A New Form of Being Human

Andrew Hussey, Speaking East: The Strange and Enchanted Life of Isidore Isou

Reaktion Books, 328pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781789144925

reviewed by Douglas Field

In 1945, the Romanian poet Isidore Isou wrote an open letter to Parisian publishers. Although he had recently arrived in the French capital, the 22-year-old writer was incensed that major publishing houses had yet to take note of his brilliance: ‘I’m warning you now that my friends and I will come and smash your faces in if you don’t publish my work which will great create upheavals.’ Isou’s threats to the ‘old bastards’ of the post-war Parisian literary establishment were not idle. As Andrew Hussey explains in Speaking East: the Strange and Enchanted Life and Isodore Isou, his subject, a ‘self-proclaimed Jewish messiah and genius,’ was fuelled by rage and self-belief. Lettrisme, the movement that Isou founded in post-war Paris, was not merely a set of avant-garde practices; rather, as Hussey explains, ‘What Isou wanted to achieve was not the discovery of a new form of poetry, but a new form of communication and ultimately a new form of being human.’

Isodore was born Ion-Isodor Goldstein in 1925, growing up in the northeast of Romania, not far from Samuel Rosenstock, a future compatriot in Paris, who changed his name to Tristan Tzara. A precocious teenager, Isou’s first revelation came to him on the streets of Bucharest at the age of 17. ‘It was clear to him,’ Hussey tells us, that ‘the “old civilization” he had grown up in was now crumbling away before his eyes.’ After narrowly surviving the pogrom of 1941 in which at least thirteen thousand Jews were murdered by the Romanian army, Isou’s central questions — ‘how to build the new world, how to find a new civilization?’— mirrored questions being asked of the newly formed state of Israel. His experience as survivor of the Holocaust ‘would be the emotional core of the rest of his life and art.’

As Hussey explains, Isou’s Jewish identity was central to his aesthetic and political outlook in which violence was necessary to change the frames of reference around him. Isou cut his teeth as an iconoclast as part of Romania’s huligan youth, ‘a generation of young intellectuals who deliberately taunted and terrorized the older literary generation, and who declared they hated anybody not born in the twentieth century.’ Soon after his arrival in Paris as the Second World War ended, Isou told a bemused Gaston Gallimard, founder of the prestigious Nouvelle Revue Française that ‘he had come to Paris with a revolutionary new theory of poetry and music that would save mankind.’ He was, he explained to the distinguished publisher, the most important poet since Charles Baudelaire. Post-war Paris, as Hussey explains in one of the most engaging sections of his book, was ‘a savage place where the dominant emotions were hatred and recrimination.’ As a double outsider — foreign and Jewish — Isou survived through his confidence and beauty, traits that he used as a petty thief and as a gigolo. La Dictature Lettriste (1946), the first official lettrist publication, was a propaganda sheet ‘meant to start fights.’ It took on Dada, which detached words from phrases, mandating that it was necessary to go further by detaching letters from words. Drawing on his youth as a huligan, Isou and his followers attacked the literary establishment, among them Louis Aragon and Jean Cocteau, although the latter would become an important ally.

When, in 1947, lettrisme garnered notice in the New York Times, Isou was further convinced of his greatness. That year Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et à une nouvelle musique was published by Gallimard, one of the founding texts of lettrisme in which Isou explained that he was ‘turning philosophy into poetry and poetry intro philosophy.’ First known as the leader of a fringe group of poets and painters, the libidinally charged Isou also wrote a series of books on sex, one of which, Isou: or, The Mechanics of Women (1949), an instructional work not to be read by anyone over the age of forty, landed him in jail for a brief spell. (Isou, would write upwards of 30 ‘sexy novels’ during the 1950s and 1960s to support his precarious financial position). His early works were driven by the belief in ‘youth’ as ‘a new revolutionary class,’ and while Hussey acknowledges that he was not the first to do so, ‘he was one of the first to understand the power of youth as a force for political as well as cultural change.’

Isou’s aesthetic restlessness is reflected in his various endeavours as novelist, essayist, playwright, artist, filmmaker, and poet. One of his most important works was Journals of the Gods (1950), ‘the world’s first “hypergraphic novel,” which consisted of ‘fifty plates of text, diagrams and drawings in a variety of colours, over-laying each other as “unreadable” but fascinatedly cryptic puzzles.’ (Speaking East contains a series of nicely produced images of Isou’s artwork). Isou theorised that ‘the sound of a letter was more important than its meaning,’ and that ‘only by reinventing language could human life be properly transformed.’ By 1950, Isou and his followers started working with film. In May 1951, Isou and his lettristes travelled to Cannes, where they demanded that their film Treatise on Slime and Eternity, which had not been entered into the competition, should be shown. After an inevitable scuffle, the film was awarded a new prize called Prix de L’Avant-garde. That the Paris press was ‘mostly baffled or enraged by the film,’ did little to perturb Isou or his new acolyte, Guy Debord, who joined Isou’s ranks as lettrisme focused on film. Debord, as has been documented by Greil Marcus in Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989) quickly tired of Isou’s megalomania. He broke ranks and formed the Internationale Lettriste — the ‘extreme Left Wing of the lettriste movement’ and then formed the better known new avant-garde faction, L’Internationale Situationnist, in 1957.

Debord’s betrayal, as Isou perceived it, was the apex of a life and career characterised by treason and brawling, which took its toll. During the 1960s, the middle-aged Isou, who had placed such value on his own youth and beauty — and who was convinced of his immortality — could not keep pace with fast-changing shifts in culture and society. During May ’68, a moment he saw as the culmination of his prophetic genius, Isou suffered a breakdown that would affect his life significantly. From then onwards, Isou spent long periods at the Sainte-Anne Hospital Center, Paris’s most famous psychiatric asylum, which had treated the likes of Antonin Artaud and Michel Foucault. During his spells at Sainte-Anne, and in his tiny, monastic-like apartment, Isou continued to write, including waging a long war against the practice of psychiatry. ‘Isou thought that Artaud—like Isou himself,’ Hussey explains, ‘was not mad but a true mystic.’

Hussey is an engaging raconteur and his biography of Isou is a fine companion to his earlier work, The Game of War: the Life and Death of Guy Debord (2001), not least, as he explains, because lettrisme is ‘the missing link between Dada, Surrealism and Situtationism.’

In Speaking East, Hussey points out that Isou is ‘endlessly elusive,’ a biographical subject who is ‘full of contradictions, truths and untruths.’ And while Hussey succeeds in capturing ‘something of his extraordinary voice, his ideas, and his art,’ the book raises some questions about the biographer’s role. In the process of capturing Isou’s voice, Hussey slips into the role of the omniscient biographer, who claims to know the inner workings of his subject: what he was thinking, when, and why. It’s a technique, however, that succeeds; Isou emerges as a complex, dark, and charismatic figure, whose brief ascendance in the world of the post-war avant-garde is documented with panache.

Douglas Field teaches at the University of Manchester. His co-edited collection of essays, Harold Norse: Poet Laureate, Gay Maverick, is forthcoming.