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9 February 2022

How Isidore Isou ignited an age of youth rebellion

The “energy and savagery” of Isou’s Lettrist revolution lived on in May 68 and punk.

By Jon Savage

In mid-1949, posters began to appear all over the Left Bank of Paris, announcing that “12 million young people would soon be coming down the street to make the Lettriste revolution”. They were put up by the Lettristes, an avant-garde group willed into being by the febrile brain of Isidore Isou, a 24-year-old Romanian Jew who, barely surviving the Holocaust, had arrived in Paris just after the war with the express intention of taking the capital by storm.

The posters trailed the latest pamphlet by Isou, entitled “Traite de l’economie nucleaire: Soulevement de la jeunesse” (“Treatise of Nuclear Economics: Youth Uprising!”). This remarkable document set out a vision of youth as a revolutionary class – a vision that within two decades would be realised with a force that went beyond Isou’s wildest imaginings. Or maybe not: from an early age, Isou was convinced that he was a religious figure, if not the Messiah.

Isou’s premise was that definitions of youth as a separate class, a cohort, had hitherto been dictated by adults, authorities, regimes. They were always, in Andrew Hussey’s précis, “associated with sport, fitness, serving society and above all obedience”. But youth could be a “rebellious and dissident force”, wild and savage and free. All they had to do was to reject the strictures and structures of the society within which they lived. It was simply a matter of channelling “the energy and savagery of youth into a coherent strike-force”.

Growing up in Bucharest in the mid-1930s, Isou had been very taken by the lawless behaviour of the huliganii – the Romanian equivalent of the Hooligans, late 19th-century London delinquents. A generation of young, rebarbative intellectuals, their motto was essentially “to disrespect everything, to believe only in yourself, in your own youth, in your biology”.

[See also: The sinister return of eugenics]

A decade later, Isou refined these reactive postures into a more coherent critique of youth’s place in society. He held that, because youth was excluded from the economy, it had no value. It was a useless “utensil”. Denied a stake in society, youth comprised the new proletariat. Surrounded by the ratés (losers) of the Left Bank – “runaways, delinquents, army deserters, refugees and down-at-heel students” – Isou aimed to rouse the young “who have nothing to lose. They are the attack. They are the adventure.”

Isou’s rhetoric struck a chord in the immediate postwar period: the experience of war, the Holocaust and Hiroshima created a kind of Year Zero mentality – as well as a generation of traumatised young adults – and the hermetic violence and brutal sound poetry of the Lettrists offered a radical, timely new response based exclusively on their youth. The writer Paul Guth called them “poets for the atomic age”.

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Hussey, quite correctly, doesn’t labour the point, but there is a direct line to be drawn from the rhetorical and physical aggression of the Lettrists through the Situationists, the events of May 1968 and to punk and beyond. Yet, despite all the performative provocation, Isou was a serious artist and writer, and deserves a place in history as an inspired and influential theorist of youth just at the moment when youth’s place in Western society was undergoing a radical redefinition.

Isidore Isou was born Ion-Isidor Goldstein on 29 January 1925, to a prosperous family in Botoșani in the north-east of Romania – the very far-east of Europe (hence the book’s title). The family moved to the capital, Bucharest, in 1933, where as a young teenager Isidor became fascinated by the huliganii and their nihilism. As a Jew, he was also highly aware of living in an autocracy – one that became, after the abdication of King Carol II in 1940, a full-blown dictatorship under the far-right army officer Ion Antonescu.

Anti-Semitism flourished in Romania during the 1930s – most notably in the ultra-nationalistic Iron Guard party – and after Antonescu’s ascent to power, it came home to Isou in the defining event of his life. On 21 January 1941, eight days before his 16th birthday, he was caught up in the Bucharest pogrom: assailed on the street by members of the Iron Guard, Isou was taken to a building where he was beaten and tortured as fellow detainees were taken out to be murdered. On his release, he emerged into the smoking ruins of his world.

In some ways, Isou never recovered from this ordeal: he remained terrified that he would die in the Holocaust, unknown. This direct experience of terror informed his every action once he arrived in Paris – after many vicissitudes – in late August 1945. It fuelled his furious need to fulfil his self-appointed destiny as the Messiah and to avoid “slipping into the darkness of eternity as a nameless, amorphous dead body”.

Romania had always been Francophile, so Paris was the natural destination for this ambitious exile. Assembling a couple of associates – most notably the young poet Gabriel Pomerand, whose mother had been killed by the Nazis – Isou made a thorough tour of literary Paris, securing a book contract with Gaston Gallimard, meeting Jean Cocteau and André Gide, attacking Paul Éluard and Jean-Paul Sartre. After all, as he wrote in an open letter to Parisian publishers, “each generation brings with it a mass of new values which old bastards like you try to stifle”: if nothing else, this was the postwar cohort claiming its time.

Generational hostility had flourished in the years after the First World War, but over the next few years Isou refined this into a sharp point. In 1946, Isou and his gang disrupted a new play by Dada founder Tristan Tzara, creating chaos and becoming the talk of the Left Bank. The next year, they held a conference titled “The Lettrist Movement Enters Battle: The Economic and Social Bases of a Youth Revolution”, at which Pomerand snarled, “our revolution will crack heads as other heads were chopped off in other revolutions”.

[See also: 1922: the year that made modernism]

Isou had originally conceived of Le Lettrisme as “the complete reinvention of culture and what it meant to be a human being”. In his view, societies developed not because of the human “instinct for survival, but because of the desire to create”. During the late 1940s he produced long, obscure but brilliant treatises that fused a Dada-esque demolition of language with highly individual, hieroglyphic graphics that proclaimed a unique, holistic cosmology.

In the years immediately after the war, Le Lettrisme became Les Lettristes. His followers cut a swathe through the Left Bank in 1947 and 1948. An excellent snapshot of the Lettrist milieu came in the 17-minute short by Jacques Baratier called Le Désordre (Disorder), which features a pair of young ratés displaying Lettrist clothes and placards, with a wild-looking Pomerand looming and barking like the ghost at the feast.

Aside from all the stunts, Isou was busy producing during these years: pamphlets, artworks and books including the autobiographical L’Agregation d’un Nom et d’un Messie (The Making of a Name and a Messiah). Nevertheless, his influence was primarily seen in the activities of his Lettrist “Youth Front” disciples, such as the several young men who famously infiltrated Notre Dame on Easter Sunday 1950 and disrupted High Mass in a shocking blasphemy.

These and other scandals brought Isou considerable attention and assured an audience for increasingly ambitious works like his 1951 novel Les Journaux des Dieux (Journals of the Gods) and his 1951 film, Traité de Bave et d’Éternité (Treatise on Slime and Eternity), which won the Cannes Film Festival’s specially invented Prix de l’Avant-garde. Determinedly dismissive of cinematic convention – one section was unfinished and featured dialogue over a blank screen – the film was intended to “remake the world in its own image”.

This was Isou’s zenith as a Left Bank force. In 1952 there was a bitter split with acolyte Guy Debord, who set up a new group, the Internationale Lettriste. Now 30, Isou was no longer a young Turk but the superannuated theorist of the youth revolution. As such, he would be repeatedly and viciously attacked by the next group that Debord founded, the Situationist International.

Isou remained productive during the 1950s and 1960s but the eventsof May 1968 left him traumatised, in part due to the profound influence of Debord’s group on the unrest – as Situationist graffiti and slogans caught the mood of revolt – and in part because Isou’s prophecies of the late 1940s were coming true. It was his revolution, and yet he was sidelined and ignored. Time had passed him by. On the evening of 21 May 1968 he suffered a breakdown, for which he was hospitalised and from which he never fully recovered. A recurring theme in his psychiatric treatment was the January 1941 pogrom. He continued to produce – in 1976, a novel called The Inheritor of the Castle, a “disturbing account of a mind in free-fall” – but he became increasingly ill and isolated in his tiny flat: a relic of a bygone era. He died in 2007; Centre Pompidou held a retrospective of his work in 2019.

This fascinating biography, by an author extremely well-versed in Parisian cultural life (see Hussey’s book on Guy Debord, The Game of War), traces the turbulent life of a difficult man, who survived the horrors of the Holocaust to become “a theoretician of utopia”, with all its follies and splendours. Isou and the Lettrists are still little known and barely translated in this country – an omission which Speaking East, successfully, seeks to redress.

Speaking East: The Strange and Enchanted Life of Isidore Isou
Andrew Hussey
Reaktion Books, 328pp, £20

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This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game