Photo by David Withun
In the course of arguing in favor of the belief that God created the universe ex nihilo, the third century church father St. Methodius of Olympus asserts that “we must say that it is in the nature of things for arts to be produced in men out of what has no existence.” While the intent of Methodius’s treatise is not to discuss the nature of art nor of human creativity more generally, the assumption underlying his argument is nonetheless a worthy starting place for a discussion of these subjects within a Christian paradigm. Methodius is arguing, in short, that just as human beings create works of art, seemingly, from nothing, so did God create the world from nothing. If man is capable of such a thing, Methodius asks his opponents, then is not God as well capable and to an even greater degree? From this can readily be extrapolated the underlying assumption that this creativity inherent in human nature is an aspect of the likeness of man to God. One can argue from human creativity to divine creativity precisely because human creativity is derived from and is, in a manner of speaking, an imitation of divine creativity. Furthermore, it is in the application of this creative faculty that the difference between the artist, strictly speaking, and the artisan—or, to use terminology of a more recent innovation, the difference between the fine arts and the arts more generally—is to be discerned.
The Genesis account of the creation of the cosmos and man provides scriptural substantiation for these extrapolations from Methodius’s statement. The opening of the book, of course, proclaims, “In the beginning God created . . .” (Gen 1:1). And this is all that the reader approaching the Bible for the first time knows about God by the end of the first chapter: he creates. He creates “the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1); light (1:3); the firmament (1:6); land (1:9); plants and trees (1:11); the sun, the moon, and the stars (1:16); fish and birds (1:20); land animals (1:24); and, at last, human beings (1:26). He is, in addition, a creator who admires his own work a great deal. As he creates, the reader finds that God stops occasionally to observe and proclaim of what he has created that “it was good” (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25) and, at last, following the creation of man, “very good” (Gen 1:31). It is not too much to imagine God as an artist at work, after each addition putting down his brush for a moment, stepping back from the easel, and commenting in approval at what he has accomplished so far: it is good.
The choice of wording in the Septuagint, the popular Greek translation from the original Hebrew of Genesis used by many early Greek-speaking Christians, Methodius included, is indicative of the general orientation of the passage as a whole. The Septuagint records God’s proclamation that his work is καλόν and, in the final emphatic iteration of Genesis 1:31, καλὰ λίαν. The word καλόν carries with it the meaning of “good,” as is expressed in most English translations and in the original Hebrew, but with the additional meanings of “noble” and, perhaps most importantly for the connotations of this passage, “beautiful.” And, following the creation of man, the creation is very good, very noble and very beautiful.
The reader approaching Genesis for the first time, then, will find that God is a creator and an admirer of what is beautiful. At the apex of his creation is the thing that makes it in the end not only “beautiful” but “very beautiful,” namely, a creature “in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1:26). The obvious implication is that these beings whom “God created . . . in his own image, / in the image of God he created him; / male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) must, given that they are indeed like him, also be creators and admirers of the good and the beautiful. Further infused into their nature—and it may be assumed by the reader of this account that this too derives from their likeness to God—is the attribute of rulership. God proclaims just before (Gen 1:26) and just after (Gen 1:28) creating man that they will “have dominion” over the earth and over its sundry other inhabitants.
These two characteristics of man as derived from his likeness to God, his creativity and his dominion, are brought together in the vocation assigned to the first man by God, that of gardner. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it,” says Genesis 2:15. Similarly, the primeval man is called upon by God to exercise both dominion and creativity in his naming of the animals. “Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them,” says Genesis 2:19. “And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” The man, through the exercise of his own creative faculty, adds to and, in a sense, completes the work of God. While “God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens,” it is man who decides “what he would call them.” While it was God who “planted a garden in Eden” (Gen 2:8), it is man who is called upon “to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). And even God waits to “see what” he will do (Gen 2:18). While the cosmos is καλόν—good and beautiful—from the moment of its creation by God, it is only καλὰ λίαν—very good and very beautiful—following the creation of man.
While he does not seem to have had the biblical story of creation in mind in this instance, T. S. Eliot’s comments on the creative activity of the poet in his essay on “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism” serve as a useful commentary on the creativity inherent in man’s nature as it appears in Genesis. Poetry, he says, is able to “make people see the world afresh, or some new part of it. It may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, and an evasion of the visible and sensible world.”
More true, perhaps, in the postlapsarian world than in the world of the primeval garden, what Eliot draws attention to here is the ability of the poet—and of the artist more generally—to participate in the divine creative activity by constantly renewing and revealing the world. The gardner participates in the creative activity of the divine by assisting in the yearly process of the apparent death and rebirth of nature. The poet does the same by revealing and identifying the world of the subconscious, thereby allowing man to make sense of the world of experience, both inner and outer. The painter reveals and renews the world on his canvass by allowing the mind to focus on the beauty of the singular phenomenon he has taken as his subject. In this “evasion of ourselves” and “of the visible and sensible world” we behave destructively; through the renewal and revelation made possible in and through our artistic faculties, we participate in creation.
In his Critique of Judgement, Immanuel Kant reasons in a similar direction when attempting to define the sublime. According to Kant, “it comes that the sublime is not to be looked for in the things of nature, but only in our own ideas.” There is, after all, he continues, “nothing . . . in nature, no matter how great we may judge it to be, which, regarded in some other relation, may not be degraded to the level of the infinitely little, and nothing so small which in comparison with some still smaller standard may not for our imagination be enlarged to the greatness of the world.”
Man’s imagination so far surpasses nature, then, that it is not in nature itself, but in this activity of man upon the world that one finds the truly sublime. “Sublimity, therefore,” he writes a bit later, “does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind, in so far as we may become conscious of our superiority over nature within, and thus also over nature without us (as exerting influence upon us).” And it is the artist who allows us to realize and to exercise our dominion over nature through his creative endeavors. Yet again, we see that creation is καλόν before man’s creative cooperation with God and dominion over the world, but can only be καλὰ λίαν—to be identified with the sublime—with man’s active, imaginative participation.
What Kant refers to as the sublime, Richard Wagner describes as “Das Wunder,” or wonder, in his Opera and Drama. “The poet,” he writes, “must . . . take the phenomena of Life and compress them from their viewless many-member-edness into a compact, easily surveyable shape.” Each facet of the cosmos is, after all, individually καλόν, but only collectively, only when viewed as a whole, and only when viewed after the introduction of the human element, καλὰ λίαν. The poet or the artist must take up the various individually καλόν elements and bring them into such an intelligible and orderly unity that they become καλὰ λίαν as a complete composite. “In virtue of this Wonder,” says Wagner, “the poet is able to display the most measureless conjunctures in an all-intelligible unity.” Like the primeval gardner, the poet makes sense of the created order by endowing it with a humanly orderliness. “The poetic daring,” he continues, “which gathers Nature’s utterances into such an image, can first for us be crowned with due success, precisely because through Experience we have gained a clear insight into Nature’s essence.”
Wagner is quick to point out, however, that this “insight into Nature’s essence” gained through poetry is not the mere building up of systems of doctrine and dogma. “Now, for the operation of its message, the poetising intellect has absolutely no concern with Faith, but only with an understanding through the Feeling,” he writes. Writing of T. S. Eliot, Russell Kirk offers an assessment of the relationship between Eliot’s poetry and Eliot’s faith that provides illumination for Wagner’s claim. “One does not look to Eliot—or to Dante, or to Shakespeare—for irrefragable demonstration of dogma or for an ingenious philosophical system,” writes Kirk. He concludes, “All that poetry of Eliot’s kind can attain is to express one man’s understanding through emotion.” The poet is able to distill and to crystallize experience and emotion. The poet and the artist do not concoct grand theories to explain phenomena; rather, they are able to bring the shared phenomena of human existence to greater clarity and depth.
W. F. Hegel, in his Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, similarly finds that “the universal need for expression in art lies . . . in man’s rational impulse to exalt the inner and outer world into a spiritual consciousness for himself, as an object in which he recognizes his own self.” It is the task of the artist, then, to take up the material provided by nature, both the nature internal to man and the nature external to man, and to transform this nature into something intelligible by man because it is, in part, a product of man. The first man’s act of naming the animals, for example, allowed him to make these animals into something intelligible to him by creatively endowing them with some piece of himself through the names by which he calls them. He did not, notably, create a system of classification for the animal world as a whole. Rather, he knew them each individually and experientially rather than systematically and theoretically.
This provides a line of demarcation by which the artist may be measured against the artisan, or, for that matter, the scientist. While the artisan and the scientist deal in similar matter, they do so for quite different purposes. It is not the prerogative of the artist to systematically explore and classify the material world, as it is for the scientist, for example; the prerogative of the artist, instead, is to reveal and renew that material world. The job of the scientist, in short, is to explain, while the job of the artist is to appreciate. Each of these methods leads to understanding, though of different sorts.
The artisan is closer to the artist in that he works to shape the materials of the natural world into an aesthetically pleasing shape. What is lacking, however, is the component of creativity. The difference here is like the difference between the first, prelapsarian vocation of the primeval man and the second, given as part of the curse following the Fall. While he was at first a gardner, placed in “Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15), he became a farmer. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” says God to Adam, “in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen 3:17–19). While the gardner and the farmer both work in the same material of soil, water, plants, and sunshine, the two perform their respective works for divergent reasons. The gardner will “work” and “keep” the earth; he performs his work as a creative participation with nature. By bringing into it human orderliness, he beautifies the natural landscape, and through human creativity he assists the natural process. The farmer, on the other hand, toils that “by the sweat of [his] face [he] shall eat bread.” While he must cooperate with nature, he does so in order to grow the food necessary to survival. Farming, like the work of the artisan, is a necessity. It is what must be done for survival. Gardening, like the work of the artist, is a superfluity performed out of an innate need in man to bring order and to create, but not out of material necessity. It is always one feature of any garden that it is beautiful. It is possible for a garden to consistent entirely of flowers and other plants that will never be eaten but only gazed upon with an admiring eye. The same is not true of the farmer’s field. The field is rarely beautiful and, when it is, the beauty is at best an incidental byproduct of the similarity of the farmer’s vocation to that of the gardner. The intent of great stretches of straight rows of cornstalks is always that they be harvested and consumed, never that they be gazed upon, never that they be admired. The farmer and the artisan may occasionally, and typically accidently, make something καλόν, but only the work of the gardner and the work of the artist can be declared in truth καλὰ λίαν.
Merely defining and identifying sublimity is an “enterprise” Longinus himself identifies as “arduous.” In writing On the Sublime, however, Longinus took upon himself the herculean tasks of defining what the sublime is and providing those who would evoke it in their own artistic or literary productions with the knowledge of how this can be accomplished. That he applied considerable ability and erudition to his treatment of the sublime is beyond doubt. Whether he was able to fully accomplish either task, however, is debatable.
Longinus comes very close to offering a precise definition of the sublime in part VII of his work. There, he says that “the effect” of the sublime is “to dispose the soul to high thoughts” and “leave in the mind more food for reflection than the words seem to convey.” Even with these guides in mind, however, Longinus is forced to resort to the perception and state of the audience as the ultimate judge of what is or is not sublime. He says, for example, that “our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.” In an effort to overcome the idea that the sublime is entirely subjective, which idea might arise from this recourse to individual feeling, Longinus goes on to add that “those examples of sublimity” are “fine and genuine which please all and everybody.” Sublimity, then, must be defined as a feeling, something that each individual must ultimately experience for himself or herself, but which each individual who partakes of a certain piece of art experiences. The sublime, then, is simultaneously individual and universal, and therefore nearly impossible to define precisely.
From this, Longinus continues to identify five components of a sublime work. According to Longinus, the first two of these five components are “the power of forming great conceptions” and “vehement and inspired passion.” These two components he identifies as “innate,” in contrast to the other three which he identifies as “partly the product of art.” These remaining three Longinus lists as “the due formation of figures,” “noble diction,” and “dignified and elevated composition.” It is tempting to see this list of components as a kind of recipe. These are the ingredients and they need only be added together in the right proportions to produce a work which might evoke the feeling of the sublime as Longinus describes it. Longinus, however, preempts such a view of his list by identifying the “common foundation” of all of these components as “the gift of discourse, which is indispensable.” The ability to write in such a style, to properly mix these components and produce a suitably sublime concoction, then, is a matter of chance, fate, or providence. Whichever of these three one prefers to designate as the giver, what is certain is that the ability is a gift rather than the product of intention and volition.
On both counts, defining what the sublime is and identifying the means by which it is evoked, Longinus gives some alluring detail but finally snatches away the prize. In the end, even a mind like that of Longinus seems unable to offer any definitive definition of the sublime and how it can be evoked. In fact, the closest he comes to offering such finality is in defining what is low and allowing the sublime to stand in contrast to that.
In part XLI, Longinus offers a clear description of a work of music that is low and outside “the sphere of the sublime.” There, he criticizes music in which the rhythm is so predictable as to allow the listeners to “stamp their feet in time with the speaker.” “In like manner,” he says, “those words are destitute of sublimity which” are too simple, too short, or do not fit together well enough. In this short paragraph, Longinus describes, from his perch nearly two millennia ago, nearly all modern popular music. In fact, his description of low music can be applied equally as well to most modern books, television, and movies, in which simple words, uncomplicated sentences, and themes lacking entirely in complexity and ambiguity combine to produce a plethora of entirely predictable, flaccid, and often identical endings.
It is remarkably difficult to explain the difference between high and low culture to an audience, which includes most modern Americans, which has known almost only the low and cannot understand or appreciate the distinction between high and low, much less why one should be deemed superior to the other. Longinus struggled to explain this to a very different audience 2000 years ago, and it seems it can only be more difficult to do so today. Like Longinus, anyone today who wishes to make such a case must ultimately prove it through reference to experience. There is a distinct difference between reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and reading any given book at all from the “Romance” section of a bookstore. The latter might temporarily incite the reader’s lusts but will quickly be laid aside and forgotten about. The former will be a source of reflection, joy, terror, doubt, assurance, and interest for the attentive reader for perhaps an entire lifetime. Similarly, there is a distinct difference between listening to Handel’s Messiah and nearly anything at all that is played on most radio stations in the United States. There are many popular songs that are recalled as the song that defined a summer or a particular holiday. Most will be forgotten almost entirely after just a few months or years. Works like Messiah, however, are fittingly remembered as among the best pieces of music that mankind has ever produced in all of its history. The difference between works that are sublime and that are not, as well as what the sublime itself is, may be difficult to define precisely, yet the experience of any of these is more than sufficient evidence that there is an important distinction that must be made.
1 Longinus, On the Sublime, VI, p. 4.
A major aspect of the Bolshevik plan for Russia was to reshape Russian society and culture in the Marxist image. To this end, the Soviet government set about attempting to impose its ideals on the population via the influence of artists, writers, filmmakers, and others. In one sense, they were successful in creating a Communist artistic vision and imposing this upon the intelligentsia and, through the media, upon the rest of the Soviet population. In other more fundamental senses, however, they ultimately failed in their plan. “Indeed,” as historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg point out, “it is precisely in social and cultural life that we begin to see signs of the disintegration of the Communist order that would contribute to its collapse.”1
Immediately following the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in late 1917, the Bolsheviks, in accordance with their liberal and progressive ideals, attempted “to nurture a spirit of collectivism and egalitarianism;” to this end, “iconoclasm and imagination were encouraged in the arts and literature.”2 Soviet leaders implemented social policies that contributed to a radical restructuring of Russian society away from agriculture and family life and toward liberation of the individual and even “free love.” The previous period of Russian history under the czars was seen as a period that had stifled intellectual, social, and artistic growth, and had to be overcome. This initial period of relative openness did not last long, however.
As a new generation of Soviet leaders, especially Josef Stalin, began to assume power and the previous generation of radical intellectuals receded into the past, a marked conservatism took hold over Soviet culture. Laws were implemented that restricted the rights of individuals, much of the earlier utopian talk of liberation and equality was repudiated, and greater censorship of the arts was enacted.
Following the death of Stalin in 1953, later Soviet leaders attempted to walk the thin line between the oppressive social policies of the Stalin era and an absolute artistic freedom that would lead to open criticism of the government and its policies. In literature, for example, the post-Stalin era saw a remarkable tolerance for controversial themes and even subjects that might reflect badly on the the Soviet Union itself. Even “forbidden themes such as Stalin’s purges and labor camps were briefly allowed,” though eventually banned once again.3
Great limitations were nonetheless kept in place throughout the history of the Soviet Union, even during periods of relative openness. One example is the Soviet reaction to the 1958 novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. While it was received throughout the world as a great work of literature, its publication in the Soviet Union was banned because the book, whose contents span the end of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union, did not reflect a proper Marxist view of history. When Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his novel, the Soviet government prevented him from traveling abroad to receive the prize and he was widely criticized in the government-controlled Soviet press.
Another example of the Soviet back-and-forth between openness and repression in literature is the treatment of the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His 1962 novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, written about the forced labor camps under Stalin, was published with the explicit and personal permission of Nikita Kruschev himself. Kruschev even openly praised Solzhenitsyn and his work, including leading a standing ovation for him at an official state dinner party, in which he happily announced to those gathered, “comrades, Solzhenitsyn is among us.”4 Only three years later, in 1965, however, Solzhenitsyn was banned from ever publishing anything within the Soviet Union again. He continued to write, however, and have his books published abroad, and was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union altogether in 1973.
This kind of vacillating and contradictory approach also marked the Soviet treatment of other aspects of culture. In figurative art, for instance, whereas the Soviet government had once encouraged innovation and expression and officially continued to do so, suppression of the arts was heavy. “In 1962,” for instance, “when Kruschev visited an exhibit of modern art in Moscow,” he proceeded to openly “mock it with crude humor.”5 Later, in 1974, in an even more extreme case of government suppression of the arts, “bulldozers were sent to destroy an informal exhibit in a park outside Moscow.”6
Because of this atmosphere of repression and especially because the Soviet government forbade a wide variety of emotions and thoughts from being expressed, such as any melancholy, pessimism, religious belief, doubt, or irony, the quality of the arts overall in the Soviet Union was very low. Artists, writers, and others believed that the arts in the Soviet Union had been “subordinated to revolutionary purpose and much of the complexity of life deliberately drained out of” them.7 As a result, many Soviet artists and intellectuals began to retreat from the public sphere and create small social circles and cliques “where new poetry or prose was read, art displayed, and ideas discussed.”8 Even among the wider population and especially the youth, counter-cultures began to form that focused on Western trends like rock music, new clothing styles, and sports. Public discourse in the Soviet Union had become so heavily regulated and any dissent or apparent deviation so heavily suppressed that people began turning to new ways to shape and express personal identity apart from the official Soviet doctrine.
It was in these pockets of culture that “dissident movement developed from the late 1960s into the 1980s.”9 Ultimately, this was the backfire of Soviet policy that would contribute significantly to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse. The Soviet attempts to suppress freedom of speech, individual identity, and self-expression were, like so many attempts to suppress the human spirit throughout history, doomed to failure from their very inception. In driving differing ideas out of the public sphere, the Soviet government had driven them into the place where they were most dangerous to the continuation of the Soviet Union: into hearts, homes, and other private places where they could no longer be monitored and controlled. By the time that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, assumed power in 1985, a significant segment of the Soviet “population had become alienated from the established order in their values, judgments, tastes, and beliefs.”10 This alienation would, in a short time, prove an unstoppable force and would put an end to the Soviet Union and its Marxist experiment.
The Silver Age of Russian culture during the first two decades of the twentieth century, roughly from 1898 to 1918, was a period simultaneously marked by a burst of creativity and a foreboding pessimism. This dichotomy and the general diversity of the era make it a difficult time to accurately summarize. Russian artists, composers, poets, authors, and other cultural figures of the Silver Age exhibited “aestheticism, mysticism, decadence, sensualism, idealism, and pessimism,” as well as a “sense of uncertainty and disintegration, of deep skepticism about all received truths and certainties, and a pessimistic foreboding … though also hopeful anticipation.”1 In short, there is no easy way to describe the full range of Russian culture during the Silver Age.
The beginning of the Silver Age of Russian culture is generally identified with the publication of the periodical Mir iskusstva, or The World of Art, by Sergei Diaghilev and Alexander Benois in 1898. The periodical, published bimonthly for its first two years and monthly after 1900, was intended “to lead its Russian readers away from Realism … and to introduce them to the freer styles that were flourishing throughout Europe.”2 Diaghilev and Benois saw Russian art of the late nineteenth century as stagnant and overly focused on the concrete. Through The World of Art, they attempted to expose Russian audiences to the art then popular in Western Europe and elsewhere throughout the world, which tended toward the abstract and the innovative. Their hope was that this exposure to new forms of art would act as an impetus for Russians to take up these new styles themselves. Their hopes quickly came to fruition.
“What followed was a cultural explosion,” according to historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg: “almost overnight there sprung up in Russia a rich variety of literary and artistic creeds, circles, and movements.”3 While a variety of young artists took up the call put out by Diaghilev and Benois, outstanding figures in the visual arts of this period include, for instance, Mark Chagall and Kazimir Malevich. Chagall pioneered a new form of painting that avoided the extremes of either realism or complete abstraction. According to James Johnson Sweeney, an expert in modern art, “this is Chagall’s contribution to contemporary art: the reawakening of a poetry of representation, avoiding factual illustration on the one hand, and non-figurative abstractions on the other.”4 His unique style was a significant influence on surrealism.
Kazimir Malevich, meanwhile, established the foundations for a new style of art he referred to as “Suprematism.” In contrast to other, more representational artistic styles, Suprematism embraced the abstract and instead focused on basic geometric shapes like circles and squares. Perhaps the most well-known exhibition of Suprematist art was Malevich’s 1915 exhibition in Moscow, which he titled “0.10: The Last Futurist Painting Exhibition.” The most remarkable feature of the exhibit, which included a number of Suprematist paintings, was the placement of the Black Square, a solid black square on white canvas, in the icon corner, the place where Eastern Orthodox icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other important religious figures would traditionally be placed in a Russian home. Though initially “most reviewers voiced incomprehension and even scorn in viewing these experiments in abstraction as a new way of seeing,”5 and even Malevich’s friend and coworker Vladimir Tatlin broke with him over the exhibit, Malevich and his Suprematist school continue, like Chagall, to exert a considerable influence on artists even today. In addition to his influence, his popularity has also continued to increase; one of his paintings, Suprematist Composition, painted in 1916, sold for $60,002,500 at Sotheby’s in 2008.6
Closely connected to the new movements in art were the new movements in musical composition and performance; Malevich, for instance, designed the set for the 1913 Russian Futurist opera Victory over the Sun. In addition to this connection between artists and composers, many of the same themes and styles predominated in Russian music, which tended to focus on “the lyrical and elegaic to the mystical, Dionysian, and even apocalyptic.”7 The composers Sergei Rachmaninov and Alexander Scriabin represent two of the extremes of Russian musical culture in the Silver Age.
In the words of Riasanovsky and Steinberg, “Rachmaninov’s work exudes gentle and lyrical spirituality, aestheticism, melancholy, and fatalism.”8 His two most important choral works, for instance, are both settings for services of the Orthodox Church, one for the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910) and the other for the All-Night Vigil (1915). Ivan Moody, a modern British composer whose work is also deeply influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church’s liturgical traditions, has written of Rachmaninov’s setting for the Liturgy that “musically, the Liturgy today seems steeped in the spirit of archaic chant inflections, however modern it may have seemed at the time of its composition.”9 This ability to combine the ancient and the modern into a single cohesive whole characterizes the greater part of Rachmaninov’s works.
Alexander Scriabin, in contrast, was primarily “influenced by an eclectic mixture of Chopin, Wagner, Nietzsche, symbolism, and religious mysticism” in the form of the Theosophical occultism advocated by Helena Blavatsky; as a result, his work “offers a mix of Dionysian emotions, mystical spirituality, and pure sound.”10 His Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), for example, both revel in the sensuality, emotion, and individualism which Rachmaninov’s compositions sought to transcend.
In spite of the differences between the two composers, however, Rachmaninov and Scriabin retain a number of similarities. Their compositions both draw and build upon previous Russian music and contain a great number of religious, especially mystical, undertones and philosophical influences. In this, they are both examples of the musical currents in Russia during the Silver Age.
Like music, poetry remained an important conduit for self-expression during the Silver Age, just as it had during earlier periods of Russian history. However, also like music, poetry took on a distinctly different flavor during the Silver Age. The poetry of the acmeist school, which favored a principled clarity, simplicity, and personal theme to poetry, for instance, focused on subjects such as “love, beauty, and sadness.”11 The first published work of Anna Akhmatova, one of the most preeminent of the acmeist poets, for example, “reads like an intimate diary of a woman in love.”12 Consonant with the acmeist focus on simplicity and individuality, “Akhmatova speaks about simple earthly happiness and about simple intimate and personal sorrow.”13 Like Russian music of the Silver Age, and in great contradistinction to earlier ages, poetry of the period reveled in the sentimental, the emotional, the sensual, and above all else the personal.
Though each of the great figures of the Silver Age of Russian culture is unique in a variety of ways and different from his or her contemporaries in style, approach, and interest, there are a number of features which bind all of the great artists, poets, composers, and other cultural creators of the Silver Age together and which allow them to constitute a single and important age in Russian culture. The Russian cultural Silver Age is characterized by both a radical departure from previous currents in Russian culture and a remarkable continuity with previous themes. The Silver Age perhaps stands out most especially for the vibrant creative spirit that ran throughout the arts and for the focus on intimacy, personality, and the individual. When the Silver Age finally ended with the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in 1918, a period of great cultural growth and exploration closed on a terrible note that, with its consistent undertones of foreboding, it perhaps expected all along.
Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov, remembered today as Peter the Great, enacted a great number of sweeping and radical reforms of Russian government and culture throughout his reign as czar in 1682-1725. His reforms, implemented with the goal of transforming Russia into a state more in line with the European thought of the Enlightenment, so widely and deeply impacted every facet of Russian society that approximately a century later Count Egor Kankrin was able to write that after the reign of Peter the Great “we must be called not Russians, but Petrovians. … Russia should be called Petrovia and we Petrovians.”1 The longest lasting and most drastic of the reforms included the building of a Russian navy, movement of the capital of Russia from Moscow to the newly-built St. Petersburg, alterations in the government of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the adoption and enforcement of Western dress and grooming standards.
The establishment of a Russian navy was “one of [Peter the Great’s] passions.”2 He dreamed of establishing Russia as a maritime empire like those of the West and spared no expense in making his dream a reality. According to historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, “he began from scratch – with one vessel of an obsolete type, to be exact – and left to his successor 48 major warships and 787 minor and auxiliary craft, serviced by 28,000 men.”3 Peter, in fact, traveled in person to London to learn shipbuilding from the shipwrights there because he had been “told that the theory of shipbuilding was better understood in England” than anywhere else in Europe.4 When he began to build his own navy upon returning to Russia, he remained directly and personally involved in the building as well as the utilization of the ships.
In order to make his dreams of a powerful Russian navy come true, Peter also had to capture coastal land for Russia, which was largely landlocked when he began his reign. To that end, he undertook a war with Sweden beginning in 1700, capturing the Baltic coast and establishing St. Petersburg and the port city of Kronstadt in 1703.5
In addition to being strategically located, closer to the sea than Moscow and acting as a “Window into Europe,” the establishment of St. Petersburg also fulfilled another dream of Peter the Great.6 Especially upon his return from Western Europe, Peter saw his capital city, Moscow, as insignificant and antiquated, a relic of a time long past. When he compared it in his mind with the great cities of Western Europe, such as Paris and London, he thought Moscow too religious and medieval to be the capital city of the great European empire which he sought to make of Russia.
After capturing the Baltic coast from the Swedes, Peter immediately set to work transforming a piece of swampland in the area into the new, glorious, and clearly European capital from which he desired to reign. Peter demanded that his new capital be the priority of the entirety of his people. He ordered that “no stone house was to be built in the rest of the empire till a certain number had been set up in the new capital.”7 He had the buildings, including the homes of the Russian aristocracy and his own palace, built in the European rather than the Russian style of architecture. He sought to keep his new capital free of the domed architecture and iconographic art which dominated the skyline of the old capital in Moscow.
In a similar effort to free Russia from its Orthodox Christian religious past and bring it more into line with contemporary European religious and philosophical thought, Peter also significantly altered the governance of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ostensibly in an attempt to avoid events like those which had led to the schism of the Old Believers just a little over a decade prior to the beginning of his reign, Peter abolished the Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and, in 1721, replaced it with a council of bishops, following the model of the Protestant churches in Germany. Historian Paul D. Steeves describes the council, called “the Most Holy Synod,” as consisting “of a board of bishops which supervised church affairs and which was, in turn, supervised by a secular government official, the Procurator General, appointed by the Czar.”8 As a result of this new form of church government, “the Russian Orthodox church [sic] thus became little more than a department of state for the remaining two hundred years of the existence of the Czarist state.”9
In addition to the abolition of the Patriarchate and imposition of the Most Holy Synod on the Church, Peter also established his dominance over the Church in a number of other ways. One of the most objectionable, from the standpoint of the Church leadership, was the decree contained in his “Ecclesiastical Regulation,” the same document which established the synod, that “any priest who discovered, in the confessional, evidence of treason or of anti-government plans” was obliged “to pass on such information to the police.”10
In addition to this violation of the privacy of the sacrament of confession, Peter also passed a number of rules which, in his attempts to Westernize Russia, impinged greatly on the individual freedoms and traditional ways of life of the Russian people. Perhaps the most famous of these new rules was a law against growing beards. Peter saw the beard a symbol of the old Russia which he sought to uproot. In addition to personally shaving the faces of five of his closest advisers, Peter also “ordered that none should enter his presence with beards, on which he put a tax.”11 Similarly, he ordered that his aristocrats and others replace their traditional Russian clothing with the styles then current in Europe.
As can be seen from just these few examples of the reforms he implemented, Peter the Great despised the traditional Russia he had grown up in, seeing in it and all of its symbols an antiquated way of life. He sought to bring Russia into the European fold and spared no expense – nor focus on seeming minutiae – to accomplish his goal. Many of his reforms, such as his attempt to move the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, would be reversed by his successors. Other of his reforms, such as his tax on beards, appear hypocritical in the light of the European thinking he set as his standard even while using his autocratic power to accomplish these ends. And still more of his reforms, such as his meddling in Church government, can be seen as little more than ill-advised power plays. On the other hand, however, a large portion of his reforms, such as his building of a navy and establishment of Russia as a maritime power, had overwhelmingly positive and permanent effects on his nation. There is no way to characterize the person and reign of Peter in unambiguous terms other than, perhaps, with the descriptor, used in a neutral sense, which his people would attach to his name after his death: “great.”
War is an experience that has shaped societies for all of written history. Many of the oldest surviving stories of mankind, such as the epic works of Homer and the narratives of the opening books of the Bible, relate tales of men at war and the impact that war has had on civilizations and on individuals. Recent decades have been no exception to this rule, as the experience of two world wars, the Vietnam War, and, most recently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have worked to shape the culture of the United States and other countries involved in these conflicts. The popular culture of the United States is steeped in the experiences of its citizens at war, and, vice versa, the various mediums of popular culture have shaped the American experience of war, including both shaping the events as they occurred and, after the events, crystallizing the collective memory of the experience (Naddaff-Hafrey and Trodd, 2010, p. 257). Music, as one of the most popular and powerful of these mediums of popular culture, has served as one of the primary means by which opinions on war have been voiced and has had an especially significant influence on Americans’ perceptions of war.
When approaching representations of war in American popular music, one of the most noticeable features of the content of the songs is that remarkably few feature pro-war themes. On the contrary, the vast majority of songs are overtly antiwar while a significant minority are not incontestably antiwar but focus on topics which tend to inspire and reflect antiwar sentiments, such as the untimely deaths of young men.
Although such antiwar themes and views have come to dominant popular music, this has not always been the case. Some of the earliest popular songs about war enthusiastically express support for the wars to which they pertain. In fact, songs were often specifically created and distributed for the purpose of pro-war propaganda during World War I (Wells, 2004). The popular song “Over There,” written by George M. Cohan about World War I and recorded by Billy Murray in 1917, for instance, is exuberantly patriotic and encouraging toward the war effort, and was designed both to encourage recruitment and to raise funds for the war effort (Cohan, 1917). “Johnny,” the fictional subject of the song acts as a stand-in for all American soldiers and, by extension, for all American males as potential soldiers. In the course of the song, he is urged to “get your gun,” to “hurry right away, no delay, go today” to win the war “over there,” and “make your mother proud of you / and the old red, white, and blue.”
There is little deviation from this decidedly pro-war stance of the music of World War I when the music of World War II is examined. There is, however, a discernable change in style which may reflect the greater awareness of the costs of war which Americans had gained during their experiences in World War I. One of the most popular songs of World War II, for example, “This is the Army, Mister Jones,” by Irving Berlin, lists the hardships men entering the military will encounter in transitioning from civilian life (Berlin, 1943). The hardships listed, however, do not include physical injury, psychology trauma, or death, but cleaning the barracks and lacking common luxuries like personal rooms, and the overall mood of the song is playful. It seems, indeed, that the realities of war are actively avoided in the lyrics of the song.
The first popular song about war which I encountered in my research that mentions a soldier dying is Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” (Sadler, 1966). This song is also unique in that it is the only song which I could find that appeared actively supportive of the American war effort in Vietnam and the only one I could find that was written by a soldier who had fought in the war. Sadler, with Robin Moore, wrote the song while recovering from a wound incurred in combat in Vietnam. Sadler, in the final verses of the song, sings that “back at home a young wife waits” but her husband, a member of the Green Berets, “has died for those oppressed.” He quickly transforms what might otherwise have led naturally to an expression of antiwar opinions into pro-war bravado, however, going on to say that the dying Green Beret left a final request that his wife direct his son to also become a Green Beret. The effect is somewhat muffled and the final stanza, expressing the Green Beret’s wishes concerning his son, is a bit awkward in the light of the preceding verses. The end of the song seems naturally to make the listener wonder why a man would want his son to “win the Green Beret” given that it means he’ll be one of the “men who fight by night and day,” as the singer describes the Green Berets, and could very likely meet a fate similar to his father’s.
Nonetheless, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” is the last overtly pro-war popular song I encountered. From that point on, popular songs about war take a clearly antiwar stance and frequently express pessimism and disillusionment with the motivations and establishments that lead to wars. This is probably reflective of the unpopularity and imminence, the latter caused by the institution of the draft and more pervasive news media, of the Vietnam War. The war in Vietnam came, especially for young Americans, to symbolize war in general and displeasure with that war translated into sentiments against war in general.
For example, following “The Ballad of the Green Berets” in 1966, the next song explicitly about war that made it into the top ten most popular songs for its year of release was Edwin Starr’s “War” in 1970 (Whitfield and Strong, 1970). In the song, Starr asks repeatedly “war / what is it good for?” to which a chorus of singers replies emphatically “absolutely nothing.” Throughout the song, Starr details the evils of war, including “tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes” and the fact that a “young man” could be “disabled” or die. He tells us that “the point of war blows my mind” and questions the methods and motivations of those who “say we must fight to keep our freedom.” The disaffection expressed by Starr pervades nearly all popular songs about war which were created during or after the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War, in fact, inspired such overwhelmingly negative impressions among Americans that songs continued to be made about it and against it well after it had ended. Alice in Chain’s grunge rock song “Rooster,” for instance, released in 1993, nearly 20 years after the end of the Vietnam War, discusses the horrors of war in vivid detail and with a great deal of emotion in the lyrics, enhanced by the hard-driving guitars of the band (Cantrell, 1993, track 6). The singer, for instance, tells us all at once that he’s “got my pills against mosquito death / my buddy’s breathing his dying breath / oh God please won’t you help me make it through.” “Rooster” goes even further than most of the songs about the Vietnam War made at the time of the Vietnam War in not only its exploration of war itself but of the treatment of war veterans upon their return home to the United States. He tells us, for instance, that ‘they spit on me in my homeland.”
What is remarkable about the circumstances surrounding the production of “Rooster” is that the writer, Jerry Cantrell, wrote the song about his father’s experiences during the Vietnam War. The song is about an experience of the previous generation, yet the writer is able to make the experiences of that generation present and relevant through his lyrics. According to Rick Berg (1986), “the music industry sings its sad song of Vietnam to a generation that … knows little more about Vietnam and its victims than the media’s revised images” (p. 94).
The stamp of the Vietnam War and the tragedies that accompanied it on the American consciousness are evident even today in popular music. The ghost of the Vietnam War pervades the 2010 country song “Raymond” by Brett Eldredge, for instance, in spite of the song’s subject matter not being war (Eldredge, 2010). In the song, “Catherine Davis,” an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, mistakenly refers to the singer, one of her caretakers, by the name “Raymond.” We find out near the end of the song that “there’s a small white cross in Arlington / reads Raymond Davis, ‘71.” The implication, which is allowed to go unstated because of its obviousness to an American living in the post-Vietnam War era, is that her son was a soldier who had been killed in Vietnam in 1971.
The Vietnam War’s effect on the American consciousness is also evident in the treatment of the United States’ most recent wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in popular music. It is worth noting here that I could not find any popular songs which overtly expressed support for either of these wars. There are some that appear to do so, such as Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American),” often thought to be a pro-war anthem and frequently played as such (Keith, 2002, track 1). Keith himself has stated on several occasions, however, that he has never supported the war in Iraq and intended “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” and other songs he has made in a similar vein to be expressions of support for American soldiers rather than the wars they are currently engaged in fighting (Morales, 2009).
This differentiation between the soldier and the war the soldier is fighting has become a staple of recent antiwar music, whereas many earlier songs and other expressions of antiwar sentiments did not make such a distinction, or at least did not make it clearly. This new awareness of and focus on that distinction is largely the result of the abuse, such as that mentioned in the song “Rooster,” directed at returning veterans by antiwar individuals.
Some recent songs have even gone so far as to couch their antiwar message in a description of the thoughts of soldiers. One such song is Everlast’s 2008 folk/hip-hop song “Letters Home from the Garden of Stone” (Schrody, 2008, track 10). In the song, the singer explores themes that include fear, confusion, and patriotism in warfare, all expressed through the façade of a letter home written by a soldier at war in Iraq. Near the end of the song, Everlast seems to turn the patriotic pro-war bravado of George M. Cohan’s popular World War I song “Over There” on its head. Where Cohan tells his soldier to “make your mother proud of you / and the old red, white, and blue,” as cited previously, Everlast’s soldier seems to answer directly back to this charge when he asks his mother, “Do you think I should be fighting? / Ma, are you proud? Are you ashamed? / Really I’m trying to do the right thing / I hope my government can say the same.”
The gung-ho “Johnny” of “Over There” and the Green Beret who wants his son to grow up to be a Green Beret as well of “The Ballad of the Green Berets” has become the reluctant but good-intentioned doubter questioning his own participation in the war in “Letters Home from the Garden of Stone.” This new, somewhat ambivalent approach to songs about war is reflective of a generation of young men who have become soldiers but have been raised in the shadow of the Vietnam War. As a result, they view all war through the lens of the Vietnam War, including its tragedies and its ultimate failure in the eyes of the American public, which view permeates popular culture. The unpopularity and loss of the Vietnam War seems to have permanently altered the approach taken to war in popular music and popular culture in general to such a point that it is no longer possible to make a clearly pro-war song at all. The pro-war must instead be cast as pro-soldier while only the antiwar is allowed to be explicit. The experience of the realities of war has informed popular culture, which has in turn redefined perceptions of war among the public at large. This process by which events shape popular culture and popular culture then shapes perceptions and events has permanently altered the way that Americans view and engage in war in the modern world.
Berg, R. (Spring, 1986). Losing Vietnam: Covering the war in an age of technology Cultural critique, 3, 92-125.
Berlin, Irving. (1941). This is the army, mister jones [Recorded by Irving Berlin].
Cantrell, J. (1993). Rooster [Recorded by Alice in Chains]. On Dirt [CD]. New York, New York: Columbia Records.
Cohan, G. (1917). Over there [Recorded by B. Murray].
Eldredge, B. (2010). Raymond [Recorded by B. Eldredge]. On One way ticket [CD]. Nashville, Tenn.: Atlantic Nashville.
Keith, T. (2002). Courtesy of the red, white, and blue (The angry American) [Recorded by T. Keith]. On Unleashed [CD]. Nashville, Tenn.: DreamWorks Nashville.
Morales, T. (February 11, 2009). Toby Keith: Being Honest. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/11/05/earlyshow/leisure/music/main582006.shtml
Naddaff-Hafrey, N. and Trodd, Z. (2010). The turnaround point: Vietnam movies, protest literature, and the feedback-loop of contemporary American identity. In L. Wilson (Ed.), Americana: Readings in popular culture (2nd ed.) (pp. 249-263). Hollywood: Press Americana.
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Schrody, E. (2008). Letters home from the garden of stone [Recorded by Everlast]. On Love, war and the ghost of Whitey Ford [CD]. New York, New York: Martyr, Inc.
Wells, K.A. (2004). Music as war propaganda: Did music help win the first world war? Parlor Songs. Retrieved from: http://parlorsongs.com/issues/2004-4/thismonth/feature.php
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