The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess by Andrei Codrescu, Princeton University Press, 248 pages, $16.95.
In 1916, as Europe waged an horrific war that, nearly a century later, makes even less sense, if possible, than it did at the time, refugees, renegades, draft dodgers, opportunists, revolutionaries and artists massed in neutral Switzerland. Two of them, Tristan Tzara, the father of Dada, and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the father of Bolshevism, who arrived in Zurich from opposite poles of the cultural cosmos, collided at the Cafe de La Terrasse in what became legendary games of chess.
Tzara, Codrescu writes, “played for chaos, libido, the creative, and the absurd.” Lenin strove “for reason, order [and the] ‘new man.'” Tzara with his “ostentatious monocle” would much “rather be the object of violent ridicule than the cause of a yawn.” Lenin, on track to be a “mass-murdering ideologue,” was, on top of that, insistently boring — not “just in retrospect [but] boring at the time.” Lenin famously demanded that what he deemed the imperialist war raging in Europe be turned into a class war. Tzara, no less furiously, and as Codrescu sees it, no less influentially over the long haul, renounced the very idea of a grand political program by acting as if the only alternative to global carnage was robust, riotous, revelatory carnival.
Those who know Codrescu from the broadcasts he has been making for NPR since 1983 will recognize the sardonic sensibility in this book, which is rousingly blurbed by the Satanist Aleister Crowley, the dancer Josephine Baker, the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, and Swami Vivekananda. From these blurbs on it is apparent that Codrescu is not particularly troubled by implausibility nor intimidated by contradiction. It is the prospect of falling prey to noncontradiction and sleepy consistency that troubles him. His book not only tells a tale of Dada but exemplifies it. Dada, he warns, “has no style, no taste, and no taste for taste.” It is “a priori against everything, including goals and itself.”
Codrescu’s meta-Dada includes, besides the chess players at their game, Andre Breton, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Edgar Allan Poe, fleetingly Nietzsche, T.S. Eliot, Marcel Duchamp in many guises, Cylons from “Battlestar Galactica”, Nosferatu, Freud, and subatomic particles. One recurrent theme is the fate and force of the twentieth-century’s Jewish avantgarde, starting with Tzara (nee Samuel Rosenstock), who, like Codrescu himself, also Jewish, also fled Rumania.
The book has dazzling and delightful humor, and also instances of jumpy mis en scene. (It is doubtful that Codrescu on his current book tour ever breaks “The Posthuman Dada Guide” down into a Power Point format, but it would be nothing less than hilarious to see him do so.) It is perhaps to help his readers through intellectual warp jumps that Codrescu urges people to “read it as someone else.” Adopting a “reading pseudonym” will bring with it the benefits routinely associated with literary pseudonyms: “You will be astonished by how interesting it will become without the intellectual baggage of whatever-your-name-is-now.”
Codrescu evokes the atmosphere of Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire, where Tzara ended one performance by “unrolling a roll of toilet paper with the word ‘merde’ written on it,” and through drums, chants, dance, eroticism and art, Dada romanced Nada. Codrescu also pierces that thick smoke and haze to evoke the power of chess, Dada’s favorite sport, challenged only by boxing. (Arthur Cravan, an original Dada, fought and lost to Jack Johnson in Barcelona, 1916).
Of the Tzara/Lenin match Codrescu marvels that though the two “do not agree to society’s rules, yet they obey the laws of chess!” This could only be because in chess, “play carries forward a purpose. Chess is subversive: below its agreed-upon surfaces and motions there roils an acting out of a demonic force, an opposition to language. . . Neither Tzara nor Lenin talks, but each one knows that the other is a talker, a great talker, and they fear each other’s words.”
hb: do you play chess?
ac: i did but i quit about ten years ago when my 14 year-old started beating me consistently: hung up the rook.
hb: duchamp, of course, would have seriously settled lenin’s chess hash
ac: i wish duchamp would scared the kepi off lenin!
hb: this great and legendary match between tzara & lenin: did it actually occur?! or is the legend sufficient unto the day?
ac: hans richter says so, and tzara himself boasted of it to friends over the years. the only game i could find that lenin played is on the internet, a game with gorky. lenin won of course
hb: no, no, i dug it up. lenin lost!
hb: how did you come by your love of language?
ac: i’m jewish. we have a gene called “the language crystal” that uses letters and syllables as an oracular tool. if we don’t love language, god quits loving us, and then we are fucked. as jews our only job is to make up pleasing music for god–or to make up god through language. either one.
hb: you write that pound & eliot represented different poles of modernism, the former multicultural in a sense (what with chinese and japanese poetry), the latter into ancestor worship. do you really think so?
ac: i do for a crass reason: pound was a loud midwesterner from the college culture of “electives,” eliot a bostonian who imagined himself the heir of a tradition — pound never wrote anything as insidious as “tradition and the individual talent”. even their antisemitisms had different texture — “a stupid suburban prejudice” as pound himself [later] called it, and in eliot’s case, a refined poison distilled from his nostalgia for a walter scott-type south
hb: both really couldn’t rebuild the spires of western culture without antisemtism to make it stick, could they?
ac: you’re right about this.
hb: if someone said dadaism = nihilism, what would you say?
ac: if neitzsche’d had more sex and max stirner a greater sense of humor, they might have been dadaists instead of wet blankets. dada is carnival + god and nihilism is god+ennui.
hb: but is dada nada, or is it ain’t?
ac: dada has plenty of nada and even some nadia (krupskaia) [lenin’s wife} but it ain’t nada a la sartre or nada a la baudelaire’s mistress — it’s a generative nada, a spermy nada=dada
hb: furthermore, if someone said this codrescu is linking dada with quantum mechanics what would you say?
ac: i would say right on! the only behaviors that are interesting are the ones that are completely paradoxical, and what can be more mind-knottingly impossible than particles without mass that can be in more than one place at the same time & that nevertheless make atoms and mass? and generate furthermore a math that works?
hb: what brought you to dada? that tzara was romanian? that he was a jew?
ac: that, and a natural inclination for a provincial to dream up provocations and impossibilities — i claimed tzara in high-school before i’d read a word by him — it pissed off the lovers of the national sheep. dada was in the blood
hb: during your time in ny, did you know get to know marcel duchamp?
ac: i wish — then i might have used him as bait when i was 20 to get laid more often
hb: there are times when it seems you might be trying to rescue lenin from lenin not to mention from leninism & convert him into less than a totally demonic chess foe for tzara. how misguided is this impression?
ac: it’s like an elementary school crush. they brainwashed us in pink sunsets with lenin in them. i also had a crush on a girl named “dulcea” (sweet) and i fondled her once by the boiler in the basement of her apartment building. we never talked about it and it never happened again. it musta been something like that with lenin.