The rest, called literature, is a dossier of human imbecility for the guidance of future professors.
That’s from a “Note on Poetry” by Tristan Tzara, originally published in Dada 4-5 (1919) – the title page, by Francis Picabia, is to the right. I am reading the squib in Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries (Calder, 1977), translated by Barbara Wright.
Is there much point to reading this book? I can think of – while reading I thought of – several objections. First, is it not just a lot of arbitrary nonsense, much like that of other nonsense writers?
Dada is a dog – a compass – the lining of the stomach – neither new nor a nude Japanese girl – a gasometer of jangled feelings – Dada is brutal and doesn’t go in for propaganda – Dada is a quantity of life in transparent, effortless and gyratory transformation. (“Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love,” part XI, read 1920, published 1921)
Though there is a fair amount of such stuff, the answer is No. Tzara’s writing is generally coherent.
Second, is Dada not primarily of interest as a visual arts movement? True. Given that today’s high end art world is essentially Dadaist, an illogical endpoint of the movement, all too true.
Do we make art in order to earn money and keep the dear bourgeoisie happy? Rhymes have the smack of money, and inflexion slides along the line of the stomach in profile. Every group of artists has ended up at the bank, straddling various comets. (from “Dada Manifesto 1918,” p. 5)
Visual art, design, theater, all more important than literature to Dada. It helps me understand Tzara’s manifestos when I think of them as performances, as oral prose poems, to imagine Tzara declaiming “Dada Manifesto 1918” in a Zurich art gallery performance, surrounded by Hans Arps and Sophie Taeubers (although not the one to the right, from two years later).
I am writing a manifesto and there’s nothing I want, and yet I’m saying certain things, and in principle I am against manifestos, as I am against principles… (p. 3)
I also lose the sense of the manifesto as an object, published as a pamphlet or poster or issue of Dada, with all of the surrounding artwork, although Wright’s translation does keep anything that is part of Tzara’s piece – strange typography, a mathematical problem I Have not deciphered, or a semi-abstract drawing of a large intestine.
So I just read the pieces as texts, as literature, which is what they have inevitability become. Tzara’s manifestos, not to mention his little squibs on Pierre Reverdy and Picabia, turn out to be substantial works of art criticism. Among the fine nonsense, he darts through some ideas about conceptual art that work as well in a museum today as they would have in 1920, except that none of this stuff would have been anywhere near a museum.
My third objection is something like “Why just Tzara?” What about the manifestos by – everyone else – so many manifestos – by Hugo Ball, for example? What about Tzara’s poems, or Arp’s, or etc.? Yes. Any recommendations are welcome. I’m a curious ignoramus.
As I was writing, the October 27 New York Review of Books arrived. It contains a survey of Dada by Alfred Brendel that is easy to recommend. Brendel reminds me that in Zurich, this is the year of celebration of Dada, the centennial of the Cabaret Voltaire, with major exhibitions of Picabia and Kurt Schwitters, among many other events. “Its high point,” writes Brendel,” may well have been the performance of the Symphony for Nine Harley Davidsons, Trumpet, and Synthesizer by the octogenarian avant-garde composer Dieter Schnebel,” which included a “motorcycle ballet.” Lucky Zürchers.