Michel Sanouillet
revised and expanded by Anne Sanouillet
translated by Sharmila Ganguly
MIT Press ($39.95)

by Jay Besemer

Anyone would think that the English-speaking world had just discovered Dada. A carnival of attention—both scholarly and otherwise—has been pitched around the international Dada movement over the past decade, resulting in an apparently accelerating Tilt-a-Whirl of Dada-oriented conferences, traveling exhibitions, anthologies and quality critical works. Fresh scholarly studies have emerged as a result of recent opportunities to access previously unavailable archival and other primary material of the movement. And classic critical and historical monographs on Dada, whose language of publication made them off-limits to many readers, are now appearing in English translation.

The most thrilling new arrival in the latter category is Dada in Paris, Michel Sanouillet's unique and lively history of the movement's French manifestation. Despite its longtime unavailability in English, the book has been tremendously influential—even fecund—since its first French edition of 1965, spawning a continent-hopping family of citations and references in diverse texts and media. The 2005 release of an updated and expanded French edition provided the source text of the new translated volume, giving both French and English audiences a chance to broaden Dada's chronological context and connect past scholarship with present new perspectives.

Dada in Paris is so valuable because Sanouillet's careful and devoted research leads him to clarify and correct some popular and powerful critical misconceptions about the movement, ideas that had led to widespread misinterpretation as they were repeated (often in condensed form and without further analysis) in commentary on Dada. Many of these misconceptions have been perpetuated in English-language scholarship on Dada in the last few decades, so Sanouillet's volume works to break the grip of these notions. Specifically, Dada in Paris addresses these common assumptions: that Dada was really just a sort of foreplay for Surrealism; that the movement was always and only nihilistic and destructive in nature; that French Dada was the most “real” or “complete” form of the movement; that in fact any quick critical summation of Dada using standard, reductive methods of analysis was even possible.

In his Preamble, Sanouillet readily admits that the problems inherent in making an accurate, meaningful study of Dada are not only to be ascribed to the waspishness or superficiality of critics. By its nature, the movement itself seems designed to toss caltrops in the path of all interpreters, and Sanouillet acknowledges “the impossibility of narration alone reviving the Dadaist gesture . . . How were we to bring to our dry laboratory studies that enthusiasm, exuberance, spontaneity, insolent laughter, and human touch, without which Dada is no longer Dada?”

Gaining access to the far-flung and fragile epistolary and ephemeral primary material of the movement is another challenge faced by scholars of Dada, and Sanouillet not only confronts that giant bravely, he also lessens the burden for others who choose to take the same path. Here is another reason for the excellence of Dada in Paris; fully half the book is devoted to inclusive appendices containing English translations of correspondence between the key players in the study, especially Tristan Tzara, Francis Picabia, and André Breton. Most of the exchanges included are between these three men, and the letters are presented in sections focusing on the Tzara-Picabia relationship, the Tzara-Breton relationship, and the Picabia-Breton relationship. Selected correspondence between these men and others involved in or peripheral to the movement is also offered, as well as exchanges related to particular elements of Dada history. This section also contains useful and informative annotations and notes on provenance. The appendices are marvelously valuable and almost compulsively readable, allowing us to conceptualize more accurately the influence of these personal relationships on the evolution of the movement. We are shown some of the same source material upon which Sanouillet bases his counter-arguments, and can judge for ourselves if they are sound.

In the volume's appropriately titled “Conclusion?” we are presented with a detailed exegesis of the six proposals comprising Sanouillet's overall argument. It seems useful to present these important concepts fully, albeit in paraphrase. He proposes that:

1. Dada definitely chronologically predates Surrealism;
2. Concepts and techniques later used or made known by Surrealism were already in existence and used among Dadaists;
3. The above concepts and techniques were present in Parisian surrealist activity, before contact with Dadaists, only in a “diffuse state”;
4. Relations between the future Surrealists in Paris and the Dadaists of Zurich far predated Dada activity in Paris;
5. Dada and Surrealist written works come from different and dissonant traditions and are different in spirit from one another;
6. Dada temporarily occupied conceptual territory that also included Surrealism, but its full depth and breadth actually spread beyond what would come to define surrealist activity.

Dada came to Paris from Zurich, was transformed and limited by the kairos at work in its new setting, found matters untenable, and eventually ceased to be Dada. But this, Sanouillet insists, does not mean that “real” Dada was born in France and, after being “tamed” by Breton, grew up and became Surrealism. Sanouillet's passionate research has shown why such a simplistic (and, dare we say, chauvinistic) interpretation is both inaccurate and disappointing. The truer story is the more satisfying because it is the richer one; now we can see for ourselves all the complex, contradictory, and fascinating developments in the Parisian chapter of the Dada story.

Although French-reading Dada scholars can obviously consult the latest Pauvert edition of DADA à Paris, they might also consider purchasing the English volume, simply for the joy of admiring Sharmila Ganguly's deft translation. She not only conveys the content of Sanouillet's prose, she also somehow manages to capture both the spirit of his analysis and the unique quality of his voice. Ganguly's version renders Sanouillet's occasionally acrobatic French into a fresh, accessible English, sacrificing neither the meaning nor the intent of the original. This is no small task; the book is over 600 pages long, and Ganguly faithfully holds Sanouillet's voice, as well as those of all the correspondents in the appendices, through each and every page.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010