Bedřich Václavek (1897-1943) was a Czech Marxist aesthetician, literary theorist and critic. In the 1920s, as a Devětsil member, he was an early advocate of poetism, with emphasis on proletarian art. In the 1930s, he was active as a spokesman for the Left Front movement where he developed his theory of socialist realism. During Nazi occupation, his leftist conviction led him to join the resistance. In 1942, he was arrested and transported to Auschwitz, where on 5 March 1943 he was executed.
“Creative Dada” is the first sustained critical piece on the life and work of Walter Serner (1889-1942), a Karlovy Vary-born Jewish German-language Dadaist, whose manifesto Letzte Lockerung (“Last Loosening”) has the unofficial title of the first dada manifesto, preceding the Tzara manifestos (for which Serner believed his text had served as unacknowledged inspiration) by several months. For a different reason but with the same result, Serner fell victim to Nazism. In early 1942, he was interned at Theresienstadt and perished in the late summer of the same year in a transport to Riga.
Václavek’s article focuses on Serner’s development as a writer, from Letzte Lockerung to the then just-published 1925 novel, Die Tigerin, his least unknown work. Translated by David Vichnar.
CREATIVE DADA, by Bedřich Václavek (HOST review IV.9-10, July 1925)
One thing we can envy post-war Germany: Dadaism. After the war, we lacked the strong dose of dada. We immediately advanced toward a revolution for man, we were ethical, pedagogical and now we want to be constructive, but there has been no decomposition, no forceful purging. That’s why we post-facto snatch at a little dada here and there, but there’s no time for that, today impure, mixed shapes come into being – and so we’ve remained without it. We haven’t accomplished its destructive work, which would leave in its wake virgin soil for real work of new builders. Aren’t we going to remain a little too idyllic in that typical Czech fashion?
Dada. We approve of its fanatical destructiveness with which it’s attacked the shallow hustling hullabaloo they make about “spirituality” and “art”. Turned toward destroying the products of bourgeois culture, relinquishing the principle of amendment – which is what we miss in it, however much understanding we may have for its concentration on destruction. It was nihilistic, but we’d say with Huelsenebeck that its nihilism that’s part of life, or we could use Mahen’s expression: creative nihilism. Dada wanted nothing more than to express its time, matching its fierce tempo, skepticism and relativism, but also its fatigue and doubts regarding any sense and any thought. We love it and we fight it.
It was naïve. It wanted a straightforward, undifferentiated, non-intellectual life. It taught art to use new material. Rich in modern gradated sensibility, it was the harbinger of the simultaneism of modern art.
Ultimately it reneged on art, having drawn the final conclusion of the new realities. Its members became art’s con artists.
One of the dearest of them all today is Walter Serner.
Already in 1920 he expounded his attitude to life, philosophy, morality, sociality and art, which he’s transformed so far into three books of prose and one novel, which ranks among the best fiction works in post-war Germany.
He’s a pessimist. The condition of the inhabited surface of the globe, in every day and age, is just a consistent consequence of boredom, which has become insufferable. The boredom of vanity, the boredom of hatred, the boredom of revenge, the boredom of anger, boredom, boredom, boredom – the prime mover of all human action. It was out of boredom that the warmongers arranged their war. Soldiers in the trenches fired their weapons, because it was sensational. And if post-war they’ve become republicans and toil for industrialists and blackguards, they’ve nothing else to do lest they fell in the danger of – boredom. Next to it there’s nothing but panicking resignation or transcendental poses.
Life is a most unexciting thing. Everyone knows days spent with a long face. And if that goes on for weeks and months and years on end, living becomes easier with a steady grimace, with a thumbed nose or with a stuck-out tongue – or any other similar means of coping with other people.
The most boring of it all is thinking. As all the world’s geniuses must have found out at some point, but kept it secret from the world. It was difficult to give up this mental reservation, for who would admire the greatness of their thoughts were they to admit they’re products of nothing but spastic boredom? So they died instead with this reservation on their lips arranged for the final words. Primitive con artistry indeed.
After all, transcendental states are barren, worldviews are just verbiage, and humans never have any thoughts anyways, they just pretend at best… It’s nothing but words, words, words… And remember: words stultify. “Walk quietly hither and thither, pluck an old pear and the idea that might appear together with it – and lo, you’ve got a rule.” Rule? Every rule has got its exceptions, certainly. I mean, regularly. Take care, then: every rule is to be considered an exception, for exception is the rule. (An important rule, that!) Consciousness can only occupy itself with itself, all it ever proves is itself only, even as it aims to deny itself! It’s with this apparatus you want to catch your own intention. Or perhaps the meaning of anything? What’s the truth? Humans have been wrong all the time. Always. All of them. Always. All of them. Always all of them.
“There’s only relative ascertainment of relative relations.”
A philosopher: a person taking the ridiculously positivist activity of the dumbest people as impetus, stands up and prophesises the divine system, having caught their reason into the loop of a perfectly improvable primary statement, axiom, idea, a priori sentence… He prefers to value the regular Asians: they live for nothing, for their dolce far niente at best, a mere expression of an intention most laudable: not to observe oneself. A noble loafer! How disgraceful, in comparison, the ambition of the “porters of the spirit”: to be good Europeans! “Globe-Trottel! Glaube-Trottel!”
This isn’t just agnosticism and scepticism, this is negation of everything. Relations with fellow citizens? Futile effort! Every human rapprochement causes frustration, ditto every society. Removing poverty won’t enrich the world, nor will lesser lying escalate the endurableness of social togetherness. Revolution? There never was any. Only revolts. Hysterical skirmishes of those who feel they’ve been shortchanged. Wherefore revolution? For freedom? Freedom: a secure little welfare, a secure little job, safety from slaps in the face and a partner to mate with, sexually pressed to a quarter of nourishment, at whose side one can ripen like an accountant (soldier) factory for the heavens. Peaceful awareness that there’s no need to want more, that everything’s okay. Reinforcement for the bourgeois self-confidence, protected by any, even the dirtiest, means?
Great is the hatred with which he hates the bourgeois. He acknowledges thinking only as a furious attack. Only when rampaging does life seem to possess some sense. Seem to, N.B.
Art used to be a childhood illness, the most infantile form of magic. Writers in search for stardom carefully supply their own biographies with their quarterly excesses. They’re of the opinion life’s unbearable, and so they trade in it. And all that swagger with creation! Whether one’s carefully laid-out trochees replete with imagery, or even expressionist, want to convince me they were in a bad way, but ever since they wrote their way out of it, black on white, they’ve been relieved, or that they were well-off but took a turn for the worse when incapable of grasping it: all that is just a same old unexciting effort to overcome one’s dilemmas by – creating out of them. To arch a redemptive sky over the chaos of the excremental and enigmatic human life? No thanks! Is there an image more idiotic than a genius head stylising, and while so doing, flirting with itself? The best books of world literature were written with the intention of producing the best book of all time, the only psychologically bearable requisite for writing books. What’s at stake today is doing away with this requisite once and for all.
The only con worth perpetuating is pleasure. Sexuality is the only certainty. Second to it is only the joke, whose peak is to carry itself ad absurdum. To be able to have oneself for the better is Serner’s ultimate wish. It’s an escape from oneself, from one’s own criticism, but also from subjectivism. To put oneself in the danger of absurdity means to make the final step – away from oneself. To con oneself! To be childishly angry. To be da da! Since humanity has no reason, it settles for the delusion it has a reason, or the delusion it’s not deluding itself. Therefore, it’s incurably insane. Even this worldview is insane of course, but it’s the weakest, ultimate, clearest insanity.
“For a long time, in my quiet moments, I’ve been spitting on my own head… ah, down with… well yeah, what actually?” In these words is felt the strong lyrical ozone of his Letzte Lockerung.
Serner’s prose (two older volumes, Der elfte Finger and Zum blauen Affen, published with Stegemann, and two from this year, a collection of stories Der Pfiff um die Ecke and the novel Die Tigerin, published with Gottschalk, Berlin) is the very grotesque of con artistry. A grotesque is the very tragedy par excellence. Con artistry is, among philosophers, literati, activists and musicians, still the most acceptable way of escaping oneself. His con artists roam the world, whether they are dukes or highwaymen, bamboozlers or diplomats, gamblers or scam artists swindling marriage-hungry women, pimps or government counsellors, for only this manifold activity can fully satisfy their strong urge for diversion. On the bottom of these characters of his is hidden the strong desire for a colourful, non-differentiated life unrestricted by norms or rules. “Fruits with no cores tend to be the sweetest,” let’s therefore not search for cores in life, let’s just live it. Not even they are completely indifferent toward the world:
We’ve got to scream those wholly indescribable, unutterable things into every human ear so up close no dog will want to live this smartly anymore, only far more dumbly. In order for everyone to lose their sense and get their head back. We’ve got to shove the percentages, bible maxims, girl breasts, sponge cakes, Gauguins, snot rags, spirits, garters, johnnies, vests, cockroaches, all the rigamajig they think, do and roll in, so deep into their throats they finally feel so good like never before. We’ve got to. We’ve got to now.
Thus did Serner delineate the “tendency” of his prose. Of the many roads that lead nowhere, the most pleasant ones are those that make us retch and curious. Such is the ethos of his “amoral” texts. Again, that insatiability of the senses. Serner is painfully aware of the abnormality of contemporary life. The old instincts remain, but their corresponding vitality is gone. Everyday the senses stay empty for 14 hours, the time people live for their jobs, or for contemplation with the sunny task of convincing them they’ve got no instincts whatsoever. Con artists of today can only live a colourful, picturesque life. After all, the only truly noble human posture is to lie on one’s most comical body part, thereby affecting the skies above more than through the best of actions.
Despite all the drastic depiction of these people whose only certainty is sexuality, there’s no eroticism in these works. The best congress between a man and a woman is coitus, the second-best is something akin to sex, the worst-case scenario is an erotic hocus-pocus. Between men: at best we value some features of the lips and keep silent; second-best is some harsh skirmish, worst of all is worrying about wrinkles in the face, about importance and perfection. The self-assured grandiose comportment of his characters springs from the realisation of fundamental inner uncertainty in all people. Hence the brash hypocrisy about being hypocritical verging on sheer absurdity. Utterly cynical matter-of-factness. Whoever isn’t a dunce is a cynic. Cynicism: the complete lack of one-sidedness. The cynic and the thug are closely related. To see the only interesting kind of world for the writer as it is! To teach people how to become as empty as they are: that’s what Serner wants.
These works draw upon human life’s paradoxes, in which villain are more deserving of love than noble people. Behind every Serner sentence is quite clearly implied savage laughter. The stories of his flashy pictures, concentrated on action, are most effective through their improbability. They’re inhabited by a whole world of international con artists as they roam the international express trains and cities, the Riviera, the ports, posh hotels downtown, and the promenades. In his last book, Der Pfiff um die Ecke, his style reaches the sharpness of steel. His 22 spy and detective stories are 22 masterful prosaic blasphemies. The entire grotesque tragedy of this world—grotesque and never practical—is captured here in a masterly international jargon.
In the novel Die Tigerin, tragedy derives directly from this “clear insanity.” His protagonist, who goes by the name Fec, forgets that one is not to embark on anything when devoid of illusions. His tragedy is the ultimate disappointment at realising that the notion one is without illusion was itself illusory. The novel is permeated by the ferocious atmosphere of people with the courage to live with no sense, ferociously. That’s how they like it. Paris and the Riviera. The fierce sensual love of a con artist and a cocotte, in which something deeper takes root, something that will destroy Fec – the revenge for not having been devoid of illusion. Which brings to mind comparisons with Francis Carco – his is a sentimental rendering, full of psychologising. In Serner, there’s no moralising or sentimentality, just the rawness of life. The world of outsiders depicted so convincingly we recognise its better side: the desire to portray life outside society and on one’s own hook, which cannot be achieved in a bourgeois society. Experimenting with biting prose style, Serner accomplishes a sovereign creation.
Alongside the abstract and romantically psychologising prose of other expressionists, this Dadaist’s work gives rise to a new manly prose, which having passed through all the layers of manly scepticism and disillusion matures in utter distinctiveness and manly suspense.
Translated by David Vichnar