The Avant-Garde and the Question of Literature

The Avant-Garde and the Question of Literature

R. M. Berry

Ralph Berry on Avant-Garde fiction and the future of the page.

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present

Wittgenstein, Tractatus (6.4311)

It seems increasingly apparent to me that formally experimental writing is running counter to the main current of history. Whether we consider the global expanse of capitalism, the unrivaled position of the United States in international affairs, the rise of the Republican party nationally, or the worldwide audience for Hollywood film and American popular music, the general direction of the last three decades has been toward increasing consolidation of the dominant. My aim in acknowledging this bleak fact is not to minimize the real fissures and counter currents of recent history. It is to motivate a question: Why does formally experimental writing persist, at least for some of us, in the face of what appears to be its growing marginalization? In what follows I will not be providing a historical explanation for this persistence, nor will I be seeking a political or ethical justification, although it’s essential to the force of my remarks that, on occasion, they compete with such accounts. My background idea is that the continuation into the new millennium of literary experimentation, despite its widespread neglect, is forceful evidence that modernism was not a response to historically circumscribed conflicts and crises but, on the contrary, arose from necessities internal to literature itself. I’ll try here to give concreteness to this idea, to indicate how these necessities arise, what they look like, why they’re not generally recognized, while attempting some rapprochement with the history I’m bracketing. After all, what I’ve situated internal to literature, counter to history, is simply the necessity for change, that is, for history. Said another way, it’s unclear whether I’m looking for the necessity of formal experimentation or perhaps for freedom from necessity altogether. These could be the same thing.

For those of us who are committed to radical change in literature, there are good reasons why we might want to avoid using the term “avant-garde.” The philosopher Stanley Cavell, whose writings on modernism have been influential on me, has noted three confusions endemic to the concept. First is its tendency to overemphasize art’s future at the expense of its past, leaving present work ungrounded. The result of this lopsidedness is an impression that contemporary art bears no relation, or only an arbitrary one, to those historic achievements that have given rise both to art’s significance and to its problems. We could speak of this first confusion as the avant-garde’s misrepresenting possibility as indeterminacy, its misinterpretation of art’s unforeclosable future as a hedge against its historical specificity, its present fix. A second confusion has to do with the avant-garde’s uncritical enthusiasm for any and everything that calls itself innovative, regardless of an “innovation’s” sterility, irrelevance, or just plain stupidity. Cavell speaks of this tendency as the avant-garde’s “promiscuous attention” to newness, a phrase intended to suggest both indiscriminate coupling and infidelity. The idea is that the avant-garde habitually conflates novelty with change, imagining that artistic advance results from mere unconventionality, from difference as such. Call this the “farther out than thou” syndrome. And the third confusion is a tendency, already implicit in the avant-garde’s military metaphor, to represent artistic advances as historical or political advances, as though significant changes in the forms of art could be validated by their political efficacy. Although Cavell wants to keep open the question of art’s relation to politics, not to imply that there is no relation, he means here to criticize the habit, so characteristic of 20th century avant-gardes, of underestimating the real differences between artistic practice and serious political action. How to characterize this last confusion is difficult, since we’re still in it, but it has something to do with art’s paradoxical autonomy, with the political significance of art’s irreducibility to political significance. Taken together these confusions emphasize the avant-garde’s tendency to turn on itself, to represent the historical conditions of art as mere obstacles, and thus to undermine those problematic continuities on which, not just mainstream art, but even revolutionary art, depends.

In her 1926 lecture, “Composition as Explanation,” Gertrude Stein offers an account of historical change that, while insisting on the necessity for advances in art, seems to avoid Cavell’s critique. Her originality stems from two ideas, both involving what she calls “time-sense.” First is her idea that the goal of any advance is not the future but the present. That is, every generation lives instinctively and unself-consciously several generations behind itself, in a kind of anachronistic hybridity, preoccupied with earlier emotions, reflexes, styles, and concepts, and discovering its own time only afterwards, in narrating it. Her paradigm of this belatedness is World War I, which she says the generals imagined as “a nineteenth century war…to be fought with twentieth century weapons,” a time lag that suppressed modern warfare until too late, after the carnage had forced contemporaneity on it. Part of what Stein wants from this example is the contrast between the academic and the modern, a contrast she’ll develop later as something “prepared” versus something “that decides how it is to be when it is to be done.” But more immediately she wants to deepen the problem of time itself.

For Stein, the present is never what the present naturally wants. On the contrary, wherever the present achieves expression, those living in it will find it annoying, irritating, unnatural, ugly. Consequently, art can’t be made present by accomodating it to popular styles or dominant ideas, and art’s motivation to become present has nothing to do with striving after novelty. Instead, changes in art occur because in some befuddling but life-determining way, they already have occurred, are already present, inescapably so, even when repudiated. Stein’s idea is that what changes from one generation to the next is a form, not a content, what she calls “composition,” and although each generation’s composition controls its consciousness absolutely, i.e., “makes what those who describe it make of it,” it does not itself readily submit to consciousness, to description. It’s as though everyone can feel how out of synch things are, can recognize the obsolescence of what our leaders, parents, peers have to say, but as soon as anyone tries to say what’s out of synch, he or she becomes obsolete too. Art’s problem then is to acknowledge something as inescapable as an entrenched enemy but that resists our direct advance as forcefully as a machine gun. As Stein says, “No one is ahead of his time,” one of several remarks meant to dislodge our confidence that we know what she’s talking about. The avant-garde - in Stein’s sense - is merely art’s struggle for its time, for embodiment of those formative but unrepresentable conditions on which art’s survival, and possibly everyone else’s survival too, depends.

But Stein’s second idea seems to complicate, if not undo, this first one. Her word “composition” is meant to set up an analogy between the action of history and the activity of painters, writers, and musicians, the point being that the modern work is one that incorporates this new “time-sense,” the consciousness of the present, into itself. However, when Stein tries to explain what this change means concretely, she comes out with a stupefying series of redundancies: “a thing made by being made,” “what is seen when it seems to be being seen,” “the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing,” and most dizzyingly, “the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living.” Despite their circularity, these formulations seem to me uncommonly precise. What they all share is a suggestion of something already in existence that is the means by which it is itself brought into existence. The idea seems to be that what has always existed unrecognized in art - i.e., the creative power of presentness - is in the modern work, not just what is recognized, but what actually does the work of art, what makes art art specifically by being recognized. This is what her phrase, “a thing made by being made,” tries to bring out. But now everything has gotten turned around, since presentness no longer seems limited to the present. It’s as if modern art weren’t just the latest change in art, say, the form of Stein’s own generation, but were instead a change of a wholly different order, one that has revealed something about all art. That this is, in fact, Stein’s idea is indicated by her lecture’s first sentence, which insists on a historical changlessness underlying changes in compositions, as well as by her later, more paradoxical insistence that what results from incorporating the new time-sense is not a historical document but something timeless, a classic. It is as though what Stein’s generation needed to do to make art was to find out for the first time what art was. In other words, the whole point of acknowledging the present for Stein is to disclose what, once laid bare, seems always to have existed. When this happens, art happens. Understood in this sense, the avant-garde isn’t just the struggle for its time. It’s the struggle in its time for something lost or forgotten or repressed by its time. Stein’s term, both for this struggle and for its object, is “a continuous present.”

Despite the difficulty of making these ideas clear, I think Stein’s account of artistic advance is basically right. If literature is to exist in the present, then it must be discovered there. This is, I believe, what the idea of an avant-garde meant for Stein’s generation and what I believe it still means, even if ignored. To write after modernism, not before, is to acknowledge modernism’s discovery of this necessity of discovery as such. On the one hand, this implies that nothing already known about forms of writing can count as a guide for producing novels and poems now. What can be taught in creative writing workshops or literature courses - that is, what we’re presently prepared to recognize as fiction or poetry - constitutes the problem to be overcome, hence must be recognized. But the purpose of recognizing the already known is to escape it. Its inadequacy, even impertinence, to the present task seems to me what’s right about modernism’s insistence on newness, innovation, experiment. On the other hand, this impertinence of the already known does not mean that novels and poetry must be, or even can be, created directly from present experience. On the contrary, it means that present experience will be as elusive, as much a reproduction of the already known, of past experience, as poetry and fiction, and for the same reasons. To insist that literature must now be discovered means that, far from creating poems and fiction ex nihilo, from present absence, literature can only be created - as baffling as this sounds - from literature, that is, from something always already in existence, underlying in misunderstood and half-glimpsed ways every writing. This is what Stein’s “continuous present” tries to name. If none of this makes much sense, that may be because, prior to its discovery in present work, literature never does make much sense. Between what’s already known and what demands recognition is always a gap. Or stated in a sentence, after modernism, literature ceases to exist as history and begin to exist as a question.

Probably the best way to give tangibility to these remarks would be to examine Stein’s own writings, since her lectures were always meditations on her own literary practice, but because my interest is less in what the avant-garde was than what it is, I want to conclude with some reflections on Carole Maso’s novel AVA. Although the order of my paper suggests that I am using Maso’s novel to illustrate a theory developed independently and beforehand, I think the opposite chronology is more nearly the case. At any rate, if I had not come to understand what literature is by discovering from specific works of fiction that I didn’t already know, then none of what I have said so far would have been for me of more than academic interest. Which is another way of saying I wouldn’t have written this.

AVA is my candidate for a present representative of the avant-garde in fiction, that is, for a novel that continues modernism’s advance into the present. Ultimately, my commitment to AVA does not result from its mere difference from other novels but, as I’ll try to show, from its revelation of what novels are, what they’ve always been. However, I’m highlighting it initially because its form seems a version of nothing that, before AVA, I was prepared to recognize as a narrative. Its originating predicament is that Ava Klein, professor of comparative literature and ardent lover of life, is dying at age 39, and Maso’s text purports to be a record of the phrases, images, and fragmentary recollections that pass through Ava’s consciousness on the morning, afternoon, and night of August 15, 1990, the day Iraq invades Kuwait and Ava dies. The problem Ava faces on this day is how her life can be whole, complete, even while coming to such a premature end. She recalls a remark by Eva Hesse, “Life doesn’t last, art doesn’t last” (185), one of countless passages that imply something closer than an analogy, more like an identity, between the problem in the novel and the problem of the novel. What Ava the character seeks, what AVA the novel seeks, is something that, as long as there was God, meaning provided, call it lasting significance or higher purpose, but something that atoned for the shortcomings of flesh and matter. However, without recourse to the everlasting, Ava’s death can’t be redeemed through any spiritual allegory. Her salvation has to be literal: “Here is my arm,” she tells the chemo nurse. “I want to live” (49). Nothing not complete in itself, nothing that stands for something else, can matter to Ava now. All that will atone for life is life. The problem then, for both novel and character, is time.

Many of Ava’s recollections on her last day are of phenomena and events that were already incomplete or arrested in her first experience of them: a miscarried pregnancy, Schubert’s unfinished symphony, a deferred marriage proposal, a fragment of orchestral music heard on a car radio, Moses dying within sight of the promised land. Taken together, these examples epitomize a frustration that seems more than just accidental, a lack built into Ava’s very existence, some metaphysical imperfection, as though to be mortal were simply to be balked. As Ava says of Moses, “(He) fails to enter Canaan not because his life is too short, but because it is a human life.” That is, deprived of paradise, the fact of human finitude seems itself a broken promise. It’s as though Ava’s capacity to imagine a future without herself, or possibly just her ability to say the words, “If we could live forever” (102), projects a limitlessness by contrast with which even her extraordinary life seems truncated. “So many plans,” she thinks, then adds, “time permitting” (162). At points in the novel this essential incompleteness is associated with language. Ava repeatedly recalls Hélène Cixous’s wish “to create a language that heals as much as it separates,” a wish frequently juxtaposed with Ava’s hope for cure, as though the two forms of brokeness, Ava’s body and Ava’s dying words, were each forms of a single disruption. More than once Ava flirts with the idea of a lost, primordial wholeness, as if articulation were not her natural condition, juxtaposing the remark, “Let me describe what my life once was here,” with the fragment, “Home before it was divided” (22), and wishing repeatedly for the fluency of music. A recalled quote from Monique Wittig (37) attributes this linguistic disruption to maleness.

Interpreting Maso’s myth of lost origins is tricky, since it can express either a wholly satisfactory solution to Ava’s problem or a temptation to repeat it. It’s to this temptation, for example, that Ava and her first husband yield, seeking ever younger lovers in an effort to recover their love by replicating its inaugural moment: “You were looking for the way I was once,” Ava tells him, “the age I was when we first met” (167). That is, interpreted as the projection of fullness into a retreating past, Maso’s myth reinstitutes the metaphysical confinement Ava’s literally dying to escape. Although Maso means for her myth to recall us to a forgotten promise, she doesn’t mean that Canaan could only be entered by going backwards. On the contrary, if Ava’s life is to be whole, its wholeness must come, not through a return to the past but of it, as of the repressed, a return identical with Ava’s advance into the present. In other words, the incompleteness of Ava’s life is not its discontinuousness, or not if by that we mean life’s comings and goings, its punctuation by silence and questions, its parsing into discrete experiences, what Ava calls “moments.” If language is implicated in Ava’s problem, then that’s not because it is articulate - i.e., not because it’s language. If anything, as Ava draws closer to AVA ‘s end, she seems increasingly affirming of all that separates words, thoughts, feelings, people. “Learn to love the questions themselves,” she tells herself. “The spaces between words. Between thoughts. The interval” (171). No, the complicity of language in her life’s incompleteness must involve something with which the discontinuousness of words, their articulations, can be readily confused, some capacity of a word to dislocate from its origin, from those moments in which its occurrence seems inevitable, and recur where its presence can create division. If we have difficulty seeing what this is, that’s probably because, in reading AVA, we are doing it too.

What makes time problematic in AVA is narrative. That is, the source of the incompleteness of Ava’s life is not its division into words but its division into beginning, middle, and end. This representation, not merely of her life as presently incomplete, but of every present as incomplete - as an opening that went nowhere (“Why was it I hesitated?” [80]), a missed climax (“I might have gone to China” [241]), a plot-disrupting complication (“We lost the baby, Anatole” [81]), or a revelation that came too late (“Everything in me is suddenly beginning to emerge clearly. Why not earlier? Why at such cost? I have so many thousands of things, some new, some from an earlier time, which I would like to tell you” [241]) - it is this representation of her life as never wholly present that periodically rises up in Ava as an irresistable demand for more time: “Find a cure…. Find a cure…. Find a cure” (221). Either Ava’s voice returns from her past as reminder of her life’s fullness - “You were all I ever wanted” (61), “You gave me the world” (178), “It was paradise” (43) - or it returns to trap her in time: “But I am only thirty-nine, Dr. Oppenheim” (55). Everything can be narrated except what must already be present for anything to be narrated. In other words, the solution to the problem of Ava Klein’s life - and therefore to the artistic problem of representing it - is not discovered by staving off death a few more years, for the problem is not life’s shortness. And the solution remains impossible only so long as discovering it is mistaken for representing it, which is basically what Wittgenstein meant in the Tractatus when he called aesthetics “transcendental” (6.421). Ava’s solution remains where Ava has always discovered it, in the living out of every moment in its completeness, fully, up to the moment of life’s close in death. That is, whatever enables words to come and go, anything to be a preparation for something else, this moment to be a conclusion, a development, a denouement, or time in its continuum to be punctuated by now, now, now–whatever underlies every narrative, making it narratable, that is precisely what makes AVA, both novel and character, whole.

I realize this way of speaking can seem frustrating, almost as frustrating as calling the deathbed question of Ava’s lover - “But what, after all, is wrong with now?” (87) - an answer. Either nothing needs explaining here or nearly everything. I feel like saying: You simply have to hear the words! But the problem is, if you did hear the words, then saying you have to verges on an insult, and if you didn’t hear the words, saying you have to is an insult. We’re banging our heads against a limit. What can’t be said can’t be said. However, if I were to try to give concreteness to this present I find so elusive, I’d turn my attention to the most immediately striking but quickly forgotten feature of Maso’s novel: the deluge of white space on every page. This white space represents something no novel has ever existed without but whose precise significance for novels went largely uninvestigated until the latter half of the twentieth century. It is in terms of Maso’s further discovery of this significance that I want to speak of AVA ‘s present advance.

To explain what I mean, it will help to contrast the relation of white space and text in AVA with that of two other earlier novels with which it seems to have some affinity: Raymond Federman’s Take It or Leave It, and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. White space in Take It or Leave It is used, for the most part, as it was by modernist poetry from, say, W. C. Williams through Charles Olson, primarily, as the spatial equivalent of a break in speech, a breath stop or syntactic division, and secondarily, as a way of foregrounding linguistic materiality, the print as a visual object. The opening lines of Federman’s “Pretext,” despite their initial appearance of disorder, seem on closer examination arranged in near perfect accord with speech rhythms, syntax, and grammar:

     in the beginning
     words scattered
     by chance
     and in all directions!

Similar vertical series of syntactically or grammatically parallel units can be seen elsewhere on the novel’s opening pages:

     a shy silhouette
     a profile
     a shiny saxophone

or in the lower right corner of the second page;


However, the jumbled text on the right margin of the first page

u c n r l e e e g e
n o t o l d n r i s!

operates by another principle, providing something like a visual mimesis of its own sense or meaning. While arranging the text according to rhythm and syntax works to emphasize the spokeness of the narration, its saturation with voice, the visual mimesis seems to disrupt or compete with this voice, asserting the autonomy of page and print. But together the two devices seem to produce a surprisingly unified effect, constantly foregrounding the presence of the voluble Franco-American whose self-representation provides both the novel’s matter and manner, its speech and its writing.

We could call Take It or Leave It a graphic performance or the graphic representation of a performance, but either way, Federman’s novel represents an investigation of narrating as a kind of action, one that seems focused on the page. The kind of action Federman’s pages display is that of interrupting, of breaking up what is continuous: i.e., lines, sentences, phrases, meanings, letters. We could say that, for Federman, white space becomes a new form of punctuation. However, for this innovation to count as an artistic advance, as a discovery of fiction in the terms I’ve laid out, it would need to reveal something about novels generally, about the function of white space, line length, arrangement of text, or margins, and here one can feel unsure whether Federman’s deepest discoveries are really of the page. That is, unlike the edge of earlier paintings, which modern art revealed to be only apparently accidental, line breaks in earlier fiction are accidental. What makes them essential to Take It or Leave It is the action of the narrator, who, no longer contained within the dematerialized space of representation, has punctured the wall of materiality, breaking into Federman’s book. White space for Federman is expressive. In this sense, we could say that his discovery is more of the page as a space for action than of the action of the page itself.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress continues Federman’s investigation of white space as active, as a constitutive feature of fiction, but Markson’s novel does not make the action of this space the narrator’s doing. That is, although the white space in Markson’s novel does something to the narrative, or tries, it does not do anything in the narrative. It does not punctuate. Here I want to record a peculiar fact about my experience of Markson’s work. I first thought to compare it with AVA because I remembered, or thought I remembered, that the pages in the two books looked alike, that in Wittgenstein’s Mistress white space separated each of the narrator’s statements. Therefore I was quite surprised when I returned to his book and discovered, on first glance, that the white space appeared wholly traditional. That is, the page appeared to be merely a passive background on which the text was printed. What had created my false impression was the similarity between Maso’s and Markson’s narrators, specifically, that both seem to express themselves in short, disconnected utterances, utterances that can never seem to stop. It was as though I wanted space to intervene, felt the rightness or need of Federman’s punctuation. When I didn’t find it, I felt a little panicky.

This memory is, for me, the first clue to Markson’s discovery. In Wittgenstein’s Mistress the impression created by the narration is that of breathlessness, as though the absence of any naturally occurring divisions in speech or thought, of pauses, resting places, were the condition of an augmenting claustrophobia. We could speak of it as narrative gone mad, as though the present were wholly absent and all that remained was the continuous, frustrated transformation of past into future, future into past, a hellish parody of timelessness, call it the neverending static. In the presence of this ceaselessness, the active power of white space in fiction begins to show itself. Its role is, in one sense, wholly traditional, merely its role in all novels. That role is to enclose. What the white space does in Markson’s novel is rush in to every void, every opening the narration will allow, as though the ceaselessness of narrating were a continuous effort to keep it out, to keep at bay whatever would be there but for this run-on voice. This is the significance of what, on a second glance, one can see is the new look of Markson’s page, i.e., that the margins appear unjustified. Or almost. The left is a continuous ragged column of indentations; the right is broken repeatedly by long incursions of white. It’s as though silence were actively struggling to break in, to constest speech. In other words, Wittgenstein’s Mistress reveals white space to be a surrounding.

It should be apparent now that what makes the use or place of white space in these books both newly revealing and newly material, significant, is the writing itself. That is, when we’re speaking of the white space, we’re not merely talking about a material fact, a visual appearance of essentially the same kind as a painting. Despite the greater importance of visualization in both Federman’s and Markson’s novels, the significance of the visualization is essentially tied to the narration, to certain qualities of voice or speech to which the writing gives expression. It is this interaction of inflected print and white space, that makes the page, not merely a background but an integral part of the work. That is, this interaction transforms the accidental into the essential, the book into the novel, the ink into the meaning, matter into spirit. In the process, it reveals that this was already the case.

What these remarks are meant to show is that the white space in AVA is essentially different because the discourse, the writing, is essentially different. Like Take It or Leave It, Maso’s white space is a positive presence, not a surrounding. That is, the appearance of her page is not of text enclosed or bordered by white space. There is just too much page, too much blank paper to speak of it as “surrounding” the narrative. (One feels like saying, ” What narrative?”) Its appearance is not of a discourse but of a field, that is, something composed fundamentally of a space, a white plane, merely broken or interrupted by occasional incursions of text. That is, what punctuates in AVA is the print. Which is where it differs from Federman. Although white space is positive, not merely the negation of print, it is not active, or not in the normal sense of action, that is, it is not primarily an event. On the contrary, each separate utterance is an event, and the weirdness is that these events do not seem to be actions of the narrator. That is, Maso’s text does not seem spoken. I want to say that it seems breathed. I realize that this way of describing it may be just too metaphorical, too impressionistic, but I know of no other word that could describe what I have in mind so precisely: specifically, that the text does not represent what Ava Klein wants to say - the utterances are not her concluding statements, are merely what escapes from her, slips out, like so many faux pas - and that it is weightless, light as thought. That is, regardless of the gravity of their content, their human pathos or profundity, the utterances remain separate from any dramatic preparation or climax, suspending action, leaving everything up in the air. In this way, Maso’s novel represents a further advance of the discoveries made by Federman and Markson. While it’s a discovery of the page itself, not only or primarily of the narrator’s use of it (as in Take It or Leave It), this discovery is of something more fundamental than simply a gathering around the words (as in Wittgenstein’s Mistress). If Federman’s space punctuates speech and Markson’s surrounds thought, then I would say that Maso’s page upholds Ava’s life.

The problem of history, that is, of the representation of life in time, is not our limitedness, not our inability to see and do and say everything. It is more nearly our awareness of our limitedness, specifically, that this awareness displaces what we do see, denies the significance of what is constantly before our eyes. When Wittgenstein remarks in the Tractatus (6.521), “The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem,” he does not mean that there just are no problems. Ava’s dying, for God’s sake! What could be more of a problem? No, Wittgenstein’s meaning is that narrative is itself the working out of a problem, and where narrative isn’t, then narrative becomes the problem. In other words, I find myself divided between saying that the significance of the white space in AVA is allegorical, that it stands for what underlies all narration, all history, or that it is literal, that it is what underlies all narration, all history. Either way, it would be what Wordsworth called nature, what Heidegger called being, what Beckett called silence, and what Stein called a continuous present. That is, it would be an absence of human saying and doing that represents no lack of anything said or done, an absence of lack itself. Ava has her own way of expressing it. She says, “It was everything while it lasted.”