František Halas (1901—1949) was one of the most significant Czech lyric poets of the 20th century, an essayist, and a translator. He was self-taught, without higher education. After 1921 he started publishing in the communist newspapers Rovnost and Sršatec, and together with Bedřich Václavek co-edited the avant-garde magazines Pásmo and Fronta. In 1926 he became an editor at the Prague publishing house Orbis. During World War II he was active in the resistance movement, and after 1945 he was engaged at the Ministry of Information. His final years were marked by increasing disillusionment with the newly-established communist regime.
“On Dadaism” is Halas’ lecture organised by the Brno Devětsil group and given on 10 Dec 1925 at the Faculty of Arts of Masaryk University. Framed by a Tzaraesque introduction and Groszian conclusion, the lecture is divided into four chapters covering the philosophy, art, politics and morality of Dada as shaped by Halas’ acquaintance with the work of Hausmann, Huelsenbeck, and Serner. At the same time, Halas’ lecture also foregrounds a parallel domestic Dada tradition, esp. the work of Jaroslav Hašek and Ladislav Klíma.
ON DADAISM, by František Halas (Part One)
Take a good look at me.
I’m a dunce, a buffoon, a smoker.
Take a good look at me.
I’m ugly, I’m small, I’m dull.
I’m just like you all.
That’s how a Tristan Tzara lecture would open, and it’s actually how every lecture should open. Flowers are murdered by Latin names, and the colourful cockatoo called Dada must be plucked so one could discover, beside all the merry adventures and surprises it’s brought us, the essence of what brought about its cry, its laughter, that entire circus of words, slurs, lyricisms on which it prided itself so. You will forgive me for speaking so seriously about a thing so unserious and playful, and for at least briefly following its genealogy.
Dada = eternal. It was, it is, and it will be. It’s not an art, it’s more of an intellectual epidemic, it was there in Memphis, Egypt, and now is in New York. It’s to be found all over the world, every place and every age. If you ask for its definition, I can give you a few to choose from:
D = eternal intellectual youth.
D = the beginning and end of the world.
D = the mental state of indifference.
D = a humbug and a bluff.
D = the restoration of idiocy.
D = a wooden rocking horse, the tail of a sacred cow, a double Russian nod, a suckling’s whimper.
D = the reaction against all the fuss about art, about spirit, about the self-deification of the literati.
D = a Manhattanbar blender, one hand mixing a curacao, the other catching hold of its gonorrhea.
And so on, ad infinitum. Every one of the definitions is true as well as the next one. All is true and all is false. We need to understand that if we want to comprehend Dadaism. For many people, Dada became discovered only after it received its trademark. This is how people discover many things, Dada receiving its baptism in 1916 Zürich. In times of war, not all muses fall silent – only the Muses that are legitimised, official, while the proscribed Muses, the Cinderellas whose time it is to rise and shine, have their heyday.
The armies’ bayonets were busy cutting each other’s heads off. A Dadaist would call it the most reasonable operation to be performed on people. Those not lucky enough to assist at these surgeries found some other amusement: some were busy hawking, singing patriotic songs, seducing married wives to help them to fight boredom, others were busy transforming furniture into food, elaborating new philosophical systems of national activism and energy, praying for the victory of “our arms,” and many of them found entertainment in dying of hunger. No wonder, then, that a few people remembered about the possibility of making some art. These were Tzara, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hugo Ball. They had the directives of the ultimate artistic possibilities at their fingertips, and wanted to make use of them. Their cosmopolitanism, temperament and boredom were their greatest assets. They shared a hatred of the bourgeois. At stake was not what one understands by Dada today, at stake was abstract art, marked by expressionism just as cubism and futurism, and it’s clear that in its beginnings Dadaism didn’t know what it wanted. But people versed in playing golf as much as discussing Mallarmé know how to box their corner. Dada was here, owing its dissemination and popularity to Tzara’s PR skills, and in equal measure, to the intensity of the word itself, this rotating nothing which aroused attention and interest on two continents simultaneously. This, then, is the brief history of the inception of Dada as a literary movement. Art was then a framework from which it was to escape soon thereafter. The clash of civilisations and the furnace of world war were the ground on which it thrived. A new way of expressing ancient experience is outrageous to educated people. They feel some kind of terror, and in order to regain their security, they resort to negation and derision. The age has brought quite a few of those – the absurdity of war, the ephemeralisation of stable values, the idiocy of nationalism, etc. The oh so delightful doubtfulness and scepticism were considered inappropriate luxuries. What was needed was to raise this scepticism to the second power. To discredit the entire history and all its notions, to ridicule it all was more fitting than pacifist leaflets and teary-eyed curses. Woe from wit, which marked an end of an epoch, was like the wind driving this vessel with a crew foolishly merry and merrily foolish over a bloody sea. Just as these Dadaists, the soldier in the trenches and the non-combatant worker were both coerced to reflect on the grotesqueness of the whole bloody spectacle, and whenever one feels the end is nigh, it’s always better to rave deliriously than wait contemplatively for it to strike. Let’s just recall all the trench stories, folk anecdotes: the world waiting for Dada, and the Dadaists avowedly giving the people what, it turns out, the people had been waiting for. Dada was an idea touching upon the most vital feelings of the masses, scaring and shaming, but also enlightening them. At the turning point of history, during the downfall of the bourgeois order, the time was ripe to liquidate the art, morality, and philosophy of this world, for it was in these abatises that the bourgeois felt the most secure, these were the holy fires whose custodian he was. Through its absurdity, naivete, nondifferentiation Dada became part of modernity, once and for all. Inadvertently, Dada’s sheer negativity brought about some positive results, giving birth to the streams of crazy poetry we love and imparting a lesson to modern humanity laughing now what it feared only yesterday. Dada was the beginning of that relativising process which puts doubt at the basis of everything. The fanaticism of destruction, the celebration of a slap in the face, the destruction of art attending so carefully to the makeover of the dumb and fatty face of capitalist system, the exposure of the hollowness of philosophy, of trade called morality – that’s Dada’s healthy legacy. It didn’t want to redress, it only wanted to destroy. Dada = even the folksy letters and jokes, the latter especially. Dada is everywhere and it’s good a label has been found for what couldn’t be sorted out earlier. So long, peace out, big up yourself. The Dada of goodbyes. Gauge your eye out and shove a gramophone in its place – congratulatory Dada. And so on and so forth. Everyone can provide more of their own examples.
DADA & PHILOSOPHY
Dada’s infinite indifference to philosophy, i.e. to the search for truths and truths as such, is its defining trait. More needed than philosophy is laughter. Before God made the world, he should have asked the witty ones, said Anatole France. A fortuneteller, overcoat buttons, Bergson: all are equally light. Socrates’ modesty was nothing but cheekiness, for we don’t know even that we know nothing. It turns out that life is just a merry prank and stars are laughter. Let’s all put on a prankster face, as if we understood, so we don’t look infinitely silly at the hour of our death.
Let’s not make the never-absent Hamletism within us into subject matter of newspaper polls and essays. Let’s deal with it on our own. We don’t want to be seen weeping. The fashion of wearing our hearts on the sleeve is long gone. Like the flower in the lapel.
We don’t bury our heads in the cosmos, nor the cosmos in our heads, we’ve learned about the danger of both.
We’re clownishly serious, beyond every tragedy, but inside today’s infantilism.
We’re so active we’re merry. It amounts to the same. Sadness is inactivity. Laughter is a courageous act, a hygiene of constructive work, where tension requires the subordination of all the elementary feelings.
Love of profound rules if better than reverence for philosophical systems. Thought acrobatics entails seeing everything from all sides. All truths, said Klíma, are just comfy sessions on the john. It’s brazen to demand that one be trusted.
The golden rule is that there are no golden rules. Shaw.
The only thing to do is to get rid of one’s Faustianism and laugh at yesterday’s truths just as tomorrow will at those of today.
Dada = contempt for those who’ve found the Tusculum of their weakness in so-called pure spirituality. Spiritualist gobbledygook needed finding out about. A Dadaist is he who’s realised we can only have ideas so long as we can put them to work in the world, says Serner.
Hence the contempt for speculative activity unfettered by a specific effect. Clearly, a Dadaist is an active and positive type, averted away from metaphysics, conceiving of himself as a phenomenon expressive of his age with a civilizational-mechanical tendency at heart which, its crazy headlong tempo notwithstanding, brings fatigue and despair at it all. But that’s no nihilism, no dolce-far-niente Chinese fan, it’s just a barb spurring all the greater activity. Let me alert you however that this goes for only some Dadaists, others have sunken too low into the bourgeois quagmire of today, achieving an Asiatic concentration, and by gazing at their own novel they think they’re making the most valuable effort in the world. Or that they’ve achieved nirvana. Every system is a seduction, ever god a good opportunity for the financiers.
A Dadaist renounces all this, considering as far more important the shape of his shoes and clothes. A worldview is just a word mashup.
A Dadaist = instinctive atheist. There’s no difference between a St. Thomas and him. Both claim that the need for philosophy is born out of boredom.
His confidence is to have none.
He knows there are days and nights in which the stupidest things seem serious, but, aware of their temporariness, he surpasses them.
His exhortation to philosophical ruminants would go as follows: Be empty, as empty as you are.
Today, in an age desperately unenthusiastic, let’s forgive him for saying: At present the most advisable thing in all respects is to die.
The tragedy of the present-day humans is, their instincts have stuck with them. And vitality. In the past, humans guzzled, drank, hunted, copulated, guzzled, copulated, drank, hunted, guzzled, copulated, these days we’ve only 10 hours per day at our disposal to spend on these noble activities.
Dadaists have come to understand that mental processes are crossroads down which we can wander in all possible directions forever. They’ve discovered one great secret: thoughts are formed in the gob. Dada cynicism – oh please, every decent human being that isn’t a dunce is a cynic. Cynicism is the utmost shortcoming of one-sidedness. From cynicism it’s just one step toward eccentricity. Laughing, it guides you toward laughter at everything.
Metaphysicians keep peering into the mirror, looking for themselves, while people peer into the mirror, discovering the world within themselves.
The absolute absurdity of the truth has been proven. Truth is ice and death. The tendency: to cram infinity into a bin (Klíma). To spit on humanity, on Christ, on everything.
Dada = man surprised by modernity. Dada is no abnormality, it’s a mere realisation that as long as it’s possible to toy with the sun and the stars, it’s equally possible with philosophy.
Philosophising is akin to ladies’ anginas. Sometimes one needs to get rid of unwelcome visits.
The head is too round, so it doesn’t go off the tilt. In the hands of the juggler, a skeleton is a diversion.
Dada is a reservoir of activity. Knowing too well about the impending tumble, it repeats Icarus’ gestures, and thus distinguishes itself from him.
Hence its love of adventure, sensation, fantasy, eccentricity, esprit. A life dangerous is a life merry. Nietzsche.
May all philosophers with their folios go rotten, squinting at the world is a crime that should be punished.
At gunpoint, even the most dyed-in-the-wool pessimist with call off their doctrine. See Chesterton.
Dada in its fierceness called out: burn the Louvre, burn the libraries, just as the futurists.
In this period too many people expect too much of books, that is its illness. The great iconoclasm, the philosophy of the hammer is a Dada virtue, for by worshipping things we mummify them, we become dangerous to life. We must be frivolous, we must kill what we loved yesterday if we’ve found another love object. Nietzsche.
We mustn’t be surprised at the frequency of Dada contradictions. It’s the price of Dada fertility.
In the antics of the absurd, magic truths appear. Ephemeral, and so beautiful.
Comical elements are to be found in every tragedy.
If we analyse Niobe’s grief to its bottom, we burst with laughter. Klíma.
To laugh the way a dog barks, a wolf howls. To learn to laugh amounts to becoming natural. Let’s understand: life’s a game. Laughter is accompaniment. It’s a sign of superabundance. The world is whatever a player wants it to be at any given moment.
Bouts of seriousness need to be attributed to human narrow-mindedness.
In order to be Dionysiac, the tiger has no need for Nietzsche. Let’s try and do the same. The laughing person has only one precondition to fulfil. They must be capable of laughing at themselves.
Hence Dada honesty: I’m a dunce, etc.
I recall a sentence of V’s. Our skepticism begins with the confession of faith. That perhaps is entire disease of modern humanity, it’s an ailment, but a dainty one. It prevents people from rigidifying and settling down. Sometimes it may be hurtful. But there are days, after all, we spit on our own days. Serner.
The mobilisation of the witty is the only human mobilisation worth having. No matter if the joke needs to be searched for, as long as it’s found.
Humans incapable of laughter are not only capable of betrayal and trickery and subterfuge, their entire lives are betrayals and subterfuge. Carlyle.
Dadaists see the world as it is. And like children from an Andersen fairy tale they shout out: The king’s naked. They’ve cleansed their drives. All that’s left in us of the divine.
Their wit has been taken ad absurdum, they’ve turned everything on its head, thrown jokish petards at the feet of fat matrons of arts and philosophy. A sight to behold and laugh at, skirts clouded with the fatness of backsides taking to flight, hollering.
Philosophical marathons in search of the truth are won by the wittiest. The quality of the dadajoke lies in its nonsensicality. It’s no beerish/boorish joke to say that a visit to German brothel turns into Tannhäuser visiting the mount of Venus, it’s an unexpected joke, idiotic to the point of being surprising. See Hašek’s jokes. Unburdened by deliberations, it’s a ball, it’s a rocket, it’s one of the joys indispensable to modern humans.
With sadness does the mound thud onto the grave of even the most foolish of fools. It’s better to spend one’s life thinking of what I know is to come than to forget all about it and, once it does show up, get rid of it most expressly. If there’s nihilism here, it’s a nihilism with a positive attitude to life.
Dada has won its struggle against philosophy. It’s a leap above what’s human. In modern humans though. Our children will still, as we once did, spell out (the humbug of education) in schools the one greatest Dada: Love the truth, defend the truth, speak the truth! Until death. J. Hus. Dad wants a life naïve, understandable, undifferentiated, unintellectual.
The wittiness of serious things derives from the feeling of the sovereignty of the spirit.
Dada has given the serious world a good kick.
Translated by David Vichnar