Who's Scared of Dada? The Aesthetics of Homelessness
by Johannes Göransson
Click here to discuss this essay at ACTION,YES FORUMS
This talk is going to be about two quite different topics – the normative rhetoric of contemporary American poetry and the aesthetics of Dada in Europe in the 1910s and 20s. The topic that holds them together is “excess.”
To show you the connection between these two disparate topics, I’m going to start out with two quotes I’ve come across recently that mention Dada:
“Ashbery replaces mimesis with amazement without recourse to Dadaist excess, but via a constant preparedness to be unprepared by the next word, the next phrase, the next situation, however homely or extravagant.” (Donald Revell, “Purists Will Object”)
"There is much to admire in Charles Bernstein's and Ron Silliman's work, and in Michael Palmer's especially. But their aims, linguistic and political, don't entice me. At least not now. I think their best hope is to be absorbed, like Surrealism, into the accomplishable fabric of perception and writing. What they don't want is to become like Dada, a dead end, to be brought out like a stuffed goose from time to time by academics, to be looked at and explained. Things have beginnings and ends." (Charles Wright, in an interview)
American poets are repeatedly evoking Dada as a kind of threat. This may seem rather odd: why in 2007 are American poets scared of a literary movement from the 1910 and 20s?
What these kinds of statements have in common is the way that they treat “Dada” as a kind of icon – they don’t explicate what this term entails, they don’t even specify which poets are included in this term. We’re supposed to know what “dada” means – a lack of order, a lack of rules – “excess.” The word “Dada” functions similarly to the word “excess.” We’re supposed to know what they mean.
The word “excessive” suggests that there is a true language, that there is a transcendent “tradition.” The concept of a natural language corresponds very well to the still prevalent idea of American poetry that poetry is an elevated, true form of language. This is the normative tendency Michail Bakhtin termed “monoglossia.” In the essay “Discourse in the Novel,” Bakhtin argues that the purpose of poetry has become “creating within a heteroglossic natural language, the firm, stable linguistic nucleus of an officially recognized literary language.”1 Bakhtin points out that in reality there is no unified, organic language, but rather a myriad of mingling languages. To assert a correct fluency in this intermingling of languages is to establish a center, and thus a political hierarchy privileging that center. In order to create such ideals of poetry, it has been necessary to divorce poetry from the heteroglossic context of culture with all of its centrifugal languages, dialects and forms of interpretation. The standardization creates a paradigm of poetry as an isolated artifact, disconnected from the rest of the world. Bakhtin describes it like this:
Stylistics locks every stylistic phenomenon into the monologic context of a given self-sufficient and hermetic utterance, imprisoning it, as it were, in the dungeon of a single context; it is not able to exchange messages with other utterances; it is not able to realize its own stylistic implications in a relationship with them; it is obliged to exhaust itself in its own single hermetic context.2
This is the literary system that Jed Rasula has compared to a “wax museum,” a place in which the poems have no agency, isolated from the world and impotent: Isolated from other languages and discourses, the poem can become a wholly self-sufficient organism.
I think a large reason that Dada remains a threat to American poetry, the reason that it doesn’t fit into Wright’s “fabric of perception and writing”, why it is too shocking for Revell - is that it opposes the monoglossic wax museum of poetry, forwarding an aesthetics of homelessness.3 It cannot be recuperated by Wright’s “fabric” because it opposes such a coherent national fantasy. It proposes an aesthetic of the unnatural, the foreign, the perpetual immigrant.
Dada came out of the turmoil of Europe in the 1910s. Perhaps more than any other Modernist literary movement Dada proves Raymond Williams’ thesis that the artistic experimentation of Modernism came out of “cosmopolitan encounters” – emigrants and exiles interacting with emigrants and exiles from other countries and cultures. “Estranged” from language, such writers no longer assumed the naturalness of language. The original Dada group included Germans, the Alsatian Hans Aarp, Romanian Jews, and others who had fled4 to neutral Switzerland during World War I.
In the Zürich group we can see a clear break with the “hermetic context” of poetry in the form of the hybrid, intermedia cabaret shows that included theatrics, dance, music, masks and visual art. In his essay “Zürich Dada: The Aesthetics of Homelessness,” T.J. Demos has argued that Hugo Ball’s sound poems were the creation of a language that is always foreign to everybody, a language which cannot be hierarchized – pure “excess”! In Richard Huelsenbeck’s performance style of reciting “fantastic prayers” while “jazz-drumming,” he developed a hybrid art form, bringing pop culture and religion, sound and text together. In some sense hybridity or intermedia is always excessive, as it evades the rules of genre.
For a case in point, I’d like to turn your attention towards my own area of research, the spread of Dada across Eastern Europe, as it traveled across the national and cultural boundaries. I’m particularly interested in Dada’s brief but seminal appearance in Finland-Swedish Modernism in the latter half of the 1920s.
Finland Swedish is the name of the ethnic minority of Swedish-speaking Finns. The Finland Swedish Modernists were actually a very multilingual group –including people of many different geographic and linguistic backgrounds, many of them being more Russian than Finnish. The poet Henry Parland, for example, was born to Baltic German parents in Russia in 1908. His family moved to Finland in 1913, but due to anti-Russian bullying he had to seek refuge in the Swedish language school for Finland-Swedish students.
Dada entered Finland-Swedish literature (and Scandinavian literature) in 1925 when a reviewer dismissed Finland-Swedish Modernist Gunnar Björling’s second book, Korset och löftet (The Cross and the Promise), as “dada.”5 As Johan Wrede has shown, the criticism of modernism in Finland was generally divided along the lines of internationalism and xenophobia. The Modernists called for international engagement, while the conservative poets invoked the very real threat of foreign intervention, classifying formal experimentation in political terms such as “Bolsheviks,” “Germans” and “nihilists.”
Rather than deterring him, the review caused 17-year-old Parland to become more enamored of Björling work and to seek out Richard Huelsenbeck’s Avant Dada and other Dada publications. Within a month he was signing letters to friends “Dada.” And within a year he had met up with Björling, forming a brief but intense outbreak of Dada in Finland.6
I say it was the review that brought Dada to Finland because Björling himself had not heard of Dada at the time of the review. He too became interested and looked up some of the same books as Parland. When they met in the summer of 1926, Björling was thrilled to have finally found someone who understood his latest experiments. Together they collaborated on many Dadaesque projects for two years, until Parland’s parents decided to send their son to an uncle in Lithuania, in part to get him to stop partying and fraternizing with the openly gay Björling.
Parland published one book in his life, Idealrealisation (1929) before dying of Scarlet Fever in Lithuania in 1930. The language of the book is the estranged language of advertisement speak:
The Clearance Sale of Ideals:
You say it has already begun
But I say:
Better cut the prices.
The book consists of suites of fragments that follow without any sense of arc, often amnesiastically contradicting each other. There is no illusion of coherent “speaker.” It is even difficult to make out a coherent point of view. One fragment may appear to be opposed to the commodification of modern capitalism, such as this one:
The agenda of the wide pants:
we should be
and the soul sewed into the cuffs.
But the snappy language has quite a bit in common with “the agenda of the wide pants,” suggesting the case against their program may not be so clear. Further, we also get pieces that seem to revel in this commodification:
it was a human being,
but it was her clothes,
and I didn’t know
that that’s the same thing
and that clothes can be very beautiful.
The poems protest the commodified world, but it also appropriates its estranged language. It leaves no Romantic space for escape, no purity. It’s a poetry of shock and distraction, to invoke Benjamin’s description of modernity, not aura. In the process he critiques not just capitalism but traditionalism as well.
Björling (1887-1960) lived much longer than Parland, going through a variety of styles. His early work – which prompted the infamous review – tended toward an overflow of obscene images mixed with religious sentiments. While working with Parland, Björing started writing sound poetry not that different from the sound poems of the Zürich and Berlin groups:
My new objectivity
tschili tschili tschau-tschau!
tschili tschili tschili-tschi!
tschili tschiliman dja-dja-dja!
tschili tschili tschau-
tschiliman tschiliman tschiliman tschiliman-
tschili tschili tschili
By the end of the 1920s, Björling was developing a unique style based on erasure. In fact he would often invite friends over to help him erase his voluminous output of poetry. In his 1938 poem Where I Know That You, this process has resulted in poetry such as this:
from Where I Know That You (II)
O sure there are,
and every human.
and have a face.
I – and until I lie down
I – that one word
I – that with your features.
Never saw I
as in the morning
As a before the waking
O which was part of the absolute
It is you I
In some ways this may seem like a more conservative poem – it is afterall a love poem addressed to the absent love. However, Björling’s erasing procedure foregrounds the visual appearance of the page – it is “you I/you/always” – as if the visual location of the words were more important than the words as signifiers. And as Jacques Derrida has argued, this is the threatening part of language, the part that is unnatural, monstrous and distant.
Although Where I Know That You was the poem that finally received some amount of public recognition, it was by no means uniformly accepted. Modernist critic Hagar Olsson wrote: ”Björling doesn’t write Swedish… he simply writes Björlingian.” Another critic wrote that Björling’s poems “are not written in Swedish – even if they use mainly Swedish words – and moreover not in any language in the fixed sense of the word.” When he received a minor literary prize from the Finland-Swedish Author’s Association, one member resigned, protesting that the association should not give out awards to people who don’t write in Swedish.
It strikes me as curious that the reception of Dada in Finland in the 1920s – as an icon of foreignness wrapped up in the same fear of the foreign – is very similar to the way it is still used in contemporary American poetry. Although the US relationship to the rest of the world is largely the opposite of Finland’s in the 1920s, our writers exhibit similar fears of a poetry that is not easily brought into the monoglossic fabric of our poetry. Dada remains more of an icon of a threat than a body of literature and art (and that may just be its appeal).
Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: U of TX P, 1981.
Demos, T.J. “Zürich Dada; The Aesthetics of Exile.” The Dada Seminars, edited by Leah Dickerman and Matthew S. Witkovsky (eds). Washington: The National Gallery of Art, 2005.
Rasula, Jed. The AmericanWax Museum. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1996.
Revell, Donald. "Purists Will Object." Invisible Green: Selected Prose. Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2005. Page
Stam, Per. Krapula: Henry Parland och Romanprojektet Sönder. Stockholm: Almkvist & Wiksell, 1998.
Wrede, Johan. “Den finlandssvenska modernismens genombrott – En studie i ideernas sociala dynamik.” Från Dagdrivare till Feminister: Studier i Finlandssvenk 1900-talslitteratur. Ed Linnér, Sven. Helsinki: Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland, 1986.
3 My idea of this concept owes much to T.J. Demos’s essay “Zürich Dada: The Aesthetics of Exile.”
4 I’m using the word “fled” broadly, since in some cases it appears to have involved fleeing from provincial boredom.
Click here to discuss this essay at ACTION,YES FORUMS
Other essays on EXCESS in ActionYes #5:
K. Silem Mohammad