Destruction Was My Beatrice:
Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century
(Basic Books, 2015)
One of the many difficulties of writing a book about Dada (or, for that matter, writing a review of a book about Dada) is its very slipperiness, a resistance to the clean lines of demarcation and definition. Indeed, merely asking “What is Dada?” is, in large part, to miss the point. Tristan Tzara, the mercurial self-proclaimed leader of the movement, believed “the true Dadas are against Dada,” and in that ouroboros of identification he might have come closest to defining the inverted motivations of one of Western art’s strangest and most influential movements.
Dada was, at its core, a kind of generative naysaying or nihilistic affirmation, a hammer used to destroy the cultural logic of a century that had brought Europe to the brink of annihilation. If an eminently rational society had paved the way to the trenches of the Great War, it stood to reason that absurdity, fever, dance, and play could be marshaled as antidotes to the 20th century’s particularly lucid form of madness. In this way, Dada was less a scrupulously considered enterprise than it was a kind of channeling, a summoning of latent aesthetic possibilities from the pre-semantic and the primordial that manifested across a range of performative and plastic arts, from painting to dance to architecture and beyond. “Everyone is becoming mediumistic,” said the early Dadaist Hugo Ball. Out of that radioactive dream emerged more than Ball could have ever imagined. If Dada was a brief flaring—a deadly serious cartoon bomb with a dangerously short fuse—its reverberations have rumbled outward over the decades, revealing itself in new cultural idioms we now take for granted. From punk to Pop to pastiche, in ways large and small, the world around you is the world of Dada.
Jed Rasula’s new history of Dada, Destruction Was My Beatrice, chronicles this enigmatic, conflicted, and emphatically international movement. Adroitly weaving historical and cultural analysis with engaging cosmopolitan anecdotes, Rasula, a modernist scholar and English professor, has created a big, rich, amiably peopled work of art history that (perhaps inevitably, given its subject matter) also happens to be as entertaining as a novel. This is not to slight its academic rigor; rather, Destruction is that rare bird of scholarly work that is both impeccably researched and compulsively readable, a bona fide page-turner that isn’t afraid to show off its erudition. Wisely eschewing a staid chronological narrative, Rasula instead explores the dialectical relationship between Dada’s regional variants, piecing together an engagingly syncretic portrait in the process.
Framing the book in a geographical context is not merely a shrewd narrative choice; it also allows the adaptive genius of Dada to take center stage and become something like a protagonist in and of itself. Tristan Tzara called Dada the “virgin microbe,” an apt characterization of the movement’s ability to spread as a kind of cultural pathogen. “Its identity multiplied with its occasions and its participants,” says Rasula, and following how and why Dada transformed in its infectious journey across Europe (and beyond) is no small part of Destruction’s charm. What was an art-spectacle incubator in Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire became a provocative political apparatus in the streets of Berlin. This potent shapeshifting, Rasula suggests, is perhaps the most remarkable thing about Dada: that it deconstructed and dismantled the world with something as ephemeral as perspective—“a state of mind, an attitude, a posture donned for an occasion.”
But Dada, of course, was first and foremost an arts movement, and one of the many successes of Destruction is its lucid exploration of Dada’s formal inventiveness and aesthetic fluidity. The art of Dada, though broad and multidisciplinary, possessed a kind of guiding restlessness and disdain for tradition that indelibly marked the work with a set of shared expressions, motifs, and gestures, a body of work concerned with speed, machinery, absurdity, and the burgeoning consumerism of an inchoate modernity. With a necessary steadiness and an eye for the poetry inherent to destruction, Rasula surveys the highs (and lows) of Dada’s experimentation, from Ball and Tzara’s explosive non-sequiturs and noise poems to Kurt Schwitters’s legendary Merz collage work to the cultural arson of Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. And while collage, performance art, and the interplay between text and image are second nature today, Rasula’s perceptive descriptions of then-contemporary reactions (pulled from newspapers and eye-witnesses) serve to return some of the revolutionary strangeness of the work, its shock and rattle, the explosive energy that allowed Dada, Rasula says, “to begin its long mission of baptizing and redeeming the unwashed plenitude of the entire world.”
But I found the most fascinating subplot of the book to be Dada’s incredible resilience in the face of the often merciless history of the 20th century, particularly when compared to the problematic political legacies of Dada’s contemporaneous movements. Resisting the urge to lazily mix and muddle this historical snapshot of the European avant-garde, Rasula expertly unspools the interconnectedness of Dada and Surrealism, along with Futurism and Constructivism, presenting the unique facets of each movement in a way that affords the reader room to appreciate the nuance and cultural heft of each, on its own terms. This disentanglement allows Rasula to home in on one of Dada’s least talked about attributes: an incendiary evanescence that granted it immunity to the dangers of political calcification. Whereas Futurism and Constructivism were sullied by and implicated with a latent fascism, Dada was too fiery, too short-lived, and, finally, too free to embrace a monolithic political vision. “Far from being strictly a medium of destruction,” says Rasula, “Dada proved itself capable of being an inspiration, a progressive force.” Later he puts it even more succinctly: “the individual prevailed.” This radical noncompliance with Europe’s political monsters has allowed Dada to age incredibly gracefully, a movement that has somehow retained its potency, the “virgin microbe” standing ever ready for use (or misuse, as the case may be).
That fecund (if conflicted) afterlife surrounds, underpins, and anticipates much of contemporary existence, for better or worse. If Dada is Duck Soup and The Room, Basquiat and Ed Hardy, Pop Art and pop punk, its legacy has found especially fertile ground in the explosive production of the so-called New Media. But what started as a bold foray into new creative territory was quickly co-opted by modern advertising; as Rasula observes, “commerce absorbed the tactics of the avant-garde,” and these jump cuts, photomontages, and mash-ups (Dada legacies, one and all) now comprise the primary lexicon of a different kind of microbe: global capitalism. One also needn’t look too hard to find Dada’s fingerprints on social media, particularly the drive toward curating one’s identity signifiers—essentially a post-Dadaist advertisement for oneself featuring elements of performance, pomposity, and a yearning to be heard, to be understood. But even if this Byzantine process of cultural germination—the long, sordid hereafter of Dada—is sometimes perverted by market forces, the persistence of that lingering aura (what Rasula calls “some quest for a better outcome, a more human disposition”) remains, untouched, and moves forward. Beyond the smoke and hoaxes, Dada lives on as a view, an attitude, an approach. It remains unclassifiable, this vibrance, this instability, but Hugo Ball’s words will serve nicely: “Let us be thoroughly new and inventive. Let us rewrite life every day.”
DUSTIN ILLINGWORTH writes about books and culture for the LA Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the managing editor of The Scofield, a contributing editor for 3:AM Magazine, and a staff writer for Literary Hub.