Art as Anarchy


With Dada modern poetic feeling comes to a head. As I have already said rather jokingly, Dada consists of putting down in writing things that cannot stand on their own feet. Dada sets up a powerful negative logic. It radically reverses the direction of intelligence. Dada has nothing in common with anything you may think about it, as Dada cannot be thought. Don’t shrug it off. The very power of its negation gives the Dada scandal a most far-reaching meaning. Apparently it is a movement created by universal minds. Today Pic de la Mirandole would probably be Dada. Dada is not a phenomenon. It answers the philosophical requirements of the age. It endeavours to ignore objective reality in order to plunge into the ultra-realistic depths of the unconscious. However negative the Dada movement may appear, it is certainly born of transcendent investigations of the human mind.

We have only to remember the mathematician Henri Poincare, whose renowned theory of convenience puzzled the scientific world. According to Henri Poincare, what appears to the human mind to be most essentially true is what is most eminently expected.

So mathematics and particularly Euclidian geometry can have no meaning from an absolute point of view.

Our most rigorously accurate conceptions are in reality approximate. The shortest path from one point to another is not, if we examine it closely, the straight line. Similarly, it is debatable whether the earth is a polyhedron rotating around the sun. Certainly it is the most convenient thing imagined by our senses, but we might possibly be motionless with objective reality moving around us. Evidently we tend to choose the principle that best corresponds with the delicate disposition of our organs, and all our thoughts are inevitably posed on our absurd conception of space.

Similarly, Bergson’s philosophy is bound to the criticism of the idea of time. Dada is a result of intuitive philosophy. Bergson represents intelligence as strictly adapted to matter and, therefore, incapable of perceiving duration and extension as pure quality.

Only intuition is likely to resolve these paradoxes by ignoring intelligence and preferring instinct.

As the brain cannot envisage time and space outside the limits of matter, it is essential not to bow to the facts of the tangible world, but to rely on what Bergson calls „the immediate data of consciousness”. It is by obeying this deep-seated impulse that we can escape from the crude concepts of human reason. Instead of being satisfied with the common vision of the world, we should proceed to an exploration of the unorganised world where everything is in constant creation.

According to Bergson’s philosophy, the individual is the variable „combination of the past”. The principle of identity must give way to the „vital impulse”, which reflects the increasing changing of the universe and which defies any attempt to canalise it.

Briefly, this is the philosophy compared with which so many previous systems lose most of their meaning.

So Dada is simply this effort to free oneself from the relative concepts of human reason. It intends to abolish categories. That is why Dada wants to clear nothing up. All it wants is occasional glimpses of the far-off glimmers of the absolute in the moving wreckage left by the impulse of life.

More recently still, Einstein’s theories have aimed a final blow at the philosophy of facts.

Einstein identifies the old entities of space and time in a four dimensional conception of the universe, i.e. time is only a fourth dimension of space.

The study of luminous radiations suggested to him unhoped for results. The idea of infinity, which has tormented human reason throughout all eternity, for the first time perhaps seems to subside in the Einsteinian axiom: „Nothing is faster than light”. The existence of an absolute speed is not beyond our understanding.

Einstein’s mathematical research brings to science bases that are less approximate than rectilinear geometry. The straight line does not exist. Our error lies in taking the geodesic line for one. Light is not propagated in a straight line. We must endeavour to understand the universe as a curve „that is infinite, but not without limits”.

We are accustomed to envisaging only restricted space. In the same way, the time we can imagine is a local time. „The passing of time”, said Einstein, „is not always the same”. The speed of light is an absolute speed, i.e. independent of time, and Einstein’s calculations lead to the result that, if man could reach the speed of light, he would not grow old.

„We record”, says Einstein again, „only variations”. Reality is hidden from us by the intervention of our senses. We can only judge movement with regard to a point that we suppose to be fixed. So all movement is relative.

Einstein concludes that there exists a field of gravitation where nothing is propagated in the void, but where everything exists by reciprocal correspondences. He reduces all phenomena to electro-magnetic laws.

The initial matter is identical; the bodies vary according to the situation occupied by the other bodies in the universe. Therefore all energy contains a sum of inertia, and the ether, which for the modern philosopher represents an imponderable milieu implying complete lack of motion, is for Einstein an abolished postulate.

– But to come back to literature – Dada undoubtedly counts among its forerunners Alfred Jarry. The creator of Pere Ubu shows a radical inadequation to the common adhesiveness. He invented petaphysics, the science of the particular. His object, he said, was „to study the laws that govern exceptions”.

In skirting the extreme limits of fantasy, Alfred Jarry overtook the most lucid suggestions of abstract philosophy. In the novel, we would recall the first style of Andre Gide.

The characters of the philosophical short stories, such as „Paludes” singularly prepare the bent of mind proper to Dada.

In „Paludes” Andre Gide represents life as a bog where we wear ourselves out in useless efforts without being capable of a completely independent action.

He understands the vanity of all construction and, to sidetrack the surfeit of human semblances, he escapes into the absurd and decides to take from each of our actions only the obscure part of unconsciousness that it reveals to us.

This „absence of a smile” so peculiar to Andre Gide, which however gives the worrying feeling of comedy, can be found in Dada, and so can the neutral atmosphere where thought evolves like a time-coloured bird.

Finally in poetry, besides Mallarme, who was the first to try to achieve the freedom of words, should we mention the rebel Rimbaud? And nearer to us the work of Guillaume Appolinaire who, by his aspiration towards an intangible reality, is the instigator of the worst literary impudence. All forms of Dada can claim kinship with Appollinaire, particularly phonetic Dada, whose bases he established in the last poems of „Calligrammes”, entitled „Victory”.


           O mouths man is searching for a new language

           Where the grammarian of any language will have nothing to say

           And these old languages are so close to death

           That it is only out of habit and lack of daring

           That we still use them in poetry

           We want new sounds new sounds new sounds

           We want vowel-less consonants

           Consonants that fart loudly

           Imitate the sound of the humming top

           Let a continuous nasal sound crackle

           Click your tongue

           Use the champing sound of the ill-mannered eater

           The aspirated rasping of spitting would make a fine sound

           The different labial farts would trumpet out your speeches

           Get accustomed to belching at will

           Speak with your hands snap your fingers

           Tap your cheek as if it were a drum

           The word is sudden and it’s a trembling God

           Advance and bear with me up I regret the hands

           of those who held them out and worshipped me together

           What an oasis of arms will welcome me tomorrow

           Do you know the joy of seeing new things.


Moreover the dreadful upheavals of recent years have sufficiently enlightened us on the incalculable folly engendered by the minds of reasonable men. And if these men consider the attempt to upset the meaning of things is insanity, Dada can answer them: „Take hold of the end of your nose”.


* * *

Tristan Tzara must be quoted first of the group Dada, a movement that has taken on an international aspect. Dada does not pursue any form of art. Dada lays claim to pure idiocy. We must not forget that the Dadas stripped words of their usual character, and therefore they could not have a disparaging meaning. This means that Dada does not proceed along the usual paths of reason. Dada is a radical disorientation of common sense. In this respect Dadas display a veritable ingenuity in being idiots.

They carefully avoid everything that is not directly the inverse of what we are used to considering morally as values. Getting rid of every intellectual acquisition so s to be no longer one’s own dupe is the object pursued by Dada. To upset our manner of seeing, the Dadas modify our method of speaking. They want to detach the words that have agglutinated by custom and which attract each other like filings adhere to a magnet.

Tristan Tzara offers to shake all the words of the vocabulary in a hat and to pick them out at random. In this process the words will have acquired an intrinsic value. New relation-ships will have formed between them. You will have created the void and you will more easily find the part of the unconscious that determines your actions. All writers who have wanted to re-create a vocabulary for themselves corresponding to their intimate vision of the world have mentally practised this operation.

But Dada has a more general meaning. There is no field where its negative influence does not extend. In reality, Dada is an absurd state of mind that nobody escapes. „The real Dadas are against Dada”, and in fact who is not capering on his dada – his hobbyhorse – at the moment? Francophilia, Germanophilia are simply variations on Dada in the positive state. Dada has tried everything and nothing has been able to satisfy its need for diversity.


            Dada is a virgin germ

            Dada is against the high cost of living


            Limited company for the exploitation of ideas

            Dada has 391 different attitudes and colours according to

            the sex of the


            It changes – affirms – says the opposite at the same time

            – of no importance – shouts – goes fishing.

            Dada is the chameleon of rapid and selfish change.

            Dada is against the future. Dada is dead. Dada is idiotic.

            Long live Dada. Dada is not a literary school yell.

                                                     Tristan Tzara


Pure idiocy is the universal panacea. Reasonable acts can procure only disadvantage. This is what allows Tristan Tzara to conclude: „Subscribe to Dada the only investment that pays nothing.”



* * *

Andre Breton is another theoretician of Dada. For him Dada corresponds to a need for liberty. He revolts against any resignation.Any conviction seemed to him to be a form of renouncement. By exploring the unconscious, he has obtained the most disconcerting findings. He says: „Innocence is tolerated only in its passive form.” And, in fact, innocence, which is a virtue in a virgin, is a crime in the murderer. Andre Breton can no longer understand. And he feels at ease only in the atmosphere of annulment created by Dada. „What is beautiful, ugly, big, strong, weak, don’t know, don’ know. What is Carpentier, Renan, Foch, don’t know, don’t know.”

The „Magnetic Fields” written in collaboration with Philippe Soupalt, is in this respect a strange book. In spite of the radical lack of coordination in the ideas, the „Magnetic Fields” leaves a general impression that cannot be doubted. Andre Breton no longer feels attracted to anything. Words have rusted and things have lost all power of attraction for him. He represents the world as a „waste land”. He no longer hungers for the „rotting sweetmeats” that life offers him. Custom stales. He is weary of considering the universe according to categories that lie, and takes refuge in the absurd.


* * *

Philippe Soupalt tries to free himself from the three unities of number, space and time, but feels himself a prisoner within the four cardinal points.

He calls his book „Rose des Vents” („Compass Card”). He is aiming at the lyrical ubiquity towards which Apollinaire’s orphism was tending.

Philippe Souplalt turns the compass dial on its axis. He scorns the conception of the universe inflicted on him by the grey matter of his brain. To resolve all opposition he turns to Dada.


            My ideas like germs

            dance along my meninges

            to the rythm of the exasperating pendulum

            a revolver shot would be a sweet melody.


He wants to go outside himself. Free himself from determinism. He scales horizons. „I have broken my static ideas,” he says. Modern discoveries show him glimpses of metaphysical probabilities. The Eiffel Tower shoots its beams to the four corners of the world. The idea of space is an illusion imposed on our senses by matter. Everything moves on the same level. He persuades himself that the Gaurisanker is next door to Notre Dame. He is simultaneously open to all sensations.

The thousand interpretation that words admit of meet in his mind when he sees a common notice:


This, I think, is how the Dada joke must be understood.


* * *

Louis Aragon has not foresworn every scruple of art. Sometimes he even seems to remain attached to the old prosodic forms. Yet Loius Aragon has found his salvation in Dada. He calls his book „Bonfire”. It is a bonfire on which he sacrifices all the vain acquisitions of his mind for a new order of things that will arise from the absurd suggestions of consciousness. A neutral colour – bitumen or reseda – is not Aragon’s favourite. We even find bright colours the Dadas were generally not fond of.

In a piece called „Jolt”, Aragon shows us how a sudden change comes about in the orientation of his thought:




                Flight for ever from the bitterness

            The wonderful flying meadows newly-painted turn

                 Stumbling fields


            My head rings and so many rattles

            My heart is in pieces the scenery shattered


The poet remembers his adolescence, the years vexed with latin and algebra and he sums up his youth in a poem, „Life of Jean Baptiste A.”


            Rosa the rose and that drop of ink oh my youth

            Calculate Cos. &

            in function of

             tg. a/2

            My Apero childhood hardly glimpsed

            By the fly-blown windows fo a cafe

            Youth and I didn’t kiss every mouth

            The first one to get to the end of the corridor

            1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 DEAD

            A shade sleeps in the middle of the sun, it’s your eye


But now that the poet has rid himself of the narrow human conventions, a hope is aflame in his breast. By the light of this bonfire he glimpses new constructions, salutary transformations.


            Then will rise the ponies


            In bands by the hand by the town


Louis Aragon is the only Dada who seems to be preparing a territory of conciliation between the suggestions of consciousness and the demands of reason.


 * * *

Paul Eluard is aiming at a complete transformation of language. „Let’s try,” he says, „it is difficult to remain absolutely pure.” Language as it reaches us by way of usage no longer has any meaning. It is chatter which, according to Paul Eluard, no longer has any raison d’etre, and he wants to institute, in poetry, the most elementary simplicity.

In „Animals and their Men” he endeavours to refresh his vision of the world by simplified images and initial analogies: The fish in the air and the man in the water. The grass in front of the cow, the child in front of the milk.

Paul Eluard wants to retain nothing of things but the essential relation-ships in order to obtain a complete purity of feeling. Here is an example of this elementary poetry:




            The stone skims over the water

            The smoke does not enter.

             The water like a skin

            That cannot be wounded

                    Is caressed

            By man and by the fish

            Snapping like a bow-string,

            The fish, when the man catches it,

            Dies, as it cannot swallow

            This planet of air and light

            And the man sinks to the bottom of the water

                             For the fish

                  Or for the bitter solitude

            Of the supple ever-closed water.


What extremely shocks Paul Eluard’s set purpose of simplicity is the „distinguished allure”. According to him, poetry must be something „naive like a mirror”. He conceives of a poetry where „time does not pass”. It is difficult, as man moves in a thick atmosphere. In his Examples, he says: „man, the air-diver”. Yet he has a confused glimpse of a universal unity that makes him say: „I have crossed through life in one go”.


 * * *

Francis Picabia is not concerned with practical applications. He uses a systematic curtness to destroy everything. It would be difficult to find a more complete absence of morality elsewhere.

It is in the agitated state that follows on love that Francis Picabia tries to formulate for himself a conception of man stripped of all illusion.


            Read my little book

            after making love

            in front of the rubber fireplace


He calls this little book „Thoughts without language”. As he does not want to be taken in by words.

He no longer distinguishes values. Love, art, religion: chemical reactions. It is a quasi-psychological Dada. The heart is like the prostate gland, the belly like the brain.

And Francis Picabia says:


            The events of my life

            Take place in the sauce

            Of my heartbeats.


In „The Girl born without a Mother”, poems accompanied by drawings, he applies himself to seeing the erotic mechanism work. He takes desire for the only reality, and there is hardly anything he believes in other than seminal fluid.

Life, according to Picabia, is not a „cream cake”; it is an „old music-box” that churns out the same tune over and over. As for the price he puts on human knowledge? „Men thinh”, he says, „Like a free Chinaman.”

Francis Picabia experiences an innocent pleasure in throwing stink bombs in schools and academies. The smell of sodium cacodylate does not put him off.

In „Jesus Christ Rastaquouere” Picabia’s disillusioned philosophy seems for an instant as if it is trying to escape from its incoherence. But if Picabia expresses himself a little more clearly than usual, it is to turn common sense inside out like a glove. His deliberately disorientated mind enjoys standing the scale of values upside down. „It’s words that don’t exist”, he says. „What doesn’t have a name doesn’t exist.” And by some kind of metaphysical spite he uses a conjuror’s skill to juggle with traditional locutions.


           I can only give my word of honour if I am lying. Cheat, but

            don’t hide

           it. Cheat in order to lose, never to win, for a winner loses




And he sums up his opinion of life in a short story: The story of a man who chewed a revolver!

„This man was already old, and all his life he had indulged in this strange chewing; in fact his extraordinary weapon would kill him if he stopped an instant; yet he had been warned that, in any case, one day inevitably the revolver would go off and kill him; however, with no sign of wearying, he went on chewing…”.

Francis Picabia, strange he may seem, is a tragic poet.


* * *

Clement Pansears is the only representative of Dada in Belguim and it is extremely unlikely that anyone here will thank him for it. Yet nobody can let his mind roam on the periphery of the world of reason, in the barely accessible regions of the absurd, as easily as Pansears.

The „Pan-pan au cul du nu negre” is Clement Pansears’ first attempt. This title may mean the „nu negre” followed by the „pan-pan”, but I think that by pan-pan Clement Pansears means a revolver. So it would be different then. Clement Pansears listens to all the discordant noises that surround us today. He seems to have surveyed all the ideas, as we can see from certain things he says („Une museliere au rheteur de la surbrute”, etc.) and in the end he gives the impression of a disorganised gramophone that begins to sound the all-clear when it comes to the end of the record. Clement Pansears misuses scientific terminology. Now and again, one thinks of Rabelais’ Limousin scholar, but he justifies himself by saying, „A useless chemist is as good as a philosopher – who discovers principles by evaporating vocables.”

In „Bar Nicanor” Clement Pansears follows the same tendency, but to a much greater degree. Clement Pansears launches into heady delights. In the piece called „Aero” he upsets the cardinal points. He drives in the void, executes „trapeze turns”. His ears tingle by dint of „browsing raw noises in interplanetary scales”. He exhausts his engine to get as much as possible out of it.

Getting drunk procures the same incongruous feelings for him. He puts his lips to every electuary and examines his half-drunkenness to unveil the speck of immateriality that throbs inside him. He praises the eminently cosmopolitan nature of drunken orgies. Solving existence, according to him, is to take a good one over the eight until the walls knock into each other, while the principle of being pursues the „motley race towards pure quality the infinite denominator leading to zero pan-O.”

Perverted feelings run through the erogeneous zones. He destroys woman as a child would a toy, annoyed at not getting something more wonderful. Clement Pansears makes one think of a Des Esseintes corresponding to the wildest audacity of the new man. In „The defence of laziness” a morbid perturbation seems to result from the constant effort of mental inversion. Sudden shocks like electric bells crackle in his head. Clement Pansears has been, one after the other, „a tamer of tribades”, „a paria esdemolitions”, „a violator of human identity”.

Men seem sexless to him. With an Erasmic indifference he creates a defence of laziness. What is cynicism, if it is not laziness? Laziness in the sovereign condition of human reason.


            It’s annoying

            My encephalus is out of tune.

            Impossible to re-tune my understanding

            to the tuning fork of the fashionable cosmic variations.


He resigns himself to sacrificing to laziness:


            Do I revolt you?

            All revolt aborts.


What is the point of rebelling? Let us do like the others do. Instead of creating the revolutions, let us go on general strike. Everything is there. In any case laziness extends to the first terrestrial elements.


            Spasmodic morbidness

            Sea and land

            Penetrate each other

            and the commotion is comatose.


„Be lazy,” Clement Pansears says to himself, possessed with an orgiastic weariness. Clement Pansears is a modern man in the most excessive meaning of this expression.


* * *

These are the people who form the Dada Pleiad. But it is difficult to be conclusive as regards Dada, as Dada is a return to unorganised life, by a means of expression stripped of any verbal habits. Dada makes fun of onomatopoeia.

In ancient times they used to say that those who had lifted the veil of physical phenomena had seen the great god Pan. The upheavals of our time that have revealed a solution of continuity in the evolution of mankind have given rise to a panic literature. Dada is without doubt a pessimistic movement. But its pessimism is based on the danger of human ambitions. It is in de la Rochefoucald and Schopenhauer that we must search for the preliminaries to an international agreement. Dada is the only possible link between men since its fundamental principle consists in being right about nothing. Not to know Dada is not to know our time. In a century when Lenin falls after Wilson, Dada has nothing that can surprise us. Dadas are deliberately out of their depth. But if they are fools they are not stupid. They say nothing for a laugh and take nothing seriously.

Dada is a philosophy. Dada is a moral. Dada is an art, the art of being likeable in a time when all superiority has become unbearable and when all human grandeur seems a joke. Dada is the flower of ruins, not the little blue flower of optimism that poets want to pick amid the debris of a civilisation, but an azalea, an arid azalea, which is not begging for a downpour of blood, but is rather seeking to slake its thirst in drought.


 S. J. Welton



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