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“The Poet of the Earth” – Tristan Tzara in Czechoslovakia (Prague Dada Miscellany – Part Three)

Adolf Hoffmeister (1902-1973) was a Czech writer, journalist, playwright, painter, caricaturist, translator, diplomat, lawyer, and traveller. In 1920 he became the youngest co-founder of the Devětsil art group. In 1922 he made the first of the many journeys to Paris, where he regularly met with the international arts scene, many of whose representatives he would interview for Czech press. In 1927 the Liberated Theatre staged his dadaist plays, in 1928 he had the first solo exhibition in Paris at the Gallerie d’Art Contemporain. In the 1930s, the legal office he worked at represented many of the German exiles fleeing Nazism incl. Thomas Mann. As member of the Mánes Association of Fine Arts, he was instrumental in introducing and defending the anti-Nazi photomontage artwork of John Heartfield. He himself fled Nazism in 1939 for Paris, where he was interned for 7 months, then via a Morocco concentration camp, in 1941 he reached New York. After WW2 he returned to Prague and joined the Communist party and went on to work in diplomacy and the academia. Following his pro-reform interventions in August 1968, he was banned from public life and spent his final years in obscurity.

“The Poet of the Earth” is one of Hoffmeister’s several articles on Dadaism. Written in 1964, it is an obituary-cum-homage to the late Tzara and a personal memoir of their lifelong friendship. It also details Tzara’s “warm relations” with the Czechoslovak avant-garde scene and fascination with “a country without advertising.” Translated by David Vichnar.

THE POET OF THE EARTH, by Adolf Hoffmeister (Čas se nevrací – Podoby č. 2, Praha: Československý spisovatel, pp. 82-95)

I shall commence this story of one friendship from the end.

In October 1963 Aragon and I went to visit an ill man. We’d known since spring that Tristan Tzara was seriously sick, although Dr Fraenkel would not tell us what exactly the issue was. We knew it was cancer but didn’t want to know. The ill man also knew it was lung cancer but out of indulgence towards his friends he acted as if he didn’t. In the summer he’d taken such a turn for the better we’d again been pasting together the shreds of hope. But then in autumn came the rather alarming news.

5, Rue de Lille. A well-polished, winding imperial-style staircase. On the third floor, an open door. We walked along windows opening onto courtyards with black trees, their bare fingers barely reaching the windowsill and screeching in the wind. We walked through three halls – three libraries – three art collections of such refined taste and unique value that the artist’s presence would linger here even after he departed for his frequent long journeys abroad. It surely lingers still today, when he’s departed for good.

In the third room, on a boyish bunk, lay this century’s most lively dying poet. He tried to appear young before us, determined to wake long into the night over his work. His eyes shone with impatience. They roamed our faces one by one, searching for our trust. He paused between his sentences so as to conceal how difficult it was for him to speak. At his bed, leaning against a medieval-French dictionary, stood his crutches. The ill man’s legs were barely half-sentient, and all around him – on the wicker chairs, on the floor, and on the shelves – lay in-progress manuscripts, notes and old-French folios.

In that brave smiley-faced dissimulation, he did make one slip: “I’m in a hurry, I’ve got to work hard and fast in order to finish my book. I began about Villon, but the first book has grown already into another one about Rabelais. In almost every line of verse, there’s a puzzle. I’ve grown accustomed to revealing mysteries on a daily basis.”

“Aren’t some of those irregular crosswords, anagrams, acrostics and puns the workings of chance, toying with you again as it did once with Rabelais?”

“I admit chance in the ruling of laws, just as Herbert Wiener. Once, twice perhaps. Possibly. But there’s no chance so frequent and there aren’t chances in such amounts. I’ve had the possibility of chance examined by a famous Paris cyberneticist. I’ve beaten chance on all counts.” He almost seemed happy there for a moment.

For a good five years the poet had been fervently working on a difficult scientific work. His meticulousness surprised even the scientists themselves. It became the obsession of the unexpected close of his life. He lived in Villon’s and Rabelais’ times and his knowledge and revelations impressed the greatest experts. He rejoiced at their doubts he refuted in the rhythm of the progress of his work. I saw his book grow visit by visit – and I visited him frequently. In spring 1963, at Les Deux Magots, he told me:

“Tu sais, mon vieux, I no longer know if it’s six or eight hundred or six or eight thousand pages. It grows by the hour like that corps by Ionesco. It’s grown into the room next door already. If it carries on like this I’ll have to change flats. It keeps me at home. It won’t let me out. It’s taught me to read books upside down. Inside out. Every book of verse I get hold of these days I read as a riddle. It’s amazing to have such an intoxicating meaning of life.”

Just a few years ago this was just a minor hobbyhorse of the great poet and manuscript collector, with an innate sense of the rhythm of geometrical sequences and scales of variations. A poet with a deep unrest in the heart, caused not by love or imagination but the knocking of doubt on the door of philosophy.

“You’ve been well equipped for all that by your chess mastery.”

“But in a game of chess the player is not threatened by chance, which plays such as marvellous role in poetry.”

All his biographers record that at a café in Zurich 1916, Tristan Tzara regularly played chess with an incredibly intelligent irascible Russian whom he didn’t even know, but who played chess masterfully. His name was Lenin.

That was just the beginning. […] Tristan Tzara was 20 then. Meaning, when he died on Christmas Day 1963, he wasn’t sixty-nine, as all the newspapers and radios unanimously announced to the world, but only sixty-seven. The reporting is not to blame, though. Tzara always added a year or two to his age, in order to be older than his friends. Let’s allow the poet this bizarre coquetry.

The dada movement was the first cultural reaction of this century. It was the kind of rebellion anticipated by Arthur Rimbaud. […] Suffice it to tell those ignorant of what the dada movement actually was, trivialising it to the level of anarcho-intellectual oddity that in the heart of this dada revolt consists much of the essence of modern poetry. The content of contemporary Czech poetry is still ablaze with the flame of this revolt. That we joined all the Dadaists in the ranks of the fighters for the rights of democratic Spain in Madrid and Valencia, and later on in the ranks of French resistance during WWII in Provence, Cortèz and Vercors. That most of them became artists with worldwide reputation.

From 1916 onwards, the dada movement was joined by the likes of Guillaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso, F.T. Marinetti, Blaise Cendrars, Amedeo Modigliani, Vassily Kandinsky and others, who later on split up and became founders of various movements and expressions of the entire world’s modern art. If you were to ask me, however, how best to express what the dada movement was about at the time of its inception, I’d borrow terminology from the dictionary of the future, some science-fiction notions: antipoetry, antiaesthetics, etc. It’s logical – though many still don’t understand – that as long as the movement was to remain consistent and faithful to itself, it had to deny itself.

[…]

But here I’m not writing about dada, but about Tristan Tzara. That the first public dada performance, wholly under Tzara’s influence, was devoted to black music seems all the more logical given that Tzara was not only a great collector of black art but a world-renowned expert on African plastic arts. […] Behold, a Dadaist who almost fifty years ago already discovered our brotherhood with the black arts of Africa. It was to Tristan Tzara’s credit that the culture of the awaken Africa was included by history among the greatest cultures of the world, with perhaps its first use of the method of metalworking called “cire perdue.” On the mantelpiece and bookshelves in Tzara’s flat there are rows of slim black sculptures of such refined elegance and emotional expression no world museum collection could quite match them. They’re perhaps the rarest examples of ancient black arts.

Tzara’s collections are a museum of the beginning of the modern arts as well. All the paintings spoken of in monographs of modern arts and exhibition catalogues from the very beginning to this day, hang here in plank frames on the walls. The library, which permeates the entire flat, stores the first editions of all the major 20th-century works of literature. Tristan Tzara is a bibliophile. In his table drawers and bank safe-deposit you can find incredibly precious manuscripts of Rimbaud’s, Baudelaire’s, Borel’s, and two notebooks of theatre plays by Henri Rousseau the Douanier, right next to Peruvian golden jewellery and bracelets and nephrite placards from Easter Islands, wrapped in newspaper and bound by an old lace. Tristan Tzara has all these things because he loves them. He has the right to have them because he understands them better than the three billion other people living on this planet. And yet he dresses in shabby old outfits and puts on a threadbare old pullover when dining out at cheap little pubs in his neighbourhood. He’d rather have a root canal than pay for someone else’s black coffee. But he’s richest through his poetry, his love and his liberating smile.

He was a tender father. I admired his fatherly patience and indulgence. I learned from his resourcefulness and playfulness with which he approached his son Christopher, who’s meanwhile grown to be a respected nuclear mathematician. It was somewhere outside Paris on aviation day. He would suddenly become a boy with a rocket and a ball. He would suddenly disappear in the light of his fatherly love like some fairy-tale character, be it from heavens or from hell. Perhaps from a poem. […]

There was a time Tzara used to wear a bowler hat and monocle and was the driving force behind all the scandals responsible for the rise of Dadaism and surrealism. Still, it seemed natural and historically logical to us all that when in March 1938, Vaillant-Couturier together with Léon Moussinac and Jean Fréville founded L’Association des Artistes et Écrivains Révolutionaires, Tzara joined this progressive organisation. In the times of Spanish Civil War, Tzara cofounds—together with Aragon, Caillois and Monnerot—Inquisitions magazine, where he publishes his highly important essay “The Poet and Society.” He joins the front and makes it to Madrid. In the times of the Munich treaty, he sides with Czechoslovakia. During the German occupation of France he joins the revolutionary organisation of resistance. He writes under the pseudonym T-Tristan. That’s when he publishes the acrostic “USSR – Universally Sunny Success Road.”

In 1946, the Czechoslovak Union of Friends of the USSR published a slim volume of his revolutionary poems from the times of his resistance in Aix and Souillac (epilogue written by Mary Koťátková). A total of five or six of his books have been translated into Czech or Slovak so far. E.F. Burian staged his Escape in his D 34 Theatre. […] In December 1929, The Vest Pocket Review published three Tzara poems together with a biographical note by Karel Teige, calling Tzara’s poetry “a genuine poetry not to be encountered anywhere else.”

He worried about poetry, wherever in the world it got in jeopardy. It was at moments like these he became bravest. When the news got around that the imprisoned Nazim Hikmet’s health was in peril, he organised a huge movement for his release. He made pens dip for protest which had never signed anything political before. Nazim Hikmet knew how much he owed to Tzara but both were great poets and between poets such friendship is part of the poetics of life.

Tristan Tzara considered the Czechoslovaks a nation of poets, not only via his friendship with Vítězslav Nezval. That appellation was half a compliment and half a rebuke that we hadn’t made it big in the world. He had no idea how much we were in accord.

The Czech Devětsil avant-garde had an exceptionally warm attitude toward Tzara. He had many friends in this country. I knew him for about forty years. We started corresponding right after the end of WWI. I’ve wondered many times why he, one of the most exquisite poets in France, found such an honest relation to Czechoslovak poetry and revolution.

He visited Czechoslovakia multiple times. Last time in 1955 together with Fernand Léger. I went to pick them up at the airport. Léger was remarkably witty and Tristan Tzara was having a blast. “Voilà, a country with no advertising!” Léger cried out as we passed through the colourless streets of Dejvice and Vokovice. I took them to see Betlém and Kuks. I introduced them to Matthias Braun. Looking at the sculptures of the Angel of Death and Religion, walking through the series of Virtues and Vices, Léger threw his hands up and, deeply impressed, shouted: “Hoffmeister, compared to this sculptor, Michelangelo is an utter dilettante!” He took me by the scruff of the neck, the Norman giant, and shook me like scarecrow shouting: “You conceal him from the world! What a shame, to conceal such great art from the world!” Tristan Tzara kept smiling, cracking here and there the mock serious remark about how if Kuks and Betlém were to stand in another country, all the travel agencies of the world would be making millions off them.

“Tu sais, mon vieux, you don’t know how much you’ve got and know here, which could after all be excused by excessive modesty. But the fact that the world has no idea how much you’ve got and know is a crime of negligence in your duty of care to great art. Perhaps it’s also the misdemeanour of concealing an important fact vis-à-vis the development of world art. Isn’t that so, Léger?”

“It’s far worse than that. You quite unrightfully convict us of being dunces by keeping us ignorant of what you conceal from us!”

We returned to Prague via the Sedlec ossuary. Tristan Tzara was enraptured. The real-life jolly rogers in the chiaroscuro of the crypt made for fantastic surrealist décor to his inflammatory exhortation to Czechoslovakia:

“You’re yet to mean a lot for world culture. You’ve got all the necessary prerequisites. Only confidence you lack. Only confidence – and perhaps money.” That was so Tzara-like, the art of deflating oneself by a matter-of-fact remark, to give one’s flight of imagination an immediate reality-check.

He grabbed me by the sleeve and went on: “You’ve got to persuade the policy-makers about the catchphrase that’s dominated French politics ever since Louis XIV: Culture opens up the pathways of commerce. But don’t forget that the arts need to get handsome compensation for this service!” And he laughed to beat the band. Tristan Tzara laughed a child’s laughter. He knew very well the difference between a major and a minor country. It must have been lodged deep within his Balkan subconscious.

Tristan Tzara was Romanian by birth. I even read his first book printed in Romanian, with an art-nouveau bordure on the cover. But he’s a French poet and a personage of the modern cultural history that must be included in all the lexicons of the world, since he stood at the cradle of the modern art as one of its three Fates. The Fate of revolt.

Tzara may be a pseudonym, or his real Romanian name, supposedly meaning Earth. It’s a lovely name for a deceased, for the meaning of the name shall blend with the earth, and as long as the Earth goes round with people wandering on it, its most sensitive path indicators will be the blossoms of its poetry.

Translated by David Vichnar

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EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.

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"Modernity today is not in the hands of the poets, but in the hands of the cops" // Louis Aragon
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