Spring 2012

L’Affaire Barrès

The first English translation, by Alex Stein

André Breton and Tristan Tzara

The transcript of the trial was originally published in Littérature no. 20 (August 1921). The following translation is by Alex Stein.

On 13 May 1921, Dada formed itself into a revolutionary tribunal.

It had to do with judging Maurice Barrès. One evening, some of us, who had gathered in a café on the Boulevard Montparnasse, were speaking of the accidents, robberies, and crimes of the week. Suddenly, a very animated discussion began about Barrès. Nobody agreed with anybody. We immediately decided to widen this debate and form a tribunal. A chief magistrate was nominated (André Breton), as well as two associate judges (Théodore Fraenkel and Pierre Deval) and a public prosecutor (Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes). Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault declared themselves ready to defend Barrès.

Over the course of fifteen days, testimonies were gathered. A certain number of well-known figures refused to take part. The accused was summoned before the investigating committee. He left Paris immediately to go to Metz and Aix-en-Provence.

On 7 May, the investigating committee began work on the last of its tasks, namely, to finalize its recommendations. By the end of the evening, the committee had decided to charge Maurice Barrès with “attacking the integrity of the mind.”

The proceedings opened on 13 May in the Hall of the Learned Societies.

The judges, the lawyers, and the public prosecutor were dressed in white aprons and white shirts and wore soft felt hats (scarlet for the magistrates and the public prosecutor, black for the defense lawyers). At nine o’clock, the bailiff stepped forward and asked in a loud, clear voice: “Are you there, Barrès?” The defendant at that time was the guest of honor at a dinner in Aix-en-Provence where he was lecturing on “the French soul during wartime.” Some young provincials were listening, slack-jawed, to the academician-congressman from Paris.

In the Hall of the Learned Societies he was about to be judged.

At 9:30, the bailiff called the court to order.

[At this point, Breton read out the charges, after which witnesses were called to the stand.]



Question: Do you know Mr. Maurice Barrès personally?

Response: No.

Q: Do you know his work?

R: Very little, except his newspaper articles and Enemy of Laws, in which I found only one interesting character—the Knife-Grinder.

Q: Do you nonetheless have an idea of the basic intentions of Maurice Barrès?

R: Not at all. The supposed idealism of Barrès completely escapes me.

Q: Given this, do you consider Barrès’s attitude to be unified or contradictory?

R: Unified.

Q: What do you think of it?

R: I find it appalling.

Q: Why?

R: Mostly in a sense which is peculiar to me. To take Maurice Barrès for a man of genius, I find that too embarrassing. He has exerted a harmful influence over the public.

Q: What do you mean by genius?

R: I think that question is beyond the competence of this court.

Q: What makes Maurice Barrès interesting to you?

R: Every man who by his artistic activity or any other activity exerts a kind of intellectual imperialism is, in my opinion, a man of genius.

Q: Is it this imperialism that you resent?

R: Yes.

Q: Do you think Maurice Barrès’s attitude is innocent of the charges brought against him?

R: No.

Q: Do you think such charges could be brought against a man?

R: Yes.

Q: Which one, or which ones, of the main charges would you personally keep?

R: These are just details. I judge Barrès’s attitude as a whole. There is no reason to consider the components.

Q: If you could strike down the one of Barrès’s attitudes that you condemn the most, would you consider that action in any sense meaningful or useful?

R: Yes.

Q: Do you find Barrès perfectly suited for this type of repression?

R: Perfectly.

Q: How do you reconcile the political and social programs of Barrès with his nationalism?

R: The first anarchism of Barrès was a bourgeois and rather vulgar one. It’s a slippery slope. With certain individualists like Barrès, I cannot determine the exact turning point.

Q: How would you reconcile the disintegrating effects of his ideas with his constructive nationalism?

R: There is nothing constructive in this nationalism. One finds in it, rather, a destructive element.

Q: Would you give some examples of constructive nationalism?

R: The Russian Revolution, first of all. Barrès’s nationalism is destructive because it mostly fuels hatred between nations. It is an offensive nationalism.

Q: What do you think of Barrès’s statement, “I chose nationalism like any other determinism”?

R: I think it is just a statement.

Q: What do you think of Barrès’s sensibility?

R: It is completely to his advantage. From an individual point of view, you can’t challenge it in any way.

Q: Do you know any man of Barrès’s generation that you prefer?

R: I could contrast Barrès with Romain Rolland. I contrast him, but I do not prefer him. It is necessary to compare Rolland to Barrès. Rolland’s attitude is no less unacceptable. The same individualistic tone appalls me in both of them.

Q: Do you think Barrès is sincere?

R: Every man is sincere.

Q: Does Maurice Barrès think he has a mission to accomplish?

R: This escapes me.

Q: Would you be happy or sad with Maurice Barrès’s death?

R: This is a matter of complete indifference to me.

Q: Supposing you have a goal in life, do you think Barrès helps you or harms you?

R: He harms me.


Q: What do you know about Maurice Barrès?

R: Nothing.

Q: So you have nothing to testify?

R: I do.

Q: What?

R: Maurice Barrès is to me the most disagreeable man that I have met in my literary career; the biggest scoundrel that I have met in my career as a poet; the biggest pig that I have met in my political career; and the biggest bastard produced in Europe since Napoleon. I have no confidence in justice, even if this justice is made by Dada. You’ll agree with me, Mr. Chief Magistrate, that we are all just a pack of bastards, and consequently little differences, like big bastard or small bastard, are not important.

Q: Do you feel respect for even one of your contemporaries, or for any other figure?

R: No, because as I already said, everyone is a bastard. Naturally, we are used to making minute differentiations of sympathy or antipathy, but that is all.

Q: How do you explain these differences that you have brought up?

R: I do not explain anything. And anyway, I do not understand anything of what is around me.

Q: Under these circumstances, what importance would you like us to accord your judgment?

R: That of my deepest disgust and my deepest antipathy.

Q: How can these differences matter if you never participate in society?

R: Is society for you the state, the country, the people, and the army? In that case, since I am myself the state, the country, the people, and the army, my deposition must bring you great pleasure.

Q: Do you think you are alone in this room?

R: My dear Chief Magistrate, as I have already said at the beginning of my deposition, we are all bastards. The proof that I am less of one than anybody else in the room is the fact that I have not yet committed suicide and that everything going on around me could never convince me to do it.

Q: Do you know why we asked you to testify?

R: Naturally, because I am Tristan Tzara, even though I am not quite fully persuaded of that.

Q: What is Tristan Tzara?

R: The absolute contrary of Maurice Barrès.

Q: The defense, convinced that the witness envies the lot of the defendant, asks the witness if he dares confess to this.

R: The witness says “shit” to the defense.

Q: It is quite obvious that the witness doesn’t dare to confess that he envies the lot of the defendant.

R: Yes, I have no car and I would really like to have one.

Q: Do you wish, on this day or any other, to attack the integrity of the mind?

R: I am surely the man who sees most clearly everything that is going on. All I do is change my opinion and all the delays caused by these reconsiderations give me a little bit more of a desire to disappear. I am not saying I won’t one day become a nationalist, but I am convinced that all my friends will know that it will be in a different spirit than the defendant’s base populism and the fetid glory he got out of the fat asses at the French Academy.

Q: Since the witness clarified at the beginning of his deposition that he knows nothing about Barrès, how can he know that it is through fetid glory and base populism that the defendant became a nationalist?

R: I declared at the beginning of my deposition that I know nothing about Barrès, but I still have the minimum of demagogy necessary to know that Barrès acted out of base demagogy. To make it clear: I know nothing about what happened in Barrès, but I consider him to be accommodating, and I feel great pleasure in confirming that Mr. Barrès remains, despite all the defensible acts in his life, the biggest pig of the century.

Q: Besides Barrès, can you cite some other big pigs?

R: Yes. André Breton, Theodore Fraenkel, Pierre Deval, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, Jacques Rigaut, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Benjamin Péret, Serge Charchoune.

Q: Does the witness wish to imply that he likes Maurice Barrès as much as all the other pigs who are his friends and whom he has just cited?

R: For the love of God! It’s about pigs, not sympathy. My friends, I like. Barrès, I find most disagreeable.

Q: You do understand how your vocabulary (pigs, bastards, etc.) can be construed as inadequate, equivocal, and abstract?

R: Naturally.

Q: Besides Barrès and the friends you have just called pigs, do you know any other pigs?

R: No, and anyhow, I knew nothing about Maurice Barrès until this proceeding was held in his honor.

Q: Does the witness want to be taken for a perfect imbecile or is he trying to get himself locked up in a mental institution?

R: Yes, I want to be taken for a perfect imbecile, but I am not trying to escape the asylum in which I already spend my life.

Q: Do you think sanctions should be taken against Maurice Barrès?

R: Naturally. Otherwise I don’t see why he would be put on trial.

Q: Do you approve of the gesture of the president of the League of Patriots who refused, in spite of all the prayers and pleas of his entourage, to enlist during the Great War?

R: That is an absolutely false accusation. Barrès did participate in the war and was wounded at Verdun.

Q: And you, were you wounded at Verdun?

R: Since I never miss an opportunity to lie: yes, of course, at the Verdun of Dadaism. You are well aware, Mr. Chief Magistrate, that I am cowardly enough to risk my life in an affair that basically interests me only marginally.

Q: Would you like to know Maurice Barrès personally?

R: I met him in 1912, but I became angry with him over a matter concerning a woman.

Q: The defense takes note that the witness has spent his time trying to be humorous.

R: I have read “The Songs of Goals and Kings” and I have seen the difference between true poetry and humor, so I am forced to ask in return: How can you permit yourself, Mr. Chief Magistrate, to utter this word, which strikes a blow at your dignity? I have no idea what humor is. I have no idea what poetry is, I have no idea what truth is, but, like a book, I say what I say.

Q: Do you think that the defendant had a duty toward you that he did not fulfill?

R: Barrès’s life, for me, mirrors the history of France. The first bourgeois revolution of ’93 represents the anarchism of the first part of Barrès’s life. Neither the one nor the other has held any interest for me and I have never been influenced by either of them. They have no duty toward me and I don’t owe them a dime: neither in money, nor in conscience.

Q: If the defendant did not neglect his duty toward you, how did he harm you?

R: He didn’t.

Q: Then what are you complaining about?

R: I am complaining about the arrogance of this old goose who manages, even though I don’t read the newspapers, to make me notice his name, covered by shame, at least once a day.

Q: Do you think this arrogance in itself constitutes an attack on the integrity of the mind?

R: I have just declared Maurice Barrès an old goose and I find myself forced to add that his defenders are the same.

Q: What is your opinion, once and for all, of logic?

R: Logic constitutes the immobile skeleton of thought. Logic is a convention adopted by those with the minimum aptitude for thought, which characterizes this dirty hallucination called man. Logic doesn’t exist at all. Small minds like Barrès use it in order to get themselves into parliament.

Q: Under these conditions, do you agree that one should attribute to your words, your deduction, and your judgment a very short-lived and relativistic meaning?

R: My words are not my own. I have the words of everybody else and I make a well-mixed bouillabaisse out of them as the result of chance and of the wind that I pour on my own insignificance and on the insignificance of this tribunal. My deductions are nothing but the result of fugitive thought, more or less accommodated to desire and the conventions of conversation. They do not hold any absolute interest. They are not applicable. They are not, however, pure fantasy: they represent a tiny necessity for talking, walking, and complicating my judgments. I don’t judge. I judge nothing. I judge myself all the time and I find myself to be a small, disgusting individual, something like Maurice, though a little less so. All this is relative.

Q: This point of view doesn’t encourage you to be tolerant?

R: Tolerance is sleep, amusement is cruelty. I have told you I complicate, I simplify, I am sentimental, I forgive everything naturally, but from time to time I don’t give a shit and really feel like strangling the little Maurices.

Q: Why don’t you take the law into your own hands?

R: Because I am lazy and prudent. You can see very well, Mr. Chief Magistrate, that I compromise myself on every occasion.

Q: Do you have anything else to declare concerning the defendant?

R: Love, as Barrès understands it, is a vague Germanic reverie. I know it too well to be disgusted by it. The action that Barrès proposes only managed to smear the paintings of the German Expressionists with feces. The hypocrisy hidden behind each of Barrès’s sentences is the same as that of Mr. Hellferich, Lloyd George, Briand, or Harding. Wagnerism filled with air the bellies of Germans, who we now believe to be filled with beer. Wagnerism is the dominant characteristic of Barrès’s pretentious, bombastic work.

Q: When all is said and done, you are a witness for the defense?

R: Yes. Just as Barrès is a witness for the defense in the trial of European cretinism.

Q: Do you have any other questions to ask? The defense thanks the witness for his deposition and asks him to make clear any extenuating circumstances that he finds for the defendant.

R: Zero in a game of “Thirty and Forty” is an extenuating circumstance for the player who is always fooled. I do not use the biblical style. I finish with a little Dada song.

The song of an elevator
Which had Dada in its heart
Tired too much his engine
Which had Dada in its heart
The elevator carried a king
Heavy fragile and autonomous
It cut off his big right arm
And sent it to the Pope in Rome

This is why
The elevator
No longer had Dada in its heart

Eat chocolate
Wash your brain
Drink water

The song of a Dadaist
Who was neither gay nor sad
And loved a woman cyclist
Who was neither gay nor sad

But on the first day of the year the husband
Discovered everything and in a fit of pique
Sent to the Vatican
Their two bodies in three suitcases

Neither lover
Nor cyclist
Were any longer gay or sad

Eat good brains
Wash your soldier
Drink water

The song of a bicyclist
Who was Dada at heart
Who was in fact Dadaist
Like all those Dada at heart

A snake was wearing gloves
He quickly closed the valve
Put on gloves made of snakeskin
And came to hug the Pope

It’s touching
The flowering belly
No longer had Dada in its heart

Drink the milk of birds
Wash your chocolates
Eat veal


Every one of us is at destiny’s mercy and nobody can ignore the role of chance when we talk about destiny: we didn’t decide to be born, we didn’t choose our parents, we didn’t choose the shapes of our noses, and we didn’t foresee our encounter with the man who became our friend and who had a decisive influence on us, etc. I mean, the word “will” has a more or less ironic meaning in life.

In short, Barrès’s destiny is enviable. Let’s not forget that his works are always dominated by the desire for complications. Instinct pushed him toward anarchy and reason pulled him back toward the traditional order: this banal drama has ascribed to him attitudes that are quite troubling. They have allowed many of us to doubt feelings and ideas, venerable and otherwise, to doubt even good faith itself. He must have felt, I think, a sharp pleasure at this. He could not have asked more from life.

Q: What distinction are you making between reason and instinct?

R: I am neither a psychologist nor a sociologist.

Q: But you place intellectual pleasure above everything?

R: Compared to Maurice Barrès, yes.

Q: Do you think Maurice Barrès has in some way attacked the integrity of the mind?

R: Yes, but that was his role.

Q: So, do you think Maurice Barrès had a particular role to fill?

R: Yes, the entirety of a life amounts to a role that has not been pre-established. It is only at the end that it emerges in its unity.

Q: As a result, are we ourselves Barrès’s extenuating circumstances?

R: The life of a man can only be considered through the relations it has created.

Q: So, it never occurs to you to take measures against any of your opponents? You are an advocate of absolute tolerance?

R: No, not of tolerance, but of indifference.

Q: Is there anything in the world toward which you would not declare yourself indifferent?

R: I have used indifference as a weapon.

Q: Do you use this weapon against Maurice Barrès in particular?

R: Against Barrès, as against almost everything.

Q: Don’t you think that Maurice Barrès appears to be the symbol of a perfectly detestable state of affairs?

R: Not at all, because these things are indifferent to me.

Q: Do you prefer Barrès to d’Annuzio?

R: D’Annunzio has more madness. That is to say, more courage.

Q: Do you mean that the defendant is a coward?

R: He is more refined than d’Annunzio.

Q: Do you prefer Marinetti to Barrès?

R: I don’t remember Marinetti anymore. I was three when he died. There is also a certain Marinetti who is a traveling salesman for a phallus factory. I have never met him.


One can never found something serious on an absurdity because the public will not follow you. The people who form the public have the capacity to understand, but they also follow like sheep. Throw peas and haricot beans at them once, and they will be indignant if you later content yourself with presenting them with a more or less intelligent conference about an individual or a work. Then they will throw peas and haricot beans at the new face you show them. As a rule, to judge (since you like this expression) a series of more or less respectable bigwigs is a relatively reasonable thing. No matter what the value of these noted men of letters is, it is always good to make them understand that one has no right to be successful during one’s lifetime. Somebody who is totally fulfilled, or believes he is totally fulfilled, carries a shadow, a very large one, and that shadow is always harmful to somebody else or to something else. However, since the shadow is generally behind them, putting it ahead of them is always very instructive … whether it’s done in a measured way or not. Again, you mustn’t base a system of critique, of judgment without appeal, on a philosophy that seems tedious because it no longer involves animalistic cries or even leguminous projectiles.


Q: You don’t want to take the oath?

R: No.

Q: Do you think that the accusations against Maurice Barrès are well-founded?

R: Yes, because they are unjust. There is nothing more encouraging than injustice.

Q: Would you like to describe your feelings toward Barrès?

R: Even if I liked the first Barrès and even if he once exerted a powerful influence over me, today his first attitude is almost as disagreeable to me as his second one.

Q: Why?

R: I don’t find the attempt at enfranchisement, revolt, any more sympathetic than the most complete passivity toward the most absurd conventions. Revolt is a form of optimism only a little less repugnant than the current optimism. Revolt, in order to be possible, supposes that one envisions an opportunity to react. That is, that there is an order of things that is preferable, and toward which one should aim. Revolt, considered as an end, is optimistic, too. It considers change and disorder as something satisfying. I cannot believe that there is anything satisfying to this.

Q: Do you think that Barrès’s attitude is particularly optimistic?

R: Yes. The present Barrès obviously thinks that all things are possible since he contributes personally to make them possible.

Q: Does the first attitude of Barrès seem to you as optimistic as the second one?

R: He plays with ideas. He teaches the pleasure of analysis. I guess one can amuse oneself with analysis and when one does, one can consider this game as a goal without wanting to take into consideration the extremities that these ideas imply.

Q: Can you tell me what about analysis shocks you?

R: I am surprised that someone can be happy just doing the same verification thousands of times. And anyway, the meaning of ideas ends up prevailing over their combination and over the amusement that one might feel in combining them. Intelligence leads inevitably to doubt, to discouragement, to the impossibility of drawing satisfaction from anything.

Q: To you, nothing is possible. How do you keep on living? Why haven’t you committed suicide?

R: Nothing is possible. Not even suicide.

Q: By recognizing that nothing is possible, you seem to lose the right to judge, no matter what.

R: Suicide, no matter what, is either an act of despair or an act of dignity. Killing oneself is admitting that there are frightening obstacles, things that one should fear or just take into consideration.

Q: According to you, suicide is a last resort.

R: Exactly. It is a last resort just slightly less disagreeable than a job or the moral of a story.

Q: Do you think suicide is an easy gesture?

R: The little heroism that this gesture contains is not what makes it worth considering. I have always been appalled by big decisions, extreme ones. During the war…

Q: What did you do during the war?

R: I was second lieutenant in the automobile service in Paris.

Q: You just showed us how suicide didn’t seem defensible to you, but you still didn’t tell us how, by condemning everything, you manage to keep on living.

R: Day to day. As a pimp. As a parasite.


Q: Do you personally know Mr. Maurice Barrès?

R: Yes.

Q: Under what circumstances did you meet him?

R: I went to see him as one of the representatives of French thought, or rather of the contemporary sensibility.

Q: When?

R: 1920.

Q: What prompted your action?

R: Curiosity and snobbism.

Q: What impression have you kept of this visit?

R: No astonishment.

Q: How were you received?

R: I was introduced in a banal salon, in the middle of a group of tedious people who were waiting for their turn. But he reserved a very particular welcome for me, or so I permit myself to believe. He overcame, not without grace, a huge indifference, his vast indifference. Perhaps, after all, he liked me for reasons I ought not to forgive him for.

Q: Did this visit in any way change your opinion of Barrès?

R: Not at all. It only accentuated my contradictory sentiments.

Q: Do you think that Barrès’s contradictions are more serious than the contradictions one can find in anyone?

R: Yes, because here it concerns a man who deems himself important.


Q: Do you think that Barrès has neglected his duties?

R: Undoubtedly some of the ones that he imposed on himself.

Q: Do you think that he made, at the beginning of his work and life, a promise that he has not kept?

R: It’s a matter of degree, and I believe that with him, unfortunately, one should take into account the notion of degrees.


Q: Do you think then that there is room to differentiate between the thoughts of a man and his actions, to posit that there is for every individual a domain of ideal action that is distinct from the domain of the real, one in no way engaging the other or implicating a formal obligation of any kind on the other?

R: I conceive of a state of fact, of a relation of forces. The literary figure, the individual, imposes the domain of ideal action; the collectivity, if it can, asks this solitary individual to be accountable apropos of the actions that the collectivity has undertaken under the suggestion of the images put into the world by the literary figure.

Q: Do you think then that Barrès, by acting as he did, fulfilled a mission that cannot be debated? That is, the literary figure puts himself on a particular plane.

R: In this, the literary figure is doing his job; he is exercising a function that has been created gradually by social mores. Society can, through policing and if it has the necessary force, control him in the exercise of this function.

Q: On what do you base your thesis?

R: Only on the obscurity of facts because I am speaking here of a relation of forces.


Q: You say that society, collectivity, can ask for individuals like Barrès to account for themselves, but to which functions of collectivity are you alluding? Because it cannot be, can it, a question of a unanimous opinion against him, or against anyone.

R: I stand by the idea of forces, and I am alluding to all collectivities that are large or solid enough to impose some kind of penalty on an individual.

Q: You don’t admit in any way that imposing such a penalty could be used for evil?

R: I think that we ought to eliminate the moral element from the question.

Q: So you are abandoning the successes of a man whose work is in vogue because the collectivity of which you speak can judge a man favorably one day and condemn him the next?

R: That is not a danger that we need to fear. The only menace is the opposite, because fashions are only the expressions of a very limited number of alternatives, and are a constant feature of human milieus.

Q: Does it go without saying that, under these circumstances, you can only take, vis-à-vis Barrès, the position of the majority, and that no matter what the result of this trial is, you will align yourself with the opinion that wins?

R: I dream of collectivities more powerful than the one that is judging Barrès here, at the very least a social clan or political party. To be more precise, I’ll give an example from modern civilization; the credit of a writer is entirely in the hands of a sort of caste that is not determined wholly officially and whose existence seems to me obvious, formed as it is by a number of professional critics. This caste has an abstract and deceiving name, which is “posterity.” Its dictatorship is already in force during the lifetime of the person in question, though opposite reactions are still possible at that time and even for a few years following the death of the person.

Q: Do you refuse to take an active part in the trial happening here?

R: Given that those who initiated these proceeding have associated themselves with “freedom of the mind,” I will give a theoretical response: if this were a political trial, my attitude would probably be completely different.

Q: So that the judgment that you pass on a man depends on those who are judging him and the manner in which they are judging him; this is a purely aristocratic attitude.

R: Perhaps.

Q: Do you think that Barrès is a public malefactor or a benefactor?

R: I am optimistic enough to respond that he is a benefactor.

Q: Do you think that attacking the integrity of the public mind is a benefit?

R: I leave it to Dada to care to prove that.

Q: In your opinion, how can an old man cause a scandal?

R: By dying too late.

Q: Do you know a man from Barrès’s generation whom you prefer?

R: No, but I prefer all the men in the following generation.

Q: Who?

R: Péguy because he was at an age when he could enlist and he destroyed his genius without the least concern; d’Annunzio, who is a fine military man. I would also like to mention Romain Rolland, who nearly has the right attitude but who lacks too much force in his gestures and in his writing. I will add that I believe we are no longer on the same terrain at all.

Q: Do you feel antipathy or sympathy for Barrès?

R: I don’t know but I do have a sense of respect.

[The text published in Littérature stops here. Below is a section, found by scholar Michel Sanouillet in the archives of Tristan Tzara, slated for issue 21 of Littérature, which was never published.]

Prosecutor: Sie verstehen nicht?
R: Nein. Ich bin kaput.
(He stands to attention.)
Prosecutor: Raus!
(He marches out.)

Cabinet wishes to thank Sarah Demeuse and Allen S. Weiss for their additional assistance.

Alex Stein is the author of Made-Up Interviews with Imaginary Artists (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009). His work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including the Literary Review, the Pinch, the Bellingham Review, and the Agni Review.

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