Reading, writing, rambling...

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Up guards and at 'em

Reading the scattered Web debate on whether the label avant-garde has any meaning in the post-modern world (or is that the post-post-modern world?), I was reminded that for most consumers of literature the partisan opinion on both sides of this argument would resemble (as Borges memorably said of the Falklands War) two bald men fighting over a comb. But it is a fascinating debate, not least for someone interested in the roots of words and phrases.

An avant-garde, in military terms, is the advance unit, the vanguard - first into battle, composed of the most hardened, reliable and resourceful fighters. For some reason, I'm visualising shakos and Napoleonic era moustaches. I'm not sure though how these qualities map across to ground-breaking artistic endeavour. Tough, not easily diverted, able to put up with being chronically misunderstood, prepared to risk the garret, sure - but do we want our avant garde to be reliable?Unreliability, unpredictability, the breaking of ranks - surely that's inherent in the cultural variety of avant-gardist? Napoleon would have had most of them shot.

Perhaps the metaphor becomes more appropriate when there's a citadel to be stormed. The first troops across the ditches and up the ladders used to be labelled "forlorn hopes" - an avant-garde composed of the super-ambitious, the condemned, the desperate, the renegade, sure to take withering fire and huge mortality rates. Ring any bells? Comparatively few would survive, but those who did could have their lives transformed - and could be credited with some of the transformations of victory. Though of course it was the main body of troops following on who built the breach of the walls into an established victory. Plus ca change (as Napoleon would have said)...

Then there's the post-avant-garde... no, I'm not going there just yet.

1 comment:

  1. As far I'm concerned I'm a happily unreconstructed modernist - which by my reckoning means I'm following a tradition which will reach its century next year. So a neat paradox there, then.
    Peter Philpott, though, classes me (and I think most poets he likes) as post-avant - does this mean he thinks I'm backward at coming forward?