Spring 2014

Inventory / “Do You Believe in Angels?” and Other Inquiries

Eugene Jolas’s questionnaires for transition magazine

Lori Cole

“Inventory” is a column that examines or presents a list, catalogue, or register.

The questionnaire was a ubiquitous genre from the turn of the twentieth century through its peak in the 1920s and 1930s and magazines continue to use the form to this day. Questionnaires—also known as surveys, symposia, or inquiries—consisted of broad, open-ended questions such as “Why do you write?” and “What is the avant-garde?” posed by magazine editors to their contributors, whose responses were then compiled and published in subsequent issues of their journals. Part of the questionnaire’s appeal for editors was its capacity to solicit material from their contributors at little to no cost. Questionnaires were also popular because they provided a formula that contributors and readers alike recognized, one that engaged in, mocked, and usurped technocratic language for the periodicals’ aesthetic platforms while allowing editors and respondents to contest the issues of the day.

The format’s essential mode—to provoke debate through prepared questions—emerged from an earlier genre, namely the interview. In the 1880s, Jules Huret, who frequently interviewed artists and writers, began to present his subjects with questionnaires.[1] As these efforts grew in popularity and scope, enquêtes became a regular feature of the Mercure de France; one from 1905, for instance, asked, “Is Impressionism finished? Can it renew itself?” and “What opinion do you have of Cézanne?”[2] Providing a space in which to reflect on the shifting art and literary movements of an era, the questionnaire was soon adopted by print publications internationally, many of which based themselves on these early French models. Questions ranged from “What should Latin American art be?” issued in 1928 in Revista de Avance in Havana to the final query of the Little Review’s cheeky 1929 questionnaire: “Why do you go on living?”[3]

A leading figure in this frenzy was Eugene Jolas, whose English-language magazine transition—founded with Elliot Paul in Paris in 1927—issued questionnaires that encompassed the cultural anxieties, playful literary experiments, and geopolitical concerns of his time, becoming an important venue for expanding and repurposing the genre on the cusp of the 1930s. transition hoped to invigorate an American avant-garde by publishing authors like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce alongside translations of writers such as Franz Kafka, André Breton, and Alfred Döblin, and issuing questionnaires allowed the editors to put many of their writers into conversation with each other. As early as the second issue, the editors announced: “During the current year transition will conduct enquêtes among the artists and writers of several countries concerning the effect of one national culture upon another.”[4] In 1928, a year after launching, the magazine published in its summer and fall issues the responses to a pair of related questionnaires: the first issue contained one addressed to Europeans called “Inquiry among European writers into the spirit of America” and the second was directed at Americans, asking “Why do Americans live in Europe?” In regard to the Europeans’ views of America, Jolas wrote, “The violence of the answers received makes any commentary on my part, for the moment, superfluous.”[5] The second questionnaire, which included questions like “What particular vision do you have of yourself in relation to twentieth-century reality?” yielded “disappointing” results.[6] Yet Jolas continued to perpetuate the genre, and as his preoccupations with language took a feverish turn, so did his questions.

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