Melchior Vischer, Second Through Brain: a novel, Trans. by David Vichnar & Tim König, Equus Press, 2015.
Proclaimed as the “first Dada novel” & the “literary equivalent of Cézanne,” Melchior Vischer’s Sekunde durch Hirn (Second Through Brain, 1920) is composed as a series of disconnected vignettes that flash through the mind of one Jörg Schuh as he falls from the scaffolding of a 40-storey construction site. With its boldly idiosyncratic technique, Vischer’s novel is a major document of the Zürich-Prague-Berlin Dada axis. Largely forgotten after World War II, Sekunde durch Hirn is an important rediscovered landmark of the inter-war European avant-garde, here translated into English for the first time.
“Second Through Brain is both a pioneering literary work and a very revealing historical document, and Equus Press are to be congratulated for publishing a fine first English edition of this long-forgotten Dada text.” - Derek Sayer
“Apart from using some of the typical dadaist stylistic techniques as visual typography, non-lexical onomatopoeia, meta-narration, and textual montage, Second through Brain also seeks to programmatically align itself with the Zürich/Berlin dada group. There is, famously, the ‘intertelluric greeting to Serner and Tzara,’ with the prospect of ‘a boat ride over the Niagara.’ […]
Vischer’s attempt at aligning himself with international avant-garde can be seen as a logical step toward overcoming his WWI traumas by creating an international network (stretching out from Prague via Berlin, Hannover and Zürich to Paris) of creative brains within which to weather whichever future storm may be in store. Second through Brain, and the sinuous fate of its author, stand as useful reminders of how important are internationalism & cosmopolitanism to any radically innovative art – especially now, as we’re celebrating the centenary of Dadaism (Feb 1916), and the times seem once again strangely ‘molluscan.'” (David Vichnar, read more at Equus Press)
“In every line of this extraordinary work there’s the effortless gift of grace: poetry […]. A second through brain, a dream-second through the brain of a man deliriously falling, the metamorphoses of Venus, the thousand faces of the earth spirit, heads and their contraries experienced at a thousand-mile tempo, sucked away by an overpowering drive for being […]. Dada is a form, Dada itself is a form for a poet.” (Ernst Weiß, 1920)
Second Through Brain is a curious book. It appears that the ambitions of its author, Melchior Vischer, aim to portray the very extent of human existence through its protagonist Jorg Schuh as he takes on a multitude of identities through a series of vignettes whose execution creates a good sense of the dizzying confusion and upheaval felt by those living within Europe at the time of this novel’s first publication (1920). The tension between the modern and the primitive, religion and science, tradition and innovation are felt throughout this novel.
And this is the sort of world that this novel depicts; its series of vignettes depict a world overwrought with anxiety and doom. At the same time this strangely reminded me of the Stanley Kubrick film Barry Lyndon in that both protagonists seem to share similar fates, their fortunes fluctuate from high to low; but transform from naive young men into rakish confidence tricksters who cheat and fornicate their ways through the course of their respective stories. In fact Jorg Schuh and Barry Lyndon are most similar in their seemingly uncontrollable lust. Early in the novel Jorg’s sexual talents are established. His love and mistress Rahel asserts:
“No, you don’t belong among the eunuchs, you’re the artist of your bodybuilding, oh, so wonderful an instrument, which you put to use like a chisel, assuredly, tightly, precisely. If not a sculptor, then you’ll surely turn out a ladycomforter. You’re Goliath, my Goliath.”
Jorg is an anti-intellectual, rather like a Dadaist response to Goethe’s Young Werther and Jorg is further than anything from the sensitive, angsty death obsessed young protagonist of Goethe’s novel. Jorg is promiscuous, a poor student and highly skilled in crafts and trades such as wood carving and that of a stuccoist. He is a far more primitive and brutish sort of man. He is at odds with humanity and true to form is absurdly misanthropic: “LOVING HUMANITY, I MUST HATE HUMANS”.
The image of an egg appears throughout the novel thus preceding the frequent appearance of that self-same image in the works of later experimentalists such as George Bataille and Salvador Dali. What exactly eggs represent in this novel has proved to be one of its most enigmatic features for me whilst reading it. Like Bataille does it become of sexual importance in this case? Like Dali is it symbolic of the power of transformation? Does it represent new life or possibly entrance into the afterlife what with Jorg seemingly meeting his demise within the first few pages of this novel. It’s possible that all of these are true but what is certain is that Jorg is obsessed with eggs.
One vignette opens with the line: “Jorg was on the verge of establishing an Institute for the Conservation of Eggs Ltd. In Caoutchoucstate….”
And in the concluding events of the novel as we return to Jorg where we left him in the beginning, falling from a skyscraper after having distracted by a women in the building opposite. He sees an advertisement for eggs and his mind flashes:
“O the biddy! cluck, cluck, egg, egg, biddy uncackled egg, the Hanne the maid just out of the basket now lost, not knowing it’s Jorg’s brain. Egg spritzed on the asphalt, broke forth into yolk, mixed-in slimily with the muck, & expired”.
As we can see there is a playfulness with language and symbolism that can be attributed to the influence of Dada. What’s more the image of the egg comes to represent Jorg’s brain, and by proxy all he perceives, his world, his life, the totality of everything as it relates to Jorg comes to be represent by an egg. In essence it is all very fragile and easily cracked and broken.
The novel is purposely disjointed and jagged like shards of glass smashed all over the pavement. There is a sense of potential lethality about this work. A prevailing sense of doom hangs over its subjects maybe because the author himself felt sensitive to the apocalyptic mood of an age that was rapidly modernising and increasingly unforgiving. And in this Vischer displays his greatest sense of affinity with the Dadaist movement that he claimed membership of; in addition to boasting that this, Second Through Brain, was in fact the very first example of a Dadaist novel. I could not help but be reminded of Bruno Jasieński’s The Legs of Izolda Morgan (Twist Spoon Press) Which in manners I felt if Second Through Brain is the Dadaist novel then this is its Futurist counterpart. A novel which “cautions against the machine supplanting the human while the human body is disaggregated into fetishized constituent parts”. As such I feel that Vischer is also weaving a cautionary tale for us one in which we should not be wary of machinery but humanity itself and the evils and injustices that it is capable of as seen in this novel.
However it does feel that Vischer’s ambitions were greater than his ability to execute them and it can be at times frustrating to read this novel, realising what Vischer is trying to achieve yet falls short of. Why I say this is because Vischer appears to want to encapsulate the absolute nature of the universe itself in this short novel when it is a feat possibly too large for any one book to truly achieve. But then you can’t blame a man for having ambition as a result of this the novel is a heady mixture of industrial, mystical and apocalyptic imagery which whilst falling short of portraying the entire universe succeeds in capturing the disorientating complexity of life in the wake of the First World War. In manner ways Second Through Brain perfectly channels the desperation of that time. This is evoked most prominently in inventively chaotic passages such as:
“Having landed on Earth, Jorg grabbed bones, looked up: a new Balkan was around him with hugemanavid little nations, voicetanglement hoarse, untoward, flagged nonetheless Slavonic vicinity, motleysplodged, festive hurricanes by tinder lighting with minusvaluta as the ruler of the hours: Prague. A yellow funnel by the plagued canopy bed of Europe.”
This is language of the apocalypse and it describes the grim reality of Europe at the time in a very poetic way. - Mark O’Leary
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Born in Teplitz-Schönau (modern Teplice), in the former Sudeten region of Northwestern Bohemia, Melchior Vischer (1895-1975) belonged to the same cultural milieu as Franz Kafka & Robert Musil. Regarded as the pre-eminent figure of Prague Dadism, Vischer's notable works include Sekunde durch Hirn ("Second through Brain," 1920), Strolch und Kaiserin ("Tramp & Empress," 1921), Der Teemeister ("The Teamaster," 1921), and Der Hase ("The Hare," 1922). An obscure figure during the last thirty years of his life, Vischer died in Berlin in 1975.