DADA AND JOYCE, by Dirce Waltrick do Amarante
Atualizado: 16 de mar. de 2021
Dada and Joyce
Dirce Waltrick do Amarante
In 1915, fleeing the Great War and the hostile environment in Trieste, Joyce moved to Zürich with his family. The writer did not find the city very exciting, on the contrary, he said that “the mountains of sugar” that surrounded the city of Zürich gave him claustrophobia.
His impression of Zürich changed with time, though. In spite of the stifling and humid climate, as Joyce pointed out, it was packed with refugees, among them artists whose literary experimentation revigorated Joyce for Ulysses and gave him ideas for his last novel, Finnegans wake.
In 1915 Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings left war-time Germany and settled in Zürich in neutral Switzerland. A year later they opened their famous Cabaret Voltaire, where young artists presented themselves every night. Thus dadaism, or simply Dada, was born. Hugo Ball explained that the word dada comes from the dictionary. It’s the simplest thing you can imagine. In French it means “hobby-horse”. In German it means “see you later”, in Rumenian “without a doubt” … an international word. It should be kept in mind that in the shows of the Cabaret Voltaire the artists shouted in an inexplicable and incoherent manner in whatever language occurred to them. The mixture of languages was part of the dadaist movement.
According to Richard Ellmann, Joyce is sometimes erroneously identified with this group, that, like him, would also go to Paris after the war. In fact, Joyce was not a dadaist camp follower, but this didn’t prevent him from incorporating in his last book some of the principles of this artistic movement, as for example the mixture of many languages. There exists, as one perceives, a certain dialogue between his work and the art (or anti-art) that was made at the mythical Cabaret Voltaire.
Wake is a polyglot book, as the dadaist performances were polyglot. Moreover, in his last novel many words follow the principle of the word “dada”, i. e., they have different meanings in different languages, open multiple reading possibilities and make foreign readers feel included. One of the most intriguing phrases in Finnegans wake, one that merited an essay by Jacques Derrida under the title “Two words for Joyce”, is He war. War means “war” in English, of course, but “was” in German. This way the reader walks “in the dark by different roads”, as Ellmann affirms when talking about the process of reading Joyce’s last novel.
The principle of dadaism, according to Ball, was that “all living art […] shall be irrational, primitive, complex and leave documents that are not edifying but paradoxical.” Cannot this also have been one of the legacies of Finnegans wake? If there is a secret language, you will find it in the Wake, one might say.
Harriet Weaver, his benefactor and enthusiastic reader, said that without a glossary Wake would be “an incomprehensible code”, because the poor reader misses a big part of your intention; he gets stuck. So Weaver advised Joyce to publicate the intricate novel with a glossary, although this went against the convictions of the author.
Here it is appropriate to remember that the French artist Francis Picabia said that every page should explode in the hands of a dadaist, and maintained that art should be extremely unesthetic, useless and impossible to explain.
On August 7th, 1924, Stanislaus Joyce, the writer’s brother, wrote him a letter and talked of his impressions of the new book and said he didn’t know whether the “debiloid” babbling about half a party hat and ladies rooms (almost the only things he understood in this nightmare production) was written with the deliberate intent to trip the reader up or not.
It’s a fact, says Ellmann, that most of his friends had evaded making commentaries on the first parts of the book and were waiting until more of it was available; but when they realized that it was almost entirely written in calembours (ambiguous word-games), they became perplex, then irritated and finally upset, sad and ironic.
For that very reason, it doesn’t seem very absurd to me to compare Joyce’s proceedings in the Wake with those of the dadaists. I remember that at the Cabaret Voltaire, an especially fascinating number, always received with great admiration by the audience, was the poème simultané, with three “actors” reading three different poems at the same time. In Finnegans wake various voices seem to tell the story and they all talk together and relate their versions of the facts simultaneously.
A possible “explicit” dialogue between the Dada movement and the proceedings of Joyce was proposed by Tom Stoppard, Checoslovakian-born English dramatist, in the play Travesties, depicting an encounter between the dadaist Tzara and the Irish writer.
From the dadaist movement comes the movement of André Breton. Dada didn’t die completely with the upsurge of surrealism (a word invented in 1917 by Guillaume Apollinaire). We shouldn’t forget that Kurt Schwitters, a late adept of the movement, travelled to Holland in 1923 and helped in forming a “Dutch dada”.
The ex-dadaist André Breton maintained that art, if it existed, should grow from irrational mental roots – from dreams, hypnosis, hallucinations and free associations. Breton was a great admirer of Freud, though he didn’t know very much about his theory, the scholars say.
Joyce also explored the idea of the unconscious in his inner monologues, and his last novel enters audaciously into the dream world. Wake is nocturnal book. In it Joyce put the language to sleep, and it expressed literarily its worst nightmare. In spite of his interest in the universe of dreams, Joyce, differing from Breton, didn’t appear to nurture a great admiration for the psychoanalysts of the time and used to call Jung the Swiss Tweedledum and Freud the Viennese Tweedledee, the two confused characters from Lewis Carroll’s Through the looking-glass.
“Total abstraction” would become the inevitable legacy of the surrealists. They made no effort whatsoever to describe the known world. The world Joyce presents to his readers in Finnegans wake is also an “abstraction”, a largely unknown world.
Eugène Jolas said he found a mixture of childish nonsense and ancient wisdom in Finnegans wake; moreover, according to him, it seemed to have been prepared by dadaists and surrealists, although he also observed very pertinently that the overwhelming sense of form in Joyce’s book distinguishes it from their productions.
Joyce’s book drinks not only from the dadaist and surrealist springs; it makes use of art in general as it was made in his time, but without disregarding the art of the past, of course.