Primitively Narrative

Modernism, with a capital M, does not define just one artistic movement in just one medium. Modernism has evolved into a term used to describe a “modern” approach to the creation of art, and has thus become representative of a number of movements ranging from Impressionism to Cubism to Primitivism to even the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg. What is at the root of much of the modernist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is a new self awareness when dealing with a specific medium. Artists working in each medium began to look at how that medium acted uniquely in conveying an artistic idea. This new approach allowed for each medium to react to the trends in other media and adapt to its own, in a way that highlights what is unique about that medium. Igor Stravinsky, a Russian composer, and Franz Kafka, a Czech writer, demonstrate two modernist artists who used modernism’s self awareness to develop similar modernist themes in very different media. Igor Stravinsky challenged the narrative-like structure that dominated romantic composters, in The Rite of Spring, to describe his homage to Russian folklore. Franz Kafka challenged our narrative expectations in literature with Metamorphosis to better describe our fractured relationship with nature in modernity. Both works use the unique approach to narrative in their respective mediums to convey the modernist trend of primitivism and to comment on modernity’s influence on society.

Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring combines musically challenging compositions with physically aggressive dance movements to present a primitive scenario. The ballet tells the story of a girl who dances to death in a ritual sacrifice while being watched by elders in a circle. The first performance in Paris in 1913 was originally a ballet with the famous Vaslav Ninjinsky’s choreography and Stravinsky’s music before Walt Disney got his hands on it in 1940. The original work reflected Stravinsky’s love for the folklore traditions of pagan Russia. The concept behind Stravinsky’s ballet is a vision he had where a young maiden is sacrificed for the pagan god of spring. Using this theme as its foundation, the choreography under Ninjinsky greatly departs from a traditional ballet style and uses instead primal styles that favor rhythm and sensual poses. Stravinsky aided this theme through changing the emphasis of the musical score from harmony to rhythm. Rhythm as the driving force allowed for the pieces to be “immediately perceived as a barbaric and violent subversion of an entire musical tradition” (Bethan Jones, 2003). The very thematic choice of this ballet caused an uproar as the audience who, waiting the curtain to rise, was expecting the demure conventions of classical ballet.  The choice represented a desire within contemporary artists to recognize and describe the world before the effects of modernity. Modernity represented a new dependency on technology along with a new sense of over stimulation through this dependency. To artists like Stravinsky, this represented a problem of society, one in which its members were becoming too complacent to the world around them. Stravinsky took it upon himself to break this complacency by shocking the audience in ways only his specific medium could, employing rhythm over melody and utilizing dance moves not traditional to ballet. 

Stravinsky, as a modernist, did more than just choose a “modernist” theme, primitivism, to create a modern composition. The composition itself became modernist through the way it expressed that theme. Using as a foundation the modernist tendency to evolve that which makes each medium unique, Stravinsky explored and then challenged the intensely dominating tendency in music to follow a narrative pattern. With Rite of Spring, the musical emphasis shifts in favor of dissonance, rhythm, and ultimately unpredictability through constantly changing time signatures and off-beat accents. To a member of the audience what this means is that he would not be able to predict the ending of a movement as one typically can with more romantically inclined compositions. A good word used to describe such romantically infused music is “flow” an observer would be able to flow with the music and follow it as it reaches its complication elements and through to its resolutions. Stravinsky recognized this narrative tendency and challenged it by not following the complication elements with resolution. Ultimately Stravinsky created a work of art that was unparalleled in its complexity and thus posed a great challenge to the orchestra which had to learn it.  This idea of describing primitivism by imitating the idea of primitivism in the compositional elements is strictly a modern approach. It utilizes what is unique to the medium of music to express a tendency unique to the time.

Two years later and on the other side of Europe in Prague, a Czech writer was hard at work on what would become one of the most popular examples of utterly disturbing literature today. Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis describes the extremely bizarre story of a man who finds himself transformed into a giant roach-like bug one morning. The story does not, as one would expect, describe how his family helps him to find a way of returning to normal, nor does it describe the undeniable surprise his family should have in discovering his unfortunate predicament. Instead, this disturbing story relates how the family struggled to maintain their lives. The problem came from that fact that as a human, Gregor financially supported his unemployed parents and child aged sister. Thus now that Gregor was a bug, this family had to both take care of him, or try to at least, and secure a new means of financial support. The themes presented in this strange work are reflective of the disconnect in modernist society with nature and the fractured relationships among members of this crowded urban environment. It is not the loss of their son that bothers Gregor’s parents, but rather that now they not only have to find another means of receiving financial support, but they must also put up with a giant cockroach living in one of their bedrooms. It is not the same primitivism that Stravinsky utilizes in his work, and perhaps that is significant in regards to how Modernism affected different media. Kafka does address more directly the primitivist tendency of modernism in other works but here he focuses more on how we can’t react when we lose control of our controlled environments. His choice of a bug for Gregor’s transformation is suggestive of primitivism as well, through the concept of a bug not belonging in modern society. Bugs represent the outside, natural, primal world that is removed by controlling and structuring our own modern world.  But there is a sense of a redeeming quality as well in this work that is triggered by the transformation. Since Gregor can no longer support the family, each member, mother, father, and sister, all are forced to find jobs and reconnect with the outside world. Thus, Gregor’s death at the end of the story “was like a confirmation of [the family’s] new dreams and excellent intentions” (138, Metamorphosis). So perhaps this metamorphosis was exactly what the family needed to return from its isolated spot in modernity. It acted a sudden shock of primal power and catapulted the family from a life of dependency to a life of independence.

To describe this tale of redemption for the Samsa family, Kafka uses a traditional narrative form without ever identifying his narrator. The entire story is described by a voice that is neither sympathetic towards Gregor nor surprised by his transformation. He starts the story plainly with “as Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” (89, Metamorphosis). The narrator is providing an incredibly bizarre introduction with no emotion; it is very matter-of-factly described as if it is something that just happens at times.  Furthermore, Kafka has chosen to include a reference to “uneasy dreams” from the night before, almost as if to suggest perhaps that whatever happened in those dreams was the cause of this sudden transformation. But no connection is ever made as the night before does not come up again. Gregor spends little time thinking about how it happened and instead works on repositioning himself on his feet rather than his back. What is interesting about this first sentence is Kafka’s play with traditional narrative concepts. Traditionally, when a change of such magnitude is inflicted upon the protagonist, an explanation of why and how that change occurred always follows, yet here we are given neither. He is deliberately playing with the expectations we bring to reading narrative in order to further de-familiarize us with the situation he has imposed. He further manipulates the narrative by focusing the second paragraph on a magazine cut out that Gregor has chosen to frame that displays “a lady, with a fur cap on and a fur stole,” (89, Metamorphosis). This framed magazine clipping is never brought up again in the text and the model displayed in the picture does not relate to Gregor in anyway, save  for Gregor’s primal attraction to her. Instead of giving us clues to Gregor’s predicament, Kafka revels in compounding our confusion by jumping between meaningless objects located in his room and Gregor’s hopeless concerns for getting to work on time. But with greater scrutiny we can deduce that these objects and Gregor’s thoughts are not unrelated to the theme of primitivism, after all we are presented with a woman in fur and a man who is frustrated with modernity. It is that frustration that opens the door to the fascination with primitivism and the relationship between modern man and primal man. A woman in fur works to remind Gregor and the reader about that primal sexual relationship not discussed in modern society. Thus just as primitivism subverts the customs and traditions of contemporary society, Kafka subverts the customs and traditions of narrative to describe this primitivism.

Kafka as a writer and Stravinsky as a composer both find unique ways in their media to disrupt narrative traditions and subvert cultural customs by introducing primitivism. Music, being inherently abstract, works with a distinctly primitive narrative story to break away from the narrative traditions in composing musical melodies. Literature on the other hand begins as a rather literal form of artistic expression and thus uses more subtle themes of primitivism to break away from its narrative customs. Both artists use our expectations against us to challenge the way we interact with their works, but where Kafka does it to further distance us from what is happening in his story, Stravinsky does it to better connect us to the intensely rhythmic production being displayed on stage. This difference comes from music’s inherent abstractness and literature’s inherent literalness. With modernism as a new approach to art, the idea of using the theme of primitivism allowed artists to comment on the frustrations with modernity in contemporary society. Fundamental to this approach is a self awareness of the medium; it is in this aspect that the two works become different, despite their similar themes. A modernist must seek to explore what makes his medium unique. In that respect each of these two artists broke from the traditions imposed on them through the narrative expectations of each medium. Thus both artists were able to explore primitivism and modernity by manipulating that which is fundamentally to their medium.

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4 Responses to Primitively Narrative

  1. David Thomas says:

    The interesting thing here is your choice of works. To take Kafka and Stravinsky today is to look at artists who are warmly accepted as part of the canon and now even played and taught in HS. I am constantly challenging myself to identify the music and literature of today that will 50 years hence enter the canon. This is no small task since the shock value of old is gone and the notion of simply identifying the shocking of today is empty since shock in and of itself no longer garners the same kind of respect. Your answer may well be to look to the internet, or to some cyber world just as Kafka and Igor looked to the primative, maybe you are right but I remain unconvinced.

  2. huysmans says:

    If I may suggest, what some found quite perverse and shocking to a certain extent is the Kaycee Nelson story from seven years ago. The story in brief is about a woman who designed a fake online persona of a college student battling leukemia. Once discovered many of the students supporters were furious that such a hoax would go on and felt extremely betrayed by this persona that they had come to know so well. In sum it was an act of deception which up until the internet age has never been able to play itself out so successfully. I myself am beginning to wonder if the next acts worthy of shock value, that is the Fountains and Rites of Springs of our age are those that don’t just mess without expectations but mess with our emotions, they trick us through interacting with us and leave us rather bewildered.
    I myself even cringe to suggest what this woman did was art but then again, it was creative, she utilized a medium to present this narrative story and expanded the possibility of narrative by allowing her story to interact with the readers, the only problem is the readers didn’t know that they were interacting with a story. It is also important to note when dealing with this particular case that she had no monetary incentive, she wasn’t tricking people out of their finances and thus was never charged with any act of Freud.

    Just one idea…

  3. David Thomas says:

    Actually the world of imposters and forgerers goes way back and the outrage you talk about may have more to do with the being a student and the the sense of betrayal. That being said the suicide of the 13 year old in Missouri earlier this year may speak to your issue more directly. While clearly not art, the notion that someone could be goaded in to taking their own life through the actions of a fictional persona is breathtaking and so maybe what the cyber world allows is a more direct emotional connection with a character than any print based media could. Also I remain troubled by using shock as the litmus test and want to think more slowly and clearly about that. Certainly being on the edge is a hallmark of an artist but does the product always shock and if it doesn’t thenwill it not be ART. Just ruminating a bit it would be hard to see Bach as shocking or Hugo and Tostoy but then maybe they were simply superb craftsman and clearly not innovators.

  4. huysmans says:

    I don’t mean to suggest that shock is the criteria with which we measure new art but in responding to your question about where the shock value exists, I am beginning to think that instead of it hiding in our expectations, or rather appearing when our expectations are proven wrong, I think that it might be worth while to look into shock value today being somewhere in this new connection that the audience can have with the art.

    When looking at what makes a masterpiece today and how to find it before its fifty year establishment in the canon is a different question and i am not sure if it is related to shock. I strongly doubt that the story of Kaycee Nelson will be considered a work of fiction similar to Kafka fifty years from now, but then again you never know.

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