Dada Mining

Some sixty-five years after Dada first shook the stage, David Byrne debuted his own dadaistic twist on the limits of cognition: “Facts are simple and facts are straight . . . facts don’t do what I want them to.” One place where facts often don’t do what one wants them to is in a biography, where the simple narration of events is not enough to bring a subject to life—where, as Byrne says, “facts are living turned inside out,” from palpitating existence to dry recital. To a large extent, that is the problem with TaTa DaDa, Marius Hentea’s biography of Tristan Tzara, Dada’s front man and master propagandist, if not, despite his claims, its originator. But then, Hentea should have been forewarned: Tzara built his career on challenging and manipulating the limits of factual knowledge, including about himself.

He was born Samuel Rosenstock in 1896 in Moinesti, Romania, a “three-street town” with little to recommend it except huge reserves of oil. Not content with merely relabeling himself in his teens—the name “Tristan Tzara” roughly translates as “sad in the country”—Tzara rewrote his birth certificate in 1922 with wildly invented data. By that time, he had spent several years promoting an image of himself as virulently antifamily, antinationalist, and antibourgeois; yet he maintained close ties with his parents and sister, drew heavily on Romanian culture, and received commissions from tony magazines like Vanity Fair. “If Dada’s public face spat on the morality, obligations, and duties that the family created,” Hentea writes, “private Dada hearts beat differently.”

The Dada movement is the bulletin board to which Tzara’s myth is firmly and famously pinned. It began in Zurich in early 1916, as the Cabaret Voltaire, a forum for recitals, art exhibits, and free-form harangues by a small collective of disaffected wartime exiles, which quickly became a locus for the city’s cabal of freethinking aliens. (Lenin, who lived up the street, is known to have stopped in.) The brainchild of the political journalist Hugo Ball and his partner, Emmy Hennings, “convicted thief, published poet, morphine addict, and registered prostitute,” the Cabaret soon featured the artists Hans Arp and Marcel Janco, the future psychoanalyst Richard Huelsenbeck, and the twenty-year-old Tzara, who had been shipped off to Zurich by his family to dodge the draft.

It didn’t take long for the small, shy, black-suited Tzara to become one of the Cabaret’s main players, “wiggling his behind like the belly of an Oriental dancer” and baiting the audience like a proto–Don Rickles, while the others in the group made animal noises, banged on drums, and did splits, and the packed house laughed and booed in equal measure. Ball described the Cabaret as “both buffoonery and a requiem mass,” its energy fueled by the participants’ disgust at the raging war and the European culture that had spawned it. When the Cabaret folded a few months later, Tzara rechanneled this energy into the recently devised Dada brand.

The question of Dada’s paternity, or even how and when the term came about, has been hotly contested more or less since the beginning—succès de scandale is, after all, still succès. Huelsenbeck and Ball both laid claim to inventing the name, which means “hobbyhorse” in French. Arp, meanwhile, declared “that Tristan Tzara discovered the word DADA on 8 February 1916 at 6 p.m. . . . This occurred at the Café de la Terrasse in Zurich, and I was wearing a brioche in my left nostril.” What is certain is that few promoted the movement as zealously as Tzara, and even his rival Huelsenbeck admitted that they owed Dada’s long international reach mainly to him.

It was also Tzara who composed many of the vituperative, typographically extravagant manifestos for which Dada is best remembered, such as the seminal Dada Manifesto 1918: “Let each man proclaim: there is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished. We must sweep and clean. . . . Dada; abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create,” and The First Celestial Adventure of Monsieur Antipyrine: “We want to shit in the different colors to decorate the zoological garden of art with all the flags of consulates.” (One unfortunate aspect of this biography is Hentea’s insistence on using inferior translations, his own or others’, when better versions are available.)

Largely because of Tzara’s polemical writings and voluminous correspondence, Dada soon had adherents throughout Europe, especially in Paris, where Francis Picabia, an early booster, spread the word to eager young minds. Among those minds were the future Surrealists André Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, and Philippe Soupault, who enthusiastically embraced Dada as an outlet for their own rage against the war. When Tzara moved to Paris in 1920, partly at the urging of Breton and Picabia, the four poets welcomed him as a diminutive messiah.

Almost immediately, Tzara began organizing a series of “Dada demonstrations,” consisting, as before, of readings, performances, art displays, and diatribes calculated to offend the public and further spark the kind of press coverage he’d enjoyed in Zurich. But the constant round of events soon felt redundant. And, as it had in Zurich, Tzara’s will to leadership ran afoul of his conspirators.

Breton later recalled the tedium of endlessly devising these “harmless provocations,” but when he tried to give them a more varied and purposeful spin, Tzara reacted with ill-concealed scorn. (The boredom factor in Dada, well detailed in books such as Michel Sanouillet’s essential Dada in Paris, is largely ignored here.) Matters came to a head with the 1921 mock trial of Maurice Barrès, in which Breton “indicted” the popular novelist and ex-anarchist for having preached jingoist cant during the war. The “trial” featured pretend attorneys and witnesses who gamely mimicked court procedure—apart from Tzara, who testified with a nonsense song:

Eat chocolate
Wash your brain
Drink water…

and stormed out of the hall in spite. (One of this biography’s more amusing sidelights is the revelation that such seemingly absurdist phrases as “Drink water” came from Mama Rosenstock’s admonitory letters to her son.) Dada limped along for another two years, then finally collapsed. Tzara spent the next four decades writing poems, giving lectures, and, after World War II, militating with communists, but he never recaptured his early notoriety.

In a way, the twin stories of Tzara and Breton stand as a mini-history of the early avant-garde, the two frères-ennemis embodying the modernist conflict between expressive freedom and intellectual rigor. And it is here, particularly, that Hentea demonstrates a disappointing lack of critical perspective. To cite an example: He endorses Tzara’s pooh-poohing of Breton’s methodical streak and Surrealism’s “grand ambitions,” as if this position were self-evident. But one could instead argue that it took a rationalist like Breton, with his grand ambitions, to gather the forces that inspired Surrealism and kept it active for half a century—whereas Dada, however bright the initial fireworks, quickly fizzled. Hentea also gives a free pass to Tzara’s Stalinism and approves his condemnation of Breton’s anti-Soviet critiques (over such atrocities as the 1938 Moscow Trials, for example), blithely ignoring the fact that history has largely borne Breton’s views out.

There are other disappointments in TaTa DaDa as well. Like many academic authors, Hentea, who teaches at Ghent University, tends to take a lot for granted: His mentions of “the famous questionnaire, ‘Why do you write?’” and of Kurt Schwitters as “one of the strangest figures in the annals of Dada,” among other instances, float by without explanation, when he could easily have brought the reader up to speed. And (again like many academics) he seems far more enamored of the work than of the life, detailing virtually every publication, down to the number of copies printed, but showing a reticence about personal relationships that borders on prudishness. Hentea does provide occasional, tantalizing glimpses of Tzara’s messy love life, acknowledging that “many of his relationships” ended “rather violently”; but while such comments plead for further development, too often in these pages they go begging.

Many biographies of protean figures suffer from a discrepancy between the outsize profile of their subjects and the lives themselves, and TaTa DaDa is no exception. In Dada’s heyday, Tzara had seemed a paragon of outrageous cool; by his final years, the man who made his rep by proclaiming that “Dada means nothing” and calling for a clean sweep was anxiously monitoring his place in French literary history and squabbling over Dada’s copyright as if it were still 1920. It makes for a dispiriting ending to a strangely listless book. Yes, the research is admirable; the facts are simple, the facts are straight. What’s missing is the effervescence. However celestial the Dada adventure, this particular portrait of it, and of its headliner, feels timid and earthbound—as if “sad in the country” were a much more apposite pseudonym than even Tzara realized.

Mark Polizzotti is the author of Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995).