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Literature movements of the twentieth century

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The twentieth century saw the rise and fall of Literary groups, as different perspectives on importance had become realised. After the first world war, many groups wanted to distance themselves from the mainstream. Artists and musicians also aligned themselves with literary movements. This essay seeks to summarise these movements or separatist groups and explain why each was unique.

A change in literature really took place during the First World War, with poets either being realistic, showing the true horrors of war, or trying to gloss over the details, promoting the romanticism of fighting for ideals.

The Dadaist movement was a movement where sense and nonsense were both considered of equal value. Kafka told a story of a man becoming a bug in the Metamorphosis. It made no sense of course, however his brilliance was shown in his ability to write nonsensical content. The Dadaist movement used exercises which took words of a known piece of literature or even a newspaper article and rearrange the words to make a nonsense verse. In this way it defined its group and made it unique.

The surrealist movement was a natural progression from the Dada movement. Rather than emphasise sense however, it was aligned with Freud to explore conscious and unconscious states and used exercises which promoted writing without thought, putting pen to paper and letting whatever came out to flow (BRETON et al.). The Surrealists also used collaboration in exercises. This collaboration involved members writing a sentence or phrase following another, without knowing the context of the sentence before. These were amusing for members, but it also helped Andre Breton to define the movement.

Breton was somewhat of a bully and dictator within the movement which he claimed to have founded. He wrote the Surrealist Manifesto, stating what was and was not acceptable to the group. He used this manifesto to exclude members who did not line up with his own ideals. Breton did not like the novel and longer works. It was perhaps socialism and communism which caused rifts within the group to see it dissipate.

The existentialist movement was primarily interested in self, and his own existence or the importance of it. The games, puzzles and exercises which the surrealists used were not active within this group. Paul Satre was far removed from some of the ideas of the surrealist movement. Satre praised the novel and longer works as utilitarian but poems as useless. He did not see the point of writing for writing sake (Elsby).

The Beat Generation arose from the existential movement and protested against the commercialisation of society. Commercialism and consumerism being the focus of the general public following World War Two.  This group came together to discuss ideas in cafes and bookshops and again didn’t really use games, puzzles or exercises to define their group. The beats did not censor themselves or their writings and much of their work was banned in some countries and heavily censored in others. This made it very attractive to younger people who were also rebelling against the society norms.

The beat generation was instrumental in the 60’s hippy movement as it promoted free love, in any form, and the use of mind-altering drugs. The hippy movement also believed in protesting, but their protest was aligned much against violence and war. While this movement was not necessarily considered a literary movement, some very poignant poetry was written in this era, much of which was used for the cross purpose of music and song. Bob Dylan for example was recently given a Nobel prize for literature for his work which encompassed not only his poetry but also his songs.

If one were to investigate the lives of those prominent in literature groups up till this time, one would see not only eccentricity of some members but also a rebellious nature. The use of mind and consciousness altering drugs was prevalent during these eras, and it was only in the early seventies that this attitude changed. Opiates and acid-based narcotics were preferred until this time, whereas from the 70’s drug culture changed to a more organic base, being hemp and marijuana as the drug of choice. In 1970, after John Lennon split from the Beatles, he wrote ‘The dream is over in his song God following the symbolic end of the hippy movement at Altamont and Woodstock.

It was during this time that the Oulipo movement was created. It continues to this day. What made the Oulipo movement different from others, is that they are disciplined far more than previous movements. The movement aligns mathematics with literature forming strict constraints which members of the movement are encouraged to adhere to in their writing (Queneau, and Stump). All members have input into the group monthly, with all members having equal value. Membership of the group is for life. No member can be expelled for differing views, and although members can choose to become non-active, their work is still considered valuable to the group (Roubaud). This group also differs from earlier movements in that they place no value on the use of drugs or mind-altering substances to enhance their writing. The membership of this group is very exclusive, however public readings are given for those who have an interest in their practices.

Each month new constraints are proposed to be adopted by the members. These are mostly a marriage between arithmetic and literature with an example being the N+7 exercise (Roubaud). This asks the coherent to take a known work and replace each noun with the seventh noun following it in a dictionary. Of course, constraints of this kind can be altered or adapted for a particular work or use. The importance is not on the actual code, but the adherence to a mathematical alignment to literature text.

In modern times many literature groups have been birthed. Community groups are common adopting some exercises from earlier groups and creating their own. Fellowships of writers have emerged to offer critiques of unfinished works prior to them being sent to publishers and online groups which promote the use of constraints in style, content and time.

Each writing group has had agendas which have defined their parameters and engaged its members with exercises to enforce them. Each group has sought to separate itself from the mainstream literature circles of the time, thus creating a separatist group. With the coming of a new century, one hopes a new mindset is now in place for groups to be inclusive and welcoming, promoting literature in all forms.

Works cited

BRETON, André Robert et al. Manifestoes Of Surrealism. PDF given as class notes.

Elsby, Charlene. Clio. 46th ed., Purdue University, 2017, p. Introduction to the special issue, “Existentialism and Literature, https://www.academia.edu/39876070/Introduction_to_the_special_issue_Existentialism_and_Literature_. Accessed 9 June 2020.

Queneau, Raymond, and Jordan Stump. Letters, Numbers, Forms. University Of Illinois Press, 2007.

Roubaud, Jacques. The Oulipo And Combinatorial Art. 1991, Accessed 9 June 2020.

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