How does one write about artistic modernism without simply reproducing its own forms, styles and devices—all the way from the locally minute to the massively architectonic? Raymond Williams, in his fine Introduction to the collection Visions and Blueprints,footnote1 opens the question of the politics of modernism and the avant-garde with the following vignette: ‘In January 1912 a torchlight procession, headed by members of the Stockholm Workers’ Commune, celebrated the sixty-third birthday of August Strindberg. Red flags were carried and revolutionary anthems were sung.’ This, surely, is an Imagist poem in its own right, an instance of cultural theory as haiku, offering in its single, compelling visual image to ‘present an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’ (Pound) or to ‘hand over sensations bodily’ (Hulme) or to defamiliarize our automatized perceptions of the relations of the political and the modernistic (as Russian Formalism might put it). And as with local texture, so with structure; for in its overall organization, ranging restlessly over a multiplicity of nations, cities, movements and media, Visions and Blueprints reincarnates another major modernist genre—the encyclopaedia. As nineteenth-century Hellenism metamorphoses into twentieth-century modernism, it loses the knack of totalizing the stray, truculent fragments of modernity into significant order, of alchemically converting an ‘ordinary self’ into a ‘best’ one (to borrow Matthew Arnold’s terms). The impulse to totalize remains, but the philosopher’s stone that might pull it off is lost, and it must therefore assume more lowly, provisional forms. If we are unable to put the scattered jigsaw back together, we can at least make sure its pieces are not lost, so that someone someday somewhere might do so: the modernist becomes collector, and the text an inventory or encyclopaedia, scooping in the whole history of English prose styles (the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter of Ulysses), or the whole range of European argots, dialects and national languages (The Waste Land), and rarely ending up less than a thousand pages long (Pound’s Cantos). And Visions and Blueprints, ranging from Caligari to Caudwell, Trotsky to Turkey, Zhdanov to Zionism, creates a recognizably modernist effect of exhilaration and vertigo.
Within modernism, minimalism and gigantism strangely coincide. Ezra Pound wrote both the shortest and the longest poems of the movement, and if Samuel Beckett’s late plays last about thirty-five seconds (Breath), his The Unnameable babbles compulsively for one hundred and twenty pages and could in principle chatter for thousands more (‘I can’t go on,
The editors of this collection offer us only limited help here. In the Preface Edward Timms informs us that Eliot and Pound ‘developed right-wing sympathies which distort their poetic achievement’. But such sympathies inform rather than deform, constitute rather than castrate, the poetry. The story of modernism’s relation to politics is not that of a theological Fall, with the Eden of the aesthetic being exchanged for the burning plain of history; it is more a matter of ideological commitments implicit in the verse from the start being later cashed out as overt political stances. ‘The problem arises’, Timms remarks in his essay on ‘Treason of the Intellectuals? Benda, Benn and Brecht’, ‘when the poet begins to confuse vision with blueprint, poetic image with political programme.’ Far from advancing the ‘politics of modernism’ argument, this takes it back some twenty years to Frank Kermode’s position in The Sense of an Ending where, alarmed by the political excesses of the ‘men of 1914’, Kermode sought to build a saving irony or Wallace Stevens-inspired ‘self-consciousness’ into modernist myth-making. ‘No road through to action’—the Symbolist dictum that he had finely demystified in the name of a democracy or ‘commonalty of the means of discourse’ in Romantic Image, here found itself nailed firmly back into place again. It is towards just such a transcendentalist cul-de-sac that Timms seems to lead us when he remarks that Julien Benda’s ‘merits are still not fully recognized’. If this means that Benda may have had a deep but still largely unremarked impact on some strands of highclassicist modernism, then we can agree;footnote2 but if it means that Benda is of the slightest use in thinking the relation of politics and modernism, then we must reject the claim. For we hardly need to embrace Benda’s ‘religion of disinterestedness’ to endorse Timms’s rather modest point that political literature should be more fun to read than a party tract or Volume Two of Capital. Timms’s co-editor, Peter Collier, at least does not shackle himself with such unfortunate allies. He raises perhaps the
In Visions and Blueprints, as in Ulysses, local texture proves richer than overall narrative structure; and this book contains many suggestive detailed case studies. Helga Geyer-Ryan subtly traces the development of Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history, while Judy Davies dismisses glib equations of Futurism and Fascism by probing the complex and contradictory early politics of both movements. Far from simply constituting the aesthetic storm-troopers of a vicious counter-revolution, the Futurists (at least until 1923) adhered to Fascism ‘only as long as its policies retained traces of a left-wing provenance’. Michael Minden meditates on ‘The Politics of the Silent Cinema’, contrasting Dr Caligari and Battleship Potemkin, while Elsa Strietman probes the paradoxes at the heart of De Stijl: how could these cultists of counter-nature, dedicated to aesthetic abstraction, austerity, minimalism, at the same time harbour aspirations towards social reform through the reform of art and the environment? It was, of course, Theo van Doesburg’s interventions in Weimar in 1921 which shook Walter Gropius and his Bauhaus out of their Expressionist-medievalist lethargy into the functionalist machineaesthetics of the Bauhaus’s Dessau period. Neither the Bauhaus nor the related case of Russian Constructivism features in Visions and Blueprints. Yet in these two movements above all the modernist project left the garrets and ateliers, and sought to invest the sites and rhythms of everyday life—thereby satisfying Peter Bürger’s theoretical requirements for the category of the ‘avant-garde’.footnote3 If the shortage of materials in the young Soviet Union meant that many of the most daring Constructivist projects didn’t get beyond designs and models, the Dessau Bauhaus, working in a period of relative German prosperity, contributed seminally to what John Willett in his The New Sobriety has persuasively called ‘something like an entire new civilization’; and its absence from Visions and Blueprints leaves a major gap at the very centre of the book.
If we seek for a second time to shift from a polyphony of national traditions to a general thematic architecture, it is on the contributions of Raymond Williams that we shall come to rest—written as these are with a qualitatively deeper political seriousness than their neighbouring studies. Indeed, it seems likely that these two powerful essays—‘Introduction: the Politics of the Avant-garde’ and ‘Theatre as a Political Forum’—will become key items in a posthumous revaluation of the overall curve of Williams’s own thought: not Raymond Williams on modernism so much as Raymond Williams as modernist. It has often been alleged that Williams evinced a strange ‘reticence’ about modernism, that he had a ‘blindspot’ towards it; and this imputation of a Lukács-like addiction to realism has been coupled with other key reservations about his work—that he endorsed a notion of ‘Englishness’ or the nation with which, say, contemporary Black socialists have major problems, or that there is a streak of moral ‘puritanism’ in his work which comes through most forcefully in, precisely, his own realist novels. Such criticisms, however, sound increasingly remote and
But for those of us who began reading his work in the late seventies and early eighties, Raymond Williams—our Raymond Williams—was not ‘English’ but a self-announced ‘Welsh European’, not a tepid Hoggartian reformist but a staunch revolutionary, less a realist novelist than a writer of future-oriented political thrillers, less ‘puritanical’ than an advocate of the cultural-political energies of the new social movements and, crucially, a figure who seemed to spend an extraordinary amount of his time writing very substantial analyses of modernism and the avant-garde. For these readers, a ‘third generation’ almost too young to remember what a Labour Government is, Williams perhaps matters most for his difficult and diverse engagement with the frontiers of cultural theory and the modern. This shift in his work, away from the ‘Lukácsianism’ of the sixties, was no simple coupure épistémologique: it involved, rather, a return to his own roots in the native radical avant-garde culture of the late 1930s—itself a richer phenomenon than the men and women of 1968 have allowed it to be. In her spirited contribution to Visions and Blueprints, Margot Heinemann seeks to demonstrate precisely this, arguing that ‘it is evident from Left Review itself that there was no wholesale rejection by British Communist intellectuals of the experiments and achievements of the avant-garde’; and that if there was a Great Tradition, it did not centre ‘(as Lukács’s did) on the realist novelists of the nineteenth century’. Cambridge for the young Raymond Williams seems to have consisted largely of Surrealist and Expressionist movies, fictional exercises in the mode of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, and the works of Henrik Ibsen—with, presumably, the odd weekly essay on George Eliot thrown in for good measure.
Even in Williams’s supposedly Lukácsian phase, these modernist predilections came through, in both content and style. Preface to Film powerfully argues a case for German Expressionist film as an exemplary aesthetic model for our century, and the very style of Border Country delivers a counter-message to the organicist content of that novel, harking back as it does to a modernist aesthetic of Imagistic hardness, dryness, ‘presentation’. One almost wonders whether a similar point