Lileks | The Bleat 10-27-03

I’m not crazy about “The Rite of Spring.” I find it fascinating, like a strange insect, but I don’t like it. I’m not sure I’m supposed to. It’s so alien, so primitive, yet so instinctively understandable: hello, here’s your pagan past! Here’s your club for killing the sacrificial victim, here’s your body paint, here’s your spear. Now you’re going to be in the crowd that stomps the ground to bring the rain, okay? Fine. Next!

I can see why people rioted. But there’s something else in “Rite of Spring” that unnerves me – the implication that we are just a hair’s breadth away from this sort of tribal madness, that all our civilization counts for nothing. Here is our true horrid heart! Speak for yourself, mac. Just because you can find modern events analogous to ancient rites doesn’t mean we haven’t progressed along the way. Evidence: Orchestras, recording studios, animation companies, continental distribution networks, electricity, high-power light emitting movie projectors, climate-controlled theaters, ushers in mass-produced uniforms, and critics for newspapers who type in skyscraper offices their bemused dismissals of a film that takes Stravinsky’s masterpiece and gives it to overgrown lizards.

It works better for lizards. Lizards have no soul. The music of “Rite” is the music of animals.

Of course it is. That’s why it unsettles you.

Human beings are animals. We are “just a hair’s breadth away from…tribal madness”. On the infrequent occasion I visit a mall department store and observe women “trying on” perfume, I can’t help it, I think about naked savages mixing mud, getting just the right color blue before they smear it on their bellies.

Perhaps the mall is not the right place to look for proof of the innate superiority of civilization.

And don’t get me started about men and professional sports.

Civilization is a new invention, and in some places the veneer is very thin. Some tribes are closer than others. I don’t think I can be faulted for feeling superior to a tribe that has convinced itself it’s OK to target another tribe’s babies on purpose.

Civilization is worthy of celebration precisely because it is fragile.

So we need Stravinsky, who can throw our bestial heritage back at us and make us see that this, too, is what it means to be human. That while we can be proud of what we aspire to, we need not be ashamed of what we are. Hands that hold clubs are capable of building pianos and playing “Clair de Lune”. Isn’t it miraculous? Isn’t it awe-inspiring?

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