In 1942, walking the streets of wartime Bucharest, 17-year-old Isidore Isou posed himself the same question then being asked of the founding of Israel: how to build a better world than the one around him? The answer came to him as an illumination – or perhaps as mania. ‘All must be revealed in letters.’ Words had, he thought, done great damage throughout history. By breaking them down and exposing them as a collection of arbitrary symbols, Isou hoped to make space for a new language to emerge. This was the inspiration for the movement known as lettrisme. Isou saw himself not only as the founder of the movement, but as its messiah.
Like Futurism and Dada before it, lettrisme held that meaning was secondary to everything else that makes up a word: sound, appearance, texture, the way it is articulated or intoned. Take ‘Larmes de jeune fille’ (1947), which Isou wrote after his move to Paris :
M dngoun, m diahl Θ1hna îou
hsn îoun înhlianhl M2pna iou
vgaîn set i ouf! saî iaf
fln plt i clouf! mglaî vaf
Λ3o là îhî cnn vîi
snoubidi î pnn mîi
A4gohà îhîhî gnn gî
The Greek characters here, footnoted below the poem, encode dramatically contorted modes of speech: the theta is explained as a ‘soupir’, or sigh; the mu as a ‘gémissement’, a moan or groan; the lambda as a ‘gargarisme’, a gargling; the alpha as an ‘aspiration’, a mere breath. Isou’s own background is registered in the much repeated letter ‘î’, pronounced in Romanian as more of a long ‘uh’ than a French or English ‘i’, sounded with the tongue close to the roof of the mouth.
It’s easy to see how different this is – with its tortuous mouthfuls of diphthongs, screeches and howls – from what we usually understand as sound poetry. Marinetti’s Zang Tumb Tumb (1914), the extended sound poem which did much to establish the form, was sonorous and rhythmic when performed, and unlike many of Isou’s examples, which have no semantic content at all, it told a story – of the siege of Adrianople in the First Balkan War, which Marinetti had reported on as a journalist. Zang Tumb Tumb is a collage of actual Italian and English words, along with onomatopoeic and typographical representations of rat-a-tat gunfire, the boom of grenades, the rattle of a train on an iron bridge, the clicking of telegraph messages sent and received. For Isou, such comprehensibility was almost as outdated as the writings of Victor Hugo, the paintings of Delacroix or the music of Wagner: art should represent nothing other than the medium itself, radically deformed.
Ion-Isidor Goldstein was born in 1925 in the town of Botoșani in north-east Romania. His father, Jindrich, was a successful businessman. His mother, Saly, ran the two family homes. She gave him the nickname Izu, which he went on to adopt as his nom de guerre. Isou’s first, ongoing fight was with his father, and he found an ally in his sister Fanny, whose loyalty he promised to reward with the proceeds of the Nobel Prize he was sure to win one day. The Goldsteins were part of Romania’s Jewish minority, a significant presence in Botoșani. He was disdainful of his home town – too provincial for a messiah – but Botoșani wasn’t a backwater. It was here, rather than in Paris, that he first encountered many formative influences. Beyond the yeshiva, where Isou studied religion, there was a theatre, several publishing houses and a well-stocked bookshop. It was in Botoșani that he was first introduced to Dada.
Jews had no rights in Romania until after the First World War. From the early 1930s, they were increasingly excluded from economic and public life, prohibited from speaking Yiddish in the streets and subjected to attacks by nationalists and Orthodox Christians. In 1933, the Goldsteins moved to Bucharest, where they hoped to find safety in numbers. Isou, a precocious teenager, read Marx, Proust, Dostoevsky, Husserl and Bergson. He joined a gang, the so-called huliganii, many of whose members went on to join the Iron Guard (to which Isou almost fell victim). He got into fights, robbed, begged, womanised, visited brothels and fell in love with a girl he had tried to kill by persuading her to commit suicide. His hatred of Christians grew, as did his disturbing self-belief. In 1940, he tried to join the resistance but was turned down. It was more radical, he said, to walk down the street ‘taking a piss with your cock out, with no shame, as I have done’ than it was to follow orders.
Ion Antonescu, who took control of the Romanian state in September 1940, oversaw the deaths of more than 280,000 Jews and 11,000 Roma. The pogrom in Bucharest, led by the Iron Guard, saw Jews tortured and skinned alive, their bodies hung from butchers’ hooks in a twisted reference to shechita, the kosher slaughtering of animals for food. Isou was beaten nearly to death. He seems to have been saved only by his capacity to filter even the most horrific experiences through his messianic belief system. Surely the sacrifice of the Jews heralded his arrival: how else could it be made sense of? Most accounts of Isou’s work have been guided by the insouciant flair for self-promotion he displayed as a member of the Parisian avant-garde, but as Andrew Hussey makes clear in his critical biography, this is to overlook the extent to which lettrisme was driven by the experience of trauma. The fact that Isou rarely mentioned the Romanian Holocaust is only a measure of the impact it had.
After the war, Isou became a peripheral member of the literary scene in Bucharest, where his ambition to become a writer found its first serious expression. In 1944, he founded a journal, Generation 944; its name a promise of change (he and his collaborators had flirted with Da, or ‘Yes’, a nod to Dada). No copies survive, but Isou’s notes show that it was here that lettrisme was first defined, if you can call it a definition: ‘Nu e Dada/E Bada!’ – ‘This is not Dada, it is Bada!’, where Bada means ‘Yes, of course’ in Romanian slang. In the same notes, Isou declared that lettrisme developed the work of James Joyce, and that, like Joyce, he would be ‘MARE OM DIN LUME’ – ‘A GREAT MAN IN THE WORLD’. He also wrote for Mântuirea, a Zionist weekly, addressing a wide range of subjects: Surrealist painting, Stalin (with whom he identified) and the reasons Jews disliked snow. He had a knack for getting into the right circles and for falling out with everyone around him. His superiors thought him a ‘little shit’. There was a lot of talk among colleagues about migrating to Palestine; Isou attempted the dangerous journey and failed. He was unperturbed. His mother had often told him that ‘Isidor’ meant ‘Israel’ in Hebrew, so his people were certain to follow him wherever he went. Paris would be the new Jerusalem, French the new universal language. When a fellow Zionist criticised his decision to go to France instead of Israel, Isou said: ‘I’m declaring myself to be the ambassador of the Jewish people on earth. Why shouldn’t I be Joan of Arc for the Yids?’ And so, with forged papers and manuscripts in hand, he made his way to Hungary, Austria, Italy and finally to Paris.
Isou arrived on 23 August 1945, without money or possessions, and with little of note to his name. He did have charisma and good looks – those of a young Elvis Presley – as well as boundless self-confidence. He also had a letter of introduction to Jean Paulhan, a former director of the Nouvelle Revue française, published by Gallimard. Isou went straight to its offices. Paulhan wasn’t there, but Gaston Gallimard was. Isou announced that the most important literary journalist in Romania had arrived and handed over a manuscript detailing the history of poetry from Baudelaire to himself via Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Valéry, Tzara and André Breton. The meeting led to the publication of two books in 1947: Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et à une nouvelle musique, a polemical anthology which includes Isou’s ‘Larmes de jeune fille’, and a semi-autobiographical novel, L’Agrégation d’un nom et d’un messie. Why Gallimard took the books on is unclear. There was a rumour that L’Agrégation d’un nom was published because the lettristes, the ragtag group of literary outsiders that had gathered around Isou, threatened to burn down the Gallimard offices. Described by Georges Bataille as ‘touching, frightful, stupid, bungled, ridiculous and inspired’, it charts a life very close to Isou’s own. Hussey uses it as the primary source for the first half of his biography, alongside an interview he conducted with Isou in Paris in 1999. This allows him to use Isou’s own words, but it also makes it difficult to distinguish what really happened from fabulation (though this indeterminacy is perhaps truer to Isou’s life than simple facts).
In Paris, Isou lived on his chutzpah, joining gangs, working as a conman, a pickpocket – an art like any other, he told a friend – and a prostitute in Pigalle. His sound poetry incorporates the many voices of the polyglot city. In one example, you find lexical eyesores such as ‘lesputains’ (the whores), ‘sangermain’ (St Germain), ‘Hélobeby’ and ‘OLRAITLEDY!’, which, Hussey writes, may be transliterations of the sounds with which American GIs greeted prostitutes. As in the long exclamation at the beginning of Finnegans Wake, language is broken up then stitched together, letters are made to feel like litter (to borrow Joyce’s pun) in your mouth. This is especially true when the poems are read aloud. Isou’s great hero, Tristan Tzara (né Samuel Rosenstock), whose alias sounds like ‘sad country’ in Romanian, wrote a set of instructions in 1920 on how to compose a Dadaist poem: cut out bits of newspaper, put them in a bag, shake it, allow the laws of chance to rearrange the words into a poem. But Isou wanted to take it further, breaking down the words themselves to produce such phoneme-masticating lines as ‘vagn bagadou kri kuss balala chimorabissss …’ If Dada, to use Isou’s term, ‘chiselled’ words out of phrases, lettrisme chiselled letters out of words as a way of replicating or ‘amplifying’ the chaos and violence all around.
Isou’s genius lay not so much in what he did to language, however, as in his PR stunts. In 1946, he and his friend Gabriel Pomerand, a would-be actor and, by most accounts, a psychopath, sabotaged the opening night of a play by Tzara at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier. The theatre was associated with Existentialism and the committed artists Isou abhorred – so-called ‘Resistance intellectuals’ such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who extolled their own moral virtue but failed to recognise that it was no longer possible to write in the same way after the Holocaust. They still trusted words to carry meaning.
The disruption was successful. News got round that lettrisme existed, even if few people knew what it was. Posters appeared all over Paris heralding the ‘lettriste dictatorship’. ‘HeilHitlerHeilHitlerHEILHITLER’, goes one poem, exploding into a scream. At the time, the newspapers were full of stories exposing Nazi collaborators; Isou may have been alerting readers to the continuing antisemitism he found so disturbing. Yet when language suffers this kind of violence it becomes difficult to distinguish the critical from the collusive. Here as elsewhere Isou identified with the aggressor (as psychoanalysts might say), perhaps reversing his earlier experience of powerlessness and victimhood. It was as if he wanted language to endure what he had suffered, to take revenge on words – and on his readers, too.
Isou used his contracts with Gallimard to meet members of the literary establishment: Jean Cocteau, François Mauriac, André Gide and Breton, among others, whom he variously dismissed as ‘old’ and ‘impotent’, calling them ‘whores’ and ‘arselickers’. He even met Orson Welles, who interviewed him in 1955 for his documentary Around the World with Orson Welles. You can see the clip on YouTube: a bemused Welles listening to Isou and two fellow lettristes produce an alphabet of sounds with their mouths and (sometimes) hands – barks, clicks, grunts, groans, sighs, squeaks. The lettristes came to include such luminaries as Maurice Lemaître, Gil J. Wolman and Guy Debord as well as students, drunks and petty criminals. Many of them really believed that Isou was a messiah, even, briefly, Debord, who thereafter made it his life’s mission to undermine him. In 1952, Debord and Wolman founded a splinter group called the Internationale Lettriste, which evolved five years later into the Situationist International. Isou compared Debord to a neo-Nazi.
His output was prodigious. Isou ou la Mécanique des femmes (1949), an illustrated guide to sex with Isou as guru, was banned on publication. Isou was jailed and made to see a psychiatrist, who concluded that he was sane but obsessed with sex (in the book an erection is described as ‘a hand thrust out of a train in a fascist salute’). The following year he published Les journaux des dieux, which retells the story of Genesis and is the first example of what he called the ‘hypergraphic’ novel. Combining different languages, codes and pictograms – not unlike emoticons and emojis – and superimposing them on braille or staves, it brings together the visual, aural and tactile.
He also started translating lettriste principles into other artforms, producing paintings composed of numbers, glyphs and rhizomes and a film called Traité de bave et d’éternité (1951), which in an analogue to the chiselled word sought to make an ‘image ciselante’, a chiselled image. The celluloid filmstrip was scratched, torn and painted on, obscuring the image beneath and revealing its material base. There was an almost complete discrepancy between picture and sound – ‘a kind of cinematic anti-grammar’, as Isou put it. Daniel, the film’s protagonist (played by Isou), calls for a ‘sadism of the photograph’, a film that ‘hurts your eyes’. The words are enunciated over a frenzied lettriste chorus. Traité de bave et d’éternité won the Prix de l’avant-garde when it was shown at Cannes and found admirers in Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard.
Like Antonin Artaud before him, Isou lived his art. He also paid the price for it. In Hussey’s account he emerges as a man always on the brink. As his disciples betrayed him and his movement disintegrated, so too did his mind. Isou coped as he always had, becoming ever more megalomaniacal and paranoid. He called himself ‘Dieu-Isou’. He couldn’t sleep and masturbated chronically, finding onanism easier than relationships. It didn’t help that he was broke. To make money, he wrote more than thirty pornographic novels whose content ranged from coprophilia to cannibalism. He came up with ideas for a new ‘necrophile art’, an unrealised form of painting on corpses that ‘stinks of truth’. In Initiation à la haute volupté (1960) he explored his wish to murder a woman and developed a theory of ‘erotology’, describing a polymorphic sexuality whose objects ranged from inanimate objects to animals. Somehow in the midst of this all he met his wife-to-be, Jacqueline Enger, whom he courted by claiming he was a professor at the Sorbonne; he even converted to Catholicism to marry her. They had a daughter, Catherine Goldstein, who grew up hearing lectures about her father’s genius – given, of course, by Isou himself.
The major psychotic breakdown came in May 1968. Isou couldn’t stop talking, sometimes in languages nobody could understand. The tumultuous events then happening in Paris merged in his mind with the war and the pogrom in Bucharest. The événements confirmed his messianic complex: the revolution surely owed everything to him. He was interred at Sainte-Anne hospital, where he received ECT and was treated by Artaud’s former psychiatrist, Gaston Ferdière, whom he accused of being a Nazi. Isou took advantage of the vogue for anti-psychiatry. He had read Artaud and R.D. Laing, and tried to formalise his own criticisms in texts such as Antonin Artaud torturé par les psychiatres (1970) and Manifeste pour une nouvelle psychopathologie et une nouvelle psychothérapie (1971). He even tried to put his ideas into practice as a psychiatric consultant, though he didn’t find any clients.
Hussey writes kindly about this chapter of Isou’s life, without romanticising Isou’s illness or naively criticising psychiatry. His final novels were unsuccessful. Yet, read as semi-autobiographies, they testify to the struggle to make sense of his experience of madness. In L’héritier du château (1976), Isou introduced readers to a total system of knowledge called ‘kladology’ whose aim was to create a ‘paradisiacal society’. Kladology sought to transform art, poetry, architecture, politics, economics, mathematics, sexuality, medicine and psychology. As a praxis it was unusable, as a theory of knowledge unintelligible, and the novel wasn’t much good. What mattered, though, was that paradise should resemble the world as it was before 1940.
Isou once said that he expected to live for ‘at least ten thousand years’. He died in 2007, aged 82, in a tiny Left Bank apartment he had bought by selling off a sculpture given to him by Giacometti. His was a vision of excess, but also of redemption. He was convinced that lettrisme would supersede the Renaissance. It didn’t do that, but it bridged the gap between Dada and the Situationist International, between the European avant-garde and Jewish mysticism. It influenced Nouveau réalisme and psychogeography. Isou even claimed that it was John Lennon’s visit to a lettriste exhibition in Paris in 1961 that led the Beatles to embrace experimental techniques. Those who saw lettrisme as a confidence trick were pointing, whether they knew it or not, to its hysterical character. Isou was forever warding off – and so forever repeating – an experience of catastrophe.
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