The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature

By Richard Kostelanetz | Go to book overview
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Spatial Form in Modern Literature

Joseph Frank


I. Introduction

" Lessing's Laocoön," André Gide once remarked, "is one of those books it is good to reiterate or contradict every thirty years." 1 Despite this excellent advice, neither of these attitudes toward Laocoön has been adopted by modern writers. Lessing's attempt to define the limits of literature and the plastic arts has become a dead issue; it is neither reiterated nor contradicted but simply neglected. Lessing, to be sure, occupies an honorable place in the history of criticism and aesthetics. But while his work is invariably referred to with respect, it can hardly be said to have exercised any fecundating influence on modern aesthetic thinking. * This was comprehensible enough in the nineteenth century, with its overriding passion for historicism; but it is not so easy to understand at present when so many writers on aesthetic problems are occupied with questions of form. To a historian of literature or the plastic arts, Lessing's effort to define the unalterable laws of these mediums may well have seemed quixotic. Modern critics, however, no longer overawed by the bugbear of historical method, have begun to take up again the problems he tried to solve.

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Reprinted from The Widening Gyre (Rutgers University Press, 1963) by permission of the author
*
This statement is less true now than it was approximately twenty years ago when first written. Recent years have seen a notable increase in studies concerned with the space- and time-aspects of literature and art. In part, as Wellek and Warren have remarked, this is attributable to the growing influence of Existentialist philosophy. For further references, see R. Wellek and A. Warren, Theory of Literature ( New York: Harvest, Harcourt, Brace, 1956), p. 264.

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