Surrealpolitik: Anti-Menckenism: Nathanael West, Robert M. Coates, and the provisional avant-garde

Author: Jonathan P. Eburne

Quick Summary

Article defending playful experimental art as an important avant garde against attacks by the likes of HL Mencken and Boyd who made fun of such artists.


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The writers in the Aesthete: 1925 group themselves shared Mencken's scorn for "messianic" radicalism; yet they nonetheless maintained that the function of the critic was, as Burke put it, to "refine the propensities of his age, formulating their aesthetic equivalent, translating them into terms of excellence". They advocated for the significance of provisional groups, little magazines, and collective pursuits as a means for arbitrating artistic responsibility and for galvanizing the dialogism and critical spirit that would upend closed, utopian thinking. (page 254)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Politics & Art, Activism]
In its critical project, anti-Menckenist writing attempted to instigate "new principles" through which, as Cowley wrote in 1924, one might discover "that nonsense may be the strongest form of ridicule; that writing is often worst when it is most profound, saintly or devoted and best when it is approached in a spirit of play; that associational processes of thought often have more force than the logical; that defiance carried to the extremes of bravado is more to be admired than a passive mysticism" ("Communications" 140–41) (page 521)
Tags: [Surrealism, Humor]
This literary ethics, in other words, posited reform as a project toward which art could aim -- but which it could not in itself fulfill. The anti-Menckenists refused the grandiose claims about cultural unity and cohesion presented in the work of writers such as T.S. Eliot and Frank, while also opposing Mencken's own lingering (if frustrated) progressivism in presuming that America could only be improved through the acerbic vigor of Nietzschean supermen-critics. The anti-Menckenists, I contend, distanced themselves from the "religious" presumption that the right kind of critical or artistic voice might bear redemptive wisdom within it: the presumption that language could, in fact, convey truth. Dramatizing the failure -- and even violence -- of such beliefs, the anti-Menckenists instead viewed writing as a means for establishing the terms and conditions of public engagement and introduced the possibility that writing could rhetorically call into being the provisional institutions the writers themselves formed as critics, correspondents, and friends. (page 523)
Tags: [Surrealism, Politics & Novels, Activism, Culture]
The decadence against which Coates distinguishes West's novel, I contend, refers to the paradigmatic malaise of so-called lost generation writing as described by Coates's friend Cowley in Exile's Return, his 1934 memoir of the American avant-garde's experience in interwar Paris. Even before the economic collapse of October 1929, the American modernists had already encountered a spiritual collapse, the decay and failure of the cosmopolitan ideal, which found its epitome in the death of the poet Harry Crosby, who committed suicide with his mistress in December 1929. According to Cowley, this collapse derived from the artificially-inflated spiritual value of the European avant-garde; young American writers of the 1920s found in Paris a "religion of art" embodied by Dada that "failed when it tried to become a system of ethics, a way of life" (286). As Cowley explains,

During the 1920s all the extreme courses of action it [the religion of art] suggested had been tried once again, and all its paths had been retraced -- the way of dream, the way of escape, the ways of adventure, contemplation, and deliberate futility had all been followed toward the goal they promised of providing a personal refuge from bourgeois society, an individual paradise. But once more, and this time inescapably, it became evident that all those extreme courses were extreme only as ideals: in life there was always a sequel. (Exile's 286–87) (page 525-526)
Tags: [Activism, Surrealism's Failure, Dada]
As Coates had suggested in his own novel of the 1920s, The Eater of Darkness, the limits and limitations of avant-gardism were already recognizable within the extremes of avant-garde experience itself. These limits were in fact essential to movements like Dada, whose adherents vehemently, if playfully, rejected the "religious" notions of artistic autonomy and escapism that Cowley describes as conditions of the movement's death. Movements like Dada -- or like the American little magazines that were aware of their own brief life spans -- were provisional rather than static; they died at the moment their adherents invested in them the kind of faith Cowley describes as the makings of a "personal refuge."...Coates and West understood this effect of discouragement as an imperative, rather than as a flaw or telos within avant-gardism. "To avoid the danger of being solemn," Cowley writes of West, "he used to stick pins into his dearest illusions" (Introduction ii). To do otherwise would signify a decadent adherence to false beliefs. (page 526-527)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Politics & Art, Surrealism & Dada, Dada]
Burke...resists the notion of purposive artistic content altogether. Rather than providing the "wholeness" of a universal principle within which American culture could integrate itself -- or, for that matter, purging the US cultural landscape of its false prophets, its boobs, and its charlatans -- his notion of "perception without obsession" situates the artist as the agent of formulation rather than transformation. The artist's "moral contribution," Burke writes, "consists in the element of grace which he adds to the conditions of life wherein he finds himself". (page 529)
Tags: [Politics & Art, Culture, Dada]