Avant-Garde Neo Avant Garde and Modernity

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Miklos Szablolcsi

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  • Avant-Garde, Neo-Avant-Garde, Modernism: Questions and SuggestionsAuthor(s): Mikls SzabolcsiSource: New Literary History, Vol. 3, No. 1, Modernism and Postmodernism: Inquiries,Reflections, and Speculations (Autumn, 1971), pp. 49-70Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/468380 .Accessed: 29/08/2013 12:56

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  • Avant-garde, Neo-avant-garde, Modernism: Questions and Suggestions

    Mikl6s Szabolcsi


    HE LITERATURE of recent years and, not to the least extent, the various literary and artistic phenomena of our days and the increasing complexity of their development call for a pro-

    found and critical revision of everything we understand by the terms "modern" or "contemporary." The following attempt is the outcome of such considerations, without, however, claiming to answer all the questions it raises.


    We shall discuss the set of phenomena we understand by the term "avant-garde," meaning by it one of the trends, one certain group of incidents in the more recent development of literature and art. The term itself is, of course, like so many others in the field of art, open to argument. A few words about its history: Originally it was used in a military sense and the first journal so named is a military one from the period of the French Revolution, launched in 1794. As a political term it seems to appear around 1830 in Republican circles and among the opposition of the monarchy in general. It becomes more popular in Utopian Socialist terminology; the Saint-Simonite Emile Barrault is probably the first who uses it in 183o, then around 1845 it appears in the works of G. D. Laverdant, disciple of Fourier, and about the same time in Proudhon's writings, too, already as a label for social progress, for socialist ideas and the collective efforts of artists. By the second half of the century the "avant-garde" becomes part of the stock phraseology of politics; in France between 188o and 191o countless newspapers, periodicals and publications bear it as a title, and its novelty is worn off in political slang. Naturally, in most cases

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    it is used to designate "progressive," "leftist," radical, freemasonic or Jacobin movements; sometimes it can even acquire an anarchist accent, as when in 1878 the followers of Bakunin chose it for the title of their review published in Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. However the term soon grew so elastic that it admitted right-wing, anti-liberal, anti-Semitic and nationalistic interpretations and was used in those senses, too, from the i88o's onward. In the first decade of the twentieth- century the use of "avant-garde" with a political meaning grew less frequent, and turned up again in the 1920os to mark, at least in France, mostly Socialist and Communist attitudes in politics.

    The term was applied to the phenomena of literature and art quite late. Even Baudelaire used it in its politico-military sense. It was towards the end of the 19th and early in the 20oth century that it began to denote literary and artistic trends; from that time onward its use was gradually restricted to the field of literature and art, at least in scholarly and critical terminologies. The political meaning of the word, however, acquired a new charge in the movements of the i96os.1


    Side by side with, or instead of, the term and concept of "avant-garde" the majority of literary and art historians use the expressions "mod- ernism," "modernness" or "the Moderns," meaning the period in literature beginning with Baudelaire or, in some cases, Rimbaud, and coming up to the present. The term "modernism" (or "modernness") has, for some of the Marxist critics, the pejorative secondary mean- ing of bourgeois disintegration, decay, decadence; others, more temp- erately, apply it to literary phenomena that fall outside the line of realism and that reveal, as an essential feature, an attempt to find refuge in the increasing isolation of the artist; later, just an aimless, anarchist revolt.2 Similarly, literary scholarship in English-speaking countries and in France uses the term "modernism" in a generalizing sense, usually understanding by it every trend that is in sharp contrast with the previous period, that of Romanticism and realism.

    I myself am in doubt about this generalizing use of the word: this "modernism" effaces the fundamental differences and contradictions

    I See R. Estivals, J. Ch. Gaudy, G. Vergez, L'avant-garde (Paris, 1968); H. E. Holthusen, "Kunst und Revolution," Avantgarde (Munich, 1966); R. Poggioli, Teoria dell'arte d'avanguardie (Bologna, 1962). 2 See mainly Gyorgy Lukacs' works; for recent detailed elaboration of subject in Hungarian criticism, see Istvin Kiraly, Endre Ady (Budapest, I970), 2 vols.

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    between the various trends and tendencies it stands for. If we call everything that in some way or other deviates from the principles of critical realism, from Baudelaire to the German revolutionary activists, from Apollinaire to the absurd drama, "modernist" (no matter from which side), we shall, I think, gain a vague category, but one that would conflate radically different tendencies. If we label Mallarm6 and Apollinaire alike as "modernist," we disregard the fundamental disparity between Mallarm6, the great precursor of the cult of the isolated Ego, of the transformation of literature into linguistic symbols, and Apollinaire, who with his openness, his deep interest in man and in the people, his cheerfulness and irony and humanism is at the source of a powerful current in European poetry, open, impulsive, reconciling man with society; between, that is, the forerunner of hermetic word- play of our days on the one hand, and that of the present realistic poetry on the other.

    Similarly the term "modernist" will be applied to the later Rilke and early Mayakovsky, to the young Nezval and the mature Eliot without discrimination; which shows that instead of the vague categories of modern literature and modernism we are to find terms that define the individual trends and tendencies more precisely. The trends in the complex development of literature and art, beginning with 1905, can be divided into groups; one of the principal groups being, I think, the avant-garde.

    True, the avant-garde waves that appear around I905 are char- acterized by gradual transitions from the very beginning: they are linked to previous trends in more than one point, and the avant-garde literature has a lot in common with that of the end of the century as far as their philosophical background and their attitudes are con- cerned. In searching for common features we could, however, go back as far as the Romantics; indeed more than one trend of the 2 oth century can be derived from some type of Romanticism-still, the time that has passed since the disintegration of Classicism cannot be considered as one integral period. Earlier critics of the conservative wing like Lasserre or Irving Babbitt, and more recently and on an evidently higher level, Walter Muschg and Hans Sedlmayr in their histories of literature and art (respectively Tragische Litera- turgeschichte and Verlust der Mitte) have shown an inclination towards this conception; in their opinion everything that has happened dur- ing the last century and a half adds up to one single process of dis- integration: since Goethe there has been no literature to speak of.

    Where is the place of the avant-garde among the literary and artistic trends of the 20th century?

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    This question leads to another that neither the Marxist nor the bourgeois scholars have as yet answered although the problem of trends in 2oth century world literature has been recently brought up in Soviet criticism.3 The development of the literature of our century is polymorphous, so manifold that unlike almost all previous periods it cannot be included under the heading of one single principle of style, one prevailing method or intellectual concept.

    The literature of the 2oth century shows a strong realistic current that embraces a whole range of different trends, from the intellectual realism tending to irony (the type that Thomas Mann represents) to plebeian realism (that of M6ricz or Sadoveanu) with a scattering of nuances and varieties between. It is this realism that, at its best, pro- duced the great works of this eventful and complicated period, from Brecht to Heinrich Mann, from Roger Martin du Gard to Hemingway. There is no doubt either that one of the strongest trends of our century, gaining more ground every day, is socialis