John W. Aldridge
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1272
There are several remarkable features of Mr. Kostelanetz's discussion [in The End of Intelligent Writing], one of which is that he should find the situation he describes so terribly shocking. However vigorously we may deplore the fact, it is simply in the nature of literary groups in all times and places that they will protect and promote their own and, with one degree or another of malevolent calculation, will exclude or ignore those who are not their own. This may not be a desirable state of affairs, but it is the usual one, and reasons for it are not difficult to discover. Since as a rule the members of a literary group initially come together as a beleaguered minority fighting to be heard against the opposition of whatever establishment may be in power, they tend to go on regarding themselves as a beleaguered minority long after they have become a persecuting majority. In the course of achieving power they also inevitably come to understand the politics of power, just how necessary it is to their collective survival that they support one another individually, if only because no one outside the group can be counted on to give them support. It often happens that with the passage of time and the accretion of influence, political considerations come to outweigh and even eclipse intellectual and artistic considerations, and power for its own sake becomes the sole, if unacknowledged object of the group's existence. But whether or not they evolve to the final phase of total tyranny, all literary groups must achieve a certain measure of power, and they must use it discriminatorily—to protect and advance their own members to the exclusion of others and, in so doing, increase still further the power of the collective.
Historical precedents for this kind of activity are virtually unlimited. For as long as literature has existed writers have promoted one another and not always for purely esthetic reasons. The furtherance of self-interest, dedication to the cause of a movement, the desire to publicize the writing of a particular ethnic group or locale or even of an entire literary generation have all been strongly operative motives behind the advancement of certain writers over others, and have often determined which writers will survive long enough to be discovered by posterity and which will be forgotten completely. Highly organized self- and group-promotion had a very great deal to do with the rise to prominence of such literary cabals as the Bloomsbury group, the Paris expatriates, and more recently the New Critics, the San Francisco Beat writers, the Black Mountain poets, and of course the present New York literary establishment. (pp. 347-48)
In view of all this, one cannot help finding it remarkable that Mr. Kostelanetz would want to be allowed entry into such a sinkhole of chicanery, yet he clearly does. He even confesses that one of his compelling motivations for writing his book was resentment at being snubbed by the New York establishment. But he then proceeds to call on his young literary contemporaries who have been similarly snubbed to rise up, band together, and form another establishment, a new cabal of young talent, from which, presumably, they will have the pleasure of snubbing all writers older than thirty-five. It would seem, therefore, that like the people he attacks, Mr. Kostelanetz is dying to have power and prestige, even if he lacks the stomach for the kind of politicking currently required to obtain them. One might well admire him for this and even be tempted to join him in exhorting his generation to the barricades. But then at just the moment when he seems on the verge of winning his case, Mr. Kostelanetz destroys it calamitously and completely. He manages to do this with all earnestness and in the midst of a stalwart crusade for what would seem the most exemplary of causes. He generously appeals for recognition for the literary efforts of his contemporaries, and he does so on the ground that they represent brilliantly original work so revolutionary in form and concept that, if the establishment were not so repressive, they would surely be recognized as constituting a vital new literature. He then offers some examples of this literature, and they are so unbelievably bad, so pretentious, and so derivative of all the out-moded styles of antique modernist experimentation—Dadaism, Surrealism, Imagism, Vorticism—that one almost supposes that Mr. Kostelanetz is putting us on. But no, unfortunately he is not. (pp. 349-50)
Such experiments, when undertaken for the first time by modernist pioneers like Tristan Tzara, Francis Picabia, and Alfred Jarry during and after World War I, had their importance because they were genuine radical and innovative, and they helped to prepare the way for the revolutionary literary movement which gave us Pound, Joyce, Eliot, Cummings, and the other great writers who now constitute the modernist canon. But the only justification for an avant-garde in any of the arts is that it is truly in advance and represents the exploration of new modes of consciousness along with new techniques for expressing them. If it merely resembles in style and concept the formerly revolutionary effects of a past era—as Mr. Kostelanetz's avant-garde appears to do—then it is only an empty recapitulation of what has been done before and done to some meaningful purpose because done for the first time.
The problem today is that the classic modern avant-garde literature of those early years has been thoroughly institutionalized both by criticism and by university English departments. We are schooled in its characteristic effects beyond the point of intellectual surfeit and have absorbed them into our literature very much in the way that the once-radical effects of modern painting have been absorbed and finally homogenized into the stylistic cliches of decor modernism. When artists now seek to be innovative, they tend to imitate the innovative techniques of the past just because the possible choices that were first identified at the beginning of our era all seem to have been explored by the artists who had the immense good fortune to be alive at the beginning of our era.
This is clearly a serious dilemma for young artists of the present time, and in their struggles to break out of it, they deserve all the sympathy they can get. If they ultimately succeed in discovering a new consciousness and new forms for its expression, then they will eventually win an audience and a reputation—traditionally by slow degrees and through the kind of little magazines that first provided the early modernists with a channel of publication. But Mr. Kostelanetz concedes that his generation of writers have been disinclined to develop themselves through little magazines and, children of instant celebrity that they are, seem primarily interested in "making it" in the Big Time. If that is the case, there is a clear option open to them. They can learn to play the kind of politics Mr. Kostelanetz so despises and finally ingratiate themselves with the establishment, so that one day they will be invited to write for The New York Review of Books. As they grow older, they will come to realize the importance of sticking together and helping one another get ahead, and of course they will make very certain that no one younger than themselves is allowed into their circle—unless he has the proper respect for his elders and can be counted on to do exactly as he is told. (pp. 351-52)
John W. Aldridge, "Unmaking It: The Politics of Literary Failure," in Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1975), Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer, 1975, pp. 346-52.