I know I’m not the only one thinking that our world has lost its mind. It’s not easy being some relatively sane person nowadays. At the best of times, politics is bankrupt. At its worst, it’s toxic, dominated by demagogues, liars and cheats. Their falsehoods fly wholesale, rarely disgruntling masses of people, let alone damaging a demagogue’s political career. On the contrary, it seems to assure this political career, guarantees it somehow, because now there’s a “popular” willingness to believe in falsehoods, falsehoods decoupled from any reality. That’s where the madness resides. In my sixth decade on earth, I can’t ever remember life being so miserable and desperate.
A little while ago, though, I read something that oddly cheered me up, revealing to me that our world has often been miserable and desperate. It was written by one of the pioneers of the Dada movement, Tristan Tzara, an essay called “Some Memoirs of Dadaism,” published in July 1922 in an unlikely Vanity Fair. It’s amazing to think that the now-glossy Condé Nast publication once aired its likes; it’s equally amazing, reading Tzara, how much his time sounds a lot like our time. Listen to him scene-setting the birth of Dada, in Zurich, circa 1916, as Great War carnage raged:
DADAISM is a characteristic symptom of the disordered modern world. It was first inspired by the chaos and collapse of Europe during the war. To the exiled intellectuals of Switzerland, humanity seemed to have gone insane—all order was crashing to destruction, all values were turned upside down—and, in accordance with this spirit, we began a set of wild practical jokes, elaborately silly meetings and fantastic manifestoes which burlesqued, in their violence and absurdity, the absurdity and violence of the life around them.
Tzara was barely twenty years old when absurdity and violence surrounded him. Dada, he said, grew out of disgust for this world, for its war and politicians, for its businessmen and values. “Dada,” he said, “took the offensive and attacked the social system in its entirety, for it regarded this system as inextricably bound with human stupidity, the stupidity which culminated in the destruction of man by man.” A group of young people, Tzara included—exiled painters and poets, draft dodgers and deserters, Bohemian castoffs and plotting revolutionaries—began meeting in Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire, an obscure nightclub along an obscure street, across from where an obscure Lenin lived.
For six months, the joint came alive, begat Dada, “the virgin microbe.” Discussions and outlandish performances quickly became legendary, the talk of the town, the talk of all Europe. Nights at the Cabaret Voltaire became “Dada nights,” nights of intoxication, of music and dance, of manifestoes and poems, of paintings and passions, of carnivalesque theatrics. Hugo Ball, the Cabaret’s co-founder, played the piano; partner Emmy Hennings, the other founder, sang, read, and danced; ditto Sophie Taeuber; Richard Huelsenbeck banged a giant drum; a balalaika orchestra struck up the band; Hans Arp, Hans Richter, and Marcel Janco provided artworks, and designed collages, costumes and masks.
Tzara, a small, monocled, intellectually uninhibited young man, recited Dada manifestoes and read poetry in French and Romanian from the scraps of paper he’d pull out of his pocket. His performances were animated by screams, sobs, and whistles. One time Tzara read a newspaper article while an electric bell kept ringing—so loudly that no one could hear what he said. Missiles were often tossed at those on stage; so were eggs and cabbages, together with the odd beefsteak. Exasperated audiences shouted and insulted performers; exasperated performers shouted and insulted audiences. Dada nights meant raucous laughter and frequent barnies. “In the presence of compact crowds,” said Tzara,
we demanded the right to piss in different colours.
Legend has it that he and Lenin used to play chess together at another favourite Zurich haunt for dissidents, the Café de la Terrasse. (Apparently, Lenin sometimes went to the Cabaret Voltaire, an unassuming presence with a goatee and “Mongoloid features,” sitting on the second row, laughing along at the high jinks.) If we can believe Tzara’s testimonies, this stuff of legend and of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties was actually true. In the late 1950s, Tzara said:
I knew Lenin personally in Zurich, played chess with him. But to my great shame, I have to admit, at the time I didn’t know Lenin was Lenin. I only learnt it much later.
Tzara probably wasn’t very accomplished at chess. Too many rules, too strict a movement of the pieces, too much cunning strategy—all poorly suited to the impetuous twentysomething’s poetic sensibility. Lenin, on the other hand, already then well into his forties, was likely a savvier player, more formidable: after all, he was always strategizing, always biding his time, coolly planning moves ahead, forever assessing an opponent’s strengths, preying on their weakest links. Tzara, by contrast, would have felt straightjacketed by the game’s mechanics. He’d have wanted his pawns to move sideways and backwards, his bishops to jump like knights, rooks to shift diagonally, his king to be a queen.
And if Lenin was at the board trying to forge a heroic “new man,” Tzara’s archetypal anti-hero was an “approximate man,” a person with a slippery identity, incomplete, stuttering, elusively located between language and nationality, shrugging off anything essential or logical, anything rational or normative, moving in the cracks of those black and white chequerboard squares. “Take a good look at me,” Tzara’s approximate man would taunt his audience.
I am an idiot, a clown, a faker./ Take a good look at me!/ I am ugly, my face has no expression, I am small./ I am just like you all!
Lenin was discrete, cagily plotting behind closed doors; Dadaists made explicit public nuisances of themselves, reminding the world that there were independent men and women beyond war and nationalism, and who live for other ideals. Tzara said poetry was political because it was anti-literature, a whole way of life, a mode of being-in-the-world, intense and corrosive, a profound scream, a kick up society’s ass. “We repudiated all distinctions between life and poetry,” he said, “our poetry was a manner of living.” Poetry meant scandal, meant “sabotaging the realisation of the exterior world and its unacceptable manifestations.”
One disarming weapon of Dada sabotage was the “sound poem,” with its unsettling noises and auditory sensations, utterances and stammers, fulfilling Dadaists’ insistence that “thought is made in the mouth.” The sound poem was a provocative linguistic experiment, marking a shift away from the meaning of words to the meaning of sounds, freeing words from syntax—indeed, freeing language from language itself. Language had been misused and abused, corrupted and fabricated by politicians and demagogues, whose words manipulated mass audiences. So, said Dadaists, let’s refrain from using words, let’s not enter their linguistic terrain of engagement. Thus, for Tzara, to strip language of meaning was to create new language with fresh meaning. It was to negate ruling class language-games, to say NO to their rules, to their terms of reference, where meaning had lost meaning because it voiced lies.
Tzara wanted to break with modern forms of expression. He liked to recite, alongside Huelsenbeck’s beating drum, his own drum beat, inspired by authentic African chants: “boomboomboomboom drabatja mo gere, mo drabatja boooooooooooo.” Meanwhile, “Toto-Vaca,” repeating the idea of voicing “unknown words,” became Tzara’s take on a Māori poem, which, he said, he discovered in an anthropology magazine. Its verses appear on a recording called Dada Manifesto: Poèmes, Délires & Textes, and we can now hear for ourselves the amazing, haunting sounds that once haunted audiences at the Cabaret Voltaire. “Toto-Vaca” invents sound, Tzara said, and tries to mimic the caws, chirps, and guttural cries of the native New Zealand bird, the Kiwi.
“La Panka” is another Tzara poem with disturbing phonics, literally sounding-out the tumult and seismic tremors of the earth, of our eruptive society, emphasising long, prolonged and rattling enunciations: “De la teeee ee erre mooooooot/ Des bouuuules,” as in “tremblement de la terre,” or “earthquake” in English. To hear La Panka read aloud is to shudder, to shiver at its foreboding: “je déchiiiiiiire la coliiiiiiiiiii/ ine” (“I tear up the hill”); and “iaoai xixixi xixi cla cla clo/ drrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.” It’s a sound that gets under your skin, like the terrifying stuttering of the ghost of Christmas past, or maybe like the sound you’d make if you covered your ears, creating your own background noise, screening out something you don’t want to hear, the sort of thing a child does to avoid hearing, to avoid being scorned. Maybe it’s like drowning out somebody else’s obnoxious noise, some obnoxious ad or message, the ideological white noise that invades our lives.
Decades after his first hearing, the Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre vividly remembered the impact of Tzara’s sound poems. “Dada made a tabular rasa of the past,” Lefebvre impressed, and reconstructed language on the basis of “a kind of stuttering spontaneity,” which “challenged scholarly language and the art of discourse.” Lefebvre’s first published article, in 1924, in the Philosophies journal he helped found, was an insightful and positive review of Tzara’s Dada Manifestoes, and afterwards the two twenty-year-olds got to know one another (Tzara, born 1896, was five years Lefebvre’s senior); later they reconnected, fighting together for the Resistance movement in Toulouse; by then, each man was a card-carrying Communist, a ticket Tzara would never relinquish.
“From its first manifesto in 1918, Dada,” Lefebvre said,
condemned the West’s logocentrism and eurocentrism with a deliberately infantile formula: Dada was the first and final stammer. When Tristan Tzara, young and fiery, proclaimed that Europe—its thought and politics and all it had once been—was nothing but boom-boom-boom, this went very far. It was a puerile term that stunningly evoked the drums of infancy, grand military bands, politicians’ rhetoric, and exploding bombs. Dada was negativity on the threshold of the modern world; three knocks that strike its door are the boom-boom-boom of Tristan Tzara. Period.
Lately, we might add the boom-boom-boom of assault rifles spraying bullets in public schools and shopping malls across America, and the louder and faster beatings of our hearts under stress. Indeed, our world continues to be punctuated by exploding bombs and military bands, by guns shots and political incantation—by the din of a Trump rally and the anxiety of our economically and ecologically crisis-ridden age. Our airwaves, too, are overwhelmed with explosions, of loud yet hollow words. We’re literally saturated with visceral language: from Twitter feeds and commercial news channels to imbecilic incumbents and political wannabes broadcasting fake facts and bawling insults. People en masse have been dumbed down by words, seduced by their ubiquity, lobotomised by their inanity. Ironically, too few words collectively stack up to saying too much. They over-multiply as they over-simplify. Nonsense goes viral.
Decent people have responded by invoking reason, tempering the tonality of debate and discussion, suggesting that we should try to uphold the truth and correct misconception. But you have to wonder if this modus operandi is really fit for purpose anymore. Maybe progressives need something more radical instead, something more Dadaist, something that drowns out their noise with our noise. Maybe it’s time to kick up a scandal, Dadaist-style, and create a new spirit of negativity, start afresh by creating a tabula rasa, sweeping everything away of this miserable status quo. “Everything?” an older generation of liberal fathers enquired of Turgenev’s young “nihilist” Bazarov. “Everything,” repeated Bazarov, “with indescribable composure.”
At the present time the most useful thing is negation—so we deny … The first thing is to clear the field.
Tzara said that Dada “was born of a revolt common to youth in all times and places.” Whenever he said “we,” it was this generation Tzara had in mind, an adolescent generation, his own, a generation of twentysomethings who’d suffered during the 1914-18 war, “in the very flesh of its pure adolescence suddenly exposed to life, at seeing the truth ridiculed, clothed in the cast-off garments of vanity or base class interest.” Today’s youth are likewise seeing their pure adolescence exposed to life and liars; they, too, are watching the truth being ridiculed, clothed in the cast-off garments of political vanity and crass class interest. Thus, we might wonder, are there budding young revolters waiting in the wings somewhere now, heirs of Dada, plotting a scandal in the ruins of our society?
Could an avant-garde ever be invented again? A critical, revolutionary avant-garde, neo-Dadaist, pioneered by the many disgruntled young people the world over who know, as Johnny Rotten knew in 1977, that there’s no future? Is there anybody, any group or collectivity that can follow the lead of those youngsters who lit up the night at the Cabaret Voltaire? Dada, the movement the most provocative and most volatile, the most destructive yet most creative… where are its latter-day offspring, prising open a new future?
Maybe what this offspring lacks are sites of incubation, cradles to nurture a new movement, places where young people can congregate, can encounter one another, get politicised, entertain themselves, cafés and bars and youth centres that might mimic the sort of freedoms that neutral Switzerland (and Zurich) supplied during the war years, where outcasts and kindred found comradery, expressed themselves freely, and where Dadaists built a global movement without really recognising it—a movement that reminded us that there are independent young people who reject war and nationalism, and who live for other ideals, still live for them.
A key lesson that Tzara taught Henri Lefebvre remains key: “that a real work of art is lived out, that a written oeuvre subordinates itself to a style of life.” Tzara’s oeuvre was his life, his life his oeuvre, a certain manner of living and being in the world. Creating new Cabaret Voltaires in person is also to create Cabaret Voltaires of the mind, to live out this radical sensibility with others, everywhere, at all times, to bring poetry to life, to sound it out in the streets and in daily life. Guy Debord always said it was modern poetry that led him and the Situationists into the street.
We were a handful who thought it necessary to carry out its programme in reality, and certainly to do nothing else.
Part of that programme united two prongs that over time have been ripped apart: desire and refusal, a will to live an alternative, authentic, passionate and adventurous life, at the same time as refusing to submit to the unfortunate rules and ideological norms of current society, to its dullness and sadness, to its inauthenticity. It’s a refusal to believe in its beliefs, in its lies; not to be “proud” but indignant, to be disgusted. We could say that it is to be all ears for the three knocks at its door: the boom-boom-boom of Tristan Tzara. Period.