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1913: The year of French modernism

1913: The year of French modernism

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1913: The year of French modernism

520 pages
7 heures
Aug 25, 2020


1913: The year of French modernism is the first book to respond to two deceptively simple questions: “What constituted modernism in France?” and “What is the place of France on the map of global modernism?” Taking its cue from the seminal year 1913, an annus mirabilis for literature and art, the book captures a snapshot of vibrant creativity in France and a crucial moment for the quickly emerging modernism throughout the world. Essays from specialists on works of literature, art, photography and cinema which were created or made public in and around 1913, outline in a dazzling fresco the protagonists, strategies and genres, the dynamics, themes, and legacies of what was French modernism.
Aug 25, 2020

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1913 - Manchester University Press



Effie Rentzou

‘At last you’re tired of this elderly world’ (À la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien).¹ This is the famous opening line of Guillaume Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’, the ground-breaking first poem of his 1913 collection Alcools.² This first line, a beginning that oddly starts with an ending, is followed by another strange and lapidary statement: ‘The most modern European Pope Pius X it’s you’ (L’Européen le plus moderne c’est vous Pape Pie X).³ In a poem that many consider as a revolutionary moment in French poetics, in which innovative form and content come together to create an effervescent text that appears to fulfil Arthur Rimbaud’s demand that one become ‘absolument moderne’, Apollinaire declares that the most modern of all Europeans is none other than the Pope.

Pope Pius X had indeed shown some indication of his modernity when he gave his blessing to the aviator André Beaumont in 1911, after he flew from Paris to Rome, and F. T. Marinetti had just sent Apollinaire his new, tellingly entitled novel Le Monoplan du Pape.⁴ Yet Pope Pius X is chiefly remembered today as a strong opponent of modernism, having instituted the ‘Oath against Modernism’ in 1910, mandatory for Catholic clergy and teachers up to 1967. Of course, the ‘modernism’ in question was the reform movement within the Catholic Church that sought to reconcile Christian dogma with modern science and philosophy, and the aforementioned Pope declared these attempted reforms heretical. Around 1913 in France, the term modernisme would have been largely understood within this religious context, together with its slightly derogative connotation, designating a text, work of art, style or activity that desperately tried to follow the latest trend, to be indeed ‘absolument moderne’ at all costs. Apollinaire was probably poking fun at the most traditionalist and vociferously anti-modernist Pope by calling him the most modern of Europeans. But this line might also show what being ‘le plus moderne’ or even ‘le plus moderniste’ – a phrase not explicitly used by Apollinaire but embedded in his portrayal of the figure of a pope deeply associated with a modernism – meant for Apollinaire in 1913. In a paradoxical declaration that introduces the tension between old and new which dominates the whole poem, Apollinaire seems to suggest that the most modern move in Europe at this point was to maintain a fragile equilibrium between the present – blessing the cutting-edge aviators – and valuing the past – condemning modernist dogmatic reforms. To be the most modern in 1913 one thus had to be simultaneously of the past and present.

1913 was a year that saw a series of declarations, implicit or explicit, about what it meant to be modern. Indeed, it was an annus mirabilis for French literature and the arts: Marcel Proust published Du côté de chez Swann; Guillaume Apollinaire, in addition to his Alcools, published the hugely influential Les Peintres cubistes; Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay produced the poem-book-painting La Prose du Transsibérien; Marcel Duchamp created his first ready-made and started his 3 Standard Stoppages along with The Box of 1914; Sergei Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes performed Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps; André Gide completed Les Caves du Vatican; Alain-Fournier published Le Grand Meaulnes; Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas began an illustrious career on the cinema screen that would capture the imagination of artists and writers; Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard was being prepared for its first publication as a book; and Eugène Atget put together the photographic album Les Zoniers. This storm of activity within the French context synchronized with an eruption of other significant events around the world, from the Armory Show in New York, to the publication of Marinetti’s Parole in Libertà in Florence, and from Osip Mandelstam publishing Stone in Saint Petersburg, to Fernando Pessoa beginning to write and collect what would become The Book of Disquiet in Lisbon. This was a year that accumulated so many landmarks of what would later be described as modernism, that it is impossible to ignore. 1913: The year of French modernism is a volume of essays that captures this moment of vibrant creativity in France, which also proved to be a crucial moment for modernism gaining traction throughout the world, and collectively produces a narrative of French modernism. The year 1913 is construed in the book not as a birth, nor as a beginning, but rather as the year in which French modernism both soared and congealed.

There is, however, one small problem: French modernism does not exist. While French authors such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Proust are routinely cited as founders of and seminal to the modernist aesthetic, these and a handful of other luminous names seem to stand alone within the French cultural context, like the famous ‘Phares’ Baudelaire envisioned in his homonymous poem. They are the pillars who carry the heft of modernity, but no edifice is built to house it. Consequently, in scholarly accounts of modernism, one often has the strange impression that we jump from Charles Baudelaire to T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, or that Proust holds a French soliloquy with Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. There has yet to be a study of French modernism as a coherent phenomenon in which these and other writers and artists would find their position. Where it is mentioned, French modernism appears more like a hopscotch from one author to the next, without any sense of continuity, tension, context, antagonism, divergence or relational nodes. Modernism in France is approached by scholarship as if it were, like many of the works that comprise it, shattered into fragments of isolated authors, independently operating movements or schools and segregated genres or media, the elusive meaning of which does not offer a larger picture. This impression is also amplified by canonical art-historical narratives that have anchored modernism solidly in France, while drawing connections with developments and exchanges in other parts of Europe. There are, of course, compelling but partial accounts of the larger story, in which symbolism, for example, or various avant-garde movements, from futurism to surrealism, are developed in great and intricate detail in their historicity and their context and connections. But no narrative exists that would piece together all, or at least substantially more, actors of modernism in France, connecting Mallarmé with Proust, Apollinaire with Gide, the symbolists with Marcel Duchamp, or futurism with Paul Valéry. In other words, paradoxically and unexpectedly, French modernism does not exist as a category in scholarship. Here is the oddity then: it is the very existence of these paramount figures, along with their canonization as key authors of modernism in general, and the centrality of Paris as a real, imaginary and symbolic metropolis of modernity, that blinds us to the fact that the story of French literary modernism has not yet been told. French modernism stands symbolically as the black hole in the heart of the galaxy of global modernism: everyone acknowledges its inescapable gravitational pull, everyone knows it is there, but no one seems able to see it, much less describe it.

Consider, for instance, how modernism in France is approached in two collective works on modernism as a global phenomenon. First, the monumental two-volume Modernism, edited by Ástráður Eysteinsson and Vivian Liska (2007) in which the chapter ‘French literary modernism’ written by Kimberley Healey states: ‘French literary modernism per se does not exist. In fact, the term modernism has never really been applied to literature in France to designate a literary period, genre or movement.’⁵ Healey goes on to say why such a category cannot exist and does so by explaining first that traditional periodizations of modernism do not apply in the French case, and second, that the term modernism ‘does not connote the same relationship to newness or contemporaneity in a French context’.⁶ In a much more nuanced way, Maurice Samuels’s chapter ‘France’ from the ‘Core modernisms’ section of the 2011 Cambridge Companion to European Modernism, edited by Pericles Lewis, identifies the paradox:

Paris might rightfully claim to be the capital of modernism. It was there that the first experiments in both poetry and the novel – as well as in painting, sculpture, architecture, and music – led to a rupture with the classical tradition … And yet modernism as a critical category has never played a particularly enabling role in French cultural history. Unlike in other national literatures, such as the Anglo-American tradition, modernism in France does not designate a school or a movement. Few French writers or artists labeled themselves modernists. Instead, the characteristics we associate with modernism elsewhere took on, in France, more specific or local designations: naturalism, impressionism, post-impressionism, symbolism, decadence, Dada, surrealism, the New Novel, etc.

Samuels adds that his aim is to go ‘against the grain of traditional French cultural history’ by linking all these disparate groups under the common heading of modernism based on certain common features: formal experimentation, new subject matter inspired by modernity, self-referentiality and a resistance to modernization.⁸ Interestingly, he remarks the following:

These features have become so ingrained in French artistic and literary life, they so define what it means to be an artist or writer in France even today, that it might come as a surprise that such was not always the case – that they, too, have a history. Indeed, it seems likely that the reluctance of French critics to acknowledge modernism as a historical category stems from their refusal to see it as a movement with a beginning and an end, rather than as an eternal aspect of artistic and literary production.

These two examples of France’s presence in collective works on modernism are, on the one hand, representative of the stunning void in current scholarship, that of delineating and theorizing French modernism. They also exemplify the few existing approaches to French modernism, which have adopted a logic of marginality, or even of ‘periphery’. This peripheral position is de facto constructed, for instance, with arguments claiming that features supposed to define literary modernism outside of France cannot work in the French context. Such arguments seem to imply that modernism happened elsewhere – that is, not in France – missing precisely what happened in France and how it enters into the general consideration of modernism. On the other hand, what these two scholars remark as exceptional particularities of the French case – that is, the difficulties of periodization, of establishing the meaning of modernism especially in relation to innovation, modernity and modernization, and of delineating the outer limits of modernism especially in relation to contemporary creation – are in reality more general theoretical problems within modernist scholarship with which critics outside of French Studies have long grappled with and continue to face to this day. Nevertheless, these and other scholars see these issues as unique to France, creating a kind of French exception.

The arguments deployed against the pertinence of modernism as a category in a French context can be roughly divided into historical and conceptual ones. Among the historical arguments, one of the most repeated claims is that modernisme or moderniste are terms that are not adequate in French, either because the artists themselves never used them or because their meaning is different in French and in English. Starting with the latter, the use of modernisme in French to designate an aesthetic movement is often seen as ‘un abus de langage’,¹⁰ a barbarism, a neologism or an import from English, since the term, in opposition to the English-language context, did not have this meaning during the period of the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century that is often designated as moderniste. A closer look, however, shows a somewhat different situation. The term modernisme was in fact in use to designate a specific modern aesthetic during this period, and not always in a pejorative way, a value that was probably established first by Joris-Karl Huysmans in his review of the Salon of 1879.¹¹ This pejorative use is confirmed by the Trésor de la langue française, which quotes Proust in Sodome et Gomorrhe referring to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande as an example of a ‘taste of modernism’ (goût de modernisme), thereby repeating the already determined value of modernisme/moderniste. This scornful use was to be retained until much later, as Gerald Prince points out in his chapter in this volume when he refers to André Gide’s dismissal of Jean Cocteau’s ‘desire for modernism’ (souci de modernisme).

However, as with many other ‘-isms’ in circulation during the 1880s that were initially loaded with negative connotations and scorn, there were attempts in the nineteenth century to re-signify modernisme as a positive term. The short-lived journal La Revue moderniste: littéraire, artistique & philosophique (1884–86) might be the most telling example of this resignification process. Edited by a (now) mostly unknown group, the list of the journal’s collaborators included the names of Zola and Huysmans – Huysmans, moreover, contributed articles to the journal. The programmatic editorial in the first issue was entitled ‘Le modernisme’ and attempted to give a definition of the term along with the aesthetic direction of the journal. In the text, modernisme is associated first with contemporary creation that deviates completely from the past,¹² and second with critical thought, specifically the philosophy of Kant, Schopenhauer and Spencer.¹³ Modernisme, the editors explain, is chosen over naturalisme as a more inclusive term that would not exclude works that do not entail pure observation,¹⁴ while, at the same time, it is described as an aesthetic movement that follows the principle of art for art’s sake (l’art pour l’art) and is addressed to the few, not the masses, since a ‘special education’ is needed to gain access to its intellectual scope.¹⁵ A similar, but more humorous, spirit animated Albert Aurier’s also short-lived journal, Le Moderniste illustré, published during a few months in 1889. This journal walked a fine line between satire and sincere admiration of the new art emerging from symbolist and post-symbolist circles in Paris – Aurier’s awe for the ‘magisterial canvases’ (toiles magistrales)¹⁶ of Gauguin and Van Gogh discovered in the gallery of Tanguy, which he described as ‘formidable in energy, intensity, sunshine’ (formidables de fougue, d’intensité, d’ensoleillement),¹⁷ is a good example of this reverence of the new. Modernisme as a concept was indeed circulating in French as much as in English during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – that is, a little – and, in both cultural and linguistic contexts, it had a similar pejorative and ambivalent signification.¹⁸ But despite this derogatory tint, it already harboured features we associate with modernism today: contemporaneity, a break with the past, an insistence on integrating theoretical approaches, obscurity, a polymorphous and non-homogeneous aesthetic.

Moving forward from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, André Breton, the soon-to-be-founder of surrealism, declared in 1922 that ‘cubism, futurism and Dada are not, on the whole, three distinct movements … all three participate in a more general movement, the meaning and breadth of which we still do not precisely know’ (le cubisme, le futurisme et Dada ne sont pas, à tout prendre, trois mouvements distincts … tous trois participent d’un mouvement plus général dont nous ne connaissons encore précisément ni le sens ni l’amplitude).¹⁹ This was in a lecture given in Barcelona eloquently entitled ‘Characteristics of the modern evolution and its components’ (‘Caractères de l’évolution moderne et ce qui en participe’) and it was in this spirit that, during that same year, Breton, along with Georges Auric, Jean Paulhan, Roger Vitrac, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger and Amedée Ozenfant, tried to organize the ‘International Congress for the Determination of the Direction and the Definition of the Modern Spirit’ (Congrès international pour la détermination des directives et la définition de l’esprit moderne). The congress aimed at bringing together what we now call the historical avant-garde as well as artists and writers we have since come to associate with modernism, like Ozenfant and Paulhan. In an article published in 1922, the organizing committee stated clearly that:

The signatories of this article have no intention, beyond the individual or even the group or school characteristics, of which we have the example in art of impressionism, symbolism, unanimism, fauvism, simultaneism, cubism, orphism, futurism, expressionism, purism, Dada, etc., to work to create a new intellectual family or to tighten the bonds that many will judge illusory.²⁰

Instead, the goal was to ‘render for the first time an exact accounting of the present forces and [to] make clear the nature of their results’ (Ils suffit que … nous rendions pour la première fois un compte exact des forces en présence et puissions au besoin préciser la nature de leur résultante).²¹ The title of this never-realized congress is a transparent reference to Guillaume Apollinaire’s hugely influential ‘The New Spirit and the Poets’ (L’esprit nouveau et les poètes) and the substitution of ‘modern’ for ‘new’ is telling. The congress did not aim to create a ‘new intellectual family’ of a unified movement out of disparate groups, but rather to recognize that all these groups, dating back to the nineteenth century with impressionism and reaching up to the then-contemporaneous Dada, were united by a common ‘modern’ spirit that had a certain directionality. And while the title of the congress opted for moderne over moderniste, elsewhere André Breton calls this modern spirit, ‘this will for modernism’ (cette volonté de modernisme).²²

This failed congress that wanted to create connections within the fragmented ‘modern spirit’ of Europe brings up the second line of historical argument for the pertinence of the category of modernism in the French context: as Maurice Samuels points out, in France, authors did not themselves describe their groupings or creations as modernisme/moderniste, preferring a myriad of other denominations instead. Artists’ and writers’ self-designation, however, has not stopped French criticism and historiography from using inclusive critical categories. A typical example would be that of the historical avant-garde. It is rare that the participants of what now are canonically designated as avant-garde movements – futurism, Dadaism, surrealism and the like – used the generic term ‘avant-garde’ to talk about their endeavours, preferring to self-identify with their groups’ name instead. Nevertheless, the term ‘avant-garde’, despite its definitional ambiguities, is used in French criticism without hesitation as a descriptive and analytical category. Concomitant to this, French criticism points out that the more generic term used by artists and writers alike, from Charles Baudelaire onwards, was moderne and not moderniste. However, the same is true for the Anglo-American paradigm: ‘modern’ is how Anglophone modernist writers described their project. The vorticist ‘manifesto’ of 1914, for instance, speaks of ‘the modern movement’;²³ Gertrude Stein in her 1926 lecture ‘Composition as explanation’ talks consistently about ‘the modern composition’;²⁴ Mina Loy invokes ‘modern poetry’ in 1925;²⁵ Virginia Woolf talks about ‘modern novels’ in a homonymous article in the Times Literary Supplement in 1919.²⁶

This modern/modernist (pseudo)dilemma is even more salient in art history. The (heroic) narrative of ‘modern art’, or art moderne in French, has been established in French and Anglo-American academia alike as modernism, stretching usually from Manet through impressionism and post-impressionism, to cubism, the avant-garde, abstract expressionism, pop art and the neo-avant-garde. In art history, French modernism is richly fleshed out internally as such, with connections, genealogies, contrasts and antagonisms that synthesize ‘modern art’. French modernism in art exists as an analytical category and, as such, it has undergone revisions and expansions;²⁷ at the same time, its importance within modern art in general has followed the ebb and flow of scholarship, from an absolutely central and dominant position to a relational one that, while not undercutting the significance of Paris as the creative hub for modern art, sees it in connection with the rest of the world.²⁸ In the case of the visual arts, then, French modernism is not limited to a purely rhetorical existence and does not serve as a mere benchmark against which, say, American modernism after the 1940s, develops. French modernism is a functional category in art despite issues of periodization – does modern art start with Manet or, as T. J. Clark claimed, in 1793 with David’s Death of Marat?²⁹ – of inclusions and exclusions – when did surrealist art become part of the modern art canon? – of conflicting styles, forms and orientations – Courbet coexists with Marcel Duchamp, Braque with Balthus, all as part of modern art – and despite the fact that the artists did not call themselves ‘modernists’ and were instead split in multiple groups and denominations: impressionists, fauves, cubists, orphists, Dadaists, surrealists, etc. Of course, in art, the prevailing adjective is ‘modern(e)’ and not ‘modernist(e)’, in both English and French, but can this be the reason for the ease of establishing a category in art but not in literature? In practice, ‘modernist’ and ‘modern’ are interchangeable in art history, since ‘modern(e)’ for the visual arts does not have just a temporal sense, but also harbours a deep theoretical stratification that has fluctuated from pure formalism to complex cultural considerations regarding modernity and modernization.

This brief overview shows that what is presented as a French particularity and exception regarding the inadequacy of the term modernisme for describing a set of aesthetic phenomena – especially around literature in the French context – is also valid in the Anglo-American case and that, while the same particularities are true in the visual arts, establishing modernism as a category for French art does not appear to be as problematic. One obvious point here is that ‘modernism’ as a descriptive umbrella and analytical category is a post-facto term that emerged in Anglo-American academia from New Criticism and on, and, as such, it takes little account of the historical use of the word. A rather more interesting point is that French scholarship seems to be confronting issues that are very similar to those faced by scholars of modernism in general, including those working in an Anglo-American context, but French scholarship nevertheless approaches these issues as if they were completely unique and exceptional to the French case.

This brings us to the conceptual arguments for the pertinence of the term modernism as a critical category for contemporary scholarship in French literature and culture, and the issue of periodization is an important part of it. Healey is not alone in arguing that French modernism does not fit in modernist timelines, which have been established based on the Anglo-American archive: if modernism occurred on or about 1910 and flourished in the 1920s, how do we account for Baudelaire, or even for the examples from the 1880s mentioned above? Leaving aside the narrowness of the perspective about what modernism’s features should be for the moment, questions about the periodization of modernism have been front and centre in scholarship from very early on. To quote Raymond Williams, one of the most insistent and recurring questions in the field is ‘when was modernism?’³⁰ The answer to this question is ever-changing, ranging from a strict delimitation of a couple of decades during the interwar period,³¹ to pushing modernism’s origins back into the nineteenth century and finding a potential moment of birth in the works of Charles Baudelaire.³² The end of modernism is as problematic as its origins, ranging from an initial exclusion of periods even as early as the 1930s, characterized as ‘late modernism’, to an expansion of the outer limits of modernism to the 1950s and 1960s, and even to the late twentieth century. Periodization of modernism is so complex an issue that Susan Stanford Friedman in Planetary Modernisms, following Adorno’s insight that ‘modernity is a qualitative, not a chronological, category’,³³ radically rethinks modernism as the aesthetic domain of a multiple modernity recurrent ‘for millennia and across the globe’³⁴ and, as a result, extends modernism as a ‘planetary’ phenomenon even before 1500.

These chronological revisions correlate the question of ‘when was modernism?’ with ‘where was modernism?’ Insofar as modernism and modernity are connected, a chronology that confines modernism to its Western European expressions implies that modernity is also defined by the temporality of the West. Whatever does not comply with this temporality lies outside the scope of modernity and thus of modernism. Or, in a variation of this argument, modernism was ‘invented’ first in Western Europe and its rules and norms are called to be applied in a context for which it was not initially meant – this line of thought is replicated in the chapter ‘France’ in Eysteinsson and Liska’s Modernism. This logic creates a centre/periphery model, with the ‘central’ modernism – but which one? Where is this ‘centre’? – set as canonical, the measure for everything else. The result of this thinking has often been that ‘peripheral’ modernisms are deemed to be belated, deviant or not modernist enough when compared to the norms set by ‘central’ modernisms.³⁵ The global turn of the ‘New Modernist Studies’³⁶ radically changed this perspective by dramatically expanding the geographies of modernism to include works outside the limits of Western Europe. This spatial expansion inevitably changed the time of modernism, as it pushed for a revision of the temporality of modernity and modernization through the consideration of these processes outside the West and into a postcolonial world, thus making clear the ‘spatial politics of periodizing modernism’.³⁷

Returning to the French context, we saw how the assumption that periodizations of modernism cannot apply to France leads to the conclusion that French modernism is also a deviant modernism, if it may even be qualified as modernism at all. Yet, whereas in the case of ‘peripheral’ modernisms, the implicit – or explicit – judgement is that there is a lack that precludes the specific ‘peripheral’ literary tradition from entering a prestigious world modernist canon, for French literary history the perceived non-conformity of French literature is understood as proof of a valorizing difference, of a French exception. In a way, then, French criticism adopts a ‘peripheral’ positioning within the concept of modernism, while France, and Paris in particular, have occupied a central position in the development of both Western modernity and modernist aesthetics, as praxis and as critical concept. Modernist scholars, most of them working overwhelmingly on the Anglo-American paradigm, explicitly but succinctly adopt the commonplace of the centrality of France and Paris in the development of modernism; scholars of French modernism recoil from the possibility of elaborating descriptively and theoretically on this allegedly central position of French, specifically literary, production, adopting instead an exceptionalist stance that excludes French literature as a whole from the network of modernism. A paradox of the eccentric centrality of French literary modernism – which, as we saw, directly clashes with the predominant narrative in the visual arts – is thus maintained, unwittingly or not, in scholarship. This unexpected cultural ‘peripheral’ positioning qualifies French literary history as different, non-categorizable and thus non-comparable to similar occurrences in other countries and contexts. Fears of homogenization, of losing French distinctiveness or of succumbing to an Anglo-American intellectual imperium can be detected behind such generalized beliefs. Whatever the motivation, we can see the blind spot of these arguments: they presuppose that modernism happened elsewhere. What they miss is obvious, namely, that modernism also happened in France and that whatever happened there needs to enter into the general consideration of modernism.

But both these questions, ‘when was modernism?’ and ‘where was modernism?’, are ultimately avatars of the fundamental question of ‘what was modernism?’ As Geoff Gilbert has remarked on the conundrum of the origins of modernism, ‘that search for a solid and material starting point is doomed to failure: the only history that modernism has is an institutional history. This would not matter if the institutional history of modernism in the Anglo‐American academy had arrived at an internal coherence.’³⁸ Susan Stanford Friedman points precisely to this lack of coherence in scholarship by compiling a short anthology of various attributes of modernism, in a paratactic style that emulates Freudian ‘dream work’, which knows no contradiction and instead expresses desires that sometimes conflict: modernism is both chaos and organization, breaking illusions and creating grand narratives, radical destruction and conservative stasis.³⁹ Repeated attempts to define, or at least describe, modernism have amounted to a cacophony of features that seem to annul each other. Ástráður Eysteinsson in The Concept of Modernism gives a useful synthetic overview of different definitional attempts of modernism: a chiefly formal approach, that of New Criticism, which insists on the formal experimentation of an autonomous text; a cultural approach that sees modernism as a reflection of modernity and modernization, with Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air being paradigmatic in this respect; and an approach that does not see in modernism ‘an aesthetic complement of social modernity, but rather … a vehicle of crisis within the progress of modernization’.⁴⁰ This last perspective draws, as Marjorie Perloff has pointed out, from Theodor Adorno’s description of modernism as negative mimesis: ‘The true Modernist artwork, Adorno posits, refuses to engage in direct reflection of social surface; it does not want to duplicate the façade of reality, but makes an uncompromising reprint of reality while at the same time avoiding being contaminated by it.’⁴¹

Maurice Samuels’s important insight is that modernist principles, which include this negative mimesis as critique of modernity and modernization, are now so engrained in French cultural life that it is impossible to see them as historical phenomena with a beginning and an end:

French writers and critics have remained so invested in certain modernist assumptions about art, especially the belief in art’s oppositional role, that they have been slow to acknowledge not only the eclipse of Paris, but that of modernism as well. Or perhaps modernism never really faded in France. The radical French rethinking of culture that took place after 1968, which helped to define postmodernism for Anglo-American critics, was in France anything but a radical break with the past. Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and their fellow post-structuralists celebrated modernist strategies and drew largely on modernist artists and writers for their case studies. Their critique of reason and decentering of the self had much in common with the revolts of Baudelaire and Flaubert against the smug positivism of the nineteenth century.⁴²

What one can read in Samuels’s lines here is that the close identification of ‘French’ and ‘modernism’, which morphed from primary artistic creation to later theoretical appraisals of this creation in what we summarily call ‘French Theory’, does not allow one to consider the category of modernism as such. In his introduction to Modernism and Theory, Stephen Ross points out that this co-dependence of modernism and theory is generally true: ‘Modernist writing thinks theoretically and theory writes modernistically; they are not simply interestingly coincidental phenomena, but mutually sustaining aspects of the same project’⁴³ – a point that, as I previously mentioned, was also made in 1884 in the mission statement of La Revue moderniste. In a way, Samuels indicates that this ‘same project’ is particularly pronounced in the French case and has resulted in such a symbiosis of modernism and critical thought that modernism cannot be extricated as an autonomous object of theorization and study. Modernism in France is too close to home, even now in the twenty-first century, to be understood as a defined field.

Resistance to the term and the concept of modernism in the French case may be explained in similar terms as the quarrels over the meaning of modernism: it reveals a repressed ambivalence about modernity and our self-conception and self-positioning therein, proving that literary history is indeed an arena of historical struggle.⁴⁴ The specificity of modernism, Eysteinsson remarks, is that ‘through the concept we are constructing our immediate past, we are creating a paradigm that we are not even certain we have surpassed’.⁴⁵ Marjorie Perloff touches upon the same idea in her characterization of modernism, however much it may ‘now have the charm of history on its side’, being ‘at the end of the twentieth century, our Primal Scene’.⁴⁶ Susan Stanford Friedman, when discussing the terminological confusion around modernism in general, uses another psychoanalytical metaphor to address its largest continuity and scope: ‘The terminological quagmire of modernist studies may be the result of a transferential process in which people become caught in a repetition of the unresolved contradictions present and largely repressed in modernity itself.’⁴⁷ These comments seem to describe the present ghostly existence of French modernism as such a primal scene, both as possible fantasy and as a trauma that, though inevitably and inexorably present, linger in fragments that resist verbalization and analysis, explanation and attribution of meaning. Modernism in France today is such an experience: instead of a unified period of aesthetic production, it is shattered into pieces – isolated authors, schools (symbolism, decadents, cubism, etc.), segregated genres (poetry, prose, theatre, etc.), or media (literature, painting, music, cinema, etc.). And perhaps that refusal to verbalize, explain and interpret is indeed some kind of transferential process that reproduces France’s own ambivalent self-conception within modernity in general. Identifying the silence and the void would be the first step towards creating the conceptual space needed to accommodate the richness and ambiguities of French modernism.

The title of this volume, 1913: The year of French modernism, seems to imply a certainty about, or at least a preliminary answer to, the chronology, location and meaning of modernism, a certainty at odds with the nebulous landscape I have outlined. Choosing a specific year – in our case 1913 – as a representative moment, point of origin or culmination of modernism seems to brush aside questions on modernism’s chronology, periodization and synchronicity. The pairing of ‘French’ with ‘modernism’ implies an assured stance on what is ‘French’ and what is ‘modernism’ and, moreover, on the utility of such a combination in the contemporary scholarly landscape. In other words, the title of our volume sounds like a lapidary statement in the midst of the many open questions pullulating within the study of modernism. And, to a large extent, French scholarship’s reluctance to adopt modernism as a category is a response to these questions that have been shaping the field of Modernist Studies, new and old. What would be the point of circumscribing a clear category of French modernism if we do not even know how to define modernism altogether, what we mean by the term and how it is related to modernity, its chronology and its limits? Why import the definitional – ultimately epistemological – conundrums of the Anglo-American context into the French cultural domain, if not but as a gesture of ‘academic imperialism’? Furthermore, in what has been coined the ‘transnational’ turn of Modernist Studies, a scholarly field that is now characterized by a growing geographical and chronological expansion of the archive, as well as an expansion of methods and approaches,⁴⁸ what is the point of turning to a national iteration of modernism that seems to force it back to its canonical, Western European contours, after the exhilarating global consideration of the phenomenon? Indeed, in the present scholarly landscape, 1913: The year of French modernism may seem like a retrograde move, restricting modernism instead of expanding it, bringing it back to its scholarly origins, to Axel’s Castle, to Proust and Mallarmé, turning its back on today’s global perspective and enclosing once again modernism in a bracket of time defined by Eurocentrism. What can be more canonical and self-serving to a Western understanding of modernism than creating a Paris-centric narrative? And yet, why has this canonical story not been told?

However slippery the term modernism might be, it is still bon à penser (good to think with), perhaps more so than the term ‘modern’, which is more bound to temporality than the necessarily theoretically and critically inflected modernism. The explosion of scholarly work on and around modernism after the 1990s, a reaction perhaps to the formulaic challenge of postmodernism that may have revealed the complexity and multidimensionality of modernism rather than its paucity and rigidity,⁴⁹ demonstrates precisely how ‘good to think with’ the term is. In recent years, Modernist Studies has produced an impressive amount of scholarship of great significance not only for the study of a bygone era, but also for understanding modernity and the present moment. Despite its definitional problems, modernism is an operative, functional term in academia. The dismissal of the term and the concept of modernism within the context of French literature has placed this important corpus – still to be defined – on the margins of the scholarly discussion around modernism. In this way, a whole literary tradition, one of the richest within modernism, is made invisible. Moreover, the rejection of the term and concept of modernism in French criticism has made it extremely difficult to propose any kind of comparative approach. The (correct) turn of the study of modernism towards a global perspective entails that modernism cannot be understood as a whole outside a comparative frame. The absence of French modernism as an operative category means that it cannot enter into this comparative dialogue, which goes both ways: the French archive may illuminate global aspects of modernism, and modernism as a global phenomenon may shed light on what happened in France.

Finally, the absence of the category of modernism in French criticism results in an absence of a modernist canon in French literature. There are, of course, the agreed-upon aforementioned ‘Phares’: there is Proust, and there is Gide, and other names have been ‘rediscovered’ and added throughout the twentieth century, thanks to the vigour of theoretical approaches, such as Julia Kristeva’s reading of Lautréamont or Jacques Derrida’s reading of Artaud. There is also a genealogy in poetry that draws a line going from Baudelaire, through Rimbaud, Verlaine and Mallarmé, to Apollinaire; but where do these writers stand in relation to each other, or in relation to Dada and surrealism, to Larbaud or Valéry, to Césaire or Céline – or, going back into the nineteenth century, to Huysmans or even Flaubert, or, after the Second World War, to Camus, Beckett or Ionesco? And where do these literary works stand in relation to

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