October 2014

Will Mawhood


Tata Dada: The Real Life and Celestial Adventures of Tristan Tzara by Marius Hentea

Three foreign artists walk onto a stage in a country ringed by war, bow in a formal manner to the anticipating crowd, then, suddenly at once, begin shouting in three different languages (French, German, and English) a largely incomprehensible tale about an elderly Swiss admiral looking for a place to lodge. "Ahoi ahoi... prrzza chrrzza prrrza." Faced with this onslaught of semi-sense, the audience yells out, forcing the restarting of the work a number of times -- triggering the even greater chaos that had been intended by its author, a Romanian Jewish expatriate artist and poet named Tristan Tzara. This was High Dada: a performance removing divisions between the crowd and the performers, turning resistance to their own ends, blending, ridiculing, and obliterating languages, dissolving the basis of national division, the vehicle of war.

Dada was the most amorphous of concepts, although it certainly had prevalent characteristics, centring on dissatisfaction and defying any definitions placed on it, which has made it easy to invoke when people regard art or literature or just about anything as stagnant. Tzara, poet, mischief-maker and shape-shifter, is the most frequent choice in personifying Dada, his stridently incoherent manifestos often quoted, even if his elliptical, often wilfully meaningless poetry appears much more rarely. Tom Stoppard gave him a prominent role in his play Travesties in the 1970s, and more recently, Andrei Codrescu's Dada "handbook," The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess, presented the two figures, who lived in Zurich at about the same time and may well have played a game of chess against one another at some point, as the progenitors of the two dominant philosophies of the twentieth century: control against freedom, sacrifice against self-indulgence, a utopian future against an orgasmic now.

Why does Tzara continue to crop up so, with such frequency? Well, he was the author of the majority of the best known of the very, very numerous "manifestos," which set out Dada's opposition to just about everything, in rather slippery terms. These have a wit and unpredictability that continues to delight, slogans that demand and refuse elaboration -- they look good scrawled on posters, urge the impossible. These, as well as the frequent Dada performances, initially held at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, briefly united an otherwise rather disparate collection of fascinating artists and writers, including most of the significant figures of the early twentieth century, who may otherwise have continued to beat their own particular paths. Codrescu says that Dada cannot age, which is perhaps true, but this does not necessarily mean that it was sui generis: members of the movement itself at various times conceded influence from Jarry, Rabelais, and Aristophanes. Spitting in the face of your pompous elders, dancing stupid dances, embracing the meaningless when the meaning wants you to be insane, may not have been new, but it had rarely been done with such panache and publicity-awareness, for which Tzara can largely be given credit.

What Tzara had not had yet, to the best of my knowledge, was a biography, something that Marius Hentea has now remedied with Tata Dada: The Real Life and Celestial Adventures of Tristan Tzara. Hentea is a Romanian literary scholar, who currently seems to live and work in Belgium. His knowledge of the Romanian language, as well as Romanian culture and conventions, is a great advantage, enabling him to do justice to Tzara's rarely documented life and work prior to his move to Zurich in 1915. The analyses of Tzara's early Symbolist-influenced poems, written in Romanian, are extraordinarily detailed, gauging meaning and mood with reference to the sounds and rhythms of their original language. He also provides a very compelling description of life in Romania in the early twentieth century -- explaining the virulent anti-Semitism of the country at this time in great detail, and showing how this may have contributed to Dada's dedication to internationalism and cross-border cooperation -- a real struggle to maintain given the times in which they were operating -- and the simultaneous existence of groups like the Futurists in Italy. Hentea's evocation of pre-war Bucharest, where Tzara lived between 1907 and his 1915 move to Switzerland, is one of the most compelling parts of the biography. This was, at the time, the capital of a very young country still weighing up different possible identities, throwing up grand civic buildings in a frenzy to catch up, defined by "rushed modernity" and chaos; from his descriptions, Bucharest street life seems not unlike a Dada performance, a place where, like Romania itself, you could choose who you wanted to be. After this, Zurich -- even a wartime Zurich filled with refugees, artists, revolutionaries, and spies -- must have seemed sterile and safe.

The inclusion of his early life is a particularly important feature, since, understandably, most accounts of Dada focus primarily on Zurich and Paris: the places where it came to the attention of the world. Hentea tracks the whole life, seeing that he was a great deal more -- and less -- than simply the man who created Dada. He gives space, for example, to the less narrative-friendly but psychologically important aspects of his life: Tzara's Communism, most obviously, which other commentators tend to treat as inconvenient or baffling; Codrescu, for example, tries to minimize it as much as possible, conceding that "Tzara became a Communist," but immediately adding, "though not for long" -- perhaps aware that this does not do a great deal for his case that Tzara represented Lenin's antithesis. But Tzara was a Marxist, dedicated to promoting the movement through his poetry as well as his actions, to varying degrees of intensity, for around twenty years of his life: from the increased politicization of the Paris art world in the 1930s, until the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, at which point, to his credit, Tzara stopped cooperation with the French Communist Party, although not without a fair amount of prior equivocation and backward-and-forward tracking. Hentea struggles to show exactly why this mocker of all coherent systems of thought and consistency -- the man who once declared, "[Y]ou are expecting explanations of Dada. I won't give any. Explain to me why you exist." -- dedicated himself to the ultimate explanatory system, although perhaps there are no real reasons. It just seems to have happened suddenly, parallel to his continuing dedication to obliqueness and abstruse symbols, leading to odd contradictory things such as the book Grains et Issues, which is, as Hentea puts it, a "schizophrenic structure" made up of "experimental dreams in the first half, Marxist social commentary in the second."

Interesting though all this is, the most compelling moments of the biography are, unsurprisingly, those dealing with the Dada performances, especially those initial ones in Zurich at the Cabaret Voltaire. Hentea's generally unexcitable prose is the perfect medium for presenting these scenes of joyous provocation; he tends to rely on contemporary sources for the descriptions, especially those of the Dada performers themselves, before qualifying and analysing. He includes, uncontested, Jean (Hans) Arp's electrifying relation of a typical Dada performance, for example:

Tzara is wiggling his behind like the belly of an Oriental dancer. Janco is playing an invisible violin and bowing and scraping. Madame Hennings, with a Madonna face, is doing the splits. Huelsenbeck is banging away nonstop on the great drum, with Ball accompanying him on the piano, pale as a chalky ghost.

To have been a spectator! But he is quick to puncture more dubious, openly self-mythologizing claims: the sequence of a Dada performance in 1919 that ended in a riot was subsequently juggled around in a written description produced by Tzara, who tried to make it appear that the performance that had incited the riot had started the evening.  Hentea includes his lurid account, a narrative of mounting mayhem characterized by "the kind of psychosis that explains war and epidemics," before drily pointing out that "the first two-thirds of the evening was politely appreciated." If the Dada artists, unintentionally assisted by the media, tended to exaggerate the extent to which performances were accompanied by chaos and dissent, other episodes featured in the biography make it clear just how many risks they took. At one performance in Paris, for example, Tzara cut up a speech by Leon Daudet, a powerful far-right politician, to make a poem, which he then muttered in an annoyed tone of voice, to xenophobic abuse and threats from the audience. For a foreigner, and a Jewish foreigner at that, to act in such a way in defensive, jittery post-war France was an act of great bravery and magnificent disdain.

The biography does degenerate rather, after the novelty and white heat of Dada have faded, into a series of rifts and reconciliations with other prominent Paris artists, most frequently André Breton: a much more accurate antagonist than Lenin. Breton's exasperation with the contrary Tzara, and his resistance to positive cooperation with his own, bafflingly well-organized and logical Surrealist movement, however, provide some of the most amusing moments in the biography. At one point in the 1920s, in response to some enraging act of his former partner's, he grandly pronounces that Dada "no longer corresponds to any reality," which I'm sure Tzara found crushing. There are also endless rather depressing disputes over who came up with the name -- and even the concept -- of Dada, particularly absurd given that explanations of what it is, once embarked upon, tend to grow uncontrollably toward book length. The matter should really have been settled once and for all by Jean (Hans) Arp, who declared, when asked:

I hereby declare that on February 8th, 1916, Tristan Tzara discovered the word DADA. I was present with my twelve children when Tzara pronounced for the first time this word which has aroused in us such legitimate enthusiasm. This took place at the Café Terrasse in Zurich, and I wore a brioche in my left nostril.

As well as having academic value, it is a deeply entertaining book, with great hilarious moments: the French Dadaists, shocked that the accented Tzara pronounces the word he has coined in his own idiosyncratic fashion, determine to teach him to "say Dada as it is done here"; the director of the Salon d'Automne, a Paris art gallery, responds to sometime-Dada-associate Francis Picabia's promise of an "explosive" painting with a press release reassuring potential visitors that "all the paintings were carefully inspected and none appeared suspicious"; André Breton haughtily demands of Tzara, attempting to sabotage a Dadaist "trial" of a right-wing writer with joking and tomfoolery: "[I]s the witness trying to pass himself off as a complete imbecile or is he trying to get himself taken away to a mental asylum?"

I perceived some flaws, although these are likely to simply match readers' own areas of interest in Tzara's life. I was surprised, for example, that there was not more about Tzara's love life: he is, in his way, a very sensual poet (albeit perhaps one whose senses have been randomly swapped around). His courting and marriage of his wife, Greta Knutson, is dealt with in just a couple of pages, and other relationships are mentioned only in passing, when they impinge upon his art. Arguably, the end of his life also deserves more attention: in his final years, Tzara developed an obsession with finding patterns in the work of Villon, claiming that anagrams contained within the lines revealed another level of implication, one that sometimes worked against the apparent surface meaning. The relevance of this work is still under discussion by Villon scholars -- although the fact that one opponent noted that a single line of "Le Lais" contained twenty different anagrams for one name seems, to me at least, pretty crushing. It seems, either way, a fitting coda to his life, casting it in terms of failure or success: either the grand, wild provocateur reduced to seeking systems in the work of another -- "to impose your ABC is a natural thing -- hence deplorable," he once said -- or, as Hentea puts it, a logical continuation of his eternal "desire to unlock the secrets and mysteries of language."

Tzara was, as is sometimes forgotten, first and foremost a poet. His poetic works are, I presume, the "celestial adventures" of the title, journeys that sometimes adventure so far up into the clouds that earthly referents, however tenuous, are lost. This is how I first came to him, at the impressionable age of eighteen, when an artistic -- or pretentious -- friend of mine scrawled some spikily inspirational quotation on a letter he had anachronistically posted to me. What it was exactly I've forgotten, but it was evidently impressive and counterintuitive enough to send me off for Chanson Dada, Lee Harwood's English-language collection of Tzara’s poetry, which I less read than occasionally basked in, never getting far beyond the opening pages, but enjoying the way that lines like the following serenely placed surrealism upon surrealism: "where we live the flowers of the clocks catch fire and the plumes encircle the brightness in the distant sulphur morning." I pummelled my head for meanings for a while, but surely here there are none; it is a beautiful nonsensical creation that rarely sticks to any rules which it, however briefly, propounds. Over the course of his career, he slowly bends closer to intelligibility, a process Hentea tracks closely through generous extracts. Hentea's analyses of his poetry are dogged and insightful, although he is at points perhaps too keen to draw parallels between Tzara's real life and his celestial adventures.

Similarly, Hentea fails to produce a definition of Dada of the sort that could appear in a dictionary -- although this is a failure shared by just about everyone else who has written about the subject, unsurprising perhaps, given that Tzara once declared, in the midst of a series of other declarations about the movement, that "Dada does not mean anything." He does, however, follow its astonishing growth and continuing appeal -- within five years of the first performance, there were hundreds of active Dadaist organizations around the globe, and Dada "depots" had been established in Barcelona, Brussels, Copenhagen, New York, Paris, and Stockholm. He also provides a number of perceptive insights about the reasons for this success, as well as the advantages it had over other contemporaneous movements, such as Futurism and Surrealism, explaining much of it by "its international ambitions and its unrefined quality" -- in short, I suppose, that more or less anyone could join, and there were few, if any, limitations on what someone could do.

Hentea's biography succeeds in capturing the effervescence of its subject, without being willing to take Tzara invariably at his own word; rarely succeeding, thankfully, in pinning him down, it does catch, in flashes, his essence like lightning in a bottle as he speeds by on his celestial adventures.

Tata Dada: The Real Life and Celestial Adventures of Tristan Tzara by Marius Hentea
The MIT Press
ISBN: 978-0262027540
368 pages