Andy Croft reminds us of the radicalism of the early Dadaist movement.
A hundred years after the Cabaret Voltaire first opened its doors in Zurich, it is hard to remember just how shocking, how provocative and how radical the early Dadaist movement once was. Their extraordinary innovations in performance and technique are now commonplace and barely noticed gestures in the worlds of advertising and corporate culture. One of the most important art movements of the twentieth-century is routinely gutted of its radicalism and reduced to the status of an ‘inheritance track’ for Malcolm McLaren, Vic Reeves and Lady Gaga.
In their centenary year it is especially important to remind ourselves how the Dadaists emerged out of intellectual opposition to the Great War, and how far and how quickly the movement spread across Europe in its aftermath. One of the Dada manifestos was written by the French writer Louis Aragon:
No more painters, no more writers, no more musicians, no more sculptors, no more religions, no more republicans, no more royalists, no more imperialists, no more anarchists, no more socialists, no more Bolsheviks, no more politicians, no more proletarians, no more democrats, no more armies, no more police, no more nations, no more of these idiocies, no more, no more, NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING...
Like many of the original Dadaists (including Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard and Andre Breton), Aragon was later a member of the French Communist Party and active in the French Resistance during the Second World War. But in the early 1920s, it seemed to Aragon and to other radical writers and artists that Nihilism was the only rational and revolutionary response to the industrialised slaughter of the Great War.
The Flemish writer Paul van Ostaijen (1896-1928) first met Dadaism in Berlin in 1919, where he witnessed the suppression of the Spartacist uprising. Although Van Ostaijen is too little known in the UK, he was one of the most original and influential Belgian writers of the twentieth century. An avant-garde poet, satirist and revolutionary critic, he opened up Flemish poetry to modern city life, introduced Expressionism into Belgium, and was the first writer to translate Kafka from German.
Van Ostaijen’s most important work was the epic poem Occupied City/Bezette Stad, now published for the first time in English, in a translation by David Colmer (Smokestack Books, £12):
Nihil in every direction / Nihil in every family / Nihil in every language and every dialect / NIHIL in every symbol / rotating nihil / nihil in saltire... rotating nihil / square nihil / triangular nihil / pyramidal NIHIL...
When Occupied City was first published in 1921 it was advertised as ‘a book devoid of Biblical beauty / a book for royalists and republicans / for doctors and illiterates / a book that lists every important song of the last ten years / in short: as indispensable as a cookbook / “What every girl should know.”’
It is impossible to do justice to this extraordinary work simply by quoting from it, since the book was designed and illustrated by the Flemish artist Oscar Jespers as a work of ‘rhythmical typography’, a huge, crazy, irreverent poem for a noisy chorus of many voices in as many different languages, a riot of type-faces all exploding in every direction across the pages. Above is an example, an image of Dead Sunday, one of the poems in the collection. And here is an ‘extract’ from the poem about the German occupation of Antwerp during the First World War, which van Ostaijen experienced at first-hand:
plane machine-guns / rattle / sifting the routed army / criss cross flight / Rout spouting pus on occupied city / millions of seconds of war fermenting / officers’ whips cracking weaker / words growing waxing RAGING / murmuring / liPs SeiZing WoRDs / while restless / tick-tock machine-guns BROKEN Cadence / in der Heimat in der Heimat / villages / staggering / sinking... fermenting growing fermenting / GUSHING words / muffling the last weak sound of shells / words CRaSHing to PieceS on RoCKs / spurt ditch blood / WO R D / state street city soldiers.
But Occupied City is more than a typographic novelty or a museum-piece. It is a sustained attack on monarchism, militarism and patriotism and a declaration of war on post-1918 Europe (Karl Liebknecht makes a brief appearance in the poem):
national anthems / national heroes / national colours / everything national / hip hip hoorah for the royal vulva / Vive la nation / ecstasy gentlemen / don’t forget ecstasy / cadavers rotting sewers / Tous les soirs grande manifestation patriotique / hopeless skelter the soldiers are dead / patriotic films / patriotic beer / patriotic lamb / LONG LIVE THE HEROES / everything is meaningless / now / crap / LONG LIVE THOSE WHO DIED LIKE DOGS.
This article was first published in the Morning Star.
Andy Croft has written and edited over 80 books, including poetry, biography, teenage non-fiction and novels for children. He writes a regular poetry column for the Morning Star, curates the T-junction international poetry festival on Teesside and runs Smokestack Books. He lives in North Yorkshire.