Sacrifice and Revolution...are these the Rites of Spring?
I was listening tonight to a radio program featuring a discussion of Stravinsky's composition "The Rites of Spring," a ballet inspired by Slavic Paganism and the notion of human sacrifice. The music and dancing in "The Rites" were so radical, so jarring, so unlike anything that had gone before in European classical music that this ballet actually caused riots in Paris when it was first performed in 1913. The discussion I listened to was on Chris Lydon's Boston NPR program "Open Source," which replayed a discussion of Stravinsky from the year 2000 on "The Connection," the program Lydon hosted on WBUR at that time. You can hear it at http://radioopensource.org/rite-of-spring-revival .
I am moved to reflect upon sacrifice, spring and revolution. We are just a few days in from May Day, once a worldwide day of tribute to workers and socialism, and more recently, a date on the calendar when modern-day Pagans often celebrate Beltane or other "rites of spring." In Stravinsky's vision, the Rites of Spring means the selection of a young maiden to be offered in human sacrifice in order to bring on the life-giving renewal of spring. The maiden is then driven to dance until she dies, which the frantic, driving music of the composition renders both hypnotic and frightening. Stravinsky's, and not only Stravinsky's view of sacrifice is that it is a very basic spiritual mystery, a primal bargain in which death pays for life, in which something must be given, wasted, killed, destroyed--sacrificed--by one, or by some, so that new abundance can be obtained for the many, or even for all of us. There is a similar logic in Christ's crucifixion and in Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac in the Old Testament.
In Norse myth, the world itself is created by the sacrificial killing and dismemberment of the primal being Ymir, and wisdom, poetry, writing and more are made possible for mankind by Odin's agonizing self-sacrifice on the world tree Yggdrasil. The apocalyptic vision of the end of the world in the poem Voluspa is also in a sense a story of sacrifice, as the destruction of the existing world is the prelude to the revitalization and re-creation of the world, rising up from the depths of the ocean, "fresh and green."
With our retrospective knowledge of what would happen in Europe and Russia in the years immediately following the debut of the "Rites of Spring," Stravinsky's ballet now seems not only a powerful reflection on sacrifice and death, but an artistic prophecy of the huge changes about to occur in Europe through WW I and the Russian Revolution. I find its message still entirely relevant, still full of jarring, even frightening resonance, in our own time. Our society has become dominated by a corporate and economic elite as corrupt, self-serving and unresponsive to human needs and aspirations as was the Tsarist regime of Stravinsky's time. Are we perhaps building up to the point when a revolution--a massive, horrific, collective sacrifice--is again required to make this society a more promising place for all of its citizens, not just a privileged elite? Will we need to rise up and accept the necessity of risk, loss, ruin, danger, and even death, to break the death-grip of the corporate oligarchy that now controls the parameters of our lives?
It is a tired refrain of American political thought that in a democracy such as ours, we must work through the political system, with all its flaws and contradictions, to achieve improvements in society, and that we should accept the reality that change comes slowly, and may take many generations. There is no need for drastic action, so this thinking goes, no reason to imagine anything as violent and radical as a revolution. America had a revolution once, it is true, but that was long ago, and we now have a constitutional democracy designed to accommodate public demands and to foster change and adjustments in our society, however slowly. All things in good time, you see.
Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring" reminds us of other, darker chords that can be played on the strings of the collective social orchestra. We are not in a time of social and political progress. The system is not working, or if it is, it is only working for those with massive financial power to bring about the results that they desire. Thus, when we have a financial Ragnarok as in 2008, it is only the oligarchic elite that gets much help from the government that is supposed to be "by the people, of the people, and for the people." Thus, when the world is threatened by massive climate disruption, when the icecaps are melting and increasingly violent storms and droughts rock one country after another, the carbon fuel industry is able to manipulate the media and cloud the public discourse in the United States to such a degree that most people doubt the need for any decisive action, and the profits of the carbon companies go up and up and up, just like the earth's temperature, with all the great danger that entails. Whatever happens in our world now is assimilated, adapted and repackaged by the forces of international finance and corporate power into a way for them to gather greater wealth and influence. What chance do the rest of us have?
In our world of dazzling, digital distractions, where our concerns about pressing social and political issues and our desires for real and meaningful change can be so easily dissipated, neutered and anesthetized by ever-proliferating forms of mind-crippling entertainment, it is hard to imagine a massive uprising such as the French, Russian or American revolutions. Furthermore, in a world where the economy has been transformed into an ever-more competitive, ever-less supportive, ever-more frightening zone of total insecurity for the vast majority of wage-earners, more and more of whom fear that at any moment they might be replaced by the latest "labor-saving" technology, which offers vast profits to the corporate and financial elite and the prospect of unemployment or progressively lower-wage work to many, most people are rightfully terrified to embark on any course of action that could endanger what little economic and occupational security they have managed to hold onto against the powerful techno-capital forces rumbling in the background like Tyrannosaurus Rex monsters looking to devour any and every creature that they can force into their perpetually ravenous mouths.
And yet... and yet, the brutal lesson of history, and of the "Rites of Spring," is that there can be no real spring, no true renewal, no large-scale social progress, without sacrifice and loss. The time may come when people will rise up to demand this, and be willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the welfare of future generations. It is my hope that as the threat of such uprising and revolution begins to take on shape and form and momentum, as began to happen with the "Occupy Wall Street" protests of 2011 and 2012, that the people with great power in government and the corporate and financial sectors will finally realize t the need for a thorough renegotiation of the basic social contract, and then our society can be renewed on a better basis for all. But if they are unable or unwilling to accept the need for such change... if they are so blinded by their own narcissism and the delusional belief that they have a right to perpetuate the order that is of such service to them and such disservice to others... then all bets are off, and the "Rites of Spring" may again need to be performed.