Half-way through Andrew Hussey’s extraordinary SPEAKING EAST: THE STRANGE AND ENCHANTED LIFE OF ISIDORE ISOU, Isou, barely 20, has yet to arrive in Paris, the city where he would found LETTRISM, become a left bank avant-garde celebrity, and live in for the rest of his life.
In those first twenty years, his family left his hometown of Botosani for Bucharest due to waves of pogroms in northern Romania. As a teenager, he became a ‘huligan’, derived from hooligan but commonly used in Romania to describe a ‘generation of young intellectuals who deliberately taunted and terrorized the older literary generation, and who declared that they hated anybody not born in the twentieth century’(p.39). At first glance, not that different than a later generation’s not trusting anyone over thirty. But the huligani have a more violent and destructive edge. In Micea Eliade’s novel HULIGANII, ‘they all dream of committing suicide, drink heavily, rape each other or are simply bored and sadistic. Life is pointless, art an illusion, philosophy is a dead-end and the civilisation that made them is about to fall’ (p.40).
Isou would see many of his Huligani friends join the fascist Legionnaires of the Iron Guard. Isou was not yet sixteen when he was almost killed by this group during the pogrom of January 1941, some of the blackest moments in story of the Jews in Romania. During the rest of the war – much of it spent in forced labour, witnessing friends and neighbours beaten, tortured and killed — his biggest fear was ending up a nameless corpse, lost to history. He tried escaping to Palestine and failed; he made another arduous trip to the Hungarian border, and also failed; he tried to get to Turkey and that also failed. Each of these attempts involved extraordinary adventures and hardship. He finally succeeds in getting papers falsely attesting that he was a displaced French Jew, papers that would succeed in getting him to Paris. On his way there, and once again in Budapest, he’s feeling up a girl in a cinema where the first images of the liberation of Buchenwald are screened. The girl, still excited, tells him, ‘don’t stop. It’s only Yids. They brought it on themselves’.
What’s extraordinary about the first 125 pages of this book is not only a vivid evocation of Jewish cultures in Romania between the wars and how this intersected with the main intellectual currents in the country at large but also a teenager’s sexual and intellectual awakening at this intersection confronted with socially sanctioned violence and murder directed at him and all those he loves. And all of this before turning twenty.
According to Andrew Hysset ‘When he arrived in Paris in 1945, Isou began his career at the very height of avant-garde fashion. He was charismatic and good-looking, and he quickly gathered a pack of well-read young hooligans as followers. The new gang of lettristes was soon notorious for their punch-ups, their weird, threatening poetry, their girls and their arrogance. …The look was sexy and defiant: pure rock ‘n roll avant la lettre. Isou’s reputation was boosted by the fact that he was soon published by Gallimard (pp. 13-14).
Hussey convincingly argues that ‘lettrisme – was –or is the missing link between Dada, Surrealism and Situationism ‘(p.15). Tristan Tzara (an invented name meaning ‘sad country’ in Romanian) was an influence, as were Bréton and Buñuel; and Guy Debord, initially a disciple of Isou, would become his bitterest enemy; quite a distinction for someone who felt as victimised, misunderstood and oppressed as Isou.
According to Hysset, ‘Dadaism was conceived as a negation of the entire system of moral values underpinning Western thought. It opposed reason order, meaning and hierarchies in equal measure. …. In his Dada Manifesto of 1918 Tristan Tzara spoke directly to a generation of young men and women who had grown up despising everything around them, to all those who had lost faith in their homeland and its civilization: ‘No pity,’ he declared; ‘After the carnage we are left with the hope of a purified humanity…there’s great destructive…work to be done…..Dadaists and lettristes belong to the same family; they speak the same language in every sense,. There is however, one singular and crucial difference that separates them. The Dadaists had seen the massacres of the First World War. Isou had seen the Holocaust’ (p.13)
But what is lettrisme? For Isou it was a whole philosophical system; a way of understanding the entire world. Lettrisme had begun as a response to the lies and propaganda that Isou had met head-on as a young Jew in the Holocaust of Nazi-occupied Romania. If the world had to be remade, then a new language had to be developed, and what better way than noise without direct referent? It was a form of psychic self-defence, opposing the ‘controlling powers’ of so-called objective reality with a reassertion of subjective ‘poetic’ reality. It soon became something else, something more: a complete system within a system that married avant-gardism and Jewish belief. (p. 298). In poetry it took the form of letters or sounds devoid of semantic content. ‘The key to understanding lettriste poetry was to remake the world in its own image rather than simply reflecting the world as beautiful or ugly, good or bad. When men (and women) had discovered this, that they too could themselves be creators, their own creations, they would discover that they could walk with God as ‘the companion of Creations.’
The best description of lettrist poetry I’ve come across is from The Allan Ginsburg Project: ‘the Lettrist thing was to make use… not make use of mere sounds, but separate poems out into letters and letter-by-letter the poem should be composed – and so some Lettrist poems had no meaning at all – it was just pure sounds made by vowels and letters)…’. Ginsburg situates it within the work of e e cummings, Artaud, and Concrete Poetry. ‘cummings by isolating letters and words is a Lettrist. Antonin Artaud, to some extent, is a Lettrist, because certain of his poems are punctuated by sounds, shrieks, cries. People who write on typewriters and make designs of the page – like a swan – like John Hollander – that could be a variety of Lettrist, more like concrete poetry, as it’s called. Lettrist poetry led into concrete poetry where the page was a painting, and that comes out of Apollinaire. …But Lettrism itself is an interesting school. What it was was it went back to Kabbalah. In cabalistic studies the ancient Hebrew lore and practice was that each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, as some of you know already but for those who don’t, each letter had an assigned number, so that if you had a word, you’d then figure out the numerological meaning of the word, and so it was a mixture of the sound of the alphabet, and then the numerology of it, and correspondences between the aggregate of the numbers contained in the word and celestial phenomena, or recurrent mathematical or arithmetical or human numbered things, like six senses, or the number of hairs on the head, (or the number of God, for instance, is the magic number).
Isou saw himself as a chosen one, a half-divinity, and so did those who gathered around him. He was the young one with the answers. He hated Sartre for his bourgeois complacency; hated all the Resistants for their self-glorification; and with all the wrath and moral righteousness of a survivor of the Holocaust. He defended Céline for being honest about his anti-Semitism. He gloried in scandal, moral outrage, and was not above using violence as a means to be heard. By the 26th of January 1947, Isou was being covered in The New York Times, where John Lackey Brown wrote, ‘A band, led by a 21-year-old Romanian whose pen name is Isidore Isou, has created ‘lettrism’. The lettrists, determined to do Dada and the Surrealists one better, aim at the renovation of poetry not only by the invention of new words but of new letters.’ Brown then noted drily that so far they had invented 18 of them.
You can see some of Isou’s appeal here, in Le desordre, a film by Jacques Bartier. It’s St. Germain-de-Prés in 1946. Juliette Gréco sings. Boris Vian and Kosma play. Simone de Beauvoir, Alexandre Astruc, Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau and many others appear, even Orson Welles, who seems to be everywhere when it’s most salient. George Pomerand, Isou’s greatest disciple, appears chasing after Cocteau, burning art, and spouting Lettrist poetry (at around the 14 min. mark). Not great quality but rather fascinating.
You can see further examples of what Isou was trying to propagate and the way he did so in his own film, Traité de bavé et d’eternité. See how he riles against the pigs in the opening credits.
Soon, however, he got old. He thought he would live forever but had already outlived the very premise of a lettrisme so focused on youth violently providing the answers to the problems of the culture. He quietly converted to Catholicism so he could marry the woman he loved; a lifelong complicit partnership that produced a daughter, though the marriage itself was of short duration. Isou was selfish and impossible.
He made a living writing porn. Huyssen depicts Isou as totally accepting of sexuality as fluid, with an aim at pleasing women, and with extraordinary self confidence at dong so. IN his early years upon his first arrival in Paris he’d sold himself to women who could afford him. He also supplemented his living painting, and had a fair degree of success with it.
He missed the events of May 68 because he had a psychotic episode, was interned in a psychiatric ward and given electro-shock therapy. He would be in and out of mental hospitals for the rest of his life. The events of May 68 that he was so angry at missing are nonetheless something he and lettrisme would subsequently be credited with predicting.
What Hussey makes clear in the book is Isou’s sense of his own exceptionalism, his anger, his willingness to risk fights, physical and otherwise, all stem from his experience at suffering pogroms, at having survived being Jewish at a time of Holocaust. Even when meeting an old friend after forty years, when they discussed all the people they had known, neither could mention what each had witnessed the other had suffered and endured during this period. It was too horrible, still too powerful. A condition of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome that had conditioned their lives and that was to drive one of them into a deep mental illness.
Some of this was released in his constant obsession with sex and pornography (he was a prolific writer of it); some released in his art and politics. But much remain internalised and psychically damaging. Isou however was against any type of talking cures, as the dark recesses of the mind; the things that might drive you mad; or nonetheless also the found of creativity, of new thinking and of art. Thus to suffer and drive forward, something I somehow think in keeping with his own stance in relation to Zionism; rather than retreat into a safe space, which he saw as in itself a kind of defeat, albeit perhaps necessary; his preference was for remaking the whole world as jewish (partly through lettrism). For Isou, every poet was a Yid because, after the Holocaust, all poetry had to be written from the position of the other. A fascinating life.
In the conclusion of the book Hussey writes how he titled the book Speaking East because he wanted to draw attention to the centrality of Eastern Europe’s influence on main strands of European thought, that much of what we think of as ‘component parts of Western modernity – Dada, Surrealism and especially Letterism/ lettrism have their origins in Eastern Europe’ (p.298). In this – as in much else – he has clearly succeeded. It’s a stimulating page-turner of a biography.