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  • Jazzing Up Modernism: Jazz, Popular Culture, and Dada in Henry Parland and Gunnar Björling
  • Harri Veivo (bio)

. . . Geometry has drawn confusions. Music everywhere, You, jazz, the master with rose-red regrets.1

These lines from the Finland-Swedish poet Gunnar Björling’s 1928 series of poems “4711 Universalistisk Dada-Individualism” foreground factors that have received increasing attention in recent studies of modernism and the avant-garde. There is more and more interest in modernist and avant-garde cultures in countries that have been neglected in historical narratives based on the canonical artworks of western Europe, the United States, or Russia. Important publications such as Tom Sandqvist’s Dada East, Piotr Piotrowski’s In the Shadow of Yalta, and the edited collections Europa! Europa?, Diasporic Avant-Gardes, and Decentring the Avant-Garde show that a closer look at the specific conditions and development of modernism and the avant-garde in countries that were formerly considered “peripheral” is likely to transform our understanding of these phenomena.2 It will do so not only in these particular cases, but also at a more general level, challenging the historiographical discourses that have prevailed in much of the writing on twentieth-century literature and art. “Small” countries are jazzing up the “big” picture. This change of geographical focus runs parallel to another shift concerning cultural and social hierarchies. Although the relationship between high and popular culture in modernism and the avant-garde [End Page 667] entered the research agenda as early as 1986 with Andreas Huyssen’s After the Great Divide, this topic has only recently gained momentum in such publications as Walter L. Adamson’s Embattled Avant-Gardes and the edited collection Regarding the Popular.3 These studies promote context-sensitive research that takes into account processes of mediation and negotiation between high and popular culture and the local conditions of reception, appropriation, and production, thus calling into question the text-based approaches typical of much traditional writing on modernism and the avant-garde.

This article participates in both these debates through a specific case study of the role of jazz in Björling’s and his fellow Finland-Swedish poet Henry Parland’s dada writings at the end of the 1920s. Jazz and dada came to Finland through other cultures in mediated and appropriated forms. This spatial and temporal process of translation created a time lag that can be perceived as a sign of belatedness in relation to the European centers of modernism. Yet it also situated jazz and dada at a critical point where conflicting discussions of decadence and emancipation, conservatism and modernism, art and entertainment, goal-directed collective work and individualistic focus on the present met and entered into conflict. This article analyzes how Björling and Parland explore the potential this process generates, taking advantage in their writing of the specific meanings jazz and dada received in Finland and questioning the basic values of traditional and modern conceptions of literature.

The blooming of avant-garde poetics in Finland-Swedish literature of the 1920s is one of the odder chapters in the history of modernism and avant-garde. In a relatively short period of time, running from the early 1920s to 1930, a handful of writers in a linguistic—and in some cases also a social—minority sought to renew Swedish poetry in Finland through experimentation with new poetic discourses, preceding their colleagues in Sweden, who gradually caught up from the late 1920s onwards. They were modernist in their efforts to develop poetic discourses that would better respond to the challenges set by contemporary society, yet they were also avant-gardist in the sense that they sought to transcend prevailing cultural dichotomies and change the conditions of literary production by founding new reviews and renewing literature’s connection with society.

This work was done at a time of political instability, characterized by conflicting desires for order and freedom. Finland had gained its independence from Russia in 1917, but thereafter immediately underwent a violent civil war. As a result, national unity was merely a myth, undermined by latent political conflicts. The victorious right-wing conservative forces imposed their values on the young nation, including the law of prohibition in force...


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