Spring 2012

L’Affaire Barrès

The first English translation, by Alex Stein

André Breton and Tristan Tzara

The transcript of the trial was originally published in Littérature no. 20 (August 1921). The following translation is by Alex Stein.

On 13 May 1921, Dada formed itself into a revolutionary tribunal.

It had to do with judging Maurice Barrès. One evening, some of us, who had gathered in a café on the Boulevard Montparnasse, were speaking of the accidents, robberies, and crimes of the week. Suddenly, a very animated discussion began about Barrès. Nobody agreed with anybody. We immediately decided to widen this debate and form a tribunal. A chief magistrate was nominated (André Breton), as well as two associate judges (Théodore Fraenkel and Pierre Deval) and a public prosecutor (Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes). Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault declared themselves ready to defend Barrès.

Over the course of fifteen days, testimonies were gathered. A certain number of well-known figures refused to take part. The accused was summoned before the investigating committee. He left Paris immediately to go to Metz and Aix-en-Provence.

On 7 May, the investigating committee began work on the last of its tasks, namely, to finalize its recommendations. By the end of the evening, the committee had decided to charge Maurice Barrès with “attacking the integrity of the mind.”

The proceedings opened on 13 May in the Hall of the Learned Societies.

The judges, the lawyers, and the public prosecutor were dressed in white aprons and white shirts and wore soft felt hats (scarlet for the magistrates and the public prosecutor, black for the defense lawyers). At nine o’clock, the bailiff stepped forward and asked in a loud, clear voice: “Are you there, Barrès?” The defendant at that time was the guest of honor at a dinner in Aix-en-Provence where he was lecturing on “the French soul during wartime.” Some young provincials were listening, slack-jawed, to the academician-congressman from Paris.

In the Hall of the Learned Societies he was about to be judged.

At 9:30, the bailiff called the court to order.

[At this point, Breton read out the charges, after which witnesses were called to the stand.]



Question: Do you know Mr. Maurice Barrès personally?

Response: No.

Q: Do you know his work?

R: Very little, except his newspaper articles and Enemy of Laws, in which I found only one interesting character—the Knife-Grinder.

Q: Do you nonetheless have an idea of the basic intentions of Maurice Barrès?

R: Not at all. The supposed idealism of Barrès completely escapes me.

Q: Given this, do you consider Barrès’s attitude to be unified or contradictory?

R: Unified.

Q: What do you think of it?

R: I find it appalling.

Q: Why?

R: Mostly in a sense which is peculiar to me. To take Maurice Barrès for a man of genius, I find that too embarrassing. He has exerted a harmful influence over the public.

Q: What do you mean by genius?

R: I think that question is beyond the competence of this court.

Q: What makes Maurice Barrès interesting to you?

R: Every man who by his artistic activity or any other activity exerts a kind of intellectual imperialism is, in my opinion, a man of genius.

Q: Is it this imperialism that you resent?

R: Yes.

Q: Do you think Maurice Barrès’s attitude is innocent of the charges brought against him?

R: No.

Q: Do you think such charges could be brought against a man?

R: Yes.

Q: Which one, or which ones, of the main charges would you personally keep?

R: These are just details. I judge Barrès’s attitude as a whole. There is no reason to consider the components.

Q: If you could strike down the one of Barrès’s attitudes that you condemn the most, would you consider that action in any sense meaningful or useful?

R: Yes.

Q: Do you find Barrès perfectly suited for this type of repression?

R: Perfectly.

Q: How do you reconcile the political and social programs of Barrès with his nationalism?

R: The first anarchism of Barrès was a bourgeois and rather vulgar one. It’s a slippery slope. With certain individualists like Barrès, I cannot determine the exact turning point.

Q: How would you reconcile the disintegrating effects of his ideas with his constructive nationalism?

R: There is nothing constructive in this nationalism. One finds in it, rather, a destructive element.

Q: Would you give some examples of constructive nationalism?

R: The Russian Revolution, first of all. Barrès’s nationalism is destructive because it mostly fuels hatred between nations. It is an offensive nationalism.

Q: What do you think of Barrès’s statement, “I chose nationalism like any other determinism”?

R: I think it is just a statement.

Q: What do you think of Barrès’s sensibility?

R: It is completely to his advantage. From an individual point of view, you can’t challenge it in any way.

Q: Do you know any man of Barrès’s generation that you prefer?

R: I could contrast Barrès with Romain Rolland. I contrast him, but I do not prefer him. It is necessary to compare Rolland to Barrès. Rolland’s attitude is no less unacceptable. The same individualistic tone appalls me in both of them.

Q: Do you think Barrès is sincere?

R: Every man is sincere.

Q: Does Maurice Barrès think he has a mission to accomplish?

R: This escapes me.

Q: Would you be happy or sad with Maurice Barrès’s death?

R: This is a matter of complete indifference to me.

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