SENSE BEHIND DADA
This 1973 Ph.D. Prospectus,
submitted and accepted by the Department of Romance Languages,
Rackham Graduate School, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) was
my academic swan song. When you read the concluding comments,
you may well wonder, as I do today, how this prospectus was ever
The dissertation was never
written, but the research yielded several scholarly articles (see
bibliography) and I chaired the second session of the first DADA Conference held at the University of Iowa (Iowa City) in March/April 1978. I subsequently collaborated with the top Dada scholar Michel
Sanouillet on a annotated reissue of Tzara's DADA magazine which
was scooped by another project and shelved until 1983 when my
notes were oncluded in the critical study, DADA II, published
by the Centre du XXe siècle (Nice, France). However,
since I was neither sent a copy of the work nor notified of the
fact, I only accidently discovered the publication online in 1999
at which time I notified the Centre du XXe Siècle which
apologized for their mistake and promptly mailed me a complimentary copy of DADA,
Tome II (1983).
By that time, Michel Sanouillet
had long since died in an automobile accident in France
and I had lost all interest in ever pursuing an academic career.
If, as they say, timing is everything, then this turned out to
be the worst timing imaginable.
(For additional comments see
Author's Note below)
Je ne veux même pas savoir
s'il y a eu des hommes avant moi.[I don't even want to know if
men existed before me.] - attributed to René Descartes
- printed diagonally across
front page of Dada III, 1918 Zurich periodical edited by
"One of the most interesting
of the recent occurrences in the arts has been the gradual reemergence
of Dada into the contemporary consciousness. Plagued by the constant
atmosphere of war and increasingly rigid restraints of a technological
society, artists and intellectuals have begun to listen to the
strident voices of the Dadas.... As a result of this renewed interest,
the Dada movement has emerged from the shadow of Surrealism, where
it had remained for more than twenty years."
- Manuel L, Grossman in Dada - Paradox, Mystification, and
Ambiguity in European Literature (N.Y., 1971), p. xii.
A renewed interest in Dada
- resulting in a proliferation of studies on the movement - has
for the most part been generated by art critics rather than literary
critics. Michel Sanouillet's monumental Dada à Paris
stands out among the few works dealing with what can be called
French literary Dada. However, Sanouillet's perspective is purely
historical. Aesthetic appraisals of Dada are rare, and found primarily
in a few scattered articles, in spite of the rapid expansion of
publications on the subject in the past decade with the advent
of Pop Art and Neo-Dada.
Sanouillet points out that a history of contemporary French literature
will typically introduce its chapter on Surrealism with a short
paragraph mentioning Tzara who came to France from Zurich in 1919,
bringing with him the spirit of Dada and close by agreeing with
Kleber-Haed that "Dada n'eut aucune importance littéraire."
[Dada had no literary importance whatsoever.] One can readily
accept and perpetuate this conclusion if one feels threatened
by what the literary critics have perceived as the Dadaist scorn
of rationality and if one postulates Dada as a purely negative,
nihilistic, irrational phenomena - the chaos into which Surrealism
was eventually able to put order.
However, this conception of Dada is extremely simplistic as it
passes judgment on Dada on the basis of its scandalous poetry
"happenings" in Zurich and later in Paris, and on the
paradoxical content of the seven manifestos published by Tzara
between 1916 and 1921 - as if Dada had no philosophic basis other
than the desire to épatez les bourgeois [shock the middle
class]. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Revolutionary thinkers restructure commonly held notions of reality.
They are able to perceive with clarity contradictions in society
that elude others. Like scientists, they devise new theories -
new ways of dealing with reality - that simplify and help explain
away many, if not all, of these contradictions.
Among these revolutionary
thinkers are such divergent intellectuals as Thomas Paine, Lenin
and his next door neighbor (Zurich, 1917) - Tristan Tzara. In
the commemorative issue of Strophes magazine devoted to
Tzara, Jean Cassou stresses the Zurich Dadaists' intellectual
Surprenante fortune que celle
qui fit, à Zurich, en plein cataclysme mondial, sa rencontrer
dans la soudaine illumination du mot Dada, quelques jeunes hommes:
[Hans] Arp, Hugo Ball, [Richard] Huelsenbeck, [Marcel] Janco,
[Tristan] Tzara, tous venus de coins divers et tous intelligents.
Car ce n'est pas seulement une impulsion furieuse qui a fait surgir
Dada, mais aussi un mouvement de l'esprit en sa plus vive flamme,
en sa plus percutante acuité. Et il faut le redire, tous
ces hommes étaient d'une agilité et d'une alacrité
d'humeur extraordinaire, ils s'étaient situés par
leur liberté, leur promptitude à la pointe extrême
de 1'intelligence. [Summary: .... All these men were at the cutting
edge: extremely bright, free and on target.]
The fact that Tzara's thinking
was essentially dialectical may be a reason that many traditionally-minded
critics wandering through the cobwebs of syllogistic rationalism
have been unable to perceive the sense behind the Dada nonsense.
As a result, the ambiguous paradoxical nature of Tzara's writings
continues to disarm a critic such as Mary Ann Caws - the most-prolific
Tzara scholar in the United States - who herself becomes dupe
of what she labels the "Dada Joke" when she asks after
quoting a Tzara manifesto: "Is this a genuine conviction,
or a supreme example of the Dada joke? "
Although she may correctly
identify Tzara's poetry as a poetry of motion and vision, she
fails to put this in the philosophic perspective of Tzara's dialectical
and cosmic Weltanschauun. Since the so-called "Dada joke"
is an integral part of Tzara's world view, it should not be postulated
in opposition to "a genuine conviction."
Critics in general appear
to be waging a private war against what they perceive as Tzara's
irrationalism by simply passing over him in silence. This can
help explain the overwhelming ignorance surrounding the chief
exponent of a movement which continues today to be a significant
influence in art (Neo-Dada) and literature (Lettrisme).
During the half century before
his death in 1963, Tristan Tzara diligently produced numerous
articles and prefaces on aesthetics, art and literature and a
body of work that includes nearly thirty volumes of poetry which
the Surrealist poet Louis Aragon praised as "l'une des poésies
les plus singulières et les plus hautes qu'aient inventées
les hommes, une poésie à tout prendre..." [one
of the most original and far reaching poetry ever invented - an
all embracing poetry.]
The fact that Tzara's poetry,
often printed in limited editions, is so rare so as not even to
be found in its entirety in leading humanities libraries such
as the Beniche at Yale is yet another reason for the lack of attention
paid to Tzara's work.
During the past year, I have
been collecting with some difficulty all writings by and on Tzara
scattered in major libraries from Boston to Berkeley often only
available in obscure defunct periodicals. At present, I have about
150 Xeroxed items dealing with Tzara on file. [This problem was
corrected a few years later by the publication of Tzara's Oeuvres
complètes in several volume by Flammarion, beginning
in 1975, and edited by Henri Béhar with whom I was in contact.]
Those reasons also combined
with André Breton's successful polemics against Dada resulted
in burying Tzara's reputation both as and a creative artist and
as a theorist. Consequently, to date, only three books have been
devoted entirely to Tzara:
(1) Elmer Peterson, T.
Tzara and Surrationalist Theorist - a cursory study of Tzara's
aesthetics, adapted from a Ph.D. dissertation in which many bibliographic
inaccuracies suggest that prime sources were not consulted yet
dissertation accepted at the University of Colorado in 1962, and
published in 1971.
(2) Mary Ann Caws, Tristan
Tzara "Approximate Man" and other writings -a translation
of poems by Tzara with an introduction and notes, published in
1973. The historical, stylistic and variant notes in this study
are weakened because the author was unable to obtain authorization
to publish the French text and had to rely on an English translation.
(3) René Lacôte
and George Haldas, Tristan Tzara (no. 32 in Collection
"Poètes d'Aujourd'hui" - an 80 page historical
study by Lacôte, published in 1952 that is often often quoted,and
considered by many scholars the classic tenet on Tzara which in
later editions includes a ten page 1960 update by Haldas.
[I haven't kept up with all
this, but in 1997, at least 2 or 3 additional books could be added
to this list.]
If Tristan Tzara is not to
remain a footnote in literary history, a comprehensive study should
be undertaken of his lectures, manifestos, prefaces and articles
to extract the criteria to evaluate his Dada poetry. For instance,
Tzara's proclivity to study archaic thought processes as related
in his concept of "poésie activité de l'esprit"
provides an important key to understanding Tzara's creative technique.
In writing this dissertation,
it is my intent to focus attention on Tzara's joint contribution
to aesthetics and poetry which have been generally ignored by
critics and scholars alike.
A. The first task is to clearly
define the Dada philosophy of Tristan Tzara.
Briefly, one can say that
Tzara's philosophy resembles Zen Buddhism in that the common purpose
in writing his manifestos and organizing various Dada "happenings"
was to raise the level of human consciousness in what can be defined
as a Dada satori (enlightenment). [At the time of writing this
Ph.D. proposal in the early 1970s, another dissertation comparing
The poetry of a modern Japanese poet to Tzara's Dada poetry had
just been accepted at CUNY in NYC that made a similar connection
between Dada and Zen.] The erratic spontaneous nature of Dada
was conceived over 50 [now over 80] years ago to jar
the European consciousness wallowing in the horrors of World War
Dada significantly altered
this consciousness and much of what we consider avant-garde in
art today (including performance art and all the anti-art posturings)
is historically derivitative of that Dada/Zen consciousness.
With a high sense of moral
purpose, Tzara also sought to reintroduce into the contemporary
consciousness primitive man's cosmic vision of life. He believed
that this vision would prove to be our [read: Western civilization's]
salvation permitting us to escape the inevitable destructive consequences
of world views conceived through narrow syllogistic thinking.
In short, Dada was an attempt to by-pass dualities (dualistic
thinking) that set human beings above nature. Rather, he sought
a more integrative reality where humanity could be assimilated
more harmoniously within nature. [These, I can add in 1997, are
also the intellectual underpinnings of much of the emerging eco-global
philosophizing of our era.]
It is significant that Tzara
placed across the front page of his 1918 underground artzine Dada
III a sentence attributed to René Descartes: "Je ne
veux même pas savoir s'il y a eu des hommes avant moi".
[I don't even want to know if men existed before me.] Like Descartes
had done before him, Tzara made tabla rasa of what had
For Tzara, Dada was a significant
breakthrough in the way of perceiving reality for the Western
mind. Tzara's quotation seems ironic since Tzara's Dada philosophy
made tabla rasa of nothing less than Cartesianism itself
-- the very godhead of French intellectualism. [Consequently,
Dada was not any better received in academic circles in France
than it was in the USA.]
B. Then, the implications
of Tzara's philosophy will be explored in relationship to his
For example, a chapter dealing
with phonemics will explore, among other things, a particular
use of onomatopoeia in Tzara's poetry that clearly mimics African
sounds. These seemingly meaningless sound-plays are not in the
least gratuitous, but are the products of a coherent philosophy.
In exploring the so-called
'primitive mind,' Tzara not only studied C. G. Jung's Symbols
of Transformation (1912), but also wrote articles on early
African and Colombian art, collected this art, and even translated
African poetry into French - all of which influenced his
thinking and his Dada poetry.
Although a certain consistency
underlies Tzara's poetic work produced regularly over the fifty
years and right up to his death in December 1963, his Dada poetry
was produced over a 13 year period: from 1916, when he arrived
in Zurich, to 1929, when he joined forces with the Surrealists
perhaps more for radical political ends than artistic ones. [He
and several French Surrealists joined the Communist Party at that
time.] Consequently, only the five volumes of poetry, written
during this period (1916-1929), will be considered:
1. Vingt-cinq Poèmes.
Zurich: Collection Dada, 1918.
2. Cinéma calendrier
du coeur abstrait. Maisons: Paris, Au Sans Pareil, 1920.
3. De nos oiseaux.
Paris: Kra, 1923.
4. Indicateur des chemins
de coeur. Paris: Jeanne Bucher, 1928.
5. L'Arbre des voyageurs.
Paris: Editions de la Montagne, 1930.
How to deal rationally with
a suprarational perception of reality is a paradox that faces
every Dada scholar. This is the same paradox at the heart of the
1922 Tzara-Breton split which Tzara later discussed in a 1959
interview with Sanouillet.
Breton ne contribuait-il pas
à "vulgariser" une caricature de Dada. A vouloir
ainsi rationaliser l'irrationnel, ne risquait on pas de désamorcer
la bombe dadaiste? En d'autres termes, le Surrealism n'allait-il
pas imasculer Dada et per mettre aux idées esthétiques
qui étaient les siennes de s'intégrer dans 1'heureuse
tradition de la littérature "littéraire"?
[To summarize freely,Tzara asks: "Didn't André Breton,
the high priest of French Surrealism, simply vulgarize Dada and
deactivate the Dadaist bomb by his rationalizing of the irrational?
In so doing, he emasculated Dada but integrated its aesthetic
ideas into the tradition of literary 'literature.' This, to my
mind, is the most significant statement ever made regarding the
relative importance of Dada and Surrealism.]
Similarly, the Dada scholar
must be sensitive to the spirit of Dada so as not, by his methodology
also "diffuse the Dadaist bomb ". The very notion of
a "Dada aesthetic," for example, must be rethought as
a "Dada philosophy" since Tzara repeatedly stated that
the object of Dada was 'life', not 'art'. Hence, his abhorrence
to Dada being in any way reduced to a literary genre. The equation,
stated most simply in his manifestoes, was: "Art = Life."
And if the words 'Dada' and 'Dadaist' were used freely , the word
'Dadaism' was shunned precisely for those reasons.
Perhaps the greatest challenge
for a scholar is a willingness to acknowledge certain limitations
of what might be called 'narrow-minded syllogistic rationalism,'
derided by Tzara as early as 1917, but still quite in vogue at
leading American universities nearly two centuries after Hegel.
However, if the revolutionary
nature of Dada is eluded more than grasped by this reactionary
rationalism, this approach is nonetheless still capable of yielding
new "knowledge" concerning the Dada philosophy and poetry
of Tristan Tzara.
Authors 1997 Note:
Actually, I came to the conclusion
that I was wrong and that it wasn't capable of yielding anything
more significant! I have never regretted rejecting the Ph.D. next
to my name. I think US academicians, as a class, have only proven
to be part of the problem. In their smugness, they have managed
to assume no sense of responsibility for our current predicament.
Intelligent, they may be; intellectuals they are - for the mostpart
The last few paragraphs was
a rather transparent attack on the of the intellectual politicization
and polarization that I encountered as a Ph.D. candidate at the
University of Michigan during the politically bristling early
'70s [i.e. the Anti-Vietnam War movement, the Black Power movement,
the Feminist movement, and the Gay/Lesbian movement]. The whole
tone of this prospectrus was not designed to sway a committee
of full professors: I was giving them the finger. However, it
was accepted and I initially intended to carry it through.
After 8 years of college teaching
- five as a teaching fellow and three as a full time instructor
- I simply walked away from a career in higher education I had
enjoyed, after founding with handful of other graduate students
a successful Teaching Fellows Union, the Graduate Employees Organization
(GEO) which to this day continues to protect the rights of that
sub-class of college instructors. (For more background see this article from the MICHIGAN DAILY (Ann Arbor, February 23,
GEO comes together over years of contract negotiations, fights.)
That Union which succeeded
in its strike against the U of M in great measure due to the unswervering
support of the Teamsters Union on campus, has served as a model
for several others across the nation. At least at the low end
of academe, we effectively stomped on that despicable middle-class
word: 'professional' replacing it with 'worker.' Needless to say,
not everyone in the academic community backed these efforts.
I subsequently published two
articles based on my Tzara research in Paris, worked with Michel
Sanouillet of Dada à Paris fame on a republication
of Tzara's original DADA zines (Sanouillet's critical edition was scooped by Henri Béhar's Oeuvres complètes of Tristan Tzaza published by Flammarion in 1975, and eventually was published in 1983 shortly before his accidental death), but I never wrote a word of my dissertation.
During the two years that
followed, I was involved in a whirlwind of political and social
activities in Ann Arbor's thriving Gay community before eventually
moving to San Francisco in 1978. My publications during this period
-- mostly gay stuff -- are listed in my (click) bibliography.
However sweet this worker's
rights victory was in Ann Arbor, it did not prepare me for the
disappointment I encountered in San Francisco in the early 1980's
when we attempted to unionize I. Magnin's department store on
Union Square and we were not given the support we expected from
the local Retail Worker's Union which soon thereafter sold itself
- the Honorable Mr. Walter Johnson and all - down the river with
grandfather clauses in union member approved contracts with the
influx of non-union high-end chains such as Saks Fifith Avenue
and Nieman Marcus. My career in retail sales came to a swift halt
over these issues in a rather colorful incident that was reported
in Herb Caen's column in the San Francisco Chronicle and
doesn't merit repeating here.
1. Michel Sanouillet, Dada
à Paris (Paris: Jean Jacques Pauvert, 1965).
2. Kleber-Haed, Une Histoire
de la littérature française , Paris: N.R.F., 1940),
3. Jean Cassou, "A la
pointe extrême de l'intelligence," Strophes, 2 (avril
4. Mary Ann Caws, The Inner
Theatre of Recent French Poetry (New Jersey: Princeton University
Press, 1972), p. 55.
5. Aragon, "L'Aventure
terrestre de Tristan Tzara," Les Lettres Françaises
1010 (2 au 8 janvier 1964), 1.
6. Interview with T. Tzara,
July 7, 1959, quoted in Dada à Paris, p. 426.
WORKS BY TRISTAN
La Première aventure
céleste de Monsieur AntiPyrine. Zurich~ Collection Dada,
7urich, Collection Dada, 1918 (Vingt-cinq et un poèmes.
Cinéma calendrier du
coeur abstrait. Maisons. Paris Au Sans Pareil, 1920.
De nos oiseaux. Paris, Kra,
Sept Manifestes Dada. Paris,
Jean Budry, 1924 (reedition, augmented by Lampisteries. Parist
Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1963)
Mouchoir de nuages. Paris
Galerie Simon, lg~5.
Indicateur des chemins de
coeur. Paris Jeanne Bucher, 1928.
De nos oiseaux. Paris Kra,
L'arbre des voyageurs. Paris,
Editions de la Montagne, 1930.
L'Homme approximatif. Paris,
Où boivent les loups.
Paris, Cahiers Libres, 1932.
L'antitête. Parist Cahie~s
Grains et issues. Parist Denoël
et Steele, 1935.
La deuxième aventure
céleste de Monsieur Antipyrine. Parist Editions des Re'verbères,
Midis gagnés. Paris,
Denel, 193~ (augmented edition, Paris, Denel, 1948).
Le coeur à gaz. Parist,G.L.M.,
Entre-temps. Paris, Point
du Jour, 1946.
Ie signe de vie, Paris, Bordas,
Terre sur Terre. Geneve, Trois
La Fuite. Paris, Gallimard,
Le surréalisme et l'après
gerre. Paris, r~agel, 1947.
Phases. Paris, Seghers, 1949.
sans coup férir. Parist
Jean Aubier, 1949.
Parler seul, Paris, Maeght.
1950 (reedition, Paris, Caractères, 1955).
La première main. Alès
La face intérieure.
~liennes. Paris, Caractères,
Le jour naissant. Alès
, P.A.B., 1955.
Le fruit permis. Paris, Caractères,
la rose et le chien. Alès,
frère bois. Alès
Juste présent. Lausanne:
La rose des vents, 1961.
Note: This bibliography may
be expanded at some later dateto include:
WORKS PREFACED BY TRISTAN
SELECTED ARTICLES BY TRISTAN
SELECTED WORKS ON TRISTAN