On May 29, 1913, in the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris, a riot broke out.
After the curtain went up on the premiere of The Rite of Spring, it took only a few minutes for the tumult to begin.
Boos, hisses, catcalls, people throwing objects at the stage… The roar of the crowd quickly became so loud, the dancers lost their cues.
And the music. It was a whisper, a pounding scream, sheets of brass, harsh relentless rhythms breaking against one another, cliffs suddenly colliding and collapsing in the air.
The police arrived and shut the program down.
Stravinsky, at 28, had arrived on the world scene.
Never again would he compose music so challenging. Later in his life, after he had taken up a position as a champion of new classicism, he would conduct a recording of the Rite that was modulated to a bare shadow of its former self.
But the revolution had happened.
Much has been written about the premiere and the Rite. A great deal of programmatic explanation has been offered to “make sense” out of the piece of music: after all, it was a ballet with a plot, and the themes had to do with primitive ritual sacrifices in a fanciful pagan world.
You can also find scholarly work on the structure of the Rite, indicating a possible borrowed background of several Eastern European folk melodies.
Formidable creations of imagination are often diluted by referring the audience to other works and periods of time and influences—to explain the incomprehensible.
But the fact is, to absorb a work of imagination, one has to use his own imagination.
Since this is considered unlikely, pundits earnestly help us with step-down contexts, so that we can understand the work in pedestrian terms. In other words, so we can reduce it to nothing.
Fundamentally, it is its own world. It immediately and finally presents itself as a universe apart from easy references and tie-ins and links.
So when you listen to the Rite, you are, gratefully, alone with the music. In this regard, I recommend one recording. The 1958 Leonard Bernstein-New York Philharmonic, available as Sony SMK 47629. It’s the 1992 Bernstein Royal Edition. Le Sacre Du Printemps.
Bernstein, one of the geniuses of the 20th century, was no stranger to encountering imagination with imagination. And yet, as the conductor, he had no need to distort the score. If anything, he was more faithful to it and the composer’s great intent than any other conductor, past or present.
In 1912 and 1913, Stravinsky had composed the Rite in a reckless frame of mind. This did not mean he abandoned all he knew; it meant he wanted to show everyone how dim the perception of music had become. “To hell with all of them.”
He took the large orchestra and shredded the conventional relationships between its various sections. Instead, he made it an ocean in a storm. He crossed all lines. He crashed together old sounds and new sounds. He destroyed pleasant mesmerizing rhythms.
But there was nothing primitive about his undertaking. He made something new, something no one could have predicted.
As you listen to it, you may find one part of your mind repeating, this is not music, this is not music. Just keep listening. Five times, 50 times, 100 times.
There are artists like Stravinsky, like the Spanish architect Gaudi, like Edgar Varese, like the often-reviled American writer Henry Miller, like Walt Whitman (although Whitman has been grotesquely co-opted into a Norman Rockwell-like prefect), like the several great Mexican muralists—all of whom transmit an oceanic quality.
As in, The Flood.
There is a fear that, if such artists were unleashed to produce their work on a grand scale—and if the societal chains of perception were removed—they would take over the world.
This is the real reason there was a riot at the Theatre des Champs Elysees on May 29, 1913. Even though Stravinsky was presenting a universe of his own making, people instinctively felt that the music could spill over into the streets of Paris…and after that, where would it go? What would stop it?
Their fear was justified.
Our world, contrary to all consensus, is meant to be revolutionized by art, by imagination, right down to its core.
That this has not happened for the best is no sign that the process is irrelevant. It is only a testament to the collective resistance.
Who knows how many such revolutions have been shunted aside and rejected, in favor of the shape we now think of as central and eternal?
We are living in a default structure, the one that has been left over after all the prior revolutions have been put to sleep.
And still, it takes imagination and creating to give us what we have now. But often it is a harnessed imagination that accedes to a stolid esthetic that replaces daring and vast improvisation with classical forms and formats, long after their time.
We peek between the fluted columns to see what the future might hold. We speculate, for example, that information itself might be alive and might flow in from our own DNA to bring about a new cyber-brain step in evolution. Information? What further evidence do we need that our society is heading down a slope to the swamp?
If Rite of Spring and other works of that magnitude are information, a wooden duck on a doily is Shakespeare.
Mere information is the wood scrapings and the stone chips Brancusi swept up in his studio and put out in the alley. Information is the dried flattened tubes of paint Matisse disposed of with the old newspapers. Information is the heap of wires Tesla tossed in the garbage.
Information is the neutral boil-down left over after the artist has made his mark.
Creation is not neutral.
It flows out into the atmosphere with all its subjective force.
That is what happened on May 29, 1913.
And that is what evoked the mass fear.
The critics would have declared Salvador Dali a lunatic if he hadn’t had such formidable classical painting skills.
He placed his repeating images (the notorious melting watch, the face and body of his wife, the ornate and fierce skeletal structures of unknown creatures) on the canvas as if they had as much right to be there as any familiar object.
This was quite troubling to many people. If an immense jawbone that was also a rib or a forked femur could rival a perfectly rendered lamp or couch or book (on the same canvas), where were all the accoutrements and assurances of modern comfortable living?
Where was the pleasantly mesmerizing effect of a predictable existence?
Where was a protective class structure that depended on nothing more than money and cultural slogans?
Dali invented vast comedies on canvas. But the overall joke turned, as the viewer’s eye moved, into a nightmare, into an entrancing interlude of music, a memory of something that had never happened, a gang of genies coming out of corked bottles. A bewildering mix of attitudes sprang out from the paintings.
What was the man doing? Was he making fun of the audience? Was he simply showing off? Was he inventing waking dreams? Was he, God forbid, actually imagining something entirely new that resisted classification?
Words failed viewers and critics and colleagues and enemies.
But they didn’t fail Dali. He took every occasion to explain his work. However, his explications were handed out in a way that made it plain he was telling tall tales—interesting, hilarious, and preposterous tall tales.
Every interview and press conference he gave, gave birth to more attacks on him. Was he inviting scorn? Was he really above it all? Was he toying with the press like some perverse Olympian?
Critics flocked to make him persona non grata, but what was the persona they were exiling? They had no idea then, and they have no idea now.
It comes back to this: when you invent something truly novel, you know that you are going to stir the forces trapped within others that aspire to do the very same thing. You know that others are going to begin by denying that anything truly NEW even exists. That DOES make it a comedy, whether you want to admit it or not.
It is possible that every statement ever uttered in public by Dali was a lie. A fabrication. An invention dedicated to constructing a massive (and contradictory) persona.
Commentators who try to take on Dali’s life usually center on the early death of his young brother as the core explanation for Dali’s “basic confusion”—which resulted in his bizarre approach to his own fame.
However, these days, with good reason, we might more correctly say that Dali was playing the media game on his own terms, after realizing that no reporter wanted the real Dali (whatever that might mean)—some fiction was being asked for, and the artist was merely being accommodating.
He was creating a self that matched his paintings.
It is generally acknowledged that no artist of the 20th century was superior to Dali in the ability to render realistic detail.
But of course Dali’s work was not about realism.
The most complex paintings—see, for example, Christopher Columbus Discovering America and The Hallucinogenic Toreador—brilliantly orchestrated the interpenetration of various solidities/ realities, more or less occupying the same space.
I’m sure that if Dali were living today, he would execute a brain-bending UFO landing on the front lawn of the White House. Such a painting would envelop the viewer with simultaneous dimensions colliding outside the president’s mansion.
At some point in his career, Dali saw (decided) there was no limit to what he could assemble in the same space—and there was no limit to the number of spaces he could corral into the same canvas. A painting could become a science-fiction novel reaching into several pasts and futures. The protagonist (the viewer) could find himself in such a simultaneity.
Critics have attacked the paintings relentlessly. They are offended at Dali’s skill, which matches the best work of the meticulous Dutch Renaissance masters.
They hate the dissonance. They resent Dali’s mordant wit and rankle at the idea that Dali could carry out monstrous jokes in such fierce extended detail.
But above all, the sheer imagination harpoons the critics. How dare a painter turn reality upside down so blatantly, while rubbing their faces in it.
The cherry on the cake was: for every attack the critics launched at Dali the man (they really had no idea who he was), Dali would come back at them with yet another elaborate piece of fiction about himself. It was unfair. The scholars were “devoted to the truth.” The painter was free to invent himself over and over as many times as he fancied.
Dali was holding up a mirror. He was saying, “You people are like me. We’re all doing fiction. I’m much better at it. In the process, I get at a much deeper truth.”
Dali was the hallucinogenic toreador. He was holding off and skirting the charges of the critics and the historians. They rushed at him. He moved with his cape—and danced out of the way.
The principles of organized society dictate that a person must be who he is, even if that is a cartoon of a cartoon. A person must be one recognizable caricature forever, must be IDed, must have one basic function. Must—as a civilization goes down the trail of decline—be watched and taped and profiled.
When a person shows up who is many different things, who can invent himself at the drop of hat, who seems to stand in 14 different places at the same time, the Order trembles.
This is not acceptable.
(Fake) reality declares: what you said yesterday must synchronize absolutely with what you say today.
This rule (“being the only thing you are”) guarantees that human beings will resonate with the premise that we all live and think and work in one continuum of space and time. One. Only one. Forever. The biggest joke of all. The big lie.
Whatever he was, however despicable he may have been in certain respects, Dali broke that egg. Broke the cardinal rule.
He reveled in doing it. He made people wait for an answer about himself, and the answer never came. Instead, he gave them a hundred answers, improvised like odd-shaped and meticulous reveries.
He threw people back on their own resources, and those resources proved to be severely limited.
How harsh for conventional critics to discover that nothing in Dali’s education produced an explanation for his ability to render an object so perfectly on the canvas. It was almost as if, deciding that he would present competing circumstances inside one painting, he perversely ENABLED himself to do the job with such exacting skill, “making subversive photographs come to life.”
That was too much.
But there the paintings are.
Like it or not, Dali paved the way for many others. He opened doors and windows.
And the pressure has been building. The growing failure of major institutions (organized religion, psychology, education, government) to keep the cork in the bottle signals the prison break in progress.
More people understand that the veil is not really a veil of tears. It’s a curtain madly drawn across the creative force.
The pot is boiling. People want out.
Somewhere along the line we have to give the green light to our own creative power. That is the first great day. That’s the dawn of no coerced boundaries. Everything we’ve been taught tells us that a life lived entirely from creative power is impossible. We don’t have it within us. We should maintain silence and propriety in the face of greater official power and wisdom. We must abide by the rules. We must, at best, “surrender to the universe.”
But what if, when we come around the far turn, we see that the universe is us? Is simply one part of imagination? Is a twinkling rendition we installed to keep us titillated with dreams that would forever drift out of reach? What if it turns out that we are the perverse ones and Dali is quite normal?
What if we pop out of the fences of this culture and this continuum and this tired movie called planet Earth?
The author of two explosive collections, THE MATRIX REVEALED and EXIT FROM THE MATRIX, Jon was a candidate for a US Congressional seat in the 29th District of California. He maintains a consulting practice for private clients, the purpose of which is the expansion of personal creative power. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, he has worked as an investigative reporter for 30 years, writing articles on politics, medicine, and health for CBS Healthwatch, LA Weekly, Spin Magazine, Stern, and other newspapers and magazines in the US and Europe. Jon has delivered lectures and seminars on global politics, health, logic, and creative power to audiences around the world. You can sign up for his free emails at www.nomorefakenews.com