Simply more fun
By Ian Pindar
Times Literary Supplement
The opening of the exhibition Dada Max Ernst at the gallery Au Sans Pareil in Paris, May 2, 1921; left to right: René Hilsum, Benjamin Péret, Serge Charchoune, Philippe Soupault (at the top of the ladder), Jacques Rigaut (upside down), and André Breton
Dada's brief reign in the City of Light began with the return to Paris of Francis Picabia in March 1919, followed by Tristan Tzara's arrival in January 1920. It fizzled out around 1923 in an atmosphere of abuse and recrimination. An international movement, Dada originated in Zurich and New York, but Parisian Dada was special and significant, Michel Sanouillet argues in this weighty tome, not least because of the crucial role it played in the genesis of Surrealism.
Dada in Paris presents an alternative history of Dada to the one popularized by the founder of Surrealism, André Breton. In essence, this is the story of a power grab by Breton, who exerted his considerable influence over the group until he eventually squeezed out Picabia and Tzara, who had both arrived from Zurich, so had perhaps the greater claim to being "pure" Dadaists. As Sanouillet tells it, Breton took Parisian Dada in a new direction, and one antithetical, in his view, to the original impulse behind the movement. In short, this is an account of how Parisian Dada became increasingly sectarian, pitting the "Bretonians" against the "Tzaraists", and how "Dada-according-to-Tzara" gave way to "Dada-according-to-Breton", which was at once both illiberal (in fact, "quasi-totalitarian") and unspontaneous, falling back on accepted literary forms and traditional politics (culminating in Surrealism's rapprochement with communism).
Surrealism was never as radically new as Dadaism, Sanouillet insists, and part of his mission is to reassert the chronological fact that Dada predated Surrealism and that Surrealism was dependent on Dada ideas and concepts. As he points out, there is an obvious "spiritual dissonance" between the two movements. Dadadism was simply more fun than Surrealism. "Tzara's manifestos radiate an extraordinary impression of vitality, warmth and, above all, unrestrained joy that one rarely finds in Breton's", he observes. "Surrealism was, unfortunately, too often Dada without laughter."
Paris in the immediate post-war years was the perfect place for Dada ideas to take root and flourish. Parisians were well read, refined and sophisticated, but also inclined to be sceptical and blaisé”. And yet there was also a "Parisian literary scene known for its sclerosis, inertia, and bourgeois attachment to certain ways of life and thought, and to those anachronistic structures perpetuated by the literary press and other intellectual coteries". André Breton and his friends Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon were especially ripe for conquest by the new spirit of Dada. They belonged to a younger generation damaged by the First World War in which they had all seen active service. Soupault remembered them in the winter of 1917-18 in Paris, shortly before they encountered Dadaism: "we were roaming through the smoke of the railway circle line in our sullied uniforms, neglecting to salute the officers,neglecting any sort of manners, neglecting the time of day and ourselves".
Dada poetry was as much a response to watime propaganda and popular enthusiasm for the war as the poetry of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, but it was a very different response. (It is worth remembering that Marcel Duchamp, regarded by Sanouillet as the archetypal Dadaist, the "free electron" of Dada, "a kind of guru" and the one who best played "the great Dada game", was born in the same year as Rupert Brooke; Picabia was only a year younger than Edward Thomas; Tzara and Breton only three years younger than Wilfred Owen.) To understand Dada, says Sanouillet, we need to understand the wartime culture: "the silly patriotic romances, the songs calling for revenge . . . the artless painting of battle scenes", but also the men of letters, writers and poets who extolled the heroism of "our boys" and the beauty of war. In contrast, the Dadaists were "sickened by the stench of a bygone belle époque" and "branded alive by the outrageous butchery of the 1914-18 conflict, intent on expressing in every possible way their abhorrence for compromise, and seeking to find, at any cost, an escape to a new way of living, writing and feeling". Some flavour of Dada's challenge to the post-war culture can be gleaned from Picabia"s "Cannibal Manifesto" (1920):
Dada smells like nothing, it is nothing, nothing, nothing.
It is like your hopes: nothing.
Like your paradises: nothing.
Like your idols: nothing.
Like your politicians: nothing.
Like your heroes: nothing.
Like your artists: nothing.
Like your religions: nothing.
Picabia is invariably described as "Machiavellian" in this book, but it is perhaps André Breton who best deserves the epithet. Sanouillet describes Breton's personality as "bewitching", but he fails to account for it fully. In his retelling of events, the "hypersensitive" young Breton comes across as temperamentally unsuited to ever becoming a Dadaist, and we are told that he "only relectantly indulged in Dadaistic extravagances". In fact, says Sanouillet, Breton was too solemn and serious to properly comprehend what Dada meant. His "unswerving moral severity" ran counter to the Dada spirit, whereas Tzara and Picabia positively delighted in moral ambivalence.
For Breton, Jacques Vaché, the wounded soldier he met in 1916 at a hospital in Nantes where Breton was a temporary intern, was a reincarnation of Rimbaud and a major part of the literary legacy of Dadaism. Howevder, Sanouillet cannot accept Vaché (who died from an overdose of opium in 1919) as an incarnation of Dada, and Breton's assertion that Vaché was "Dada before Dada" is plainly contradicted by a letter Sanouillet has unearthed, written from Soupault to Tzara in 1919, very clearly stating that Vaché admired Tzara's "Manifesto 1918", which Sanouillet regards as "the first, the true, and the great gospel of Dadaism". At a push, Sanouillet begrudgingly allows that Vaché's influence put Breton in a more receptive state of mind to receive Tzara's ideas.
Breton and his friends encountered the poetry of Picabia and Tzara in 1919. "It was at that point", wrote Breton much later, "that we intercepted signals that were so disruptive it was as if they had come from another planet." He launched his own avant-garde periodical, Littérature, in March 1919, and in January 1920 he visited Picabia at his home on the rue Émile-Augier. "We can, in fact, consider this meeting with Picabia as the precise date on which the Dada movement began in Paris", declares Sanouillet. This encounter struck Breton like a second "revelation", the first being Tzara's "Manifesto 1918".
Breton seems to have transferred all of his feelings for Jacques Vaché on to Tzara, whose arrival in Paris he awaited as if Tzara were Rimbaud, Sade and Lautréamont all rolled into one. Tzara turned up in January 1920: he was short, slightly stooped, wore a monocle, and spoke bad French with a strong Romanian accent; the way he said "Dada" ("two brief syllables that rattled out like a machine gun") sounded ridiculous. The Littérature group were initially dismayed, but Tzara won them over with his stage techniques, honed at the Cabaret Voltaire, and he became for them an incarnation of the Dada spirit, "Zurich Dadaism in the flesh". At their first Dada session together at the Palais des Fêtes, the imperturbable Tzara continued reading as the audience hurled abuse ("Back to Zurich! Shoot him!") unlike the others, he had seen it all before.
In the first few months of 1920, one performance followed another and Dada briefly conquered tout Paris; "around the month of April 1920", says Sanouillet, "the words 'Dada, Dadaism, Dadaist' were literally on everyone's lips". The good times would not last, however, and during the Dada Season of 1921 it became increasingly apparent that the Littérature group and the "Zurich vererans" were pulling in opposite directions. The schism was only accentuated by the fact that Tzara was mocked for his foreign name and strange accent by the French press, whereas the members of the Littérature groupe were generally spared. Similarly, the Editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française, Jacques Rivière, looked favourably on Breton and Aragon as talented young men with bright futures ahead of them, whereas Tzara and Picabia were beyond reform. When Breton published his "Reconnaissance à Dada" in the NRF, it outraged not only the paper's more conservative contributors, but also the Tzaraists.
According to Sanouillet, the mock trial of the nationalist author Maurice Barrès in 1921 "sounded Dada's death knell" in Paris. It was a clear indication of Breton's authoritarian streak, whereas Tzara and Picabia "baulked at the idea of a Dadaism that set itself up as arbitrator and critic or, even worse, enforcer of the law". Tzara did his best to undermine the trial. "I judge nothing", he declared, before concluding with a "short dada song":
The song of an elevator
Which had Dada in its heart
Tired out its motor part
That had Dada in its heart.
Breton was not impressed, but Tzara's little song is a good description of what was happening to Dada. As Sanouillet puts it, "it seemed that the movement . . . was being insidiously drained of its substance and 'recharged' with a completely different energy. Only the Dada wrapping remained intact; the product was becoming unrecognisable. The Littérature group, like a hermit crab, was occupying Dada's shell".
Immediately after the trial, Picabia objected that "Now Dada has a court, lawyers, and before long, probably policemen. . . . The Dada Spirit really existed for only three or four years, it was personified by Marcel Duchamp and myself at the end of 1912". Later he wrote: "Dada galloped off in a cloud of dust. Little urchins jump on its back, stroke the animal, give it sugar, put blinders on it, pull its bridle to the right. Poor wild Dada. . . . Dada is dead".
With Picabia gone, Tzara held out for a while against Breton and the Littérature group, but in 1922 they denounced him as "an imposter hungry for fame". He countered that Breton "would not exist but for Dada" and in response to an article by Breton entitled "After Dada" Tzara wrote: "One of these days it will be known that before Dada, after Dada, without Dada, towards Dada, for Dada, against Dada, with Dada, in spirte of Dada, it is always Dada. And all that is of no importance". Parisian Dada ran out of steam around 1923. A year later, Breton launched Surrealism on the world.
Dada à Paris was first published in 1965, but Sanouillet began work on this comprehensive account of Parisian Dada at the end of the 1940's, when, as he observes, "most of the Dadaists of the 1920's had attained a sort of serenity. Nostalgia for their youth had led them to look upon their earlier wild confrontations with tender amusement". He spoke to all of the available witnesses and has sifted through every interview and unreliable memoir by Dada's main players (and numerous bit players). Sharmila Ganguly's excellent English translation of the fully revised and expanded French edition of 2005 includes more than 200 letters in a vast appendix, "the very web on which we have embroidered our account", says Sanouillet. There is correspondence between Breton, Tzara and Picabia, plus some fifty letters from Dadaists, as well as Apollinaire, Cocteau, Max Jacob and even Marcel Proust. Add to this a bibliography of more than a thousand volumes and a list of online sources, and Dada in Paris is an essential reference for anyone interested in the "Dada adventure".
It might seem paradoxical to produce a book of abundant documentation about a movement that so loudly insisted on its own ephemerality and inconsequentiality (although as Sanouillet notes, Picabia, Tzara and Breton carefully preserved their press clippings), but beyond the accumulated detail Michel Sanouillet proves himself a sensitive interpreter of the true Dada spirit, its creative destruction and profound euphoria. Dada was essentially nihilistic, but Sanouillet chooses instead to celebrate its "vitalistic aspect". The Dadaists were never more alive, he argues, than when they wanted to destroy everything from top to bottm. Dada's artistic legacy is about violence and aggression, certainly, but also spontaneity, dynamism and an outspoken desire to escape from the rules and constraints governing creation.
When Michel Sanouillet's Dada in Paris first reared its head in 1965, it served as the seminal volume of Dada history, taking to task art historians who had "until recently excluded the Dada movement from their studies." Since then, terms like "avant-garde" have been regularly misappropriated as synonyms for "cool"; "Dada" for "nonsense." Dada still, and all too often, it seems, needs rescuing from the simplistic categories to which it is too easily assigned, and Sanouillet still offers an indispensible resource for doing so. As he reminds us, Dada is a rather significant endeavor: however "cool" in retrospect, its political portent, which Sanouillet emphasizes, should not be ignored. Although Sanouillet accounts for Dada's birth in Zurich and subsequent international dispersal, he argues for its preeminence in Paris, inextricable from the events of a brutal and unpredictable war, both politically and aesthetically (as a reaction against the lyrical "verbal and poetic excess" of so many WWI poets). In other words, Dada was far from nonsensical; it was a serious business, its antics the only sensible response to a mad world. [...]
Now celebrating its forty-fifth year, Dada in Paris has been fighting for Dada's critical inclusion since its poets were still alive; this long-overdue first English translation just might be evidence that the time for Tzara's so-called "rehabilitation" has finally come.
Reviewed by Stefanie Sobelle in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXX, #3
"More than forty years after its original publication, Michel Sanouillet's Dada in Paris remains the definitive study of the movement, in all its many manifestations, from its Zurich roots to its post-Surrealist heirs. The revised French edition, with its up-to-date apparatus and marvelous collection of letters between Breton, Tzara, and Picabia--now translated into English for the first time-- is as delightful as it is necessary. Reading Sanouillet in 2009, one comes to understand, all over again, what Dada was and what it meant for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries."
Marjorie Perloff, author of The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rapture
"Sanouillet's Dada in Paris is rigorous history while managing to be simultaneously voluptuous like a bath and thrilling like a tabloid. The enormous research and detailed scholarship of Dada's crucial Paris years unfolds here with a joie-de-vivre possible only by having an artist-in-residence, a feat that Sanouillet accomplishes with grace and verve. Short of having experienced 1921 in Paris at the side of Tristan Tzara, I can't think of better company than this dream-inducing thriller, document, and love fest. Like Dada itself, Sanouillet married incompatibles and created a text that resounds with the urgent concerns of the twenty-first century. Dada's timeless time beats are impossible to ignore now."
Andrei Codrescu, author of The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess
"An illuminating account of the ragged emergence and decline of Dada in the Parisian literary world, and the volatility of the human relationships behind the magazines 391, Dada, and Literature in particular."
Clive Phillpot, freelance writer and curator and former art librarian