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Modernist Writers as Avant-Garde: A Critical Analysis Essay

Different periods in history are marked, characterized and distinguished from each other by significant developments in terms of their intellectual, political, economic, and social contexts. These contexts serve as foundations within which art and the artist are themselves rooted upon. This is to say that various artworks and artists too, are products of the wider contexts within which they are part of, that is, society.

It is with the aforementioned context that literary discourse; in as far as it reflects the contexts within which authors are inevitably part of, is as potent a source as history in our attempts to arrive at a fuller understanding of ourselves and society. This essay will discuss the works of three modernist writers; Virginia Woolf, Elfriede Jelinek, and Andre Gide. In particular, this essay will explore the idea that modern writers (and their works) can be considered as avant-garde.

Although there is no universal assent among literary scholars with regards to the satisfactory definition of the term avant-garde, it will be of great help to provide several characterizations of this literary form at the onset of this essay. Miklos Szabolcsi (1971) offered a sociological approach and wrote the following: If we adopt this angle, we shall find that the common basis for these trends is the dissolution of the relationship between the writer or artist and the public.

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Literature and art cannot fulfill their traditional function, the existence of artist and art becomes precarious, its justification challenged in the rapidly changing, more and more complicated and incomprehensible world. (p. 54) It is important to note that Szabolcsi’s sociological approach also reveals the unavoidable philosophical underpinnings of the avant-garde trend in literature or art. In order to understand this, it is imperative to discuss in detail, what the avant-garde is.

In as far as classical art is concerned, visual art or literature, it can be said that for a very long period of time, it has been characterized by its adherence to the mimetic tradition. Such being the case, avant-garde art, in as far as it deviates from such tradition may be seen as an altogether different art form expressing a different artistic culture; a counter-culture to be precise. In a manner of speaking, avant-garde art and culture is revolutionary in the sense that it defies “against the prevailing standards of society” (Greenberg, 1939, p. 5).

Such defiance, on the part of the avant-garde is tantamount to detaching itself from society. It is important to note that the importance of such defiance is that it allowed for the possibility of bringing to the fore avant-garde’s true and most important function. Clement Greenberg (1939) wrote the following: Hence it developed that the true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to “experiment,” but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence. p. 36)

From the foregoing passage, the critical reader will infer that the avant-garde, as a counter-culture, is a product of the rapidly changing economic and political climates of the times; as different societies tend to move towards modernization and industrialization in the emergence of capitalism and globalization. Such being the case, to understand the avant-garde is to understand the different and conflicting systems of power and power relations at work in any given society.

The proceeding discussion will focus on three modernist writers with their specific texts so as to determine whether or not, the writers and their texts can be considered as avant-garde. The concepts of power and authority are dominant concepts that are explored by Virginia Woolf in her work entitled Between the Acts. Although some critics view Woolf as depicting the disintegration of society in this particular work, it is still plausible to maintain that she challenges the very core of the status quo.

Dissolution, fragmentation and the decentralization of power, in the hands of Woolf, became new lenses in and through which we can view things. Such lenses serve to defamiliarize the reader with his preconceived notions about power and authority; and, ultimately, to deconstruct these notions. The interesting part in Between the Acts is Woolf’s emphasis on the community rather than the usual, individual who serves as the leader in a patriarchal political setting. Very clearly, such decentralization of power is not merely a social commentary of some sort, but a valiant challenge directed to the status quo.

By rewriting the community as chorus, the subversive comedy of Between the Acts thus implies a permanent overturning of the existing order” (Cuddy-Keane, 1990, p. 283). Elfriede Jelinek on the other hand, explores the idea of defiance against the prevailing standards of society via the concept of gender in the context of a patriarchal society. In such a political setting, women are considered as the other; the second sex, or simply, the inferior. These ideas she explored in her work entitled Wonderful- Wonderful Times.

For the most part, one may say that Jelinek seeks to understand the feminine psyche and the feminine experience and the double-standards that male-dominated societies have. Very much similar to Woolf’s, Jelinek’s heroines like Anna (in Wonderful- Wonderful Times); lives in a world of absurdity and moral decay. She had her share of discrimination (because of gender) and cruelty (as she was physically abused by her own father). In such a world, women like Jelinek’s Anna, experiences power as that which belongs to the male. However, what is more important is the female’s realization of her own power and the resolve to assert her identity. She tries to liberate herself from her given fate and restore her self-respect” (Tandon, 2008, p. 155).

Very much similar to Woolf’s, Jelinek’s work serves as another counter-culture. Andre Gide, in his work entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son, differs from Woolf or Jelinek’s work because of the character that he used. Taking up the biblical parable of the prodigal son, Gide explores the complicated issues which involve power, politics and even philosophy. For the critical reader, Gide’s rewriting of the parable of the prodigal son centers much on the political aspect of things. Tom Conner (2001) wrote the following:

Man’s point of origin or homeland, the precisely demarcated territory of the familiar, finds its representation in the domain of the father. But there is another, nonspatial dimension to the authority of the father which is essential to Gide’s particular deviation from the Biblical myth: the notion of heredity, not as the ritualized transmission of ownership of the land, but rather the ability – and the social obligation – to make use of one’s inherited potential by becoming a father in return. (p. 31) The issues that are involved in the foregoing passage are indeed, complex but we will identify at least two of them.

Apart from the political aspects of it, it may be said that the passage points out a certain kind of opposition between “individual freedom and biological determinism in the aid of social conservation (order)” (Conner, 2001, p. 32). In the final analysis, it is plausible to maintain that modernist writers like Woolf, Jelinek, and Gide and their works can be considered as avant-garde in the sense that such works, by virtue of their content, meaning to say, the themes and the topics that they seek to explore are in themselves, directed as criticisms against the status quo.

This is to say that their works serve not merely as social commentaries of some sort but more importantly, as ideologies express and form a counter-culture. And, as these works present a counter-culture, it must be noted that they inevitably involve different and oftentimes, conflicting systems of power and power relations in any given society.

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