Entry 69: Tomorrow’s Zero– I am going to take you now to an exhibition in a pub that will require you to walk past urinals while a woman dressed in a communion dress reads lewd poetry. No need to take up your bulging biros or strike your cataplexic keyboards in protest- all the participants are long dead as this performance took place almost a century ago in Cologne.
And for those of you disappointed at this news, don’t despair, for the birthplace of the anarchic art movement known as Dadaism, the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, is celebrating 100 years since Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings opened for business in 1916. The website of this venerable establishment extends a welcome, in German, of course, to all visitors and you may even enjoy a coffee freshly brewed as you attend one of the performances.
The soirees were often raucous events with artists experimenting with new forms of performance, such as sound poetry and simultaneous poetry. Mirroring the maelstrom of World War I raging around it, the art it exhibited was often chaotic and brutal. On at least one occasion, the audience attacked the Cabaret’s stage.
I wonder if one of the attacks took place when Hugo Ball regaled the patrons with his Dadaist Manifesto on July 14, 1916? Here is an English translation of part of the original- imagine it being read to you in guttural, shouted German and then decide whether you would have been one of the ones storming the stage,
Dada is a new tendency in art. One can tell this from the fact that until now nobody knew anything about it…Dada comes from the dictionary. It is terribly simple. In French it means “hobby horse”. In German it means “good-bye”…In Romanian: “Yes…yes…An International word…Just a word, and the word a movement…terribly simple…How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness…I want the word where it ends and begins. Dada is the heart of words…The word, the word, the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness. The word…is a public concern of the first importance.
In a thought-scenario, in the spirit of Dadaism, I have come prepared; my overcoat pockets stuffed with rotten tomatoes, which I hurl joyfully at the orator onstage while shouting critique concrete, critique concrete! The red mush dripping from his head and my hands is nothing compared the red mush of the cataclysmic conflict tearing the old Europe apart. It is but a kiss compared to a decapitation.
The title of the song comes from a chapter-heading of Alvarez’s acclaimed study of suicide, A Savage God, which I read in Wollongong in the mid-seventies. This book has supplied an earlier song, Sylvia and journal entry, eight.
Curious about the author and how he has fared in the interim, I looked him up in Wikipedia (from whence comes all the info on Dadaism) and find that, as of today’s date, he is still alive, having published his last book in 2013, called Pondlife. He is 86 and has published twenty books on a diverse range of subjects including poker, mountaineering, divorce, the oil business, dreams as well as books about and of poetry. Add to that, his tenure as poetry editor and critic for The Observer from 1956-1966 and I think you’ll agree that he has paid his dues.
He describes his loves and hates – his distaste for the literary world (“peopled by monsters”) and his unfaltering love on a sudden sighting of his wife: “Forty years on and my heart still jumped with pleasure.” He quotes Bette Davis: “Getting old ain’t for sissies.” And Beckett, who “got it right” when he wrote: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” So writes Kate Kellaway in a review of Pondlife in The Guardian on 17/02/2013.
This someone you could warm to, eh? But back to the song: the persona is someone absorbed by the nihilism of Dada who, like Melville’s protagonist in his short story Bartleby the Scrivener, becomes more and more removed from the world; who responds to well-meaning words with a formulaic response of his own- I prefer not to, until the logical outcome of such an outlook: extinguishment.
Instead of Bartleby the Scrivener’s polite and nihilistic repetitions of I prefer not to, I prefer to read the work of poets such as Australia’s Judith Beveridge: listen to this extract from The White Peacock, but make sure you read the whole poem,
The feathers lift -/like the sudden coming on/of sprinklered water/over imperial lawns./ Breeze-shaken and trembling -/you imagine the break/into a drift of wish-flowers./Now the fan streaming with dance -/(imagine the face of an/angel/streaming with light/in an annunciation).