“Speaking Alone”: Silence and Speech in Post-war France

Selection from Joan Miró’s “The Birth of the World,” 1925. Courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, Public Domain.

By Heather Green on Tristan Tzara: Survival and “Speaking Alone” at Poetry Foundation:Speaking Alone” is a translation of the title poem from Tristan Tzara’s French poetry collection, Parler seul, written during the summer of 1945 and first published in a seminal artist book co-created with Tzara’s friend and longtime collaborator, Spanish artist Joan Miró. Though Tzara is best known as the co-founder of the Dada movement and the author of its most energetic manifestos, he was a prolific poet, as well as an art and literary critic, and anti-fascist and human rights activist, until his death in 1963.

Tzara wrote “Speaking Alone” weeks after Victory in Europe Day, while staying, with his teenage son, as the guest of psychiatrist Lucien Bonnafé at Saint-Alban, one of the few progressive mental asylums in France. Bonnafé, who had sheltered Paul Éluard for a time during the war (after his poetry was dropped from planes as part of an anti-Nazi campaign), offered Tzara a place to rest and regroup after his years spent displaced from his Paris home, hiding in the south of France, often separated from his son. 

At the time of Tzara’s stay, Bonnafé ran the hospital with Francesc Tosquelles, an innovative Catalan psychiatrist who advanced the idea that a hospital could function like a small society, with patients working cooperatively to produce food and art, publish a newspaper, and interact with the surrounding community. Both Bonnafé and Tosquelles had strong ties to avant-garde movements in France and, like Tzara, had been active in the Résistance. Tzara biographer Marius Hentea writes: “Bonnafé’s ideas squared with Tzara’s own intuitions about how society conditioned individuals into false binaries (sane/insane, normal/mad).”

Tzara was moved by his interactions with the natural environment in Saint-Alban and by his conversations with the residents, including many patients he befriended. “Speaking Alone” is a reckoning with the trauma of war. Although it carries some of the wild energies of Tzara’s younger work, it moves at a reflective pace, paying lucid attention to the reality of this highly charged time and place.

More here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.