‘Avant-garde and Mediation’ – Franco Fortini (1968)

[This essay appears as chapter VII of F. Fortini, A Test of Powers: Writings on Criticism and Literary Institutions, translated by Alberto Toscano, Seagull Books 2016. All translator’s notes are by A. Toscano. Quotations in this essay are from Perlini unless otherwise noted.]

1. Of course, the new avant-garde is capable of ‘profoundly demystifying’ all the remaining illusions and claims inherited from the historical avant-garde. Anyone is capable of irony about anyone else. Today’s avant-garde would simply be continuing the literary tradition which, ever since Balzac at least, has placed the artist, the writer and his activity at the centre of its discourse (thus rendering explicit a moment implicit in any artistic making). Of course, it is possible to document the self-destructive instinct of the recent avant-garde. But let us ask: What does ‘destruction’ mean? What do these ‘negations’ negate? If we do not make the activist and naturalist mistake (with its other inevitable magical-mystical face) of immediately linking praxis and theory; if we do not identify (as do most of the French godfathers of the new avant-garde) ‘reality’ and ‘discourse’, we should be able to see not only that poetic and artistic discourse differs from practical-political discourse, but that the first will not negate or destroy much of anything as such, namely, qua poetic and artistic discourse. Instead, all its tormented and ironic negations will compose a form, the hated and inevitable ‘artwork’. The practical-political function of works of poetry—their aptitude to legislate the world— no doubt exists, but only at the end of a path that differs from that of practical-political discourse. As everyone knows, there are two forms through which the literary ideology of our century has sought to escape that fate of practical impotence—the first equated all literary work to action (the surrealist or existentialist doctrines of commitment), the second eliminated the problem by reducing every artistic or literary fact to communication or information.

Pablo Picasso. Minotauromachy. 1935. The Baltimore Museum of Art

Therefore, to say that the historical avant-garde ‘preserved, by repudiating it, the sacredness of art’ amounts to saying that the authors—the surrealists in particular—while deriding the tradition of the poet-demiurge continued both to demand, from the verbal–formal operation, a magical efficacy and to identify speech and action. Now, it does not seem to me that the new avant-garde has overcome that claim, even if it intended to do so. That is clear from the way in which it continues explicitly to take on a function of protest, negation, etc. (and nourishes itself on current affairs). It is the environing social reality that has overtaken the new avant-garde; it is the cultural habitat of advanced capitalism that no longer leaves any margin for the ‘revolt’ of artists and writers. Other is the power of negation and new birth that belongs to every work; in that sense, the orientation that can be drawn from the late Vittorini or from Philippe Sollers in France—that strenuous experimentalism which shares only its scientific horizon with the Revolution—would obviously be more correct, albeit superfluous. How can we not frequently discern, among those who debate these questions, a ‘corporatist’ defence of arts and letters, which is becoming stronger, the more it would seem that their interests impel them to contest ‘the existing state of things’? We are even told that ‘the death of art would strongly contribute to the definitive legitimation [ . . . ] of the existing state of things’—where it should be noted that ‘the death of art’ does not necessarily mean the death of ‘any art’ but, perhaps, just that of the art produced by the avant-garde groups of the industrially developed countries, like the ‘state of things’ is the one that ‘exists’ only in one part of the world, and it is contested there too. Why indulge in the myth of ‘modernity’, where ‘life’ and ‘death’ would only pertain to forms accepted as ‘modern’? To modify the state of things is a meaningless pursuit if among its multiple elements we do not delineate a hierarchy of priorities, values and instruments. It seems to me, in the end, that the great works of literature and art have a capacity to genuinely disrupt the dominant ideologies not so much because of how they contest the usual and the banalized, not only because of their capacity to break out-dated formal schemas, but especially (or at least, also) because of their profound untimeliness and their ironclad1 conclusiveness, which no ‘open’ or ‘interminable’ or ‘polysemic’ or ‘informal work’ can escape. That is because formality lies in their etymology, in their nature as enormous morphemes. In this sense it is useless to declaim against the sacredness of art (I have done so for thirty years) because the most desecrated and desecrating, humble and makeshift work of art appears, thanks to its own conclusion, like an artifice ‘charged with values’ which always silently alludes to something, to a possibility that is not only never the same as the possible-future of the politician, but in relation to it is frequently—in the most precise sense of the word—untimely. It is this way of making himself the bearer of a strategic design which is often unknown to him, in an anachronism that some circumstances can even beat the most acute of politicians, which explains why the poet has always been likened to the priest, be it in scorn or praise, and why both (rightly) bother the politician. One thing is to fight the arrogance or haughtiness or simple silliness of priests and poets when they make themselves the arbiters of kingdoms and crowns or threaten the daggers of Tacitus2 (a necessary struggle if you are persuaded of the decisive primacy in the present of political action); another is to delude oneself that a wilful gesture or a supplementary and programmatic negation is enough to escape from priestly or literary ‘shame’. 

[1 Author’s Note: Exaggerating (but certain ‘overcomers’ should heed the Kierkegaardian warning, from the final pages of Fear and Trembling [1843]) and extolling this ‘retroverted’ aspect, tragically denied the future and contemptuous of beggarly hope, some have wished to contest all the literature of our century which contains, in a Lukácsian sense, a terminus ad quem, that is, a perspective. Of course, there is a frequent temptation to believe that skill and perhaps even genius is positioned on the ‘right’. But it is a facile temptation: Every word of skill and genius is to the right of the activist and to the left of the philistine. Those critics will also have to keep silent about all those authors, including great ones like Brecht, from all tendencies, even ones as important as surrealism, which do not fit that schema. What Vittorio Saltini has recently written is probably truer than one may suspect—that the group comprising the ‘sacred monsters’ of the twentieth century (Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Musil; I would make an exception for Proust, still imperfectly understood) now appears concluded and distant to the new generations, and that one should go back to speaking of authors from remoter periods—even from those bourgeois eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which Vittorini, shortly before his death, refused with a gesture as broad as it was ineffective.

Translator’s Note: In Book II of the Annals of Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56-117), the Roman senator and historian recounts the suicide of the Emperor Otho: ‘Towards evening he quenched his thirst with a draught of cold water. Two daggers were brought to him; he tried the edge of each, and then put one under his head. After satisfying himself that his friends had set out, he passed a tranquil night, and it is even said that he slept. At dawn he fell with his breast upon the steel’. The History of Tacitus (Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb trans.) (London: Macmillan, 1873), p. 70.]

2. I am criticized especially for what I asserted in the essay ‘Two Avant-gardes’, to wit that both avant-gardes, that of the first quarter of the century and the recent one, place themselves outside the category of mediation. In the mature Lukács, and in my essay, the Hegelian notion of Vermittlung (mediation) would have been substituted with ‘in-betweenness’ [medietà] or equilibrium-in-contradiction. The art of the avant-garde, which is immediacy and negation, would instead be situated before Vermittlung. It would constitute—in its historical form—the ‘Great Refusal’ of the ‘power of facts’ which is affirmed by a reifying society. Today, the new avant-garde, conscious of the capacity for integration and commodification of the society in which it lives, would also negate that ‘Great Refusal’, and would, as a ‘wager’, go to the edge of silence. Many assertions contained in this thesis would deserve a detailed discussion (for instance, how it interprets the development of Lukács’s thought).4 However, I will restrict myself to one point.

[3Author’s Note: Perlini, writing with with reference to Hegel (no doubt correctly), affirms that in the dialectic the moment of Negation is situated after affirmation but before mediation.

4Author’s Note: Lukács is so universally under attack, since forever and by everyone, as to make his defence entirely superfluous. Nothing is truer than the observation that the eighty-year-old Lukács today pronounces banalities or defends mistakes and testifies to the limits and faults of the revolutionary generation that was already more than thirty years-old in 1917—even though I cannot but wish for myself and my critics that in twenty or thirty years we shall enjoy the same lucidity as the one manifest in the 1967 preface to History and Class Consciousness. But we’re not talking about hormones. And what seems to me truly strange is to accuse the Lukács of the period following his early masterpiece of a kind of moral and intellectual capitulation, of a Mannian Pathos der Mitte, of the ‘bitter wisdom of one who has overcome, or rather repudiated the phase of youthful illusions’. In the past, I too shared this psychological and moralistic interpretation. Not for nothing did I address, on 23 October 1956, this epigram to Cesare Cases—I won’t apologize for the self-citation—while the monument to Stalin fell and Lukács appeared to have interpreted, at the Petöfi Circle, the demands of the Hungarian youth: ‘The object objects, György returns; and there falls / the idol of essence. Too late! / Existence already bloodies the streets.’ [Published, in a somewhat different form than the one cited here, as ‘27 ottobre 1956’, Avanti! (18 April 1957).] But today I know that, though I can judge Lukács’s political position during the Stalinist period, it is fruitless for me to ask whether that was a concession to the ‘middle way’, a renunciation of ‘youthful illusions’ as my critic ironically notes (if youthful illusions appear to be illusions, one should give them up), when two generations of revolutionaries let themselves be killed repeating with Trotsky and Lukács ‘right or wrong, my party’. Something more important than the moral or intellectual coherence of a philosopher was at stake: namely the fate of Soviet socialism, what would survive of it in our world, or if it would. Therefore—and I hope no one thinks I’m so stupid as to want to draw comparisons, but simply because my work was also under discussion—it matters little if I’ve managed to be biographically coherent, contradictorily laying claim to the legitimacy of poetry as anticipation and ‘affirmation of the absent’ and, at the same time, denouncing it as the ornament of a ruined society; what will matter more is what of the present figure of the world will transpire from me, and how, to those who will come after—and, why not, even in verse.]

Max Ernst, ‘Girl’s Dream’ (1930c.)

Having observed that I borrow from Lukács ‘the criticism [ . . . ] according to which irrationalism is envisaged as the refusal of the dialectic and as the opposed-complementary pole of a purely formal rationality’, my interlocutor resorts to a hypothesis, which in other circumstances I had advanced with regard to Lukács: The ‘essayism’ to which the then young Hungarian writer devoted himself was the metaphor and anticipation of the category of mediation, which would have gradually assumed in his work the features of the Party and the Typical. As Tito Perlini writes, ‘It is clear that [ . . . ] the category of mediation as conciliating intermediate element stands in Lukács as the escape from an unresolved and unresolvable conflictuality, as the evasion of tragedy.’ 

Much of the ensuing argument derives from this thesis— faced with historical necessities, Lukács (and, albeit in another form, the undersigned) would have capitulated in favour of a ‘just middle’, of a ‘shrewd and precarious balance’, the apparent remedy for ‘tragedy’. Perlini adds:

‘The avant-garde as radical negation is not the rejection of the category of mediation but its premise. It is not mediation that precedes negation, which would reject its wisdom in order to move towards an irrational and abstract refusal of existing reality; it is negation that posits itself as the originary moment in a process of totalizing mediation. The conflict that avant-garde artists are involved in cannot refuse mediation for the simple reason that it is situated before mediation and not after it. It is immersed in an existential sphere that precedes the exercise of mediation; it is therefore immediacy.’ 

But what else was I trying to say? The criticism that Lukács makes of the avant-garde (which I partially reprised) is precisely that it is a mode of art and literature that immediately poses contradictions (form–content, subjective–objective, arbitrary–necessary, rational–irrational, psychologism–naturalism). I should have simply added that modern semantics and linguistics have provided us with the possibility of registering the degree to which these contradictory elements were merely juxtaposed and the degree to which instead these mediated contradictions were marked by vital tension and elasticity, all the way down to the level of the linguistic microcosm. The negation that Perlini attributes to the avant-garde (‘immersed in an existential sphere’, etc.) is negation, not Negation itself; it is negation in the register of will or persuasion. The paradox of the avant-garde—which is ‘integrated’ and doesn’t want to be ‘so that’, ‘etc.’, and so on—is that of not having accepted incarnation (this is always the sin of spiritualism…), of refusing what is here termed as ‘compromise’ (which Perlini connotes as ambiguous and contemptible) and which is, very simply, the work in its objectivity. It seems to me that there is a confusion between the aims, programmes and polemics of the avant-garde (which I will agree, for ease of argument, to call ‘radical negation’, while always keeping in mind that we are dealing with an ideological, philosophical, political, ethical negation—and not a literary or artistic one) and the works of that same avant-garde; but this is possible only if we wholly accept the premises of the avant-garde—which, following surrealism in this respect, refuses not just the distinctions between literary genres but between the moments of life and is, as Breton suggests, the search for a place where contradictions stop being perceived as such. In fact, to posit contradictions flat out is the same intellectual act as negating them with equivalent immediacy…

‘Reality is negated in its empirical immediacy in order to be reaffirmed through mediation’. Sure. Artistic and literary creation is nothing other than one of the ways in which one ‘reaffirms’, at a higher level, a reality negated in its empirical immediacy. It is an intermediary (others are possible) between reality ‘in its empirical immediacy’ and the successive and superior non-immediate ‘reality’, the one that the presence of artworks (in the case in question) helps to determine, to reveal. In this sense it is very true that the avant-garde ignores mediation because it places itself ‘before’ the moment of denial. But, if it stops there, it is not; it freezes in its negation. Or, if it is, it mediates (expresses) itself in forms other than artistic-literary ones. The motto whereby the surrealist act par excellence would be to go down to the street with a revolver in hand and start firing into the crowd suggests a certain attitude of negation, and if nothing else it negates the life of one’s neighbour; but it evidently cannot be considered more poetic than any other act, except to the extent that others objectify it; for instance, through a cinema lens inserting, say, the detonation of the shots, the fall of the bodies, the dance of the shooter into a predetermined rhythmic framework. Anarchy is not a sub-clause of surrealism but, perhaps, the other way around. Meanwhile the marquises have continued to go out at five o’clock, in spite of Valéry and Breton’s disgust for that famous opening line.5

[5Translator’s Note: It is said that Paul Valéry once explained his inability to write novels to André Breton by saying he could never write a sentence like ‘The Marquise went out at five o’clock’.]

What here is termed as ‘balance’ or ‘flight from a torn reality’ alludes, more simply, to the flight from youthful aestheticism and the tragic posture. Here we do not wish to justify the political thought of the older Lukács; only to recall that he is right when he admonishes, for instance, that the conflict between capitalism and socialism will never present itself as the struggle between good and evil on the fields of Armageddon; in other words, the fundamental contradiction of an age masks itself with a contingent host of secondary contradictions. Here I do not wish to justify the taste of the Hungarian critic; only to recall that Proust, for instance, is not Pathos der Mitte despite being the very opposite of the immediacy of any of his contemporaries in the historical avant-garde. 

Th. Mann, 1914c.

Let me add here that my personal torments, my biographical ‘tragedies’—which have given succour to very lazy attitudes about what I write and have written—should not be of interest to anyone; not, or so I hope, to the critics of my verses. One should not be excessively indulgent with tragedy. One the most widespread prejudices of our time is that the negative, on its own, is more or better than the positive—contradiction than agreement, despair than hope, the unconscious than the conscious, evil than good, and so on. How many times have I heard people repeat, with barely changed words, one of Gide’s most facile remarks, namely that ‘c’est avec les bon sentiments qu’on fait la mauvaise littérature’.6 I firmly believe that any excessively swift assent to the negation, contempt or devaluation of the-world-as-it-is—especially coming from intellectuals and the young in countries such as ours—can hide within itself, unchecked, an agreement with that reality, a filial dependence; and that it is necessary to have been conscious of the uniqueness of life, the value of the world and the positivity that accompanies even the worst decadence, oppression or corruption if one wishes authentically to negate the latter’s present figure. To put it otherwise, you will not know who your enemies truly are if you do not know, in the same moment, who are your friends. Institutional, romantic or avant-garde negation lives, no doubt, in individual tragic heroes. But few—even among them—escape the aestheticized payback.

[6Translator’s Note: ‘It is with fine sentiments that bad literature is made’. André Gide, Journals, Volume 4: 1939-1949(Justin O’Brien trans. ) (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000), p. 44.]

3. It would make little sense for me to presume to lecture on dialectics if the argument did not in the end have another meaning and another objective. Whether the historical or new avant-gardes refuse the moment of mediation or not is of interest, to my mind, only in order to judge whether the new avant-garde has its own legitimacy and authenticity, whether it interprets the needs that from today look towards tomorrow. In the conclusion of his text, Perlini sees the greatest value of the new avant-garde in its wager at the edge of silence and its ironic-tragic attitude; provided it does not turn into suicide. This last observation grounds what is ungrounded in many avant-garde arguments. These usually list all the reasons why it is impossible or pointless to write, paint and so on. But they conclude that some solution must be found because everything can be accepted but not that one ceases to write or paint. And when they discuss this or that country which made or is making its socialist revolution, they worry that no ‘voice’ should be abandoned or unprotected, and they want to see how things are with cinema or painting or theatre or lyric poetry in Cuba, China, Hungary or North Korea, and they draw from them the omens for the fate of those countries. As far as I’m concerned, I think that much depends on the hierarchy of values or priorities that a society assigns itself. Unfortunately, most leaders of contemporary socialist revolutions have lodged in their heads the idea that the fine arts and poetry should be, with all their flourishes, a kind of proof of revolutionary achievements. With the fine results that we know. Art can very well die because in history it truly dies a thousand times, and I know nothing more scandalous than the plaint over burnt libraries or antique bronzes melted into cannons. Alfred Jarry’s famous retort—‘Nous vous en ferions d’autres!’ 7should be our  reply to those who fear the end of artists.

[7Translator’s note: ‘We will make you some other ones!’ These are the words that Jarry allegedly addressed to the lady who was lamenting the risk to the lives of her tots in the garden adjoining the one where the poet practiced his shooting.]

4. I will not follow here the example of my courteous critic whom—having set out my opinions with such exactitude and excessive praise—in the process of disputing a non-decisive point ends up negating their whole substance; namely, the thesis of the meagre relevance of the so-called new avant-garde.8 With the passing of time and the confirmation of the flimsiness of any literature that has only itself and the drama (or comedy) of its self-negation as its object, I have become much more aware—and thank my critics for it—of the crucial demands that (recent or historical) avant-garde poetics have advanced, and which it is important to safeguard. Here I can only allude to this, because it is not the object of this note; but I think I have now understood how two directions almost always present in the development of literatures presented themselves even in literature of surrealist provenance (a term which for me implicates many of the motivations of the avant-gardes). The first aims at conclusion by stressing the self-sufficiency of the operation on language, and thus to close in on itself, in keeping with a mode that presupposes as already given—in the environing socio-historic complexity—the possible integration of its own discourse, the localization of its own microcosm (until yesterday, we could find it, for example, in some of the poetics linked to the French group around the journal Tel Quel: Revolution at the level of language is parallel to political revolution, etc., everyone should do their own job, the integration of the different moments is delegated, in the final analysis, to power). The second tends to perceive the insufficiency and limits of its own ‘specialization’; it refers its own interpretation and future to something other than itself, it cuts across genres, and so on, exercising a sort of vicarious function vis-à-vis the organic functions of a society in its throes; a society whose contradictory outline can be glimpsed in the present, coming undone. I have the impression that this second direction is the only salvageable meaning of the obstinate formulae of Vittorini, when he insisted so strenuously on ‘science’ and ‘rationality’; even though he would, most certainly, have been horrified by the ‘romantic’ echoes elicited by this second tendency—to which he belonged. Well, this ‘opening out’ of a work, not just to a plurality of interpretations but to the other-than-itself, this being unfinished despite its formal conclusion (a trait all masterpieces share), so that the discourse may continue in philosophy, in science, in praxis—this is the precious and contradictory legacy that from Romanticism traverses the avant-gardes and reaches us.

[8Translator’s note: At least as far as the Italian neo-avant-gardes themselves are concerned, the dispute now seems both concluded and corroborated by the facts; and this entire discussion appears, I concede, rather superfluous.]

Rome Open City, R. Rossellini 1945

5. What has been called—inaccurately and with critical one-sidedness and obtuseness—postwar ‘neorealism’ originated in the consciousness of an open predominance of the future over the present, in an awareness of how the social forces that pushed for a transformation of the national community delegated (or appeared to delegate) to literature and the arts some of the (ethical and political) functions that should have belonged to a new society. The more that transformation was gradually realized, but in a direction other than the one aspired for, in the shape of stabilization—not only national but European—the more literary tendencies reaffirmed their autonomy or self-sufficiency (as they had done, in an entirely different context, in the 1930s). First (in the period 1950–56) by taking up a reflexive and self-critical consciousness concerning what in the previous period had existed as hope and immediacy; whence the ironic and elegiac character shared by our narrative and poetry from those years and, at the same time, the strong desire for formal ‘completeness’ (in Cassola, Bassani, Calvino and Pasolini, to name just a few) that could counter the previous chaos of authors and their society. Then, in the following decade, after the transformation resulting from the domination of industrial development and consumption, and by the definitive incorporation of our capitalism into European and world capitalism, the ‘corporatist’ autonomy of literature took on—in the new avant-garde and its critical language—a sectorial social function. The social ghetto, which it has both endured and chosen for itself, has led it to the mystified conviction of a possible unlimited and informal revolt. In this sense—if not in the more vulgar sense, itself not devoid of truth, which was employed in the polemics of the past few years—modern capitalism has furnished much modern art with the metric grid, the rhythmic cage that the compositions of the avant-garde thought they had rid themselves of or which, when it suited them, they thought they could reconstruct at their own subjective whim. The consciousness of commodification has led to the mythologems of the semi-death and semi-suicide of art, to the conceited raving of those who think they can save themselves from the swamp of objectivity with a private act of will. In that period, which is immediately behind us, I had the occasion to warn those who, in their refusal or fight against the current socio-economic structures, were reluctant to accept the objectively ‘conservative’ component of any artistic expression. I reminded them of how protracted the struggle was, in the name of past or future of revolutionary participation, against the two camps—opposed and yet complicit in their extolling of ‘life’—that triumph in the present. On the one hand, the orphic-aristocratic and spiritualist one, and on the other, the technocratic-subversive and scientistic one.

In the years closer to us, it seems that the reality of class conflict, as recognized on a global scale, together with choices that are no longer either national or European in scope (which now penetrate the everyday aspect of each existence, no matter how remote from them it may appear), can once again propose that figure of substitution—or, as they say, of protest—which we were familiar with a quarter of a century ago. We can already notice its symptoms and make out its first documents. If contemporary criticism cannot avoid being a criticism of tendencies or trends, our task is not to race behind the periodic oscillations of taste but to transpose their curves into a discourse whose own tendency is not sectoral but global, not specialistic but universalizing. We thus risk ideologism and superficiality, but always with the aim of identifying, and of reading between the lines, the fundamental contradiction which alone gives the right value and weight to the existence of subordinate contradictions— to those figures of mediation to which works of poetry also belong.

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