Welcome to the 20th century! | Bleader

Welcome to the 20th century!


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Maurice Ravel
  • Maurice Ravel
In my review of House of Pleasures (which ends its run at the Gene Siskel Film Center tonight), I focused on the ways in which the film’s writer-director, Bertrand Bonello, draws attention to his audience’s distance from the 19th-century setting. He’s not the first person to reflect this alienation through art: indeed, it seems to have been common practice in the years following World War I. The Great War devastated the European continent with unprecedented efficiency, as developments in industry and technology allowed for great numbers of people to be killed in record time. If death was now something one experienced as part of a giant, anonymous mass, what was the new century going to do to life?

For one thing, it would make previous notions of civility and refinement seem terribly naive. As Thomas Mann wrote in his foreword to The Magic Mountain, which was published in 1924 and set in the first decade of the 20th century, “the extraordinary pastness of our story results from its having taken place before a certain turning point, on the far side of a rift that has cut deeply through our lives and consciousness... But is not the pastness of a story that much more profound, more complete, more like a fairy tale, the tighter it fits up against the ‘before’?” The novel takes place in a remote sanatorium that Mann depicts as a sort of Shangri-La, where some patients are so seduced by the life of pampered convalescence that they never leave. Like the brothel in House of Pleasures, the sanatorium in Magic Mountain is both haven and prison, and it’s built on a rocky foundation of denial.

Now that the 20th century has come and gone, it’s harder to relate to the sense of shock with which many people regarded the passing of the 19th century. But if you’d like a sense of how it may have felt, check out symphonic work La Valse, which was written by French composer Maurice Ravel between 1919 and 1920. Often read as a metaphor for the Great War’s destruction of Old World values, La Valse begins as an old-fashioned waltz, then mutates over the course of 12 minutes into a loud, unruly piece that suggests a tank rolling over the orchestra. Ravel denied any political motivation behind the work, yet this political interpretation has played a major role in its enduring popularity. Take a listen and decide for yourself.


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