The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature

By Richard Kostelanetz | Go to book overview

Literature — Transparent and Opaque

Ian Wallace

Language is liquid. It does not provide the shape of its own container. Literature gives language "something to say," a shape, a content wherein lies the power to tease. The power of literature as a creative activity has traditionally treated language as a transparent medium so that the content is revealed in a direct reading of "what is said." Recent movements in literature, concrete poetry explicitly, treat language as an opaque medium, which throws content back into the realm of literature as "something to say" rather than "what is said." A sense of historical context will clarify the rationale of this redirection.

From the Dark Ages to the Renaissance, the tradition of literature that had passed through Greek and Roman culture had almost disappeared. Nothing was said because there was nothing to say. Following the "dumb" culture of the Middle Ages, in which the human voice was muted by powerful notions of cosmic truth, the Renaissance rediscovered the world, men and literature. Suddenly there was a great deal to say.

For the past five hundred years literature has released the pent-up inhibitions and emotions of the medieval experience. But in filling up the vacuum of experience in the medieval mind, literature since the Renaissance has exhausted that power of raison d'etre which depended upon a vacuum of experience.

Gorged with experience, the "something to say" given by literature is no longer needed, or rather, the preservation and accumulation of "great works" renders contemporary works into pathetic clichés of greatness. An even more tragic condition — the rare works of contemporary genius that do exist, those that do have something to say, are powerless to affect the dominating forces of

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Reprinted by permission of the author.

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