Tuesday, October 11, 2016

I am against manifestos - Tristan Tzara guides future professors

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.


  1. I'm not sure Dada was more visual than literary. Probably in Zurich it was more cabaret, in Berlin more cartoons and collages, in Paris more literary. Among the memorable writers were Picabia, Ribemont-Dessaignes, Ball, Huelsenbeck, and of course budding Surrealists like Breton, Soupault, and Aragon. Visual art, though is easier to translate...

    Tzara wrote fine poetry before and after Dada; he can also be seen as part of the chain of wild Romanians that includes (at least) Urmuz, Ionesco, and Isou. All worth the reading! (Well, maybe not Isou.)

  2. That's a good point. For the literary side, I need to orient myself more towards Paris.

    The international aspect of Dada, the diverse languages, the limited (or multiple) translations - they make this a confusing subject. I greatly appreciate the recommendations.

  3. I think Dada was mostly promoted by Huelsenbeck and Tzara, who quarreled over who invented it. It became an umbrella for many young artists whose work had nothing in common, and who kept doing what they did before and after Dada. Others were not officially Dadaists, but showed up in the same publications and events, like Apollinaire, Cocteau, Satie, Reverdy, Jacob, Laurencin...

    Then Breton tried to herd everyone into Surrealism, with himself as pope, which was unfortunate.

    Some of the Dadaists wrote their own histories of the time: Ribemont-Dessaignes and Hans Richter, for example.

    (Parenthetical note: The drawings in Tzara's manifestos, including the math problem, were Picabia's. I think Tzara just asked him for illustrations, and that's what he got.)

  4. Yes, you can't say the Dadaists didn't document themselves.

    I knew the intestine was Picabia's, but not the math problem. That is amusing. Anyway, that is the reason for my vague language ("anything that is part of Tzara’s piece" rather than "Tzara's drawings"). I had some suspicions.

  5. I sense -- but have absolutely no evidence in support of this notion -- an influence of the Dadaists' movement later upon Samuel Beckett. There is something about some of Beckett's work that seems to echo what I am detecting in Dadaism through your posting and the comments. Is my sense misguided?

  6. Postscript: I found an article that might answer my "question" -- https://muse.jhu.edu/article/496583/summary -- but now I need to access and read the article. So, I guess you will want to ignore my previous blather.

  7. Oh yes, Beckett's French plays are descendants of this great French absurdist theatrical tradition which runs straight - or crooked - through Dada.

  8. Here's my 2003 translation of Hugo Ball's Dada Manifesto, which I offer with no false humility -- I still get considerable pleasure from reading it.

  9. Thanks so much! What energy. "I want my own nonsense" - that's the stuff.

    Again, I am surprised, or no longer quite surprised, how clearly an argument comes through the nonsense.