*Adolf Hoffmeister (1902-1973), Czech writer, playwright, painter & caricaturist. His reviews and interviews with the avant-garde scene in 1930s Paris & New York have been collected in Podoby (1961; Images) and Předobrazy (1962; Adumbrations). His most notable works include his interviews with James Joyce and his 1932 first-ever Czech translation of “Anna Livia Plurabelle” a fragment of Work in Progress/Finnegans Wake. The below text is one of the first Czech accounts of Tzara & Dadaism. (David Vichnar)
Never speak ill of the dead, especially when they are still alive. Tristan Tzara occupies a chapter of his own in the literary tradition. A Dadaist chapter. Dadaism can be seen both as an antidote against, and a proper result of, the boredom that envelops our lives. In its death throes, literature had to give birth to Dada. With all five senses at its disposal, humanity experienced the mundane quality of the everyday life, of the eternally spinning globe, going from infinity to infinity, and for the first time they fully realised the futility of all human affairs that wanted to appear grave, noble and wise. On the other hand, humanity also started to appreciate the gravity, nobility and wisdom of the affairs that appeared to be all but nonsensical. Dada favours the intelligent.
Tristan Tzara is a highly intelligent gentleman. When he read for the first time from “Mr Antipyrine’s Manifesto” on 14 July 1916 in Salle Wang, Zürich, he did so at a time when soldiers started to realise that digging in the ground, shooting each other, freezing and starving to death was nonsense. This realisation led to the formation of a movement that is no more and no less anarchistic than the human spirit itself. In France, the movement manifested itself in literature, while in Germany, it took more of a political shape being largely associated with the scathing art of Georg Grosz. The present century overemphasized its ingenuity, and humour had to take the place of literature as the main repast of the human spirit. The comedy of nonsense springs from the shortcomings of everyday logic, from the breaking of the rules of syntax. This is laughter as defined by Bergson.
In the 1918 “Dada Manifesto”, Tristan Tzara comments on the emergence of Dada in 1916 in the cabaret Voltaire in Zürich: ”It suffices that Dada exists, there are no whys and hows. Dada bears no meaning, the Dadaist artist is not looking to formulate the cause or the theory behind his craft. Dada came out of necessity.” To which Teige adds, “Absurd or idiotic jokes are an indispensable nourishment even for a century of intelligence.” And elsewhere he notes that: “Dada has always flourished alongside the living art.” Not everyone is aware of being a Dadaist. Tristan Tzara, at first one of its many followers, grew to become a Dadaist supreme, just as Huelsenbeck, Picabia, Osiris, Kurd, Viereck, Schwitters and others. In France, Dada bloomed into a glass flower with a lolling tongue. Its petals gradually fell off and dispersed into different camps, with the Surrealist camp as the largest one. The petals of the Dada flower carried some extraordinary names; Aragon, Picabia, Breton and Abbé Soupault, who had just published his first verse collection, Aquarium (1917). They published their own magazine, the Cannibale, which is now nearly impossible to come by. The same period also saw the emergence of the Swiss, the Leipzig and other branches of Dada. This was the time of Dada conferences with jumbled up seats stirring chaos amid the listeners, of fake fire alarms halfway through an ongoing lecture, and of glue-covered seats that caused the swearing audience to storm out of the theatre with shreds of cushioning still stuck to their bottoms. Dada wanted to have fun. And why not? Tristan Tzara, the quietest barbarian of them all, was amidst its ranks. I remember seeing him as he strolled down Montparnasse, the small, round figure, reminding me of a bobbin wearing an eyeglass. Tristan Tzara has the sort of lips that some fathers have when going ‘errrr’ in front of their baby boy in a pram. All in all, he gives the impression of a pleasant, very smart, even shrewd, and an exceptionally ordinary man. Complete with an eyepiece, he saunters slowly with hands in his pockets and a look in his eyes as if he was reciting the introduction from one of his manifestos:
Take a good look at me!
I am an idiot, a jester, a comedian.
Take a good look me!
I am ugly, a face without features, a diminutive figure.
I am exactly like you!…
In a footnote, he adds: “I wanted to use this occasion as little promotion opportunity for myself.” A moment later, with an expression of tired sadness, he proceeds to lament his fate: “I am but a chameleon in my attitudes – I wear my many-coloured opinions to suit every occasion, dimension and price – always doing the exact opposite of what I advise others.”
“Dada places doubt above all activity. Dada is apprehensive of all. Everything is Dada and as such it is not to be trusted.”
I would like to see Tzara’s brain at work. Its operation is bound to be a wonderful, relentless, fine and logical spectacle. It is of such pure nature that it cares neither for its execution, nor for its expression. It tells the one lofty truth known to all great women and men:
“La pensée se fait dans la bouche.”
It was on the basis of the selfsame egoism and contempt, for Dada scorns all, that Tzara built his villa, lively inside, but bare and windowless on the outside. Adolf Loos was its chief architect. Tzara could afford the villa because he married well, and he could secure Loos for the job because he was armed with enough scepticism and patience to be ready to wait eternally. It is the same kind of now-extinct Dadaist smugness that pretends to be the sole end of history, and as such is akin to the smugness of communism or modern women, that enables Tzara to write, but not publish. He writes and burns all his verse. He grew into a peaceful gentleman, not sporting for a fight, no longer making humanity amazed by his audacity to preach nonsense. He owns one of the finest art collections in Paris, collecting Oceanian sculptures and tribal antiques and paintings.
He is fighting former colleagues left and right, he is lively and all smiles. Dadaism is long dead. It transformed into sundry movements of varying importance, but its verse and manifestos live on as a fragile memory of those fiery spring days. Grandma’s lace charged with delight. Tzara’s autobiography is contained in the appendix to Seven Dada Manifestos which was read in Povolozky Gallery at Rue Bonaparte in Paris on 19 December 1920. It documents the entire short-lived outburst of the Dada movement, which is as fickle as it is immortal, re-emerging in varying guises whenever there is enough life to support it.
Appendix: How I became Charming, Likeable and Delightful.
I have been dreaming for some time now. Committing suicide at 65%. My life is cheap and it constitutes a mere 30% of all life. My life is 30% alive. It is missing a few strings in the arms and some buttons as well. 5% of it amounts to the state of half-felt obtuseness that goes hand in hand with anaemic tremors. This 5% is called the DADA. Here, my life sells cheap. The price of death is only slightly higher. Both life and death are utterly delightful.
The other day I attended a congregation of idiots with many in attendance, and I’ve been feeling wonderful ever since. Everyone was so sweet. Tristan Tzara, a diminutive figure, an imbecile and an unremarkable gentleman held a lecture on the art of becoming delightful. He struck a delightful figure himself, as a matter of fact. Everyone was delightful. And profound. Isn’t that charming? Nine degrees bellow zero, yes, charming indeed. Actually, it isn’t so charming. There is no God to be found either in heaven or in a directory. Even so, he is all delight. Ambassadors, poets, dukes, princes, musicians, journalists, actors, authors, diplomats, headmasters, tailors, socialists, princesses and baronesses, all a delight to behold.
Each and every one of you is charming, delicate, profound and delightful. Tristan Tzara has a message for you all: I’d rather do something else, but I choose to remain an idiot, a jester and a comedian. In all honesty, does this strike you as a lot of nonsense or is it charming?
There are those (journalist, advocates, amateurs, philosophers) who cling to other vocations. They take to marriage, mutual visits, wars, congregations, stock exchanges, politics, injuries, dances, farming and nervous breakdowns to prove the profundity of Dada.
Since I am not an impressionist, I am of a different opinion. I think Dada is a second-rate deity that needs to be put back in place among all other forms of perfunctory religiosity in this interim age. Is simplicity simple, or Dada? I find myself quite charming.
Tzara’s talent resides in the ease with which he places the most incongruous elements of this world side by side and shows their mutual relatedness. His poems are plain recitations and narratives of a thousand-and-one meticulous nonsense. It is difficult to write a Dadaist poem like Tzara does. Even he himself surely struggled to make his poetry Dada. Tzara’s poetry is simple to talk about but arduous to execute. Just try following Tzara’s instructions in his “Quick and Easy Guide to Write a Dadaist Poem” published in the “Manifesto of Feeble and Bitter Love”:
Pick up a newspaper.
Grab a pair scissors.
Choose an article of a length approximately equal to that of the desired poem.
Cut it out.
Carefully cut out each individual word and put them in a satchel.
Give the satchel a gentle shake.
Fish out snippet after snippet and arrange them together in the exact same order in which they came out.
Write everything down meticulously.
The poem’s shape is your very own.
Behold, a poet of infinite invention and delightful sensibility, albeit misunderstood by the general public.
Its seems, and often is, a mumbo-jumbo of words, but more often than not, this exercise results in a quite reasonable although boring article whose inconsistencies pass unnoticed by the neurotic eyes of the city dwellers. It is a product of pure chance that, although amusing, is but a façade without artistry. The intention is the law. I remember playing a sketching game the other day in some Prague tavern together with Teige, Krejcar and Le Corbusier. We wound up with a collection of bizarre underfed creations, lacking only a few finishing touches before they could be proclaimed for art. Alas, what is or isn’t art? Two shadowy realms with edges blurred beyond reckoning. Tristan Tzara merged with his own shadow to become a puzzling comical figure waiting to be condemned. Throw him a few insults and watch his eyepiece spin and his greasy lips form into the sweetest smile. I think Tzara’s ruminations would yield enough material for several writers to make use of. Sometimes I was under the impression that he was having so much fun it was boring, and at other times he seemed so bored it was funny. His calmness, even though he can get heated at times I am sure, rests peacefully with a secretive smile amid the machinery of silenced talent until it is woken by a sudden interest in Tristan Tzara. This interest appears more timely and historical the further away we get from the proclamation: “Dada is nonsense! Long live Dada! Dada is no literary movement, farewell!”
Even Tristan Tzara lives the life of a man and a dog at once, just like the rest of us. Paris falls asleep at the feet of a tiny man, the puffed up, perfumed, tired, love-exhausted, drunken Paris with confetti stuck to her face. Tristan Tzara is smiling. He came to my opening one evening right before the closing time and for quite a while he studied a caricature of himself. I asked him whether he liked what he was seeing and couldn’t help but laugh at his inevitable answer: “Je me trouve assez sympathique.” After all, I too find him quite charming.
Translated by Zdeněk Polívka