With Them Without Words

[This project from Fall 2009 has been revised for current publication. The essay below, “With Them Without Words,” explores the idea of a non-dual heritage stretching from Buddha to Friedrich Schlegel to the main protagonist of the research, Tristian Tzara and Dadaism, interpreted with the help of Jacques Derrida. The second text, Mr. Aa An Index, is a poetic ‘dictionary’ of quotes and poetic recombinations of lines from lots of Tzara’s poems. For a one-page chart of the overall perspective, see Dada Non-Dual. For two short appendicies to the project, see Dada Bodhisattva and Tzara Approximation. For Tzara’s own manifestos and statements about Dada, see his page at the Art History Archive.]

With Them Without Words

A word speaks— to whom? To itself:
Servir Dieu est régner,— I can
read it, I can, it grows brighter,
away from “kannitverstan.”
—Paul Celan

My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense.
    —Ludwig Wittgenstein

Both the song and the silence my beautiful country of joy
    —Tristan Tzara

To think through Tristan Tzara’s poetics requires that we enter a practice of poetry, for only with poetry can our language become essential and open space for an encounter with the real outside of ‘reality’ as it is defined. With poetry, we encounter the strangeness of language: it brings us to question our situatedness in it and to respond by re-situating ourselves in it (qua outside it), and thus to re-situate language itself, to lend it a more appropriate being-for-us. Poetry suspends the situation for the sake of re-situation. To respond with poetry is then to enter an active, living signifying process, no longer duped by the dream of set significations. What is outside of what we are, what is an exception to what is or is said to be, becomes what we are, or are in the process of becoming, without goal, without end, in a signifying process in the imago of a becoming-never-finished.

To recognize language as artifice and respond with poetry as a way to re-situate it initiates the non-dual, beginning with the recognition that all dualisms and ‘theses’ are situated in the artifice of language. In such a situation, what is called for is the poetic making of word and world, as a way to show the real beyond the deceit of dualisms and open a space for encounters between beings, events of ‘truth’. Such a non-dual heritage, more generally, is one that pays close attention to the performative aspect of language in various ways. A brief list of some points the rest of the essay will explore includes:

—an ironic stance toward any thesis statement, logic, ‘reason’, ‘philosophy’
—awareness of the transience of words and the inevitability of change
—openness to constant reformulation and rearticulation of basic truths and guiding principles
—priority of communication between spirits, not doctrines, exact meanings, debates
—focus on freedom and justice as ‘human constants’
—emphasis on the chance-like, spontaneous, process-nature of creation
—and finally, insistence that art/poetry and life must never be separated.

This non-dual recognition and response has a heritage as long as humans have dwelt in language. With the help of the Jacques Derrida and his thinking on language, the “desert in the desert,” and messianicity, I will show why Tzara’s Dada is a part of this heritage, later drawing in correspondences between his work and Friedrich Schlegel’s. Along the way, I will try to participate in it, too, articulating a human constant of freedom, life, justice, and futurality that in this essay Tzara will help us define.


Tzara’s response to the deceitful configurations of ideology, philosophy, and argument, was to unite poetry and life: to reignite the being of language. In his cultural context, this meant the harshest nihilism as a way to combat the ‘usage’ of language as a tool for ideologies and influence. He combined his rejection of large scale programs (nations, religions, aesthetic categories) with a general mistrust of words to convey anything at all. Nietzsche had already written years earlier: “That enormous structure of beams and boards of the concepts, to which the poor man clings for dear life, is for the liberated intellect just a scaffolding and plaything for his boldest artifices.” Tzara shares Nietzsche’s (‘non-dual’) recognition that all our truths are constructions built on the shifting sands of words and grammar, as well as the goal of liberating the intellect. But language as artifice can become real only by surrendering to the truth of its artificiality, playfully, for this surrender gives way to a new, utterly singular voicing of it: to give this truth a body by giving way to language-events that proceed from this awareness.

It is important to flesh out, then, what exactly we mean when we say that language is always artifice, for this is the recognition that characterizes the non-dual heritage we are attempting to trace out.

Writing about the poet Paul Celan, Derrida discusses what he calls the essence or the general experience of language: that words, from the very moment of their emergence, partake of revenance, returning from a long absence. The word (spoken or written) returns for a moment from this absence and immediately recedes into it. Words always leave a kind of vacuous space, where meaning evaporates into thin air just a moment after its utterance. The word is like a phantom, language like a corpse. What they refer to, therefore, their power of reference, is much more unstable than we might think. This is our first clue to the artificiality of language: words do not agree to function in the stable manner we wish them to.

Derrida summarizes this experience of language as artifice as the “spectral errancy of words,” adding, “whoever has an intimate, bodily experience of this spectral errancy, whoever surrenders to this truth of language, is a poet, whether he writes poetry or not.” When this universal experience, which is normally ignored or chased away, is instead presented by the poet as such, then we are put in relation to this universal truth of language, with all the uneasiness it entails. This as such is of utmost importance, the criterion for having the experience, the threshold to poetry, so to speak. Yet it is the heaviest thing to recognize, for it goes beyond mere readability, while crossing over it. Then, to achieve such a presentation, to write of it as such, is even more demanding, not only because it means navigating all the ‘ghosts’ of language, but also because it draws us near to the desert of sense (khōra, discussed below). Yet this effort is necessary if humans are to understand exactly the ‘artifice’ in which they ‘really’ dwell with their being. Thus, while recognition of “spectral errancy” is of general value, it can only be presented, shown, played out, or exemplified in singular and unsubstitutable wayspoetic waysby singular beings in response to particular finite conditions and potentials, ghosts and errancies. The poet does not back down from this hard experience.

What seemed an irrevocable tragedy, that language is never really with us, never really our ‘instrument’, this very vacuity opens space for a dynamic way of being—marked first and foremost by silence. It is a recognition intuited long before it is presented as a fact or in a concept, for one can only respond in truth when this intuition is presented without pretention, without convolution, as such. In sum, it is the intuition of language as always in danger of becoming a dead language; it implies a taste for the silence at its heart. When Nietzsche writes, “The word is not made for these intuitions; man falls silent when he sees them,” he implies such a recognition. Note, silence does not follow reading, but seeing the word. The work which follows such ‘seeing’ is a manifestation of these perceptions which puts itself in relation to other beings who can share this general experience. It manifests “an intense familiarity with the ineluctable originarity of the specter” as such and likewise, simultaneously, in the same breath, “the ineluctable loss of the origin.” Such works bring us to halt at discourse, nullifying it while transforming it, offending us, asking us to believe words in a new way: to hear past the massive attack on the cranium, the objections of the trees over the clatter…

To surrender to the experience and accept our own responsibility before it is to come close to language as corpse, to its remains, and thus to accept to take care of it. And this means acknowledging its artificiality as the only way to ever touch upon its realness, though this ‘contact’ be one of originarity and loss simultaneously. Poetic experience, defined in this manner, is thus marked by the resurrection of the word from oblivion. At the same time, nothing ever removes the general experience of spectral errancy. Poetic creation is not a control or a cap over this, but rather a global resitutation of what language can do, namely, beyond the specters of sense. Resurrecting the word from the conventional dualisms of language, a non-dual vision arises to inflect all conventions otherwise, opening a space for beings to truly ‘speak themselves’. Following Celan, this is where language becomes “voice, direction, breath.” It is “language become person.” Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto 1918” presents these truths and hidden operations of language, making it a representative of the non-dual voice.


What becomes apparent when we surrender to the truth that language is specter, that words partake of revenance, is that language cannot be owned or appropriated, a truth presented throughout Tzara’s manifesto. He begins immediately by saying, “The magic of a word—Dada—is of no importance to us,” in order to combat all journalistic and literary attempts to appropriate it, any attempt to understand and situate it. Seeming to come from the Cubist and Futurist influences, Dada refused any such appropriation to artistic school or philosophical system. Tzara’s “Dada” was not a word, nor a poetic practice, but first and foremost a recognition of the general experience of language as specter: “Dada is not a doctrine to be put into practice: Dada—if it’s a lie you want—is a prosperous business venture.” Tzara expects the words to err and go astray, in fact he expects nothing less, for anyone can make anything of Dada that they wish. And so his poetic articulation absorbs this fact, consenting to let the ghosts be confused and misrecognized, and without needing to appropriate the term, school, symbol, or practice of Dada for himself. Extrapolating from this explicit refusal to be anything, we can say that Dada enacted a radical critique of the tenability of any word as an accomplished category of reference.

For Tzara took seriously Nietzsche’s letter of support for “the repudiated world versus an artificially built ‘true, valuable one'” and the corresponding mandate to “overcome the values that pass judgment.” Judgments, along with a whole cabaret of psychic traumas, were for Tzara “dupes of the sound’s attraction,” which he overcame in various ways: repudiating Dada and “himself”; parodying the folly of judgments on stage in front of his bourgeois audience; calling for freedom through chance operations and the intensity of moments; trust in spontaneous processes; the enthusiasm of entering the unknown; all ways to renew ones relationship with other, however this is conceived. In the ignorant aftermath of the first World War, Dada had to unleash its poetical arsenal on all thinking:

What we need are works that are strong straight precise and forever beyond understanding. Logic is a complication. Logic is always wrong. It draws the threads of notions, words, in their formal exterior, toward illusory ends and centers.

For Tzara, all the programs of logic (nation-states, finance, religious dogmas, aesthetic ideals, etc.) were various faces of the same desire to appropriate language in a program of use, to control the errant specters for purposes catered to the “artificially built” world, which he wished to repudiate unreservedly. One could surmise that it is because language cannot really be appropriated by that world that it enters its hurried dash to appropriate and own it; whereas to recognize language as artifice thrusts into question all the constructs of identification and definition built up to protect us from this truth. Against language’s use-value for the ‘system’, Tzara degrades his own Dada, following Nietzsche who wrote, “Now everything is false through and through, mere ‘words,’ chaotic, weak, or extravagant.”

The prevalence of conventional, calculative, self-assertive uses of language in most cases show us that this recognition is anything but average. Dada recognizes that the ‘non-dual’ intuition it puts to page is not read from it one-to-one, as if directly scanned, as if it could be ‘correctly interpreted’. It tries to save the word from this very type of utilization, by promoting the uniqueness (and unsayability) of its intuitions. Thus the call for “active simplicity,” “spontaneity,” and a “Dada” disgust, all of which intend a return to the materiality of words and liberation from their programs. Tzara says he writes the manifesto simply “to show that people can perform contrary actions together while taking one fresh gulp of air”: to show that beings respond in singular ways to the shared recognition of language as artifice. This responsibility takes us outside definition,  moralities,  affiliations or obligations of duty (to an artistic movement or otherwise).

Derrida’s distinction between language as idiom and language as property is crucial here. What is idiomatic resists appropriation (ownership) and remains untranslatable, even within its own particular language of articulation (French in Tzara’s case). For Derrida, this is a political lesson: the idiom is produced from a heritage (a matrix of responses to this impossibility of owning language) yet without recourse to the various political modes of appropriating that heritage. There is no “direct communication” of this experience: we are only brought indirectly to recognize language as specter. Outside even the realm of the meaningful and communicable, Tzara’s texts encounter us so that we might, for ourselves, come to the recognition these texts embody. The non-dual text calls us to respond to this truth of language without giving us a rubric for how to respond, other than to tell us that we must come to these recognitions on our own. Yet our response to this recognition is never only for ourselves, for what comes to us after we surrender to this truth and give way to the language-events that proceed from it are manifested, not for ourselves, but for the other too, and perhaps for the wholly other.

Speech outside the appropriated and appropriable is the idiomatic: it is the writer’s ownmost speech, yet also what neither language nor its ‘users’ can ever own. The poet, aware of spectral errancy, knows this. It is never a matter of deriving language from ‘given’ materials, i.e. through words as accomplished signifiers. Rather, one must produce the idiom each time, as though it were the first. This occurs necessarily in relation to what exceeds all signification, to what is an exception to signified givens. It is this trait of being for the other, indirect and untranslatable, that marks the idiom: “When you look for what is most idiomatic in a language… you approach that which, throbbing within the language, does not let itself be grasped.” It is this passion en route that is passed on and left largely unsaid—even as it is said, given its ‘proper’ place—because the recognition of language as artifice cannot be said (even if this truth commands we respond to it, of necessity).

For us to speak to what Tzara recognized and responded to, we cannot just rely on what the texts he bequeathed to us. We must produce the recognition as such and anew, giving new body to this essence of language, donning our own finite context with its ownmost manifestation of this recognition. This is poetry’s response to the dead language wherein it finds itself: to breathe life into it, respecting its spectrality. Such response is always subject to be forgotten, like all phrases, and with it the embedded recognition of its truths. Or as Derrida says of poetry and its archive: “Oblivion is always possible.”


We think we form the notion in the mind, but it melts in the mouth, and the mouth is shared. We are the word’s sucker—unless we manifest our ‘own’ unique word that lies outside it, irreducible even to our name, though it is undetachable from it. But the name means nothing unless related to the name of the other, unless open to future recognitions, novel procedures, exceeding whatever we might have planned for our words. No one’s name then: the singularity of a signifying body concerned less with meaning and intention than with spirit, life, light, relations. Therefore: detours and caesura. Tzara’s Dada shares in a non-dual tradition, progressing in fits and starts, that has always recognized language as artifice and has, so to speak, ‘repudiatedly’ founded the real from outinside it. This will help us understand the place it might assume in our inheritance of Nietzsche’s prophecy: “The wasteland grows…” To do so means another detour through Derrida’s thinking of the “desert,” which is greatly informed by Tzara’s nihilistic work. At the heart of my thesiswhich has tried be aware that all thesis is artificethere is nothing communicated here but that we share this “desert” together, under a permanent stake: an exposure to what infinitely exceeds its, our, signification.

Tzara, equisite corpseThe writer experiences this in many ways, but leaves only a trace of the demolition of being and thought under its influence: an endless wasteland of ‘meaningless’ text, written by and for no one, that enters into its own thetic reversibility, spread across a dissociated corpus in an almost theatrical display of language’s decomposition. “The contradition and unity of poles in a single toss can be the truth.” Yet this decomposition is the same process as the awakening of being, for it opens up to a vision of language beyond its oppositional or commoditized structures. It brings us to poetry, in some cases, as a hatred and renunciation of poetry (Bataille); or perhaps a renunciation of prayer, of assuredness regarding to whom our faith is directed (Celan). We leave our comfortable territory of knowledge and its concepts and enter into the “desert of the desert,” which Derrida designates as our place, poetic and “more than archi-originary.” It is this desert that links us before any community or political determination. He points to the need for scrupulous attention and responsibility here. In our withdrawal from set determinations, systems, and common appropriations of language, we point towards an originary experience of language: “The abstraction of the desert can thereby open the way to everything from which it withdraws.”

When Tzara proclaims, “There is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished,” which he follows with a whole series of abolitions and renouncements of logic, future, memory, prophets, social hierarchy, and objects, this signifies a crisis in meaning and, though intensified in the age we live, it is not new: an immemorial crisis of the word’s revenance. In Derrida’s terms, this process opens a new kind of desert from out of the desert of signification, giving way to language-events and texts to serve at its remains. He describes the “origins of the desert in the desert” as a recognition of khōra and the response of messianicity. I will now briefly explore these in the context of Tzara’s work.


While the recognition of language as artifice transcends finite boundaries, the response, necessarily situated in historical time, transforms the finite from outside of itself: this recognition and response re-situates everything. At the center of this process is khōra.

Khōra is no being and nothing present: the chaos of the word, the abyss of discourse. Khōra is the receptacle for all mythologies and ontologies, yet never becomes the object of them, nor does it own what arises in the space opened by it, which is why Plato uses the image of the nurse in Timaeus. It destabilizes any (appropriable) discourse before it is even spoken, proven by the fact that when using the pronoun “it” to refer to khōra, it is already appropriated it in a program of objects whose rules it does not follow. It resists all presentation as Being, History, God, Nothing, or Man. Khora is “the very place of an infinite resistance, of an infinitely impassible persistence: an utterly faceless other.” In other words, khōra never presents (itself) as such. As Tzara writes, “everything one looks at is false,” echoing Nietzsche: “It is not true that the essence of things appears in the empirical world.” However, khōra does not announce itself as a program of negation or as via negativa, even if it resembles these traditions. Khōra resists every process of historical revelation and anthropo-theological exxperience; it defaces all situations and contexts; it is inappropriable by any system, outside all possibility of sacralization; it is space, oscillation, relation. This destabilization confronts all beings, for with it we confront a pervasive absence of meaning, a general condition of nonsense that requires we keep constant watch over our words with scrupulous response. For Tzara, our reaction to this ungraspable truth of khōra is either cowardice of the common or supreme risk of the new human, whereby the old laws whither away. This is the response that characterizes Derrida’s messianicity without messianism.

To respond to khōra, the messianic traces a new desert in the absence of any meaningful words and in the absence of any messiah. It is the opening to the coming of the wholly other, exposed and participating in justice. This is the welcoming of the “to-come,’ of what happens: l’avenir in contrast to le futur. The future is what is planned and scheduled, designated by progress, what ‘will be’ tomorrow, humanity’s ‘program’, what is foreseen, predicted, proclaimed to be necessary or inevitable by any domain of human knowledge. L’avenir by contrast is that future event that is other to all programs and prévisions.

I believe that Dada, from within its own finite and limited situation, attempted to find and did find this ‘to-come’. It exposed itself to the event of what no one could see coming, meaning it had a messianic charge to it, in Derrida’s sense. It meant a “Flight Out of Time” (title of Hugo Ball’s fantastic diary of those times) that let a newfound, unexpected, unforeseen “history” come to it. None can anticipate what justice such an event brought and will bring, for it brings it as an immanent exceptionality to what already is. It heralds the necessity of recognizing the impact of khōra, though this is never presented as such. It shows the foundation of its law as merely a performative event which has no place in the set it founds, for the foundation is unjustifiable, that is: haunted by the need to make it just. For the finite to be its truest performance, the performance must efface its finitude in recognition of its infinite (im)possibility, for all expressions are finite and inadequate. It atheologizes the theology it bears, so that the other might see this justice as a justice outside of theses—outside of judgment’s baseless realm.

When Tzara writes, “Order=disorder; ego=non-ego; affirmation=negation: the supreme radiations of an absolute art,” both khōra and the freedom it lends the messianic are implied. It also expresses a premonition that Baudrillard phrases years later as “the imminent reversibility of the sign.” In Tzara’s work, especially in the manifestos, this imminent reversibility is immanent in the sign as a recognition of this truth, as creative (metamorphic) response. Much like a decomposing body, this movement returns language to the truth of its materiality, its inseparability from life, a flourishing display of automatic dissolution that composes a ‘revival’, escalating language into a new status, as bearer of freed potentials and futurality. All that has dissolved remains ruin, or in a recomposed form, en route to the wholly other. This truth of the reversibility of signs finds its mark through the performance of the messianic, in closest relation to khōra, which “giving place to oppositions, would not itself submit to any reversal.”

As an infinite process of becoming-never-finished, situated in the finite, in its loyalty to the wholly other, the messianic thinks and writes as outside the finite, as outside its own language, i.e. in the desert. However, this writing from without has no meaning outside its context—our context—for its meaning is intimately bound with what it founds: the to-come of its findings. It brings about a “writing of the disaster,” to borrow Blanchot’s phrase, not to communicate the disaster implicit with khōra, nor to communicate a message that might offer us salvation from it, but rather to write from a recognition of it: to let the disaster of signification write itself out idiomatically (in Derrida’s terms, give way to singular language-events in response to the spectral errancy of words).

When Tzara claims Dada is “for and against unity and definitely against the future,” he recognizes that there is no community that is not already dislocated and inoperative, that there is no “le futur” without “l’avenir,” and thus his only thesis: life and poetry must meet. I have tried to emphasize why they must meet by stressing the relationship between a recognition of khōra (impossible, as such) and the response of the messianic (in an infinite relation to the wholly other, passing by way of abstraction). This human constant, as it is formulated in the Manifesto of 1918, is as paradoxical as it is non-dual: “The divine thing in us is our call to anti-human action.” That Tzara’s formulation appears so negative only indicates for us the severity of the situation of the desert and the need for each of us to hollow out new spaces of response that mark this recognition, for the sake of all beings.


In Tzara’s age as well as ours, the intensification of a crisis in signification and meaning requires that the human constant be formulated this way: as anti-work and anti-communication, in contrast to language as a use-economy. When Tzara writes, “From the point of view of poetry, or of art in general, the influence of Dada on the modern sensibility consisted in the formulation of a human constant which it distilled and brought to light,” this human constant resonates with all Derrida means by l’avenir as a movement outside ‘what is’, i.e. outside of language and history: a testament to freedom and responsibility for freedom. Tzara found it of utmost necessity to present this constant as anti-human, a real recognition of the reversibility of signs and also for substantive reasons: increasingly, what is sold as human is inhuman, what is undertaken in humanity’s name is disgusting, and that therefore only anti-human action has a change of righting the ship. This is not done out of misanthropy, but out of love for futural humanity unknown; for what is ‘constant’ in terms of freedom and an orientation to justice in the human soul. Such reversals allow for a dynamic mode of being-in-language that founds a counter-history, even refusing the refuge of literature for the sake, instead, of life.

Tzara’s work retains its ambiguity and incomprehensibility, its distance from all theses, on this and other points. It comes to us with a wink to its process, an incitement to the human constant it displays. To see every contradiction, if it is not to make us sick with ourselves, is also an affirmation of freedom and of being— and therefore also of language. It is a call to a living act, which is why Dada is the “exploitation of ideas,” a way to “escape destiny,” “the dictatorship of language,”— “the death” and “the dictatorship of the spirit”— a croak croak croak and full of lies— a way “to be the editorial office and bathroom of God who every day takes a bath in us in the company of the privy emptier.” Dada is what remains when we do away with those who explain the terms, for the explanation is only satisfying for those who do not wish to learn: explanation relies on the beams and boards of the concept and offers a haven of imaginary correctness, a comfort zone dissociated from khōra and the necessity of responding. We respond to khōra (and to the history of the messianic as a writing of this immemorial disaster in the desert of the desert) with “the authority of the mystic wand formulated as the bouquet of a phantom orchestra made up of silent fiddle bows greased with philtres made of chicken manure”—in other words:

To complete oneself, to perfect oneself in one’s littleness, to fill the vessel with one’s individuality, to have the courage to fight for and against thought, the mystery of bread, the sudden burst of an infernal propeller into economic lilies.

This is why art is a private affair and the poet is happy to be insulted or disregarded, for it is proof that art cannot have within it even a modicum of use-value (except perhaps as unworking): it must undermine all the uses of logic, all the schemas of influence that circulate blindly. “Art afflicts no one,” first, because art’s real endeavor bothers no one who ‘is’, but secondly, for one who apprehends his or her own ‘isn’t’-ness (the implications of the nothing), art may be quite afflicting, an illness, like a sickness to be expunged. This theme is present throughout Nietzsche and Tzara, whose supreme egotism is at the same time the most daring act of self-effacement. It can only be read by those who will recognize it for what it is (a trace of decomposition), those who do not exalt it for its thetic qualities, those who can read from the same place of negativity or the same desert from which it was “composed.” A trill, the work of art is a movement between an infinity of modulations of the voice. Not a squabble, but a conversation thrust into the turmoil of language/silence, between unique visions who can only speak it from a point where language itself is ventured to its utmost.

“We must sweep and clean,” Tzara says, because we have become too complacent with our tongues. We know our song is over. We know language is loss. Thus, the emptiness of any word that does not breathe new life into it. We find an EAR between the consonants in our words ‘heard’ and ‘heart’, an ear that will “emerge of its own accord”: we find an art that can hear. It remains secret, just as Tzara says the real Dada remains secret, for its truths are only recognized by those open to listening to it, heard only by those who have begun to respond. To see that language is not just a tool for influence is prerequisite on the poetic process having already begun moving in our life, defacing everything, remaking the world from out of its silence, implying an infinite risk of the individual and all that he or she thinks of him or herself: the destabilization of our belief in the efficacy words, yet for the sake of an efficacy and expediency outside of all expectation and goal. It is a bodhisattva’s vow to sing, an awakening: “Like the word Jim— es-specially, more than the words.”


The non-dual recognition and response characterizing Tzara’s writings re-situates his work in a heritage characterized throughout by a call to break with the program of thesis. In this section, I situate Tzara alongside Friedrich Schlegel (as representative of early Romanticism) in that heritage. It is my contention that it extends ‘back in time’ as long as humans have had language. Irony, play, negation, and openness to contradiction are immediately recognizable regardless of the finite context they arise from, for they withdraw from language as an economy of manipulative use. Where works present the signifying process as such, they draw us to the essence of language, as we withdraw from the dupes of language and its specters. But if we consider that the thetic possibilities of language are only possible through the dualisms of language, we concede that it is impossible to directly ‘say’ the non-dual, or to even conjecture a thesis about it (though we just have). Non-duality instead inspires a performative act, less concerned with telling that uses language as it is, than with showing that transforms language into something else.

All this follows the method of expediency set down thousands of years ago by the Buddha in the Lotus Sutra: the message of a One Vehicle (non-dual) whose message was itself a resistance to the dualisms of language, which must formulate its Dharma as empty and beyond any formulation. Tzara himself remarked, though perhaps half in jest, that Dada was a return to a “Buddhistic religion of indifference.” The Buddha recognized that his own speech was bound by dualisms and it is recorded that he resisted speaking after awakening. Even when he did speak, he told of new Buddhas who would come after him to renew and retrace the non-dual: to address the languages and the state of the dualistic mind in each finite context, thereby reinvigorating all history with what is outside it (“to turn the dharma wheel”); to grace each age with a vision of the non-dual, as singular as the signifying body itself; to bring the outside-time (Tzara’s “durationless globule”) into historical time in an impossible movement of infinity crossing the finite: a movement between hearts and peoples, not just words and discourses.

Tzara and Friedrich Schlegel, editor of the Athenaeum, a journal of early German Romanticism, offer us ample comparison: both fostered tightly-knit, though spatially dislocated, avant-garde communities despite their young age and the rejection of their movement by the public. Both of these individuals were at the center of highly-active, yet short-lived and internally-combustible bursts of creative and communal energy, thinking, and writing that embraced the vast multitude of perspectives while rejecting any narrow definition of itself. To be sure, both individuals also drew greatly from their peers and their efforts would have been greatly diminished without them. To give their ideas due justice, both writers should be read with their cohort, not just in isolation, for in speaking of a non-dual heritage it is as wrong to forget Hölderlin, Schelling, Novalis, or Hegel as it is to forget Schwitters, Ball, or Arp.

Tzara himself in fact links these two avant-gardes immediately after suggesting that Dada formulated a human constant, relating Dada directly to Schlegel’s group:

It was in the same way that Romanticism, by defining an existing state of mind, was enabled not only to delimit a permanent aspect of the individual sensibility but to broaden this state of mind so as to constitute a source of intellectual values which in certain epochs was to play an important role in the interpretation of social phenomena. It is too soon to estimate the historic importance of Dada, but even now it can be stated that by supplying the germ of the surrealism it created, in the realm of poetry and art, a new intellectual climate which in some measure still survives.

This practice of defining a state of mind is presented to us as a formulation, as mere definition, as artifice, yet one that is aware of itself and its own historical sensibility of itself as artifice. Yet, even more than representing to us the unrepresentable, that is, formulating for us a poetic or artistic record of an Idea which resists formulation, it also lends itself as a formulation to be surpassed, participating in present recognitions to that effect. Already in 1797, Friedrich Schlegel had written that,

A critical judgment of an artistic production has no civil rights in the realm of art if it isn’t itself a work of art, either in its substance, as a necessary impression in the state of becoming, or in the beauty of its form and open tone.

In other words, the artwork or piece of philosophy must carry within itself its own critique, a criteria unique to its own organic arrangements. This allows the work to be received in a way that goes beyond artifice even as it situates itself within it; these words touch us in ways any conventional or unaware ‘use’ of language could not. If his work sought to break down distinctions between art and criticism, poetry and philosophy, Tzara’s work sought to break down distinctions between art and anti-art: between poetry and (anti-?) human life. Why? Because, in a statement that reads as if Tzara or Nietzsche would say it,

All the greatest truths of every sort are completely trivial and hence nothing is more important than to express them forever in a new way, and wherever possible, forever more paradoxically, so that we won’t forget they still exist and that they can never be expressed in their entirety.

In this essay, Schlegel discusses what his circle inaugurates in terms of a new genre-less ‘mode’ of doing philosophy and poetry, which was first displayed in the Athenaeum: the textual fragment. Tzara clearly embraces this with his method for a Dada poem: cut the words and phrases of paragraphs into fragments, put them in a hat, and then randomly choose one fragment at a time. The poem will be like you, he says. This reliance on chance and dislocation extends the fragment beyond Schlegel’s methods to be sure, but seems to share a heritage in that it uses what is already present as material, rather than waiting for rational formulation. Even the Dadaist impulse to onomatopoetic verse seems inspired by the fragment: a way to get back to the roots of language in its materiality, in its essentially withdrawing character.

Romanticism, as part of its transgression of genre boundaries, emphasized that a new sphere was opening within art to make room for a new kind of ‘religion’. Instead of seeing Dada as a refusal of this sphere of art-as-religion, I think we ought to see it as an intensification of our crisis, that even art must be disbanded as such a category (“L’art s’endort pour la naissance du monde nouveau”). I have drawn on Derrida’s thinking of the desert in the desert to stress that the unifying threads between these movements seek a new way through religion and art. They exhibit the appearance-as-disappearance of the messianic as transformative of particular finitudes in relation to the khōra, the abyss of discourse in revenance, and to the infinite Idea of a free and just humanity.

But we could just as easily draw the threads from their poetry itself, which “loses itself in what it presents,” in their stances of “transcendental buffonery” which yet retain a seriousness of effort, or in that they advocate a highly “combinatory art”—all three factors that early Romanticism opened up as limits on the “fragment” itself, according to Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy’s study. We could just as easily focus on the irony displayed in each author, where we would be smart to follow Schlegel’s advice: “find an irony that might be able to swallow up all dada 1these big and little ironies and leave no trace of them at all.” It seems that Tzara’s Dada, as I have tried to show, was an attempt to do just that, in a kindred spirit of this new age that, in Schlegel’s words, “reveals itself as a nimble and quick-footed one.” For as he says, only a kindred spirit can unlock “the magic book of art” and free “the imprisoned holy spirit” (yet another articulation of a potential criterion of a non-dual work), which is the case for both Schlegel’s and Tzara’s avant-garde movements.


We inherit non-dual questions as they’re posed to our context. If there is anything  Dadaists realize over the Romantics, it was that there are no sacred words anymore, not “romantic poetry” or “the absolute,” as Tzara extends his critique to each revenant word. This is why he must say in a “Note on Poetry” (1919): “Without pretensions to a romantic absolute, I present some banal negations.” Poetry can no longer only be sonorous, it must be formal action. Yet Schlegel, in his own idiom, says many similar things: that the artist is anyone who educates their intellect and carries the center within themselves (presumably with an ironic stance to all theses); that one is never a philosopher or poet, but always becoming one (to be alive, one must always join oneself to poetry). In 1798 he writes, “A definition of poetry can only determine what poetry should be, not what it really was and is.” Tzara says essentially the same things 150 years later: “Poetry is defined as a reality which is not valid aside from its future”; “the tabula rasa which we made into the guiding principle of our activity was of value only insofar as something else would succeed it.” Finally, for both, works must retain their incomprehensibility if they are to remain ‘classical’ texts, for only in this way do we ‘read’ language’s illegibility and come to its poetry, seeing its “patent nonsense” widen the scope of understanding in this process.

For understanding only begins once the vexation over incomprehensibility is lifted. For Romantics and Dadaists this meant bringing the vexation to its boiling point through provocations of every sorts. It meant creating works that need always be re-cultivated. Entering into incomprehensibility was for Schlegel the only “salvation” of families and nations. Tzara references Rimbaud as heralding the need for disorder for the sake of the order to come. Throughout the “Introduction,” written 40 years after the Manifesto, he situates Dada in a ine of French literary history that develops such disorder—Baudelaire, Lautréamont, de Nerval, Mallarmé. That it could only be expressed this way decades after the movement comes as no surprise. Schlegel recognized that the mind, in order to understand anything, must take all content as a seed to germinate, rather than as a fruit to eat; it took a long time before Tzara could say aloud that, for his Dada, anti-human action was an essential formulation of a human constant. Negative formulations and reversals continue until the vexation against incomprehensibility has been lifted, when we cease to explain and begin again to listen and learn.

At each point, works that manifest the signifying process as such straddle the line between the impossibility and the necessity of “complete communication,” for it is the voice of silence, a non-message. Texts rooted in this interplay between language and silence, saying and listening, are in reality encounters: they disappear for the sake of a directionless moving-out-toward. Dada can fail because its language is not a salespitch, it does not even participate in a rhetoric of correctness or facts. On the other hand, what could be more convincing, more overflowing with human facts, than such effulsions as Tzara’s? Implicitly, we are rescued from the sphere of dualisms by this movement: the oppositional horizon no longer makes sense, unless it is colludes in undoing itself. This is the mark of a process impossible to pin down, a negativity of thought wherein one sees the illusion of ‘for-myself’ and exclaims as Tzara does: “My name is THE OTHER/desirous of understanding THE OTHER”; “for myself has never been for myself”; ” I broke away from Dada and from myself as soon as I understood the implications of nothing.”

While never entering the realm of an uttered ethic, the process Tzara enters by renewing and invigorating language is ethical, if only to the extent that it annihilates and thrusts into question the ‘who’ of the ethical being. It questions if the ‘who’ involved in the ethical relation is not, from the beginning, entirely shared— or at least always already crossed by the other— and therefore irreducible to itself. We see our own impermanence and the transitoriness of attachments and programs and our own capacity for freedom, within and without language, a being-at-ease beyond and across boundaries. We see that our being is not ‘tied down’ or ‘constricted’ by the objective structures and ideologies in circulation. It is this being-at-a-distance from our imagined language—so as to forgive it—that gives pleasure, for it indicates an unutterable freedom of breath; and it brings language to its most creative display, that is, its most necessary.

Schlegel and Tzara share in the negativity beyond negation or negation’s negation, a negativity none other than the singularity of the signifying body that is inappropriable by signification. It surpasses itself in a vision associating the dissociated, which sees in complete discontinuity the possibility of a continuum of thinking and writing that embraces and disengages from the past, re-casting the historical in an ever-renewing, utopic light. From Schlegel’s Ideas: “Versatility consists not just in a comprehensive system but also in a feeling for the chaos outside the system, like man’s feeling for something beyond man.” This chaos exists within each system as much as it exists between systems, for all carry the schisms inherent with the passage of time. History as already-ended (the finite moment) is constantly usurped by another end (the moment of finitude-never-finishing, stiving infinitely). No longer shackled by influence, being and language meet at an impossible and silent point. There, the addressee is always in question, what is crucial is encounter. This characterizes all non-dual texts—the truth of language as artifice presented as such—and it is why I suggest a genre-less heritage extending from before the Buddha through Schlegel and Tzara. More could be listed as cherished members, but each raises the flag of the same infinite generic humanity.


When Schlegel writes, “Only someone who has his own religion, his own original way of looking at infinity, can be an artist,” we must hear Tzara’s mandate “to divest one’s church of every useless cumbersome accessory; to spit out disagreeable or amorous ideas like a luminous waterfall.” It is an ironic silence when language enters its own quietude and begins speaking from its own otherness to itself, from a being ‘it’ could never expect. This is an Idea spread out across the whole spectrum of thinking and writing, which it is free to violate, contort, fabulate. Schlegel writes, “No idea is isolated, but is what it is only in combination with all other ideas,” reiterating Lessing’s vision of a new “eternal gospel” that will appear as a “single book” spread out across all books, in an eternal development, uniting the infinity of the process with the finitude of beings and language (history), in that, at each contextualized moment, that which lies outside of that context, i.e. outside of language, manifests a new time, the mark of what is to come. It is always an affirmation of a process that renounces goals and answers, which, for Nietzsche, was only the case, “if something were attained at every moment within this process— and always the same.”

Tzara extends this project and follows Nietzsche in thinking this thought to its most terrible form: “existence as it is, without meaning or aim, yet recurring inevitably without any finale of nothingness: ‘the eternal recurrence.'” Nietzsche’s following question in this late fragment on nihilism, asked in dadaesque spirit, remains pertinent: “How would such a human being even think of the eternal recurrence?” This points both toward the human constant in Tzara and to the anti-human action he heralds; it calls us to look for what is the same in disparate texts, to share in the non-dual recognition. For as Tzara says,

We want to make men realize afresh that the one unique fraternity exists in the moment of intensity when the beautiful and life itself are concentrated on the height of a wire rising toward a burst of light, a blue trembling linked to earth by our magnetic gazes covering the peaks of snow. The miracle. I open my heart to creation.

What links this heritage can only be what resonates in recognition, the only criterion, for as Schlegel says, “Spirits reveal themselves only to spirits.” I feel like this implicates a spiritual response, according to whomever we might consult as representative of this heritage. Their words are with us, yet they never have the words to say why, for they in fact do not quite know. The recurrence of the same is never the same because occurrence is finite; yet it remains the same in that it shares with others in the crossing of the infinite, a justice beyond finite justification. It is not concerned with thetic unity, but involves itself outside theses, with a fidelity to the present conditions of thinking and being. “And one now realizes that becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing,” Nietzsche summarizes.

In the silence of the non-dual, language with all its dualisms becomes invested with its greatest energy and pertinence. Yet it also comes closest to its corpse: it is this skeletal heritage of non-dual recognitions and responses through which we come to produce our own idiom, enlivening all that remains with the idiosyncrasies of our particular finite situation. It is a message that does not enter into the realm of the meaningful, perhaps not even into the realm of ‘message sending’; a non-message for no one and from nowhere, destabilizing all physio-pyscho-political determinations, including the notion of the ‘self-expression’, by subjecting them to the messianic operator of the as-not. This non-dual heritage gives birth to readers by way of such a free and creative negation—a stake not taken on without a grave risk and compassion. It is without pretention because it does not convince or coerce a system, but effaces and embalms itself for a hermeneutic to come of infinite truths. Staring into the black and empty tomb of language, we see that neither we nor it is dead, yet already we await, and live, its resurrection.

Take a good look at me!
I am in idiot, I am a clown, I am a faker.
Take a good look at me!
I am ugly, my face has no expression, I am little.
I am like all of you!

Anno domini Dada. Take care. And remember this example…

Mr. Aa An Index

A life following my life on a leash of difficult echo…
Departing devoured by their echo…

Belief: in the “immense privilege of the living.”

Children (see: laughter): says all there is to be said. Recites by heart an “alphabet of sleep.”

Dada: key linkages of images that refuse a “key reading.”

Dawn (see: crystal): opening/vistas. Morning. With a you. Clear eyes. Re-issues. Summer, survival. Calm. Cyclical. The summit of faithfulness. Smiling. Humorous honor.

Death: the bonds of anguish, a wrist watch. DaDa, DaDa, TicToc, Toe. “Empty teeth on the band/and the bones of a thousand witnesses.” Ditch drops. Against those living immensely hypocrites. Recognizable in words, are not the ones you see. The words of “strong jaws” end death as a work. Privilege (title) of the letter (see: re-situates, blessing).

Difficulty (see: time, space): “Uncertainty and loneliness.” “Distress and joy of a life spread out on the brightness of the sky’s table.” “Where the sun penetrates the winter of pebbles.” “The wind spits in our face.”

Forgetfulness: “The plucking of a new wave borne from hand to hand.” “One halt to the next.” A nostalgia that doesn’t reference the past but is headed to the future. Eternal thirst of the lips. Dissolution. Becoming.

Freedom: a memory. The foundation of the marvelous word. “Cull impatience confronting the narrow perspectives.” Opens wide the doors. Essentially, a window and the shattered frames.

Future (see: grief): to be barer. A promise that is not promised to be kept. The question of whether or not the promise of the future is kept is addressed to us: “But who could maintain that the promises had been kept?” The absence of all past promise keepers, even if in the past “I myself” have been such a promise keeper. The passing on of passions.

Gesture: “I have blinded the ways of reality so that death can fertilize respiration and disillusion suffering.”

Grief (see: khōrus): “All is lost!” “From one grief to the next increasing.” A magnifying glass. The road to true enumeration of the nameless. An invisible path.

Heritage (see: becoming): Indifference. A state of mind: uselessness. “The Nothing can be uttered only as the reflection of an individual.” A practice of re-reading, for the other.

I am: “a horse,” “a river,” and “clumsy.”  “Babblings of feathers.” A petrified memory of love suspended in time which has gathered itself into one instant. The twilight of the subject. “A parasite of the amalgamated itching business.”

Immobility: A way of ripening. “Everything was running.” “Waiting becomes flame.”

Lamps (see: weather): have times in wildlife, in the bedroom, with the watermess, between the trees and bread leavening, and later, having dimes in small groups by fires reciting rigorously tried lines of winged-poetry, at the ebb of fall up white the swamp height receding before the geese fly in, when we flock the midnight to echo in the artifact and the gathering measure that switches pain and displeasure with the absurd textual absentia: light’s messenger, let-go-ing.

Language: 1) as use as prison: “This state of affairs derives from a false conception of property.” “When the wolf does not fear the leaf I myself languor.”

Language: 2) asphalt of the word-in-absence: A cement construction which materializes, overcome by the tender memory of freedom. “At the street’s end, two horses like syllables murmured the fatigue of their steps in the ear of this john doe of asphalt, still there, the color of eggplant.” Encounters essentially between (non-)existents. The reader the john doe of the language prison who is and was in it not as the color of hardened pavement but of a silent, living, edible vegetable living underneath. “Perhaps the private tooth.” “The photographer.”

Light: revolt. “A naked name is still flying about.” “The serenity of a volcano that cannot be determined.”

Lips (see: speech): “Formula your thought’s bitter ornate night.” Windows that pour out noise.

New Time: spoken, fresh, “blue-tinged.” “Promenade of adjectives in the mouth of the work.”

Night: the remains of? To be shed? Human flight? Where we find and take up the ancient dream. “Tempting certain falls.” Nothing but them (“Nothing but nights”). To which we offer ourselves as a constant bleeding of the breast.

Poem: A stone of disheveled marvel which flowers as it caresses us, caresses us as an unmade bed, astonishing our half-reasoning selves, caresses us on the slope of mismatched eyebrows letting slide the bow across the lift of feelings and strangely clear openings, playing with the well-known instruments of languish, a “courteous narrow delicate ambition.”

Rule: “Broken is the chain of words covered with winters and dramas that held together the intimate clearings of our existence.”

Secret (see: reason for being): Kept in tact by woman’s hands (Khōra?). A spring.

Silence (see: song): “My beautiful country of joy.” “A burning fidelity.” “Beauty one calm evening.”

Solitude (see: seeing): Alone, immobile. Isolation of the vision enlarging its borders. Not sharing in the meaning of the things one sees.

Thought (see: blank, white): where “a blackbird shrieks the grass sings.” Shakes the ripe language in its begging for light. “The tireless brutality of it all.”

We: of forgetfulness and transparency. Ants raised to the height of consciousness and embarrassing (“me”). The town decapitated and flailing desperately. The townspeople clenched a fist gathered together grape-like around the light of the heart (lamps, horses), which the horses offer to the passersby.

Words (see: waking): Taste of which precedes their taste as tears in the mouth. Tears as a magnifying glass to the taste of the whole melting corpus, slow growing grass that covers the world’s mist with an unexpected joy. A dizziness of rocks (you and I). Vain sparkling depths. “Has fifty floors, it’s a godscraper” Vines. A petrified memory of love, suspended in time, which has gathered itself into one instant. Brilliant human joy waiting at “The turn-off point of this dismembered world, spoken in tongue of asphalt.” “The mineral hill of the incandescence of living.” “An orchestration of veins and a system of stellar crackings” towards which we are carried in our anxious fumbling with language.

[Poems cultivated: Bay Morning, Anecdote, Freedom, Through the Vine, The Horse, Waking, The Ox on the Tongue, The Acceptance of Spring, Invisible Earth, Herbarium of Games and Calculations, Crazed Gesture, Rule, Note on Art, among others.]


Celan, Paul and Michael Hamburger, trans. “Kermorvan.” The Poems of Paul Celan. New York: Persea, 2002.

Derrida, Jacques and Gianni Vattimo, eds. “Faith and Knowledge,” Samuel Weber, trans. Religion. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Derrida, Jacques. “Khōra,” Ian McLeod, trans. On the Name. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Derrida, Jacques. Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe and Jean-Luc Nancy. The Literary Absolute, trans Philip Barnard and Cherly Lester. New York: State University Press, 1988.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-moral Sense.”

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. trans. Kaufman. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

Schlegel, Friedrich. “Critical Fragments,” “Ideas.” Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics, ed J.M. Bernstein. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Schlegel, Friedrich. “On Incomprehensibility.” European Romanticism: a Brief History with Documents, Warren Breckman, ed. Boston: Bedford Press, 2008.

Sollers, Phillipe. Writing and the Experience of Limits. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Spicer, Jack. “A Textbook of Poetry.” The Collected Books of Jack Spicer. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1975.

Tzara, Tristan and Mary Ann Caws, trans. Approximate Man and Other Writings. Boston: Black Widow Press, 2005.

Tzara, Tristan. Dada Painters and Poets, Motherwell, Robert, ed.. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Tzara, Tristan. Dada est Tatou. Tout est Dada. Paris: Flammarion, 1996.

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2 Responses to With Them Without Words

  1. Rex Styzens says:

    Should I ever be able to manage an adequate response, I shall send it along. But as they say, “Don’t hold your breath.”

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