Poised today on the precipice of yet another global conflagration, just as humanity was 100 years ago, we tend to be unaware how we’ve been stripped, due to so much senseless death and horror in the meantime, of the core of the humanizing impulses in our culture that could catch us to stop going where we may be headed next.
The lush culture of the pre-Great War (World War I) era, with its uplifting themes in art, music, architecture, science and engineering, affirming humanity with a heartening, optimistic and generous demeanor, was crushed and stamped under the clay-crusted boots slogging through the trenches, eaten alive by pestilence, death and utter misery in the four short years of that Great War.
As I have stressed in this series, now concluding, the modern focus on the Great War is in terms of the millions of human lives lost. But the even greater loss was of the collective human soul, of the abandonment of optimism and hope as a way of life.
The great art and music of the late Romantic period’s cultural apex has by now been pushed to the distant margins of our present culture: great operas, great symphonies, great poetry and art. They used to be “mainstream,” but now with all the channels and dials available in major U.S. urban centers, there may be only one dedicated to the monumental achievements of that culture, and even that most often falls sway to childish Christmas carols for at least a month out of each year.
Still, there was a courageous fight to see humanity through the terrible consequences of the Great War. Symbolic of that effort was the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, about as far away from the war by then raging in Europe as one could get.
The exposition was the continuation of the great cultural expositions that defined the late 19th century. That tradition survived the Great War to buoy the human spirit in opposition to wars, generally. In May 1915, with the world elsewhere descended into horrible
carnage, and with San Francisco still recovering from the great earthquake of 1906, the exposition was highlighted by the playing, with a restored great civic organ nearly destroyed by the earthquake, of Camille Saint-Saens’ mighty Third Symphony, known as the “Organ Symphony.” An elderly Saint-Saens traveled halfway around the world to be there himself.
Nothing symbolized the pre-war era like the “Organ Symphony,” written in 1886. Saint-Saens threw together a spectacular appeal to the senses, using everything but the kitchen sink, so to speak, but none as grand as how a booming pipe organ opened and carried the final movement.
(If you’ve never seen this performed live, you can’t fully appreciate it as you otherwise might, in my view. It is one of those works that raises every goose bump in the house when done well, as it was by the National Symphony Orchestra this past season.)
Mankind being slaughtered in the trenches of Europe, civilization and hope were still alive in San Francisco.
The surviving shards of culture were reassembled from the carnage of the Great War, and infused with new thought. The 1925 Paris Exposition (the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts) introduced the style of Art Deco as the upbeat wedding of art and industry.
From it grew the great monuments to the resilient human spirit, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and New Yorker Hotel. Also, women and the servant classes began breaking the chains of their oppression, as millions decided that experimenting with new personal freedom had to be the way out of yet another war.
Yet the pure evil of the Great War had set forces into motion that would make a second great war inevitable and necessary.
Then, assassinations of two Kennedys and Dr. King, Vietnam, the “Greed is Good” era, 9-11, the Great Recession and its lingering effects, and the growing octopus of covert spying networks. Our culture has turned from optimism to a soul-chilling pessimism, becoming dystopian, the opposite of utopian. Now, our cultural paradigm is populated by depersonalized zombies, vampires, childish super-heroes and soulless extraterrestrials.
To avoid a next world war, to reclaim our humanity, a lot of Saint-Saens and his comrades is required. A lot.