dada guide

BY DAVID DUHR

Author: Andrei Codrescu

2009, Princeton University Press

Filed Under: Literary

I was able to dissuade myself from writing a Dada-like review of this bizarre and entertaining little book, but just barely. I did cut up my first draft with a scissors in order to paste the words randomly onto a new page. Codrescu himself probably would’ve liked the results, but good sense (whatever that is) won out in the end, and I flushed the slips of paper down Marcel Duchamp’s urinal.

Codrescu, English professor at LSU and popular NPR commentator, frames his book as an encyclopedia of sorts, defining various artistic movements and those behind them. You’ll also find such entries as “language crystal,” “e-body,” and “new year’s resolutions by my poetry students, 2008.” Some of these entries are painfully long, others get right to the point (“masses, the: Keep them busy. When intellectuals get bored, they incite the masses to murder”).

Lest you think that The Posthuman Dada Guide is a strictly factual account of Dada and its players, you need go no further than the blurbs on the first page to understand that Codrescu has other things in mind:

“This book made me feel naked, and that’s one thing I know. I’m naked even now in a place I can’t describe. I’m so glad this book got to me somehow. Congratulations!”

—Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker has been dead for over thirty years.

Codrescu weaves a narrative through his guidebook, and it’s a good one—an imagined 1916 chess match in Zurich between Tristan Tzara, arguably the founder of Dada, and V.I. Lenin, thrower-over of all things Tzar (please allow the misspelling for sake of the poor wordplay). It’s Communism vs. Dada, order versus disorder, and the winner may surprise you. Or it may not. Or you may not be able to determine who the winner is. Either way, it’s fun to watch.

Although the road is far (far far) from straight, Codrescu is actually driving at something here that has present-day implications:

“If you have any doubt as to whether you are post human or merely human, take a look at the following parts of your body: the city, the house, the car, the iPhone, the laptop, the iPod, the pillbox, the nonflesh surround. If sixty percent of your body is now electric or bioelectric, living in space designed for efficiency, you will need Dada as a corrective to what will certainly be the loss of the modicum of liberty you still possess.”

It’s a remake of an old song, but he sings it with a passion that is fetching, even if that passion is often masked behind aloofness and sarcasm. Codrescu is a man out of time, reminiscent about an era that passed before his life began. Today’s trends startle him, and it’s clear that in the chess match between Tzara and Lenin, Codrescu wants to see Lenin’s king mated:

“It is the thesis of this book that posthumans lining the road to the future (which looks as if it exists, after all, even though Dada is against it) need the solace offered by the primal raw energy of Dada and its inhuman sources.”

He also puts the brakes on the absurdity long enough to talk seriously about some issues that are of utmost importance to him: Romania and anti-Semitism. Codrescu, like Tzara himself, is a Romanian émigré, and he’s pleased to share with us the knowledge that Eastern European Jews played a large role in defining the artistic movements of the 1910s and 20s. Especially for a Dadaist, Codrescu has a hard time hiding his pride for his homeland (“Romania is the only country I know that was founded by the writings of many writers”), while at the same time he also evinces some shame:

“Three hundred thousand Jews were deported and murdered under Romanian administration between 1941 and 1944. Three hundred thousand (including the mother of the author of this book) survived. The official Romanian view is that it saved 300,000 Jews from the nazi death camps. The other 300,000 go unmentioned.”

Passages like these, hidden amongst the scatter-brained rest, make for a book that defies classification. Codrescu, at heart, is both a scholar and a Dadaist, so the writing here swings between academic and absurd. He presents a great deal of historical fact, but then undermines those facts by framing them to fit within his fictional narrative. The book itself is a self-help guide, but the writer is making funny faces at you behind your back while you read.

Whatever Codrescu’s intentions, The Posthuman Dada Guide is a highly entertaining book. For those of you who like a little chaos and disorder in your literature, it’s right up your alley.

A reader who cannot handle material presented in a roundabout, often illogical manner might want to find him/herself (or, as Codrescu would have it, “hermself”) a different book. Then again, it’s that type of reader, and posthuman, to whom Codrescu is pleading his case.

Similar books: If you find any, let me know.

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