The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire
Tom Sandqvist
We've always been fond of Dada. Not only are the Dada-ists silly, they don't seem intent on inflicting any harm, on anyone (other than each other), for any reason whatsoever. They are inordinately fond of putting out noisy manifestos, which make no sense at all, and which are immediately superseded by another manifesto, and then another, by yet another anarchist collective.

Our favorite lines in what was reputed to be the Original Manifesto were these:

about Italy
about accordions
about women's pants
about the fatherland
about sardines
about Fiume
about Art (you exaggerate my friend)
about gentleness
about D'Annunzio
what a horror
about heroism
about mustaches
about lewdness
about sleeping with Verlaine
about the ideal (it's nice)
about Massachusetts
about the past
about odors
about salads
about genius, about genius, about genius
about the eight-hour day
about the Parma violets

This manifesto was signed in Paris on January 12, 1921 by such luminaries as Edgar Varèse, Man Ray, Francis Picabia, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, Louis Aragon and Tristan Tzara --- but at least for the last named, it was a repeat performance. According to Sandqvist, Tzara was one of the originals from Romania who who started the whole Dada mess in Zurich in February of 1916. He and the brothers Janco --- along with Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings --- "opened the literary cabaret that they named Cabaret Voltaire at the restaurant Meierei on Spiegelgasse in Zurich."

And, according to the author, it didn't even begin there. He tells us that back in Romania, at the turn of the century, there was a Jewish tradition of dance and country parades that included masks, weird costumes, outlandish speech, and assorted nonsense. As far back as 1912, Tristan Tzara --- nee Samuel Rosenstock --- was writing raucous anti-war poems and walk-in-the-country love poetry like,

    My soul's bricklayer coming home from work
    Memory with clean drugstore smell
    Tell me, old servant, about once upon a time
    And you cousin let me know when the cuckoo sings

and chaotic love poetry with certain jarring symbols:

    Scattered wall
    Today I asked
    Myself why
    She didn't hang herself

    Lia, blond Lia
    She would have swung
    From a rope at night
    Like a ripe pear

    And dogs in the street
    Would have barked
    And people gathered
    To gape

    And they'd have yelled
    "Take care she doesn't fall."
    I would have nailed
    The lock to the door

    I'd have set a ladder
    And taken her down
    Like a ripe pear
    Like a dead girl
    And put her in a nice bed.

A good patriot would ask what these Dadaists were doing in neutral Switzerland while their peers (or pears) were getting hung up in the trenches in WWI. The answer is, they were doing just that: along with Romain Rolland, Franz Werfel, James Joyce, Thomas Mann and Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov --- better known as Lenin --- they were hiding out from the war, cooking up trouble (most especially the latter) for the rest of the world. Lenin it was said, was not too enamored of the Cabaret Voltaire, claiming it was of little or no help for "the Communist cause."

Understandable. In one of their first performances, "four strange figures" appeared on the stage in "horrible, ghastly grotesque" masks, giving out with "dreadful cries," "chins painted with red crosses like dripping blood." One ripped open his jacket, showing "black suspenders ... holding stockings recalling the cancan dancers of Paris. Another one tore apart his coat, revealing a cuckoo clock on his chest."

Tristan Tzara appeared on the stage dressed in tails and white spats (complete with pince-nez) and "began to read French verses without meaning ... The grotesque oratorio went on until the audience finally fell into the refrain, thus producing a noise the Russian revolutionary living just on the other side of the alley ... could not have been untouched by."

    The noisy perfomance ended with Tzara picking up a roll of paper on which the indecent word "merde" was written.
This is an exquisite volume from MIT Press. There are dozens of photographs, including sixteen in color. The text is a bit Dada itself, circling around the main point several times --- that critics have neglected the origins of the movement that came from "the East." But the poems and pictures and the narrative make one long for a time when the world could accept such complete nonsense in good spirit, a time where even the staid Swiss would accept the playful carryings-on without a blink.

--- Max Kunkel
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