Imagine attending a performance advertised as a modern art event featuring lectures, music, poetry readings, and paintings. The show will be sustained by young artists full of talent, in search of beauty (words borrowed from the poster for a 1920 Dadaist soirée). The curtain lifts and on stage you see a non-assuming, bespectacled young man who starts declaiming an absurd collation of abstract images punctured by meaningless sounds. No, he is not a stand-up comedian, he continues by indiscriminately insulting the audience. Then he reads from a manifesto: “DADA; abolition of memory: DADA; abolition of archaeology: DADA; abolition of prophets: DADA; abolition of the future … “ Finally, he takes out of his pocket a famous speech by one of the most cherished national political leaders of the country (think about the equivalent of “I Have a Dream”). In a symbolic defilement, like a burning in effigy, he takes the scissors, cuts the words, puts them in a hat and then randomly takes them out and reads them loud.
Today, reactions to such an eccentric character may vary from sedation to sophistication; however, about one hundred years ago, the audiences would brutally fall from their expectations in a manner that has been documented in detail: first, a respectful silence, then bafflement, a sense of revolt, loud booing, and even violent physical reactions leading to total chaos. The man good at programming the pandemonium on stage was also one of the best cultural public relation practitioners and self-promoters of the early 20th century: Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), born as Sami Rosenstock in a small city in northeast Romania, who stormed over Zurich and Paris in his youth as one of the main creators and disseminators of Dadaism.
We are getting close to the 100 year anniversary of Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich and I dedicate my post to Tzara while reading the recent biography Marius Hentea wrote about him, with a title inspired by the artist’s alter-ego, Mr. Antipyrine. As Hentea contends, Tzara constantly manifested a “desire to self-fashion his literary legacy” (276) because, in his own words, he considered himself “the corrosive center of the world” (277). He did not have a predefined aesthetic but “did everything to make himself indispensable” to the community prone to experimentation at Cabaret Voltaire (66). Together with Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Arp, Marcel Ianco et co. he left an important legacy for art today: a “veritable cross-fertilization across media as music, painting, sculpture, design, and written texts worked together to further the cabaret’s emergent goal, which was to break art out of its separation from life.” (69).
In the case of non-fiction, we look for the accuracy of sources and for new, even sensational information or elements that may open unexplored avenues of research and change the current angles of interpretation. A biography is a work of endearment, an assumed devotion to one person; therefore, like the well-trodden mimetic desire, it should be able to transfer its haunting affection to the readers in order to compel them to go over sometimes tedious details, irrespective of how interesting, ebulitive, grandiose or simply inspirational the life was overall. In his visually illustrated tome, Marius Hentea carefully incorporates, collates and reorganizes information available in other books about Tzara and Dadaism (mostly in French), to which he adds his own field research results in the United States, Romania, Switzerland, and France. Beyond interrogations pertaining to identity, exile or diaspora, the biographer depicts a cosmopolitan character that is associated with the avant-garde but ultimately openly avoids and transcends it. Hentea taps in to the notion that Tristan Tzara’s most important creative dimension is to be found in his verse, an idea always dear to French readers and criticism. Therefore, the main organizing principle of this biographical excursus, apart from the unavoidable chronology, is Tzara’s poetry, which offers the background and accompaniment en sourdine to the noises and sometimes cacophony of his vita.
The biographer lists several explicative avenues for Tzara’s pseudonym (the well-known “trist în țară,” in Romanian that is, sad in one’s country or in the countryside, or St. Dada). He leaves out a piquant one: Ion Vinea, one of the most important avant-garde figures in the inter-war Bucharest, claimed he was the one who found the last name “Tzara” for his friend, Sami, in hope he would give up his already-chosen “Tristan” that only sounded to local Francophones like Triste âne (pardon my French, “sad ass”). Hentea traces back Tzara’s first years in a Moldavian shtetl and hints to his layered reception in Romania (still open to interpretation and analysis), where the local avant-garde (1912-1947) is circumscribed to a certain historical period due to the ideological restrictions of the totalitarian regime. Between the wars, the synchronization with European modernism and a conservative ideological stand co-existed in the country. Cultural authority figures in the 1930s did not refrain from anti-Semitic reactions. Tzara was ironically regarded as an audacious Jew, who simulated spontaneity and whose aesthetic program was just a mystification and negation of convention. He only returned to Romania once during a week of public lectures he gave in 1946, even if his fellow writers there always revered him. Irrespective of his own type of protest against the “bourgeoisie,” he was soon after added to the category of “irrational” artists, who did not correspond to official aesthetic criteria of socialist realism. Today, local critics view him as the the first Romanian writer who made an international career thus compensating a peripheral complex, and this is a big deal for a national pride that appropriates émigré artists and writers, such as, among many others, Constantin Brancusi, Eugen Ionesco, E. M. Cioran or the recent Nobel Prize winner, Herta Müller.
Tzara’s early life could be depicted as a series of vignettes with subversiveness as a common denominator. In 1919, when he decided to move from Zurich to Paris (and, invited, occupy for a while the apartment where Francis Picabia lived with his partner at the time and their infant son), he brought along just letters, posters, leaflets, track reviews, manifestos, and advertisements. Together with the writers who would later form the Surrealist movement, Tzara rediscovered scandal as the best self-advertisement, cannibalized conventions (even wrote a manifesto titled Cannibale Dada), promised audiences he would show them Charlie Chaplin and “Dada’s sex,” and ultimately mockingly presented himself as the disparaged emblem of Dada before unilaterally deciding the movement was to self-dissolve.
In 1925, the former enfant terrible married the painter Greta Knutson, a well-off Swedish lady (about whom I would have liked to read more in Hentea’s biography). In the 1930s, he published several volumes marked by a type of incantatory lyricism meant to render the voyage of the self in a world of chaos. He received eulogies from important French literary figures, including his former close collaborator, André Breton. However, his break with the surrealists was complete due to their different views related to the purpose of art. It was a “misrecognition” of poetry’s aims and nature, Tzara claimed, to make it “a mediated, documentary activity of allegorical description with the moralizing goals of fabrication and propaganda.” Poetry was simply too important—“in the totality of its complexity, it covers the destinies of thought”—to be turned over to such a barren course (in Hentea 241). Tzara distanced himself, along with many others, from the Surrealist idealizations of the Soviet regime, did not sign the appeal to liberate Trotsky, and joined the French Communist Party only after the war. During the volatile and dangerous times of World War Two, he lived with false papers in various locations and was part of the Résistance. Despite having been in the country for 20 years, he only obtained French citizenship in 1947. The more Tzara departed from his avant-garde years, the more serious his interrogations were, such as, for example, in his 1946 lecture, “Le surrealisme et l’après-guerre”: “Where is the end of this war, this shredded end that prolongs itself in each individual, bringing about new questions and temporary solutions and necessary but makeshift repairs and the crushing weight of pains and destructions and the gravity of wounds that are still raw?”
Until the end, Tzara was involved in the world of collectors and manifested an interest for “primitive” art in organizing exhibitions, writing essays and collecting Oceanic and African artifacts. He also worked on his most abstruse book, an attempt at deciphering alleged cryptograms in the poetry of François Villon. No one to this day has proved Tzara’s findings either right or wrong, in spite of the anagrams he discovered. His biographer, Marius Hentea, does not offer us the key either. We get a sense that, in spite of his early self-fashionings, Tzara's belief in the deepest, abiding secrets of a text was more rewarding to him than any critical recognition.
 Marius Hentea. TaTa DaDa: The Real Life and Celestial Adventures of Mr. Tristan Tzara, The MIT Press, 2014, 368 pages