* *



The Lettriste Movement was launched in post-war Paris by the Romanian Isidore Isou (born Jean-Isidore Goldstein, 1925) and the Frenchman Gabriel Pomerand (born Paris, 1926). From its inception the movement was associated with controversy. On the occasion of the first public presentation of Lettrisme (January 8th 1946), the Russian poet Iliazd organised a counter-event - at which he demonstrated that there were numerous precedents for what Isou termed Lettrisme. 1946 also saw Isou interrupting a lecture on Dada by Michel Leiris at the Vieux-Colombier Theatre,(1) so that he could read his own poetry; and the publication of the first (and only) issue of "The Lettriste Dictatorship".

1947 saw the prestigious publishing house Gallimard issuing Isou's Lettriste manifesto "Introduction a une Nouvelle Poesie et a une Nouvelle Musique". This turgid tome is saved from complete unreadability by Isou's megalomania. Typical of his pretensions are title headings such as "From Charles Baudelaire to Isidore Isou" and "From Claude Debussy to Isidore Isou". A footnote tells the reader that Isou intends to play the role in poetry that was "played by Jesus in Judaism, that is, it is Isou's intention to break a branch and make a tree of it". Apart from acting as a piece of self-promotion, this volume outlined Isou's belief that the development of poetry rested on words being deconstructed to their constituent parts. The word, as it existed at the time, was to be abolished completely, and poetry was to be synthesised with music. The result would be "a single art", which bore no trace of "any original difference"

Isou claimed that the evolution of any art is characterised by two phases amplic and chiseling. The amplic phase is a period of expansion. It is followed by the chiseling phase, when the achievements of the amplic period are refined and eventually destroyed. In poetry the amplic period lasted until 1857, when Baudelaire initiated the chiseling phase by reducing narrative to anecdote: Rimbaud abandoned anecdote for lines and words, words were reduced to space and sound by Mallarme; and finally the Dadaists destroyed words altogether. Isou was to 'complete' this chiseling phase and, with his Lettriste 'discoveries', initiate a new amplic period.

Although Isou's theories are not entirely without merit, the main point of interest in his book is the affirmation that "Surrealism is dead". Isou and the Lettriste Movement were the first group to make this important break, and it was through this breach that other avant-garde heresies were able to break away from Breton's malign and dictatorial influence.

If early Lettriste activity was centred on sound poetry, the emphasis soon shifted to visual production. Here, letters were seen to form the basic unit from which works should be created. The resulting forms, which resemble concrete poetry, typify lettriste literary endeavours. From these there grew a Lettriste 'painting', in which, once again, the letter would be the basic subject of aesthetic contemplation. The first Lettriste painters were Pomerand, Guy Vallot (real name Rodica Valeanu) and Roberdhay. Isou was never really satisfied with their results, and eventually took up painting himself in order to realise his Lettriste theories for the discipline.

The Lettriste Movement extended the breadth of its activities after Jean-Louis Brau (born Saint Owen, 1930), Gil J. Wolman (born Paris, 1929) and Maurice Lemaitre (born Paris, 1926), joined the group in 1950. Guy-Ernest Debord (born Paris, 1931) was recruited the following year. Lemaitre was destined to become a long lasting, and perhaps after Isou the best known, member of the Lettriste Movement. Brau, Wolman and Debord would all have broken with Isou by the end of 1952. However, before these breaks, 1951/2 were to prove vital years in the development of Lettriste 'film'.

Jean Cocteau awarded Isou's first 'chiseling film', "The Drivel and Eternity Treatise" (1951), the Avant-Garde Award at the Cannes Festival. The soundtrack to this film had neither a 'specific', nor an 'a-specific', relation to the picture, and could be treated as as 'a product by itself'. The visuals included deliberately boring images, such as footage of still photographs which had been scratched and tom. 1951 also saw the production of Lemaitre's "Has The Film Already Started?". In this he extended Isou's concept of chiseling, by drawing letters, numbers and other signs directly onto the processed stock. When the film was shown, the screen was draped with objects which were manipulated during its performance, while the movements and spoken thoughts of spectators were introduced into the soundtrack.

1952 saw the production of Wolman's "L'Anti-Concept", Dufrene's "Dawnsday Drums", Brau's "The Current Life's Boat", Isou's "Film Debate" (where the discussion of the film is the film), and Debord's "Screams In Favour Of de Sade". This last contained no images at all. At feature length, it consisted chiefly of blackened film stock with only the click of the projector for a soundtrack. To relieve this monotony, it featured occasional bursts of white light accompanied by 'random' dialogue. The final twenty-four minutes are entirely silent.

Isou often used his political and economic theories, which he'd been developing since 1948, as the subject matter of his films. According to Maurice Lemaitre, in "Les Idees Politiques du Mouvement Lettriste: L'union de La Jeunesse Dans L'enseignement, La Banque et La Planification" (first published in Combat 1/9/67), all political economy prior to Isou had concentrated on the working population:

"However, Isidore Isou has discovered that a large part of the other half of each country's population - and primarily the masses of millions of young people - is in a very different position, for it is situated outside the market, outside the relations and definitions considered by all the theoreticians of the science of goods and chattels.
Consequently, those individuals who accept their function in the system, who coincide with their position as producers and assume the problems of their "class", we call interns, adherents, or adjusteds, while the tens of millions of individuals who do not accept their function, who reject their position in the system, who expend their energy in climbing further up the social scale, in order to "arrive", we call externs, or non adjusteds. (...) the externs, and above all the young, are slaves, over-exploited from the economic point of view."

Isou used the analogy of nuclear physics to explain this social division. The interns were fully-grown individuals - the old atoms or their molecular conglomeration - while the externs were electrons who were not yet 'established'. The externs, isolated from the manufacture of commodities, and with no position in society, use their energies to undermine the economic and political foundations of the existing system. In a Lettriste leaflet, issued when Lemaitre stood as a candidate in the 1967 French election, the platform of the 'nuclear economists' was elaborated as follows:

".....we will not be able to attain these new forms of organisation without a creative education based on the distinction between innovators and insignificant imitators.
The credit system of commodities, whether reckoned ultimately in monetary terms or not, must be seized from the sedentary interns, the bureaucratic directors of banks.
"All the riches in the economic sphere can only be manufactured and distributed, in terms of permanent creative change, through nuclear planning (promoted by our movement).
"To the nobility of labour which results from the multiplicative, permanent creation of wealth, we must add the rotation of power, the rotation of positions of control.
"Our aim is not to create simply a socialist or communist society, where men will work for pleasures both abundant and static. Our aim is to move toward an ideal society, in which men will live much more - having reduced the curse of work to a minimum - for an unbroken joy, for an ever-growing ecstasy."

From Isou and Lemaitre's political writings it can be seen that the Lettriste Movement fits within both the Utopian tradition and the twentieth-century avant-garde. Indeed, the desire to theorise all aspects of life typifies both the Utopian tradition in general, and the twentieth-century avant-garde in particular. As well as the aspects of Lettrisme dealt with here, there is also a Lettriste "theatre", "psychotherapy" and "education" (in 1980 the Lettriste Movement founded the Leonardo da Vinci University).

In spite of Isou's claims, his group lacked a materialist critique of the reigning society. Unlike other post-war utopian movements, Lettrisme was not opposed to serious culture.(2) Indeed, the programme notes to Lemaitre's play "L'Ascension du Phenix" had the following to say about such opposition:

"Only crippled fanatics deprived of certain psychic dimensions, can reject outright a domain that is necessary to the spirit."

Isou's Lettristes never understood that art, unlike expression, is a bourgeois construction. They prided themselves on having pushed the surrealists from their throne, but failed to build upon the discoveries of Berlin Dada. Indeed, Isou had an active hatred for these progressive elements; while his critique of the surrealists amounted to no more than the assertion that they had made their contribution to culture and had nothing more to offer the world! Fortunately Isou's claim that creativity is the essential human urge - and that he personally had resystematised all the sciences of language and the sign into a new discipline which he named 'hypergraphology' - has not yet been taken seriously outside the very limited domain of Lettriste circles.


1. Different sources give slight variations in their account of this event. Maurice Lemaitre in his lecture "The Creation of Letterism in Poetry and Music" given at the Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon, USA, on 24/5/76 claims that:

"In 1946, in the course of the first post-war performance of La Fuite (The Fight) by Tristan Tzara, uncontested head (sic) of the Dada movement, several unknown young men jumped up on stage of the Vieux-Colombier Theatre, shouting: "We know all of that, enough of that old stuff! We want something new, let's hear about Letterism!" And one of them, with a Romanian accent, started reciting strange incomprehensible poems, which sounded like African chants.
"The scandal was great, for it broke out among the very representatives of the poetic scandal: the dadaists and the surrealists themselves! The next day of course, the newspapers were full of Letterism."
Thus the Letterist movement was born, the first literary avant-garde group that France had known since World War II."

2. The term was coined by Henry Flynt in the early sixties.

Previous: COBRA

Next: The Lettriste International

Assault On Culture contents page

Assault cover UK second
UK 2nd edition

Assault cover UK first
UK 1st edition

Assault cover Brazil
In Portuguese

Assault cover Spain
In Spanish

Assault cover Polish
In Polish

Assault cover Italian
In Italian

assault on culture lithuanian edition 2009 cover
In Lithuanian