Spring 2012

Dada on Trial

The Barrès affair and the end of a movement

Colby Chamberlain

First, the facts: on Friday, 13 May 1921, members of Dada’s Paris contingent put the author Maurice Barrès on trial. The proceedings took place in the Salle des Sociétés Savantes, which had been rented out for the occasion. André Breton acted as chief magistrate; Théodore Fraenkel and Pierre Deval, associate judges; Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, the prosecution; Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon, the defense. They wore matching outfits: white shirts, aprons, and rounded hats with ornamental tufts on their top (scarlet for the judges and prosecution, black for the defense). Their makeshift courtroom consisted of several music lecterns. Following an acte d’accusation written and read aloud by Breton, several witnesses submitted to questioning: Serge Romoff, Tristan Tzara, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Madame Rachilde (Marguerite Valette), Jacques Rigaut, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, and Benjamin Péret. Though there is no corroborating evidence, a flyer advertising the trial suggests that several other witnesses, culled from within and beyond Dada’s immediate circle, might also have participated: Marguerite Buffet, Renée Duman, Louis de Gonzague Frick, Henri Hertz, Achille Le Roy, Georges Pioch, Marcel Sauvage, “etc.” Throughout his testimony, Drieu la Rochelle smoked a cigarette; Tzara concluded his remarks with a song; Péret arrived dressed as a soldier and caked in mud. Delivering a lecture in Aix-en-Provence at the time, Maurice Barrès was not in attendance. In his stead sat a mannequin, dressed in a three-piece suit, with a bowtie and a prim, painted mustache. Above the stage hung a banner reading, “NUL N’EST CENSÉ IGNORER DADA” (No one should be ignorant of Dada).

How did this scene come about? Let’s start with a meeting on 19 October 1920 at the restaurant Blanc on rue Favart. Under discussion were new editorial directions for Dada’s publication Littérature. In a strange affront to the journal’s title, the group agreed to stop publishing any text readily identifiable as literature. But what would replace it? This very conversation on rue Favart would became a premier example of Littérature’s latest turn. The meeting was conducted and recorded as a procès-verbal—the French term for the official minutes of a legislative body. The journal’s new editorial policies were determined by a series of majority votes, which were made public in Littérature’s December 1920 edition.

b. Will poetry continue to have a place in LITTÉRATURE?
No, by 6 voices to 2 (Eluard, Fraenkel). ...
g. Could language be a goal?
No, unanimously minus on

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