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Tristan Tzara, Surrealism and the Postwar Era, Part One (Prague Dada Miscellany – Part Eight)

Tristan Tzara’s lecture, delivered in March 1946 in Prague, is introduced with an apology for “the Munich betrayal” and French political participation in it. Tzara then presents a thorough reflection on the birth and development of the Dada movement. Emphasising the feelings of frustration of the 1914-1918 war generation, he shows how “Dada was born out of moral necessity, out of the unshakeable determination to achieve moral absoluteness.”  As one of Dada’s lasting contributions he singles out choosing “spontaneity” as “our one life rule”. Without disregarding the movement’s scandalous aspects, Tzara carefully and eruditely points out its continuity with the revolutionary spirit of French poetry, esp. Rimbaud, Verlaine, Jarry and Apollinaire.This excerpt ends on Tzara’s noting how “out of the ashes of Dada that saw its role as finished” surrealism was born.

SURREALISM AND THE POSTWAR ERA (Part One)

Ladies and Gentlemen:

First of all, I’d like to express my joy at being with you here today and thank you for your warm welcome, which extends to French writers, French culture (always so much alive in this country), French revolutionary tradition and its spirit of freedom. We owe you a great debt. The debt of Munich. However, this Munich betrayal, orchestrated by the Nazis of all countries, was aimed not only at this country, but also at France. When in 1938 I last visited your lovely country, a few intellectuals I talked to were already anticipating the conspiracy secretly plotted against the freedom of nations. We still thought we could forestall the great crime. But after Spain, it was your turn, then ours, as expected. One need not have been a prophet. Today’s France, created out of resistance, is a new country. The Munich orchestrator has been swept away from the French political scene. Both our countries can again bear the responsibility for the fate of humanity heading for liberation. May I, in the name of this solidarity, remember here the years of opprobrium, obscurity, despair and heroism, which provoked in the French intellectuals an almost unanimous national awakening, bringing into being a resistance movement whose place of honour in French history is now forever secured.

These four years have marked a watershed period whose importance we can hardly divine, even if we imagine the future which can produce the best just as the worst. […] At the risk of appearing a diehard optimist, I take the liberty of confessing to you my deep faith in the future of humanity. In its grand variety, life is still beautiful and in the plenitude of its possibilities, suffering itself can be a good, for when gained in the desert of the everyday, it bears fruitful grain and conceals life, life in the varied disguise of its endless hope. This is not some sort of blessed optimism and I won’t fool you with claiming that everything in this world is good for something, today when so much disquiet still distorts the picture we’d made of the post-WW1 era we’d anticipated so much. We knew the price to pay for freedom. We know what freedom means. […]

When I say “we” I mean especially the generation that during the 1914-18 war suffered in the bloom of its youth, pure and open to life, which suffered at the sight all around of truth defamed and begrimed with the mean class interests. That war was not our war. We lived heavily through it, amidst the falseness of its emotions and mediocrity of its excuses. Such was the mental state characterising the youth of thirty years ago at a time Dada was born in Switzerland. Dada was born out of moral necessity, out of the unshakeable determination to achieve moral absoluteness, out of the deep feeling whereby humanity amidst all the creations of its spirit proved it superiority over the empty notions of human nature, over dead things and over possessions unrightfully gained. Dada was born out of the revolt common to every youth, requiring the individual’s complete adhesion to the deepest necessities of their essence, regardless of history, logic, or morality. Honour, Land, Family, Art, Religion, Freedom, Brotherhood, and who knows how many more notions now stand as empty conventions, emptied of their original content.

Descartes’ famous sentence, “I don’t even want to know if there were people before me,” we made into a title of one of our publications. This meant we wanted to view the world with new eyes, we wanted to test and examine the rightness of notions imposed upon us by our predecessors. In this, despite lacking any systematic plan, we were akin to scientists, who at the same time were busy meticulously re-evaluating the most basic discoveries of physics, ascertaining where the gaps were, and rebuilding the monumental edifice of modern physics from the ground up. While keeping all the proportions our efforts for renewal moved within the realm of moral experiments of the poetic and artistic kind, while endeavouring to remain close to the social order and everyday practice. Our revulsion from the bourgeois and the forms into which he dressed up his ideological safety in his unchangeable definitive world, was not exactly a Dada discovery. […]

Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Jarry, Saint-Pol-Roux, Apollinaire – a whole slew of poets have been lighting our way. Our intrepidness went even further, however. We proclaimed our reluctance, making spontaneity our one life rule. We refused any difference between life and poetry, our poetry being a way of life. Dada opposed all that was literature. In order to hit the very foundations, we resorted to the most treacherous methods, the means of this art and this literature proper. Why did we, fed by the works of many poets who were our paragons, oppose literature? Our impression was that the world was drowning in futile palaver and art and literature had become institutions serving an outdated society instead of humanity. They served war, pretending the best of intentions while covering up cruel inequality, emotional dearth, injustice and low drives. […]

Thus, we were brought to attack the very foundations of this society: the language that its people used to communicate and the logic that bound them together. The consequence of our conception of spontaneity according to the principle that the thought is formed inside the mouth, was the suppression of logic and preference for the original expressions of life. I shan’t dwell on the depiction of the scandalous side of Dada, even though it too was considered a poetic expression. […] Our ideas aimed to exasperate the audience were numerous. The audience themselves was divided into multiple groups. Some believed us to be clever hoaxers, others, complete dunces; few were they with an ounce of trust in us. Among those, I must name Valéry, Gide and Jacques Riviére. They had all the reason not to know what was at stake, for while we went about humiliating ourselves to the point of attracting attacks and disfavour, the clarity and precision of Aragon’s, Breton’s, and Éluard’s writings convinced even the most diehard of our foes. Was this movement, whose destructive side they saw only, necessary? It’s not for me to answer this question. What is for certain, though, is that the tabula rasa, which we elevated to the status of the leading idea, was worthwhile only if something else was to follow after it. We were after changing the status quo, considered harmful and monstrous. This necessary disorder—written about by Rimbaud already—carried within it a hope for a long-lost order, or an order yet to come. […]

Dada was a brief explosion in the history of literature, but a powerful and resounding one. It was a typical mark of its character that it voluntarily ended its own existence. Dada was one of those adventures of the spirit which casts everything again into doubt. It undertook a serious revision of values and called upon all of its adherents’ personal responsibility. It taught us that the poet should pursue their moral principles to the brink of their existence uncompromisingly, with utter self-denial. For Dada the literary movement was first of all of a moral nature. Dada was individualistic and to an extent anarchic, an expression of the youthful turmoil of all times. Dada’s activity ended in 1922. I don’t want to dwell on the various summersaults and skirmishes concealing, under the disguise of personal fights, efforts to achieve the principles and goals of various tendencies. These skirmishes were in a sense crucial as they reflected the diversity of ideological methods marking the period. Thus was born, out of the ashes of Dada that saw its role as finished, surrealism. All former Dadaists took part in it, with individual breaks.

After the seemingly negative work of Dada, surrealism undertook a certain reconstruction. It demanded the validation of the rights of imagination. It demanded unlimited rights in this sphere. We tried to reduce the “action” and “dream” dilemma. In other words, revolutionary action—in the sense both practical and ideological—and poetry were to have a common criterion, one and only root and goal: human freedom. We’re still far from managing to unite these opposite terms, but the problem was at least posited in all its breadth and seriousness, so often attributed to the surrealists.

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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“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
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