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An Essay by William H. Gass: Excerpted from Finding a Form: Essays

Excerpted from Finding a Form: Essays


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The following is an excerpt from Finding a Form: Essays by William H. Gass. The book was originally published in 1996 by Alfred A. Knopf and was reprinted in August by Dalkey Archive. The updated essays “should be considered the final and only authorized ones,” according to the acknowledgments page of the new Dalkey edition. The essay here, titled “The Vicissitudes of the Avante-Garde”, first appeared in the October 1988 issue of Harper's magazine.

Excerpt from Finding a Form: Essays
By William H. Gass
(Dalkey Archive)

The term "avant-garde" has had a strange and ironic history. From the main body of an army in medieval times, two smaller units were detached: one protected the rear during retreats, or from surprise attack, and sent back stragglers and deserters; the other was composed of a line of scouts who went ahead to seek out, test, and estimate the enemy. By the sixteenth century, when the term was first applied to a literary movement associated with Pierre de Ronsard and Joachim du Bellay, the avant-garde had become seditious, because its enemy turned out to be the very military unit it was supposed to serve. Thus the spacial image of a marching army was modified to describe a course of rebellious events that had a temporal shape instead: initial spark, fanned flames, full conflagration, final burnout, concluding ash, and consummatory cheers.

Certainly Rosnard’s great odes broke every established rule. They employed shocking and bizarre language, including some peasant idioms and coinages of Ronsard’s own devising. They introduced a new orthography and abandoned traditional French verse forms for classical ones. Above all, against the conception of the poet as a clever craftsman, Ronsard chose not to notice the irony in Plato’s Ion in order to claim for the poet the inspiration of the gods.

Ronsard and his work were young when they were given this belligerent description. Certainly the image of an avant-garde made up of rambunctiously inspired graybeards is essentially comic. Repeatedly, in many fields, the young find their way blocked by middle age and settled success, so they try to outflank their adversaries; they call for change when often they merely want to occupy the comfortable chairs of their elders. Not only do time and repeated employment relax the rigid posture of their pens; so does the passage of centuries smooth the once revolutionary roughness of what they wrote. Thirty years after the appearance of his Odes, Ronsard is striking notes most poets have sounded since the art began. Dust has closed Helen’s eyes. Brightness has fallen from the air. Alas, poor Yorick, where are the snows of yesteryear? At the gravesite of a grandparent, you contemplate death differently than you do when you have one foot in your own.

We owe death a debt: our bodies and the body of our work;
We die to begin with, and then the waves of many ages
Roll up to wash away our words;
This is the fixed intent of Fate and Nature.
God alone lasts; of man’s poor parts
There remains in the end neither heart nor husk.
What’s worse, man feels, man thinks, no more –
A fleshless roomer in a tomb of dust.

The delightful irony is that God is now dead, whereas Ronsard’s words are still being read. Deep down, where they live, most poets must relish this result. Why else would their skulls grin?

During the nineteenth century, the avant-garde adopted a tone that was essentially negative and oppositional, and its chief enemies were members of the expanding middle class, the so-called bourgeoisie. This increasingly influential segment of society still embraced a kind of religious patriotism that many intellectuals felt had been thoroughly discredited. The bourgeoisie also practiced an unprincipled utilitarianism, a greedy love of money and its powers that left them open to charges of hypocrisy.

Avant-gardes are fragile affairs. The moment they become established, they cease to be – success as well as failure finishes them off. Their unity depends upon a common “no,” not on some “yes” that is jointly loved. And insofar as the movement moves at all, it requires the shoulders of many others at its wheels, support which most of the artists suspect is actually their exploitation. Poems must be written, paintings must be painted, but mere coffeehouse talk is not irrelevant to the success of the cause, nor are letters, broadsides, feuilletons, essays, reviews, catalogue copy, the quarrels of the cafés and the slanders of the salons; nor are tumults in the stalls, outrages of public decency, arrests, or other excursions and alarms.

Every effort to prolong an avant-garde beyond a certain point becomes of doubtful value, because an avant-garde can have but a mayfly’s life: the artists have only their negations to chorus; both their attitudes and their art will alter as they age; society’s methods of co-optation and disarmament will, in general, be effective; their anger will be softened by success and their aims divided, their attention distracted; the institutions set up by most Establishments, even if assaulted, will take longer dying than most avant-gardes can expect to live; while the strength of the support groups, so necessary to the energy of any movement, are even more fragile and momentary, depending, as they do, on the loyalty of a publisher, the generosity of a patron, the length of a love life, the cuisine of a café.

Artists who do not grow old gracefully, but rage and change through the whole of life, find themselves, at the end, alone with their innovations and not part of a refurbished movement. In that sense, the later works of Goya, Verdi, Monet, or Yeats constitute a solitary interior development whose deepest effects, like those of Turner’s final oils or Beethoven’s last quartets, are sometimes delayed for generations.

Ronsard wearies of the world. He retires from court, cultivates only essentials: his art. But he lives long enough to see the need for a new avant-garde, because the traditional enemies of poetry have returned; Ronsard’s reforms have been betrayed or abandoned. Nothing has changed (including the rust on old saws). Ronsard writes some verses concerning the declining times to his old friend Simon Nicolar, which begin:

All is lost, Nick, the bad grows worse;
The empire of France is empty as a beggar’s curse.
Vice is king and virtue’s fled,
The nobles have taken novel whores to bed:
Sly courtiers, clowns, a vile race,
Do park their asses in the muses’ place,
Gamblers, crooks, and chatterboxes,
Lickspittles, fops, and bobbysoxers …

This ferocious Pope-like poem suggests – when we put it alongside all the others, in different times and places, which express the same sentiments – that when the avant-garde turns against the army it is scouting for, it does so because it believes that army has betrayed the policies it had pledged itself to support, and that this betrayal, as well as the rebellion which is a response to it, is chronic and recurrent, if not perpetual.

There appear to be at least three kinds of avant-garde. One, such as the architectural modernism of the Bauhaus, of Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Neutra, aims to improve man and his life; it naturally allies itself with other forward-looking agents of change (the machine, for instance), and it preaches progress with the sort of rosy-cheeked optimism characteristic of metaphysical Rotarians. It tends to be impatient with the past, maintaining that little can be learned from history but its errors, and fearing nostalgia above all other passive emotions. Although the members of this avant-garde are largely arty intellectuals, there is a sense of common cause with the impoverished and downtrodden – a shared powerlessness. This is what I call the liberal avant-garde. Its influence is strongest among the arts that have a public posture (architecture, theater, cinema). When the liberal avant-garde wants to become doctrinaire, it embraces the fascism of the Left. Picasso, Le Corbusier, and Brecht are characteristic types.

The avant-garde of Gautier, Degas, and Flaubert, however, has nothing but scorn for these pimps of progress. The talismanic word here is “original,” and the focus of the group tends to be on individual and artistic freedom, on disengagement and withdrawal. Artists in this second group are ready to take from tradition and often oppose the present by looking to the past. They have a natural affinity with the aristocracy, and in general their movements are marked by an extreme dislike of the masses. Their image of the artist is the individual in his isolation. This is the conservative avant-garde, the avant-garde of Rimbaud, Lawrence, Eliot, Pound, Yeats, and Céline, and it is most prevalent among the poets. When it wants to become doctrinaire, it embraces the fascism of the Right, and often shows, alas, a racist face.

Both of these avant-gardes occupied important places in the movement called Modernism. Both were wholly opposed to the state of affairs in which they found themselves; both felt oppressed by the Establishment; both sought to produce something “new” and something thought to be revolutionary. Whether formalistic or expressionist, they shared a dislike of what was central to bourgeois taste (i.e. philistinism): representation and edification. However, history was still linear for the liberal wing; for them not every utopia was totally tarnished; society of some sort was still worth saving; and art could, as in the old days, do the job. The conservatives regarded such avant-gardes as fatally contaminated by bourgeois values; for them, society was not worth rescuing, only art was. Again, however – despite the purity and freedom they advocated – their works were scurrilously critical and contemptuous, and hence revisionary with respect to values. There was no hope to be found anywhere that would lighten their point of view or soften their animosities.

The conservative avant-garde poisoned itself. Its dislike of society could not be confined to the page, score, or canvas but seeped into the souls of its artists. As in Flaubert’s case, retching became a continuous condition. The liberal avant-garde failed when its social program failed; when the Left took over; when Modernism became, for it, the new rule of reason and the real source of righteousness. The urban reforms urged by many architects were ruthless, arrogant, and authoritarian. Yet when the political thrust of this avant-garde was blunted (as it largely was when it migrated to America), its radical works remained, ready for a reinterpretation that might return Brecht’s plays and Miesian buildings to their origin in art.

One interesting chapter in the history of co-option might concern itself with the eagerness and ease with which corporations all over the world made Modernism their business image, the skyscraper the cathedral of credit, and the steel cage a manifestation of commercial hubris, while the domestic work of those same architects was largely rejected. Avant-garde apartment complexes, on the whole, did not prosper, and tract housing went ranch as readily as souring cream. Of course, architects tend to begin their careers with less extensive projects and scheme their way from factories and shops to banks and office towers; nevertheless, the percentage of domestic architecture in the corpus of Mies, Aalto, Saarinen, Le Corbusier, and Gropius (for example) remains shockingly small. The Weissenhof project in Stuttgart (which commissioned Le Corbusier, Oud, Mies, and others to design apartments, villas, and row houses) is unique in Europe, and suffered for a while from indifference and neglect. Wright, almost alone, worked as a domestic, yet even his houses, eventually admired and critically influential, did not make it in the market. No Levittowns were built of his low-cost and brilliantly designed Usonian houses.

It was also natural for painters to take on the coloration of their patrons, and for artists in general to exploit the system that exploited them, becoming personalities for the press and pets of the powerful. Many remained unsure of themselves for some time, unable to decide to whom to sell their souls, while others – poets and composers, mainly, who would have prostituted themselves for a shiny penny – looked on with envy while fame and fortune went to flamboyant virtuosi, tyrannical maestros, over-the-register opera singers, and abject scribblers of rape and romance. Initially confused by the liberal image that critics had reflected for them, John Dos Passos and Norman Mailer eventually righted themselves.

The existence of a third avant-garde is more problematic. The activities of any such “group,” whether artistically oriented or socially focused, are so determined by the times that to call one sort permanent seems to court contradiction. Yet I believe there are works to which habit won’t have a chance to get us comfortably accustomed; works that will continue to resist the soothing praises of the critics, and that will rise from their tombs of received opinion to surprise us again and again. These works may pay a dreadful price for the role they have chosen to play, but if they are going to be a permanent part of “the” avant-garde (that avant-garde common to all kinds), they must remain wild and never neglect an opportunity to attack their trainers; above all, it is the hand that feeds them which must be repeatedly bitten. They have to continue to do what the avant-garde is supposed to do: shatter stereotypes, shake things up, and keep things moving; offer fresh possibilities to a jaded understanding; encourage a new consciousness; revitalize the creative spirit of the medium; and, above all, challenge the skills and ambitions of every practitioner. Such a pure avant-garde must not only emphasize the formal elements of its art (recognizing that these elements are its art); its outside interests must be in very long-term – if not permanent – problems. It may have to say no to Cash, to Flag, to Man, to God, to Being itself. It cannot be satisfied merely to complain of the frivolities of a king’s court or to count the crimes of capitalism or to castigate the middle class for its persistent vulgarity. The avant-garde’s ultimate purpose is to return the art to itself, not as if the art could be cordoned off from the world and kept uncontaminated, but in order to remind it of its nature (a creator of forms in the profoundest sense) – a nature that should not be allowed to dissolve into what are, after all, measly moments of society.

In order to define the permanent avant-garde, or even suggest its possibility, I must turn in particular to such works as Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin, Beethoven’s Opus 111, Liszt’s Transcendental Études, Bartók’s 1926 Piano Sonata, Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano Opus 25, Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Kafka’s story “A Country Doctor,” Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Stein’s The Making of Americans as well as Tender Buttons, Beckett’s trilogy, late Turner and Rothko, some Duchamp, Hölderlin’s late piece “In lovely blue …,” the poetry of Mallarmé and Paul Celan, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, that most beautiful and disturbing of diaries, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.

The critical theories accompanying these three avant-gardes – to defend, explain, and ballyhoo them – have, in addition to such customary functions, another one that is just as important, although less advertised. That function is to disguise, both to itself and to others, how backward-looking this forward-looking group of revolutionaries is. The avant-garde looks over its shoulder at the main body, of course, and by making that look adversarial, turns against itself as well; for it was once part of the main body; it was born in that body; and while it will reject resemblance, while it will wish to forget its parents and desire to shake the dust of its cultural village forever from its feet, it cannot escape its genetic links, its childhood history, and all its early loyalties.


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