A version of this post appeared on READ, the blog from Durham University’s English department on 1st July 2016.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, anthropological and ethnographic studies of so-called “primitive cultures” were hugely popular, and there was a surge of interest in and engagement with this emerging discourse across the arts. From Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso’s artistic works, to the versions of primitive life expressed through works of modernist writers from Joseph Conrad to T. S. Eliot, the “primitive other” became the benchmark against which “civilised” society was drawn.
My recent article in Postgraduate English looks at two examples of how modernists drew on the notion of the “primitive”: E.M. Forster’s short story ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909) and Stravinsky/Nijinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring (1913).
One of the particularly fascinating things when we pair these two works is that they share a similar vision. Despite being from different national contexts, and working in different genres, this Russian ballet and English short story betray a similar fear: the loss of individual identity to tribal identity.
The word “primitive” was often used disparagingly, in line with nineteenth-century assumptions about non-Western cultures and peoples as somehow backward or uncivilised. However, it also carried more positive connotations, evoking the essential purity and goodness of a simple, “primitive” life, and exalting peasant and folk culture as somehow uncorrupted by the sophistication of the modern world. This latter stance reached towards the notion of the “primitive ideal” as a mode of existence closer to nature, and also to artistic truth.
Modernists such as Igor Stravinsky and E. M. Forster embraced the duality at the heart of the Western response to the “primitive.” They conjured visions of primitive existence that held both views simultaneously, in order to provide complex and multi-layered critiques of their contemporary society.
Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring (1913), is a depiction of an ancient Slavic ritual, which sees the men and women of an ancient tribe prepare the earth, invoke their ancestors, and ultimately sacrifice a young girl. The preparations for the final ritual are made through coordinated group dances, with small groups of dancers moving around each other like cogs in a vast machine. This counterpointed movement is echoed in the score, which sees similar groupings and movements within the instrumentation. For most of the ritual, the sacrificial victim is unchosen, remaining indistinguishable from the rest of the group until she literally steps out of line. In falling out of step with the other girls, her fate as the sacrifice is sealed, and she is encircled by the rest of her tribe.
The Rite pits the romanticised past of Nicholas Roerich’s set design, and of the ethereal opening notes of a bassoon playing in its highest registers, against a rhythmically dexterous machine-like pulse, the animalistic (or perhaps metallic) whoops and shrieks of the brass and strings, and the terrible fate of the rite’s sacrificial victim. In this conflation of ancient and modern in the ambiguous soundscape, both mechanised and ancient, and the dangerous collectivism portrayed in the erotic and bloodthirsty undertones of the sacrifice, The Rite celebrates a romanticised vision of the past, while raising concerns over an increasingly industrialised society as both culturally regressive, and fatally damaging to that other great concern of the modernist: the individual.
E.M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909) is a dystopic vision of a potential future world, where humans live inside an underground structure known ominously as ‘The Machine.’ In an uncanny prefiguration of the age of the internet, people live in isolation from one another, communicating via a kind of virtual chat. The natural and the mechanical come together through the naturalistic vocabulary Forster employs to describe the Machine: the inhabitants’ rooms are like bees’ cells, and a huge mechanical arm is described as a giant worm. In his representation of life inside the Machine, Forster pushes notions of civilisation to their extremes, and in so doing reveals a paradoxical trajectory of degeneration as a direct result of the inhabitants’ civilising impulses.
Over the course of the story, the people living inside the machine become entangled in tribal associations through the homogenisation of their identities into the single tribal identity, through their belief in taboos, and through their worship of ‘the book’: a manual describing the workings of the Machine, which itself becomes an unquestionable God-figure. Running against this trajectory of degeneration is a single man: Kuno, who seeks to re-establish his own physicality, and his connections to a more natural state.
Forster’s story juxtaposes Kuno’s reclamation of selfhood through “primitive” physicality, his desire to connect with his family and with other people more generally, and his urge for the outdoors, with the over-civilised tribe of the machine.
This sense of over-civilisation in Forster’s story has striking parallels to our own digital age as a place where face to face communication has been replaced by screens and text messages, and where individual lives have become increasingly insular.
For Forster as well as for Stravinsky, then, the locus for the critique of the contemporary is found in the conflation of the natural with the mechanical, and in the overarching and homogenising power of the tribe. Forster privileges the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’ in an over-civilised world. He reveals a sense of social and creative renewal in returning to an earlier existence, while the tribal associations of the machine’s inhabitants play into the narrative of “primitive” cultures as backward.
Tied in to Stravinsky’s representation of an ancient Russia harbouring its own industrialised future, is an additional layer of significance, namely the growing threat of communism in his homeland. Composed in 1913, just five years before the revolutionary wars that would overthrow the Russian monarchy, The Rite of Spring is as anti-communist as it is anti-modern. The role of the individual within a communist society becomes embodied in the tribe’s sacrificial victim.
There are similarly shared foundations in the positive aspects of “primitive” representation in these two distinct works. For both Forster and Stravinsky, the “primitive” is portrayed as the site of creative and restorative artistic energies. For Stravinsky, this manifests in the Russian folk melodies woven into his score, and in the purpose of the staged rite itself—to bring new life and growth. For Forster, it can be found in Kuno’s burgeoning selfhood, and the potential tribe outside the machine that remains an unrealised narrative possibility, carrying with it any hope for the future.
The “primitive” in modernist works is an artistic ideal, a recreation of romanticised past, an extension of social and political concerns, and a hotbed of taboos, danger, and eroticism. As a space of multiplicity and inherent contradiction, the representations of the primitive in these works function on a vital and significant level that cannot be reduced to one single iteration. This multiform use of the primitive is seen across the modernist landscape, where attitudes vacillate between fear and appreciation, nostalgia and a discourse of degeneration, even within a single work. The call against unrestrained modernisation, then, finds uneasy comfort in narratives of the primitive.