The Image and the Futurists

25 05 2009

I’m going to start this out by admitting that I am a bit of a cannibal. I went into this last article (more a chapter really) by Marjorie Perloff knowing exactly what I wanted from it, and no more.  In the same way that a cannibal doesn’t really care whether or not his victim had a tremendous singing voice, I’ll admit to being a bit indifferent to the larger point that Perloff was making. What I’m going to do, then, is tell you just what I got out of it, and encourage you all to go and read the chapter yourselves. There, now that I’ve plead for clemency, let’s  begin.

The article I’ve just finished was ‘The Great War and the European Avant-Garde’ and can be found here. What I was looking for was some indication of the ways in which the various protrusions of the European avant-garde used and understood the visual image, in the various movements in general, and in poetry in particular.

The first movement to be examined in the lead up to the first of the great European wars was the Italian futurist movement. The futurists are a hard group to understand these days. Where we tend to idealise the past, the pre information revolution simplicity and ‘rustic simplicity’ of the early 1900s the futurists looked forwards to a future of exiting, fast and above all powerfully transformative technologies. One can imagine that an Italy, with its long memory of failed roman empires and its housing of the millennia Old Catholic religion, might look forwards to a transformative and purging technological revolution in a quest for new glories. Indeed, Perloff shows in her chapter how this is just what was being imagined.  At one point they referred to Italy as a nation of dealers ‘in second hand clothes’ and sought war as a way of reinvigorating society. In F. T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto  of 1909 he writes “We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers…” and, at the beginning of the piece, he writes:

…we felt ourselves alone at that hour, alone, awake, and on our feet, like proud beacons or forward sentries against an army of hostile stars glaring down at us from their celestial encampments. Alone with stokers feeding the hellish fires of great ships, alone with black spectres who grope in the red-hot bellies of locomotives…

It’s clear that Marinetti pictured the avant-garde as a deliberately forward looking phenomenon. Like the military position that gives it its name he saw the avant-garde as deliberately forging forward, driving the machines of the culture behind it like great ships or the cars in an immense locomotive. The imagery is therefore similarly militaristic, conjuring up great metaphorical juggernauts against the dusty background of old empires.  Perloff writes:

…in futurist painting, stokers and railroad workers are depicted, not as ordinary men but as part of an exotic and colourful landscape.  The enemy, in this context, was the status quo: the timid and provincial nineteenth-century culture that had turned Italy into no more than a vast museum…

The futurists saw war as the great reviver of culture, bringing about a new and better type of world. Accordingly they saw themselves as part of that war, politics and aesthetics being one and the same.  Perloff points out that the futurists wouldn’t quite reach the point of reconciliation with the reality of their new Europe until 1916, and ‘the futurists could never quite reconcile their aesthetics to their actual political situation.’ The idealism of the Futurists never bore the fruit that they were expecting from it, and yet in their art we see repeated attempts to conjure their ideal Europe into existence. Their politics looked for a great future to be found in technology, motion and visual revolution, and so the images they depicted were full of energy portraying the power and strength of that technology.

Punctuation was to be eliminated so that poetry might be ‘an uninterrupted sequence of new images; – the ‘imagination without strings. … and further:  Marinetti advocated the destruction of ‘the I in literature; that is, all psychology’.

The images were there to offer a direct conduit to the experience of Futurism, an experience that would never quite make it into reality. Perhaps the intent was even to take poetry from the description of imagined objects into being an object in itself. It’s problematic to try to describe the intent of a movement, but to the extent that we can assign a general ideal to the movement we can say that they wanted to radically change the way that language was used in poetry. And in their optimism for a bright, technological future they found themselves attempting to narrow the gap between the reader and the physical embodiments of this future.

But the endless cataloguing of ‘analogous’ nouns, as in ‘noise + weight of the sun + orange odor of the sky + 20000 right angles,’ and onomatopoeic typographic units, capturing the sound and look of battle, as in Karazouc-zouc-zouc/Karazouc-zouc-zouc/nadI-NadI AAaaaaaaaa, is also tiresome in its simplification and reduction of experience.

Perloff is generally critical of the Italian Futurists, perhaps because they never achieved the strength of the Russian avant-garde, who’s aesthetic also featured the image strongly for its own sake.

Like Marinetti, they celebrated ;the whole brillian style of modern times – our trousers, jackets, shoes, trolleys, cars, airplanes, railways, grandiose steamships…

Like the Italians the Russians were experiencing modernism as a sudden rush of new technologies and comodities, and sought to put these things at the forefront of their aesthetic through the minimal filter of the image.

The Russian avant-garde was far more far-reaching than that of its Italian counterpart. Indeed, it remains central to poetics today: witness the so-called LANGUAGE movement that came into being in the US in the mid 1970s – a movement that has strenuously made the case for the primacy of the signifier rather than the referent.

The Russians however also glorified war as ‘magnificent’ and sought to exemplify it through images of gun-barrels and other mechanistic extensions of war. However, the outcropping of the Russian avant-garde managed to overcome the nationalism of their aesthetic in the early years of the second decade of the century, and head towards a more subtler form of presentation.  In this time the images take on less of a sense of flashes of nationalistic propaganda and become more hallucinatory.

In the civil war years of Russia’s early 20th century the extreme poverty of the people managed to cast a shadow over the optimism of the previous decade.  Russian poet Khlebnikov, who fought in the wars before wandering the torn country on his own  wrote a number of poems that are much more palatable to the modern conception of war, but retain the attempt to evoke the true nature of a situation through the presentation of concrete images. He wrote one poem that reads, in part:

Roast mouse.
Their son fixed it, went and
Caught them in the field.
They lie stretched out on the table,
Their long dark tails.
Today it’s a decent dinner,
A real good meal!
Just a while back the housewife would shudder
and holler, smash the pitcher to smithereens
if she found a mouse drowned in the cream.
But now, how silent and peaceful.
Dead mice for dinner
stretched out on the table,
dangling dark tails . . .

And Perloff writes: ‘again the lyric is depersonalised, documentary, imagistic, almost casual.’ In its maturity the Russian avant-garde managed what the Italians could not. They reconciled the aesthetic of their language with the reality of their situation. The politics and the situation was stark, and the imagism of the writing, the depersonalisation of the self, was exactly what the culture required.