100 years ago, during the First World War, an extraordinary mĂ©lange of intellectuals converged in the one safe haven left in a self-destructing continent. In 1915, Switzerland â and ZĂŒrich in particular â hosted the likes of James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Lenin, which quickly made the neutral state one of the most fertile grounds for avant-garde ideas in literature, art and politics.
Hugo Ball brought together the band of artists including Richard Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara that went on to collaborate under the banner of âDadaâ â a movement, which Annemarie Goodridge, in the catalogue of the British Libraryâs 2007 âBreaking the Rulesâ exhibition, describes as acting out of the âdesire to use new art forms to express opposition to the perceived spiritual bankruptcy of the ageâ . In their minds, the war was a consequence of a âfailing enlightenment projectâ with an uncritical faith in scientific and technological âprogressââ (Stephen Foster, Dada: The Coordinates of Cultural Politics). Dada represented an attempt at a clean break from previous culture, a âtabula rasaâ in the words of Paul DermĂ©e.
Robert Delaunay, Portrait of Tristan Tzara (1923). Madrid, Museo nacional centro de arte Reina Sofia (image from Wikimedia Commons)
One striking example of Dada creativity is first volume of the Collection Dada series published by Tristan Tzara between 1916 and 1919 containing the play by the same author, La premiĂšre aventure celeste de Mr Antipyrine, illustrated with coloured woodcuts by Marcel Janco. Charactersâ names like Mr Bleubleu and Mr Cricri set the tone for what is an exploration into sound as much as anything else, with speeches developing into nonsensical noise.
In 1916, the same year as the Dada artists exploded convention into fragments of spontaneity, absurdity and illogicality in their new home of the Cabaret Voltaire in ZĂŒrich, the Nobel Prize for Literature (the belated award for 1915) was conferred upon a writer based not far away in Geneva, Romain Rolland. The writer of the ten-volume bildungsroman Jean-Christophe (the complete manuscript of the tenth volume is part of the British Libraryâs Stefan Zweig Collection) and biographies of key figures in culture like Michelangelo, Beethoven and Tolstoy, a humanist and pacifist, might seem worlds apart from the tenets of Dada but this is not necessarily the case.
Rollandâs 1915 collection of essays Au-dessus de la mĂȘlĂ©e, even in its title, suggests a position beyond dogmatism, âabove the battleâ, as the English rendering has it. Rolland writes in the title essay:
The spirit is the light. It is our duty to lift it above tempests, and thrust aside the clouds which threaten to obscure it; to build higher and stronger, dominating the injustice and hatred of nations, the walls of that city wherein the souls of the whole world may assemble.
Romain Rolland in 1915 (image from Wikimedia Commons)
We might call Rollandâs words a manifesto against manifestos in the sense of Tzaraâs famous 1918 Dada manifesto, in which he writes, âje suis par principe contre les manifestes, comme je suis aussi contre les principesâ , where âprinciplesâ are the same fixed truths that give way to âtempestsâ of dogmatic belief, the same truths that Rolland cannot tolerate. Clearly, Rolland draws upon a continuous notion of âspiritâ, something Dada renounced, yet their divergent approaches still led both to the same geographical and anti-establishment space.
A little late to the Swiss party, Stefan Zweig, Rollandâs close friend and intellectual ally, moved to ZĂŒrich in 1917. It is testament to the tolerance of the city and its commingling cultural movements that Zweigâs serious anti-war play Jeremias could open there, no doubt a short distance from the riotous events at the Cabaret Voltaire. Zweig, initially unconvinced by Switzerland, writes in his diary that âdespite the chocolate and the leather boots, one feels this country to be tortureâ. Yet, in a diary entry 20 years after his time in ZĂŒrich, he reminisces, âhow different was it in those times in Austria and Switzerland, where I could speak my own language and encourage othersâ.
Indeed, Zweigâs writing was influenced permanently by the humanist spiritual âbrotherhoodâ in Switzerland, with his later biography of Erasmus the height of his humanist line of thought. Erasmus, for Zweig, embodies âĂberparteilickeitâ, that is a certain non-partisanship, linguistically akin to Rollandâs formulation for Au-dessus de la mĂȘlĂ©e, where both reside âaboveâ something. In a letter to RenĂ© Schickele in 1934, Zweig writes, âI do not connect myself to any party, to no group, [âŠ] but whatever I do, I try to do silently and would rather be attacked for it than celebrated.â Tristan Tzaraâs famous 1918 manifesto also asserts that the author is against action and for continual contradiction, for affirmation. He continues âI am neither for nor against and I wonât explain since I hate reason (bon sens)â.The only difference might then be expressed, adapting Zweigâs words, Tzara does not connect himself to anything and everything he tried to do, he tried to do it loudly.
Above and beyond the normality and madness of world war, the contrasting figures of the avant-garde and humanism co-existed in neutral Switzerland. In June 1919, Zweig was one of the signatories of Rollandâs âDeclaration of the Independence of the Mindâ. Rolland writes that the role of these guardians of spirit is to be the fixed point in the âcentre of the whirlwind of passions, in the nightâ. Switzerland was precisely that centre â a continuous and varied productive culture out of which spiralled many more movements. What was common to all these movements, to Dada and Rolland, was their shared desire to ânot only change art but also life by means of artâ (Roy Allen, âAesthetic transformations: Origins of Dadaâ, in Foster op. cit.).
Pardaad Chamsaz, Collaborative Doctoral Student
Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937, edited by. Stephen Bury (London, 2007), YC.2008.b.251
Dada: The Coordinates of Cultural Politics, edited by Stephen Foster (New York, 1996) YC.1997.b.488 v.1
Tristan Tzara, La premiĂšre aventure cĂ©lĂ©ste de Mr Antipyrine (ZĂŒrich, 1916) Cup.408.u.39
Tristan Tzara, Dada 3, (ZĂŒrich, 1918) W18/5841
Romain Rolland, Au-dessus de la mĂȘlĂ©e, (Paris, 1915) W18/5841
Stefan Zweig, Jeremias : eine dramatische Dichtung in neun Bildern (Leipzig, 1922) 11747.h.31.
Stefan Zweig, TagebĂŒcher (Frankfurt am Main, 1984), X3-0904
Stefan Zweig, Triumph und Tragik des Erasmus von Rotterdam (Vienna, 1935), 2214.a.9