The editor of Camera Work uses the word “vagaries” to describe the post-impressionistic, expressionist artists of the day, of which Matisse and Picasso are a part. I decided to take this idea and run with it, seeing where the literary/written texts are vague and where they become, if at all, concrete and clear. It’s a question of how far the artist is trying to keep the audience, what distance exists between the audience and the work through “technical manipulation”—“absurd, unintelligible, radical or revolutionary.” Starting with Stein, whose writing is designed to recreate in language what/how the visual artists of the day are painting, the text is designed to be analogous. Stein is incredibly vague: pronouns without clear nouns, run-on sentences with syntactic knots, verbs without direct objects, contradictory and unclear phrases, and a lack of any external referent. In this sea of vague wording Stein conjures, I will say that certain words come to the fore (the words repeated over and again) from a background of syntactic static and nonsense. In the Matisse criticism, Stein brings to the fore “certain,” “express” (in relation to the what the artist is expressing), “something” (the direct object, the result of the artwork, what is being “expressed”), a few other verbs that create a dynamic, ever-moving piece—knowing, hearing, suffering, listening, etc. In the Picasso essay, the “one” that turns into “this one” is what is given the most emphasis, but the thing being referenced by “one” is never made clear.
Tzara creates static, as well, in which the ideas he is driving at become vague; his tactics are a bit different, though. While Stein uses language without clear referents, Tzara embraces an excess of references that obscure his meaning. Take this sentence from the first full para: “To impose your ABC is a natural thing— hence deplorable. Everybody does it in the form of crystalbluffmadonna, monetary system, pharmaceutical product, or a bare leg advertising the ardent sterile spring. The love of novelty is the cross of sympathy, demonstrates a naive je m'enfoutisme, it is a transitory, positive sign without a cause.” The sentence begins with his initial idea of imposing order through one’s rhetorical purpose: “ABC.” He assigns this to the category of a “natural thing,” a tendency humans typically do. As he makes this idea concrete, however, he overloads the audience with nonsense or complex references that don’t clearly connect to his main point. The last sentence in this excerpt shifts topic to make a blanket comment on novelty and its relationship to sympathy (I think?). The word “transitory” sticks out here—his references are also moving, never stable, and thus meaning never coheres (whereas Stein’s writing is stationary through repetition).
The other vagaries going on in Tzara are the paradoxical statements that forego a firm, solid conclusion: “I write a manifesto and I want nothing, yet I say certain things, and in principle I am against manifestoes, as I am also against principles.” This play on dialectic thinking refuses to sway to either side of the dialectic. “There is no ultimate Truth,” Tzara writes, which is a statement extending of the idea that human psychology obscures that which we see and how we thinking about it. Really, though, Tzara takes issue with logic itself: “What we need is works that are strong straight precise and forever beyond understanding. Logic is a complication. Logic is always wrong. It draws the threads of notions, words, in their formal exterior, toward illusory ends and centers. Its chains kill, it is an enormous centipede stifling independence.” In this way, Stein and him are similar—they follow logical patterns and use words that suggest logical conclusions; but they reach firm ground. Their writing is left adrift, “transitory,” uncertain.