- Apollinaire’s Politics: Modernism, Nationalism, and the Public Sphere in Avant-garde Paris
Ni même on renouvelle le monde en reprenant la Bastille Je sais que seuls le renouvellent ceux qui sont fondés en poésie 1
Poet, art critic and promoter, literary critic, journalist, editor and publisher, novelist, dramatist, movie-script writer, prankster, pornographer, and impresario of the Parisian avant-garde, Guillaume Apollinaire is regarded as everything except a political man. 2 He himself promoted this view. Writing to the editor of La Plume in 1902, he claimed to have nothing to say about politics, a subject that is “detestable, deceitful, sterile, and injurious” (“haïssable, mensongère, stérile et néfaste”). 3 In thousands of pages of prewar writing, he signed only one article that might be considered political thought. 4 The fact that he turned to political subjects during World War I might be explained contingently in terms of his enthusiasm for the war experience and his recognition of its historical import. Yet, paradoxically, never was there so relentlessly public a life as Apollinaire’s, and no one has ever dedicated more energy to the promotion of art as an answer to the spiritual malaise of modern life. In that sense, his indefatigable production of criticism as well as his unending public performance of self were nothing if not political both in intent and effect.
When we look closely at his one published piece of political philosophy, the paradox begins to unravel. Based on premises drawn explicitly from Spinoza’s Ethics but also from Nietzsche, Apollinaire argued that politics in the sense of government is [End Page 33] nothing but the pursuit of power by politicians and that any notion that it might promote social improvement misunderstands the human condition. Humans may express genuine sympathy for their fellows, but this sentiment is always subordinate to a primary egotism. While an individual may be gratified by helping another individual, acts of so-called “charity” which minister to the collective serve only to salve the consciences of the rich and powerful. Similarly, “politics does have the often forgotten aim of aiding others en bloc” (“La politique n’a pour but, souvent oublié, que de les aider en bloc”), but government is too blunt an instrument to succeed in any such endeavor, excepting perhaps that of allowing politicians to imagine themselves virtuous. 5 Is there, then, no genuinely collective mode of social redemption? Though the question is not addressed here, it is notable that, less than a month later, Apollinaire would see in Picasso’s early painting precisely the force capable of reawakening “the profound self-knowledge that humanity had of itself” and giving us back the “eyes” necessary for entering into the social world of children, mothers, beggars, and forlorn old men. 6 It was an argument for the socially redemptive power of avant-garde art to which he would return on many subsequent occasions.
This essay will argue that Apollinaire’s apparent apoliticism was a mask for his deepest conviction, one to which he dedicated his life: that only through the visionary power of avant-garde art could men and women living in modern mass societies regain their human capacity for the concrete experience of life, a capacity that had withered amidst the abstractions of commodified, urban existence. Far from representing a solution to this modern crisis, the issue-oriented, materialistically self-interested politics shaped by newspapers and propelled by the wheeler-dealing of the democratic electoral process only compounded it. This public sphere merely reinforced the mechanical, quantitative, and ultimately nihilistic modes of thought underlying modern industry and science. A revitalized public sphere would depend crucially upon the restoration of aesthetic vision, language, and performance to a position of genuine centrality in modern political life. In a properly aesthetic public sphere, art would reconnect with daily life and with concrete, national traditions, thus reviving the national spirit and reconsecrating civic energies.
In the sections which follow, I aim to show, first, that recent theoretical and historical work on modernism helps to clarify the larger context of Apollinaire’s aesthetic politics and, specifically, its nationalistic turn; second, that his nationalism was...