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Les Arriere-gardes au XXe siecle : L'autre face de la modernite esthetique.

Les Arriere-gardes au XXe siecle : L'autre face de la modernite esthetique. Edited by William Marx. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2004. Pp. 248.

The 2003 Literature Nobel prize-winner J.M.Coetzee gave a lecture in 1991 entitled 'What Is a Classic?' (published in Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999, Vintage, 2002), a clear reference to, and reworking of, Eliot's 1946 lecture of the same name. Coetzee's criteria for qualification as a classic are 'testing and survival.' Referring to Zbigniew Herbert's view that the traditional opposition between classic/Classical and Romantic has now been replaced by a confrontation between classic and barbarian, he says: "what survives the worst of barbarism, surviving because generations of people cannot afford to let go of it and therefore hold on to it at all costs--that is the classic." (p. 19) It is significant that Coetzee, writing in a European tradition, which in his novels he repeatedly defends against the onslaughts of contemporary barbarism, is so concerned with redefining (and rewriting) what are recognised as 'classics.' This could well be considered a form of rearguard reaction or defence. On the other hand, Coetzee is generally seen as being among the vanguard of contemporary novelists, and is constantly referred to as a Postcolonialist or a Postmodernist writer; although these are labels that the writer refuses, preferring to see himself, if of any cultural affiliation, as 'Post-Dostoyevskian.' Does it make sense, then, to see in Coetzee either a reactionary avant-gardist or an avant-garde reactionary? As a novelist and literary critic, Coetzee would no doubt reject such labels as meaningless. While accepting that terms like 'Modernist' and 'classic'/'Classical' may prove useful in discussing European cultural history, provided that they are updated or reassessed, Coetzee could not be expected to subscribe to what at first appears to be an outmoded, and peculiarly French, 'Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes' : that is, the establishing of an arriere-garde/avant-garde dichotomy, in which the notion of classic/Classical is inevitably associated with the former.

It is a point made by several contributors to William Marx's collection of essays, Les Arriere-gardes au XXe siecle : L'autre face de la modernite esthetique, that in this, as in so many other respects, English critical terminology may differ significantly from French. While avant-garde, rather than its English derivative 'vanguard', is a terra that has been used in English since at least the beginning of the last century to qualify the newest or most experimental ideas and techniques in the arts, the antonymic arriere-garde, or rearguard, has never been adopted figuratively in the same way. Even in French, where the metaphorical use of avant-garde, shorn of its military connotations, has had a much longer history than in English--there are instances of its being used in critical terminology as far back as the Renaissance--arriere-garde is nota word frequently encountered. When it is, it is usually in a derogatory sense, synonymous with 'reactionary'.

One of the stated objectives of this collection of fifteen papers is to rehabilitate the notion of arriere-garde by demonstrating the fundamental role it played in contributing to Modernism as an interdisciplinary European cultural movement, in particular during the first sixty years of the twentieth century. In this respect, Marx's introduction is of particular value, not only for its etymological survey of these two French terms, but also for the way it draws attention to a number of major interrelated issues: the ambivalent relationship between Modernism and Classicism (exemplified by Baudelaire, Eliot, Valery and the Cubists); the reactions to Modernism and avant-gardisme shown not just, as might be expected, by contemporary right-wing writers, but by Postmodernists too; the need for an interdisciplinary, rather than a merely literary, approach to comparative studies of this kind; and the Gallic specificity of these cultural terms and the problems of transposing them meaningfully across national frontiers. Some of these issues will be dealt with in more depth in the articles that follow, whereas others will unfortunately receive relatively scant treatment. For example, apart from Henri Garric's article,'Le Postmodernisme est-il une arriere-garde?', there is in this collection inadequate space devoted to the question of how far Postmodernism can be seen as a reaction to the notion of avant-garde, so long indissociable from Modernism itself. This, of course, begs the question << Toute critique de l'avant-garde est-elle d'arrieregarde? >> (p. 146). (Henceforth in this review, both terms 'avant-garde' and 'arriere-garde', and their derivatives, will no longer be italicized.)

However, the scope and structure of Les Arriere-gardes au XXe siecle reflect an attempt to do justice to the various issues mentioned by the editor. Part 1, entitled 'Modeles theoriques, archetypes artistiques' begins with Vincent Kaufmann's analysis of avant-gardism's preoccupation with socio-historical progress, internationalism and democratic values. By contrast, arriere-gardism is essentially anti-historical, nationalist, and monarchist in its sympathies. Referring to the examples of Surrealism and Tel Quel, and their affiliation with the Communist Party, Kaufmann sees this association as a key to understanding the rise of avant-gardism in France and its virtual non-existence on the other side of the Channel:

Il n'y a plus d'avant-gardes depuis la chute des partis communistes, et il n'y en a d'ailleurs jamais vraiment eu la ou le parti communiste n'a joue qu'un role marginal (en Grande Bretagne par exemple). (p. 26)

This is a debatable generalisation, but it does at least draw attention to the relative lack of political militancy in English cultural avant-gardism, and to the fact that the English have been credited with coining the term 'Modernism' (not always acceptably translated into French as le m/Modernisme) as a viable Anglo-American alternative to 'avant-garde,' in terms of twentieth-century cultural movements (although M.H.Abrams in his A Glossary of Literary Terras sees avant-garde as merely a sub-category, or "a prominent feature of modernism [...] that is a small, self-conscious group of artists of artists and authors who deliberately undertake, in Ezra Pound's phrase 'to make it new'," Harcourt Brace, 6th Edition, 1993, p. 120).

Laurent Mattiussi's paper studies the twin concepts of avant-gardism and arriere-gardism from a more philosophical perspective, by considering how, far from being diametrically opposed, they are related to the concept of the present as a precarious balance between a lost retrospective past and an uncertain prospective future; a concept shared in varying degrees by Mallarme, Nietsche and Heidegger. Thus the avant-garde is dependent on the existence of a solid arriere-garde, not just in terms of military strategy, but because << l'avancee la plus decisive suppose le recul le plus radical >> (p. 46); which is another way of saying that avant-gardism is characterised by a policy of 'reculer pour mieux sauter.' Or, as Marx says in his introductory essay, echoing another proverbial saying: << une avant-garde peut cacher une arriere-garde. >> (p. 13)

In the first of two articles representative of interdisciplinary studies, Timothee Picard follows up Mattiussi's German connection and notion of the interdependence of avant-garde and arriere-garde with a discussion of Wagner and the ambivalent nature of his operatic Gesamtkunstwerk as being both forward-and backward-looking, thus inspiring the admiration of avant-gardists and reactionaries alike; while Jean-Pierre Esquenazi takes Truffaut to task for what he sees as the young avant-garde director's unjustifiable criticisms of post-World War 2 French cinema (in particular in his January 1954 article in Les Cahiers du Cinema, 'Une certaine tendance du cinema francais') as being conformist, escapist and pessimistic; in other words 'arriere-gardist'.

Finally, Henri Garric's paper on Postmodernism, alluded to above, weighs up the conflicting standpoints of Jurgen Habermas and Jean-Francois Lyotard, before discussing Achille Bonita Oliva's creation in the early 1980s of a third intermediary label, 'trans-avantgarde', to promote a contemporary Italian painterly movement. What distinguished this group was their wish to bypass any avant/arriere-garde polarisation by a process of innovation within tradition, or what Garric calls << des variations a l'interieur des styles des precedentes avant-gardes >> (p. 86).

The middle section of Marx's collection, under the label 'L'anti-modernisme en France', consists of a number of case studies, the purpose of which is to show the multi-faceted, sometimes paradoxical, nature of both avant- and arriere-gardism in French intellectual and literary circles. Thus Michel Decaudin (who died in 2004, and to whom this collection of essays is dedicated) illustrates, through a study of L'Effort libre (1910-1914), how literary avant-gardism is frequently characterised by the use of traditional or classical forms. His regretful conclusion that << dans pratiquement tous les groupes d'avant-garde politique ou sociale de la Belle Epoque une creation poetique n'ait pas repondu a l'esprit revolutionnaire >> (p. 115) bears out the thesis of his influential 1981 work La Crise des valeurs symbolistes.

Two other papers here deal with the more entrenched manifestations of arriere-gardism. Franck Jouffre describes how Charles Forot's regionally-based Le Pigeonnier publications (1920-1945) reflect their founder's proMonarchist, pro-Maurras sympathies and his belief in << la saine tradition francaise, faite de clarte, d'ordre et de mesure >> (p. 132, quoted from the 1920 Le Pigeonnier manifesto) ; while Antoine Compagnon considers the effect of Peguy's 1910 Notre Jeunesse as a clarion call to rally round the arriere-garde as most representative of 'la mystique republicaine'. Compagnon's tantalisingly brief article also draws an interesting parallel between Peguy, Paulhan and Barthes, by indicating how all three were, in different ways, fighting a rearguard reaction to save a declining language.

The main aim of two further offerings in this section, one by Gide specialist Pascal Mercier on the satirical journal Les Guepes (1909-1912), the other by Sartre specialist Jean-Francois Louette on Roger Nimier, is to demonstrate how at its cutting edge--<< a l'avant-garde de l'arriere-garde >>, as it were (p. 128)--arriere-gardism can be characterised by a spirit of independence and critical acumen worthy of the most provocative avant-gardism.

Finally, Regine Pietra, in her paper on Julien Benda and the contradictions and confusing terminology that characterise his work, most notably in La France Byzantine (1945), is convinced that 'arriere-garde' can only really be applied meaningfully to literature, in that it forms part of the perennial Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. In the visual arts and in music, the arriere- versus avant-garde polemic is made more complex by other labels like 'academic' or 'baroque' that blur any simplistic or clear-cut divisions. Certainly, Pietra's observation is borne out by the content of this collection of essays, in which, as we have seen, the predominant emphasis in discussing the arts is on literature, and in which music, painting and cinema feature only marginally.

Following this lengthy middle section, which may appear to many readers to be overconcerned with specifically French literary squabbles, Part 3, entitled 'Les paradoxes du modernisme europeen', provides a welcome broadening of horizons to encompass other European cultures. Indeed, given that six of the contributors to this collection are specialists in comparative literature, one might have wished for a more extended concluding section. Anne-Rachel Hermetet's article on the fortunes of Vincenzo Cardarelli and Emilio Cecchi's journal La Ronda from 1919 on demonstrates how an aristocratic preoccupation with elegance, national tradition and the renewal of classical forms (as represented, in particular, by Leopardi) is not necessarily incompatible with experimentation and openness towards other European literatures. La Ronda is thus shown as remaining outside, and being critical of, any narrowly chauvinist French polarisation of arriere-garde and avant-garde. From a totally different perspective, Danielle Perrot-Corpet's comparative study of Bernanos and Unamuno demonstrates how a similar polarisation, this time between traditional Christian faith and secular modernism can no longer be fittingly applied to these two writers. Their concern with, on the one hand, man's inner struggle between faith and reason, and, on the other, the absence of God that results in contemporary man's sense of fragmentation and despair, makes them truly modern, if not Modernist, writers.

The two remaining articles in this section deal with English literature. The first of these, by Martin Puchner (translated, it should be noted, into French), concentrates on the controversial figure of Wyndham Lewis, and describes how the founder of Blast and Vorticism can best be described as a reactionary avant-gardist, whose political beliefs were often in contradiction with his aesthetics, and whose attacks on other, non-English manifestations of Modernism, notably Marinetti's Futurism, became increasingly vicious. Niels Buch-Jepsen's paper, by contrast, contains a wide-ranging discussion of the contribution made by Leavis and Eliot, amongst others, to what he sees as a fundamentally 'anglo-saxon' concept of Modernism: one based on a view of tradition as a dynamic interrelation between the past and the new, in which the new, while appearing to break with the past, constantly recalls it. It is this interaction of old and new that gives rise to works of art. He concludes with a paragraph that succinctly describes a fundamental difference between English and French literary criticism:
   L'idee moderniste de tradition litteraire que j'ai essaye d'exposer
   [...] me semble etre toujours tres en vigueur parmi les critiques
   anglo-americains. La creation d'une ceuvre litteraire est rarement
   concue comine une rupture entierement radicale : l'acte meme de
   commencer implique par necessite le deja connu et toute ceuvre nait
   dans cette interaction entre nouveaute et tradition. Cela explique
   peut-etre la volonte expresse des critiques anglo-americains de
   toujours rendre la litterature actuelle. En fait, je dirais que
   c'est precisement par le biais de cette notion tres fluide de
   tradition qu'ils ont reussi a reviser de facon aussi radicale le
   canon litteraire de ces dernieres decennies. La critique
   anglo-americaine n'a ainsi pas tendance a voir l'evolution
   litteraire comine une bataille de formes. A la limite, s'il y a une
   avant-garde, elle est forcement d'arrieregarde aussi. Et dans le no
   man's land du milieu se trouvent tous ces auteurs qu'on ne lit
   plus. (pp. 201-2)


This explains why a writer-critic like Coetzee, for instance, while totally subscribing to this view of literary tradition, would find the whole arriere-garde v. avant-garde debate a fairly fruitless one. Indeed, it should be said by way of conclusion that, while the avowed aim of this collection of articles is to reveal the hidden face of Modernism in the continuity of a rearguard reactionary tradition, what emerges most strikingly from one's reading is the French specificity of that tradition and the terms used to describe it. (ADRIAN KEMPTON, University of London Institute In Paris)

(1.) Auguste Angles, Andre Gide et le premier groupe de La NRf. Paris : Gallimard, 1976-1986 (3 volumes).

(2.) Martyn Cornick, Intellectuals in History. The Nouvelle Revue Francaise under Jean Paulhan, 1925-1940, Amsterdam : Rodopi, 1995.

(3.) Laurence Brisset, La NRf de Jean Paulhan. Paris : Gallimard, 2003.

(4.) L'on se reportera avec profit aux actes du colloque << La NRf de Paulhan >>, organise a l'Universite de Marne-la-Vallee par Jean Yves Guerin en octobre 2003, a paraitre aux editions Gallimard. Martyn Cornick y donne une etude intitulee << La NRf et le modernisme >>, qui recoupe certaines des analyses de Maaike Koffeman.

(5.) Pierre Bourdieu, Les Regles de l'art. Genese et structure du champ litteraire ; Paris : Seuil, 1992.

(6.) Voir Francois Nourrissier, Un Siecle NRf. Paris : Gallimard, 2000, << Bibliotheque de la Pleiade >>.

(7.) C'est par exemple le cas d'Andre Malraux, qui, si l'on excepte ses ecrits farfelus demeures confidentiels, Lunes en papier et Ecrit pour une idole a trompe, conquiert la notoriete en meme temps que son intronisation dans La NRf par ses notes de lectures (des 1922) et l'essai (La Tentation de l'Occident, 1926), avant donc que son roman Les Conquerants vienne les confirmer en 1928. Voir le numero 3 de la revue Presence d'Andre Malraux, << Malraux et les essayistes des annees 1920 >>, printemps 2003, et notamment l'article de Auguste Soule, << De la pratique de l'essai dans les annees 1920 >>.

(8.) Jean Paulhan, << Presentation de La NRf a Radio 37 >>, p. 364 dans (Euvres completes, tome IV. Paris ." Cercle du livre precieux, 1969.
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Author:Kempton, Adrian
Publication:The Romanic Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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