uncertainplume (bobbydrake666) wrote,

On Tzara's "Approximate Man"

having read this collection and lee harwood's 'chanson dada', i am now convinced that- alongside his countryman gherasim luca and aime cesaire- tristan tzara was the very best of the surrealist poets.

true, his verse can be exasperating in its unevenness (this, lamentably, is a distinctively surrealist trait, which never aspired towards poetic perfection to begin with), but the anthology does an extraordinary job of depicting the intrinsic *continuity* of his concerns, concerns which are much closer to us, the crestfallen clochards of postmodernity, than any of his contemporaries. like mallarme, tzara is concerned with vanishings, evanescences and disappearances, the ultimate (hegelian) identity of truth and 'illusory' appearance, irruptions that border upon the imperceptible, momentary flickerings of non-sense that can only be grasped by exacting effort. this is precisely the way in which tzara manages to bridge the intensely personal intimacy of the lyric form (few poems manage to sustain this sort of soul-searching subjectivity without becoming soporific) with its universal address and import.

for me, 'approximate man' is about hope, faith, tenacity. poetry, in tzara's conception, is a painful exercise of fidelity, a tightening of nerves, a seizing of singularities from the voracious maw of lassitude, indifference and disgust. thus, there is a monastic austerity, a remorseless rigor in tzara's work that contrasts starkly with the 'will to inebriation' that typifies surrealist poetics. there is a sense of purpose here that approaches solemnity, and the high seriousness of tzara's poetic production is likely to upset readers accustomed to the kaleidoscopic, freewheeling delirium of automatic writing which, to my knowledge, was not a technique that tzara indulged in. the experience of reading tzara is so 'difficult' because he does not operate on the surface of sense or sonority alone- while affording many pleasures to both the ear and the third eye, tzara tries desperately to galvanize a gallimaufry of images into a coherent conception of reality. anachronistic as it may have been in the high tide of the avant garde, tzara was deeply committed to writing MEANINGFUL poetry, poetry that would do more than point at an absent reality that poetry could merely prefigure (the symbolist heritage that surrealism inherited). in 'approximate man', i think, the moral compass of surrealist practice is placed in full view, while the exigencies and the demands that history places upon poetic expression are probed within the poem itself, giving rise to a triumphant sense of literature's irrepressible power, a power retrieved from the collapse of surrealism's virginal childhood.

why then, are tzara's poems so tortured, so riddled with anguish and regret? if tzara is, like pessoa, like beckett, like mallarme, like artaud, one of the great poets of failure and frustration, it is because he was never satisfied with the surrealist conception of language as a productive cinematic machine, a canvas for unconscious imaginings. adorno's imperious denunciations of surrealism's arrested development are worth repeating: its 'undialectical' and indiscriminate exposition of gratuitous images could only lead to the twin cul-de-sacs of aestheticism and mysticism. can we say, then, that tzara's work elucidates the relationship of surrealism to its historical conditions, the intensely ethical orientation of its human concern? in tzara, the icarian flight of automatism turns back upon itself, gazing back at the scorched earth from which it sprung. while affirming its inexorable autonomy, literature no longer claims exclusive access to the absolute, which it is nonetheless tethered to as though by an umbilical cord. this marks the solidarity between surrealism and the communist struggle, the reconciliation of poetic praxis with emancipatory politics. renouncing its celestial privileges, the clipped wings of poetry are streaked with the blood and tears of suffering humanity. yet it would not be poetry if it made its peace with pathos- poetry is the inexorable demand to have done with penance. hence the generosity and the power of 'approximate man', which, while regarding mortal finitude with tenderness and mercy, affirms the infinite, indomitable right of promethean revolt.

in this way, tzara saves literature from the dead end of transgression and its dialectical waltz with propriety, literary or social. a poetry that is truly 'trans-bourgeois', without exhausting itself in hyperactive formal experimentation. a poetry that is delivered from the french, all-too-french, kantian-schopenhaurian horizon of the sacred noumena. if tzara can say, with rimbaud, that the 'true life is elsewhere', it is not because poetry is forever ensconced in the slough of despond, expelled from a state of grace that is purely hypothetical. literature inhabits the space between nostalgia and anticipation, gathering the specral traces, the consequences of a truth that has vanished, clearing a space in which new certitudes will announce themselves. poetry is thwarted because it is ensnared in a critical impasse- it cannot speak with absolute certainty of that which has disappeared, nor can it properly prophesy that which will come. while literature cannot itself drain the real of the transient NOW into itself, it need not resign itself to mystical silence. what binds remembrance and expectation together is the unflinching avowal of CONTINGENCY, the fissure in every complacency which uncovers a primordial past while freeing the fugitive future. a poem, as a form of thought, is an aleatory affirmation, a caesura in the seamless cloth of possibility. this is the way in which it touches upon the impossible:
"The product of chance, it will return to chance, but to a humanized chance which would have lived out the space of a memory, a chance which would have taught memory its own adventurous ways of living and the inestimable perspectives it gives to human hope, through all the downfalls and infirmities, of bringing to life the object of dreams, outside every concurrence of circumstance." (198)

and again:
"Life appeared to me in cross section like an agate whose spots are moving in a perpetual flight of worms writhing alongside each other trying to avoid one another and seeking in a constant equilibrium a way out which would conform in contour to the oppositions, the barriers and the interdictions provoked by movement itself. Perhaps there will be a gap in the framework...Perhaps it will be seen that as darkness is only a crystal globe, a tumor, it is enough to break it in order for light to exist and to invade memory and the fear of death. Perhaps it will be a question of love. Then only will the moral laws empty their pockets, for man will be visible and visitable and no one will wish to know more than can be seen, the humanly thinkable will turn aside, on its tracks of the new laws of chance and humor, the hateful proplery thinkable which each day adds another stone to the millstone of our times of windowpanes and of clearings." (199)

we all know that, following their storied breaks with the surrealist movement, the likes of char, aragon, eluard and desnos all returned to the fold of literary orthodoxy, a maneuver that was in part inspired by their involvement in the communist party and the french resistance. we also know that their artistry suffered a good deal in the process, as they subordinated poetic expression to a populist poetics (char being a luminous exception to this).

tzara never capitulated to this compromise, and i can't help but feel that the sheer intransigence of his vision ensures that he remains among the most UNIVERSAL of the surrealist poets, his universality being a good deal closer to the likes of beckett, michaux, vallejo and artaud than his fellow wayfarers. despite the length of 'approximate man', there is a sinewy leanness and a precision in its menacing imagery that one rarely finds in surrealist poetry. the bloated gratuitousness, the overladen imagery, the ludic arbitrariness of surrealism are abandoned in favor of a highly concentrated, compressed style that, while harnessing the spontaneity of chance procedures (many of tzara's most arresting images were aleatory amendments to his original manuscripts, which bore the blemish of tzara's own inclinations towards symbolist sentimentality) achieves an unerring, almost mathematical clarity of vision that approaches that of mallarme. the incantatory refrains that punctuate each section gain momentum until they swell into paroxysms of pain or praise. there is a scarcely-veiled classicism that persists throughout tzara's best work- a hushed reverence for poetic communication and the capacity of his readers to receive its transmissions, however occult they may be on the surface-that never condescends to the hackneyed, naively humanistic 'neo-realism' of aragon, prevert or desnos.

in a way, i can't help but feel that much of tzara's earlier work is an 'approximation' of 'approximate man', which i now regard as one of the great epic poems of modernity, besides rimbaud's 'season in hell' (the black breath of which can be felt emanating from the bowels of 'approximate man') , whitman's 'song of myself', hart crane's 'the bridge' and neruda's 'heights of macchu picchu'. so, it is a bit anticlimactic to plough through the frostbitten fields of 'approximate man', only to be confronted with the taxonomic 'anti-poems' of tzara's dadaist youth, all of which were written to irritate and outrage. at the same time, 'approximate man' exerts a retroactive effect upon the slightly-juvenile execrations of the dadaist years, illuminating the latent moral purpose of these early fusillades.

near the close of this book, we are treated to the incandescent prose poems of tzara's late years. the seductively didactic 'seeds and bran' rivals peret in sheer imaginative power, siphoning the polemical thrust of the dadaist manifestos and tzara's nietzschean sense of the tragic through the protean plasticity of the surrealist imagination. i will be reading this collection for decades to come.
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