Dadaist forerunners: Paul Guillaume, Pierre Albert-Birot, Paul Dermée, Jean Cocteau, Raymond Radiguet--The "Dada Manifesto 1918"--Tzara's renown--Transfer of the Vaché myth--Tristan Tzara arrives in Paris--Meeting with the Littérature group--Kickoff: First "Friday of Littérature"--Bulletin Dada
Picabia probably arranged to meet Breton at the end of December, after receiving his letter of December 11, 1919. His children fell ill, though, and he canceled their meeting at the last minute, asked Breton to forgive him, and invited him to come see him whenever he liked the following week; Breton did so on Sunday, January 4. Germaine Everling was present, and described the memorable meeting as follows:
I saw a young man arrive, both timid and magnificent. He had abundant chestnut-brown hair, tossed back like a lion's mane in the manner of the romanticists. Large tortoiseshell glasses gave him a serious, probably mannered air. . . . He spoke with affected slowness and the words fell from his thick lips like drops of honey. He had refined manners, belied by a sardonic eye.
Conversation between the two men was lively and impassioned from the moment they met. They became so absorbed in Nietzsche, Lautréamont, Rimbaud, and Tzara that Picabia forgot his mistress was in the throes of a delivery in the next room, and the midwife had in extremis to show the two prattlers to the door. They agreed to meet again the following Thursday.
On the very next day, the 5th, Breton wrote a long letter about how important this meeting had been to him, and his wish to continue the interrupted conversation as soon as possible. The meeting had obviously emphasized the immense chasm that separated the two men, both intellectually and physically, as well as what was to bring them together in the immediate future. Breton had no doubt spoken enthusiastically of his passion, elaborated upon in Littérature, for Lautréamont and Reverdy: faced with the reserved reaction of Picabia, who had probably read neither (and felt no shame about it) and had countered with Nietzsche, the only author with whom he was moderately familiar, Breton suddenly understood the real nature of the Dadaist revolt and saw his own literary adventure, caught in the rut left by SIC and Nord-Sud, in a different light.
This meeting was the first of several. The whole of Thursday, January 8, was devoted to strengthening these new ties. Breton became one of Germaine Everling's regular visitors. It was as if the young man drew from fresh determination from his meetings with Picabia, and something like a revelation of the meaning that he would henceforth give to his actions. One can, in fact, consider this meeting with Picabia as the precise date on which the Dada movement began in Paris: on one side the confluence of subversive ideas that Picabia and Duchamp had been slowly developing over the preceding six years in New York, strengthened by the Dadaist activities in Zurich; on the other side, the still vague but powerful liberating current represented by the Littérature group.
Events were to follow one another in quick succession in those very first days of 1920, secret trends were to come out in the open, diffuse aspirations to take form, and vague impulses to metamorphose into courageous actions. The uncertainty that had seemed to weigh upon Breton's deeds and translate into ambiguous opinions appeared to give way to a more decisive state of mind, as if Littérature had suddenly found something to fight for. All that was needed was a spark to touch off an explosion. This spark proved to be Tristan Tzara's arrival. The Romanian poet living in Zurich had been preceded by an extraordinary reputation before arriving in Paris. Reports of Dada's activities in Switzerland had filtered into the French journals and were enough to crown the leader of this subversive movement with the halo of a poète maudit. Despite the censorship at the borders, his poems were, as we have seen, widely circulated within the minor press of the avant-garde, and contrasted sharply with all the verse of that period, which was still marked by an aging cubism or overshadowed by Apollinaire's protean genius. With an innate sense of the elements that would appeal to crowds, Tzara orchestrated his own publicity from a distance. From the very beginning of the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 he had methodically contacted French, German, and Italian authors and periodicals, soliciting contributions and exchanges through circulars and standard letters, without paying much heed to their linguistic negligence.
Less concerned with his correspondents' Dadaist orthodoxy than with their ability to eventually serve Dada's higher interests, and not knowing about the importance and relative positions of the French writers, he gladly welcomed every offer to help.
One of the first to offer, on April 22, 1916, was Paul Guillaume, who had just opened his gallery and was eagerly looking for contacts abroad. He agreed to help Tzara by means of all the connections at his disposal: "It is understood," he clarified, however, "that I can sympathize only with those of your performances that are Francophile or 'Allied' in nature." Paul Guillaume's correspondence, preserved in the Tzara archives, reveals the collector's vital role in bringing together the diverse intellectual and artistic forces during the war years. It was through him, as we know, that Tzara was able to make his way to Apollinaire. It is also through Guillaume that Tzara came into contact with Marius de Zayas, a member of the New York Dadaist group, in September 1916.
A few months later Tzara received one of SIC's first issues and got in touch with Pierre Albert-Birot, whose practical aims chimed with his own. A long epistolary exchange followed, accompanied by various expressions of friendship (de rigueur among poets, even if they belong to different sides), and a fruitful exchange of ideas.
This exchange went to the extent of Tzara asking Albert-Birot to take charge of Dada's distribution in France. Albert-Birot's refusal in no way affected relations between the two men--at least, not until Tzara came to Paris in person to upset the applecart.
Always on the lookout for an agent in France, and with no commercial firm prepared to risk burning its fingers distributing his sulfurous magazine, Tzara started negotiating with Paul Dermée, at that point the principal contributor to Reverdy's Nord-Sud. Dermée, who was incredibly ambitious and active, saw the advantage he could gain from bringing the Dada concept and journal to Paris. He stated his conditions clearly, though: he intended to be more than just a distributor; he demanded the title of co-director or editor-in-chief. Tzara agreed, and the rumor spread on the Left Bank that Dermée had been named Dadaist proconsul. Unfortunately this news came a few days after Dermée's famous lecture on Max Jacob, which "alienated" a good number of poets and artists--Breton's friends, in any case --against him. There was a veritable outcry against the author of Spirales: "Reverdy, Breton, Aragon, Soupault ask that you not publish their poems if the next issue of Dada contains Paul Dermée"s poems," wrote Radiguet to Tzara on March 15, 1919. The latter, taken aback by this sudden widespread hostility--faintly ridiculous to a Romanian from Zurich--made his intentions clear to Breton and Reverdy, and indefinitely postponed his projects with Dermée.
In truth, Tzara's whimsical literary connections tended to displease the Littérature group--who themselves were not above reproach in this respect. In a letter to Tzara on January 28, 1919, Soupault opened up to him: "Now that you know I am a friend and admirer of Dada 3, I would like to speak with you very frankly. . . . I learnt much too quickly that you had written to many writers and poets who publish their works either in Nord-Sud or in SIC. Some of these writers have great talent, and their works are worthy of appearing alongside the remarkable manifesto that you wrote. Among them I see Reverdy, Breton, Birot, Radiguet, Aragon, and Huidobro--but too much eclecticism would destroy Dada's well-deserved reputation." By eliminating the "good" authors from the contents of the aforementioned magazines, we can see whom this discussion was really about: Max Jacob, whose macaronic style never pleased Breton; Dermée, for the reasons already cited above; Roch Grey-Léonard Pieux, who was considered negligible; and above all, Jean Cocteau.
The author of Cap de Bonne-Espérance had responded warmly, as was his wont, to the advances of this young unknown Romanian, who sent him his Vingt-cinq poèmes and asked for his latest volume in exchange: "Thank you for your letter in which poetry seems to create itself in rock crystal. I am following all of Dada's efforts closely." He was understanding when, having sent Tzara "Trois pièces faciles pour petites mains" (Three Easy Pieces for Tiny Hands), nicely expressed in what he believed to be a Dada manner, they came back to him in Dada 4-5 (Anthologie Dada) embellished with distressing typos. He was the first to announce--prematurely--his correspondent's arrival in Paris: "Tristan Tzara is about to publish in Paris two issues of the journal Dada that he edits in Switzerland, and which has been causing a scandal. I simply find in it the same exciting atmosphere as that of the intermission at the Casino de Paris where a cosmopolitan crowd was pushing to get in and hear the jazz band. If we accept the jazz band (whose ancestor is our good one-man band), we must also welcome a literature which the mind savors like a cocktail." When this arrival was delayed, Cocteau made no secret of his disappointment: "I was hoping for a great get-together of adventurers. I am sure that we would have gotten along very well."
This was without counting on the vigilant attention of the "Three Musketeers" who, having removed Cocteau from Littérature's pages, had trouble tolerating his acceptance in a related journal. Soupault thus summoned Tzara to withdraw a note on the Cap de Bonne-Espérance that he had previously sent to him for Dada 4-5.
Breton and his friends were severe where Cocteau was concerned, yet showed singular goodwill toward Radiguet: there was perhaps something Machiavellian in discriminating so clearly between two people who were so closely bound by their known elective affinities. In any case, Tzara cared little for these subtle discriminations, and in December 1918, through Albert-Birot, he wrote to the adolescent prodigy, who immediately sent him poems and manuscripts.
The first result of this abundant and substantial correspondence between Dada's director and the representatives of the various "modern" French trends was to familiarize him with the problems and vexations within the small circle of the Parisian literary world. By the end of 1919, we can say that Tzara already had a pretty clear impression of most of the avant-garde artists and poets, and when all was said and done, it was the views of the Littérature group that most closely matched his own.
Conversely, Tzara's personality had slowly taken on superhuman proportions in the minds of the "Three Musketeers." Because of the hostilities, it was not easy to substantiate the rumors coming from Zurich, and legend had taken precedence over history. The most improbable anecdotes were repeated in Parisian journals, as well as in the Dadaist periodicals imported almost illicitly into Paris, which had so horrified the good Adrienne Monnier. After the armistice, emissaries confirmed the stories and embellished them with spicy details. As early as 1918, the birth of Dada as it was recounted in Paris had but tenuous links to the truth. In the autumn of 1919, the painter Marcel Janco stayed in Paris for a few weeks: a braggart by nature, and moreover on rather bad terms with Tzara, he portrayed the latter as a fairly disreputable individual; this, instead of underminig Dada's leader with Breton and Soupault, only managed to transform him into a dark and splendid figure, reigning over a cabaret filled with people wallowing in debauchery amidst opium fumes, shrieking bells, and the din of breaking dishes, and reciting over the tumult the inspired verses of the "Dada Manifesto 1918."
The revelation in Paris in the first days of 1919 of this document (already old, since Tzara had read it on July 23, 1918, at the Meise Hall) had conclusively won over the "Three Musketeers" along with many other Parisian poets. The "Manifesto" had reached France through Dada 3 (published in Zurich in December 1918), in which it occupied the first three large-format pages. Rereading it today, one can easily understand the stupefaction, and succeeding enthusiasm, of Breton and his friends.
In spite of their novelty, Tzara's Vingt-cinq poèmes, or even those published more recently in the minor avant-garde journals, were still poems--that is to say, the expression of a personality who was certainly engaging, but distant and disembodied, as it were. The "Dada Manifesto 1918," however, expressed the aspirations, ideas, and contagious warmth of a living man--and with such intensity! In just a few paragraphs, though they were dense and lush, Tzara managed to present, without concessions to either form or prevailing taste, a philosophy, an ethic, and a way of life that sounded singularly captivating to the intellectuals of 1919 only recently freed from the war and still looking for direction.
Here we drop anchor in luxuriant ground. Here we have a right to do some proclaiming, for we have known shudders and awakenings. Ghosts drunk on energy, we dig the trident into unsuspecting flesh. We are a downpoour of maledictions as tropically abundant as vertiginous vegetation, resin and rain are our sweat, we bleed and burn with thirst, our blood is vigor. . . .
I say unto you: there is no beginning and we do not tremble; we are not sentimental. We are a furious wind, tearing up the linen of clouds and prayers, preparing the great spectacle of disaster, fire, decomposition.
The importance of this manifesto, which was both the outcome and the synthesis of various Dadaist trends in Zurich, has long been underestimated. It is the first, the true, and the great gospel of Dadaism, and contains in embryo the whole subsequent evolution of Dada and surrealism, from The Magnetic Fields to the most recent forms of artistic, literary, or even political expression. It belongs to the small family of texts historically predestined to represent a moment in the emotional history of nations, in the same manner as Chateaubriand's René, for example. In spite of, or because of, its naiveties, its excesses, and the anarchist printer Julius Heuberger's incredible typos, we have to acknowledge and the greatest minds of the time were not mistaken--that the "Dada Manifesto 1918," in the vertiginous turbulence of its Nietzschean apostrophizations, swept away the final vestiges of a certain conception of art and a certain art of living: "Liberty: DADA DADA DADA, the shriek of contorted colors, the interweaving of opposites and of every contradiction, absurdity, and inconsistency: LIFE."
This new Rimbaud, a crossbreed of Sade, Lautréamont, and Marinetti had thus been awaited like the Messiah. This is in no way an exaggeration, and several documents prove it. First of all, a very beautiful text by Aragon from 1922:
A day may come when one will no longer understand our enthusiasms, our angers, and our barbarity. It is then that I will be happy to have been a witness to the greatest poetic trauma I have experienced in my life, finally; since, to my shame, I took Rimbaud, Lautréamont, and Nouveau only for great poets the moment I was introduced to them. You can see that I approached them the same way professors do with Lamartine. They were statues before anything.
As for Tzara, no one had yet pointed him out to me. And when this stupendous faun arose before the dogs, we hardly knew that poetry was at stake. As it has been written of a certain type of painting, and even more accurately of me, Tzara's poems, which at that time were indistinguishable from his criticism or his manifestos, were nothing less than a declaration of war. There were some of us who awaited him in Paris as if he were that wild adolescent who swooped down upon the devastated capital during the Commune, and who is still dreaded today by those who knew him: the Devil, says Forain, who still sees him in his dreams, and Rimbaud pulls him by the feet.
This is not the time or the place to say what resulted from those beginnings. Triumph or fiasco, it matters little what came from this red fire, from this incomparable brilliance that one day glowed over the total collapse of Europe.
A similar tone can be discerned in Soupault's article in Les Lettres françaises on May 24, 1946:
At last Tristan Tzara came. He arrived in Paris one fine day (but with drums and trumpets and even a huge bass drum in his luggage). . . . It was his first time in Paris. But he was not impressed. He was, I believe, charmed. He understood that Zurich, Europe, the world were all ancient history. There was nothing of a Rastignac, a Frédéric Moreau, or a Des Esseintes about him. There was nothing provincial about him. For him, Paris was the city of echoes. You had only to raise your voice a little in this great labyrinth for you to be heard everywhere. And Tristan Tzara had one hell of a voice, a voice like thunder, Divine thunder.
If we are to understand Breton and Picabia's feelings, we must go through all their correspondence with Tzara in 1919. It would betray their spirit to quote this or that appeal, confession, or reproach which would recur like an emotional leitmotif in letter after letter, all of which today remain the most eloquent witnesses to that passionate anticipation.
While it is easy enough to imagine that Picabia, who knew him personally and was able to value his friendship, had waited impatiently to see Tristan Tzara again, Breton's idealistic exaltation would be hard to explain if we did not take into account his propensity for emotional crystallization, which seems to be one of the psychological traits of his personality. The first effects of this phenomenon were discernible in his creation of the "Vaché myth." As Vaché had died at the beginning of January 1919, it was as if Breton, still struck by reading the "Dada Manifesto 1918," had immediately found Vaché's new avatar in Tzara: note that it was under the sign of Vaché that Breton's first contact with Tzara took place:
I was about to write to you when great sorrow dissuaded me. What I loved most in the world has just disappeared: my friend Jacques Vaché is dead. It had been a pleasure for me recently to think how much you would have liked each other; he would have recognized a kindred spirit in yours, and together we could have done great things.
This superimposition of two persons, which at times obsessed Breton to the point of making him doubt Vaché's death, reappeared at least twice in his letters to Tzara in 1919: on April 20 ("If I have tremendous confidence in you, it is because you remind me of a friend, my best friend, Jacques Vaché, who died a few months ago. I should perhaps not put so much trust in this resemblance") and on July 29 ("I think of you as I have never thought of anyone . . . except Jacques Vaché, as I've already said; that is to say, before taking any step, I almost always first make sure I'm in agreement with you"). And more recently, in his Conversations, Breton had spoken unequivocally of this transfer of power in 1919: "It is obvious that such an attitude likened [Tzara] especially to Jacques Vaché, which is what led me to transfer onto him much of the confidence and hope that I had placed in Vaché."
So on the morning of January 17, 1920 (a few days after Breton's meeting with Picabia in that very same spot), an unknown young man "in black and white, who resembled one of his friend Arp's carved woodworks" presented his card at the door of Germaine Everling's apartment on rue Émile Augier: "speaking bad French," "he was short, slightly stooped, swinging two short arms with plump hands dangling at the ends of them. His skin was waxy; his myopic eyes seemed to search behind a lorgnette for a fixed point to latch on to. Mechanically tossing back every so often a long lock of black hair that fell onto his forehead." He made it understood that he had come to stay with Francis Picabia, as the latter had proposed a year ago. Germaine Everling tried to point out to Tristan Tzara (whom she recognized easily, as conversation had been centering on him for some time already) that the apartment was full, and that she had just become a mother a few days before; but the young man was penniless and without shelter. He had to be taken in. And Tristan Tzara unpacked Dada's voluminous arsenal of publicity in that rococo living room.
A few hours later, in the same living room, Breton, Éluard, Aragon, and Soupault arrived. They had come together, fortifying each other, after such a long and eager wait, against an eventual disappointment. And as it happens in such cases, their first contact had some awkwardness about it. In their imagination, the moral stature of the person would necessarily be accompanied by an equivalent physical stature. The great man turned out to be small, and wore a monocle: it was enough to disconcert the little group all the more so since Tzara behaved as if he were as embarrassed as they were. His French was less than approximate and strongly marked with a Romanian accent, which made even his pronunciation of the word "Dada," two brief syllables that rattled out like a machine gun, sound ridiculous to Parisian ears. In short, his already proverbial charm was unable to work, and as they left Picabia's home, a kind of dismay, proportionate to the extent of their expectations, gripped the hearts of Littérature's directors.
But they were young, and this deflated feeling could not last long. They readily came to an agreement: they had to distrust this initial unfortunate impression and adapt to a new reality, which, though disconcerting, might also have its share of pleasant surprises; in short, they needed to have faith in this scrap of a man. In any case, they were already deeply committed to this new endeavor whose success depended upon the experience of the Dadaist from Zurich.
In fact, even before his arrival, Littérature's directors had decided to try "something" to get their magazine out of its rut. "It was amidst the complete confusion that reigned over the beginning of 1920 that, tired of seeing so-called avant-garde authors judged pell-mell and on the same level, and also tired of being thought of, whether we liked it or not, as the followers of literary cubism--conscious, when all is said and done, of the fundamental differences that separated us irremediably from our precursors; resolved not to let our silence offer the impression that we approved of the petty, puerile spirit that dominated literary controversies and made technical discussions on things such as free verse drag on for ever; and--curiously enough!--having something to say, André Breton, Philippe Soupault, Paul Éluard, and I had decided to engage in public action." As disquieting as it sounded, this last expression had no revolutionary intentions such as those displayed by the German Dadaists at that time. Their intention was only to organize a poetic matinée every other week, which would include, to distinguish it from numerous similar events taking place at that time, presentations of modern paintings and sculptures, and music performances by the Groupe des Six orchestra.
The first matinée was planned for Friday, January 23. To that end they rented a small hall for it at the Palais des Fêtes on the rue Saint-Martin, "between the boulevard devoted to watchmaker-jewelers, wig and cosmetic merchants, and the Arts et Métiers conservatory, far away from those milieus stinking of art and literature." Putting the program together presented some difficulties. Should they invite all the poets represented in Littérature to the event? Logic said yes, but the enterprise would then have lost its adventurous character. In the end they admitted almost anyone, in the hope that some kind of sorting-out would happen on its own. Reverdy was approached, but he had strong reservations about the poets chosen; he wanted to present the music of his friend Soler Casabon, who had been boycotted by the Six and could not appear on stage. But the text was already on the press, so Reverdy simply abstained from participating in the event.
It was at this juncture, as preparations well advanced, that Tzara made his appearance in Paris. They decided at once to integrate him into the program, but for various reasons, his presence at Picabia's was kept a secret until Friday, January 23. On Wednesday the 21st, however, he attended, incognito, the regular gathering at the café Certà where he saw Auric, Drieu La Rochelle, Radiguet, Louis de Gonzague-Frick, and a few painters.
The program for the matinée had been printed, as we have seen, before Tzara's arrival. Confronted with this young man, who was beginning to show his true colors, the initial projects suddenly appeared naive and banal. The evening before (Thursday), there was a war council at Picabia's. Tzara astonished his new friends with his stage technique, and his insight into public reactions. His past experience at the Cabaret Voltaire, and the Meise and Kaufleuten Halls, proved invaluable. Through emulation, his colleagues tried hard to outdo each other: a fruitful emulation that would become the actual motor for Dadaist activities in Paris. Not wanting to be outdone by this stranger, Breton "brought out" Vaché, Picabia, Cravan, and Duchamp, none of whom ever read poems, not even bruitist ones, and who placed life above art. And it is in this way that Dadaist behavior would slowly shift toward pure action for a while.
For the next day's event they decided to concretize these new anti-literary trends by interrupting the series of recitations with an unexpected "gesture" that would change the ambiance. Picabia talked about a bomb, Soupault about an individual or collective public hand washing: the Dada spirit had really descended upon Paris. Finally Tzara agreed to become the visible incarnation of this spirit and, by this fact, the star of the program.
Aragon, in charge of the practical details, had sounded out a number of actors known for their "modernist" sympathies to read the poems: Valentine Teyssier, Ève Francis, Pierre Bertin, and Marcel Herrand. Only the latter two accepted, but on condition that they would choose the pieces they would perform and the moment that they would perform them. This meant that Littérature's directors, assisted by Raymond Radiguet, Drieu La Rochelle, and the inevitable Cocteau, had to envisage reciting themselves a good number of texts by less in-demand poets such as Paul Dermée and Pierre Albert-Birot.
The matinée thus took place as planned on January 23. Since it constitutes the archetype of most of Dada's Parisian events, it warrants close examination.
On the Friday morning Tzara and his friends went to reconnoiter the site. An absurd decor, half-salon half-forest, had been set up on the tiny stage, made from props that an amateur group had left behind.
A notice placed in L'Intransigeant the previous day announced a talk by André Salmon on the Crise du change (The Exchange Rate Crisis). The patronage of Salmon, who was an authority on "young painting" and well known by journalists, as well as the topic (the franc's recent devaluation was still on the minds of local merchants), attracted trapped passersby, intellectuals in the know, and columnists intent on raising hell. This was already Dada's audience. René Hilsum, the owner of the Au Sans Pareil bookshop, collected the tickets at the door.
The show was divided into two parts, separated by a musical interlude and presentations of paintings. The first part, dedicated to the "great ancestors" (Apollinaire, Cendrars, Reverdy, Jacob), began with Salmon's announced speech: instead of the exchange rate crisis, it was about the reversal of literary values since symbolism. This crude strategy did not have the intended effect on the audience: nobody protested, and there was even a bit of polite applause. But the small local storekeepers, who constituted a large part of the audience, discreetly made their exit one by one, though not without asking for their money back on their way out. The others, falling in with the hoax, decided to make the best of it and resign themselves to a situation that promised to be comical: an elderly investor equipped with an ear trumpet patiently waited for someone to enlighten him on the exchange crisis. The organizers seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the events: Salmon's words, though full of praise for Littérature, dismayed Breton. Thus, they were looking like epigones of Apollinaire, and their journal resembled a rehash of Les Soirées de Paris. What must Dada's leader have thought of this unwanted praise?
The presentation of the paintings was not very successful either: Breton read a text on Léger, Gris, De Chirico, or Lipschitz, after which some paintings or sculptures by the artist would be displayed. Faced with all this cubism, the audience remained frozen, yawned. . . . It was then that Picabia and Ribemont-Dessaignes's paintings were shown. Breton started by reading Apollinaire's passage on Picabia in the Aesthetic Meditations: but unnerved by the strange atmosphere, and feeling unwell, he declaimed this fairly trivial text in a manner that made it provocative. The presentation of Picabia's painting Le Double monde (The Double World) marks the first authentically Dada act publicly executed in Paris. The sketch itself was a perfect insult to the audience's taste: a simple tangle of black lines in enamel house paint against a light background, covered with whimsical inscriptions: "Top" (at the bottom), "Bottom" (on top), "Fragile," "At home," "M'amenez-y," pun on "Amnesia"), etc., and embellished with a series of five enormous red letters arranged from top to bottom: L.H.O.O.Q. A few seconds were all the spectators needed to get the lewd pun. There was then an uproar, which intensified as a second work was wheeled onto the stage. This time it was a "tableau noir" (blackboard) on which a few chalk marks and some hermetic inscriptions stood out, including the title pun, Riz au nez (Rice pudding / Make fun of someone). Once the impertinence of it had sunk in, angry shouts burst out here and there. But at that moment, Breton came and wiped out the whole composition with a sponge as Picabia's script had called for. Music by the Six came on just in time to soothe the atmosphere.
The second part of the program was dedicated to the younger generation: poems by Radiguet, Breton, Soupault, and Aragon were read out, and then, just as the audience was starting to get really bored, Aragon read out a crackling poem by Tzara ("Lépreux du paysage" [Scenery Lepers]) and made the grand announcement: Zurich Dadaism in the flesh would perform one of its works. In the stupefied silence that followed, Tzara stepped forward and began to read the last speech Léon Daudet, an extreme-Right M.P., made to the French Parliament. From the wings, Breton and Aragon immediately started energetically ringing two bells, which they had spent an hour looking for that same morning. The spectators, even--and especially--those such as Salmon and Juan Gris, who had encouraged the event and felt caught in a dark trap in which their reputation was compromised, reacted violently. Taking the insult personally, they hurled abuse at the actors, and above all at the little poet with the black tuft of hair who had seen it all before and imperturbably continued reading in a hoarse voice, rolling his Romanian r's.
Faced with this force of inertia, crude verbal abuse burst out, mingled with patriotic interjections: "Back to Zurich! Shoot him!" yelled Florent Fels, director of the journal Action.
The evening should have ended there, with those splendid fireworks. But Aragon did not have the acumen of a show organizer. And the performance petered out. Poems were again read out before an increasingly sparse audience as the hour advanced. Friends took French leave or exited with embarrassed smiles, not knowing what to say.
After a final text by Albert-Birot, which Aragon read to empty benches, the curtain came down. The organizers found themselves out in the stormy night, weary, with in their mouth the taste of dust and ashes that was to be, more than the thunderous provocations, Dada's indelible hallmark.
It was from this heightened atmosphere of complicity, this feeling of having collectively done something reprehensible, of being involved together in a formidable adventure, that a kind of pact was born, as in Zurich, binding together the Parisian Dadaist group. It was as if the session at the Palais des Fêtes had woven a tenuous but infinitely firm sentimental bond between these few men who, nerves frayed from the sudden slackening of tension--something every actor feels at the end of a dress rehearsal--began to squabble over trifles as they left the scene of their feat. The triumphant aspect of these events has too often been described and presented as a result of the concerted effort of a monolithic association of writers and artists called Dada for us to leave out the other side of the scene--Breton or Éluard returning home in the wee hours, young men still vibrant with a latent romanticism asking themselves if all the effort had been worth it, and where the adventure would lead them. Perhaps only "Tzara, Picabia, and Ribemont-Dessaignes (the only true 'Dadas,' when you get down to it)" had enough maturity, strength of character and perhaps had enough hardness of heart (born from tribulations and routine for Tzara, and from age for the other two) to face an audience that they scorned intensely, without shame or alarm. Perhaps their revolutionary will was also firmer, and their desire to completely destroy the rules and inherited norms of the past more sincere? In any case--and Breton was quite aware of this--it was the appropriateness of these exhausting public performances that was to eventually create the rift between the "Dadaists" and the "surrealists."
The very next day after the first (and only) "Friday of Littérature," the Dadaists (we can henceforth give them this title) found themselves distraught and unsettled. Despite the events of the preceding day, and as if they could find safety only in "sharing" their experiences and their very existence, they spent the whole day together wandering around Paris.
It was too late to wonder what their intentions had been anyway. The Dada machine was set in motion and nothing could stop it. They had to press ahead and take the offensive.
They got into the habit of meeting at Picabia's place, where Tzara had taken root. With the dexterity that he had acquired in Zurich, he had even taken control of operations with his host. Reading the program for the six months that were to follow, one can understand the kind of intoxication felt by the participants. As for Tzara, he was perfectly at ease, wildly enthusiastic, and happier than he had ever been in Zurich. Since his arrival in Paris he had not wasted any time in taking up his activities as the leader of the Dadaist movement, which was slowly taking on international dimensions. In just a few days (between January 18 and February 5) he brought out a new issue of Dada, the sixth, entitled Bulletin Dada.
For all the ease with which Tzara had adapted himself to his new role and his new surroundings, we also have to admire the manner in which so many disparate elements had been connected. The time taken to set up the Parisian movement was indeed very short, and immediately Breton, Aragon, and Éluard on one side, and Picabia and Ribemont-Dessaignes on the other, imagined their role in this commedia dell'arte inspired by Tzara. There was neither the stumbling nor the slow progression that normally marks the beginning of a new literary school. From the very first show (the one at the Grand Palais), and with the publication of the Bulletin Dada, Dada's characteristic traits and key ideas were clear. We have only to compare the program (and execution) of the matinée of the Indépendants with that of the "Friday of Littérature" to assess the "progress" made in the space of a few days; or even to compare Littérature's eleventh issue (January 1920) with Bulletin Dada (beginning of February). While Breton's journal continued along its path (it is not easy to "convert" a literary magazine), Tzara's paper took up the style of 391, improving on its tone, themes, and layout.
What a difference there is between the intellectual pretensions, the stiff, unctuous, and hypocritical style of fashionable literary journals and the supreme casualness of someone like Picabia! Bulletin Dada contained no articles but an infinite number of those pronouncements, invectives, spoonerisms (Duchamp's specialty), or simply absurd statements that perhaps constitute Dadaism's best and most original production.
Picabia, true to form, contributed some short hermetic versicles to Bulletin Dada, some of them not devoid of beauty: "The rainbow drives people on to all the plays, you seem rather proud to me, Picabia, your skin is looking suspicious, and a lion is floating in it," or "All I've ever been able to do is water down my water." Dermée followed suit: "Masterpieces are like wigs: not a hair out of place," and Ribemont-Dessaignes: "It is difficult to escape a prison that has no walls." Aping Picabia, who took great pride in the title of "Funny Guy," Tzara signed incoherent texts with "Sinister Joker": "We are looking for friends and other things blamed for grammatical vocations of acrobats in flasks." There was also false news, very likely from Picabia's hand: "Philippe Soupault has just committed suicide in Geneva"; or jokes for the initiated (a distinctive trait of 391 from its very inception), falsely attributed to friends (in this case, Arthur Cravan): "Ribemont-Dessaignes has just been blackballed by Louis Gros Sel, or Gros Con as Mayer would have it"; or imitations of sucker-oriented commercials: "Mrs. H. L. writes to us: I have been taking 391 for two weeks now and I am already happy to note a truly surprising result: my bosom, which had fallen after an illness, has once again become what it used to be.'"
All these texts were hardly in the same tone as the writings, even the most recent ones, by Littérature's directors. And even though their contributions closely resembled those of the other Dadaists in the use of typography, and though they made a commendable effort to fall in line, this very constraint was noticeable, as in the overly systematic use of a borrowed, artificial, and unassimilated technique. Apart from some sentences taken from The Magnetic Fields, Breton contributed some ambiguous phrases like: "We're members of a kind of sentimental Touring Club," or: "No one will disagree when I say that work-related injuries are more beautiful than marriages of convenience." Aragon's one contribution was just as cryptic: "Where sentiment is concerned, and this is not funny, we use chopsticks." As for Éluard, he had resolutely remained Éluard with quite an unexpected poem in this context:
The breast that feeds him wrapped in black
will not wash him
Like a forest on a winter's night
Beautiful teeth, but beautiful eyes motionless
What fly of his life
Is the mother of the flies of his death.
But it is in its material presentation that Dada 6 stood out most clearly from all other contemporary enterprises in the same genre. Littérature's layout, as we have seen, looked like most of the serious journals of that time, from the Mercure de France to the NRF, all of which professed the same respect for printed matter, especially when that matter was "literature." The value of the text being completely intrinsic, the outer appearance didn't matter much, and it would have been considered improper to use degrading methods to draw the reader's attention to anything other than the text itself.
The example set by Mallarmé and the futurists was followed, but with extreme prudence, and it is indisputably to Dada that would fall both the work and the merit of liberating the printed page. The imposition of Bulletin Dada, naturally inspired by the Zurich issues and 391, was dazzling in the way it symbolized Tzara and his collaborators' contempt for the typographic rules that professionals treated as inviolable dogma, and for the extravagant prestige that the book and the journal enjoyed at that time, before the advent of radio and television.
If Dada's pages today seem quite harmless, and even pleasing to the eye, however, Dada is not responsible for this. Tzara and Picabia's intention was never to create a new typographic aesthetic, nor even to destroy the existing edifice through a series of incoherent and deliberate gestures: chance and chance alone, Dada's great master, was to preside over the preparation of issues, and there was no artistic argument that could oppose it. Hence those fortuitous conjunctions of supposedly incompatible fonts, those striking contrasts of characters (a 6-point font alongside poster-size lettering), those scrap typographic elements, those arbitrary superimpositions of colors and shapes, those odd "improvements" on engineering drawings, the goodwill of typographers, sudden inspiration, and finally, those blanks, which give a formal unity to the entire assortment, an extreme lightness, and an undeniable plastic beauty peculiar to Dadaist printing.
These "eccentricities" provoked fiery campaigns in the press.
It [Dada] inundates you with enormous publications on expensive paper with carefully printed meaningless graphics and words without a shadow of sense. . . . and all while we talk about a paper crisis! And the Federation of Mobilized Artists is struggling to create a publishing cooperative.
(Translation by Gillian Beaumont)