It would seem that there is no more conventional, (in Schiller’s understanding) naïve, and exhausted poetics than European confessional writing and other related forms of life writing, traditionally called écriture intime (in the French academia) or simply life writing (in the English and American tradition). Most artistic interventions in the autobiographical question the confessional convention and its means of expression and destroy the transparency of pacts entered into in good faith. Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, André Gide’s The Counterfeiters, and Roland Barthes’s Roland Barthes are all classic texts which almost exhaust the ways in which life writing can distance itself from the memoir, autobiography, diary and other related forms. Distance is created by another distinction – between literature/literariness and writing (or in the past: written texts). Life writing belongs to the latter. Biography, however, is (more and more) often an exception; as a traditional genre of life writing, it transmutes and absorbs the modern and postmodern techniques of narrative dispersion, heteroglossia, and fragmentation. In the recent decades, we have witnessed an increased “autobiographization” of biography. In humanistic discourse, this process comes hand in hand with autotheory, autoethnography, and intimate ethnography.
Therefore, it is not true that life writing and the avant-garde – defined very broadly as artistic trends of the 20th and the 21st centuries which center on experimentation1 – do not have much in common. The connections and relations between them have so far not been discussed in much detail2 but it is beyond the scope of this short essay to explain why. Instead, we want to ask questions that will inspire retrospective analysis, new interpretations of “classic” texts, and archival research – questions about the intersections between life writing and the avant-garde. Such questions – concerning the relationship between experimental aesthetics and life writing – were asked by Julia Novak3 and Irene Kacandes,4 and they inspired us to investigate such forms of life writing in which the emphasis on formal innovation leads to the readerly reflection on transgressing/breaking conventions. Indeed, Novak leaves room for further investigation because, in her opinion, experimental aesthetics can either emphasize the value of the auto/biographical or challenge it.5
We pursue a different route. Our starting point are the concepts of the avant-garde (Anatol Stern, Guillaume Apollinaire, Franciszka Themerson, Leopold Buczkowski, Aleksander Wat), the neo-avant-garde (Witold Wirpsza, Andrzej Falkiewicz, Tadeusz Kantor, B.S. Johnson, Philippe Sollers), the post-avant-garde (Blixa Bargeld, Zenon Fajfer and Katarzyna Bazarnik), as well as the modernist (Marcel Proust). The intersections between life writing and experimentation are therefore discussed in the theoretical context of the 20th-century European avant-gardes.6 We are not interested in every example of a radical transgression of the conventions of life writing but only in the intersections – between the avant-garde, autobiography, archives, and artistic experimentation – created by artists associated with one of the nearly sixty experimental and ground-breaking aesthetic trends.
Moreover, we study not only published works but also all kinds of archival materials, be it institutional, private, or digital. The status of these sources is at times ambivalent, which allows us to discuss both planned and accidental discontinuities and departures from conventions. Archival materials also encourage us to ask questions about fundamental principles: to what extent are we dealing with the destruction of order and to what extent with archival chaos, an accidental collection, a failed endeavor to preserve one’s legacy, or a mere incidental convergence of artistic and archival aesthetics? Does the concept of formal innovation used in the context of the archive really provide inspiration for the analysis of the collection?
In the Theories section, we feature three articles which take specific case studies as their starting point and offer a broader reflection on the status of experimentation in avant-garde life writing. In turn, the Practices section is devoted to case studies that go beyond universalizing interpretations. The five articles in this section discuss a number of artistic practices in which avant-garde artists expand the possibilities and impossibilities of different forms and genres of life writing in a truly unique way. Last but not least, in the Criticism section we feature two authors who draw on an avant-garde doctrine and polemically argue “against” the state of research, proposing a new understanding of the two existing orders.
This issue of Forum of Poetics opens with essays that re-interpret canonical texts from the perspective of life writing studies (Marta Rakoczy’s article), look for writing formulas, figures, and tropes that point to the intersections of the avant-garde/the experimental and life writing (Marta Baron-Milian’s article), and discuss irreducible tensions and differences in authorial poetics (Piotr Bogalecki’s article).
For Marta Rakoczy, the key theoretical category that reopens the interpretation of Aleksander Wat’s My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual is the art of the word. We may better understand the avant-garde and experimental character of My Century by comparing Wat and Miłosz’s conversation with the achievements of the oral turn(s), oral history, and witness accounts and testimonies. While the ideology of “truth” which is part of the binary opposition between the spoken and the written should be approached carefully, Wat’s meandering “recapitulations,” as he himself referred to his conversation with Miłosz, had preceded the reflection on the complexity and limitations of oral narratives and testimonies of survivors and witnesses by several decades. By discussing My Century in the wider framework of cultural policies, identity-related projects of the 1960s and the 1970s, and the ever-changing concept of the autobiography, Rakoczy proves that political subversiveness, reflection on identity, and the form of Wat and Miłosz’s conversation are closely related to the search for an aesthetics that satisfies the need for the rhetoric of the testimony. It must both account for local experiences and match the expectations imposed on Central and Eastern European dissidents in the West. Leaving aside the most frequently discussed and well-known circumstances surrounding the creation of My Century as well as Wat’s physical and mental health, Rakoczy discusses Wat’s audiobiography as an element of a broader discursive formation which transforms our understanding of history and production of the 20th century.
Avant-garde approaches to life writing also concern strictly autobiographical dimensions and identity politics. Marta Baron-Milian argues that prosopopoeia and the transversal typography play a key role in Anatol Stern’s experimental biography Dom Apollinaire’a. Rzecz o polskości i rodzinie poety [The House of Apollinaire: The poet’s Polish Heritage and Family History]. Both are, in a way, crypto-autobiographical in nature, insofar as Stern had worked on Apollinaire’s biography for years and this prompted him to address and conceal his own family history, albeit inexplicitly. Following Alicja Stern’s suggestion, Baron-Milian exposes Stern’s Marrano mask and at the same time emphasizes the avant-garde aesthetics of Dom Apollinaire’a, which brings together poetry, essays, and genealogical investigation. Unlike Stern’s numerous memoirist texts, in which he recounted the legend and the history of the avant-garde in a rather orderly and traditional manner, without referring to his own biography, in his experimental book about Apollinaire Stern addressed and concealed key questions about the self and the history of exclusion. This notwithstanding, it should be noted that the focus on Apollinaire’s legendary Polish origin in biographical fiction, the phantasm of the beginning that emerges from Stern’s text, anticipates agnotology, that is the study of cultural significance of ignorance, gossip, and doubt.
Piotr Bogalecki proves that it is not a coincidence that Witold Wirpsza, who opposed the confessional convention and challenged écriture intime (Spożytkować pisarsko [Use it in Literature], Sama niewinność [Pure Innocence]), also wrote a number of works in which he marked the exact dates and places of their creation. If we interpret dating as an existential trace and an autobiographical signature borrowed from diary writing, we can notice Wirpsza’s discontinuous yet intense need to refer to the confessional convention. We can find notebooks filled with personal accounts and the beginnings of diaries in Wirpsza’s archive. Although the poet always abandoned diary writing, the autobiographical model of writing, which in a way defined the entire 20th century, undoubtedly influenced his writing not only as a counterpoint or a per contra. Zapiski datowane. Bez porządku [Dated Notes. Unordered] can be interpreted as the experimental artist’s mature response to the simultaneous need and reluctance towards diary writing. Wirpsza is therefore, paradoxically, both unique and typical in his struggles – in a way, he exemplifies the (neo)avant-garde’s tense relationship with the tradition and convention of life writing. What in experimental poetry can be used in literature, insofar as one can openly distance oneself from and problematize the convention of life writing, takes a surprisingly traditional form in the case of intimate notes which were never meant to be published. There are many senile illness diaries (and Wirpsza’s text is one) or generalizing reflections in the history of diary writing but very few have been written by avant-garde artists. The network of tensions between the literary and the intimate remains active and cannot be abolished by immersing oneself in the archive and the notes. However, we can trace the consequences of the implosion and explosion of different modes of writing and conceptualizations of the self.
In the Practices section, we present texts that discuss diaries (Anna R. Burzyńska’s article), quasi-diaries (Dorota Kołodziej’s article), experimental autopathography (Honorata Sroka’s article), the relationship between exhibitions, performance, and life writing (Justyna Michalik-Tomala’s article), and finally the status of avant-garde art in archival institutions (Katarzyna Biela’s article).
For Anna R. Burzyńska, the starting point is Marc Augé’s concept of non-place. Burzyńska analyzes the life writing of the German composer, musician, and performer Blixa Bargeld, who has been narrativizing his experience as a touring musician since the 1990s. The long hybrid journal/list kept by the artist shows how visiting thousands of places, paradoxically, has little to do with travelling. Inspired by avant-garde aesthetics, Bargeld has created a series of photographs showing hotel bathrooms (Serialbathroomdummyrun), experimental prose (Europa kreuzweise. Eine Litanei), and compositions rooted in the tradition of concrete music (the album Perpetuum Mobile). He also draws on the strategies of restriction and proceduralism devised by Dadaists and OuLiPo.
Dorota Kołodziej discusses three works by Andrzej Falkiewicz (Fragmenty o polskiej literaturze [Fragments about Polish literature], Takim ściegiem [Using this Stitch], Ta chwila [This Moment]). With the help of traditional theories of diary writing (Philippe Lejeune, Małgorzata Czermińska, Paweł Rodak), Kołodziej shows how Falkiewicz engages the reader in an experimental game with the autobiographical. Drawing on the findings of other critics of these (rather obscure) works, Kołodziej emphasizes that she analyzes strongly intertextualized texts filled with self-referential allusions and crypto-references to Falkiewicz’s other works. Such poetics allows us to ask questions about the nature of the relationship with the reader established by the author. It also allows Kołodziej to trace the characteristics of this “self-referential” life-writing experiment.
Honorata Sroka, in turn, presents a comparative analysis in which she discusses autopathographic tactics used by Franciszka Themerson in her art and letters. Sroka analyzes previously unknown materials stored in the Museum of Art in Łódź, which are a rare example of the avant-garde artist’s life writing. The concept of experimental autopathography which Sroka employs helps highlight that avant-garde experimentation in both the visual arts and life writing may have an ethical dimension (undermining the dominant and simplistic ways of talking about illness). Sroka further shows that the artist talks about her illness, both in private correspondence and in her drawings and monochrome paintings, using a coherent “poetics” based on self-ironic deconstruction, lack of pathos, and wit. The topic of illness, relatively rarely addressed by avant-garde artists in their art, is in this case an example of a transformational strategy in which two contradictory orders unite. Similarly to Alfred Jarry in Ubu Roi, Themerson introduces us to the aesthetics of the difficult and the terrible, using unpretentious satirical language.
Justyna Michalik-Tomala focuses on one of the leading Polish avant-garde autoarchivists – Tadeusz Kantor. However, Michalik-Tomala does not analyze the legacy of the founder of the “Cricot 2” theater, which has been discussed in great detail already, but instead discusses Kantor’s more obscure project – Multipart (1971) – which preceded the artist’s extensive documentation efforts. The scholar takes the concept of the “living archive” as her starting point and analyzes the Multipart project, which was in equal parts an exhibition/performance which engaged the audience, a form of life writing, and a form of theoretical reflection on the tasks and goals of the archive. Entering into a dialogue with Luiza Nader, Michalik-Tomala sees in Multipart not so much a prelude to the avant-garde artist’s later works but an example and a model of an experimental performative archive, which further informs Nader’s conceptual reflection on the processes of historicization, construction of inadequate and alternative histories as well as the status of documentation itself.
The Practices section ends with Katarzyna Biela’s article devoted to the organization of two avant-garde archives: B.S. Johnson’s archive (The British Library in London) and Zenon Fajfer and Katarzyna Bazarnik’s archive (Jagiellonian Library in Cracow). The comparative analysis is built around the term “liberature.” Biela shows two different models of institutionalizing avant-garde, or more precisely, “liberatic” archives. She shows how the private and the public collection conceptually differ, describes the history of both archives, and addresses problems related to their multimodal nature. Biela’s article is therefore, on the one hand, a meta-archival reflection on the reception of collections and, on the other hand, it profoundly shows that the restructuring of the English neo-avant-garde writer’s collection was not only meant to protect it but also posed a threat to it.
In the final section, Criticism, we feature polemical texts by Maciej Libich and Katarzyna Thiel-Jańczuk. Libich investigates the dating of Leopold Buczkowski’s war diaries. The scholar does not agree with Sławomir Buryła and Radosław Sioma who believe that the diaries are final drafts from the 1980s (copies of the original diaries). Libich proves that the manuscripts stored in the Museum of Literature in Warsaw are originals from the 1940s. The article analyzes the materiality of the diaries – unusual punctuation, notes on the margins, drawings, and “blank pages.” Such an anthropological reading successfully leads Libich to an original conclusion about the status of Buczkowski’s writings which for the past two decades have been seen as copies of the original.
Katarzyna Thiel-Jańczuk, respectively, enters into a dialogue with Philippe Sollers’s Oeil de Proust. Les dessins de Marcel Proust. She notes that while the number of studies on Proust’s works and the number of novels which perpetuate Proust’s myth in contemporary Francophone literature is enormous, the essay she discusses presents an original perspective, especially against the background of all the other works. Sollers, who is himself a neo-avant-garde writer and founder of the magazine Tel Quel, writes about Proust’s relatively obscure legacy, that is drawings in the margins of his manuscripts or letters. Thiel-Jańczuk convincingly discusses the idealistic interpretations of the gaze and draws attention to the important role Proust’s drawings play in the formation of his myth in contemporary French literature.
1 See discussion on the meaning of the “artistic experiment” in avant-garde art: Tradycje eksperymentu / eksperyment jako doświadczenie [Traditions of experiment / experiment as experience], ed. Krzysztof Hoffmann, Jakub Kornhauser, Barbara Sienkiewicz (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, 2019).
2 One of the most important Polish studies on life writing of Polish avant-garde is Aleksander Wójtowicz’s monograph, in which the author discusses the majority of memoirs and autobiographical novels of the experimental artists. See: Aleksander Wójtowicz, “Kronikarze i «fałszerze». Powojenne wspomnienia twórców z kręgu «Zwrotnicy» i «Almanachu Nowej Sztuki»” [Chroniclers and ‘counterfeiters: Post-war memories of artists from the circles associated with the magazines ‘Zwrotnica’ and ‘Almanach Nowej Sztuki], in idem: Nowa sztuka. Początki (i końce) [New art: Beginnings (and endings)] (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, 2017).
3 Julia Novak, “Introduction”, in: Experiments in Life-Writing. Intersections of Auto/Biography and Fiction, ed. Lucia Boldrini, Julia Novak (New York: Springer, 2017).
4 Irene Kacandes, “Experimental Life Writing”, in: The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature, ed. Joe Bray, Alison Gibbons, Brian McHale (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012).
6 See in particular: Teorie awangardy. Antologia tekstów [Theories of the avant-garde: An anthology], ed. Iwona Boruszkowska, Michalina Kmiecik, Jakub Kornhauser (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, 2020); Mark Lipowiecki, “Modernizm i awangarda: pokrewieństwa i różnice” [Modernism and the avant-garde: Affinities and differences], Teksty Drugie 5 (2018); Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. G. Fitzgerald (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968); Matei Călinescu, “Idea awangardy” [The idea of the avant-garde], in: Teorie awangardy. Antologia tekstów, ed. Iwona Boruszkowska, Michalina Kmiecik, Jakub Kornhauser (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, 2020), 115–170.