For Writers Are All Jesters, And All The Jests Together: Literature

For writers are all jesters, "and all the jests together: Literature"  In the history of literature, Tristan Tzara is regarded as the founder of Dada, an international literary and artistic movement, born in Zurich in 1916, with ramifications and outposts across three continents. The movement achieved a radical split from all earlier literature, not only in its intentions, declared by Tzara in the Seven Dada Manifestos, but also in practice, as seen in the proclamations – so unfit for the announced genre – and poems he was publishing then. Reaching France at the end of the Great War, this collection of works aroused the enthusiasm of several young men, animators of the Littérature review themselves, who, little by little, converted to Dada, up to the point of overtly defending its colors, after Tzara's settling in Paris. Their names were Breton, Aragon, Soupault, Éluard, etc. They became entrenched in our histories of literature ever since – and their occult transformation, in a way, their first adhesion to Dada. But, let alone a few exceptionally violent formulas, I wonder whether anybody has ever read – and I mean really READ –Tzara's dadaist works, and tried to seize their double revolutionary scope – intellectual and esthetic. * The Dada adventure has since become very popular in Europe, especially in France. It is known for a fact that it was born out of the deep disgust aroused by the huge bloodbath of World War I, the spiritual crisis it brought about, the fiercest brainwashing civilized Nations had ever indulged in. But Tzara's own course before the foundation of Dada is generally ignored, as well as his exact role in the movement: such was the extent of his discreteness and modesty relating to his own deeds and postures.He was born in Romania (for a long time he entertained a nostalgia for the woodlands of his childhood); in 1912, when he was only sixteen, he and two friends founded in Bucharest an avant-garde magazine: Simbolul (The Symbol), appearing in a country traditionally leaning towards French culture, conveyed the acquisitions of symbolism, particularly of Maeterlinck, Verhaeren, and Laforgue. As he was intended for a mathematician's career (and to guard him against the distractions, artistic or not, on offer in the Romanian capital), his parents sent him for higher education to Zurich, where his friend Janco was attending architecture courses at the Polytechnic School. There he discovered Alcools by Apollinaire, and his magazine Les Soirées de Paris; this put an end to his fondness of symbolists, without making him disown his first Romanian poems: he had left a whole lot of them with Ion Vinea, who would publish them whenever an occasion arose.At the end of 1915, he entered a "milieu of literati and artists aspiring to higher conditions of life, to a certain political ideal, or to a new formula of art," he wrote in Faites vos jeux (Make Your Bets), one of his infrequent autobiographical texts (Complete Works I, p. 278). This reveals how low stood revolt and revolution among his priorities at the time. Then in February 1916, Hugo Ball, a quintessentially anarchistic German defector, opened an art salon in the fashion of Montmartre cabarets: the Cabaret Voltaire. Attracted by the publicity, Janco, Hans Arp and Tzara offered to join him and his companion, the diva Hemmy Hennings. On the very first night, Tzara hurried to translate into French a few Romanian poems he had in his pocket, to supply the material of the simultaneous poems for several voices I shall revert to below. Hugo Ball published the unique issue of the Cabaret Voltaire magazine. Therein he proclaimed (in French), "One must state with precision the activity of this Cabaret whose aim is to remind that, above war and homelands, independent men exist who are living different ideals." He wound up announcing the publication of the forthcoming Dada magazine. The legend has it that the term was found on the 8th of February 1916 by Tzara and Huelsenbeck, by randomly sliding a paperknife into the Larousse dictionary (it is said that legends must not be disturbed). Tzara declaimed his first "Dada Manifesto" on July 14, 1916, and inaugurated the Collection Dada with La Première Aventure céleste de M. Antipyrine (The First Celestial Adventure of Mr. Antipyrine). A first squabble with Ball left him with the responsibility to animate the Movement. He had already established contact with all the avant-garde poets and artists across the borders, from France, Germany, Italy, in order to provide for the upcoming issues of the Dada magazine. A Galerie Dada opened, where Tzara delivered lectures on ancient art and modern art, expressionism and abstract art, etc. At last, in July 1917, with a year's delay, Dada No. 1 came out of the printing press. Hugo Ball's definitive withdrawal left him with the entire responsibility for the group that was becoming increasingly radical in keeping with the public's response, confirming the split from all modern trends, cubism, futurism and expressionism included, in favor of the glorification of life.Remarkably, with only four deliveries of his Dada magazine, Tzara, a great master of communication, succeeded in gaining an international audience, by defending individualism, the artist's total freedom, his rejection of dogmas and established values, his anti-conformism, his spontaneity. In truth, these concepts saw the light of day only in Manifeste Dada 1918, read on the 23rd of July, printed in December, and arrived in France at the beginning of 1919. The war being over, endless peace talks began that would conclude in the aggravating treaties of Versailles and Trianon. Moved by so much Nietzschean vitality and ardor, Breton and his friends contacted him. They were interested in the man who could have become "an adventurer of fine deeds", the more so as they had read some of his poems, magnificently deconstructed yet evincing an indisputable rhythm, in the only procurable magazines, Sic and Nord-Sud (North-South). In addition, they put at his disposal the pages of Littérature, which they had just issued hoping to take the place of the Nouvelle Revue française (New French Review), discontinued since the war.At the same time, Tzara was being visited by Francis Picabia, with whom he had been corresponding for more than six months. The painter and promoter of the 391 magazine was in Switzerland under treatment for nervous depression. The encounter with the young poet restored his élan, and each of them took courage for a new issue of their respective magazines, published simultaneously. Another meeting was arranged for Paris.On January the 17th, 1920, Tristan Tzara unexpectedly dropped into the salon of Picabia's then mistress, who had just given birth. Tzara soothed the baby by teaching it to repeat, "dada, dada". A delegation soon rang the doorbell: it included Aragon, Breton and Soupault, who had been waiting for him as a new Rimbaud. They had no little surprise when they found a diminutive, swarthy, bespectacled man, a lock of hair hanging over his eye, rolling his r's in a muttering French. They had to give in, and finally grew fond of his roaring laughter.Tzara was just embarking on a new stage of Dada that would last three great seasons in Paris. He had brought along the same energy from Zurich, but the stakes were different now. Once the seduction and conquest of the audience was achieved, he needed to avoid the pitfalls of the French bourgeoisie, so intelligent that, like ostriches, it swallowed all the novelties, in order to give them a proud national look – whence the overbid he had to make to be supported by such or such. All this was really wearisome. Disagreements arose soon, as in all human groups. First, in May 1921, when Breton and Aragon set up a phony trial against Maurice Barrès, the idol of their youth, for "crimes against the spirit". Tzara, who had never been under the same influence, and had no account to settle with the minstrel of egotism turned master-thinker of patriotism, displayed a sample of inelegance, reciting the Chanson Dada in the guise of a deposition. The following year, when the same André Breton, assisted by the collaborators of five magazines, attempted to plan a "Congress for the Determination of the Directives and Defense of the Modern Spirit", Tzara refused to join, for the very good reason, often reiterated, that Dada was not modern, and he was unable to issue directives, much less submit to them.Consequently, Dada had to be done with, at least in its Movement form, while the Dada spirit itself would last forever. "The first to have resigned from the Dada Movement c'est moi," he declared in a conference at Weimar, during the dada-constructivist congress of September 1922.In fact, Dada was on the iron horns of a dilemma: go on with destruction until everything was reduced to ruins; or begin building beautiful intellectual constructions. However annoyed with the Parisian situation, Tzara, in disagreement with Breton in this matter, thought there were too many institutions left standing to withdraw from the race. Moreover, he accepted the invitation from the Russian Cherez Company to perform again Le Coeur à gaz (The Petrol Heart). The old Dadas rebuked him. Quarrels, a little bloodshed. Thus were friendships terminated (for the time being). Dada went through the trap door of Theater Michel in July 1923.But the most interesting part of the story, I think, is that Breton, exiled in New York during World War II, told Charles Duits that, on second thought, Tzara had been right at that time.Following his solitary path, the latter continued to publish his dadaist works, first the Seven Manifestos, then On Our Birds, without disclaiming anything of his past, always advancing, until the day he met again his old companions, turned surrealist. This is another stage, however, which I have already described, in the introduction to Grains et Issues (Grains and Bran). "Invention of unknown calls for new forms," declared Rimbaud in the famous letter known as the Seer's (to Paul Démeny, May 1871). Despite that, the ensuing literary output observed the distinction between genres. But everything changes with the Dada Movement, which attacks all forms of human expression (painting, dance, music, cinema, drama, gestic), assembled into a unique state – poetry. To remain within the confines of text production only, as we are constrained to do herein, means to largely amputate it. One must remember that, before reaching us in written form, a Dada text, whether a manifesto or a poem, was primarily a public utterance, in which gestures or the pitch of the voice acted directly on the audience, whereas the content or the meaning came second, or were even secondary. In other words, any formal distinction as drama, manifesto, poetry is nothing but a reconstruction a posteriori, to the detriment of the original theatrical unity and the spectators' initial reaction – an integral part of the composition.While turning poetry into an activity of the spirit, or even a "dictatorship of the spirit", and refusing to explain his acts, Tzara nonetheless expressed his language theories within his own compositions, by way of a few sentences, here and there, that can be considered a meta-discourse. Even if it may be difficult to extract a well-structured doctrine, one may still identify a rather revolutionary theoretical point of view.It is no small surprise that Tzara might have picked a double affirmative (in Romanian as in Slavic languages) to designate a movement thought, in his own words, to signify nothing. Ironically, that name would designate a generalized negation, the wild play of nothingness. A sentence, be it negative, makes sense. And we know well that to say no thing is to mean something.In a prophetic poem of Calligrammes, La victoire, Apollinaire declared: Oh mouths man is in search of a new languageTo which no grammarian in any language shall have anything to say a formula reprised in a caption by Paul Éluard in his magazine, Proverbe. In fact, the basic dadaist activity was directed at language, exposed as trouble-making, but also currycombed, dismembered in order to extract from its dross the purest elements on which modern poetry is built. Retrospectively, Tzara would explain that collective action by a revolt against war, the proof of human stupidity. "Hence we were assigned to pick as the target of our attacks the very foundations of society, language as the agent of communication between individuals, and logic, which was its cement," he wrote in Surrealism and the After-war (1948, Complete Works, V, p. 67). Relational language, considered a consumer good by society, is denounced by the poets. In its revolutionary radicalism, Dada, eager to stem these financial transactions, would demonetize language.Summing up the activity of Dada, André Breton brings up, unwittingly, what Saussure named the arbitrary sign (in Switzerland, the Dadaists might have known his Course in General Linguistics, published in 1916, but no document of the time mentions it). "In the most general sense of the word, we are thought to be poets because, above all, we set upon language, which is the worst of conventions. One might know well the word Hello and say Goodbye to the woman one meets again after one year's absence," he wrote in a Dada manifesto. In practice, leaning on this peculiarity, Tzara would amuse himself by substituting one word for another in order to mess up the trails and codes, as in the following lines wherein he first writes, "what if we indicate the South to say eruditely: Black Art without humanity-", which becomes, "what if we indicate the crime to say eruditely ventilator."Mistrustful of words, in the Manifesto on Weak Love and Bitter Love (1920), Tzara reveals a great secret in his opinion: "thinking is done in the mouth". Despite its apparent simplicity, the formula is ambiguous. From a materialist perspective, denouncing the Platonic conception of ideas, it may signify that thinking cannot exist outside the body (he wrote similarly about Picasso: "thinking is done under the hand"). But it may be also interpreted as a form of absolute nominalism, reformulated by Aragon, "There is no thinking outside words" (Une vague de rêvesA Wave of Dreams, 1924). In any case, it is language as a formal system, a heritage of codes, that is called in question, for the good of free expression of the cry and gesture. In Jakobson's terms, the communication function gave in to the phatic, conative, and metalinguistic functions of language.Beyond words, Tzara takes on the formal conditions of intellectual coherence. As Cartesian logic, prevailing in European civilization, has only been able to lead it to ruination, he deems necessary to substitute another. With his companions, he resorts to primitivism. He rejects the principle of identity, alleging Heraclitus' formula, according to which one cannot step in the same river twice. Then, he refutes the principle of non-contradiction, by establishing series of antonyms paired with the equal sign: Yes = No, Order = Disorder, or otherwise links replies without coherence. Finally, he questions the principle of causality.Inspired by researches in painting, he attempts to introduce in poetry concrete elements, different in substance. Some of his poems are crosscut by rhythmical interludes made up of pure sounds. Tzara seeks to define the minimal element of poetry, and considers that the core of a poem is in the vowel, dilated up to the image of the referent designated by the word, as if the signs were supposed to be given a new motivation. "I start from the principle that the vowel is the essence, the molecule of the letter, therefore the primitive sound," he explains in an essay to define the "poème bruitiste" – noisist poem (Complete Works, I, p. 551). While rejecting contemporary civilization, he turns to primitive art forms, and is the first, together with Ball, to discover Negro poetry, which teaches him a lesson of rhythm. But he is also capable of inserting excerpts from Nostradamus' prophecies in his compositions, for the contrasting word effects. Likewise, Dada speaks all languages, and it presents polyglot poems to its listeners, wherein everyone will be able to find something by playing on combinations of sounds.The most characteristic trait of Tzara's poetry is freedom, typographic inventiveness exerted upon lines of words that seem transcribed from rare languages rather than invented, which explode in the reader's face.Excepting these experiments with word constituents, Tzara did not alter the structure of vocables, apart from very infrequent agglutinations such as "cristalbluffmadone" or "ventrerouges" ("redbellies"). In sum, the idea is to let the interpreter the freedom to shape the meanings of words from what he perceives, without being tied to tradition in any way. Immediate emotion prevails upon the etymological relation. Only then can one talk about the Dada "tabula rasa".Whatever had survived in Victor Hugo's Romanticism does not escape Tzara's fury. Syntax is abused, in various ways, by rupture, suspension of the sentence, tautology ("a very proverb proverb"), useless repetition. He punctuates each sequence of one of his manifestos with this provocative statement: "I find myself very nice", and in his play The Petrol Heart, the characters (prefiguring Ionesco's Bald Prima Donna) keep saying "this conversation becomes boring"."Contradiction is only an appearance, unquestionably the most flattering too," Breton says elsewhere, assuming, like Valéry, that the spirit is such that there is nothing it cannot comprehend. No doubt. Hence a sentence such as "Now my name is you" is logically unacceptable, even if based on a poetic design – Rimbaud's "I am another". Likewise, this other statement by the author of the Seven Dada Manifestos: "I like an ancient masterpiece for its novelty."The work on words and syntax are the primary elements of the esthetics of poetry, in an expanded sense. We have already seen how Tzara attempted to introduce into the text all that had been banned before him – the heterogeneous, the fragmented, the disorderly –, taking his material from the established universe.He wrote in his own hand the score for the poems for multiple voices that were interpreted collectively during the Zurich Dada evenings (i.e., Froid lumièreFrost Light and La fièvre du mâleMale's Fever). As for La fièvre puerpérale (Puerperal Fever), it is so well-suited for quadrilogue that it appeared, fully feathered, in the play The First Celestial Adventure of Mr. Antipyrine.In the beginning, in Zurich, the Dadaists offered their audience simultaneous poems, with each speaker using his favorite language and pursuing his own idea, guided by associations of sounds, with all performers agreeing upon an identical sentence in the end. In this verbal cacophony, the listener was free to choose a guiding line and associate his thoughts at his own will. Conceived thus, the simultaneous poem is neither narrative, nor descriptive, but aims to induce impressions, in a given direction, which is neither imperative nor constraining.All told, in public auditions, the mandatory succession of the printed text makes room for a multiplicity of sequences in the space of sound which occupy all the directions. The consecution of the verbal chain changes into simultaneity (in the proper sense) on the pictorial plane, and continued parallelism on the sonic plane.Let us add that these poetic experiments were taking place during carefully organized shows, advertised through billboards. Their having known great attendance does not surprise me at all. The remaining question is that of the perceptibility of the whole – the audience, according to witnesses, having vigorously protested. In the field, Hugo Ball makes a philosophical commentary on the performance of this type of poem in his diary, which suits his own mystical penchant: "The simultaneous poem is about the significance of the voice. The human organ represents the soul, the individuality in its odyssey among demoniac companions. The noises are the background: the inarticulate, the lethal, the decisive. The poet wishes to underscore the disappearance of man in the mechanical process. In a typical foreshortening, he exposes the conflict between vox humana and the world that threatens, uses, and destroys it, a world whose rhythm and noise are ineluctable" (La Fuite hors du tempsThe Escape from Time, 30 March, 1916).Undoubtedly, the spectacular effects rose above the expectations of the producers. If the transposition of pictorial and musical techniques into poetry was not perceived at all, the perplexity of the public reached a climax (although one must notice an abatement of protests, a certain habituation walking hand in hand with the show attendance). It came out as a physical reaction, sought by the promoters, who saw in it the proof of their success. Dada derives joy from seeing its public reduced to sheer idiocy. Once good education and acquired culture abolished, it may embark on its real venture, which is to build the new man from a "scraped tablet".In transposing the contemporary pictorial techniques, Tzara also used collage, by inserting into his own discourse newspaper clippings or ready-made (in Marcel Duchamp's terms) texts – excerpts from the instituted reality, or by manipulating more or less classic texts in order to completely alter their meaning.The confusion of languages and codes, the amalgamation of disparate materials, the original combinations create a deliberate effect that reveals new rules.At the same time, as I was about to say, Tzara introduces hazard in verse writing. His recipe How to Make a Dada Poem from words drawn out of a hat seemed to epitomize the poetics of the Movement, albeit it is only a form of Dada humor.Thought to be a minstrel of nihilism, Tzara is the indispensable link in the evolution of new poetry, due to his being so prolific, and to the things he made impossible. Indeed, with him destruction is creative. He cleans the slate of the past and builds on new foundations, accepting his own contradictions, and opening the sluices of thought.

by Henri Béhar