The avant-garde of the early 20th century had more than its fair share of clever rogues, and no one played the role with more self-conscious élan than Walter Serner, who compiled an aphoristic guide to succeeding as a con artist in a Europe roiled by social upheaval, economic chaos and political intrigue after the First World War. Born in 1889 to an affluent Jewish family in the Bohemian town of Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary), Serner moved in 1909 to Vienna to study law, but the illicit was his true métier. He changed his name, quit school, converted to Catholicism and moved to Berlin, where he began to write for vanguard journals like Die Aktion. In 1915 he forged a medical report to help a friend (the anarchist author Franz Jung) avoid the front, and then fled, with the police in pursuit, to Zurich. There Serner fell in with other writers and artists in refuge from the war, among them Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp and Christian Schad, and together they cooked up the negativity bomb that was Dada. Under surveillance as a subversive, Serner moved more than thirty times in twenty years, yet his radical profile was just another of his guises. Although he was acquainted with Lenin (who in 1917 lived on the same street as Cabaret Voltaire, the nightclub that served as Dada headquarters), Serner was no Bolshevik: his aim was to survive, even exploit, the old order as it fell apart, not to militate for a new one.
Serner published the first 12 fragments of his manual as a Dada manifesto in 1919, then in rapid fire wrote 69 more entries and presented the whole as the first version of Last Loosening a year later. By this time Zurich Dada had broken up, Tzara had decamped to relaunch the movement in Paris, and Serner followed him there. But the two fell out immediately – Serner felt, rightly, that Tzara had ripped off some of his ideas – and so he moved on again, first to Naples to hang out with Schad, and eventually to Geneva, which became his base of operations. Over the next seven years he worked on a second part of Last Loosening, which consists of 591 additional instructions for the con artist. Along with essays and poems (plus a play that bombed), he also wrote four books of stories about an international demi-monde of petty criminals, hustlers, pimps, whores, spies and secret police (one of these collections, At the Blue Monkey, has now appeared in English), as well as a short novel, The Tigress, in the same genre (it was made into a movie in 1992). Some of these tales draw on his own experiences, which he embellished (he thought a risqué reputation would help sell books), but they also stage many of the tactics put forward in Last Loosening, mostly in quick skits set in different metropoles (Berlin, Paris, Munich) and peopled by sketchy characters with names that sound foreign or faux or both (‘Stornelli’, ‘Tall Jacques’, ‘Count Okenpunkoll’). These ‘outlandish’ stories relate casual pranks and complicated grifts that are by turns comic and calamitous: some read like games of Cluedo with the players amped up on coke, while others suggest scenes pulled from a film noir, a genre they anticipate by twenty years. (Serner would have agreed with Godard: ‘All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun.’) As in film noir the women figure mostly as props or prizes for the men; only rarely do they get to turn the tables. The same holds for Last Loosening: the con artist is always a dude.
Serner revised the two parts of his manual, now respectively titled ‘The Handbook of Principles’ and ‘The Handbook of Practices’, and published them as one book in 1927. Each of the two handbooks begins with a menu for a lavish dinner, which he calls a necessary ‘preparation’, and a set of mottos, often paradoxical, such as ‘Be more than you are, be nothing! Then you shall be everything,’ and concludes with a few bar songs, sometimes dark:
Nowhere do I have a place.
Many a blank eye has me in sight.
Daily am I myself the stakes
and I win myself every night.
‘The Handbook of Practices’, which contains the bulk of the advice, ranges from the commonsensical (don’t overdo drink or dope, eat plenty of fruit and vegetables) to the cavalier (nothing much distinguishes seduction and predation here) to the sinister (almost everyone is seen as either a mark or an enemy). In 13 chapters of succinct rules this part constitutes a perverse code of proper conduct for the con artist, an anti-ethical ethics for the immoralist: how to stand out or recede as the situation demands; how to get in on a scheme and get out of a scrape; and, most important, how to read the tells of others and keep your own reactions in check (many of these cues still have currency). Serner addresses us as acolytes; he cons us into becoming cons as we read.
The rules are eccentrically arranged, but one could reorganise them by category to derive a series of simple lessons. Lesson one: self-control comes first since you need it to control others.
Whoever would like to master men must never let himself be amazed by anything.
Those who experience everything intensely are not suited for life.
Never let a sudden surge of joy catch you off guard.
Praise others often. Be astonished seldom. Reproach never.
Never display hatred for anything. (Besides, concealed hatred is invigorating.)
Never dramatise. Always simplify.
Keep all stress to a minimum. It ages you.
Do not live with anyone. It will unnerve you without your being aware of it.
Having a family is out of the question for you.
Love letters are the epitome of stupidity.
Live for yourself, insofar as possible, consistently.
If you need money in your pocket to feel comfortable in the role you’re playing, then force yourself to go out without a penny three times a week and overcome all difficulties you encounter. This will teach you to get used to it.
Lesson two: your act is everything, so keep it sharp and up to date.
Stand in front of a mirror, often.
Practise your gaze daily.
Seldom employ disguises. They always tend to rub off on you a little.
Never go to the theatre. You’ll ruin your act.
Do not improvise when it comes to important matters.
Spend time around married couples going through a divorce as often as possible. You will pick up a great deal for your act here.
Don’t concern yourself with psychoanalysis, politics, literature or science. They will rob you of time and energy while giving you no boost at all.
Serner advises us to keep a pocket mirror always on hand, not for any insight it may offer about our interiority, but so that we might anticipate how others will perceive us. He looks ahead to Sartre in his insistence that we come to exist only in social terms, in the eyes of others. Self-knowledge develops not inside-out but under the gaze of the world. ‘Many a blank eye has me in sight.’
Lesson three: remember that others are always alien and that even dupes don’t mean well.
Consider every ear within earshot as hostile.
Lie about everything to anyone who’s a stranger to you.
Trust, divulge to, no one.
If you let people know your intentions, they will betray you. Even if it’s just by lifting a little finger.
Never contend with a man who has nothing to lose.
Whenever someone is crying, quickly move closer – the melancholic are easier to manipulate.
No one is so stupid that you can’t convince him he’s a genius within three days.
Allow someone to catch you in a lie. He will immediately try to rip the mask off your face, but this will allow you to easily make good use of him.
Some intelligent folks act stupidly, like an insect playing dead when a human approaches. The antidote? Act even more stupidly, and soon the other will triumph over you so brilliantly that you’ll be able to recognise him for what he is and then have him in the palm of your hand.
If you can’t seem to get a good read on someone, then try to imagine him naked.
For Serner every social interaction, whether a quick conversation or a physical challenge, is a battle, and like his contemporary Carl Schmitt he assumes a Hobbesian worldview: ‘Life is a warfare against the malice of others.’ Anticipating Michael Corleone, Serner offers a warning: ‘Get to know your enemies personally.’ But he leavens the advice too: ‘Often you’ll find they make the best companions.’
Lesson four: self-control is key and your act is everything, but you need back-up if both fail. Try crying. ‘Men will be moved and women unspeakably flattered.’ In any case, ‘being a coward is often the best way to save your life.’ Don’t give up hope prematurely: ‘If you’re in the wrong, you still have a chance to win litigation. Even the likes of you.’ When you’re in a real jam, ‘go abroad since fewer obligations can be imposed on you … And as far as your rights are concerned, they’re lousily protected no matter where you go.’ Finally, in extremis, ‘go to ground, disappear, and never return.’
An early reviewer noted that Last Loosening looks back to The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1647) by Baltasar Gracián, another aphoristic book about appropriate conduct in a society ruled by self-interest; in effect Serner updates the Spanish Jesuit in diabolical terms. But a contemporary reader will be reminded of the self-help books and recovery programmes that flood bookstores and websites, with one crucial difference: for Serner the self is but a means to an end, a mask that can be put on and taken off as required (like everyone else in his milieu, he read Nietzsche). There is no essential ego to restore, no old you to recoup through 12 (or 672) steps, and ‘all interpersonal relationships … are always constructs’ too. Honesty and transparency, the virtues of improvement manuals, are the last things you need: ‘The danger of relapsing into self-assurance can be gauged by the degree to which your ability to disguise yourself is impaired.’
How did Serner shift so abruptly from Dadaist author to con expert, or isn’t that such a big jump? From the start the modernist arts were widely viewed as a con, and in our time Stanley Cavell has argued that the potential ‘fraudulence’ of any avant-garde is the necessary risk of our passionate ‘conviction’ in it. Of course, Dada invited outrage – its primary aim was to shock people out of aesthetic complacency – and to this day many art lovers dismiss Duchamp and company as so much blague. But Serner ups the ante greatly: in Last Loosening fraudulence haunts modern society as a whole, not just the arts, and everyone must play the game or lose. From his perspective Dada didn’t end; rather, it exposed a cynicism that had spread (yes, like a virus) everywhere.
That said, Last Loosening does move beyond Dada in certain respects. First, it signals a shift in attitude. Serner didn’t endorse Dada’s theatricality, and wanted to escape its slam-bang oscillation between boredom and outburst. ‘The gentleman frenetically runs riot: from void-rage’ was his diagnosis of the typical Dadaist. Again, Serner advocated self-control, not acting out, and sought to turn cultural alienation to social advantage. Remember ‘the monster of indifference that you actually are’, he admonishes the con initiate. This emotional distance was his model for the ‘cool conduct’ that became the hallmark of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) artist of the mid-1920s (his friend Schad is a good representative of the style).
There’s also a philosophical turn in Last Loosening, for Serner points to a conundrum that both stumped and stunted Dada, that negation can easily flip into affirmation: ‘“I deny the truth” … I want this proposition to be true. A perfect contradiction: the content of the proposition is refuted by the proposition itself … You’re always mistaken. Always. Everyone. Always. Everyone. Always everyone.’ If we think otherwise, ‘we succumb to the delusion … that we’re not deluded.’ In short: ‘Nothing’s correct. (Not even this.)’ Serner greets most iterations of this problem with an interjection like ‘the swig around the axis’ or pas la peine, both of which mean, essentially, ‘to hell with it’. But sometimes he tries to tarry in the conundrum, because ‘at this point things begin to nicely shimmer’ and given definitions start to crack. Here Serner’s cynicism, which he defines as ‘an outright absence of one-sidedness’, takes on a cast that is almost deconstructive, or at least critically corrosive. ‘Every person has always believed in much too much: you don’t have to buy into anything at all.’
From the first instalment to the final version of Last Loosening the most significant change is the simplest: in every instance Serner substitutes ‘rasta’ for ‘Dada’. ‘Rasta’ is short for the French rastaquouère, which derives from the Spanish rastacuero, a South American term for a foreign upstart. (A bit like ‘Apache’ in Paris in the 1900s, ‘rasta’ was fairly common in Berlin argot in the 1920s.) For Serner the disruptive outsider was a telling avatar of the world after the Great War, and he wasn’t alone in his embrace of the ‘desperado’; in 1920, the year that Serner passed through Paris, Francis Picabia, a rasta in his own right, published a text titled Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère. According to Serner, the rasta ‘gets up to all sorts of shenanigans as a prophet, artist, anarchist, statesman, etc’; as likely to be a ‘President of the Senate’ as a ‘peepshow proprietor’, he cuts across class positions as he ‘feeds vulturously’ on the ‘high idiom’ of social convention like so much dead meat. The rasta is not just any con man (this appellation has lost its edge in English in any case). In his subtitle Serner uses the word Hochstapler, literally ‘high-stacker’, someone who builds things up, who exaggerates to risky effect. The Hochstapler is a shapeshifter who turns confidence, his and ours, into an art – the art of winning.
We might think of the rasta as a déclassé descendant of the dandy, who was profiled by Baudelaire in terms that most Dadaists knew well. (Hannah Höch claimed the figure of the dandy for women, partly in protest against the misogynistic rastas in her Dadaist milieu in Berlin.) ‘Dandyism is the last spark of heroism amid decadence,’ Baudelaire wrote in The Painter of Modern Life (1863). It ‘appears above all in periods of transition, when democracy is not yet all-powerful, and aristocracy is only just beginning to totter and fall’. ‘In love with distinction,’ the dandy contrives ‘a cult of the self’ that aims, impossibly, to beat back ‘the rising tide of democracy, which invades and levels everything’. Like the dandy for Baudelaire, the rasta must show indifference, and yet, sixty years on, that democratic tide had become a chaotic flood, with the result that, whereas Baudelaire depicted the dandy as ‘an out-of-work Hercules’, Serner presents the rasta as an always-on-the-job grifter, exploiting the social confusion of the 1920s as best he can. The rasta also has a more complicated relation to visibility than the dandy: ‘Distinguish yourself from others in everything you do. It arouses curiosity. But don’t stand out too much or you’ll just end up falling.’ In short, while the dandy aims for distinction, the rasta depends on disguise, mimicry, camouflage, disappearance. And there are tips here for others too: as Brecht insists in Reader for City-Dwellers (1926-27), a poem sequence contemporaneous with Last Loosening, any modern subject must be ready to ‘cover his tracks’ at one point or another.
What does all this have to do with a ‘last loosening’, and what exactly is to be loosened anyway? The original title, Letzte Lockerung, is sometimes translated as Final Dissolution, which suggests that the main target is the moral constraint of social convention. This reading conforms to the usual understanding of the avant-garde as a solvent of both academic art and the staid society around it. But what if this situation had already changed? ‘The sickness that the world manifests today differs from that manifested in the 1920s,’ André Breton remarked, looking back on Surrealism in 1952. ‘The spirit was then threatened by congealing whereas today it is threatened by dissolution.’ A fixed order possessed of a coherent ideology can always be contested, but what if dissolution had already set in, and ‘worldviews’ had become ‘word salads’, as Serner asserts? Luis Buñuel staged this dilemma brilliantly in the scene in The Exterminating Angel (1962) where a bourgeois gathering can’t quit its own dinner party. Michael Wood, writing about Buñuel (in the LRB of 7 September 2000), identified just what is at stake here. Far from rational and manifestly stable, ‘social arrangements are foolish and apparently fragile, because they are so arbitrary and groundless. Everything about them could be different, and is different in other times and places … And yet it is because these arrangements are arbitrary and groundless that we have so little purchase on them, and they seem so strangely unchangeable.’ Such is the predicament already glimpsed by Serner in the 1920s. Society is at once stuck and fluid, or rather stuck because it is fluid, and the connection between appearance and reality, pretence and truth, is stretched, if not broken. Dadaist gestures of disruption are no match for this greater disorder. Despite its professed values of ‘sincerity and authenticity’, as Lionel Trilling once put it, bourgeois society has become – perhaps always was – its own con. ‘Everything is, in fact, rastaquouèresque, my dear people,’ Serner states (with a touch of pity for the unseeing among us). ‘Everything is utter pretence, since everything is uncertain.’
It is an old trope in crime fiction and film that the underworld of crooks and gangs mirrors the above-ground of police and politicians. Everybody’s on the make or on the take; everybody’s a capitalist of one stripe or another. ‘What’s the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of one?’ Brecht asks in The Threepenny Opera (1928). These insights are updated, to hilarious effect, in the television series The Riches (2007-08), in which two grifters, played by Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver, are stunned to find that almost everyone they meet in the straight world is also a thief; in fact they’re out-conned, right and left, by neoliberal subjects made desperate by the go-to cocktail of debts and drugs. In Last Loosening, too, social encounters are not only potential skirmishes but actual bets, barters, pay-offs, blackmails; it’s a world of ubiquitous exchange as well as pervasive deception. And all the pimps, whores and johns in the stories suggest that capitalist life is often prostitution writ large.
For Serner it’s not a matter of deception versus truth or trick versus trust; it’s masks, it’s rastas, all the way down, so the only alternative is to con or be conned. The ‘last number’ of Last Loosening reads: ‘To be sure, the world wants to be deceived. And it becomes truly malevolent if you don’t oblige.’ But how is the individual to keep pace with the meta-rasta of society? At least the con artist has a head start on others: ‘The world is ruled by people play-acting. This alone is a sign that victory has been achieved. Thus, never fight for anything. Perform for – yourself.’ (Again: ‘Daily am I myself the stake/and I win myself every night.’) In this light, ‘your greatest advantage’ is ‘not being what you seem; indeed, not even seeming to want to be what you are not’. For this situation Dadaist void-rage is too hot, and Neue Sachlichkeit coolness too detached. Serner proposes a tabula rasta that is more modulated: sometimes ‘verve’ is required, sometimes ‘emptiness’. ‘Verve’ is the English for Wupptich, which, the translator Mark Kanak tells us, was a Berlin term for élan. If you have enough verve, you can always rise to the occasion. However, if the game’s not on, it’s better to chill: ‘Be empty, then, as empty as you are! After all, this is far more pleasant: everything gets easier, looser.’ Here Lockerung comes back into play; in this case ‘loosening’ means limbering up for action – relaxed yet ready to go, like an athlete, or prepared to parry little surprises as well as big shocks, like a rasta. ‘Only if you take up the gauntlet without delay will you be truly loosened up and become what you have always dreamed of: the fortune-seeker of your own body and life – Rasta.’
‘Just endure,’ Serner writes at one point. In the end, for all his verve, the rasta only wants to survive – to survive modernity. Other kinds of survivalists precede the rasta in this struggle, not only the dandy sketched by Baudelaire but also the ‘metropolitan type’ with his ‘blasé attitude’ identified by the Berlin sociologist Georg Simmel two decades before Serner (‘Numb yourself,’ Serner advises, as though you could get ahead of the numbing delivered by the outside world). In an enigmatic phrase from the early 1930s, Walter Benjamin suggested that ‘modernism teaches us to survive civilisation if need be,’ and that often it does so with a blank, even brutal presentation of the world, a ‘positive barbarism’ which to his mind responded, however hopelessly, to the negative barbarism of a triumphant fascism. The rasta is another avatar of this barbarism, maybe a hybrid of positive and negative types. Since he has nothing to lose, he can go for broke: ‘When all the threads of the net you’ve woven start to come undone, grab them with your hands. And if this too should fail, know that you must be strong enough to abandon all of it with a light heart, to permit yourself anything.’ After all, ‘people suffer the likes of you because you cannot be ruined.’
In the end cynical reason doesn’t save anyone; certainly it didn’t save Serner. He published nothing after 1927, and, true to his ultimate instruction, went to ground. He married his long-time partner, Dorothea Herz, moved to Prague, and taught school to get by. The Nazis banned and burned his books, and when they invaded in 1939, Serner and Herz made several attempts to escape to Shanghai, all of which failed. In August 1942 they were taken first to Terezin and later to Latvia, where evidently they were killed, with everyone else in the transport, and dumped in a mass grave in the forest. ‘Whoever speaks a word of comfort is a traitor.’