Every writer aspiring to break new literary ground has been rattled by that old chestnut from Ecclesiastes: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. And yet under our emblazoned star we’re determined to find something shiny that at least has the semblance and the sheen of newness.
While serving in a Master of Fine Arts programme at a literary institution that prides itself on vanguardist roots from the 1950s I often noted various literary techniques being eagerly flaunted as ‘cutting edge’ and very much in vogue. The term ‘Hybridity’ can be applied to an assortment of new parameter mergers from various literary genres but loosely denotes some gleeful welding of prose and poetry idioms to various effects – in short, the prose poem, or as some have called it, the ‘proem.’ Although this has been taught and studied as a new phenomenon in academic circles it goes as far back as ancient Greece and had quite a heyday in 19th Century France and Germany when championed by the likes of Baudelaire, Novalis, Hölderlin and Heine. Even Oscar Wilde dabbled in it after realizing the subversion of formal principles stirred people up. Similarly, I have noted young poets excited to produce lines of random words determined purely by chance – what has come to be known as the ‘cut-up method’ as devised by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs in the 1950s. Again, this is so often thought of and practiced as a bold new technique despite the fact that it wasn’t even new when the American pair stumbled upon interesting juxtapositions of text in sliced up newspapers, directly copying a practice supposedly formulated by the Dadaists some thirty years before them. These techniques along with others are still thought of as new and shiny – but in an age where even post-post-modernity is old hat – I realized that amid all the posturing about newness we are in fact indulging a self-perpetuating delusion. In reality, the avant-garde is an old, old man.
In fact, the term ‘avant-garde’ itself isn’t new; it comes from a 15th Century French word denoting the front section of an army formation in battle, later borrowed to express an innovatory or pioneering spirit in the Arts. It is not really a movement or a period but a jumble of philosophies and practices bent on following Ezra Pound’s invective to ‘make it new.’ Pound’s view, that ‘Artists are the antennae of the race’ was taken up by a generation that infused current forms with new techniques, including Eliot, Lawrence, Woolf, Joyce, Conrad, Mansfield and the like, which then became radicalized and politicized with a second generation of pure vanguardists and their manifestos. But how new were these ideas really? Take ‘Stream of consciousness’ – a term coined by the established philosopher, William James, and a writing style prefigured in the prose of Laurence Stern, Edgar Allan Poe and even William’s brother, Henry. ‘Free association’ and ‘interior monologue’ were well-established ideas in the psychological traditions, as well as the late 19th Century Euro fiction of Dujardin, Chekhov and Hamsun. While there is no doubt that the application of these literary techniques was perfected by Joyce, Proust, Woolf and Faulkner, they certainly didn’t just magically appear as new with the ‘Lost Generation.’
It’s amazing how Surrealism is still often thought of as a new genre, despite springing out of Dada activities during the First World War. Guillaume Apollinaire supplied the word ‘Surréalisme’ many years before the movement gained momentum – and the practice of ‘automatic handwriting’ had adherents in psychological and esoteric circles well before Aragon, Soupault and Breton took it up in the 1920s. Despite having the semblance of newness, surrealism is approaching its centenary as an official movement and the philosophy behind it has since become well entrenched in mainstream art and corporate advertising, almost to the point where it no longer provides the shock value initially intended by its stark imagery. Indeed, recent movements often thought of as bold and pioneering owe much to old man Surrealism, as can be said of both the Beat Generation and Magic Realism. The ‘Beats,’ again more of a rogue collective than a movement, owed much to the work of Breton and Artaud, especially the likes of Ginsberg, Corso, Soloman, Joans and Lamantia. Others, like Kerouac, could be said to emulate various modernist traits albeit to different cultural effect. South Americans, Garcia Marquez and Fuentes, were inspired by the revolutionary tenets of surrealism and applied some of Breton’s Freudian dreamscapes to larger portions of text in their Magic Realist novels.
The avant-garde has been well theorized in the latter part of the last century, perhaps confusingly subverting and yet increasing its mystique. Renato Poggioli studied the vanguard collective as a cultural phenomenon focusing largely on how it reached beyond the bounds of art into society, forming non-conformist or Bohemian enclaves. Peter Bürger criticized its complicity with capitalism as an “empty recycling of forms.” Conversely, Clement Greenberg viewed it as a clever new articulation of post-war conditions by its use of ‘Kitsch.’ The Frankfurt School, including Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin tied it to the new enveloping phenomena of the mass culture industry as one mechanically reproduced. Rosalind Krauss took things even further in her work, Originality of the Avant Garde and other Modernist Myths, by smashing the artificial barriers that literary historians had placed around these new groups in order to neatly encapsulate them for posterity. It seems that Krauss, well before I, had come to know the avant-garde as a slightly disingenuous old man.
New innovative groups come and go – to then be defined by the elite – the victors of cultural and literary wars. But was post-modernism anything but slightly perverted modernism? Does Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) and its use of constrained writing techniques break away from other recent self-reflexive enclaves? I’m sure Queneau, Perec, Calvino et al are aware of the mediaeval and indeed antiquitous uses of palindromes, cryptograms and lipograms. Did the post-structuralists really topple the edifices of the 19th Century – or simply build new looser structures from their carelessly placed rubble? Even if all these devices are new – the avant-garde is bent with age and use – as becomes us all. I say ‘old’ because anything ‘cutting edge’ will always be blunted by a passing century – and ‘man’ because 90 % of these movements, techniques, manifestos, were the products of the male (although slightly decentred) gender.
It appears that we can’t ‘make it new’ by inventing new building blocks – but we can create a simulacrum of newness in an artful repositioning of old blocks. Take that you old curmudgeon writer of the Ecclesiastes!
Daniel Staniforth, for all his theoretical posturing, aspires to be an avant-garde author with recent works such as The Groundlings of Divine Will, Diddle, and Weaver in the Sluices. He also tries his hand at various ‘vanguard’ music styles.
© Daniel Staniforth/Skylight Press