The 1916 Event “Cabaret Voltaire” in Zürich (Travels in revolutionary Mitteleuropa, from the Rhine to the Danube/10-end)

If rebels are damned and comrades turn into hermits, is it still possible to join friends in planning together the next revolt?

In fact it is possible, especially among emigrés in a cosmopolitan city, as I remembered when I took a short walk away from Rodin’s Gates of Hell in Zürich to consult the oracle of all modern revolt.

The Cabaret Voltaire was a cabaret that was operated on Spiegelgasse 1 [= mirror street!] between February-June 1916 by young writers and artists, friends among the refugees from across war-torn Europe, in the back room of a small tavern in a disreputable quarter of German-speaking Zürich in neutral Switzerland. Spoken word, music, dance, and art were all used in performance, often simultaneously. Walking around the place, I thought they might sound like the Sheffield band that in 1973 took their name, asking the customers “Why Kill Time (When You Can Kill Yourself)“.

Performances were improvisatory, experimental, multilingual, collaborative, egalitarian, episodic, heterotopic, raucous, and increasingly chaotic, perplexing, subversive, and confrontational. Participants deployed humor, satire, mockery, chance, nonsense, negation, spectacle, and increasingly cacophony, excess, absurdity, and collision. Proceedings were driven by an overarching urgency to interrogate and reinvent languages, codes, norms, and media.

In its very short life the project of Cabaret Voltaire moved rapidly from entertainment to total artwork to provocation to subversion. Essentially it was a cultural Event that exploded into existence, lasted for less than six months, and stopped before its inescapable aestheticization and normalization. As soon as it acquired a manifesto and announced its evolution into a movement, even a counter-movement (namely, Dada), it dissolved with impeccable integrity — and quickly spread to other metropolitan centers such as Berlin, Paris, and New York.

There was a strong anarchist dimension in the way its members and their collaborators lived and created without leadership and with daily participation and negotiation. Some participants had explicit anarchist sympathies, none more than the German pioneer of all things avant-garde, Hugo Ball (1886-1927), who in 1910 finished a thesis on Nietzsche, in 1914 started working on a Bakunin anthology, in 1915 published in revolutionary magazines and met Gustav Landauer, and in 1916, seeking to realize anarchist theory in cultural practice, he initiated Cabaret Voltaire and wrote its Dada manifesto. While the Talking Heads set his famous sound poem to music, it is rather unfortunate that Tom Stoppard did not include him as a character in his dazzling play Travesties (1974), which takes place in 1917 Zürich and features Tzara, Lenin, and Joyce.

Each element and component in the cabaret proceedings claimed its unique moment in history on the basis of a bold approach: Nothing inaugurated something lasting, everything was constantly born anew since everything was collaborative, performative and experimental. There was no coherence or continuity. Like its targets, subversion kept shifting; like its members, friendship kept floating. What the project left behind when the place closed in the summer of 1916 was not a canon of works, a network of structures, or a repertoire of styles but an aesthetics of performative life and an ethics of revolutionary friendship – what Foucault called “the dramaturgy of revolutionary lived experience” (“There Can’t be Societies without Uprisings” [1979], Foucault Studies 25, 2018, p. 336).

After 1848 Prague and 1849 Dresden, 1916 Zürich (in Ball’s writings) was the third time and place where I encountered Bakunin in my October journey.  I had traveled across five centuries (1414-1916) and five rivers (Rhine, Limmat, Elbe, Moldau, and Danube).  I had followed the path of revolutionary friendship through the short-lived rebellion of several radical communes in Mitteleuropa, from the Hussites to the Dadaists.  I had traced the iconoclasms of “political spirituality” (329) from the pre-Protestant crisis of Christianity to the revolutionary hope of secular messianism.  I had even recovered from the disturbance of my memory in Weimar.  It was time to return home and map my explorations.

Before leaving town, I took a loving look at the last river of my journey, the Limmat, which commences at the outfall of Lake Zürich. By following its course with my eyes I thought I saw the flow of Dada as it started to spread from the dark nightclub to the entire world. I also saw the flow of the “socialist revolution” of Lenin, who lived on Spiegelgasse 12, diagonally opposite to the Cabaret Voltaire, reach the Finland Station in St. Petersburg in 1917, and the flow of the literary revolution of James Joyce, a “socialist artist,” reach Paris in 1920, together with the flow in all directions of innovative work by other refugees in the cosmopolitan Zürich of the 1910s.  All these very different intellectuals saw it as their task, through their collaborative friendships, to create new flows in order “to multiply the occasions to rise up against the real that is given us” (343).

Cabaret Voltaire was not a political project and did not threaten a regime. But its collective passage of a few revolutionary friends “through a rather brief moment in time” was a radical experiment in cultural revolt which reaffirmed civic solidarity.  It always reminds me of Pantelis’ favorite Foucault passage:  “If societies persist and live, that is, if the powers that be are not ‘utterly absolute,’ it is because, behind all the submissions and coercions, beyond the threats, the violence, and the intimidations, there is the possibility of that moment when life can no longer be bought, when the authorities can no longer do anything, and when, facing the gallows and the machine guns, people revolt” (“Useless to Revolt?” [1979], in Foucault, Essential Works 3, pp. 449-50).

December 2, 2018

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