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This item is taken from PN Review 121, Volume 24 Number 5, May - June 1998.

Editorial
George Watson, who once upon a time publicly championed a notion of objective truth and value, crossing swords with notable relativists in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, is back. In Sewanee Review (Fall 1997) he resurfaces with an essay entitled 'The Death of the Avant-Garde'. He conflates political, critical and artistic movements: with a muted triumphalism, he affirms that the compulsion to be trendy is at an end. The free market, in the ascendant, has driven back old and new Left and Right. Intellectual fashions no longer intimidate, the arts no longer enrage - or engage. We have had the post-modern. Now we have the post-avant-garde. The young no longer make common cause to shock the old and middle-aged; theory has crossed the Atlantic, crossed the American continent, and is moribund on the California coast.

His broad-brush summary of where we are is part and parcel of his summary of where we have been. This distinguished academic lives a world away from any I have experienced: his simple categories are absolute; his map, innocent of fascism, forgets the complex configurations of the 1930s and of the 1960s.

The century after Marx... was to slip into a habit of mind wholly characteristic of itself. I shall call it Kaleidoscopic Belief, and it was to become the mark of the Western avant-garde in the early to mid-twentieth century. Kaleidoscopic belief was based on an assumption, usually silent, that all convictions are, at best, way stations to further and different convictions, that consistency is a wholly unrealistic ideal in modern thought, and that the pattern of advanced opinion is less one of stasis and constancy than of endless flow. The assumption is wholly twentieth century, wholly unknown (I believe) to previous ages, and quite different from the single change of view, usually from radical to conservative, that characterised many nineteenth-century thinkers like Wordsworth and Coleridge.

What of the troubled, vacillating faith and politics of John Donne, Andrew Marvell, John Dryden? He simplifies to the point of distortion the transformations in Romantic thought, which might have had something to do with the treachery of history; by implication he lumps Anglo-American modernism, Russian Acmeism, Italian Futurism and other avant-gardes in with Marxism; he denies that process in the work of an artist might reveal a deep consistency: the difference between, for example, the slender stylistic unity of Housman's work and the risky development of Eliot's. Culture and politics - even the principles of permanence which Coleridge outlines in On the Constitution of the Church and State - alter in character to remain stable in nature. Language changes, history happens, technologies develop. Few poets of the century are more consistent and constant than Pound, few achieve greater clarity and coherence than Eliot. The abiding power of their work is less in the vexed 'truths' they arrive at than in the ways they find to make the difficult journey.

Professor Watson is not alone in his nostalgia for consistency, constancy and coherence. And he may be right in suggesting that avant-gardes are in retreat. Is he looking in the right places? Do the electronic media, performance poetry, the arts that arise from different ethnicities and 'gender groups' contain elements to contradict him? I doubt that he would acknowledge evidence from those quarters. His cultural model is one of recovery; what's being recovered appears to be an old sense of canonicity which, while it remains a useful point of departure, is not a viable point of arrival. Too much of value has happened, the great fact of Modernism won't go away.

Nor can we easily dispose of the fact that the great poets in the tradition have not, as he believes, put the general reader among their chief priorities in writing. Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney and Donne, Herbert and Traherne and Vaughan, Smart and Cowper, Blake, Dickinson and many others, while they might have had a few readers, or God, in mind as they wrote, were not making public statements but tackling subjects, often complex subjects, setting themselves formal challenges. They engaged their art. 'If we never write anything save what is already understood,' Pound said, 'the field of understanding will never be extended. One demands the right, now and again, to write for a few people with special interests and whose curiosity reaches into greater detail.' It's a right to reaffirm. Without avant-gardes, it's a right that may be eroded.

At the beginning of this 'kaleidoscopic' century, English poems were busy doing all sorts of things they did not do before. At the end of the century many have been busy forgetting things they did incomparably well in the past. The century's avant-gardes began in polemical experiment; now there is polemic plain and simple. Should new avantgardes emerge, their force and virtue will derive from their literary character, not from the nature of the audience or market that consumes them. 'One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later,' wrote Walter Benjamin. George Watson, after years of debate and doubt, seems to be settling down comfortably again at his high table: culture is almost safe once more, it is coming round, it is answering a demand that already exists. His may be the calm before the next redefining storm. I hope so, for Professor Watson's sake: complacency is not becoming to him, any more than it is to a poem or a poetry.

This item is taken from PN Review 121, Volume 24 Number 5, May - June 1998.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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