The Short Story: An Introduction

By Paul March-Russell | Go to book overview

17
The Experimental Text

In his essay 'The Painter of Modern Life' (1859), Charles Baudelaire defined modernity as 'the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable' (Baudelaire 1995: 12). As Chapters 9 and 10 described, modernist writers used forms such as the short story and the interlinked cycle as ways of ordering the apparent insignificance of modern life; in Georg Lukács' terms, elevating meaninglessness to the level of artistic form. The modernist aesthetic conserves notions of tradition, perspective and analysis even as it acknowledges the impossibility of objective understanding. Integral to the development of modernism, though, was an avant-garde ethos that pursued fleeting moments of subjective experience without seeking to conserve. For these writers and artists, conservation was associated with the hierarchical structures of the museum, the gallery and the mainstream press, social organisations diametrically opposed to the new arrangements of modern society. For the avant-garde, artistic institutions divided the experience of art from the experience of life. The avant-garde sought to negate the power of the institutions by producing art-works that shocked traditional criteria, which could not be displayed or reproduced conventionally, which highlighted and called into question the ruling frames of reference, and which often made use of technological methods of manufacture. In particular, as Tristan Tzara asserts in his 'Dada Manifesto' (1918), the avant-garde desired the abolition of meaning: 'precise works which will be forever misunderstood' (in Kolocotroni et al. 1998: 279). From the battle-cry of Dada to the contrasting methods of Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs, the classical avant-garde used forms, such as the fragment, the cut-up and the short fiction, in an aesthetic that ultimately resolved itself in terms of silence.

Baudelaire's prose-poems prefigure the avant-garde's need for new forms with which to express the fleetingness of existence. Like his more conventional verse, the prose poems describe what Baudelaire

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