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Walter Serner, Last Loosening – 1918 Dada Manifesto (Prague Dada Miscellany – Part Five)

Walter Serner was born into a Jewish family as Walter Eduard Seligmann on January 15, 1889 in the Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad at that time). His father, Berthold Seligmann, owned the town’s major newspaper, the Karlsbader Zeitung, for which Walter wrote an arts column. In 1909, he graduated from the gymnasium in Kadaň and soon thereafter matriculated at the University of Vienna’s Law Faculty, formally converting to Catholicism and changing his name to Serner. In 1911, he organised in Karlovy Vary’s Café Park Schönbrunn a large exhibition of Oskar Kokoschka‘s work. Serner quit school and left for Berlin in 1912 where he became a contributing writer for the avant-garde magazine Die Aktion and associated with anarchists. He finally finished his law degree at the University of Greifswald.

A staunch pacifist, with the outbreak of WWI Serner left for Switzerland and ended up in Zurich co-editing with Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings the magazine Der Mistral (where under the name Wladimir Senakowski he published his first prose). A founding member of Dada, according to Hans Richter, he was “the great cynic of the movement, the total anarchist, an Archimedes who put the world out of whack and then left it to hang.” And for Christian Schad, it was Serner who “fertilized Dada with ideas, who gave Dada its ideology.” What were these ideas? That idealism was a con, that fixed identity was a danger to be avoided, and that boredom was at the root of everything.

Active as well in Geneva and Bern, in 1918 in Lugano, he wrote the first version of Letzte Lockerung, his infamous Dada Manifesto, much of which, rumour has it, was later plagiarised by Tristan Tzara for his Dada Manifesto. Fed up with the careerism of the artists drawn to Dada, whom he saw as “caged in their own intellect,” he distanced himself from the movement and focused on writing. His first volume of crime stories appeared, and in 1920 he met with Breton in Paris, broke with Tzara, and now with a Czechoslovak passport headed to Naples to join Schad. By 1921 he was back in Germany and working on his novel The Tigress, which came out in 1925 in Berlin, as well as publishing more volumes of short crime stories, but now not with his former publisher Steegeman, who became so angered that he published a letter in the Prager Tagblatt calling Serner an “international con man,” a “pimp” and “whorehouse proprietor.”

Serner was constantly on the move, turning up here and there across Europe for the rest of the decade, and Zurich officials registered 34 different addresses for him between 1915 and 1933. What he lived on, no one knew, but he did have a rich benefactor in Dutch millionaire Anton van Hoboken, to whom Last Loosening is dedicated. He seemed to drop out of sight, lending further credence to the myth that he had become part of the criminal underworld. But he had returned to Czechoslovakia, married his longtime girlfriend from Berlin, Dorothea Herz (also Jewish), and lived the quiet life of a schoolteacher in Prague (first at Revoluční 30 and then Kolkovna 5). The Nazis banned and burned his books once they took power (despite many public interventions by fellow writers including Alfred Döblin), and when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia, Serner and his wife made numerous futile attempts to leave the country for Shanghai. On August 10, 1942 they were deported to the Terezin concentration camp and ten days later, on August 20, put on transport headed to Riga, where it appears they both died, though no one really knows where (some say it was in Minsk).

Hans Richter noted: “Serner was so naïve as to think he could find sympathizers in the world of art. After turning his back on the art world — the very art world that would later use his ideas like a brand of laundry detergent — he glorified a world of swindlers in which everybody deceives everybody.

Hans Arp, who wrote automatic poems with him and Tristan Tzara, described him in this way: “Serner was a medical doctor, a writer and an adventurer. He was tall, thin, had an eastern elegance about him and occasionally wore a monocle. […] Serner loved adventure and, as might befit an adventurer, has long since disappeared. No one knows what actually became of him, not even his friend Christian Schad, who also worked on the final Dada publications. Serner reminded me of a swallow. He loved people that made their way on unstable paths through life, smiling dandies, modern misfits. He loved trapezes, mirages, echoes, synthetic mushrooms, and manicured and pedicured Sterne, or, stars. Occasionally, he rushed up stairs as if he were rushing to the rooftop to discreetly watch a judge being hanged. He had the gait of an artiste, who is proudly hopping across the safety net to the thunderous applause of the audience, dancing off lightly.”

Source: Twisted Spoon Press

Last Loosening was published in the same year as Melchior Vischer’s dada novel Second through Brain, and with the same publisher: in 1920 with Paul Steegemann in Hanover. In September 1920, Hamburger Correspondent reviewed it as follows: “Last Loosening is a terrible book, proceeding sentence by sentence through various fierce emotions, and since each of them is in a way ‘appropriate,’ its reading throws one into a state of chaos, threatening to escalate into catastrophe.” With bolshevism and psychology as its lateral targets, Serner’s book launches a frontal attack against institutional art (after religion and philosophy, the last bastion of Western culture), which in its day and age evoked outrage. Serner’s triumphant irreverence and ferocity however inspired a whole range of German literati and artists. Last Loosening is written in a wholly new, exciting style, which found a number of epigones. Thus Dada, this erstwhile modern, but indistinctly formed art group with an original slogan, got from Serner’s manifesto its style and tendency.

To this day, no complete English translation of this foundational text of Dadaism exists. Selected excerpts translated into Czech appeared in 1926-7 in magazines such as ReD and Literární noviny, penned by Bedřich Václavek (see his Serner eulogy here). The first complete Czech translation of Letzte Lockerung by Radoslav Charvát appeared only in 2013. Below is its opening, the first 12 sections (of a total of 78) that comprise part one (of six total).


10 Round a fireball dashes a sphere full of excrements, on which women’s silken stockings are sold and Gauguins evaluated. A most deplorable aspect, which nonetheless makes a little difference: silken stockings can be understood, Gauguins cannot. (To imagine Bernheim as eminent biologist.) A thousand mini-brained embêtant Rastas, serving the erected bourgeois middle fingers their feuilleton columns (oh that impasto tinkle!) in order to let the money flow loose, have wreaked such havoc it still to this day keeps many a lady short-changed. (A three-minute reflection on the psychosis of ill-conceived optics; a clinical symptom, primarily: underestimation of women’s silken stockings; secondarily: indigestion.)


20 What could the first brain that appeared on this globe have possibly been doing? It was presumably dumbstruck by its own presence and had no idea what to do with itself and the dirty vehicle underneath its feet. Meanwhile humans have grown accustomed to their brains, treating them so lightly they no longer even ignore them, turning themselves into Rastas (all the way down: a blackish Pole; all the way up: let us say a senate chairman) and turning the wrongly beloved nature into backdrop for a strongly impressive piece. This no doubt unexceptionally heroic escape from the still underestimated dilemma may have lost all its daintiness ever since becoming so predictable (how inane is personal weight!), but that is why it is still good enough for launching certain processes.


30 Even the engine driver gets the notion at least once a year that his relation to the engine is not all that urgent and what he knows about his wife amounts to little more than what he did after that dewy night in Bois. (Were I to write La Villette or Theresienwiese, both relations would be quite illusory; a pointer for the habili-tants: “On topographical anatomy, psychical change in atmosphere and related matters.”) At the Ronceroy Hotel or in Piccadilly, it so happens that it is damned unclear why a person should stare at their hand and warble, hear themselves squawk and become enamoured of their saliva. Closest to this seemingly so peaceful example is the possibility that the penetrating feeling of boredom rises toward a reflection on its own original cause. Such dainty moment gives rise to a desperado (oh what a dearie!) who as a prophet, artist, anarchist, statesman etc., in short a Rasta, performs skulduggery.


40 Napoleon, otherwise a truly sprightly youth, asserted irresponsibly that the true human vocation is to cultivate land. What? Did the plough fall from the skies? But something I would say the homo did manage to receive, I suppose it was the love-malnourished female voice. But in any case it was not ploughing; and herbs and fruits were already there then. (Here, please read up on the works of German biogeneticists why I am wrong. It will bore your socks off. Which is why I am right.) Hence, of late: even Napoleon, otherwise marked by a refreshing lack of restraint, was every now and then a mood athlete. Pity. Real pity.


50 Everything is rastaquoèresque, my dearies. Everyone is (more or less) an airy delusion, dieu merci. (By the way: ten centimes to the daredevil that proves there is such a thing running around as the norm!) Otherwise we would have an epidemic bucket-kicking on our hands. Diagnose: furious ennui; or: frightened resignation; or: transcendental aggrievement, etc. (This can be developed ad libitum and elevated into a list of all non-charismatic states.) The current state of inhabited land is thus a mere logical outcome of boredom that has become insufferable. Boredom: still a most harmless word. Everyone should search for the tastiest word for their inferiority! (A hearty subject for a pledges game!)


60 It is universally known that a dog is not a hammock; less so, that without this soft hypothesis the painter’s smeary fist sinks low; and not at all, that interjections are most fitting: worldviews are word mixtures…  jeepers creepers, the procedure needs broadening here. (So you get the picture: mild craniotomy!) But: no stylist can evolve to donkey-level. For the style is just an awkward gesture of the wildest structure. And since awkwardness (after a brief nap) usually turns out to be the most perfect self-pity, it is possible to observe that for fear of being considered donkeys, stylists behave worse than them. (Donkeys have two extraordinary qualities: they are recalcitrant and lazy.) The difference between Paul Oskar Höcker, Dostoevsky, Zobeltitz and Wedekind manifests itself only in their management of said awkward gesture. If anyone wants to convince me, be it through well-oiled trochees or a dazzling inundation of images (all images are understandable) or so-to-speak expressionistically, that they were in a bad way, but ever since they wrote their way out of it, black on white, they have been relieved, or that they were well-off (lo and behold!) but took a turn for the worse when incapable of grasping it (yikes!): all that is just the same old unexciting effort to overcome one’s awkwardness by – creating. Terrible word! Which is to say: turning life, improbable down to its fingertips, into something probable! Arching some redemptive skies over this chaos of filth and riddles!! Perfuming the human dung and ordering it!!! Thanks a lot…  Is there an image more idiotic (oomph!) than a genius head stylising, and while so doing, flirting with itself? (By the way: my sympathy for those endeavouring to prove that these ethics-brandishing prigs are really after coquetry!) Oh, across this all too lively awkwardness ending in a bow to oneself! Therefore (for the sake of this stylised distortion) philosophy and novels get sweated out, paintings smeared, sculptures knocked off, symphonies creaked out and religions launched! What terrible ambition, especially since all this idle monkey business (first and foremost in the German-speaking areas) fails hands down!! It is all one devilment!


70 The most beautiful landscape I know is the Café Barratte near the Parisian Les Halles. For two reasons. There I made Germaine’s acquaintance, who among other things hissed: “C’est possible que je serais bonne, si je savais pourquoi.” I add gleefully: I paled with joy. And it was also in this establishment that Jean Kartopaïtès, who otherwise talked only to sirs without stand-up collars, brusquely broke off contact with me, since I was so careless as to drop the name Picasso.


80 Oh those dear white porcelain plates! Since… well it is like this: once people used to mediate what they said they could not utter, and thus did not have, through painting. (Yippee yay! As if someone could paint a nice and quaint portrait of a mere vice-queen, not knowing she is no easy-chair!) See: hammock! One could gleefully grin in advance at the notion of what would become of these daubsters should they stop jerking off their oil photos. (Mark this well: more girls, please, more girls!) Ah but those impressions! So: what gets achieved if after a few hours of wild blinking we realise that also this potato-eater could discern one cow only, but only thus was he able to convince himself that it is his cow, a wholly extraordinary cow, briefly: the cow, the one and only, redemptory? Holy cow! Ah but those expressions! So: what gets achieved if we stare fixedly at what an adjective can do and how—since it has not managed to work as a pointer—it is rendered vain before painted? But those cubists, futurists! Hoppity hop: champions of ultravioletly thwarted paintbrush assaults have let it be known that with this (phew!) liberatio they will stylishly swing down from up above (trapezoidal ride! trapezoidal ride! as in: “This awkwardness we will shake off!”), but they have achieved instead is not only that no Chignon got swinging, but also that even the wildest donkeys have managed to walk to their fame. (Oh, Sagot jumped-on with a toss! etc. pp. pp.) Devilment! Devilment!! Devilment!!!


90 Section 8 has spelled it out for the not-quite grown-up: textbook-like, extraordinarily textbook-like! Still, just a nota bene for the little ones:

  1. sculpture: a very clumsy toy, escalated by a metaphysically raised eyebrow
  2. music: Pantopon- or eroticism-ersatz (long pre-textbook!)
  3. lyrical poetry: the young lad feels clamped; recipe: ask him which woman he is dreaming about and you can tell him which one he has not slept with. (Of course one is always in a tight spot; one should have long outgrown the c-clamp however.)
  4. the novel etc.: the gents talk as if on the spit, or lately not at all. Just a little more sweat and the thing is a success: belles lettres! (One does find oneself on the spit rather often. A Samuel Fischer volume is too protracted a means for traversing the Syracuse-bread-and-butter-central heating airline.)
  5. drama, tragedy, comedy: the clamp comes to a head, gets stuck and evokes in the audience the dull assumption that the cinema will make for the best second dessert after all (given the lack of poussage).

In sum, my little ones: art used to be a childhood illness.


100 No man has ever any thought. At best thoughts pretend as if… (But that’s just twaddle!) Every single word is a disgrace, mind my word. Man keeps tooting out sentences with circus-like pomp over chain bridges (or also: plants, ravines, beds). A beneficial proposal: before going to sleep let’s imagine as exactly as possible the mental state of a suicide about to improve his self-confidence with a bullet, at last. We can manage that only by first embarrassing ourselves. Truly so. By making utter fools of ourselves. Disgracing ourselves beyond belief. So terribly we disgrace everything with us. That everyone falls to their knees. And sneezes.


11Interjections are most fitting. (Oh those dear white porcelain plates!)… These amphibians and newts that take themselves for too good to be donkeys need to be brought to their sense. By getting those notions out of their heads. Whipping them outta there. That terrible larger-than-life postcard blueness, which these pitiable Rastas have falsified up into the Ha- Ho- Hu- Hi- (pardon?) Heavens, is to be torn down. One has to, shyly but surely, dunk one’s head in the neighbour’s brain as in a rotten egg (yep, yep). One has to shout out into that brain all the utterly indescribable, absolutely inexpressible from such unbearable close-up that no dog will want to live so smartly anymore, but much more dumbly. Until everyone loses their mind and regains their own head. One has to take all their percentages, biblical sayings, bosoms, omelettes, Gauguins, besotted handkerchiefs, booze, garters, shitter lids, vests, bedbugs, all they think and do and all they clutter their brains with, and carry it one by one in front of their dental arches so that they feel as good as they used to only in their wooziness. One has to. Simply has to. Blast it!


12Women’s silken stockings are invaluable. A vice-queen is an easy-chair. Worldviews are word mixtures. A dog is a hammock. L’art est mort. Vive dada!

Translated by David Vichnar

About Equus Press

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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“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
September 2018
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