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Book Review: Dadaoism: An Anthology, Edited by Justin Isis and Quentin S. Crisp

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Conspicuous by its nonsense, the artistic and literary movement of Dada is kind of like The Fight Club. There is only one rule to follow: Never follow any rules.

Does that  mean you have to read between the lines of the flights of fancy and philosophy anthologized in Dadaosim, from Chômu Press which takes us every which way but lucid in the course of 26 novellas, short stories, and poems? Don’t be absurd. Or rather, do.

Whether we’re discussing Dada psychology, dada Germany cum indigestion and fog paroxysm, dada literature, dada bourgeoisie,”  the dictates of the Dada Manifesto of German writer and dada artist Hugo Ball celebrates the provocateurs and poets who are “always writing with words but never writing the word itself, who are always writing around the actual point.”

Or pointlessness, as the case may be, as we take heed of the titular conflation – a portmanteau parallel —  that mitigates any capriciousness in dada with the gravitas lent by the Chinese tradition of Daoism in its advocacy of a simplicity and noninterference with the source and essence of all that exists. Moreover, that the character of “The Tao that can be told of / Is not the Absolute Tao” finds an echo in Ball’s declaration.

Which is not to say that the pedestalled purposelessness and high-falutin’ head-scratchers constituted in Dadaoism are necessarily to be equated with anything less than mindpower to a max. Citing William Burroughs and Bryan Gysin in their “cut-up” compendium The Third Mind, editors Justin Isis and Quentin S. Crisp sought an outcome produced when “two (or more) minds work together creatively, producing results that neither could produce alone.” The result, greater than the sum of its parts, comprises a “new and distinct entity, which is one avatar of the Dadaosim, a bustling and jostling chaos-butterfly whose dream wings, when they flicker, lenticular, show us a number of different panels in an endless folding screen.”

Indeed, Isis and Crisp, in an aim to attain the “literary and psychic equivalent of a tour around the edges of a dying galaxy in a spectacularly malfunctioning space vehicle,” encouraged contributors to “take your protein pills and put your helmet on,” the results being for the most part an often challenging but ultimately rewarding collection of angst, anxiety, and alienation as conveyed in whimsy, wit, and wordplay.

To paraphrase the opening tone-setting tale “Portrait of a Chair” – an account of duality and consciousness narrated by a main character-turned-armchair — these entries are ones of potential “frisson, not exactly of pleasure, but certainly of a kind of alertness, a sense of being alive, and for a purpose. ”I’m not sure if the ideas and images in “Portrait of a Chair” (which evokes for me a featured piece of ostensibly anthropomorphic furniture in Neil Diamond’s “I Am, I Said”), dissipate entirely in another cautionary tale of interior décor, but “Nowhere Room” traces a miniature portrait of a boy forced to spend his formative years wedged in the wooden floor of his room. Kid-tested, Mom-reproofed!

This kind of curt quirkiness and characterization finds more extended wordplay and repartee in such accounts as Julie Sokolow’s “The Lobster Kaleidoscope,” as it probes an inter-species love that dares not speak its coordinates. More stylistically, clipped forms of experimental lit lie in bite-size increments peppering the prose of “Instance” by John Cairns, marked as well with self-referential torn-wall asides (“Somebody’s reading this! I felt something. I’m a character in a story. Am I being read now?”).  And the seemingly straightforward narrative of Katherine Khorey’s “Autumn Jewel” still makes for an intriguingly enigmatic portrait of a teen coping with the death of an older sister. In poetry, the striking verse of Jeremy Reed’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicides” expressively counts off the deaths of “excess bingers hallucinating in the drop / into the roaring underground.”

Putting a primacy on showcasing writers who “would like to create language which is like … bared teeth,” Justin Isis notes how “Perfection of such writing is not the end result….The stories in this book which escape boredom do so by corrupting their own forms, digesting themselves.” It’s not fast food for thought, however, even as Isis goes on to declare, “Feel free to eat this book, tear out any pages which displease you, add corrections and emendations. Feel free, as always, to write lies in the Book of Life.” A truer characterization of unbridled rebel spirit and richly attitudinal contents under pressure could not be made. 


Dadaoism is available May 16 from Amazon.com, and Amazon.uk.com
Visit the Chômu Press website.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • I believe that this is as good a definition of Dada as can be found.

    “Dada began as an anti-art movement, in the sense that it rejected the way art was appreciated and defined in contemporary art scenes. Founded in Zurich, Switzerland, the movement was a response to World War I. It had no unifying aesthetic characteristics but what brought together the Dadaists was that they shared a nihilistic attitude towards the traditional expectations of artists and writers. The word Dada literally means both “hobby horse” and “father”, but was chosen at random more for the naive sound. What After finding its origins in Zurich, the Dada movement spread the Berlin, Cologne, Hanover, Paris, some parts of Russia, and New York City.”