POETS, PROPHETS, AND REVOLUTIONARIES: The Literary Avant-Garde from Rimbaud through Postmodernism by Charles Russell

POETS, PROPHETS, AND REVOLUTIONARIES: The Literary Avant-Garde from Rimbaud through Postmodernism

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Bone-dry, too abstract, and not much fun--but an impressive and useful study nonetheless. Russell (English, Rutgers) has mastered a vast amount of material--who these days has read the Italian Futurists?--and presented it with clarity and admirable fairness. He begins with a crucial (and valid) distinction between the modernists (Proust, Pound, Joyce, Woolf, Gide, et al.), who ""despair of finding in secular, social history a significant ethical, spiritual, or aesthetic dimension,"" and avant-garde writers (Rimbaud, Apollinaire, dadaists, surrealists, Brecht, and many postmodernists), who try to ""sustain a belief in the progressive union of writer and society acting within history."" The avant-garde sees itself as part of a continually evolving modern culture, whose dominant values it rejects. Yet its members and supporters (Russell is clearly one of the latter) want to create a new artistic identity and join ""with other existing progressive or revolutionary forces to transform society."" Most importantly, the avant-garde hopes to give birth to new forms of perception, expression, and action that will canonize its writers as ""poets, prophets, and revolutionaries."" A splendid programmatic vision, but, as Russell honestly admits, seldom fulfilled. Many of Rimbaud's later works descend into utter hermetic obscurity. Apollinaire is best when he looks nostalgically to the past. The dadaists self-destructed or frittered away their movement. The surrealists stood their ground, but Russell is hard put to find anything really interesting about them except their theories. Mayakovsky quite appropriately killed himself, and the Russian Futurists vanished beneath the wave of socialist realism. Brecht would seem to be Russell's one triumphant test case, but in his best work (e.g., Mother Courage) he hardly qualifies as pure avant-garde. Then there are such dim luminaries as Alain Robbe-Grillet, John Cage, Ronald Sukenick, Raymond Federman, and others in the postmodernist camp, whom Russell respects but whose groping art he doesn't overrate. This is one of those few books that might have been better at twice its length, or at least with many more examples to flesh out the bones of its carefully thought out arguments. Fine analysis, mediocre exposition.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1985
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press