Après the Avant Garde

Fredric Jameson

  • Histoire de ‘Tel Quel’, 1960-82 by Philippe Forest
    Seuil, 656 pp, frs 180.00, October 1995, ISBN 2 02 017346 8
  • The Time of Theory: A History of ‘Tel Quel’ (1960-83) by Patrick ffrench
    Oxford, 318 pp, £37.50, December 1995, ISBN 0 19 815897 1
  • The Making of an Avant Garde: ‘Tel Quel’ by Niilo Kauppi
    Mouton de Gruyter, 516 pp, August 1994, ISBN 3 11 013952 9

Whatever you thought of it at the time, the fate of Tel Quel – the journal, the group and the theoretical orientation – concerns us all in one way or another, for the fate of the avant garde (was this really the last one?) has something to say about our society, our history, our politics and our relationship to the future. Given Tel Quel’s essentially literary orientation, its history can also tell us something about the place of Literature in the new televisual age.

Patrick ffrench’s title, The Time of Theory, is a reminder that Tel Quel seemed to offer the most prodigious theoretical synthesis of the age, so that the fate, not just of Theory itself – now pronounced dead by some – is at stake here, but also of some of its components: Marxism, psychoanalysis, linguistics. Again, for those interested in collective dynamics, or in intellectuals and their sociology, the group offers an interesting laboratory experiment, while for those bent on denouncing the modern and hastening its dissolution into Post-Modernism, the charismatic role of Tel Quel’s leader, Philippe Sollers, will confirm many dark suspicions about the relations between power and the very ideal of an avant garde (including the vanguard political parties, most notably the Bolsheviks, on which the aesthetic ones were explicitly based). And what, finally, about the spectacle of political and ideological defection, of which Tel Quel offers so many striking dramatisations, from literature to politics, from Soviet Communism to Maoism, from Maoism to pro-Americanism, from Marxism to religion? Any one of these moves might mark you for life; the accumulation (like the dialectic of quantity and quality) begins to offer a somewhat different picture, giving apostasy a bad name and opening the door wide to the debunking analysis of intellectual opportunism pioneered by Pierre Bourdieu – and exemplified here in a particularly satisfying way by Niilo Kauppi’s book.

Like the cycles of the great Mafiosi or the history of the Comintern, the chanson de geste of the various avant gardes has a relatively immutable pattern: the first friendships and then the founding of something; the deliberate scandals and provocations; the manifestos; the enemy lists, the exclusions left and right; the hegemony of intimidation; and then ... Avant gardes are all alike in their prime, but each one lives its eventual dissolution in a different way.

The journal Tel Quel was founded in 1960, by a group of ambitious young literary intellectuals, who found a first rallying cry in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman. These three books offer more or less concordant accounts of the early years, Forest’s being the most richly anecdotal (his is essentially a narrative history, a fine specimen of French cultural journalism); ffrench, the most theoretical of the chroniclers, nails down the competing philosophical positions of the era; and Kauppi, paying predictable attention to ‘social reproduction’, offers a priceless account of intellectual patronage and the inheritance of acquired characteristics in the welcome accorded by the elderly François Mauriac to his young Bordeaux compatriot, Philippe Sollers: ‘the creative gift seemed to be something which could be passed on, with impersonal rather than personal characteristics. It was a question of extraordinary, yet transmissible qualities.’

The new journal had somehow to affirm its originality in an already crowded field. Thus, it could not have anything in common with the hegemonic Sartrean journal, Les Temps modernes, but must be more pragmatically literary, and non-engagé (something all the more striking when we remember that France was then still in the throes of the Algerian war). In this sense, the Nietzschean motto of the eternal return, which gave the journal its name, stands as something of a deliberate provocation: ‘I want the world, and I want it as it is’ – tel quel.

In contrast to the newly revived Nouvelle Revue Française, which had come to embody the literary establishment, the new review would attempt to stand for experimentation, or for avant-gardism as such, without quite knowing where this virtue was to be found at a moment often described as the ‘end of the postwar period’. The immensely successful nouveau roman offered a temporary solution, but scarcely a durable one. Still, a few relatively unexploited names and works would be inscribed on the banner: Artaud, Bataille and Lautréamont, whose potential his first discoverers in the Surrealist movement had failed to celebrate in useably contemporary terms. The editors also developed amicable relations with Bataille’s journal Critique, in which the first swallows of a recognisably contemporary philosophy and theory took their flight; some of whom – Barthes, Foucault, Derrida – came to entertain fitful relations with the new journal, Barthes in particular remaining faithful to the end. His own death, in 1980, was followed by the official dissolution of Tel Quel in 1982 and its replacement by the significantly retitled L’Infini, now completely under Sollers’s direction, and, equally significantly, transferred to another publisher.

The whole operation thus officially lasted some twenty years, since it was in 1963 that the first of the great exclusions took place, Sollers’s rival at this point, Jean-Edern Hallier, retrospectively observing that there was not enough room for two male hippopotami in that particular water-hole. The reorganisation of the journal was entrusted to Marcellin Pleynet (one of the merits of Forest’s history is that he gives full attention to the somewhat neglected development of poetry in the review – above all that of Pleynet himself, and of that splendid poet, Denis Roche – as well as to the later relations with painting and with cinema; Pleynet’s close relations with American poets in Paris and his teaching stints in the US also foreshadowed a later evolution). All of this bore fruit in the banner year of 1965, which witnessed Tzvetan Todorov’s presentation of the Russian Formalists, Sollers’s discovery of Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, the break with Robbe-Grillet and the New Novel, the arrival of Julia Kristeva in Paris (from Bulgaria), and finally the publication of Sollers’s ‘nouveau nouveau roman’, Drame, which announced a whole new kind of ‘textual’ literature.

If we date the effective end of this avant garde with the de-Maoification of 1974 (after the visit of the group to Beijing), its productive years can be reduced to something like a decade, more or less coinciding with the now largely accepted dating of the so-called Sixties as running from about 1963 to the oil crisis of 1973.

Let me here repeat the words of Guy Debord, quoted by ffrench, which raise the question of the mortality of an avant garde, a matter that seems oddly to obsess these books, more than does another mystery, which is the coming into being of an avant garde.

Avant gardes have but a brief life-span; and the best thing that can happen to them is to have lived that life to an end. After the avant gardes, operations are engaged on a vaster scene. We have only too often witnessed élite troops, who, having accomplished some valiant exploit, go on parading with their decorations and finally turn against the cause they once defended. Nothing like that need be feared from troops whose attack was waged to utter dissolution.

Debord was, to be sure, the leader of yet another ‘last avant garde’, the Situationists, and also formally dissolved his group (in May ’68). Tel Quel had no relations with these competitors at the time, but seems to have posthumously (and perhaps abusively) canonised Debord. The quotation gives them ambiguous aid and comfort, for it is unclear whether Sollers’s group should be identified with the last sentence, as they themselves prefer (‘waged to utter dissolution’), or rather with the next-to-last (‘turned against the cause they once defended’).

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