BORN: 1896, Moinesti, Bacau, Romania
DIED: 1963, Paris, France
GENRE: Drama, poetry
The Gas Heart (1920)
Of Our Birds (1923)
Approximate Man (1931)
Conquered Southern Regions (1939)
The Escape (1947)
Tristan Tzara. DEA Picture Library / drr.net
Tristan Tzara is a poet and essayist best known as one of the founders of the Dada artistic movement, which was focused primarily on protesting World War I and rejecting established traditions in art and literature. As a creator, chronicler, and critic, he wrote prolifically all his life. By the time of his death, he left behind numerous volumes of poetry, plays, essays on art and literature, critical commentary, unfinished studies on Rabelais and Villon, and an unfinished autobiographical novel titled Place Your Bets. Tzara’s life journey westward from Romania to Switzerland, France, and briefly Spain constitutes a noteworthy example of the international character of the century’s avant-garde movements and forms the background of his unceasing search for a genuine poetic language in conditions of war and human frailty.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Against Tradition. Not much is known of Tzara’s early life. He was born Samuel Rosenstock in Moinesti, in the Romanian province of Bacau, in 1896, the son of a prosperous forest administrator. Judging by his unfinished autobiography, Place Your Bets, it seems that from early on Tzara was a difficult, wayward youth battling against his traditional family, his father in particular. While studying mathematics and philosophy in Bucharest in 1912, he began to publish in his native language. His first postsymbolist poems appeared in the Symbol, a literary journal he had founded with Ion Vinea and Marcel Janco. Many of these poems, written in Romanian and influenced by French symbolist writers, appear in Primele poemes: First Poems (1965). Tzara derived the pseudonym he adopted in 1915 partly from the name of an esteemed predecessor, Tristan Corbiere, and partly from Tara, the Romanian word for country. He legally changed his name in 1925.
Dadaism. Tzara immigrated to Switzerland from Romania in 1916. Together with Jean Arp, Hugo Ball, and others, Tzara founded Dadaism, a movement that emerged from their protest of artistic, social, and political convention and stylistically relied on the absurd or irrational. Tzara staged Dadaist performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, but left Switzerland in 1919 to settle in Paris, where he engaged in Dadaist experiments with such literary figures as Andre Breton and Louis Aragon. Serious philosophical differences caused a split between Tzara and Breton in 1921; soon after, Breton founded the surrealist movement, and by 1922 the Dada movement had dissolved. Tzara’s early Dadaist verse, written between 1916 and 1924, utilizes clusters of obscure images, nonsense syllables, outrageous juxtapositions, ellipses, and inscrutable maxims to perplex readers and to illustrate the limitations of language. Volumes such as Twenty-five Poems (1918) and Of Our Birds (1923) display the propositions outlined in Tzara’s manifestos and critical essays, often blending criticism and poetry to create hybrid literary forms.
Surrealism. From 1929 to 1934, Tzara participated in the activities of the surrealist group in Paris. In this environment, he created a more sustained and coherent poetry that places less emphasis on the ridiculous than did his Dadaist verse. Tzara’s works published during this period include Approximate Man, and Other Writings (1931), an epic poem that is widely considered a landmark of twentieth-century French literature. This work portrays an unfulfilled wayfarer’s search for a universal knowledge and language. Art historian Roger Cardinal asserted: ‘‘[In] this apocalyptic explosion of language, Tzara finally approaches the primal seat of creativity, the point where the naked word reveals the naked truth about the world.’’ This and Tzara’s later surrealist volumes—The Travelers’ Tree (1930), Where Wolves Drink (1932), The Anti-head (1933), and Seed and Bran (1935)—reveal his obsession with language, his vision of humanity’s destiny of tedium and alienation, and his concern with the struggle to achieve completeness and enlightenment.
Communism. In the 1930s, Tzara strove to bring about a reconciliation of surrealism and Marxism and began to turn away from aesthetic, surrealist revolt to political commitment. He became a member of the French Communist Party in 1936 and served as a delegate of the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. At this time, he joined the Republicans, or Spanish Loyalists, who championed democracy and liberty over tyranny and fascism, and also befriended Pablo Picasso. Later, forced into hiding during the Nazi occupation of France, Tzara participated in the Resistance. His clandestinely published poems were revolutionary and humanistic.
As his commitment to left-wing politics increased, his poetry included greater political content and stressed revolutionary and humanistic values while maintaining his lifelong interest in free imagery and linguistic experiments. Conquered Southern Regions (1939) focuses on Tzara’s impressions of Spain during the country’s civil war, while The Escape (1947) depicts the frantic German evacuation of Nazi-occupied France during World War II. The prose poems ‘‘Without a Need to Fight’’ (1949) and ‘‘Flame Out Loud’’ (1955) also address political topics related to World War II.
Tzara’s embrace of communism, although by no means uncommon among European intellectuals in the late 1920s and early 1930s, remains somewhat of a surprise insofar as it comes from one of the most fiercely independent spirits among the Dadaists. No matter how much one would wish to excuse him, and in spite of a mostly discreet and possibly guarded allegiance, the fact remains that Tzara maintained his Communist Party membership with equanimity, if not enthusiasm, through the Stalinist purges and the Nazi-Soviet pact and into the cold war period until the very end of his life in 1963.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Tzara's famous contemporaries include:
Andre Breton (1896-1966): French writer and poet Breton is credited as the founder of the surrealist movement, writing the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924.
Ion Minulescu (1881-1944): Romanian avant-garde poet, novelist, journalist, critic, and essayist, Minulescu was strongly influenced by his stay in Paris during the 1920s. He returned to Romania, where he in turn became one of the major influences of modern Romanian literature.
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968): French artist associated with Dada and surrealism whose provocative ''found art'' pieces challenged concepts of what constitutes art.
Fritz Lang (1890-1976): Austrian German film director and screenwriter whose silent films, including the classics Metropolis and M, continue to be highly influential for their visual power and imagery.
Philo Farnsworth (1906-1971): Holder of more than three hundred patents, Farnsworth is best remembered today as the inventor of the television and video camera. He transmitted the first experimental television pictures in 1927.
Henri Bergson (1859-1941): French philosopher and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927; Bergson's ideas on metaphysics and the philosophy of language were highly influential in the first half of the twentieth century.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Tzara was the first to outline the tenets of Dada, but here are works by several other writers who are also credited with being early Dadaists, intentionally or not:
King Ubu (1896), a play by Alfred Jarry. This play is widely acknowledged as the forerunner of Dada, surrealist, and absurdist drama.
''Karawane'' (1916), a poem by Hugo Ball. Composed by one of Tzara's collaborators at the Cabaret Voltaire, this work, written in German, consists of strings of nonsense words. The poem's very meaninglessness was one of the first formal expressions of Dada.
The Breasts of Tiresias (1917), a play by Guillaume Apollinaire. A two-act play that was one of the earliest recognized surrealist works.
Works in Literary Context
Dadaism. Tzara is remembered as a proponent and theoretician for Dadaism, an intellectual movement of the World War I era whose adherents espoused intentional irrationality and urged individuals to reject traditional artistic, historical, and religious values. In response to the alienation and absurdity of World War I and the staid, unimaginative art forms predominant in Europe during that era, Tzara and other European artists sought to establish a new style in which random associations would serve to evoke a vitality free from the restraints of logic and grammar. Tzara articulated the aesthetic theories of Dadaism in his seminal collection of essays, Seven Dada Manifestos (1924). This volume, in which Tzara advocates ‘‘absolute faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity,’’ represents a chaotic assault on reason and convention.
Works in Critical Context
Public and critical reaction to Tzara’s work is difficult to evaluate using traditional measurements. As a Dadaist, the point of much of his early work was not to entertain or enlighten, but to evoke a reaction—typically a negative reaction due to the author’s deliberate rejection of the familiar. In the decades since his death, however, scholars have been able to place Tzara’s work in the context of the avant-garde movements of the time and judge its significance in the development of modern literature. Although his work often defies standard classification and is regarded by most contemporary English-speaking scholars as little more than a literary curiosity, Tzara is esteemed in France for his large and diverse body of poetry, which is unified by his critique of and search for a universal language and cosmic wisdom.
Approximate Man. Hailed by surrealists upon its publication in 1931, the epic poem Approximate Man has continued to be viewed as one of Tzara’s most significant works. Ruth L. Caldwell, in an essay for Perspectives on Contemporary Literature, calls the work his ‘‘masterpiece’’ and ‘‘his key poetical work, in which he sets forth the ideas which have occupied him for years.’’ Mary Ann Caws, in The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism:
Dada, Breton, Tzara, Eluard and Desnos, agrees with the label of ‘‘masterpiece’’ and notes that the ‘‘extremely diverse and unequally brilliant images’’ found in the work reinforce its theme of imperfection. However, not all readers sing the work’s praises. Roger Cardinal, writing for the Times Literary Supplement, states, ‘‘Prolonged reading of the poem has left this reader unsatisfied that it succeeds in approximating a visionary grasp on cosmic realities. Much of [The Approximate Man] is too wordy, the modulation from chaos to confidence too sleekly verbal.’’
The Gas Heart. Critic Robert Varisco suggests that Tzara’s play The Gas Heart represents ‘‘a form of anarchy against art or the theatre. Characters (body parts) have no spoken lines, personalities, names, real characters. The audience, meaning and authority are alienated—an initial step to overturn traditional theatre.’’ Varisco also notes that Tzara, throughout the play, ‘‘elevates the realm of pointless verbiage.’’ Varisco posits that the body parts, which are in fact the characters, express their resistance to (and by extension the author's resistance to) theatrical convention ‘‘in highly stylized and anti-symbolic philosophizing which always leads back to the prevalent feeling of ‘lag’ that they all share.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Read Seven Dada Manifestos. Then write a summary of what you think makes up this ‘‘philosophy of meaninglessness.''
2. Read Tzara's Approximate Man and write an essay in which you describe what you think makes up his ‘‘philosophical driving force.’’
3. Choose a poem from Tzara’s Dadaist period. Create an audio-visual presentation that illustrates Tzara’s unique style and expression. Try to reflect the language and theme of the poem.
4. Read Seven Dada Manifestos. Then, using resources from your library and the Internet, research the varying styles of the pop art movement. Write a personal statement in which you discuss how you see Dadaist influences in pop art. Support your answer with examples from your research.
Ball, Hugo. Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary. Viking, 1974.
Browning, Gordon Frederick. Tristan Tzara: The Genesis of the Dada Poem, or from Dada to Aa. Stuttgart: Akademischer Verlag Heinz, 1979.
Erickson, John D. Dada: Performance, Poetry, and Art. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
Harwood, Lee. Tristan Tzara: A Bibliography. London: Aloes Books, 1974.
Janco, Marcel. Dada: Monograph of a Movement. New York: St. Martin’s 1975.
Ko, Won. Buddhist Elements in Dada: A Comparison of Tristan Tzara, Takahashi Shinkichi, and Their Fellow Poets. New York: New York University Press, 1977.
Lewis, Helena. The Politics of Surrealism. New York: Paragon House, 1988.
‘‘Tristan Tzara (1896-1963).’’ In Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 47, edited by Daniel G. Marowski, Roger Matuz, and Sean R. Pollock, 384-96. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988.
‘‘Tzara, Tristan (1896-1963).’’ In Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, edited by John Merriman and Jay Winter. 5 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2007.