Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, June 28, 2015

When Intellectuals Go to War

(I ran into this insightful article in the left-wing journal Jacobin, which I like to check up on periodically.)

By Corey Rubin

On the recommendation of my colleague Shang Ha, I’ve been reading Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. There I came across this letter from Arnold Schoenberg to Alma Mahler, dated 28 August 1914. Ross quotes  only a snippet, but here’s a lengthier excerpt:

Arnold Schoenberg

Meanwhile, you have certainly already heard of the glorious victory of the Germans against France, England, and Belgium. It is among the most wonderful things that have happened. But it does not surprise me: it is not any different from the war of the Greeks against the Persians. . . My friends know it, I have often said to them, I never had any use for all foreign music. It always seemed to me stale, empty, disgusting, cloying, false, and awkward. Without exception. Now I know who the French, English, Russians, Belgians, Americans, and Serbians are: barbarians! The music said that to me long ago . . . But now comes the reckoning. Now we shall send these mediocre purveyors of kitsch back into slavery.

Schoenberg was hardly the only artist to support his team during the First World War. But what strikes me in his stance here is something you often see when intellectuals go to war: their tendency to interpret the war in the most parochial terms imaginable, that is, as an expression of their own causes and concerns, no matter how alien those might be from the state waging the war.

Not only did Schoenberg see German war aims as the defense of German/Viennese culture (again, he was not alone in this), he also saw it more specifically, and improbably, as an extension of his own battle against retrograde tendencies in modern music. As if the Kaiser had read Harmonielehre and decided to march into Belgium on behalf of atonality. . .

A state goes to war for its reasons. It takes an especially potent form of imaginative power to assume that the academic question that happens to be on your mind at the moment is somehow shared by the men and women who are leading that state. . .

Read the full article here:


  1. What is Truth?
    Schoenberg's letter shows that we can believe anything we want if we try hard enough.
    I'm not anti-intellectual. Reason is still the most effective way of arriving at Truth. But we have to be brutally honest with ourselves about how much our thinking is influenced by what we want to believe.

  2. Alas, the Nazis failed to appreciate the Jewish Schoenberg's celebration of Germany's early WW1 victories. In 1938 they labelled his music "degenerate." The man himself had fled to the barbarians in 1934, settling in that well-known capital of kitsch, Los Angeles.