- Decadent Nationalism, “Peripheral” Modernism:The Georgian Literary Manifesto between Symbolism and the Avant-garde
Georgia and the Time-Space of “Peripheral” Modernism
Georgia’s first modernist literary collective, the symbolist Blue Horn (Tsisperqants’elebi) group, was formally launched only in 1915. Largely overshadowed by the history of Russian modernism and only unevenly studied even within the former Soviet Union, Georgian modernism experienced a contracted and accelerated pattern of development that collapsed many of the distinctions, of periodization and of theory, that have become a part of received literary history. Combining an aestheticist ideology that championed art for art’s sake with elements of futurist provocation, the militant modernists of the Blue Horn group essentially collapsed what in Europe and Russia had been a complex evolution, occurring over at least two decades, from fin-de-siècle decadence to the European avant-garde. At the same time they attacked the social anxieties and utopian religious speculation that typified prerevolutionary Russian modernism from a nationalist perspective that allowed for a reimagining of the Georgian tradition.
These contractions and elisions should first be seen in the light of a highly charged local and regional context. Georgian modernism arose just before the revolutions of 1917, which would offer Georgia the competing political paradigms of social [End Page 343] liberation (limited autonomy within a reconstituted Russian federation in solidarity with other oppressed nations and social classes) or the national independence which Georgia experienced under social-democratic Menshevik rule between 1918 and 1921.1 This short but significant hiatus, during which Georgia was spared the civil war that engulfed Russia, witnessed the lively coexistence in Georgia of rival conceptions of artistic modernism and political modernity that had emerged more distinctly and sequentially elsewhere.
This article offers an analysis and contextualization of two Georgian literary manifestos of 1916, T’itsian T’abidze’s “Tsisperi Qants’ebit” (With the Blue Horns) and P’aolo Iashvili’s “Pirveltkma” (First Utterance). Both were published during a singular moment of crisis, as the increasingly evident limitations of tsarist autocracy, exacerbated by Russia’s disastrous participation in World War I, were propelling the empire inexorably towards revolution. Yet historical context alone is not sufficient to the task of situating these manifestoes. Martin Puchner has written recently of the need to map out a geography as much as a history of the modern manifesto. If conventional historicism has viewed the “temporal axis of modernity” as “marked by steady progress,” the neglected “geographical plane,” writes Puchner, is “marked by gaps, white areas, and the graveyards of past cultures.”2 It is in space, then, as much if not more than in time, that we observe the unevenness of the modernization process, which is anything but uniformly homogenizing in its effects.3
The poetry and polemics of the Blue Horns constitute a neglected but irreplaceable archive by which to examine the growth and circulation of aesthetic modernism beyond the core nations of the West. In temporal terms, the manifestos respond to the uneven modernization of Georgian culture by adopting what might be called a posture of empowering belatedness, which Leon Trotsky once affirmed as the “privilege of backward nations.”4 As latecomers to modernity, the Blue Horn poets believed themselves authorized to summarize but also relativize the premises of all prior artistic currents of the West. How the distinct premises of Russian symbolism, European decadence and Italian futurism were recombined and unevenly modified to inform the Blue Horns’ sense of cultural mission is the central concern of this article.
In spatial terms, Blue Horn poetics may be regarded as a specific form of peripheral modernism that calls the priorities of the metropolis into question, even as it is heavily dependent on a metropolitan vocabulary and discourse. It is widely assumed that a centripetal impulse was in fact constitutive of aesthetic modernism as a whole. Raymond Williams, for example, views the historical avant-garde as in essence the “expression of rapidly mobile émigrés” living in the “centres of metropolitan dominance.” It is thus “not the general themes of response to the city and its modernity” which constitute modernism but “rather the new and specific location of the artists and intellectuals of this...