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“The Song Of A Clothes Iron On The Bridge Of Argenteuil” – Melchior Vischer’s Texts for the DADAGLOBE Anthology (Part 3)

Prague Dadaist Melchior Vischer (1895-1975; for more info see here and here) was a prominent figure in early 20s Prague’s artistic scene. After serving briefly in WW1 and then graduating from Charles University, Vischer worked as a theatre critic for the major daily Praguer Presse, where he was an early champion of the work of Franz Werfel, Robert Musil, and Franz Kafka. During the mid-’20s, Vischer and his actress wife Eva Segaljewitsch staged productions of experimental theatre, including Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.The Brno critic Ernst Weiß, meanwhile, writing in Das Tagebuch, compared Second Through Brain in its significance to the innovations of Cézanne, adding: “In every line of this extraordinary work there’s the effortless gift of grace: poetry… Dada is a form, Dada itself is a form for a poet.” 

“A bomb which has to burst open with infection the skulls of our dear ‘bourgeoisie.’”

Vischer’s correspondence with Tzara began in late 1918, with Vischer’s polite letter of greetings apprising Tzara of his plan to start the first Dada journal in Prague. A year later (in January 1920) Vischer wrote again, this time with the manuscript of his “Merzroman” aka Sekunde durch Hirn (an allusion to Kurt Schwitters’s “Merz” collages), inquiring if the dada papa couldn’t be tempted to read it. Vischer’s expectations from his dada alignment were nothing short of earth-shattering: in a French salutation to Tzara and Picabia from April 1920, Vischer announces the publication of Sekunde as no less than “a bomb which has to burst open with infection the skulls of our dear ‘bourgeoisie.’” [1]

However lopsided, the Vischer/Tzara correspondence did yield one tangible result. In the summer of 1921, Tzara set out for Czechoslovakia, hoping to gain adherents for his cause at a time when internal strife within the dada group was beginning to jeopardise the future of the entire movement. Tzara’s biographer Marius Hentea records Tzara’s visit to Carlsbad and Prague, which included a meeting with “Melchior Vischer, one of the leading Czech Dadaists,” but yielded “no concrete plans” and Tzara continued on to Tyrol in September. [2]

[1] Vischer, Unveröffentlichte Briefe und Gedichte, ed. Raoul Schrott [Siegen, 1988] 7.

[2] Marius Hentea, TaTa Dada: The Real Life and Celestial Adventures of Tristan Tzara (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2014) 171.

Dadaglobe Reconstructed

Until recently, the few critics writing on Vischer raised doubts even as to whether Tzara seriously considered Vischer for the Dadaglobe project, in fact whether he considered the project itself with view toward anything more substantial than self-promotion. These doubts have been definitively put to rest with the 2016 publication, at the Kunsthaus Zürich, of Dadaglobe Reconstructed, a monumental archival compendium approximating as much as possible the shape and form of Tzara’s intended project.

Dadaglobe Reconstructed makes it clear that not only was Vischer integral to Tzara’s project from the get-go (his name featuring right next to Tzara’s in the PR material for New York Dada or April 1921) but all his six anecdotal dada sketches indeed reached their destination and were planned for inclusion. They’re not without humour and typical provocative dada self-propaganda, and will be serialised here over the course of the next couple of weeks. For texts nos. 1 & 2, see here and here.

“The souls of footballs are made out of vagina skin, / very elastic, very elastic, / like a parliament majority…”

Set at the iconic impressionist Pont d’Argenteuil just outside metropolitan Paris, Melchior Vischer’s “Song of a Clothes Iron” is both very erudite in the richness of its references & explicitly obscene, although ending on an “unerotic” note. It again bears some resemblance to Second through Brain in featuring a “falling point of view”, dealing with racial/racist stereotypes, as well as brimming with present-day political & cultural trivia. Its concluding “unerotic” question regarding Apollinaire’s death (in Nov 1918) is valuable clue vis-à-vis its approximate dating.

Although referencing “the world’s first female Dadaist” with “an electric lightbulb hanging from her navel,” the poem’s imagery is proto-surrealist (perhaps in homage to Apollinaire). Based on freely associative flights of fancy, the poem furthers an element of surprise in its many unexpected juxtapositions and non sequiturs (“two champagne buckets demand self-determination”), creating many a strange creature from everyday objects (“a clerical matchstick sings a symphony”), transporting us into an oneiric world where uncanny sentences such as “the yellow tire of the syphilitic car is trying to kiss the carpet dealer’s patent shoe” appear almost commonplace.

In addition, the text’s politics is more & less explicitly subversive of German imperialism & orientalism. The history of German cultural orientalism dates back to Goethe’s reading of Hafez in his famous collection, “Der west-östliche Diwan” (1819/27). Vischer’s text features the divan & alludes to Goethe’s poem “Wandrers Nachtlied” (“The Wanderer’s Nightsong”), combining it with contemporary revolution in physics: “theory of relativity reigns o’er the tops of trees.” Legend has it that Goethe wrote this poem with a pencil on a wooden wall inside a lodge, never intending to publish it.

The most popular supporter of imperial orientalism was Wilhelm II. who famously wore a pith helmet with a spike on his campaign in Palestine 1898, mentioned in Vischer’s text as “a piece of jewellery like Wilhelm’s pith helmet” (see here). When Wilhelm II. arrived in Jerusalem, 21 canon shots were fired to greet his 90+follower entourage & a 3-kilometre-long caravan. It was here that he also met Theodor Herzl (photographs of the encounter have survived, cf. here).

In the early 1920s, German “Panbabylonism” was at its peak, with comparisons drawn between Berlin & Babylon not just stuff of poetic licence, but a topographical reality. A central idea of German Panbabylonism was the recurrence of Christian myths, & the revision of the calendar & the clock according to the sexagesimal system – also alluded to by Vischer in the line, “in yellow the kabbala number gyrates: 606”.

Introduced by David Vichnar & Tim König

Melchior Vischer, THE SONG OF A CLOTHES IRON ON THE BRIDGE OF ARGENTEUIL

(Dadaglobe Reconstructed [Kunsthaus Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2016] p. 151)

the heat’s roaring around my bosom,

the silent landscape of Paris,

a clerical matchstick sings a symphony,

in short, a scream,

& the tramway engulfs it

with a fatal furioso together with the embryonic light,

all over, all over,

the servant’s cap is red,

in yellow the kabbalah number gyrates: 606,

the accidental Negro mounts

with great manliness, /terribly stretched/,

a film-diva who long awaited that one explosion,

the gush of blood spilling away far & wide

over the cake that lies on the messenger’s outstretched arms

like a lazy prayerbook,

raisins fall from the sky

and drip thick and heavy onto the pavement & into the water

like green mandarins,

wung, scheng wu, wu wu,

elderly beggars sitting at the bridge railing

give birth to the Chinese,

s

the souls of footballs are made out of vagina skin,

very elastic, very elastic,

like a parliament majority,

the brothel porter recites the lost verses

of Catullus and arias,

the journalist stands before him and surely understands it,

though it be all Latin & Greek.

The yellow tire of the syphilitic car is trying

to kiss the carpet dealer’s patent shoe,

the moon suddenly falls from the sky into the water,

even a director gets murdered,

Shakespeare & I are eating eggs together,

the tragic actress is lying spread on the divan

letting her shame rotate,

then shave, oooh,

theory of relativity reigns o’er the tops of trees,

a piece of jewellery like Wilhelm’s pith helmet,

the glasses are gawking near the samovar,

the midwife’s eating a roastbeef,

while the viceking of India spurts on the wet nurse’s bosom,

Quasimodo howls from the Notre Dame,

two champagne buckets demand self-determination,

the world’s first female Dadaist is passing by,

there’s an electric lightbulb hanging from her navel,

the clothes iron vomits apples & nuts,

now falling off the bridge into the water,

chased in the fall by the unerotic question:

does Clemenceau know Apollinaire’s dead?

Translated by David Vichnar & Tim König

About Equus Press

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

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