Academic journal article Criticism

"Partout et Nulle Part": Apollinaire's Body after the War

Academic journal article Criticism

"Partout et Nulle Part": Apollinaire's Body after the War

Article excerpt

On 26 November 1917, Guillaume Apollinaire stood backstage at the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier in Paris. Apollinaire-alias for Guglielmo Alberto Wladimiro Alessandro Apollinare de Kostrowitzky, born to a Polish mother and to an unknown father, a naturalized French citizen for just over a year and a half, bearing a head wound from a shell in the trenches of the Great War (World War I), wearing his Croix de la guerre on his chest and a leather band around his forehead to hold his skull together after a trepanning operation-waited while actor Pierre Bertin read his lecture "L'Esprit nouveau et les poètes" ("The New Spirit and the Poets"). The lecture would be published in Le Mercure de France a year later, on 1 December 1918, after Apollinaire's premature death. Its opening lines succinctly summarize the core of the argument but also set an assured, prophetic tone for the whole text: "The new spirit which will dominate the poetry of the entire world has nowhere come to light as it has in France."1 The text, written and perceived as a manifesto, is inescapably overdetermined by the war: it is a text written during the Great War, informed by the war in both its aesthetic and ideological positions, and at the same time evades the war as it projects to the future-the future of peace.

What is theorized in the text-the personal and the historical, the aesthetic and the political-finds its paradigmatic poetic pendant in a work that stands alone within Apollinaire's production: the play Les Mamelles de Tirésias-Drame surréaliste {The Mammaries of Tiresias-A Surrealist Drama). Presented to the public in 1918, this is Apollinaire's only theatrical text performed during his lifetime. A multimedia spectacle combining text, music, and visual arts, the play drew elements from popular culture-the circus, guignol, la fête foraine (fun fair; i.e., carnival)-as well as cinema and the theatrical tradition, in order to address a burning national issue: falling birthrates. Together, the essay and the play reflect and deflect the experience of the war to epitomize a specific vision of the avant-garde. "L'Esprit nouveau et les poètes" and Les Mamelles de Tirésias, however, are rarely considered in discussions of the avant-garde at the close of World War I. Indeed, the play obtained an oddball position within Apollinaire's oeuvre almost from the beginning-a status that it still maintains, as few critical works are dedicated to it and performances are rare, notwithstanding Francis Poulenc's 1947 opera adaptation.2 The essay, while it was widely disseminated at the time and marked decisively the new avant-garde generation rising in the early 1920s,3 is today seldom revisited within the general frame of the study of the avant-garde. Seen more as a testimony to Apollinaire's own poetics and ambitions, the essay has joined the fate of the play: they stand on their own and, despite Apollinaire's central role asa connecting node of different avant-garde currents, they are not part of a critical discussion of the bourgeoning avant-garde activity during the last phase of the war. Dada's birth, futurism's entanglement with nationalist politics and belligerence, and surrealism's emergence from the alternative reality of shell-shocked soldiers dominate our understanding of the European avant-garde in 1918. What I propose is a parallel reading of Apollinaire's two texts that offers a different standpoint from which to consider the avant-garde in this specific historical moment of war. Apollinaire's late work embodies the extreme violence of the war, in the metaphorical and the literal senses: Apollinaire's literary somatization of war, spurring from his real-life mutilation in the trenches, counteracts the violence imposed by ideology, and inverts it through a series of bodyrelated representations, into a "new spirit." It is a process that merges the deeply personal with the impasses of war but also its governing political ideologies, nationalism and colonialism. …

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