Book Review of Speaking East: The Strange and Enchanted Life of Isidore Isou by Andrew Hussey

Isidore Isou, Amos ou Introduction a la metagrapholgie aka Portrait of Maurice Lemaître (1952). EAM collection Berlin, photo by the author.

Isidore Isou, film snippet with images of Isidore Isou in Saint-Germain-des-Prés from Traité de bave et d’éternité (Treatise on Venom and Eternity) (1951) 35 mm black and white film, Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne - Centre de création industrielle Copyright de l’oeuvre: © Adagp, Paris, Crédit, (c) Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Service de la documentation photographique du MNAM/Dist. RMN-GP.

By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, November 2021

Andrew Hussey’s beguiling biography, Speaking East: The Strange and Enchanted Life of Isidore Isou, delivers a long and lush cultural cache that sympathetically—but also critically—conveys at last the complete story of the indefatigable Romanian-French theorist, poet, painter, film-maker, playwright, Left Bank megalomaniac intellectual, and rogue avant-gardist of avant-gardists; Isidore Isou (né Ioan-Isidor Goldstein). 

Hussey’s painstakingly researched writing here is masterfully performed and informed. He himself is a Parisian and once dean at the University of London in Paris. For this biography of the artist, he combines both astute (and harrowing) anti-Semitic and fanatic Zionist post-war social-political historical details with fine-grained art historical research with original sources who inform on the personal life of his subject. As a result, this book is a vivid tour de force of readable precision—and a must have for art historians of late-Modernism and/or early-Conceptualism. Indeed, I will float the idea here that you can’t be a really good post-conceptual artist of this generation without rolling around for a spell in Isou’s work—even while whistling past his blatant sexist misogyny, pathetic fraudulent self-promotion, and maniacal mental meltdowns.

Hussey recounts in exhausting detail, how, born Jewish in Botoșani, Romania in 1925, Isou—as a teenaged nihilistic thug—barely eluded perishing in the 1941 war-related pogrom and the adjacent holocaust. Convinced of his own genius, and after reading Baudelaire, Balzac, Mallarmé and Flaubert, the 20 year-old Isou, by the skin of his teeth, arrived as an illegal immigrant in 1945 to Saint-Germain-des-Prés. With a combination of elevated egotistical chutzpah and chic chicanery, Isou encountered numerous members of the French artistic-intelligentsia; including André Breton, André Gide, Tristan Tzara, Gaston Gallimard, and the young poet/artist Gabriel Pomerand. Together with Pomerand, Isou sparked the creation of Lettrism (lettrisme) (a term Isou coined in 1942 for his then imaginary movement grown from the theoretical roots of the avant-garde phonetism of Dada—specifically the phonetic sound poems of Tzara, Raoul Hausmann, Richard Huelsenbeck and Kurt Schwitters). Its positive-nihilistic goal was to assure the collapse of nationalistic communications. In Isou’s case, also vis-à-vis the exuberant Surrealist literary tradition—the difference being that the Lettrists centered their attention on blocks of rhythmically organized letters, symbols and sounds.

After an excessively long look at Isou’s juvenile era libertinage, that leaves no libidinous lacuna unexamined, Hussey, with posh brio, pushes the passionate plot along with melodramatic and nourish incidents, describing, for example, how for Isou, Letterist poems are akin to composed atonal rhythmic music. What in Jazz is called scat. Letterism, a precursor of Situationist International and of rebellious 60s youth culture in general, did in fact emerge from the Jazz cave scene in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Like the noise of free jazz, it can be seen as a positive and optimistic and joyful galvanizing endeavor by which society can imagine new means of communicating not necessarily based on the structure of linguistic signs but on intense feelings. Simultaneously theatrical and theoretical, aesthetic and political; Isou’s Letterism was a farcical bop gesamtkunstwerk (total-artwork) venture based in the plasticity of asemantic constructs aimed at the formulaic. Through, at first, poetry, Isou and his few followers desired to modify established linguistic frames of common communication so to invent new ways by which human communication can go beyond words. Through such poetry, Isou strove to move art and society beyond established conventional signs by constructing highly creative interpersonal understandings based on the de-semantization of human language. His goal was the formal revitalization of art (and life) through refiguring the power of the letter. A goal never achieved.

That effort usually meant that Isou focused on poetic schemes of sound poems based on rhythmic and tonic systems of combining phonemes, represented by a transcription of vanguard Letterist graphics. These graphic writings-symbols are not to be seen as carrying a useful message, but solely as the farcical object of semi-abstract art: creating a third visual way after the figurative and the abstract. This is nicely illustrated in the book with the description of an Orson Welles English language interview made in 1955 for his documentary film Around the World with Orson Welles.

Still from the Orson Welles 1955 documentary film Around the World with Orson Welles, showing Maurice Lemaître (left) Isidore Isou (center) and Welles (right), photo by the author.

Hussey also leads us delicately through one for the more fascinating early-Letterist incidents that took place on January 21, 1946. That evening Isou attended the première of fellow Romanian Tzara’s play La Fuite (The Escape) at the Vieux-Colombier theater and in the tradition of Dadaist provocation, began bellowing, as he took the stage, “Dada is dead! Letterism has overtaken it!” After spouting his Letterist ideas, he read a few of his early poems, including Vagn bagadou kri kuss balala chimorabissss. Years later in 1963, as Tzara was being buried at Cimetière du Montparnasse, Isou et al attempted to make another interventional fuss around him at the planned solemn and silent occasion and ended up fighting with the communists who came to pay their respects to Tzara. Even given Letterism’s relentless criticism of Tzara and the mediocrity of the other radical French intellectuals, in 1947, with the support of Jean Cocteau and Jean Paulhan, Isou published in La Nouvelle Revue française his grand theoretical proposition, Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et à une nouvelle musique (Introduction to a New Poetry and a New Music) in which he laid out for the public the groundwork for Letterism and metagraphy (métagraphie). In these literary innovative approaches that use graphic compounds not recognized by any given dictionary, Isou described what he saw as the golden path of decomposition which French poetry had been traveling since Charles Baudelaire. Isou declared that ‘the letter’ be the final stage of this process of decomposition-refinement—and more generally that ‘signs’ represent the possible foundation for a total renewal of the arts.

As Hussey tells it, in the late 1940s, inspired by such elaborate grandiose ideals, Isou’s group expanded, attracting numerous creative people like Maurice Lemaître, Gabriel Pomerand, and Gil J Wolman. Over the years, others joined in for limited periods or specific contributions, such as Roberto Altmann, Jean-Louis Brau, Roland Sabatier, Paul-Armand Gette, François Dufrêne (sound poetry pioneer known for his use of décollage within the Nouveaux Réalistes group) and Guy Debord, soon to be Isou’s nemesis, author of The Society of the Spectacle, and founder of Situationist International—a spin-off of an anti-Isou spin-off Lettrist group called Letterist International. The social-economic activism of the  Letterist-based Situationnist International is widely credited as the intellectual force that sparked the radical social upheaval of the student movement of May 68 in France. Of this, Isou became bitter for he was not recognized as its instigator precursor, even though he had been calling for a youth revolution for years and years. Enraged, he even tried to break into a radio emission to declare himself head of the revolutionary French nation. But no one paid him any mind, so at a café Isou began to rave in glossolalia. He then claimed himself immortal and wanted to break a mirror and cut himself with it to prove his immortality to his followers. Soon a doctor was called and Isou was sent to an asylum for care under heavy sedation. He was losing his edge—while falling off one.

But in 1976—after Lettrism went in and out of vogue—the sum of Isou’s reflections on creation were compiled in an enormous 1,390page theoretical book called La Créatique ou la Novatique (Creatics) in which he put forth his model of human understanding (his ‘kladological’ doctrine; akin to deconstructive-reconstruction) in contrast to what Isou saw as a banal world of mere copyists caught in a state of general vulgarization.

Isidore Isou, Amos ou Introduction a la metagrapholgie (1952), photo by the author.

It is interesting that certain of Isou’s Letterist poems achieved recognized notoriety not for their performed vocal dexterity-creativity, but because of the quality of their graphic design, as seen in the pictorially hybrid photo-paintings series he made called Amos ou Introduction a la metagrapholgie (1952). Indeed, his rhythmic linguistic-conceptual approach to painting often yields satisfying results; such as with the Numbers series from 1952, the lovely pale yellow noise painting Incrustations dans le Brouillard (Inlays in the Fog) (1961) and the conceptually challenging Telescripto-Peinture (Telescripto-Painting) (1963-1987). These visionary-conceptual paintings, based on paradigmatic repetitive patterns and highly constructed phonetic combinatorics, show Isou to be still contemporary. For example, consider Glenn Ligon’s more overloaded word paintings, or any recent language-based work that uses disintegration and promiscuity.

Isidore Isou, Numbers XXI (1952) oil on canvas, photo by the author.

Isidore Isou, Incrustations dans le Brouillard (Inlays in the Fog) (1961), photo by the author.

Hussey pulls no punches when engaging with Isou’s fucking and writings about fucking—Isou wrote a guide book on it, as well as numerous books of soft porn erotica, like the lame Les Plaisirs d’une dépravée. I only bring them up to say they are not worth mentioning. But all that smart smut is overshadowed by Isou’s masterpiece: a 35mm experimental-revolutionary film from 1951 called Traité de bave et d'éternité (Treatise on Venom and Eternity). It caused a scandal at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival. A virtual Lettrist film manifesto, it is so compelling that it greatly influenced American avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage. Some of it can be seen in this snippet, and in the original trailer. Treatise savagely attacked film conventions by creating what Isou called a form of ‘discrepancy cinema’—where the sound track has little (or nothing) to do with the accompanying images.

The film’s cold melancholy begins with the camera following Isou wandering about the Saint-Germain-des-Prés—the Left Bank area where the two main cafés Le Flore and Les Deux Magots served as key public gathering places during the Occupation—while Isou’s disembodied voice combatively asserts his Lettrist theory. Later, in an act of détournement, found footage newsreel celluloid showing factory workers and the French occupation of Indochina are spliced in and crazily attacked with the creative-destructive technique of painting out—and scratching out—faces.

Hussey’s Speaking East: The Strange and Enchanted Life of Isidore Isou is a magnificently executed story of a maniac conceptual artist lost in his own petulant thoughts who nevertheless helped turn up the lyricism of Europe’s cultural revolution. The writer manages, through sheer skill, to make Isou’s turgid, messianic, narcissist, exasperating grand self-proclaimed genius—what proved erroneous as mostly youthful, toxic male, self-confident ego—somehow enjoyable, if not forgivable. Perhaps because our own abysmal toxic cultural-political time has proven Isou’s idea of poetic-graphic plasticity—with its urge for the decomposing of fixed forms—insightful and highly relevant. 

Within Hussey’s telling of Isou’s life as extravagant Grand Guignol, there is much farce but not much humor. Yet reading about the sad failures of Isou’s furious and exaggerated claims of genius are informing and consoling to all of us non-geniuses. WM 

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.

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