This 1973 Ph.D. Prospectus, submitted and accepted by the Department of Romance Languages, Rackham Graduate School, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) was my academic swan song. When you read the concluding comments, you may well wonder, as I do today, how this prospectus was ever approved.

The dissertation was never written, but the research yielded several scholarly articles (see bibliography) and I chaired the second session of the first DADA Conference held at the University of Iowa (Iowa City) in March/April 1978. I subsequently collaborated with the top Dada scholar Michel Sanouillet on a annotated reissue of Tzara's DADA magazine which was scooped by another project and shelved until 1983 when my notes were included in the critical study, DADA II, published by the Centre du XXe siècle (Nice, France).  However, since I was neither sent a copy of the work nor notified of the fact, I only accidently discovered the publication online in 1999 at which time I notified the Centre du XXe Siècle and they apologized for their mistake and promptly mailed me a complimentary copy of DADA, Tome II (1983).  By that time, I had lost all interest in ever pursuing an academic career. If, as they say, timing is everything, then this turned out to be the worst timing imaginable. Michel Sanouillet died tragically in an automobile accident in Nice in 2015.

(For additional comments, please see Biron's End-Note.)
Je ne veux même pas savoir s'il y a eu des hommes avant moi. [I don't even want to know if men existed before me.] - attributed to René Descartes

- printed diagonally across front page of Dada III, 1918 Zurich periodical edited by Tristan Tzara.

"One of the most interesting of the recent occurrences in the arts has been the gradual reemergence of Dada into the contemporary consciousness. Plagued by the constant atmosphere of war and increasingly rigid restraints of a technological society, artists and intellectuals have begun to listen to the strident voices of the Dadas.... As a result of this renewed interest, the Dada movement has emerged from the shadow of Surrealism, where it had remained for more than twenty years."

- Manuel L, Grossman in Dada - Paradox, Mystification, and Ambiguity in European Literature (N.Y., 1971), p. xii.

A renewed interest in Dada - resulting in a proliferation of studies on the movement - has for the most part been generated by art critics rather than literary critics. Michel Sanouillet's monumental Dada à Paris stands out among the few works dealing with what can be called French literary Dada. However, Sanouillet's perspective is purely historical. Aesthetic appraisals of Dada are rare, and found primarily in a few scattered articles, in spite of the rapid expansion of publications on the subject in the past decade with the advent of Pop Art and Neo-Dada.

Sanouillet points out that a history of contemporary French literature will typically introduce its chapter on Surrealism with a short paragraph mentioning Tzara who came to France from Zurich in 1919, bringing with him the spirit of Dada and close by agreeing with Kleber-Haed that "Dada n'eut aucune importance littéraire." [Dada had no literary importance whatsoever.] One can readily accept and perpetuate this conclusion if one feels threatened by what the literary critics have perceived as the Dadaist scorn of rationality and if one postulates Dada as a purely negative, nihilistic, irrational phenomena - the chaos into which Surrealism was eventually able to put order.

However, this conception of Dada is extremely simplistic as it passes judgment on Dada on the basis of its scandalous poetry "happenings" in Zurich and later in Paris, and on the paradoxical content of the eight manifestos published by Tzara between 1916 and 1921 – as if Dada had no philosophic basis other than the desire to épatez les bourgeois [shock the middle class]. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Revolutionary thinkers restructure commonly held notions of reality. They are able to perceive with clarity contradictions in society that elude others. Like scientists, they devise new theories - new ways of dealing with reality - that simplify and help explain away many, if not all, of these contradictions.

Among these revolutionary thinkers are such divergent intellectuals as Thomas Paine, Lenin and his next door neighbor (Zurich, 1917) - Tristan Tzara. In the commemorative issue of Strophes magazine devoted to Tzara, Jean Cassou stresses the Zurich Dadaists' intellectual prowess:

Surprenante fortune que celle qui fit, à Zurich, en plein cataclysme mondial, sa rencontrer dans la soudaine illumination du mot Dada, quelques jeunes hommes: [Hans] Arp, Hugo Ball, [Richard] Huelsenbeck, [Marcel] Janco, [Tristan] Tzara, tous venus de coins divers et tous intelligents. Car ce n'est pas seulement une impulsion furieuse qui a fait surgir Dada, mais aussi un mouvement de l'esprit en sa plus vive flamme, en sa plus percutante acuité. Et il faut le redire, tous ces hommes étaient d'une agilité et d'une alacrité d'humeur extraordinaire, ils s'étaient situés par leur liberté, leur promptitude à la pointe extrême de 1'intelligence. [Summary: .... All these men were at the cutting edge: extremely bright, free and on target.]

The fact that Tzara's thinking was essentially dialectical may be a reason that many traditionally-minded critics wandering through the cobwebs of syllogistic rationalism have been unable to perceive the sense behind the Dada nonsense. As a result, the ambiguous paradoxical nature of Tzara's writings continues to disarm a critic such as Mary Ann Caws - the most-prolific Tzara scholar in the United States - who herself becomes dupe of what she labels the "Dada Joke" when she asks after quoting a Tzara manifesto: "Is this a genuine conviction, or a supreme example of the Dada joke? "

Although she may correctly identify Tzara's poetry as a poetry of motion and vision, she fails to put this in the philosophic perspective of Tzara's dialectical and cosmic Weltanschauun. Since the so-called "Dada joke" is an integral part of Tzara's world view, it should not be postulated in opposition to "a genuine conviction."

Critics in general appear to be waging a private war against what they perceive as Tzara's irrationalism by simply passing over him in silence. This can help explain the overwhelming ignorance surrounding the chief exponent of a movement which continues today to be a significant influence in art (Neo-Dada) and literature (Lettrisme).

During the half century before his death in 1963, Tristan Tzara diligently produced numerous articles and prefaces on aesthetics, art and literature and a body of work that includes nearly thirty volumes of poetry which the Surrealist poet Louis Aragon praised as "l'une des poésies les plus singulières et les plus hautes qu'aient inventées les hommes, une poésie à tout prendre..." [one of the most original and far reaching poetry ever invented - an all embracing poetry.]

The fact that Tzara's poetry, often printed in limited editions, is so rare so as not even to be found in its entirety in leading humanities libraries such as the Beniche at Yale is yet another reason for the lack of attention paid to Tzara's work.

During the past year, I have been collecting with some difficulty all writings by and on Tzara scattered in major libraries from Boston to Berkeley often only available in obscure defunct periodicals. At present, I have about 150 Xeroxed items dealing with Tzara on file. [This problem was corrected a few years later by the publication of Tzara's Oeuvres complètes in several volume by Flammarion, beginning in 1975, and edited by Henri Béhar with whom I was in contact.]

Those reasons also combined with André Breton's successful polemics against Dada resulted in burying Tzara's reputation both as and a creative artist and as a theorist. Consequently, to date, only three books have been devoted entirely to Tzara:

(1) Elmer Peterson, T. Tzara and Surrationalist Theorist - a cursory study of Tzara's aesthetics, adapted from a Ph.D. dissertation in which many bibliographic inaccuracies suggest that prime sources were not consulted yet dissertation accepted at the University of Colorado in 1962, and published in 1971.

(2) Mary Ann Caws, Tristan Tzara "Approximate Man" and other writings -a translation of poems by Tzara with an introduction and notes, published in 1973. The historical, stylistic and variant notes in this study are weakened because the author was unable to obtain authorization to publish the French text and had to rely on an English translation.

(3) René Lacôte and George Haldas, Tristan Tzara (no. 32 in Collection "Poètes d'Aujourd'hui" - an 80 page historical study by Lacôte, published in 1952 that is often often quoted,and considered by many scholars the classic tenet on Tzara which in later editions includes a ten page 1960 update by Haldas.

[I haven't kept up with all this, but in 1997, at least 2 or 3 additional books could be added to this list.]

If Tristan Tzara is not to remain a footnote in literary history, a comprehensive study should be undertaken of his lectures, manifestos, prefaces and articles to extract the criteria to evaluate his Dada poetry. For instance, Tzara's proclivity to study archaic thought processes as related in his concept of "poésie activité de l'esprit" provides an important key to understanding Tzara's creative technique.

In writing this dissertation, it is my intent to focus attention on Tzara's joint contribution to aesthetics and poetry which have been generally ignored by critics and scholars alike.

A. The first task is to clearly define the Dada philosophy of Tristan Tzara.

Briefly, one can say that Tzara's philosophy resembles Zen Buddhism in that the common purpose in writing his manifestos and organizing various Dada "happenings" was to raise the level of human consciousness in what can be defined as a Dada satori (enlightenment). [At the time of writing this Ph.D. proposal in the early 1970s, another dissertation comparing The poetry of a modern Japanese poet to Tzara's Dada poetry had just been accepted at CUNY in NYC that made a similar connection between Dada and Zen.] The erratic spontaneous nature of Dada was conceived over 50 [now over 80] years ago to jar the European consciousness wallowing in the horrors of World War I.

Dada significantly altered this consciousness and much of what we consider avant-garde in art today (including performance art and all the anti-art posturings) is historically derivitative of that Dada/Zen consciousness.

With a high sense of moral purpose, Tzara also sought to reintroduce into the contemporary consciousness primitive man's cosmic vision of life. He believed that this vision would prove to be our [read: Western civilization's] salvation permitting us to escape the inevitable destructive consequences of world views conceived through narrow syllogistic thinking. In short, Dada was an attempt to by-pass dualities (dualistic thinking) that set human beings above nature. Rather, he sought a more integrative reality where humanity could be assimilated more harmoniously within nature. [These, I can add in 1997, are also the intellectual underpinnings of much of the emerging eco-global philosophizing of our era.]

It is significant that Tzara placed across the front page of his 1918 underground artzine Dada III a sentence attributed to René Descartes: "Je ne veux même pas savoir s'il y a eu des hommes avant moi". [I don't even want to know if men existed before me.] Like Descartes had done before him, Tzara made tabla rasa of what had come before.

For Tzara, Dada was a significant breakthrough in the way of perceiving reality for the Western mind. Tzara's quotation seems ironic since Tzara's Dada philosophy made tabla rasa of nothing less than Cartesianism itself -- the very godhead of French intellectualism. [Consequently, Dada was not any better received in academic circles in France than it was in the USA.]

B. Then, the implications of Tzara's philosophy will be explored in relationship to his Dada poetry.

For example, a chapter dealing with phonemics will explore, among other things, a particular use of onomatopoeia in Tzara's poetry that clearly mimics African sounds. These seemingly meaningless sound-plays are not in the least gratuitous, but are the products of a coherent philosophy.

In exploring the so-called 'primitive mind,' Tzara not only studied C. G. Jung's Symbols of Transformation (1912), but also wrote articles on early African and Colombian art, collected this art, and even translated African poetry into French - all of which influenced his thinking and his Dada poetry.

Although a certain consistency underlies Tzara's poetic work produced regularly over the fifty years and right up to his death in December 1963, his Dada poetry was produced over a 13 year period: from 1916, when he arrived in Zurich, to 1929, when he joined forces with the Surrealists perhaps more for radical political ends than artistic ones. [He and several French Surrealists joined the Communist Party at that time.] Consequently, only the five volumes of poetry, written during this period (1916-1929), will be considered:

1. Vingt-cinq Poèmes. Zurich: Collection Dada, 1918.

2. Cinéma calendrier du coeur abstrait. Maisons: Paris, Au Sans Pareil, 1920.

3. De nos oiseaux. Paris: Kra, 1923.

4. Indicateur des chemins de coeur. Paris: Jeanne Bucher, 1928.

5. L'Arbre des voyageurs. Paris: Editions de la Montagne, 1930.

How to deal rationally with a suprarational perception of reality is a paradox that faces every Dada scholar. This is the same paradox at the heart of the 1922 Tzara-Breton split which Tzara later discussed in a 1959 interview with Sanouillet.

Breton ne contribuait-il pas à "vulgariser" une caricature de Dada. A vouloir ainsi rationaliser l'irrationnel, ne risquait on pas de désamorcer la bombe dadaiste? En d'autres termes, le Surrealism n'allait-il pas imasculer Dada et per mettre aux idées esthétiques qui étaient les siennes de s'intégrer dans 1'heureuse tradition de la littérature "littéraire"? [To summarize freely,Tzara asks: "Didn't André Breton, the high priest of French Surrealism, simply vulgarize Dada and deactivate the Dadaist bomb by his rationalizing of the irrational? In so doing, he emasculated Dada but integrated its aesthetic ideas into the tradition of literary 'literature.' This, to my mind, is the most significant statement ever made regarding the relative importance of Dada and Surrealism.]

Similarly, the Dada scholar must be sensitive to the spirit of Dada so as not, by his methodology also "diffuse the Dadaist bomb ". The very notion of a "Dada aesthetic," for example, must be rethought as a "Dada philosophy" since Tzara repeatedly stated that the object of Dada was 'life', not 'art'. Hence, his abhorrence to Dada being in any way reduced to a literary genre. The equation, stated most simply in his manifestoes, was: "Art = Life." And if the words 'Dada' and 'Dadaist' were used freely , the word 'Dadaism' was shunned precisely for those reasons.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a scholar is a willingness to acknowledge certain limitations of what might be called 'narrow-minded syllogistic rationalism,' derided by Tzara as early as 1917, but still quite in vogue at leading American universities nearly two centuries after Hegel.

However, if the revolutionary nature of Dada is eluded more than grasped by this reactionary rationalism, this approach is nonetheless still capable of yielding new "knowledge" concerning the Dada philosophy and poetry of Tristan Tzara.


Click for the full text of Tristan Tzara's DADA MANIFESTO OF 1918


Biron's 1997 Note:

Actually, I came to the conclusion that I was wrong and that it wasn't capable of yielding anything more significant! I have never regretted rejecting the Ph.D. next to my name. I think US academicians, as a class, have only proven to be part of the problem. In their smugness, they have managed to assume no sense of responsibility for our current predicament. Intelligent, they may be; intellectuals they are - for the mostpart - not.

The last few paragraphs was a rather transparent attack on the of the intellectual politicization and polarization that I encountered as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan during the politically bristling early '70s [i.e. the Anti-Vietnam War movement, the Black Power movement, the Feminist movement, and the Gay/Lesbian movement]. The whole tone of this prospectrus was not designed to sway a committee of full professors: I was giving them the finger. However, it was accepted and I initially intended to carry it through.

After 8 years of college teaching - five as a teaching fellow and three as a full time instructor - I simply walked away from a career in higher education I had enjoyed, after founding with handful of other graduate students a successful Teaching Fellows Union, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) which to this day continues to protect the rights of that sub-class of college instructors. (For more background see this article from the MICHIGAN DAILY (Ann Arbor, February 23, 1996) : GEO comes together over years of contract negotiations, fights.)

That Union which succeeded in its strike against the U of M in great measure due to the unswervering support of the Teamsters Union on campus, has served as a model for several others across the nation. At least at the low end of academe, we effectively stomped on that despicable middle-class word: 'professional' replacing it with 'worker.' Needless to say, not everyone in the academic community backed these efforts.

I subsequently published two articles based on my Tzara research in Paris, worked with Michel Sanouillet of Dada à Paris fame on a republication of Tzara's original DADA zines (Sanouillet's critical edition was scooped by Henri Béhar's Oeuvres complètes of Tristan Tzaza published by Flammarion in 1975, and eventually was published in 1983 shortly before his accidental death), but I never wrote a word of my dissertation.

During the two years that followed, I was involved in a whirlwind of political and social activities in Ann Arbor's thriving Gay community before eventually moving to San Francisco in 1978. My publications during this period -- mostly gay stuff -- are listed in my (click) bibliography.

However sweet this worker's rights victory was in Ann Arbor, it did not prepare me for the disappointment I encountered in San Francisco in the early 1980's when we attempted to unionize I. Magnin's department store on Union Square and we were not given the support we expected from the local Retail Worker's Union which soon thereafter sold itself - the Honorable President Mr. Walter Johnson and all - down the river with grandfather clauses in union member approved contracts with the influx of non-union high-end chains such as Saks Fifith Avenue and Nieman Marcus. My career in retail sales came to a swift halt over these issues in a rather colorful incident that was reported in Herb Caen's column in the San Francisco Chronicle and doesn't merit repeating here.


1. Michel Sanouillet, Dada à Paris (Paris: Jean Jacques Pauvert, 1965).

2. Kleber-Haed, Une Histoire de la littérature française , Paris: N.R.F., 1940), 441.

3. Jean Cassou, "A la pointe extrême de l'intelligence," Strophes, 2 (avril 1964), 7.

4. Mary Ann Caws, The Inner Theatre of Recent French Poetry (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 55.

5. Aragon, "L'Aventure terrestre de Tristan Tzara," Les Lettres Françaises 1010 (2 au 8 janvier 1964), 1.

6. Interview with T. Tzara, July 7, 1959, quoted in Dada à Paris, p. 426.


La Première aventure céleste de Monsieur AntiPyrine. Zurich~ Collection Dada, 1916.

Vingt-cinq poèmes. 7urich, Collection Dada, 1918 (Vingt-cinq et un poèmes. Fontaines, 1946.)

Cinéma calendrier du coeur abstrait. Maisons. Paris Au Sans Pareil, 1920.

De nos oiseaux. Paris, Kra, 1923.

Sept Manifestes Dada. Paris, Jean Budry, 1924 (reedition, augmented by Lampisteries. Parist Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1963)

Mouchoir de nuages. Paris Galerie Simon, lg~5.

Indicateur des chemins de coeur. Paris Jeanne Bucher, 1928.

De nos oiseaux. Paris Kra, 1929.

L'arbre des voyageurs. Paris, Editions de la Montagne, 1930.

L'Homme approximatif. Paris, Fourcade, 1931.

Où boivent les loups. Paris, Cahiers Libres, 1932.

L'antitête. Parist Cahie~s Libres, 1933.

Grains et issues. Parist Denoël et Steele, 1935.

La deuxième aventure céleste de Monsieur Antipyrine. Parist Editions des Re'verbères,

Midis gagnés. Paris, Denel, 193~ (augmented edition, Paris, Denel, 1948).

Le coeur à gaz. Parist,G.L.M., 1946.

Entre-temps. Paris, Point du Jour, 1946.

Ie signe de vie, Paris, Bordas, 1946.

Terre sur Terre. Geneve, Trois Collines, 1946.

La Fuite. Paris, Gallimard, 1947.

Le surréalisme et l'après gerre. Paris, r~agel, 1947.

Phases. Paris, Seghers, 1949.

sans coup férir. Parist Jean Aubier, 1949.

Parler seul, Paris, Maeght. 1950 (reedition, Paris, Caractères, 1955).

La première main. Alès P.A.B., 1952.

La face intérieure. Paris,Seghers, 1953.

~liennes. Paris, Caractères, 1955.

Le jour naissant. Alès , P.A.B., 1955.

Le fruit permis. Paris, Caractères, 1956.

la rose et le chien. Alès, P.A.B., 1957.

frère bois. Alès P.A.B., 1958.

Juste présent. Lausanne: La rose des vents, 1961.


Note: This bibliography may be expanded at some later date to include: