01 July 2011

The Avant-Garde: A Gass-eous Typology

In "The Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde," (found in Finding a Form) William Gass asserts that the term 'avant-garde' was first applied in a literary context in the sixteenth century to Pierre de Ronsard and Joachim du Bellay.
Their strife the Fates have closed, with stern control,

The earth holds her fair body, and her soul
An angel with glad angels triumpheth;
Love has no more that he can do; desire
Is buried, and my heart a faded fire,
And for Death's sake, I am in love with Death.
Ronsard, "His Lady's Death" (1550)
So long you wandered on the dusky plain,

Where flit the shadows with their endless cry, 

You reach the shore where all the world goes by, 

You leave the strife, the slavery, the pain; 

But we, but we, the mortals that remain 

In vain stretch hands; for Charon sullenly

Drives us afar, we may not come anigh 

Till that last mystic obolus we gain.
du Bellay, "To His Friend in Elysium" (1550)

Gass then identifies three kinds of avant-garde
"One, such as the architectural modernism of the Bauhaus, of Gropius, Le Corbuier, 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 Celine, and it is most prevalent among poets. When it wants to become doctrinaire, it embraces the fascism of the Right, and often shows, alas, a racist face." (202-03)
"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." (205)
In Lieblicher Blaue(in Lovely Blue), Hölderlin
In lovely blue the steeple blossoms
With its metal roof. Around which
Drift swallow cries, around which
Lies most loving blue. The sun,
High overhead, tints the roof tin,
But up in the wind, silent,
The weathercock crows. When someone
Takes the stairs down from the belfry,
It is a still life, with the figure
Thus detached, the sculpted shape
Of man comes forth. The windows
The bells ring through
Are as gates to beauty. Because gates
Still take after nature,
They resemble the forest trees.
But purity is also beauty.
A grave spirit arises from within,
Out of divers things. Yet so simple
These images, so very holy,
One fears to describe them. But the gods,
Ever kind in all things,
Are rich in virtue and joy.
Which man may imitate.
May a man look up
From the utter hardship of his life
And say: Let me also be
Like these? Yes. As long as kindness lasts,
Pure, within his heart, he may gladly measure himself
Against the divine. Is God unknown?
Is he manifest as the sky? This I tend
To believe. Such is man’s measure.
Well deserving, yet poetically
Man dwells on this earth. But the shadow
Of the starry night is no more pure, if I may say so,
Than man, said to be the image of God.
Is there measure on earth? There is
None. No created world ever hindered
The course of thunder. A flower
Is likewise lovely, blooming as it does
Under the sun. The eye often discovers
Creatures in life it would be yet lovelier
To name than flowers. O, this I know!
For to bleed both in body and heart, and cease
To be whole, is this pleasing to God?
But the soul, I believe, must
Remain pure, lest the eagle wing
Its way up to the Almighty with songs
Of praise and the voice of so many birds.
It is substance, and is form.
Lovely little brook, how moving you seem
As you roll so clear, like the eye of God,
Through the Milky Way. I know you well,
But tears pour from the eye.
I see gaiety of life blossom
About me in all creation’s forms,
I do not compare it cheaply
To the graveyard’s solitary doves. People’s
Laughter seems to grieve me,
After all, I have a heart.
Would I like to be a comet? I think so.
They are swift as birds, they flower
With fire, childlike in purity. To desire
More than this is beyond human measure.
The gaiety of virtue also deserves praise
From the grave spirit adrift
Between the garden’s three columns.
A beautiful virgin should wreathe her hair
With myrtle, being simple by nature and heart.
But myrtles are found in Greece.
If a man look into a mirror
And see his image therein, as if painted,
It is his likeness. Man’s image has eyes,
But the moon has light.
King Oedipus may have an eye too many.
The sufferings of this man seem indescribable,
Inexpressible, unspeakable. Which comes
When drama represents such things.
But what do I feel, now thinking of you?
Like brooks, I am carried away by the end of something
That expands like Asia. Of course,
Oedipus suffers the same? For a reason,
Of course. Did Hercules suffer as well?
Indeed. In their friendship
Did not the Dioscuri also suffer?
Yes, to battle God as Hercules did
Is to suffer. And to half share immortality
With the envy of this life,
This too is pain. But this also
Is suffering, when a man is covered with summer freckles,
All bespattered with spots. This is the work
Of the gun, it draws everything out.
It leads young men along their course,
Charmed by rays like roses.
The sufferings of Oedipus seem like a poor man
Lamenting what he lacks.
Son of Laios, poor stranger in Greece.
Life is death, and death a life.


Jim H. said...

"Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! It was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest spun heaven metal. Or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As i slooshied i knew such lovely pictures."

Randal Graves said...

Poets are right-wing fascists? Gass, to the Russian front!

I get why people might scoff at the knottiness of this piece, but "I" dig it.

Jim H. said...

Not all poets methinks. Just the doctrinaire a-g ones. But you'll have to ask the Gass man on that one.

Gass can be an iconoclast, anti-social, and even misanthropic fer shure.