restricted access Paris Dada and the Transfiguration of Boredom
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Paris Dada and the Transfiguration of Boredom

Il n'y a pas moyen de s'ennuyer: ce serait au détriment des caresses et tout à l'heure nous n'y serons plus.

(There is no way to get bored; that would be to the detriment of caresses and soon we shall be there no more.)

—André Breton and Philippe Soupault, Les champs magnétiques1

By his own account, the artist Francis Picabia left the Dada movement out of boredom. In a sarcastic statement from 1921, "M. Picabia Separates from the Dadas," he writes:

Everything is boring, isn't it? The falling leaves are boring, growing leaves are boring, warmth is boring, cold is boring. Clocks that don't ring are boring, those that do ring are boring. To have a telephone is boring, to not have a telephone is boring. People who die are boring, as are those who don't die.2

In little more than a week, fellow Dadaist André Breton responded with a short text entitled "Artificial Hells." Dated May 20, 1921 and unpublished in his lifetime, Breton's text criticizes Picabia for his disloyalty while issuing a circumspect defense for Dada, whose dissolution the author now saw as inevitable. But more intriguingly, Breton suggests that the very affective disposition causing Picabia's defection had initially motivated him and his friends to join Dada only two years ago:

I will simply recall … the public standing of French poets in 1919: verses by Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Pierre Reverdy, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, and myself were recited daily in one hall or another to the same audience, who invariably applauded. The profound boredom that emanated from these recitals, the incomprehension that resulted from reading out loud … lastly the impossibility of reaching anything but a bewildered public of half a dozen writers, all led us to give a favorable welcome to Dada, which, for its part, promised lively polemics and large audiences.3

Picabia's and Breton's accounts suggest that the affective character of Paris Dada was distinct from that of earlier iterations of the movement. If the predominant affects of Dada in Zurich and Berlin had been rage and disgust, reflecting the Dadaists' repudiation of the meaningless brutality of World War I, Dada in Paris might be described in terms of the distinct absence of affect. The name the Paris Dadaists gave to this absence is boredom, a banal, everyday experience held to have initiated and terminated the movement. While scholars have underlined the link between the trauma of World War I and Dada's dysfunctional complexes (masochism, neurasthenia, epilepsy, schizophrenia, etc.), it is worth recalling that one of the most pervasive, though underestimated, effects of wartime is boredom.4 The Paris Dadaists, many of whom served in the war, knew this well.5 The dandy and autodidact Jacques Vaché, whom Breton befriended while serving as a neurology intern in the military hospital in Nantes in 1916, complained often of boredom during his internment in his wartime letters: "Je m'ennuie, cher ami—vous voyez … mais je vous ennuie aussi."6 In 1919, as the demobilized Dadaists struggled to transition to civilian life, boredom became their daily predicament. Recalling this pivotal period, Breton described a state of aimlessness: "My future was impossible to envision. … For hours on end I paced around the table in my hotel room. I walked aimlessly throughout Paris, and spent evenings alone on a bench in Place du Châtelet. I don't believe I was pursuing an idea or solution: no, I was prey to a kind of daily fatalism, translated by a not-unpleasant 'drifting with the tide' [à vau-l'eau]."7 It was in this condition that Breton and his friends encountered Dada, which promised a reprieve from their boredom and the absence of prospects. In July 1919, six months after Vaché died of an opium overdose, Breton and his friends published his letters in the fifth issue of their review Littérature. This same issue announces the collaboration between the Parisian poets and Tristan Tzara's Zurich-born movement in a typographically striking leaflet: "LITTÉRATURE oui mais DADA 1-2-3-4-5...