thus, perhaps the lapse and failure to extol the beauty of the human soul wound up leaving the 1914 culture unable to restrain the dogs of war.





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