Tristan Tzara 1896–1963
(Pseudonym of Samuel Rosenfeld) Rumanian-born French poet, dramatist, essayist, critic, and novelist.
Tzara is best remembered as a proponent and practitioner of Dadaism, an intellectual movement of the World War I era whose adherents espoused intentional irrationality and urged individuals to repudiate traditional values. Tzara and other European artists sought to establish a new style in which random associations challenged logic and grammar, and promoted an individual vitality free from the restraints of artistic, historical, and religious authority. Tzara's career included other artistic and political movements, including Surrealism and communism. His work often defies standard classification: He wrote dramas as well as poetry, criticism on both art and poetry, and essays on a range of social and cultural issues. Although his work is largely ignored by most English-speaking scholars, Tzara is esteemed in France for his large and diverse body of poetry.
Tzara was born Samuel Rosenfeld in Moinesti, Bacu, Romania. Some sources date his birth April 4, 1896; others claim April 16, 1896. His first published poems appeared in a Rumanian literary review in 1912. Many of these poems, written in Rumanian and influenced by French symbolism, appear in a later volume of collected works, Les premiers poèmes (1958; Primele poèmes: First Poems). Tzara studied at Bucharist University from 1914 to 1915, during which time he also founded two journals in Romania: Simbolul (1912) and Chemarea (1915). In 1916 Tzara left Romania and immigrated to Switzerland. Together with Jean Arp, Hugo Ball, and others he created Dadaism and staged Dadaist performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Tzara then moved to France, settling in Paris in 1919. There he engaged in Dadaist experiments with Andre Breton and Louis Aragon. Serious philosophic differences caused a split between Tzara and Breton in 1921; soon after, Breton created the Surrealist movement, and by 1922 Dadaism had dissolved. From 1929 to 1934, Tzara participated in the activities of the Surrealist group in Paris. In 1934, he joined France's Communist Party, becoming a life-long member. Tzara served with the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War, and he directed the cultural broadcast of the French Resistance in the south of France from 1943 to 1944, and also wrote for Resistance magazines. At the end of World War II he became a naturalized French citizen. In 1961, he was awarded the Taormina International
Grand Prize for Poetry. Tzara died December 24, 1963, in Paris.
Tzara's early Dadaist verse, written between 1916 and 1924, utilizes agglomerations of obscure images, nonsense syllables, outrageous juxtapositions, ellipses, and inscrutable maxims to perplex readers and illustrate the limitations of language. Volumes such as Vingt-cinq poèmes (1918) and De nos oiseaux (1923) display the propositions outlined in Tzara's manifestos and critical essays, often blending criticism and poetry to create hybrid literary forms. Tzara's Surrealist poetry, written between 1929 and 1934, places less emphasis on the ridiculous than his Dadaist verse. Tzara's works published during this period include L'homme approximatif (1931; Approximate Man and Other Writings), an epic poem that is widely considered a landmark of twentieth-century French literature. This work portrays an unfulfilled wayfarer's search for universal knowledge and a universal language. This and Tzara's later Surrealist volumes—L'arbre des voyageurs (1930), Oú boivent les loups (1932), L'antitête (1933), and Grains et issues (1935)—reveal his obsession with language, his vision of humanity as afflicted by tedium and alienation, and his concern with the struggle to achieve completeness and enlightenment. As Tzara's interest in politics and his commitment to Communism increased during the thirties, his poetry included greater political content. It stressed revolutionary and humanistic values while maintaining Tzara's life-long interest in free imagery and linguistic experiments. Midis gagnés: poèmes (1939) focuses on Tzara's impressions of Spain during that country's civil war. The prose poems Sans coup férir (1949) and À haute flamme (1955) address political topics related World War II. Critics generally regard such later works as Terre sur terre (1946) and Le fruit permis (1956) as less vigorous and inventive but more controlled than his earlier poetry.
One of the difficulties in evaluating Tzara's poetry, particularly his Dadaist works, is distinguishing between his poetic vision and his poetic pranks. Tzara deliberately confounded and confused his readers. He even mocked them for their difficulty reading his poetry. In "Le géant blanc lépreux du paysage" Tzara wrote, "Here…the reader begins to scream…he is skinny, idiotic, dirty—he does not understand my poetry." Some critics argue that the chaos of his poetry is only apparent and that the many challenges he poses to his readers have a serious, unified purpose. Other critics question whether it is possible to find what Mary Ann Caws calls an "interior ordering" in his poetry. Tzara himself observed that "Dada proclaimed the negation of theory and the expression of naked personality." Caws also says: "We may, perhaps most wisely, follow his insistent advice that we look at the Dada poem as a simple spectacle, as creation complete in itself and completely obvious." Roger Cardinal observes that "Tzara's ideal text would seem to be one in which words emerge in a naked state, not as carriers of meaning proper but as manifestations of a kind of pure electrical energy." Cardinal argues that Tzara approached this ideal, and he praises his poetry for "the naked energy of his singular consciousness."
La première aventure céleste de Monsieur Antipyrine 1916.
Vingt-cinq poèmes 1918
Cinema calendrier du coeur abstrait maisons 1920
De nos oiseaux 1923 [Cosmic Realities Vanilla Tobacco Dawnings, 1975]
L'Indicateur des chemins de coeur 1928
L'arbre des voyageurs 1930
L'Homme approximatif 1931 [Approximate Man and Other Writings, 1973]
Où boivent les loups 1932
L'Antitete (prose poems) 1933
Parler seul 1933
Abrège de la nuit (poetry and prose) 1934
Grains et issues (prose poems) 1935
La main passe 1935
La deuxieme aventure celeste de Monsieur Antipyrine 1938
Midis gagnés: poèmes 1939
Le signe de vie 1946
Terre sur terre 1946
Morceaux choisis 1947
Sans coup férir 1949
De memoire d'homme 1950
La face interieure 1953
La bonne heure 1955
À haute flamme 1955
Le fruit permis 1956
Frere bois 1957
La rose et le chien 1958
Les premiers poèmes [translated from Romanian into French] 1958 [Primele poeme: First Poems, 1976]
Thirteen Poems 1969
Selected Poems 1975
La coeur a gaz (drama) 1920 [The Gas Heart, 1964]
Dada au grand air [with Hans Arp and Max Ernst (criticism) 1921
Faites vox jeux (autobiographical novel) 1923
Sept manifestes dada (essays) 1924 [Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries, 1977]
Mouchoir de nuages (drama) 1925
Essai sur la situation de la poesie (criticism) 1931
Sur le champ (essays) 1937
Vigies (essays) 1937
Ça va (essays) 1944
Une route seul soleil (essays) 1944
La fuite (drama) 1947
La surrealisme et l'apres-guerre (essay) 1947
Picasso et les chemins de la connaissance (criticism) 1948
Phases (essays) 1949
L'Art oceanien (criticism) 1951
L'Premiere main (essays) 1952
Picasso et la poesie (essay) 1953
L'Egypte face a face (essays) 1954
Le temps naissant (essays) 1955
Peintures [with Philippe Bonnet] (criticism) 1956
Dada: die Geburt des Dada [with Jean Arp, Richard Huelsenbeck, and Peter Schifferli] (criticism) 1957
Juste present (essays) 1961
De la coupe aux levres (essays) 1961
Destroyed Days (essays) 1971
Oeuvres complètes (poetry, dramas, essays, and criticism), 1975-91
Mary Ann Caws (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "Motion, Vision, and Coherence in the Dada Poetry of Tristan Tzara," in The French Review, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, Winter, 1970, pp. 1-8.
[In this essay, Caws traces the visual imagery of Tzara 's early poetry and find the unity of his poems in the "instant and incoherent reactions of the eye and ear."]
"Dada Est Une Quantité De Vie En Transformation Transparente Sans Effort Et Giratoire."1 Tzara's description of the universe of Dada denies progress for pure movement, and deliberate form for spontaneous vitality. Neither his often-quoted formula for constructing a Dada poem (cut out the words in a newspaper article of the desired length, shake them in a bag, remove them in random order), nor his superb example of a poem constructed in this way ("prix ils sont hier convenant ensuite tableaux …") contradict this vision of easy energy; nor can they be said to arouse, in general, any overwhelming passion for the prolonged reading of much Dada poetry.2
But if this poetry is indeed a chance conglomeration of phrases, what can explain Tzara's statement that the Dada poem is the quintessence of pure structure, that it is based on a rhythm both unheard and unseen which he calls a "rayon d'un groupement intérieur vers une constellation de l'ordre" (SDM, p. 106)? Is this a genuine conviction, or a supreme example of the Dada joke? And if we consider the statement a serious one, we still do not know if the innate coherence is in each case due to the constants in the poet's own personality somehow reflected in the poem, or if it originates within the being of the poem itself. (Of course, since ambivalence and ambiguity are essential to Dada and to the extremes of its character, we should not wish for clarification or resolution).
There remains a more significant problem: since the essential groupings are intuitive and interior, is it not a useless enterprise to examine the necessarily partial and exterior links perceived by the reader, since they may lie in an entirely different realm from the ones inside? Perhaps so; but perhaps also the still frequent assumption that Dada was a totally negative and incoherent attitude which produced totally negative and incoherent results suffices to justify the brief catalogue of a few surface indications of coherence, whether or not they have any relevance to the interior ordering, and whether we consider them artifacts left by chance or predictive markers set up on purpose.3
Even Tzara's earliest French poems,4 the Vingt-cing poèmes Dada of 1918, show a certain unity of mood and imagery. For instance, the poem "Printemps" begins with the morbid instruction:
placer l'enfant dans le vase au fond de minuit
et la plaie,5
and continues with images of stagnation, melancholy, imprisonment, exile, and attempts at escape. Many of these images are attributed to animals: unhealthy water trickles down the antelope's legs, while the caged peacock is thirsty; broken grasshoppers and ant hearts are sown in the garden, while the deer flee over the sharp points of black branches. The title seems ironic in the most obvious and least subtle sense, since spring is rarely associated with melancholy, either in the human or in the natural world.
"Petite Ville en Sibérie" from the same collection begins with three parallel motionless and one-dimensional images which utterly negate any joy or freedom (people flattened together on the ceiling in a blue light, signs pasted on doors, and a label stuck on a medecine bottle) and continues with a series of alternating images of static ordering and irrational or frenzied movement, at times actual and at times only dreamed of:
In spite of the tranquil, if ridiculous, light cast by a herring tin on the tin roofs, our final picture of the "Petite Ville" includes little children in pools of blood and a bitter image of frantic motion and its complete futility:
courons plus vite encore
toujours partout nous resterons entre des
(MC, p. 32).
The poem has thus progressed from imprisonment in a blue light, through the total inability either to move as one would like or to rest, to a permanent confinement within an absence of light and vision.
Some of these poems are based on contrasting images of motion and immobility like those just mentioned, but show, instead of any sustained atmosphere, certain shifts of mood parallel to the shifts of images. "Gare," another of the Vingt-cinq poèmes, opens with a conscious separation between action and noise on one hand and the passive indifference of the poet on the other:
danse crie casse
roule j'attends sur le banc
(MC, p. 33).
Then comes an ironic comparison between the vital world of nature and the sheltered human world:
le vol d'un oiseau qui brûle
est ma force virile sous la coupole
je cherche asile
(MC, p. 33)….
Echoing this last image are three examples of the poet's face enclosed—first by the circle of evening, then by a suitcase, and finally by the bars of a cage. Like the title image of the station, the strange conception of the face in the suitcase implies both motion (departure) and spatial limit. The suitcase has a logical place in the poem, for shortly after the question or challenge "partir," the poet, who has been quietly reading on the bench in the evening, answers: "je pars ce soir." The evening calm is spoiled in any case by dogs and jaguars howling in a factory but also in the poet's bed, a final image of rest denied which reminds us of the preceding poem's "dormir oh oui si l'on pouvait seulement." Most of the other elements in "Gare" reflect either the peaceful atmosphere with which the poet initially surrounds himself: his silent reading of the paper, the precise and wise god, an orderly friendship, the listening light near the beginning and the "lueurs sphéroidales" at the end—or the shattering of it: the poet's blackened eyes that he hurls into the waterfall, the weeping spark, and the lions and clowns in the last line, which are directly related to the dogs and jaguars, and which close the poem on the mocking and shrilly active tone of a circus.
"Les Saltimbanques"6 (where the image of the circus performer mentioned in "Gare" is repeated) revolves about the whining sound of an accordeon ("glwawawa") and its obvious rhythm:
The poem is arranged on the page to suggest movement and variations in volume, but Tzara inserts an absolute and characteristic contrast to the movement, doubly amusing in its apparently self-referential note:
Dada poetry is of course anything but static. In fact, the reason the poet must reject all sentimentality in his work, according to Tzara, is that the "humidity" of tears often visible in past art might retard this intensely modern dynamism, merciless and severe. The ideal Dada poem "pousse ou creuse le cratère, se tait, tue ou crie le long des degrés accélérés de la vitesse" (SMD, p. 106). It is oriented not toward the concept of a whole, but rather toward the changing procession of different moments. "La force de formuler en l'instant cette succession variable, est l'œuvre" (SMD, p. 105).
Perhaps the most interesting trait of Tzara's early poetry is the way in which motion is so often juxtaposed with the stability of certain geometrical Figures. In "Gare," the flight of the bird is compared to the poet's act of seeking refuge in the safety of the cupola, and his invocation of the theme of departure and his resolution to leave are separated only by the image of his face in the circle of evening. As the circus performer climbs up the ladder, the poet observes his "oblong" skull, and finally the hearts of the medicinal plants are opened to lights with the shape of spheroids. In "Circuit total par la lune et par la couleur," a poem entirely about motion, as the title indicates, there are circles everywhere. The announced image of the moon is followed in the first line by an iron eye, then by portholes, olives that swell into symmetric crystallisations ("pac pac"), a lemon, a coin, and the sun. And at the same time, all the nervous dancing of the Dada god, the vertical flight of butterflies and of rivers, roads, irregular rains, and kiosks, as well as the dilating of cells, the elongating of bridges, the writhing of yellow snakes, and the rapid march of all the shades of the color red, are subject to the sudden miraculous arrangements implied in the infinitely mobile universe of Dada spontaneity:
autour des pôles magnétiques les rayons se rangent comme les
plumes des paons
et les cascades voyez-vous se rangent dans leur propre lumière
au pôle nord un paon énorme déploiera lentement le soleil
quand je demande comment
les fosses hurlent
seigneur ma géométrie
(MC, p. 74).
In his "Note sur la poésie," Tzara demands that the Dada poet write with joy, enthusiasm, and intensity, that he present a constantly varied spectacle: "Ruisseler dans toutes les couleurs …" (SMD, p. 104); his own poetry is as diverse and as brightly colored as Benjamin Péret's poems and stories, and it communicates the same peculiarly visual directness. The peacock feathers and the northern lights ("la nuit des couleurs") of the "Circuit… par la couleur" have a counterpart in many other early poems, where the incessant transformations are sometimes conceptual, sometimes rhythmic, but appeal more often and more vividly to the sight. Still another circus poem, "Le Dompteur de lions se souvient," insists on the immediate attention of the onlooker, who will later be called upon to participate in the world of spectacle:
regarde-moi et sois couleur
(MC, p. 30).
and then presents a garishly-tinted assortment of blue antelopes, a red so lively that it rolls of its own momentum with no less energy than the marching reds already mentioned ("roule roule rouge"), and a green horse, with a number of white parasols for contrast. No Dada reader would have expected a subtle watercolor, since he knows that "Dada a aboli les nuances" (SMD, p. 119). All Dada colors have the clarity and pure affirmation of the glass corridors and the mountains of crystal which are the true domain of the Dada artist.
Tzara often associates colors with height, as if we should not content ourselves with the ordinary drab furnishings and undramatic spectacle of our world at eye-level:
let jet d'eau s'échappe et monte
vers les autres couleurs7
en arc-en-ciel de cendre
les couleurs hamides rôdent ivres8
salis mouillés lambeau de nuit nous avons élevé
en nous chacun de nous une tour de couleur si hautaine
que la vue ne s'accroche plus au-delà des montagnes et des eaux…9
At other times color is more closely identified with human sensitivity, either in a positive setting, as when piano music runs multi-colored through the listeners' brains like the metallic veins in rocks, or in a negative one, where the aesthetic sense is insulted:
les couleurs sont des chiffres qu'on tue et qui sautent
comme tout le monde.10
The vulgar circling of the carousel here is preceded by the spontaneous belly dance of a balloon, in opposition to the calm checkerboard of a landscape, just as the woman in kilometers of green rubber makes a brilliant contrast with the static and peaceful "blanches cordes du minuit atrophié" in a later section of the same poem. In this poem and in many others the two main themes of Tzara's early poetry, color and motion, are joined in an association closely related to his frequent use of the circus image.
With all this stress on color and movement and contrast, the poet is sure of forcing the reader's attention, which is his principal aim. "Nous sommes directeurs de cirque" (SMD, p. 15)—a second possible factor in the choice of circus imagery is a consciousness of the poem as performance, so that even the belly dance and the piano concert mentioned above can be considered self-referential according to this interpretation. Many of Tzara's poem start with a command, "regarde" or "regarde-moi." Others incorporate a testimony to the crucial role of vision: "voir," "vois mon visage," "regardez monsieur."" These are at once an invocation of the reader's power of sight and a self-reminder to the poet of the essential showmanship expected in his poetry.
Dada poetry is not meant to elicit the educated responses of cultured sensitivity, but rather the instant and incoherent primitive reactions of the eye and ear. If it permits no slow-moving intellectual translations, it seems to carry its own rapid and external indications of a possible (or, as Tzara woud say, necessary) interior ordering. But since we cannot glimpse the internal order, our vision of the poem is likely to remain disordered, fragmented, and bewildering, in spite of the structural or thematic links perceived on the surface, which may or may not lie parallel to the unheard rhythm within. We can either place our faith in Tzara's guarantee of an intuitive luminous architecture, or accept his only half-humorous assurance that Dada's obscurity is so dark as to eventually create its own light; or we may, perhaps most wisely, follow his insistent advice that we look at the Dada poem as a simple spectacle, as a creation complete in itself and completely obvious. "L'art est à présent la seule construction accomplie en soi, dont il n'y a plus rien à dire, tant elle est richesse, vitalité, sens, sagesse. Comprendre, voir, Décrire une fleur: relative poésie plus ou moins fleur de papier. Voir." (SMD, p. 85).
1 Tristan Tzara, Sept manifestes Dada (Paris, Pauvert, 1962), p. 69. Referred to in text as SMD.
2 Nor does the peculiar fashion in which the poems were published. Since the edition of 1918 is printed in a narrow column, it is impossible to tell which lines are continuations of the preceding ones and which are meant to be new; unfortunately, the most recent edition (1946), which has a wide column of print, takes the 1918 edition for a model instead of going back to the manuscript. Consequently, many lines which were originally long and made a definite contrast in texture when combined with the short ones are chopped up into two, three, or even four lines, resulting in a final impression of jerkiness often not present in the original manuscript. There are also other deformations: part of a poem placed in another poem (see the last of the Vingt-cinq-et-un poèmes, "le sel et le vin," whose first line comes from one page and the remaining part from the other side of the page, leaving the rest of the first page to be part of "la grande complainte de mon obscurité deux") and so on. Parts of lines are somehow lost in the transition between manuscript and printing, to say nothing of the rearrangements. Perhaps this does not matter, if one considers only Tzara's purely negative statements about art, so much more famous than his positive ones about poetry. But since he intended his Note sur la poésie, quoted here, to be a sort of preface to this work, it seems valid to take the statements within it as serious, at least in a Dada framework.
3 It might be interesting to relate these theories of Tzara to the contemporary linguists' distinctions between deep structure and surface structure (see Chomsky et al.)
4 His Roumanian poems of 1912-15 are not in question here since they are "pre-Dada," though it must be admitted that Tzara himself refused any such distinctions as "pre-Dada" and "post-Dada." See Claude Sernet's translations of and introduction to Tristan Tzara, Les Premiers poèmes (Paris, Seghers, 1965).
5 In Tristan Tzara, Morceaux choisis (Paris, Bordas, 1947), p. 31. Referred to in text as MC.
6 From De nos oiseaux of 1923.
7 "La Grande Complainte de mon obscurité deux," from Vingt-cinq poèmes, quoted in Tristan Tzara, Œuvres (Paris, Seghers, 1952), p. 122.
8 "Surface maladie," from De nos oiseaux, ibid., p. 129.
9 "Règle," from "Indicateur des chemins de cœur," MC, p. 106.
10 "Cinéma calendrier du cœur abstrait," MC, p. 31.
11 " A god example of the visible linking of some of this poetry (the word "progression" is perhaps too strong) is "Le Dompteur de lions se souvient," which begins with the specific "regardez-moi" and ends with the general "voir."
Gordon Browning (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Tristan Tzara and Decomposition: 'Le géant blanc lépreux du paysage,'" in Dada/Surrealism, No. 4, 1974, pp. 27-34.
[In the following essay, Browning argues that the structure of "Le géant blanc lépreux du paysage" was designed to subvert or sabotage the experience of reading this poem, as well as the poetic experience in general.]
Explicating Tzara's "Le Géant blanc lépreux du paysage'" can be risky, since Tzara put the reader's efforts in the poem: "Here … the reader begins to scream … he is skinny, idiotic, dirty—he does not understand my poetry." Yet this portrait is itself comprehensible, and, as such, highlights the paradoxical aspect of Tzara's Dada poetry, in which intelligible statements announce the unintelligibility of the text, an imagery rich in creative suggestion prepares its own negation, and the implicitly poetic elements of pattern, movement, and vision reveal a poetics of anti-poetry. Moreover, the image here of the reader who does not understand makes us aware that "Le Géant blanc" is a poem about anti-poetry, a poem perhaps grounded in a poetic experience, but itself the negation of this experience's expression.
"Le Géant blanc lépreux du paysage" combines in a landscape scene the image of a deteriorating mountain and the image of a deteriorating reader. Terrestrial and marine imagery suggest the typical Alpine scene of a mountain dominating a lake. Superimposed on the image of the mountain and lake are a tumor, microbes, lungs, and even intestine-shaped tubular seaweed, which justify the title's personification of the countryside.
In a letter from Tzara in Zurich to Picabia, the theme of infected mountains reappeared in a definition of Switzerland: "Switzerland: a tumor where God has spit some lakes."2 And in a letter to Breton, Tzara applied the diseased-mountain metaphor to his reaction to a train accident: "You can well understand that such an incident would cure even a Mont Blanc eaten by vermin."3
Pointing from North to South helps the reader unfamiliar with the Brazilian highlands to find his bearings, but the usual North-at-the-top-of-the-page form is inverted. Diagrammatic trickery puts the reader in an unfamiliar geographical situation, yet the upside-down view is such that the haphazardly built circle around the large central house has an uncanny resemblance to the plan of Paris that all French children know by heart. This is a large center plan: the Ile-de-la-Cité, dominated by Notre-Dame, the Sainte-Chapelle, and the "men's house" of governmental affairs in the Palace of Justice have roughly concentric circles on both sides of the Seine, delineated, as in the rings of a tree, by walls constructed at different times in the Middle Ages (the green Guide Michelin to Paris shows this). The French child also never forgets such a devotional image of a map after his years of indoctrination. Familiarity and unfamiliarity, placement and displacement in text and diagram corroborate one another.
Reading the surfaces of image and text reveals much more. The same photograph suggestive of Poussin is used to explain a network of myths in the early chapters of Le Cru et le cuit, but paradoxically, the "native-as-staffage" is the only element absent in the specialized study published seven years after Tristes Tropiques. Remembrance of Poussin is no longer evident, and the sense of classical landscape tradition is disembodied in favor of binary oppositions of myth in so complex an analysis that the self as topic of study must be removed. Lévi-Strauss, whose writing, as we have suggested, has strong literary resonance reminiscent of Proust and Mallarmé, displaces Paris once and for all. Study of arabesques of myth from Le Cru et le cuit to L'Homme nu—the latter a titleas-slip in the context of our discussion—could be construed as the alternately compassionate search for a flight from the Bororo native, as removal of the tourist cliché in the passage from New World to Old, or as expedition à la National Geographic, recounted in snapshots, to the four volumes of speculations composed in Paris and Lignerolles between June 1961 and September 1970. The 2,130 pages from La Pensée sauvage to the concluding volume of Mythologiques bear the mark of irrevocable absence or inability to recapture lost time and space.
In fact, we discover in the preface to Le Cru et le cuit that exertion and loss are transposed into a far more disciplined series of athletic exercises, which successfully sublimate the longings felt so keenly in the displacement of the Tristes Tropiques. The mythographer will translate systems of North and South American myths into his own system in order to reveal "a pattern of basic and universal laws: this is the supreme form of mental gymnastics, in which the exercise of thought, carried to its objective limits (since the latter have been previously explored by ethnographic research), emphasizes every muscle and every joint of the skeleton, thus revealing a general pattern of anatomical structure."4 The books are then a record of mental pushups and jumping-jacks executed in a gymnasium of anthropology whose program, he says in the same context, "I have been pursuing since I wrote Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté" (1949), and of which The Savage Mind, despite the controversy it had provoked in Paris in 1962, "represented a kind of pause in the development of my theories: I felt the need for a break between two bursts of effort" (pp. 9, 11). To say that one of the most influential tracts of the 60s, counting 357 pages hyperbolic curve is first suggested in the ascent of the rising vision, which is continued metaphorically by the poet's own trip, then complemented by the disintegration of the reader, and finally completed geometrically in the last lines, which indicate a return to the lake.
"Le Géant blanc" also refers to making sounds. A helicon horn and violin introduce the flaming vision. The importance of sounds is suggested further by the image "the family of sounds" preceding the hyperbolic trip. And in the last section, the reader's incomprehension is represented as his own physical vibration from the noise of a Dada soirée. His stomach is a bass drum, he screams, he has rrrrrrr on his soul—until flutes introduce coral and prepare the last underwater scene. Furthermore, the fact that part of the poem is real noise is obviously relevant: when, regardless of meaning, noises suggest words and words suggest noises, there is an implicit reduction of sense to sound. Certain sound associations, like the assonance and alliteration of "sans cigarette tzantzantza," "le sang gangà," and "gmbabàba/berthe," imply this generative correlation between sound fragments and the text. If they are thematically part of the poem's reference to itself, they are also concretely becoming poetry's negation.
"Froid jaune," another poem from the Vingt-Cinq Poèmes, provides a further concordance for "Le Géant blanc." It includes both aspects of the decomposition theme—the infected poet and the cadaver—linking them to poetic vision and the act of creating poetry. In contrast to "Mouvement," which begins in the vibrating heights and descends to silence, "Froid jaune" begins with the suggestion of departing and ends by announcing an ascension. Central to this development is the declaration of the poet's physiological deterioration.
piéton fiévreux et pourri …
je pensais à quelquechose de très scabreux
mon organe amoureux est bleu
je suis mortel monsieur bleubleu
et du cadavre monte un pays étrange
monte monte vers les autres astronomies.
The poet is "pourri"—infected. Monsieur Bleubleu, to whom the poet confesses the scabrous state of his love organ and the apprehension of his mortality, is presumably also the personification of this ailment. As the blue love organ personified, Monsieur Bleubleu is also a character in La Première Aventure céleste de Mr. Antipyrine, where he crudely authors manifestoes of his own through his bowels.
The poet in "Froid jaune" is diseased, mortal, impotent. Since the personification of this infection, Monsieur Bleubleu, is himself a writer, there would seem to be a strong correlation between the themes of infection, impotence and decomposition and the making of anti-poetry. In this perspective, the last stanza of "Froid jaune" is illuminating, for it affirms an ultimate ascent:
et du cadavre monte un pays étrange
monte monte vers les autres astronomies.
In "Froid jaune" the poet has a colored sex organ and is mortal. The infection is personified, and from the cadaver a strange country rises. In "Le Géant blanc" there is a separation of the poet's decomposition from that of the cadaver, and consequently a doubling of the ascension motif. In the latter poem, a giant leprous mountain becomes a cadaver, and again, from this diseased scenery, a new vision rises. The pattern is repeated when the poet declares that his sex organ is cold and monochromatic. From this statement follows the ascent of the poet's brains on the hyperbolic trip. Poetry, Dada poetry, seems to be the ultimate term in the decomposition paradigm. Thus, decomposition, the cadaver, the poet's infection and his impotence disparage and negate the poetry they announce.
It is possible to interpret "Le Géant blanc" as an incipient poetic experience, which is then denied. On one hand, we see the vision and the suggestions of departure, and, on the other, the decomposition of the mountain-cadaver, the malady of the poet, and the disintegration of the reader. The scenery is sick, a fire in a rising visionary metamorphosis. The abrupt announcement of the poet's impotence ends the vision, and hermetic allusions to the poetic experience and departure follow. The declaration of the poet's exalted ascent is followed by the portrait of the reader, which completes the allusions to making poetry. He vibrates and himself produces the sounds he does not understand, sounds that eventually reintroduce the scenery, the algae underwater, and a three-line bruitiste conclusion.
In the first line, "le sel se groupe en constellation d'oiseaux sur la tumeur de ouate," I take the "tumor of cotton wadding" to be the snow cap. Salt apparently accumulates around the sore, as an irritant, or for its crystalline properties.5 (Microbes will crystallize later in the text. Birds relate to the ascension-heights motif and also suggest potential movement, the mobility of the scene. In the second line, the attribution of lungs is part of the personification process.6 It is an extension of the Mont-Blanc-eaten-by-vermin metaphor, and the internal teeter-totter ing and crystallizing of bugs and microbes is an imagined disintegration. The next step in the personification begins with the image of macrocystis, a seaweed whose tubular thalli reach several hundred yards in length. Like the lungs, the intestinal seaweed is imagined, and serves to introduce to the scene the third level, the lake, where tentacles surround boats appearing as small scars on the surface. The personification of the leprous Alpine scene is now complete: a tumor for a peak, lungs deteriorating in the mountain's interior, intestinal algae below the waistline of the lake's edge. This is the first stage of the poem. The image of boats on the water, scars, dark patches on a lake shimmering with light, "paresse des lumières éclatantes" (strikingly poetic when detached from the poem), I believe are based on actual observation. It is from this bright reflecting light that the visionary section of the poem takes its impetus. From this wavering light, seen as flames rising from the water, there is a new all-consuming transformation of the scene, which the poet appropriates as an epiphany, attributing the origin of the flames to his own aggression, candles that he wields:
je lui enfonce les cierges dans les oreilles angànfah hélicon et
boxeur sur le balcon le violon de l'hôtel en baobabs de flammes.
Since, however, the mode of attack is ultimately antipoetic, a de-poetization of the experience, the vision is represented as cacophony, an attack against hearing. The production of harsh and meaningless sounds has consistently implied a disparagement of poetry-making. The auditory motif, here the helicon horn and the violin associated with the flames, will be dominant in the portrait of the reader: tombo et tombo, bass drums, castanets, flutes, and rrrrrrr. The presence of the poet ("je lui enfonce"), the suggestion of the reader's presence ("ears"), and the initial association between sounds and flames ("le violon … en baobabs de flammes") link the ensuing metamorphic scene to the making of poetry.
I take the flame scene to be a visionary transformation of an actual landscape, rising from the lake and up the mountain—enveloping bracken, waterfalls, glaciers, rocks, snow, clouds, peaks—with boats appearing again at the top.7 Into the vision at its zenith—"ultrared"—Tzara interjects the line implying the poet's physiological and creative insufficiencies: "ma queue est froide et monochromatique." The lament is crude, though humorous, and seemingly gratuitous in the context. But it can be considered here, as in other poems, an essential counter to the visionary experience and to its expression as poetry. Here the text apparently passes from the vision to the experience of the poem, the suggestion of the poem's origins and departure in very abbreviated form:
les champignons oranges et la famille des sons au delà du tribord
à l'origine à l'origine le triangle et l'arbre des voyageurs à l'origine.
The orange fungus or mushrooms recall again the decomposition theme.8 "The family of sounds" is recognizable as part of the sounds-dissonance imagery related to poetry. "Beyond the starboard," as well as suggesting departure ("au delà"), also repeats the boat motif. Boats on the shimmering water initiated the vision and were apparently carried on it to the peaks and clouds at the top—"les ciseaux, et les nuages les ciseaux et les navires." Finally, we may infer in the next line that "l'arbre des voyageurs," an echo perhaps of "baobabs en flammes," alludes to poetry too, since it later became the title of a collection of Tzara's poems.
Anticipated by the leprous personification of the scenery, by the suggestion that its transformation is to be rendered first by an assortment of cacophonous noises, then by the crude and abrupt announcement of the poet's impotence, and finally by the abbreviation of the further allusions to the poem's departure, the success implied in the line "mes cerveaux s'en vont vers l'hyperbole" is not the success of the poetic experience of living—conducting and naming a metamorphosis—but rather the affirmation of negating the poetry of this experience and of its expression. The portrait of the reader confirms that negation is the goal and that it has been achieved. Changing scenery was the subject of the poem, now the subject is the changing reader. The poem becomes his vibration through the noises of a Dada soirée, becomes his progressive deterioration and cretinization, becomes finally the declaration that the reader does not understand. The poem that was presumably once grounded in a poetic experience becomes the reader's reaction to its anti-poetic transposition.
1 "Le Géant blanc" is the first poem in the Vingt-Cinq Poèmes (June 1918). It was probably composed in the fall of 1916, one of Tzara's first Dada poems after his first Dada Manifesto and the play La Première Aventure céleste de Mr. Antipyrine. The manifesto is highly self-disparaging; the play, scabrous and unintelligible. But it is in his Dada poetry that Tzara brings self-disparagement, the scabrous note, and the theme of unintelligibility together in a unified movement and imagery. Twentytwo years later, both Paul Eluard and Benjamin Péret included "Le Géant blanc" in a list of ten or twelve essential poems in an answer to an 'Enquête: La Poésie Indispensable" (Cahiers G.L.M., No. 8, October 1938, p. 53, p. 58). (Bibliographic note from Byron Leonard.)
2 Sanouillet, Dada à Paris, letter dated July 11, 1920. reprinted in Appendix, p. 500.
3 Sanouillet, op. cit., letter dated March [1 or] 5, 1919, p. 442.
4 The importance of the theme of decomposition and its ultimate refersnce to poetry can already be inferred from Tzara's correspondence with Max Jacob. Clearly in response to Tzara's initial comment (Tzara's letter is not available), Jacob wrote on February 26, 1916, "I love you since you do me and I love in you a great poet, but I believe it is necessary to come back to vigorous constructions and to order. Decomposition broadens art but recomposition strengthens it." Letter in Sanouillet, op. cit., p. 556.
5 Reminiscent of "Le Géant blanc," but without the anti-poetic context, flame, giant, mountain, and crystal are evoked in Tzara's "Note 14 sur la poésie" (1917): "D'autres forces productives crient leur liberté, flamboyantes, indéfinissables et géantes, sur les montagnes de cristal et de prière" (Sept Manifestes Dada, p. 107). In the anti-poem, the values of these images are inverted; no longer expressions of productivity, liberty, and concentrated purity, the mountain decomposes, the flames are sponges, and the crystal is infection.
6 "Droguerie-Conscience," another of the Vingt-Cinq Poèmes, offers further exterior description of the mountain, as well as a concordance for the sickness in the lungs:
le géant le lépreux du paysage
s'immobilise entre deux villes
il a des ruisseaux cadence et les tortues des collines s'accumulent lourdement
il crache du sable pétrit ses poumons de laine …
7 Mr. Aa l'antiphilosophe's "Exegèse sucre en poudre sage" suggests similar scenery, of flames, metamorphosis, and exalting ascension:
… Aa sort de son lit…paupières tremblantes, applaudissement muet au spectacle des flammes jetées entre lignes parallèles, étroites, vraiment trop brûlante affirmation d'en haut pour simple coincidence sulfureuse du choc précis des nuages (ici les montagnes se reflètent dans le lac) l'accouplement des rivages ne serait pas impossible à l'aurore …
Ruth Caldwell (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "A Step on Tzara's Road to Communication," in Dada/Surrealism, No. 4, 1974, pp. 35-41.
[In the following essay, Caldwell suggests that in L'Indicateur des chemins de coeur Tzara demonstrated a concern for linguistic coherence that was part of his transition from Dada to Surrealism.]
During the 1920s, in a transition from Dadaism to Surrealism that has been more readily assumed than pinpointed, Tristan Tzara produced ten poems of rich thematic unity, a volume entitled L'Indicateur des chemins de coeur. The dominant theme of these poems is a desire for communication, not only between humans, but between humans, animals, plants, and the cosmos.
Part of this theme is announced by the title of the volume. Although Tzara is not the only author to have used a train schedule as a metaphor for communication with a loved one (we find it in Proust's Un Amour de Swann: "il se plongeait dans le plus enivrant des romans d'amour, l'indicateur des chemins de fer …),1 Tzara, with poetical economy, slightly deforms an ordinary term to render a new image. This new image is the quest of the heart, which, like the routes of trains, reaches out, traversing far and diverse places. The train and travel imagery is carried over into many of the poems—in their titles, "Voie," "Bifurcation," "Pente," "Accès," "Signal," "Démarrage"—and in the texts. Rather than showing actual communication, the travel image emphasizes unfulfilled desire, search, and separation. We see this conflict in the first lines of "Voie" ("quel est ce chemin qui nous sépare") and in "Volt," which begins with confused and distorted images of the world ("les tours penchées les cieux obliques / les autos tombant dans le vide des routes"), and ends in a wandering search ("perdu dans la géographie d'un souvenir et d'une obscure rose / je rôde dans les rues étroites autour de toi").2
The conflict presented by the desire for communication and the abiding lack of it is also maintained by light and dark imagery. At the beginning of "Pente," darkness and sickness are associated with separation and distance:
malade de nuits trop
sur le mur cru se dépassant aux enchères
les chiens aboient l'insaisissable distance3
By contrast, images of light and of rebirth accompany the possibility of communication:
conduisent l'enfant à la bouche du jour
tu chantes des berceuses dans la langue de ta lumière
tes yeaux renaissent dans le sang des chaudes interrogations4
Light imagery at times accompanies a cosmic imagery, a mixture of biological, botanical, and chemical words that suggests another possible communication. In "Accès," in the midst of an evocation of obscurity ("nuits incomplètes," "nuits avalées en hâte," "nuits enfouies," "rêves arides," "salis mouillés lambeaux de nuit"),5 the speaker says that each of us has raised "such a high tower of color" within ourselves, that the following results:
que la vue ne s'accroche plus au delà des montagnes et des eaux
que le ciel ne se détourne plus de nos filets de pêche aux étoiles
que les nuages se couchent à nos pieds comme des chiens de chasse
et que nous pouvons regarder le soleil en face jusqu' à l'oubli.6
Here the proximity of humans, animals, and the cosmos is explicit. In many other poems, one sees the hidden relationships between humans and other living elements, as in "Evasion":
et pourtant herbe si souvent passée sous le peigne du vent
qui sait quand viendront se joindre tes regards de chlorophylle aux miens.7
A technique in these poems suggesting communication is the constant address to another person, a je-tu relationship present in every text. In many of the poems, the person addressed could be a loved one from whom the speaker is separated. This interpretation might apply to "Voie," "Bifurcation" ("mon sourire est attaché à ton corps"), "Accès" ("et pourtant mon repos ne trouve sa raison / que dans le nid de tes bras …"), "Signal" ("je ne puis pas t'écrire"), "Volt" ("je rôde dans les rues étroites autour de toi"), and "Démarrage" ("sans joints sans nervures tu es loin").8 However, some references in these poems do not support this interpretation. In "Evasion," the speaker directly addresses grass ("tes regards de chlorophylle"), and the person in "Règle" ("la promesse tant attendue à l'horizon de ton sourire")9 is ambiguous in the poem's total context of cosmic imagery (actions of the sea, sky, clouds, earth, and wind). The tu in "Pente" has maternal qualities,
tu chantes des berceuses dans la langue de ta lumière
mère des chanson égorgées dans la vague noyées,10
but we might note that it is not the traditional mother evoked here; rather one who has a special sort of language, and this image in context with images of the night, the dream, and the sea (with a probable pun on mer and mère), might suggest that the speaker is addressing his subconscious. There are two direct addresses in "Tonique." In the first, the tu is passive, his chest a quay exposed to the somewhat rude clarity of the sun. At the end of the poem, the tu whom the speaker awaits at "the door of the day" has become active and verbal:
la lumière du jour s'allume à tes lèvres
vernies par le souriant avantage de ce jour
et tes lèvres s'allument à l'éclat des syllabes
qui s'échappent aux lumineuses défaillances de tes lèvres11
While this poem might indicate a communication between the speaker and some loved one, it might also very well suggest the doubling of the speaker, where he addresses himself (tes lèvres) in an effort at re-unification in expression (des, syllabes: lumineuses défaillances de tes lèvres). This interpretation is reinforced by the marine image that appears earlier in the poem:
bleu est le ciel dans le travail des marins
les cordes des âges tendues entre leurs mains
les départs risqués vers de bégayants langages
entre leurs mains qui sèment des signaux l'étrange langage12
This image, with the references to language and signs, might suggest a descent into the subconscious, rather than a simple sea voyage.
Given these possible interpretations of tu, and considering the varied imagery of communication in these poems, the vocative might be more generalized, indicating not only the possible communication between the speaker and a loved one, but also the communication between the speaker and himself, and ultimately through language, his communication with all beings. The nous implied in some of these poems and explicit in others then becomes enlarged to include all beings in the endeavor for communication, and what might be personal love poems become generalized expressions of communion.
The preceding quotations imply that language is the solution to separateness and to the desire for communion between humans and the universe. References to language in these texts are constant and intentional. The capacity for written or oral expression is attributed to all beings of the universe, as in "Voie" ("une fleur est écrite au bout de chaque doigt"), "Bifurcation" ("comme l'escargot avec de fines voix"), and "Eyasion" ("réunit les berges en lacets de dialogue").13 Sometimes the references are negative, indicating the absence of language and the desire for expression, as in "Signal":
mon vers hésite au delà des pas.
que tu guérisses aussi vite que la parole du lumineux est vraie
mais nous sommes si éloignés de la chantante étreinte14
In "Règle," false everyday language must be destroyed in order to give way to the true, intimate communion:
le vent étrangle la parole dans le gosier du village pauvre village
sa vie d'étranges éclaircies
cassée est la chaîne des paroles couvertes d'hivers et de drames
qui reliaient les intimes éclaircies de nos existences15
Only two poems, "Accès" and "Volt," do not have explicit references to spoken or written languages. However, in "Volt," the line "distillant son dépit à travers les fragments de mémoire et d'arithmétique,"16 by its reference to such operations of the brain as memory and symbol-making, might imply language in its state of formation. We have already seen the importance of language as a communicative power in "Pente" and "Tonique," the title of the latter poem taking on perhaps a secondary meaning, aside from that of a medical tonic, since it could refer to a stressed word or sound.
We are sure of Tzara's intentional insistence on the power of language not only from the frequency of these references but also from evidence in his manuscript corrections.17 In an early prose version of "Règle," we do not see the phrase "au bruit des pages des vagues tournées par le lecteur du ciel inassouvi"18; its addition in the published poem gives a literary sense to man's interpretation of and communion with the cosmos (ciel, vagues). In the manuscript of "Pente," the word nourriture in the line "mains qui portent la nourriture à la bouche de l'enfant"19 is corrected to read parole, thus reinforcing the later references to the "mother of songs" whose "hand agitates language."
Apart from their thematic signification, these poems are effective in their composition. We see a marked difference in techniques between this volume and earlier ones, for the composition of these poems demonstrates a will to communication that corresponds to the theme of the poems. No longer is the reader stopped by strange or exotic words; in their place are the common and general words for the sea, wind, earth, flowers, mountains, and animals. Our attention to sound is drawn purely by alliteration or assonance, such as "rêves arides par de longs regards" ("Accès"), "les orties sont sorties les sorts en sont pleins" ("Démarrage"), "pieds nus et gorge rêche au guet" ("Evasion"), "l'onde de leur indolence" ("Règle").20
Nor do we find an incomprehensible juxtaposition of words, although similes and metaphors continue to be rare in these poems. The juxtaposition of contradictory nouns to render an unusual image ("la main de ma pensée," "le muscle de la branche")21 is a favorite Surrealist technique, but it is one that makes particular sense in this volume, where it corresponds to the theme of communication of the elements.
The lines are no longer isolated images in themselves, as in earlier poems, for the images here are continued over several lines. Tzara explicitly reinforces association by repeating words from line to line: "des eaux les riantes veines / veines de vent inconstant" ("Tonique")22 On occasion, the association between disparate elements is achieved through a pun, as in these lines from "Signal": "qu'entre l'amour et la maudite coincidence / j'ai planté le grain de ton savourex chagrin,"23 where chagrin is likened to grain first by homophony and then by the underlying image of something that grows from the interior.
Syntax is never disrupted in these poems, which move easily from line to line in the language as well as the images. An effective example of this facility and harmony of syntax and imagery is seen in these lines of "Volt":
la ville bouillonnante et épaisse de fiers appels et de lumières
déborde de la casserole de ses paupières
ses larmes s'écoulent en ruisseaux de basses populations.24
Here the comparison of an overpopulated city to an overflowing pot and then to an eye filled with tears is accentuated by the placement of key verbs at the beginning of new lines, which, by continuing the action, give a textual sense of overflowing.
Many inversions are in the standard form of adjective-verb-noun found in epic poetry, and they give a grandiose tone to the search evoked in these poems: "bleu est le ciel dans le travail des marins" ("Tonique"), "brisée est la clavicule de la montagne en haillons de neige" ("Evasion"). Although many lines are long and complicated, they are counterbalanced by short lines eloquent in their simplicity: "je ne veux pas te quitter" ("Bifurcation"), "je ne puis pas t'écrire" ("Signal"), "quel est ce chemin qui nous sépare" ("Voie").25
Marking a will for poetry and for understanding, this volume occupies an unusual place in Tzara's poetical evolution, being far more coherent than the works published immediately before and simpler than many of his later volumes. The strong desire to communicate that is expressed thematically is reflected technically by the coherence of this work. While many of Tzara's works contain references to words, language, and a search for communication, few works are so consistent in this imagery as L'Indicateur des chemins de coeur. It would seem that, momentarily, Tzara had found a language.
1 Ed. Gallimard, 1, p. 293 ("he plunged himself into the most intoxicating of love novels, the train schedule").
2 "Track" ("What is this road that separates us") "Volt" ("leaning towers oblique skies / autos falling into the empty space of roadways … lost in the geography of a memory and of an obscure rose / I prowl in the narrow streets around you").
sick from nights too bitter
on the crude wall out-bidding one another
the dogs bark the elusive distance.
5 incomplete nights … nights swallowed in haste … buried nights … arid dreams … dirtied, damp tatters of night.
and yet grass passed so often under the wind's comb
who knows when your chlorophyll glances will come to join mine.
9 "Rule" ("the promise so expected at your smile's horizon").
broken is the chain of words covered by winters and dramas that bound the intimate openings of our existences.
16 distilling its spite through fragments of memory and arithmetic.
17 Consulted at the Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet, TZR 14-16.
18 at the sound of pages of waves turned by the unsated reader of the sky.
19 hands that bring nourishment to the mouth of the child.
21 my thought's hand; the branch's muscle.
22 the laughing veins of the waters / veins of inconstant wind.
23 that between love and accursed coincidence / I planted the grain of your savory chagrin.
Roger Cardinal (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "Adventuring into Language," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3,993, October 13, 1978, p. 56.
[In the following review of Oeuvres complètes, Cardinal praises the "wild and nihilistic glitter" of Tzara's Dada poems and identifies his primary poetic accomplishment as the passionate and direct expression of his personality.]
It is a tried irony of French literary life that those who most violently attack the conventions of the cultural estab lishment should in due time achieve cultural security themselves by virtue of the careful collation and publication of their Oeuvres complètes. It is now the turn of Tristan Tzara: the extremist leader of that movement of cultural terrorism known as Dada is now publicly honoured by a monumental edition, complete with detailed scholarly apparatus. What would Monsieur Antipyrine have said?
These first two bulky volumes of Tzara's prolific life-work take us from the poems of his adolescence in Bucharest, through the classic texts of Zurich and Paris Dadaism, and on into his Surrealist period in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Tzara himself refused to accept that his different "periods" were discontinuous, and kept a careful archive of his own. From this and from Henri Béhar's painstaking editorial researches, we now have the material from which the overall shape of Tzara's achievement as a counter-cultural writer can be elicited.
Dada once styled itself a "société anonyme pour l'exploitation du vocabulaire", and Tzara was one of the major forces in its verbal productivity drive. Having abandoned his native Romanian, he found himself in an ambivalent position with regard to his adopted language, French. On the one hand, along with other renegades of Dada/Surrealism, he saw the language of international diplomacy and social finesse as supporting a cultural system he was pledged to sabotage; on the other, he was attracted to its fluency and euphony, its appropriateness to lyrical ends. From the outset, Tzara's outrageous onslaughts on syntax and linguistic coherence are accompanied by a reassuring sense that even as it succumbed to his aggressive manipulations, the French language remained attractive. It is fascinating to observe how the writer's style develops in these volumes: lyrical beauty seems to be fostered by the very ravages that the Dada experiments dictated.
Tzara's literary terrorism took the form of experimental writing based on an astounding variety of techniques. The texts include spontaneous or automatic poems (more or less consistent with the principles of composition defined by Breton in the Surrealist Manifesto), sound poems using nonsense syllables, and poems adapted from Negro and Maori folk-songs. Tzara experimented in "foldin" techniques à la William Burroughs whereby, boasting that he was a "self-kleptomaniac", he would rejuvenate old texts of his own by cutting them up and shuffling the bits. He would delightedly appropriate any manuscript or printing errors, and introduce meaningless coinages ("tzaca tzac tzacatzac"), abstruse scientific terms, newspaper headlines, publicity slogans, anagrams, puns ("mississicri") and frenzied repetitions (as witness the page from the 1918 Manifeste Dada on which the single word hurle appears in a block eleven rows wide by twenty-five lines deep). Together with their typographical inconsistencies and their general submission to the principle of syntactic and semantic illogicality, the resulting texts are almost impossible to read in any coherent way. They are manifestations of disorder and absurdity, and defy all normal logic.
There is a wild and nihilistic glitter about the Dada poems of Vingt-cinq poèmes (1918) and De nos oìseaux (1923), for instance. Tonal shifts occur from line to line, thrusting the reader through staccato transitions—calm, querulous, sly, disdainful. The vocabulary is in constant flux; all sense of sequence or form is absent. To read is to speed through an alien country where landmarks flash past too fast for recognition. There is no centre and no shape to these poems; their message is purely one of aggressive self-manifestation: "Danse crie casse". They are spectacular provocations which deliberately obstruct the intelligence in search of meaning and implicitly challenge the reader—"Dare you take this to be Literature?":
At this stage, Tzara's ideal text would seem to be one in which words emerge in a naked state, not as carriers of meaning proper but as manifestations of a kind of pure electrical energy. And each word is as highly charged as the next: "concentration intérieure craquement des mots qui crèvent crépitent". Each word comes out of the blue, so to speak, lacking a context and yet bristling with its own urgent singularity. The author himself is nowhere to be seen, so that what he offers is a random texture, an anonymous surface from which no intention or meaning can be read.
However, no writer would want to keep up such an illegible mode for ever, and Tzara's savage zest generates occasional passages of accessible lyricism. The reader battling his way through the blizzard of unintelligibility is rewarded by abrupt transitions into zones of radiant meaning. Random islets of unexpected beauty float up, images which glow with the strange and moving colours of a dream:
There is a sense, then, in which this most formless and anarchic of poetry eventually coheres and reveals some sort of purpose and shape. The climax of "Maison Flake" (1919) expresses a vision which it is not hard to read as being consciously constructive rather than terroristic:
Here the poetic meaning emerges clearly enough in the form of an apologia for the poem itself. Sounding much like Apollinaire in "La Jolie Rousse", Tzara describes his aim of uncovering poetic images which will suggest to his reader that a deeper harmony underlies the surface discontinuities of reality and language.
The more one reads Tzara, the more one becomes attuned to the notion of the creative stance as sketched in the 1919, "Note sur la Poésie". There Tzara sees poetry as a juggling with disparates whereby the juggler stands at the central point of serene communion with his inner-most being: "Eye, water equilibrium, sun, kilometre, and everything that I can imagine as belonging together and which represents a potential human asset: sensibility". The continuity which underlies the torrential generation of texts is that of the sensibility at their centre. Tzara may insist on remaining impersonal, on setting value only on work produced by one who remains "demanding and cruel, pure and honest", that is: committed to no intentional meaning. Yet the immediacy and sheer verve of his writing is such as to convey a lively sense of his involvement: the author's euphoric pleasure in his own text transmits a kind of presence after all. We witness "l'intensité d'une personnalité transposée directement" as, like a watermark on soiled paper, the temper of the propelling consciousness shimmers beneath the flux of words. And here one can find confirmation of a paradox that has haunted French poetry since Rimbaud and Mallarmé: that the more a writer strives to extinguish his individuality, the more idiosyncratic and personal his style becomes.
Tzara evidently saw himself as fitting more and more into the French poetic tradition as he developed. The love poems of Indicateur des chemins du coeur (1928) and Arbre des voyageurs (1930) contain elegiac echoes of Lamartine and Apollinaire, while the major poetic performance of L'Homme approximatif (composed during 1925-30) is a deliberate attempt on Tzara's part to stake a claim to a place in French literary history as a poet confident enough to sustain a long poem, on a par with Apollinaire ("Zone"), Saint-John Perse (Vents) and Eluard (Poésie ininterrompue).
While, in this ninety-page poem, Tzara remains very much the literary "savage", he demonstrably draws upon all sorts of sophisticated effects, many of them entirely traditional. Most noticeably, the verbal flux now falls into rhythmic clusters, long lines reminiscent of the epic laisses of a Perse, and is punctuated by recurring words or leitmotif phrases that communicate an overall sense of an insistent, structured argument.
The poem is centred on the consciousness of the "approximate man": "homme approximatif te mouvant dans les à-peu-près du destin / avec un coeur comme valise et une valse en guise de tête". This Tzara's persona, a timid yet hopeful pilgrim who battles for meaning in a universe of absurdity.
No longer absent from the verbal struggle, the poet reveals his frailty in the face of the "inexpressible plenitude" of his surroundings. Words seem hostile, and he can only succumb to their terrifying meaninglessness as they flash through consciousness: "words streaking/leaving the merest trace majestic trace behind their meaning scarcely meaningful". Perplexed, and disoriented, he bobs in a whirlpool of words, cosmic winds and snows, fire and oceans,
Like Perse or (as Jean Cassou suggested) Walt Whitman, Tzara had in mind in this long poem to build up a catalogue of allusions that would support a poetic vision of elemental depth and encyclopedic completeness. Animals, minerals, cities, jungles—all are evoked in a polymorphous discourse voiced by a subject who, at first bewildered, grows in confidence, being gradually borne upon the tide of words to achieve a position of confidence and all-surveying dominance. Henri Béhar comments that the poet "transforms himself into mineral, vegetable, bird, insect: he is himself natura naturata".
That is, in this apocalyptic explosion of language, the poet finally approaches the primal seat of creativity, the point where the naked word reveals the naked truth about the world:
A language which at last takes root and generates profound meaning, this is Tzara's ultimate aim.
At the same time, however, his tone has a certain shrillness which makes his grand theme less overwhelming than does, say, the more majestic rhetoric of Perse. Prolonged reading of the poem has left this reader unsatisfied that it succeeds in approximating a visionary grasp on cosmic realities. Much of L'Homme approximatif is too wordy, the modulation from chaos to confidence too sleekly verbal. "La parole seule suffit pour voir", claims Tzara, in echo of a prime Surrealist tenet; but this text is often too mannered and wilful to create the full visionary effect.
One turns therefore to the last section in these two volumes, L'Antitête, which groups texts written across the Dada and Surrealist years (1919-32). The most impressive are a set of automatic prose pieces under the heading "Le Désespérante", a title which ties in the two strands of Tzara's poetic effort: a desire to achieve the condition of a universal language, an "esperanto" which will touch on all aspects of human feeling and thought; and the acknowledgment that true intensity of expression can only be found in circumstances of stress and desperation—the courting of self-extinction is a corollary of verbal authenticity.
These are indeed texts of moving authority and incisiveness, which suggests that it was in prose that Tzara was best able to sustain his characteristic "attack". In the closing piece, "Les Consciences atténuantes", the adventure into language comes across most powerfully, truly convincing the reader that "beneath each stone, there is a nest of words and it is from their rapid spinning that the substance of the world is formed". It is in such texts, stripped of self-conscious flourishes and rhetorical supports, that Tzara comes closest to that "stenography of feeling" which he came to see as his poetic goal, and thus demonstrates the remarkable way in which his uncompromising poetics of non-intentionality finally communicates "l'aiguë intensité de la conscience", the naked energy of his singular consciousness.
Mary Ann Caws (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "Dada's Temper, Our Text: Knights of the Double Self," in The Eye in the Text: Essays on Perception, Mannerist to Modern, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1981, pp. 133-140.
[In the following excerpt, Caws examines the emphasis that Tzara and other Dadaists placed on the reactions of their readers and argues that the audience is "a passenger in Dada's rite of passage."]
This text takes its starting point in the Dada temperament and in what it perceives, as well as the way in which it perceives it, moving from the double and two-way images of Duchamp and Tzara to an apparently closed door, in reality open.1 The Dada temperament is opposed to closure of all sorts.
From "M. Antipyrine" to "M. AA I'Antiphilosophe," from "M. Anti-psychologue" to "M. Antitête" the antis have it: anti-aspirin, but also anti-head and anti-the-workings-of-the-head, philosophical and psychological: Tzara's approximate man, savage or not, will have none of the noble confessional about him. His self-portraiture is ironic and a put-down: He stutters: "Aa," or then "da-da," and he is given to odd stylistics, half-repetitions, ruptures, and incompletions: "Je me, en décomposant l'horreur, très tard" (Tz, 2:293; I myself, decomposing horror, very late), or, disguising his disorder in the reassuring cliché style of a proverb, even more offputting: "Quand le loup ne craint pas la feuille je me langueur" (Tz, 2:293; When the wolf does not fear the leaf I langor me). Tzara will write later about the "Automatism of Taste" and is, at the time of "M. AA I'anti-philosophe," preparing a one-up on haute couture, which is to say, an haute coupure, cutting and shaking up the elements in some hat or other, making a cutting for a transplant and a sample—a "Treatise on Language," in fact, but the fact is hidden within the body of the "Sluicegates of Thought," a brief manifesto in the Antitête about the "roundness of my half-language." About this language, we had scarcely to be told that it was "invertebrate." The intensity of the temper already stressed may be antipsychological, but there is clearly no question of forgetting the mental mechanism or what contains it. Tzara's incompleted novel is called Faites vos jeux (Place Your Bets) and the play does begin here, but in the head. The last four chapters are entitled "The Surprise Head," "The Tentacle Head," "The Head at the Prow," and, as a resumé, "Tête à Tête." The collection begins with the expression: "le coeur dans le coeur" (the heart in the heart) and ends not with a heart-to-heart chat but a head-to-head summary: this self-portrait is based on an intellectual self-mockery.
Now Dada is a self-regarding movement in moving opposition to its own image and self-image. That there should be a paradox of this kind available is all to the good, for, as we know, Dada and Surrealism flourish on the juxtaposition of contraries: yes and no meeting on streetcorners "like grasshoppers," according to Tzara, and, for Breton, the meeting of high and low, birth and death, absence and presence. Take, for instance, Tzara's "Static poem" (which transforms the words into individuals: "from the four letters 'bois' there...
(The entire section is 29617 words.)
Bersani, Jacques. "Tzara Lives!" Manchester Guardian Weekly (December 28, 1975): 12.
Reviews the Oeuvres complètes, Volume I: 1912-1924 and praises it for showing "the singlemindedness and consistency of Tzara's concerns."
Biron, Lionel A. "The Secret French and German Editions of Tristan Tzara's Dada 3, or How to Launch an International Movement at the Height of European Nationalism." Rackham Literary Studies 6 (1975): 35-40.
Recounts Tzara's efforts to publish ajournai containing both French and German poetry in 1918, before World War I had...
(The entire section is 419 words.)