Melchior Vischer – Second Through Brain (Equus Press, 2015). Translated by David Vichnar and Tim König
“In fifty years or in fifty minutes will this my good inanity surely become apodictic wisdom”; so predicted Melchior Vischer, writer of the first Dadaist novel, Second Through Brain, in 1920.
Well now it’s almost a hundred years later and far from being apodictic (that is, surely, clearly and indisputably the case), Vischer’s work remains troubling, and in many ways as impenetrable as it was upon first publication.
The novel (if it might be called that) was translated by David Vichnar and Tim König into English for the very first time just over three years ago, and a copy has only recently made its way into my hands. It is a worthy piece of literary recovery, filling a gap in the records that I had not even realised was there, and one conducted in the most rigorous academic manner.
There enough in both the scholarly introduction and annotations to satisfy those with an academic interest in the text, while the text itself is presented in the small, challenging sections that typified the original work. At only 116 pages, it is a work as concise as it is important.
Second Through Brain tells the tale of Jörg, a builder who, while ogling the bountiful bosom of a girl in an office below him, slips and falls forty feet from scaffolding. The manic, linguistically mangled visions that blast into his mind during the one-second duration of his fall constitute the body of the text; ending with the composite image of his last sight, a shop selling eggs, and the cracking of his skull, egglike, onto the pavement.
In the graspable content of the novel, we find a series of dreamlike images. These fray and bend out of shape in the iron wind of broken language. Jörg has little time for the “dumbass languages of the wicked Earthball”, we are told, preferring to present the world, in all its fury and pointlessness, through a slurry of half-images and twisted words.
As a foundational text – the first novel of dada – there are a panoply of techniques on display here that it is tempting to call firsts (although I am no expert). The use of non-sequiturs throughout is reminiscent of automatic writing, although the animals and vegetables of the surrealists are not in as regular attendance here as are soldiers, sex, acts of violence, and language itself.
A favourite trick of Vicher’s is the compounding of nouns and the adverbisation of verbs. “A French victoryofficer” is said to “choke gurglingly”, for example. It is a testament to the translators that such words, and the non-sequiturial sentence constructions that contain them, have been effectively rendered in English despite the many barriers that lie between our own tongue and the German original, especially in terms of approaches to grammar and the use of compounds.
The effect is one of conscious unmeaning. Like the two professors we find wandering through the book at its halfway point, we are left “searching for the point. Yes indeed, the point!”
As the professors are revealed to be deer, watched by “a frog corked with cyanide winking imperceptibly, yet aristocratically”, we can conclude that they never did find the point; nor we neither. Which is precisely the point, after all.
Vischer/Jörg is a Sudetenland German, as German speaking Czechs were known at this time, and is keen throughout the novel to situate himself in the German Dadaist tradition. As if to distinguish himself in the reader’s mind from Slavic contemporaries, he makes reference in numerous places to his “friends” Tristan Tzara, Raoul Hausmann, and expressionist Franz Marc. In Vischer’s own mind he was a bridge between the expressionists and Dada. To the founders of Dada he was a provincial opportunist.
Nevertheless, his most ardent yells are those in the name of Dada: “here still reigns the free, primitive lust of procreation. Da da! Here’s the mother of all culture. Da da!”
It is surprising then to find that, other than Second Through Brain, a novel which constituted both his most important and best received contribution to literary culture, Vischer wrote nothing else in the Dadaist or wider avant garde modes. The “primitive” passions of his twenties burned themselves out chasing abortive careers in the theatre, popular fiction, and then history and literary biography.
In fact, as the well-researched introduction to the text makes clear, Vischer soon dropped everything, including his own name, to join up with the Nazi party and write propaganda under the names Emil Fischer and Heinrich Riedel.
One is tempted to draw a parallel with Hitler’s own failed art career, only Vischer had the added frustration of having had one solitary success, Second Through Brain, and nothing but failures after. That this success was anti-bourgeois, anti-church, and anti-art must have rankled with the later “Fischer”, who lived a buttoned-down, churchgoing, happily married life from the 1930s onward.
So might we consider Vischer’s groundbreaking novel to be apodictic wisdom in another fifty years’ time? The signs suggest not. If, after a hundred years, a novel still has the power to baffle, infuriate, tease, captivate, and offend, then perhaps there is hope yet for the avant gardist mission.
Second Through Brain is nowhere near as elaborately conceived or beautifully executed as, say, Joyce’s Ulysses or Woolf’s The Waves, but it reads as far more contemporary. Time hasn’t dulled the blades on the meat grinder of its language. It is still every bit as curious and mocking as it was back in 1920, and now that English readers can get their hands on it I highly recommend that they do so.
– Joe Darlington