Friday, July 9, 2010
Orphans of the Revolution by Harvey Sachs
Between 1789 and 1815, the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars had torn Europe apart. From the Atlantic's eastern shores all the way to Moscow, clashing ideologies had been transformed into clashing armies; the liberty-equality-fraternity banner was quickly bloodied by the revolutionaries' excesses, and its motto was then subverted by Napoleon, who used the ideal of exporting the Revolution as a tool for domination of the whole Continent. However shocking the effects of the infant French Republic's guillotine may have been, the eighteen to forty thousand chopped-off heads that it produced during the Terror of 1792-96 were a statistical trifle in comparison to the foreign wars that followed. Between 1796 and 1815, an estimated two and a half million soldiers and one million civilians met their deaths in the Napoleonic Wars. In the battle of Borodino alone, 7 September 1812, Russian and France lost far more soldiers than the United States would lose in the entire 15 years of the war in Vietnam. The revolutionary and Napoleonic War lasted twice as long as the Vietnam War, four times as long as the Second Word War, and six times as long as the First World War.
Little wonder, then, that in April 1814, when Napoleon was sent into exile on the island of Elba, an enormous sense of relief pervaded millions upon millions of Europeans, including many of those who had approved the emperor's goals or had in any case opposed the restoration of power to their countries' most reactionary forces. Entire peoples were worn out, entire nations drained, by warfare that had begun to seem eternal, and the Old World's old leaders did not fail to grasp the fact that their power, so long threatened or usurped, would soon be secure again. They arranged to meet in Vienna to decide how the “liberated” Continent was to be carve up among them. The tyranny of absolutism raised its ugly head once again.
During the period from 1815 to 1848, Europeans did not know that within a few generations freedom of speech, of the press, and of religion would be available to a significant portion of humanity. Members of Beethoven's generation witnessed the last years of the Enlightenment and then the birth, transformation, and demise of the Revolution, and members of the following generation had the still more depressing experience of witnessing only the phases of subversion and demise.
Anyone who has lived under repressive regimes in more recent times will understand the phenomena: In order to survive, you are forced to pretend to believe in something in which you do not believe and that you may, in fact detest; at the same time, you cannot help but wonder of what possible use or consequence your survival could be under such circumstances. Although the despair factor was as present in the human psyche in the early nineteenth century as it is today and as it has been throughout human history, artists who later became identified with what is called the “Romantic movement” , who lived not only before Hitler and Stalin but also before Darwin, Marx, Freud and Einstein, did not possess as vast a gamut of uncertainties – not to mention nihilistic beliefs and attitudes- as later generations would have at their disposal.. Two hundred years ago the search for absolute meaning was still a reasonable option.
Many commentators have described Romanticism as the inspiration behind Europe's striving towards freedom but that notion seems to me less sustainable than the converse: The European aspiration for freedom was the inspiration for Romanticism. The writer Marie-Henri Beyle ( Stendhal) became one of the first literary figures to perceive the relationship between the death of the Revolution and the flowering of Romanticism- Romanticism understood as a sublimation of a revolution that had first exploded across Europe, imploded upon itself, and then replaced by autocracy and repression. What Stendhal seemed to grasp earlier than anybody else is the fact that the Romantics were not the children of the Revolution, but rather its orphans.
The seething magma of protest in the German-speaking world would eventually erupt in the revolution of 1848, but through-out the 1820s and 30s it remained mostly subterranean. In three short lines, the poet August Heinrich Hoffman broadly satirized the timid, cafe-frequenting rebels of the day: “And they chatter, leaf through the gazettes, search and finally come to the conclusion: another little piece of apple pie.” No matter how intensely artists and intellectuals detested the political situation in which they found themselves- under constant surveillance by the police apparatus of the state- they could express their aversion in only the most oblique ways. Aversion led to introversion, to the concentration on intensely personal thoughts, feelings and states of being and the transformation of them into artistic expression- to Romanticism, in a word.
Beethoven was such an orphan – child of the Revolution, grandchild of the Enlightenment. His relatively liberal sympathies, love of freedom and contempt for authority were well known, though he was considered too socially eccentric and out of touch to be potentially dangerous; other were not so fortunate.
If there is a hidden thread that connects Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to the works created in and around 1824 by other significant artists, it is precisely this quest for freedom: political freedom, freedom from the repressive conditions that dominated Europe after the Congress of Vienna, and freedom of expression, certainly, but above all freedom of the mind and spirit. To a hypothetical observer who, in 1824, had heard of Beethoven, Byron, Pushkin , Heine and the other major figures who appeared in those years, the points of contact among them would have seemed tenuous, perhaps even non-existent. But from the twenty-first century perspective, the connection seems almost too obvious.
In a sense, every human being who has ever used his or her brain for non-destructive purposes counts as a brave soldier in humanity's War of Liberation, but the conjunction of Beethoven's last symphonic masterpiece with crucial works or events in the lives of so many other outstanding artists made 1924 a particularly fertile year in the history of that struggle. The fact that the Ninth Symphony, Byron's death, Pushkin's Boris Godunov and “To the Sea”, Delecroix's Massacres at Chios, Stendhal's Racine and Shakespeare, and Heine's Harz Journey and North Sea Pictures all furthered, in one way or another, Romanticism's rear-guard action against repression underlines the significance of that speck in time. And perhaps brief glances at those artists and their states of being at that moment will help to remind readers that spiritual and intellectual liberation requires endless internal warfare against everything in ourselves that narrows us down instead of opening us up and that replaces questing with certitude.
The uniquely vital expressive power of the Ninth Symphony, which is one of the most striking products of human beings' attempt to continue the struggle, as well as to deepen their individual relationships to life, is the subject of this book.