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Mar 1, 1980

French Avant-garde Politics & Culture

“Fels proclaimed that true modern poetry was idealist, classical, innovative and humanist and needed to participate fully in contemporary life.”

Walter G. Langlois

“Anarchism, Action, and Malraux.” Twentieth Century Literature 24(Fall 1978):272–289.

Historians who wish to understand the intellectual and cultural-political climate in France after World War I, can profitably examine the avant-garde magazine Action. This short-lived literary alternative to André Breton’s Surrealism published only twelve issues between November, 1919 and May/June, 1922, but it was influential, served as one of the first outlets for the young André Malraux’s writings, and helps us perceive why Malraux rejected Breton’s Dada-Surrealist aesthetics.

Action was the brainchild of Florent Fels (b. 1893) whose military service in World War I confirmed his anti-militarism [86] and made him sympathetic to the Individualist Anarchists. With roots reaching back to Condorcet, Rousseau, William Godwin, Max Stirner, and Proudhon, these anarchists were not the bomb-throwing stereotypes but idealists whose political vision was of a society in which “the individual would be free from all government coercion and restraint, his conduct being directed by a personal, inner moral commitment.” After 1850 many French artists and intellectuals supported the individualist current in anarchism to oppose the ultra-conservative bourgeois morality and to support the ideals of personal freedom and social justice. At the end of the nineteenth century numerous artists (such as Camille and Lucien Pissaro and the “Fauves”) and a majority of the Symbolists became associated with Individualist Anarchism. Beginning in 1892, the individualist anarchist monthly Entretiens politiques et littéraires received the support of Valéry and Remy de Gourmont. The Individualist Anarchists stressed personal liberty, experience, and pacifism.

After World War I, in 1919–1920, Fels instilled an individualistic tone in the first issues of Action: Cahiers individualistes de philosophie et d’art with his circle of contributing avant-garde intellectuals, anarchists, and writers. His aesthetic theory stressed psychological insight, free but disciplined expression of the heart, artistry, inspiration, and individualism. He opposed the undisciplined and socially destructive, contemptuous spirit of Breton’s Dada movement.

Reacting against the Dada aesthetics, Fels staged a “counter-manifestation” in 1920 to show other possibilities and new directions that were available for the evolution of a new literature and art. His lecture “Les Classiques de l’Esprit nouveau” gave the basis for a new rival poetry to oppose the “frivolous aesthetics” of Dada. Fels proclaimed that true modern poetry was idealist, classical, innovative and humanist and needed to participate fully in contemporary life. In his own aesthetics Fels stressed his links with the humanitarian ideals of the Individualist Anarchists.

The demise of Action in the spring of 1922 was the result of the dominance of Breton’s Surrealism.Action had its origins in the Individualist Anarchist Movement and was born in opposition to Dada-Surrealist aesthetics. This magazine is a mine of information of the intellectual and artistic life of 1920–1922 before Surrealism became dominant. It also throws new light on the political radicalism of the young Malraux through his early prose poems and associates.