Spring 2010

Inventory / Keep It Déclassé

The world according to the Surrealists

Colby Chamberlain

“Inventory” is a column that examines or presents a list, catalogue, or register.

It’s January 2010, and I’ve just returned from a newsstand with evidence of an industry-wide conspiracy to teach Americans remedial math. Not since Sesame Street have I encountered so many entreaties to count to ten: the year’s ten best action movies, tech companies, and art exhibitions; the ten worst television shows, sports gaffes, and celebrity dresses. As usual, print media has papered over the holiday lull with list upon list, leaving the indelible impression that our collective understanding of cultural achievement has been predetermined by our total number of fingers.

I recently found a curious precedent to all this rampant rating in the March 1921 issue of a Paris journal with the resolutely bland title Littérature. Over the course of seven pages ran a reasonably comprehensive roster of the Western canon—from Alcibiades to Zola—beside a block of numbers resembling the statistical charts on the back of baseball cards. Further examination indicated these figures were scores awarded by eleven individual judges, whose names dangled over each column; a twelfth column tallied the averages. A separate page, entitled Les Premiers et les Derniers, offered a list of the twenty highest- and twenty lowest-rated entries. The rating system was rigged to favor disdain: admiration topped out at 20, yet aversion dipped as low as -25. Zero expressed absolute indifference. Two of the judges themselves, the poets André Breton and Philippe Soupault, garnered the highest scores, 16.85 and 16.30, respectively; Proust and Stravinsky each managed a perfect 0. Comprising writers, painters, composers, philosophers, and film stars, Littérature’s chart seems to anticipate and exceed the top-ten lists clogging my local newsstand, yet it also rejects their very premise. “We are not proposing a new order of values,” the editors wrote, “our goal being not to classify [classer] but to downgrade [déclasser].” I’ve come to think of this chart, entitled “Liquidation,” as a preemptive parody.

The story behind “Liquidation” begins somewhere between Paris and Zurich, in the exchange between two publications, Littérature and Dada. Littérature was the fledgling enterprise of the ambitious Breton and Soupault, along with their friend and fellow poet Louis Aragon. For their first issue, published in March 1919, they secured contributions from the eminent André Gide and Paul Valéry; the back cover, printed on the yellow card-stock consistent across Littérature’s entire run, promised additional luminaries for future issues. By paying homage to the existing establishment, the young editors in turn received its praise. (Proust ordered his subscription with a twelve-page letter of congratulations.) They regarded their success warily. Their arriviste impulses were dampened by their impression that the French literary scene—even those figures they once valorized as rebellious—had buckled beneath the country’s postwar mood of violent, reactionary nationalism. (Guillaume Apollinaire, for instance, refused to contribute to any journal that also published Germans.) The young editors’ dissatisfaction with their former heroes increased as they heard more from the editor of the Zurich-based Dada, a Romanian born with the name Samuel Rosenstock but known to all as Tristan Tzara.

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