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Changing Times in Hispanic Culture.

Changing Times in Hispanic Culture. Ed. by DEREK HARRIS. Aberdeen: Centre for the Study of the Hispanic Avant-Garde, University of Aberdeen. 1996. xvi + 198 pp. 8 [pounds sterling].

Judging by the large number of multiple-author miscellanies with which the literary disciplines have been regaled in recent years, the HEFCE-sponsored Research Assessment Exercises are having their effect on the publishing scene. Mercifully the present collection of essays is more useful than most, although not wholly convincing. Putting together eleven essays on different aspects of the historical avant-garde (essentially a 1920s phenomenon, give or take a couple of years at either end) preceded by a general introduction from the editor is a good idea, but the Aberdeen symposium on which the collection is based had broader parameters, and the five additional essays under the makeshift subheading 'Before and After: The Continuum' add variety but not spice; thus J. M. W. Robbins on Gongora's aesthetic of beauty in Polifemo, Glyn Hambrook on Manuel Reina's use of Baudelaire, Helen Oppenheimer on Antoni Tapies and modern physics, Abigail Lee Six on lesbianism in Esther Tusquets, and Maureen Dolan on chicano theatre, are all interesting pieces in themselves but dilute the (relative) coherence of the volume.

Of the eleven essays on the avant-garde sensu strictu, seven are devoted to poetry, four of them wholly or partly to Lorca. Patricia McDermott offers a Freudian explication of Lorca's bizarre filmscript Viaje a la luna; a seasoned Lorca connoisseur, she knows how to find her way around what seems to me to be nothing more than a warped, pitiless degradation of the human situation and for the critic in question a sacrilegious but fascinating piece. Xon de Ros, in pursuit of the 'theatrical anxieties' of El publico, resorts to guidance from that supreme illusionist of language named Jacques Derrida and concludes lamely that the play, 'using linguistic artifice as a disruptive strategy, challenges the theatre of representation' (p. 116). Elia Geoffrey Kantaris offers a dilettantish excursion that tries to make a political case for the popular element in Lorca and Alberti but loses itself in a sea of circumlocution and wordy generalizations; he is entitled to his ideological view that modernism was conservative and the avant-garde was progressive but his idea that the former rejected all social concern is a travesty. Rather less dogmatic but far more convincing is Federico Bonaddio's essay on the ambiguous relationship between Lorca and the avant-garde: despite flashes of social concern Lorca, argues this critic, was motivated essentially by aesthetic considerations, as was the elite art of the avant-garde. Still on poetry, Derek Gagen studies the ultraista impact on Gerardo Diego as revealed in 'Gesta', which he finds 'a perfectly comprehensible poem' (p. 4) that, while revealing the creacionista ambition to use absolute, independent images, is not so avant-gardist as to exclude emotion and the earlier voice of novecentismo. Robert Havard, in a firmly written piece, argues lucidly in favour of a more fluid view of surrealism, showing how in Alberti we find not psychic automatism as a revelation of the unconscious but the conscious use of inverted religious motifs in the poet's search for liberation from anxieties induced by childhood religious indoctrination. It is a convincing exposition, but what's new? It all sounds remarkably like Baroja's Camino de perfeccion of two decades earlier. The final contribution on avant-garde poetry is by Dominic Keown, who bravely reclaims Foix and Salvat-Papasseit for the Catalan avant-garde in the face of their rejection by a Catalan literary academy fearful of the disruptive effects of two heterodox writers on linguistic normalization.

The non-poetic aspects of the historical avant-garde are covered by the remaining four essays, of which two are on Ramon Gomez de la Serna's place within the movement. Alan Hoyle makes an intelligent plea for Ramon: that far from being an anarchic iconoclast, he ingeniously exploited the fact that incongruity appeals to all ideologies because it is rooted in humour, the basis of Ramon's creativity, and humour transcends the rigid categories of conventional thinking. Andrew Anderson offers a scholarly review of Gomez de la Serna's contacts with Marinetti and concludes that while Ramon was influenced by Marinetti before the Spanish version of the latter's famous Futurist Manifesto, the manifesto in turn owes significant debts to Ramon's ideas passed on to Marinetti through epistolary contacts. David George looks at the neglected genre of mime theatre before and after the Civil War, but the many undefined '-isms' (including that ubiquitious catch-all 'postmodernism') tend to detract from a clear view of this popular cultural expression. Why does mime theatre, I wonder, enjoy so much more of a tradition in Catalonia than in Castile? Finally, Frank Lough makes the avant-garde look rather less avant-garde by arguing that the key to Benjamin Jarnes is not his anti-realist stance but the subjective experience of his protagonists, with whose etherealness Jarnes does not fully identify. This is, of course, pretty orthodox practice in modernist narrative.

Altogether, then, this is a volume whose gatherings are there to be debated and argued about rather than one that pins down avant-gardism. The editor, in his introductory essay, says it all when he writes: 'The general pattern emerging from these essays is one of cultural activity characterised on the whole by a complexity that stems from the coexistence of differing and even contradictory tendencies' (p. 1). The Aberdeen Centre for the Study of the Hispanic Avant-Garde should be in business for quite a while yet.

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Author:Longhurst, C.A.
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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