Rob Hardy: Tzara and Lenin play chess

January 20, 2010 1:01:00 PM



If you are like me, you always pay attention when Andrei Codrescu recites a commentary on National Public Radio. The man''s Romanian accent is unmistakable, even though I can''t help being reminded of that of Bela Lugosi and thus of Count Dracula.  


That Codrescu edits the Web site "Exquisite Corpse" helps reinforce this reference, but one must remember that "exquisite corpse" was a technique used by Dadaists to add words to a composition in sequence, not knowing what had gone before, and winding up with a sentence. Like, "The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine." In fact, that was one of the sentences they came up with (in French) when they first played the game, and it gave the game its name.  


Codrescu is devoted to Dadaists and Dadaism, and now has written The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara & Lenin Play Chess (Princeton University Press), which is full of tricks. "Posthuman" is a term that came in science fiction twenty years ago; we are posthumans because technological enhancements allow us to be something more than mere biological specimens.  


So, as the book says, "This is a guide for instructing posthumans in living a Dada life. It is not advisable, nor was it ever, to lead a Dada life."  


Not only that, but if you are pursuing the goal of living a Dada life, you won''t find this a self-help book worth a nickel. What you might find is a bit of history of the early Dada movement and its stars, a meditation on the continuing importance of Dadaism, and a great deal of sly, desultory, and self-deprecating wordplay. Plus, it comes in a handy, long, slim volume that easily slips into the posthuman''s pocket for daily consultation.  


"We need a guide," says the Guide, "that is at once historical and liberating. Or just hysterical and tonic." 


At the heart of the book is the chess game played between Tristan Tzara, "the daddy of Dada," and Vladimir Lenin, "the daddy of Communism." And maybe there was such a game, though there is no evidence for it, and no reason even to believe that the two influential thinkers ever met, although it''s within the realm of possibility. 


In 1916 in Zurich, Lenin was making plots just a few blocks from where Tzara was making performances. But as far as Codrescu is concerned, "These two daddies battled each other over the chessboard of history, proposing two different paths for human development." They were both fighting against the tyranny of tradition, but in completely different ways.  


"Dada played for chaos, libido, the creative, and the absurd. Communism deployed its energy for reason, order, and understandable social taxonomy, predictable structures, and the creation of ''new man.''" 


The game was high stakes indeed.  


"Tzara, the revolutionary poet, is playing chess with Lenin, a mass-murdering ideologue. The winner will win the world, a prize neither is thinking about in 1916."  


There are plenty of paradoxes here; for one, "These two people do not agree to society''s rules, yet they obey the laws of chess!" Also, chess is played without words, but these were both great talkers, silent for the duration. Nothing was the same after the game when the players go their separate ways: "Tristan Tzara to Cabaret Voltaire, where the nightly Dada performance is unraveling centuries of certitudes about art, Lenin to a secret meeting with an envoy of the German ambassador Romberg, who will eventually convince the German General Staff to provide Lenin and his list of carefully chosen comrades safe passage to Russia where the Tsar has just abdicated." 


Who knows how the game turned out, but the world outcome is deeply paradoxical, too. Lenin''s communists didn''t win, but why do the capitalists who replaced them in Russia feel such despair?  


"Could it be that late-capitalism posthumans have arrived in the leninist future without communism?"  


And the inspired madness of Dada has never gone out of fashion: idiosyncratic typography, punks and postpunks, and performance art are still hot. As Richard Huelsenbeck, one of the founders of Dada profiled here (he was a poet and drummer, and wound up practicing Jungian psychoanalysis in New York City) proclaimed, parodying The Communist Manifesto, "Workers of the World, Go Dada!" 


It is wonderful to read about the performances at CafĂ© Voltaire. After poetry readings and songs, for instance, "Suddenly, nonsense noises, whistling and shrieks were heard behind the curtain, and the lights went out. A green spotlight revealed four masked figures on stilts, each hissing a different sound: ssssssss, prrrrr, muuuuh, ayayayayayay. The figures alternated their sounds and began a crazy dance. While the grotesques flailed and stomped, one of them tore open his coat to reveal a cuckoo clock on his chest..."  


Then Tzara, formally dressed, came back on stage, shooed everyone else away, and started a recitation of French nonsense.  


"The performance ended with Tzara unrolling a roll of toilet paper with the word ''merde'' written on it." To have been in the audience would have been a show in itself: "In the beginning, quite a few drunkards objected to having their ears assaulted by the loud, obnoxious noises of drums and improvised instruments, being sworn at in several languages, baffled by simultaneous readings, and jarred by mock explosions. Even some of the sober spectators, such as they were, occasionally rose in fury against the dadaist assault of obscenity, blasphemy, and flaunting of sexual propriety."  


Codrescu reflects that it all "sounds quite well behaved by today''s standards, comparable to, let''s say, the first Beatles concert."  


The prankishness of Dada proves to be enormous fun. Tzara and AndrĂ© Breton, another dadaist profiled here, worked together in Paris, and announced to enormous surprise that Charlie Chaplin had joined the Dadaists and was going to give a presentation on the movement at the Grand Palais. A huge crowd came, but Chaplin not only wasn''t joining the Dadaists, he had no idea about any speaking engagement. There was a subsequent riot.  


Arthur Cravan, nephew of Oscar Wilde, was a French Dadaist and the amateur boxing champion of France, making boxing, after chess, the most important sport to the Dadaists. It wasn''t all fun and games.  


Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven had prodigious sexual and artistic energy, but "to everyone''s embarrassment, she became a sort of bum, an eccentric streetperson who reminded everyone how crazy Dada could really be..." 


There is plenty of history here, unreliable or not, and in its way, the Guide is its own manifesto for the movement. There are many jokes and impenetrable portions, as befits any Dadaist guide.  


"In current popular discourse," says Codrescu, "nature has come to mean ''nature,'' or ''the nature channel,'' and thus is wilderness removed from it and its destructive and creative force neutralized."  


Dada, the Guide shows, will ever be instructive, puzzling, and entertaining. The Guide is laid out in encyclopedic form, so it need not be read page after page (and perhaps it should be read randomly going from sentence to sentence), but the "organization" is eccentric; for instance, if you want to look up Hugo Ball, who created "The Dadaist Manifesto," remember to look under H for "hugo, ball".  


"We were mistaken in the previous paragraph," Codrescu at one point explains (or fails to), "the marvelous was not a dog, but a parrot in a gold cage guarded by dogs. We apologize."  


No apologies necessary.