April 23, 2010

The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara & Lenin Play Chess
by Andrei Codrescu | Princeton University Press
Review by John-Ivan Palmer
(This review originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Volume 14, Number 3)

Ever want to run naked across a convention floor, pie-hit a bishop or show up at a job interview in a firecracker hat, screaming poetry until security guards haul you away? Andrei Codrescu’s The Posthuman Dada Guide may not be the literal how-to that the title implies, but it will definitely give you the historical and philosophical basis you need to justify a stunt to your cellmates while the authorities figure out what to do with you.

The book’s subtitle, Tzara & Lenin Play Chess, more accurately describes the book’s central theme; it refers to an allegorical game, played in 1916 at the Café de la Terrasse in Zurich, between two immensely influential figures in 20th-century intellectual history — a Jewish-Romanian poet and a Russian political fanatic. With Tzara the Great Scoffer and Lenin the Great Enforcer, it’s like Kokopeli meets Big Brother. On the century’s chessboard of death, Tzara and his affiliates validate themselves by “transcendent egress” (deranged buffoonery), while Lenin and his back-ups espouse the “logic of the board” (authoritarian cause and effect).

The Meta-Game to which Codrescu refers began at another Zurich venue called Cabaret Voltaire, opened by Tzara and poet/anarchist/actor Hugo Ball, who wrote the first Dada manifesto. Lenin was one of the regulars. Opening night featured a line-up of acts that were, let’s say, a little different: Ball played piano while his wife, poet-actress Emmy Hennings, sang and distributed pictures of herself in a weirdly sexual manner; a masked figure on stilts shrieked nonsense while opening his coat to reveal a cuckoo clock on his chest; Tzara recited obscene poetry about sheep herders, and ended the show by appearing on stage wearing a tuxedo while unrolling toilet paper with the word “merde” written on it. The audience reportedly became violent and started smashing furniture and each other. The club’s owner threw the Dadas out, but they simply moved to another café, Waag Hall, where Ball made his famous appearance on stage in a cardboard suit as “the bishop of Dada.” That show ended in a riot, too. Lenin was said to have been in the audience, and the spectacle, according to Codrescu, may have led to his later decision in Russia to have all avant-gardes shot.

Codrescu writes, “Today, almost everything you’re wearing or thinking that gives you the slightest bit of subversive pleasure comes from a dead Dadaist.” That would include the motley assortment of artists, draft dodgers, lunatics, japers, and WWI refuse-niks, precursors to the beats, hippies, and punks. The intentionally unorganized movement spread to other cities in Europe and America, and grew to include such icons as Peggy Guggenheim, Mina Loy, Picasso, Braque, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Apollinaire. It’s the bizarre byways of these grand-Dadas of Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, and Lydia Lunch — as well as Codrescu’s deep insights into the higher significance of their actions — that make The Posthuman Dada Guide fascinating and indispensable, helped by its narrow format for easy pocket stowage.

One of the reputations that Codrescu revives is that of the long forgotten Queen of Dada, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, a bisexual porno model and scandal-seeker who breezed into New York from Germany in 1913. She attracted attention by shaving her skull, painting it red, and taunting police in the nude as an experiment in the iconoclastic arts. Codrescu conveys the important historical fact that she was the one who mailed a used urinal to Marcel Duchamp, who in turn hung it on a gallery wall as an objet d’art. It came to be voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 British art world professionals, and is on permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

To this day no one can say for certain what World War I was about. All we know is that so-called rational science and realpolitik led to 37 million casualties. For most of human history, Codrescu argues, the war-instigating power elite regarded originality as simply heresy. Stronger, more “rational” institutions do not necessarily make things more secure. In fact, just the opposite. The Dadaist’s job is turning heresy into an escape hatch that leads to another world that does not include “collateral damage,” “internment camps,” “enhanced interrogation,” and other corruptions of language and order. Codrescu’s most important point is that Dada antics, then and now, insidiously undermine and create a fundamental change in the nature of reality itself.

If “Dada is a priori against everything, including goals and itself,” there’s a corrective element outside of Dada too, one that’s also a tool against everything, including itself: it’s called critical thinking. Like Dada, it asks impertinent questions (but throws no pies). Codrescu doesn’t dwell on Dada gone wrong (Charlie Manson, Trench Coat Mafia), or authority gone right (busting Milosevic, removing the sewage of Zurich). Unlike John Waters, who made the distinction between “good bad taste” and “bad bad taste,” Codrescu leaves the contradictions and value distinctions of good and bad Dada for the reader to transcend in her own way. As long as one bears in mind that “demetaphorizing” your body as a “posthuman,” which has turned into a simulacrum of itself through advertising and consumer electronics, you need Dada as reality’s “‘restore’ button.”

These points may be worth arguing at your favorite café, but they don’t lessen either Dada or Codrescu’s brilliant book on a mode of thought that is constantly deconstructing itself and everything around it. The necessities of eating and staying warm may not allow you to tattoo a fly on your face, or go through life walking a lobster on a leash, but close study of The Posthuman Dada Guide will give you a deeper appreciation for the course-correcting importance of those who do.