Articles About Art - André Breton and The Death of DADA
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André Breton and The Death of DADA*
The second phase of Dada in Paris was significant principally as a prelude to Surrealism.
With regard to its status as Dada, however, it gives us nothing essentially new, and there is
always a note of ambivalence in the way in which it was espoused by its French exponents.
Looking back, admittedly during the birth-pangs of the Surrealist movement and with a
personal grudge against Tzara, Andre Breton wrote:
"Dadaism cannot be said to have served any other purpose than to keep us in the perfect
state of availability in which we are at present and from which we shall now depart in
all lucidity towards that which calls us now."
A similar point, but one which implies that the impulse towards Surrealism actually
predates the involvement of the Litterature group with Dada, is made is Breton's piece Apres
"... we have never regarded "Dada" as anything but a rough image of a state of mind that
it by no means helped to create."
Breton's basic motivation at this stage was to deny that Dada exerted any real influence.
Nonetheless, Breton's point was essentially valid. There were already, in manifestos
published shortly after the inception of Paris Dada, hints of the conflict to come. In the
manifesto For Dada of August 1920, for example, he was already attempting a defence of
poetry as a redemptive value:
"I doubt if there is a single man who has not been tempted ... to deny the existence of the
outside world. He then perceives that nothing is so important, so definitive. He
proceeds to a revision of moral values, which does not prevent him from returning
afterward to the common law. Those who have paid with a permanent unrest for this
marvellous minute of lucidity, continue to be called poets."
This kind of attribution of redemptive power to art, and more especially the notion of a
positive and constructive programme, was, to Tzara, a total anathema. Tzara was already,
by this time, fully committed to negation as an ongoing process, as a philosophical principle
by means of which reality is constantly being purged.
And yet the arrival of Tzara in Paris in January 1920 was breathlessly awaited by the
group of young writers who wrote for the journal Litterature, and especially by Andre
Breton. There was something more than faintly unhealthy in Breton's obsessive regard for
Tzara, with whom (as a consequence of reading the latter's Dada Manifesto, 1918) he had
been in correspondence for more than a year. In one of his letters he wrote:
"I gaze at your photograph at length ... the day does not pass when we do not speak of
you ... I wait for you, I want for nothing more than you."
Breton writes like a star-struck lover - and to a man he had never even met. Though
Breton's was undoubtedly a passionate temperament, accustomed to approaching the
objects of his concern with a consuming intensity that he later interpreted in quasi-sexual
terms, it is still worth asking why Tzara seemed to the young Parisian poets to be a kind of
The answer to this question lies in what has been construed as a major theme
throughout the history of Dada, namely the sense of the Dada personality. Breton was, by
1920, already concerned with the fusion of art and life, for which Jarry and Vache (a close
personal friend) had stood. Yet, essentially, he and his friends were still polite young poets
in the traditional sense. Moreover, they were daily being made more aware of the sterility of
this vocation and the bankruptcy of a language which could shamelessly attach itself to the gross and inhuman machinery of the war effort. To intensify the crisis of poetic identity, the
worst offenders in this regard had been some of the writers whom the Litterature group
admired most: Maurice Barres, Paul Claudel and Henri Bergson. Louis Aragon attests to this
sense of having been betrayed: "What was being written at this time testified, in my view, to
the downfall of the French language".
Tzara represented, for the young Parisian poets, a way out of the impasse of an implicit
belief in the redemptive potential of art as against its manifest degradation. Tzara, in his
1918 Manifesto which Breton admired so greatly, defined Dada as related to the
environment, a way of dealing with the world, that accommodated both the desire to find
a heroic solution as well as the disgust aroused by contemporary historical realities. Tzara's
brand of Dadaism presented itself as the logical extension of half-digested lessons drawn
from the exemplary lives of Jarry and Vache. Breton and his friends saw the possibility, by
means of a programmatic negation, of achieving a sufficient distance from their cultural
context to be able to purge it of its impurities.
It is important to realise in this regard that Paris in 1920 was crucially different from
Zurich during the war and Berlin immediately after the Armistice. Whereas the recklessness
of Dada in the latter two cities was born (in different ways) out of seemingly hopeless strife,
Paris Dada participated in a process of cultural reconstruction.
From the outset there was a different flavour to the assaults which were launched on the
strongholds of conventional morality. It had a more directed polemic; its targets were real,
present and vulnerable. Where, especially in performance programmes, it used the devices
of absurdism, simultaneism, bruitism, et cetera, it did so in a manner calculated to affront
its public in the service of what came to be called "cretinisation". At the same time, it
developed its own literary forms - the automatic poem, the self-contained sketch. But
throughout all this, and despite Breton's protestations to the contrary, the modes of
judgement and indictment persisted. "Stand up", writes Picabia in his Manifeste Cannibale
(which was first presented by Breton in total darkness at a manifestation in March of 1920),
"Rise .... . You are all defendants ... stand up before Dada which represents life". During another manifestation, Philippe Soupault released a series of' balloons, emblazoned with names, into the air: he savagely burst and mutilated the balloon which bore the name of Jean Cocteau.
All pretence of sustaining Dada as an amoral and spontaneous sense of "life" was
abandoned at the mock trial of Maurice Barres, organised by Breton in May 1921. Breton
himself presided; twelve Dadas, dressed as inquisitors, formed the jury; the accused was
represented by a dressmaker's dummy. The accusation (Breton drew it up) read, in part, as
"Dada, resolved that it is time to put at the service of its negating spirit an executive
power and determined above all to wield that power against those who risk hampering
its dictatorship ... accuses Maurice Barres of a crime against the safety of the mind."
Now crime is a moral and legal concept, and Dada, if it is anything at all, is opposed to
systems of law and morality. Tzara, called as a witness, tried to make this point: "- we are
all a pack of fools ... the little differences ... make no difference" . But Barres was found guilty all the same.
But then, by this stage, what Breton and his proto-Surrealist friends were practising had
precious little to do with Dada. They were gradually extricating themselves from the role of
negators. Instead, they used the freedoms which they arrogated to themselves, by virtue of
the interpenetration of art and life, to deny what they increasingly perceived as the follies of
Dada and in order to act out new roles in Surrealism.
The point I want to stress is that this shift was implicit in the very beginnings of Paris
Dada. As far back as 1918, Breton and Aragon had already been experimenting with
automatism as a key to the unconscious. Already, in 1920, Breton had written:
"There has been talk of a systematic exploration of the unconscious ... . The word
inspiration ... was quite acceptable a short time ago. Almost all images ... strike me as
Aragon, looking back, finds a redemption of language from the Purgatory that was Dada:
It was in the light of the poetic image that all things became possible again"
Dada had served its purpose; the Litterature group had found the sense of moral
certainty they had always been seeking.
* Drawn from notes compiled by M Arnold for the University of South Africa