Worlds At A Distance

In literature, do the avant-garde and the whimsical serve the same function?

by Mark P. Williams

This article is about the correlations between the encounter with the contemporary avant-garde and the act of whimsical refusal. I am arguing that, counter to certain expectations, the language of the whimsical fantastic performs some of the same functions as the militant avant-garde insofar as both involve forms of negation of realism and open up estranged spaces.

This is in some ways a rather contrary argument to make: the intent of the avant-garde is aesthetic and/or political engagement, while the intent of whimsy is diversion, but despite this, they both perform some of the same functions.

I am concerned with musing on a selection of moments and texts in terms of presumed reader relationships, so this is a highly speculative approach in certain respects. I have attempted to ground it in reference to concrete and locatable texts as often as possible but, as a musing, it is not really about the details of the texts themselves but rather their general character at key moments of approach. So, this is not a definitive reading of any texts but a chart of associations to grasp an idea. Other texts could potentially be inserted and the discussion furthered and expanded in that way.

Part of this has to do with texts I encountered when I was just beginning to study literature and the difference of perspective that giving oneself up to an apparently whimsical world can have when that whimsy is a negation of the real world. The other part of it is to do with the twin estrangements of encountering New Zealand culture and viewing UK culture from a different hemisphere. I am writing about perspective.

A Moment Of Whimsy: Flashback – 30th December 2011. Gaze out of the window at a landscape transformed by rain; specificity is blurred by the watery haze. Watch as the rivulets form and reform, distorting the view of mountains, hills, houses, trees, already made vague by low cloud and the driving, unending rain.

Small changes of perspective create unexpected parallels and whimsical moments can create space for critical thought.

The last time I remember such persistent rain, such a determined chill of water carried suspended in grey air, I looked out at a post-industrial northern hemisphere city as flat as the present southern one is steep, estuary-land as densely housed as these volcanic hills are wooded, as if the two cities long ago conducted a quiet diplomatic exchange of greens and greys, populace and plant life.

With a twist of weather and the loss of bearings these places can be brought together through a sleight of typing.

I had some similar interests then as now, they have expanded and attenuated many times over, been interrupted, elucidated and developed in new directions, but remain guided by certain patterns of people, activity and mood—but I was less aware of what those invisible hands were at the time.

Like most people in my position, my interest in the study of literature and culture has been so deep and abiding as to be almost unquestionable in its simplicity. This hid its general underlying pattern from me for some time as distraction by surface detail, but if I trace back to certain first readings things become clearer. Two books in particular caused a definite shift, because of how they were written and also because of how I read them at the time. I recall a concrete experience of leisure reading these two books at the end of term but before the exam period; it was a distinct moment where I realised that those details, those arguments and political debates raging in far-off ivory towers, which I had been revising, and was presently avoiding further rehearsals of, were also taking place right there in the chill of my room, on the pages of leisure reading in front of me.

I’d felt for many years that politics was an instinctive thing, attached to the activities of everyday life in a way that neither newspapers nor programmes dealing with politics had seemed to me to express. Mum still occasionally reminds me of the parents’ evening where my geography teacher said very pointedly to her and my Dad that I seemed to hold some definite views that made me “a bit of a lefty”. But somehow it struck as something of a surprise to encounter strongly political debates from cultural theory in what I thought was a more whimsical piece of leisure reading: a fantasy novel and a science fiction anthology freshly purchased from Waterstones and Forbidden Planet respectively. Because of the length of the novel I paused around the half-way mark, at a suitable section break, to consider the connections, and, since I wanted to further prolong the reading experience of the novel, finished the (much shorter) anthology before resuming.

The two books became entwined in my thinking as they had become entwined in my reading practice; much more strongly, in fact, than I had originally intended. The occasionally surreal and caricatured qualities of one were combined with the shorter, harder-hitting, differently stylised pieces of the other—or they both had traces already. Seriousness and satire blurred in front of me, genres seemed to unpick themselves and then reformulate; the qualities of formal subversion which theory had described finding in one set of idioms was manifesting in some quite radically different ones—the hook had been well-baited. These fictions cross-pollenated with the concepts I was ostensibly distracting myself from and multiplied, promulgated and started a process of reaching back and reconnecting to earlier reading experiences, other writers, other publications and diverse stories.

Fast-forward a decade or so.

The general tone encapsulated by those two texts and the texts that they (eventually) led me back over, led to the rediscovery of forgotten reading experiences that have since coalesced into more coherent projects: essays, articles, a major study—and still I see more connections, still I feel that there is more to say.

What the detached whimsy of those stories and that novel, confined to their own idiosyncractic worlds and styles, have pointed towards is a means to recover the ‘beneaths’ of all those reading experiences that predated them, the ‘unconscious’ of my journey as a reader up to that point (not just my own development but the invisible networks between texts, publishers and readerships that they emerged from).

They did it by taking the familiar on a series of digressions into the fantastic which seemed to sever and at the same time not to sever their connection with the concrete and real social situations which so clearly underpinned them, which literally inspired, breathed life into, them.

Knowing which cities I am comparing in the opening of this piece is not necessary to appreciating the connection — even if I further laboured their differences it would continue to shore up the link between them as a comparison, tying them closer through the focaliser of this text by simple suggestion. That is how the unnamed texts I allude to struck me then, and have struck me since when I have re-read them — what I found since, is that the other connections each made can be traced into entirely different networks while retaining a clear set of common references.

The texts themselves I’ll leave nameless; think of them as purely conceptual texts—the same ones may have little effect on another reader. For me, at that time, two specific texts made a small difference that lead to other small differences, things which reach critical mass, cascading and avalanching into something more, but the wider point is about the specific capacity of fantastical fictions, as totalising negations of the literal world, to spark a critical reawakening.

What I want to address the positive power of negation as it appears in the relationship between critical thought and whimsy in the fantastical and the political, through the concept of the avant-garde.

Are Whimsy and the Avant-Garde Contrasting or Complementary Impulses? Certain texts enter our lives before they are really brought to consciousness, so much so that the act of reading them in their original for the first time can acquire a peculiar sensation of déjà vu; this is one of the important points on the philosophy literature discussed by Pierre Bayard in How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, it can be particularly useful to learn to read our own pre-reading, that moment when our own unconscious knowledge of a text engages with what Macherey terms the unconscious of the text (A Theory of Literary Production). Bayard discusses this in light of well-known examples which are part of the cultural atmosphere of ‘literature’, authors like Proust or Shakespeare, works like Joyce’s Ulysees. In respect of this sense of literary consciousness and literary unconscious, the avant-garde occupies a particularly intriguing position. From the self-presentation of avant-garde groups such as Dada and Surrealism, or texts such as Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Rex or The Exploits and Opinions of Dr Faustroll, the avant-garde is a concrete break with what has gone before. As a negation of present culture its task is to imagine the aesthetic of the future. Because of this rhetorical position it appears that the last thing that any self-respecting (or self-abnegating) avant-gardist would wish to indulge in was whimsy, yet there is something very whimsical about the avant-garde.

The experience of reading an avant-garde text in particular requires a degree of whimsy on the part of the reader—in order to continue reading an aesthetically unfamiliar and alienating novel, the reader has to surrender to the text, make themselves subject to textual and authorial whims, knowing that the text in hand may have none of the resolution and narrative pattern that we expect or crave. We either accept that that is part of the point and adopt the position of reader open to this peculiar, aggressive whimsy or it repels us. Reading the early reviews of most avant-garde texts now ‘recognised’ as classic literature is a study in viscerality but we have to remember that when we do read about this, we come to it from a privileged position. We do not have to make the same leap of faith, surrendering to the whim of the text; those risks have been taken for us and writers like Burroughs and Joyce stand unassailably in the canon of experimental literature.

With contemporary avant-garde work, we have to risk the possibility that the text is wasting our time, that it will never be recognised as a ‘great’ work in our lifetime or perhaps ever, because it is ‘just’ an eccentric text. The contemporary avant-garde is approached as if it were purely there for itself. It demands time to read and expects that the reader sacrifice that time purely for the rewards of the experience.

In these characteristics, the avant-garde text is a strange fish to land: much like the study of living fossils recently discovered in deep oceanic regions, its appearance is the result of a whole series of evolutionary struggles which may be invisible to the person who finds it for themselves but they can see that it is different and significant. Many written accounts of authors, critics and artists ‘discovering’ a particular avant-garde text (or art object, or school of thought) for themselves present a similar narrative to the one I recounted earlier which are then bolstered by reference to what the ‘discoverer’ went on to study as a consequence of their inspiration. The important distinction for me is between those which are accounts of encountering a historical avant-garde text for the first time and the sense of encountering a contemporary avant-garde.

This difference is primarily a felt distinction; it is qualitative but elusive, obscure but urgent—the contemporary avant-garde text takes part in the same literary unconscious and cultural unconscious as the reader. Contemporary avant-gardes contain both shock and familiarity, playing on the two.

Ezra Pound’s dictum that ‘literature is the news that stays news’ is countered with Roland Barthes affirmation that ‘literature is that which is taught’, but we cannot entirely disentangle any of these attempts to pin down the sense of affect, and so the circles and spirals begin—the contemporary avant-garde reveals how these constructions collapse into one another in our present moment.

By way of example, let me just consider the attempt to convey the impact of a historical avant-garde to a contemporary audience in a specific instance. Surrealism often seems to take the role of archaetypical avant-garde form in both the popular imagination and in literary discourse—this is perhaps because its juxtapositions offer a fairly concrete sense of what ‘Surrealism’ might mean as an aesthetic, even though this aspect is undoubtedly only one part of its import. Surrealism is sometimes now associated with a whimsicality divorced from direct political context, focusing primarily on the unconscious or on the dreamlike.

Whimsy can be a kind of refusal: a negation of the aesthetic standards of the world as it surrounds the writer or artist—whimsicality might be found to invest the work of the ‘outsider’ artist who produces work because it is what they do, as much as it might invest the sickly gewgaws of a seaside gift shop in the tourist-trap town, but you wouldn’t confuse the two. Similarly, we would not confuse the playful irony of Surrealism with the playful irony of corporate postmodernity; they both swim in our cultural pool but only one has bite.

Whimsical Surrealism has produced some fascinatingly unfashionable texts whose grotesquerie and obscurantism serves as a categorical rejection.

Maurice Richardson’s The Exploits of Engelbrecht about the dwarf Engelbrecht, a ‘surrealist sportsman’ is something of a forgotten classic which has since been recovered by Michael Moorcock and Rhys Hughes—Richardson’s original novel has also been reprinted in two lovingly illustrated editions by eccentric publishers Savoy Books. Similalrly, Rhys Hughes’ strange fictions have been sneaking out into the noosphere via the same pathways of small press fantasy that have helped preserve Engelbrecht, they are by turns witty and silly, and oddly unsettling along the way (I recommend The Eyelidiad if you can find a copy). Engelbrecht made an appearance in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier wrestling with a poem in the New Blazing World (that does make sense in the context of Black Dossier’s meta-textual narrative). However, as interesting as these writers and publications are I do not wish their general eccentricity to distract from this point: the nature of Surrealist aesthetic output often distracts from the very strongly political aspects of the Surrealist group and the Surrealist intent as an expression of the avant-garde. If we grow used to thinking that because Surrealism is whimsical and whimsy sometimes apolitical, then all whimsy must be Surrealistic and apolitical, we miss the importance of negation to the project: the power of cultural refusal. This can perhaps best be recovered here by briefly considering two divergent texts on Surrealism.

In the last eighteen months I read two books on Surrealism that took crime as a defining theme, their explanatory key to its cultural significance of Surrealism, yet their approaches could not be more different. One was a highly scholarly exploration of the Surrealist group(s) and the darker aspects of Surrealist thought: its interest in crime and the social evaluation of criminality; the other a sensationalist pop-cultural piece which purports to demonstrate how Surrealism might have inspired the infamous Black Dahlia Murder—between them, and for completely different reasons, they demonstrate the difference in subjective sensation between historical and contemporary avant-gardes and also the importance of considering the relationship between avant-garde refusal and violence.

Surrealism and the Art of Crime (2008) by Jonathan P. Eburne is a subtle anaylsis of the Surrealist group through their manifestos, artistic productions, provocations and proclamations, paying particular attention to the way in which so many central figures engaged with the popular sensationalism of crime journalism through their output. Eburne offers succinct and intelligible summaries of Surrealist thought, together with keen analysis and thoughtful exploration of the implications of Surrealism for Modernism and subsequent avant-garde movements. This book also offers what is, for my money, one of the best analytical treatments of the Surrealists as a group and Surrealism as a concept.

Contrastingly, the sensationalist book Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder (2006) by Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss falls into a mire of the issues of representation it raises. It offers an interestingly bizarre reading experience in that it treats some of the most famous Surrealist art of the mid-twentieth century as elaborate clues in a game of true-crime guess-the-murderer. In doing so, it is quite striking for the way it remakes historical (canonical) Surrealism as a psychologically dangerous manifestation of Art as something decadent, perverse, and intrinsically violent (something which resonates strongly with how Surrealism was perceived in its own contemporary moment).

Where Surrealism and the Art of Crime analyses how the Surrealist group employed sensationalist techniques to invert the popular sensationalist literature of the day in the service of interrogating cultural mores, Exquisite Corpse is straightforwardly sensationalist. In the naïve directness of its comparison between Surrealist art and crime scene photography Exquisite Corpse, which draws very heavily on James Elroy’s Black Dahlia, produces a kind of Surrealist affect not unlike the pamphlets produced by the original group, analysed so expertly by Eburne, whereby the recontextualisation and doctoring of newspaper reports on famous murderers of the day forced a reconsideration of the original context. Exquisite Corpse reproduces, but does not really analyse, the sensationalist aspect of Surrealism that caused it to be considered dangerous: refusal of social taste as refusal of society. To give this its proper impact for our contemporary moment, we might call this its terroristic aesthetic (Eburne makes a similar comparison in the concluding chapters of Art of Crime).

That is what I wanted to get at: the place where the whimsicality, the necessity of giving up to the whim of the text or art object, crosses over with the sense of danger that inheres in the avant-garde—the warlike metaphor of the definition: this text, this art, is a preliminary strike, an advance guard of an attacking front in an ongoing culture war. To really recover that sensation now it is necessary to recognise how contemporary avant-garde work can be culturally dangerous in the present.

To be provocative we might say that the avant-garde is that which is opposed to whatever is in the name of what might be; or, as Clive Bloom puts it in Literature, Politics and Intellectual Crisis in Britain Today, ‘Avant-garde intellectual thought is always constituted by its antagonism to the present regimes of thought’ with the aim of bringing about a new regime but, fundamentally, ‘the raison d’être of avant-gardism is to oppose the present on behalf of the future’. (Bloom: 147)

This version of the avant-garde is an injunction, demanding we join in on the general attack, smash our way to the future or get smashed with the present.

Stewart Home is a case in point of the avant-gardist as politically engaged figure, ferociously critical of present intellectual regimes and demanding a radical renewal, but his texts are also full of plays upon the structure of contemporary fiction. This is a gamble which requires a degree of abandonment on behalf of the reader to the obscure tastes of the author and the strange loops that they will take you on. I suggest that we can see this as involving a kind of photo-negative whimsy.

In Come Before Christ and Murder Love, Home presents the reader with a series of structurally similar chapters revolving around food, sex and violence and the occult. As the book progresses and the narrator, Callum, meets with his doctor, either to discuss his psychotic episodes or to be brainwashed into having them or some other explanation, the narrative becomes full of strange loops.

Similarly, the book 69 Things to do with a Dead Princess begins with uncertainty as to whether the man the female narrator met or even what the narrative will be about, before going on to tell narratives of historical stone circles, graphic sex scenes and book reviews of a wide array of contemporary fictions and other works. The novel, having put its novelistic status firmly in doubt—if we can say that—concludes with an array of footnotes, the final one of which becomes a loop back to the beginning of the narrative before the trailing off into a series of possible narratives which may or may not have ‘happened’ within the world of the fiction.

Home’s provocations over the years have taken on innumerable sacred cows artistic, literary, religious and political, leading to his work being hailed as ‘powerful’, ‘subversive’ and, sometimes, as ‘obnoxious’. What his work is not usually termed is ‘whimsical’, but in the sense that I discussed above, it does share some qualities with the whimsical texts of Surrealism in the quality of its refusal. I suggest that Home’s play with style in his novels—and no two are exactly alike in their approach to this, although there are clear iterations—which negate novelistic style have a kind of whimsy in their refusal. For years, Home’s work refused fashionable topics and styles; his version of postmodernism was always more militant, more vociferous and more provocative than most because it attacked the very idea of literary style.

His early work in particular was full of attacks on literary taste: the characters and narrators of his novels such as Defiant Pose and Red London are always bashing various highly regarded literary landmarks for their reactionary or middle-brow tastes and quirks of style; his narratives are full of (repetitive) sex and (repetitive) violence, frequently related using the same phrases; and their heroes are skinhead boot-boys and prostitutes, both cheerfully bisexual, and the villains often middle-class artists, policemen and respectable writers. These characters, with joke names like Wayne Kerr, or open names like Monty Cantsin or Karen Eliot, give extended lectures in Marxian language on the ways in which people from their class and social status are portrayed in the media and academia. Through parodic scenes and characters Home writes attacks on style and art which disguise themselves as novels for just long enough before subverting the form itself and ending the world. Before you read the novel, you know that you are entering into a game where you give up your expectations to the whim of the text to a large extent.

What becomes apparent about Home’s work when hearing it recited by him—his ‘readings’ are declamatory and chant-like—is the importance of rhythm and sound to his writing method in terms of their cumulative qualities. The deadpan tone of his prose is offset by its highly graphic and highly stylised content; juxtaposition, central to Surrealism and subsequent avant-garde movements, is accomplished through the constant tension between shocking or explicit images and phrases and the intense pressure to continue reading (reciting) without pausing. This is mainly true of his 1990s fictions, with their greater focus on action, but also reappears in more episodic form in Memphis Underground to give a sense of the pressures of high-density housing in London. (There’s a particularly strong scene involving drunk people banging on a door in the middle of the night which appeared in the anthology Dreams That Money Can Buy which perfectly encapsulates a sense of alienation and intrusion through rhythm and seemingly interminable repetition.)

Of course, this does not sound whimsical but the act of dwelling on this kind of scene—against the dominant developments of the contemporary novel which might attempt to aesthetically stylise the scene to capture its ‘essence’—involves a kind of whimsicality of style, a whimsy which stresses and singles out the exact opposite of the present mode. While Home’s novels seem to centre around the mundane interactions of ordinary people without reifying them, they in fact also subject the act of stylising the mundane to a subversion of style.

The playfulness and the aggression combine to form a mode of negation which invites the reader to join the opposition; it has to be somewhat whimsical to keep inviting the reader back (particularly given Home’s tendency to end his fictions with a bang that disrupts their fictional status).

The quality of opposition the avant-garde creates does not ‘follow’ from the things around it which it nevertheless takes on details of, but performs a kind of Lucretian swerve away from them. It is whimsical insofar as its practitioners trust that their interests will develop a future place or context by which they can be more properly understood, which divorces them from their present contexts while (negatively) acknowledging those contexts.

As readers of the avant-garde we trust that our investment in the text will ultimately prove to be validated. We trust that the fiction will feel worth it to us in the future—if the author eventually turns out to be an avant-garde genius, that’s a pleasant bonus, but the important thing was whether we trusted ourselves to its whims in the first place.

Mark P. Williams