NPR’s Andrei Codrescu Wants to Save Us From Ourselves
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Is Dada really dead? Not according to NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu. He'll talk about how his new impractical handbook for practical living, "The Posthuman Dada Guide," can save us from the modern high-tech world.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Public Radio listeners have long been acquainted with the richly accented voice and deeply unconventional attitudes of writer Andrei Codrescu. His commentaries on NPR's All Things Considered often present familiar topics with a playful and provocative twist, such as a recent essay about New Orlean's new Paranormal Museum, which argued that what the Crescent City really needs is a 'normal' museum. Andrei Codrescu hosts a website for writers, artists, poets and fans called "Exquisite Corpse." And he's written a new book that is bound to breathe life back into an art and cultural movement many had given up for dead, the no style, no taste, no taste for taste, shocking world of Dada. The new book is called "The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess." Andrei Codrescu, welcome to These Days.
ANDREI CODRESCU (Author): Thank you. It's good to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about your book, if you would, and for those of us who are unfamiliar with the term, tell us about the Dada movement.
CODRESCU: Well, I'll tell you about the Dada movement and I will also tell you that actually this book is written to breathe life into our current day and not into Dada. The Dada movement was a part movement of artists and writers in the beginning of the 20th century. In the middle of the first World War, artists decided that they couldn't really believe anymore the taken-for-granted verities of western civilization and they were done with the inefficiency of art and the stupidity of the people who led the world to war. And so they started a rather violent and brilliant movement in Zurich with performances at the place called Cabaret Voltaire, which committed great outrages every evening. Next door to Cabaret Voltaire lived the quiet and studious Russian Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the daddy of the Russian Revolution, and his comrades Radich and Genevieve and these two worlds met over chess, you know, and at the two cafés in Zurich that were safe for refugees and smokers.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I know they lived in the same city but did Tzara and Lenin really meet?
CODRESCU: Well, I lived on the same street and I'm sure that Lenin was quite bothered by the noise and that sort of thing. And they did meet, well, according to some witnesses anyway. The refugees in Zurich were of all kinds. There were artists and writers to radicals. There were people like James Joyce, Dostoevsky, Carl Jung, Albert Einstein was there briefly. There were spies from the warring powers watching each other. There were spies watching spies as Tom Stoppard says in his wonderful play "Travesty." So they played chess because that's what the refugees did and it was a way to be alone with your thoughts while overtly playing with somebody else and surrounded by kibbutzers, by audiences.
CAVANAUGH: Now Dada is just one half of the equation in your new book. It's called "The Posthuman Dada Guide," and I'm wondering what 'posthuman' means.
CODRESCU: Well, posthuman is you and I sitting here wired with all kinds of things sticking out of our ears and iPhones in our pockets and computers at home. And we're slowly turning into new kinds of creatures and it won't be long before those chips in your computer actually go directly in the brain. And so posthuman is a transitional phase for actually the biological creature that we're becoming. We are evolving. And I didn't know what else to call it since we're not quite something else yet and we're not quite human anymore. And so we're some kind of tadpoles but tadpoles didn't sound as good as posthuman.
CAVANAUGH: Posthuman does sound better. Now why is this chess game your frame of reference in the book?
CODRESCU: Well, there are two reasons. One, that the opponents are so different. Tristan Tzara, the young Romanian poet and founder of Dada, is playing for art. He's playing for the freedom of art, for the possibility of chaos in the new. Lenin is playing for a centerfold European idea derived from Hagel and Marx, which together exist for the purpose of setting up a state, a state utopia but really a state and, in the end, a police state. And they couldn't be more different. And until 1991 when communism collapsed in the Soviet Union, it looked like maybe Lenin still had a chance but after 1991 it's – art won the game and Tzara is – and Dada are winners in relevance to all the craziness we're going through at the moment.
CAVANAUGH: But, as you said, Dada was really sort of an anti-art movement. Tell us a little bit about the extremes and how the movement actually played out in its original form.
CODRESCU: Well, in Europe in the – just before World War I and during World War I, there were a number of modernist movements. There was Futurism in Italy, there was Constructivism in Russia. The Cubists are still doing their thing in France. So Modernism was being born. But Dadaists distinguished themselves by complete refusal of most theory. They believed in total theatres. They're performers. There were painters who painted sets, there were artists who invented new forms, there were poets who read their poems. At the same time, there were people who made just animal noises. There were fantastic masks that were built by Marcel Janko, the in-house mask-maker and painter. And there were accents of the carnival that they brought with them from eastern Europe, both the Jewish pro tem schpiel and the Gypsy music of eastern Europe and all sorts of mixed influences from almost going back to the middle ages when, at carnival time, the order was turned upside down and the rich became the mob and the mob became the aristocrats.
CAVANAUGH: You write in your book about Tzara going up onstage and just basically reading torn up text, just things that really didn't make any real sense written – in the way he read them, and the audience being shocked but then being seduced just by the power of the words.
CODRESCU: Well, it made a lot more sense to rip up the nonsense that was being written during World War I by newspapers and propaganda sheets and all the articulate statements of power. And to rip them up was the least you could do with them. You know, I can think of a couple of other things, and so did they. But in doing so, they created new art forms and they generated forms. Now, the Dadaists purposefully avoided styles and they changed their style all the time and this is why they became hard to collect and hard to make retrospectives of their art. It was much easier with more organized types of art movements like Surrealism later on. It was easy because the Surrealists had a style and you could collect them and you could make retrospectives. Well, the Dadaists didn't want that. They wanted the pure process of creation and that's why they're still of interest to young people. That's why in the sixties there were people who were Dada inspired. There were the Flacist movements, the happenings, the punk, the neopunk. All of that is Dada inspired.
CAVANAUGH: We have a question from a caller just about that. Jay is in Clairemont. Good morning, Jay.
JAY (Caller, Clairemont): Oh, it sounded like a sort of an answer in a way but my question has to do with in today's art world, are there any people that could represent the Dada movement by the work that they do?
CODRESCU: Yes. Yes, I think that quite a few artists now are finding in the hybrid forms and music that they are writing with the aid of technology and putting together all sorts of things that were previously incompatible, those are all Dada inspired. And in music, certainly, you have people like Gogol Bordello, who used eastern European forms and mixed languages and, you know, they're responding to a wonderful anarchic impulse in our world to dissolve borders and genders and things of that nature through masks and play.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that question, Jay. I want to ask you Andrei, why do we need Dada now? Because that's one of the premises of your book.
CODRESCU: We need Dada now because we're in the middle of a collapse nobody understands. And it is one that, like World War I, is going to be on us before we quite understand it. And the Dada way of looking at the world of articulation and synergy and expertise is to mistrust it and to say no to it, and I think that that's a very important thing to do right now when we're being told by experts that this and this is happening but, in fact, there are probably more profound things going on than what they tell us.
CAVANAUGH: And meeting those profound things and meeting those expert pronouncements in bizarre ways, one of the suggestions in your book that I particularly like is the efficacy of not only using a pseudonym to write a book but to use a pseudonym to read a book. What would you be able to get out of a book by being another person that you couldn't get out of it by being yourself?
CODRESCU: Well, at the end of – almost at the end of reading, this is – it would seem like a late suggestion but I think that we read in certain ways that are habitual. And I think that if your reading habit is as radical as what it is you are reading, you'll get more out of it. Dadaists like to adopt persona in characters and pseudonyms because they were unhappy with the ones they were born with and so I don't think that's a futile exercise right now.
CAVANAUGH: Now, this pocket-size book of the Dada guide, "The Posthuman Dada Guide," is a challenging book. I think that's fair to say. It has cross-referencing of historical and cultural ideas and figures. Do you expect that a number of people will not get this book?
CODRESCU: No, I don't because anybody who's ever used Google and the internet and the computer will understand immediately that cross-referencing is how it works and since most people have ADD now anyway, which is an evolutionary step, I think, my book is just ready made for them.
CAVANAUGH: And if someone doesn't understand it, does that make them pre-human human? Or post-human?
CODRESCU: Well, I would hope that there is enough in there not to understand. My favorite books are always ones that are a little over my head so that I could imagine what was over my head. I don't think this is really over anybody's head. I think that most people are everything right now. They're human, they're post-human. We're tadpoles.
CAVANAUGH: Tadpoles. Now some say that the original Dada movement back during World War I was – tried to shock society into self-awareness but what is Dada's value in a society that can't be shocked?
CODRESCU: Well, self-awareness is still – this is their anthem. We are not so much less shockable as more amnesiac. We don't remember a lot of things. Our past century specialized in the art of forgetting. If we know anything well, it's hard to forget. And I think that the shock is in actually remembering that things like art and modern art and new ways of thinking actually are important to society. And the shock is in actually connecting the dots for amnesiacs.
CAVANAUGH: Now a lot of your book, it seems, from what I've read of it, is sort of, I don't know, aimed at young people perhaps. And I'm wondering why you think they're the hope of Dada.
CODRESCU: Well, Dada had this – because it's undefinable and because it didn't settle on a style and because it's so hard to quantify, it appeals to young people. And that's why punk and post-punk kept some of the danger of Dada because it was a continuous negation of most of what adults think is right. So it does appeal perpetually to the adolescent gene and to the impulse of saying no, which, I think, is, I don't know, we need it more than ever.
CAVANAUGH: So basically, we're a go-along-to-get-along kind of a society now, as far as you see it.
CODRESCU: We are, we're totally lazy. We're not aware of the depth of the crisis. We're not – You know, we're complaining a lot about losing our jobs, never really thinking about what those jobs were because most of them were useless. The auto workers, twenty years ago, knew that the petroleum engine wasn't going anywhere but because the unions kept getting them better deals, they went along with it, so now they're losing their jobs. Well, okay, yeah, maybe a little Dada a little while ago would have helped.
CAVANAUGH: That's sort of tough love Dada right there.
CODRESCU: Well, Dadaism, well, it was pretty tough.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, apparently. But, you know, it says also in the opening, I forget your exact words, but the idea that living a Dada life is never recommended. It's always dangerous. What's dangerous about it?
CODRESCU: Well, these are poor artists and they lived – they didn't have any money and they did whatever they could to scrounge. And then when they did scrounge some, they drank it, so it wasn't very good for their livers, for one thing. But now that we stand on the edge of immortality and will be trading livers like poker chips, it might be a different story.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Andrei Codrescu. He is the NPR commentator that you hear on All Things Considered, and also the author of a new book called "The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess." And I want to shift the focus just a little bit and talk about your commentaries on NPR. What do you like? I am assuming you like the medium of radio. I wonder what you like about the medium?
CODRESCU: Well, they let me rant and rave in peace. I don't have to get dressed to be on the radio. I like the intimacy of the human voice. There's something off-putting about watching people with your eyes. I like to listen to the voice. You can do it in the dark, you can do it anywhere, in my cave in the Ozarks.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you about that in a minute or two. But one of your recent NPR comedies was about the modern day pirates and how we, on the one hand, romanticize the idea of pirates and the Barbary Coast and so forth, and how you don't want that to spill over into the way we think about the Somali pirates.
CODRESCU: Well, I mean, it's the same name so you say 'pirates,' immediately romantic sort of image rises to mind. But these guys are pretty brutal and they are part of a society that has collapsed and we had something to do with it in the past and I think it's another part of the world that the United States should be paying a lot of attention to because what makes these pirates is the miserable world they live in.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder how you got involved in doing these NPR commentaries. When did that start?
CODRESCU: It started in 1983 when I walked into the studio and I said you need a Romanian.
CAVANAUGH: Do you do that a lot?
CODRESCU: No, I stopped right there because they gave me a gig. But, no, I just – I was writing an editorial for the Baltimore Sun, an op-ed piece once a week, and a local producer from the Public station asked me to read it on tape and she sent it to Washington to Art Silverman, who's still my producer. And, you know, I kept doing them.
CAVANAUGH: Now do they give you free reign or do they ever tell you, Andrei, that's just too much?
CODRESCU: Well, no, they pretty much let me do whatever I want to. Occasionally, a piece will get – will become dated because of the news cycle but I think I've been able to get away with some things over the years, mainly because they got used to my voice so they don't hear what I'm really saying.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly. They just hear that wonderful sort of low tone and the provocative things that you're actually telling them…
CODRESCU: There are no statistics on the car accidents and all these other things that I cause.
CAVANAUGH: Now another commentary you did lately was against the decades-long embargo against Cuba. You call it the Cuba-Berlin wall. Do you see signs of change now, though?
CODRESCU: Well, I went to Cuba in '97 and it was a terrible time during the so-called special period. And part of it was that – was the embargo but the embargo's being used by Fidel Castro as an excuse to keep his people as miserable as they were. And so I think that lifting it to remove that excuse, and things should get a lot better, so it is still in place because it takes a while to move it. But the old right wing Cubans who are so adamant about the embargo are weak and divided and the young Cubans want to go and see their families.
CAVANAUGH: When you went to Cuba, what did you see there that made you think that was – the embargo was a pretty awful thing?
CODRESCU: Well, there was no medicine, for one thing, because most of the medicines are American patented and so even the western European countries they are doing business with couldn't sell them stuff. I went to pharmacy to get something for a friend who had a headache or a hangover—let's call it what it was—and they just had some powders in a drawer. And when I bought it and then the pharmacist said, you don't happen to have any aspirin here? So, you know, I mean, even at that level things were pretty sad. I met a doctor who had absolutely nothing in her clinic and the people are suffering because of it. And this was not political, this was beyond that. There were volunteer organizations stopping and the western Europeans were helping but still we're their biggest neighbor and that's where, you know, most Cubans – This is where most Cubans – half the Cubans are.
CAVANAUGH: Right. I want to ask you about your own journey. Now you come from Romania. You left there in 1966 at the age of 20. And it's not only your accent but I think a lot of your sensibility comes from eastern European – eastern Europe. And I was wondering what it was like growing up under communism and what has that left you with?
CODRESCU: Well, it's a big question. For one thing, we never talked about things that mattered in a normal tone of voice because we whispered about everything if it was slightly political or subversive. We listened to Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America. That's where I first heard the Beatles, which changed my life, and the Rolling Stones. And it was a quiet world because the adults never expressed any opinions in front of children. Terror was ever-present, not probably because there were so many secret policemen but because the state had insinuated itself in people's minds. When I left, it was a period of relative liberalization and things were looking up. 1968 in Czechoslovakia looked like was going to get something called socialism with a human face. Well, it never happened because the Soviet troops marched into Prague. 1968 was also a year of rebellion all over but, for me, it was the year when I realized that I had to get out of there because young people all over the world had a different agenda than the old Commies in eastern Europe or, you know, the old cold war people in the west.
CAVANAUGH: Now, the famous Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was terribly critical of the Soviet Union and then he left the Soviet Union and he came to the United States and he was terribly critical of the United States. I wonder if you went through something like that when you left Romania? And I would imagine that since you heard the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, there was a sort of idea that things were much better in the west and when you got here, what did you experience? A disappointment?
CODRESCU: Oh, no, not at all. Actually, I experienced the exhilaration of freedom so I was able to talk louder, probably too loud, because I hadn't before. And my situation was very different, of course, than Solzhenitsyn, who was older and had spent many years in the prison camps in the Soviet Union. I didn’t have that experience, and I don't miss it, that's for sure. But he's – he was critical of the States and he took it very seriously as he became an enemy of the Soviet state and he decided to write a true history of it. For me, it doesn’t matter, finally being in a place where I could write my poetry freely and find interesting contemporaries and listen to whatever I wanted to.
CAVANAUGH: So there was no disappointment in the land of opportunity.
CODRESCU: Well, there was no disappointment. I mean, there was no – You know, I found immediately a community of writers and artists. We were pretty much against the war in Vietnam, which was a political cause but it brought us together. My contemporaries annoyed me because some of their anti-war rhetoric sounded an awful lot like the stuff I left behind in Romania. But beyond that, you know, I was ecstatic because I was nineteen years old and I'd left home and I was in a place that was incredibly cool and fun.
CAVANAUGH: Where did you first go when you moved to the U.S.?
CODRESCU: Speaking of – Well, Detroit was, you know, even then a pretty tough city. And – But there was a counterculture there. There were artists, there were poets and they were, in addition to being politically resistant, they had the idea that they were making a new world for the young.
CAVANAUGH: Now everyone, since hurricane Katrina, knows that you live at least part time in New Orleans and you've spoken about that city quite often. Why did you choose New Orleans at least – as one of your hometowns in San Die – in the United States?
CODRESCU: Ah, the United States of San Diego.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, that's what it is here.
CODRESCU: No, well, it is a very unique city and it's still very much alive after Katrina. A lot of young people came after Katrina to help rebuild and they stayed. It is a place that now – When I first moved there, it was unlike any other place in the United States because there was live music being made and it was a European-looking city with narrow streets that you could actually walk on and I'm a pedestrian, so it was a good pedestrian city. I found the people – they had more history with them and in them. There were older houses and cafes and restaurants and there was a sense that the place had – It wasn't spanking new like most of the American suburbs are. So I fell in love with it immediately. And it has a spirit that survived Katrina.
CAVANAUGH: With the new people who have come in to help, are they assuming the old mantle of what it means to be a person who lives in New Orleans?
CODRESCU: No, the new people were seduced by what New Orleans has, which is a spirit of place, a genius of place, and the music is part of it, the food is part of it, the carnival culture is part of it. All things that – And the sense of time, that you've got more time there than you do in the rest of America where everybody's just over efficient.
CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering why the Ozarks is your other home base. How did you choose that area?
CODRESCU: It's a wilderness. It's on the Buffalo River, which is a national park. I have a cave with a spring in it. The sun rises in the mouth of the cave. And I can check my e-mail in there on my iPhone. So I can go there before sunrise and meditate and look at my e-mail and then read.
CAVANAUGH: Well, that's a very environmentally friendly sort of a home. That's what we're all about these days. Did you do that before the whole world went green?
CODRESCU: Well, yeah, I always – I grew up in the mountains and I thought that this would be – and I went on vacation there and I saw the cave and that was it.
CAVANAUGH: Now how do your neighbors accept you in the Ozarks?
CODRESCU: Well, I don't have many because there…
CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh, well, a cave.
CODRESCU: …aren't many people living there.
CODRESCU: But, you know, they are – they're people who like to talk and tell stories and they first thought that I might be Al Qaeda or something but then they figured that I was just from Transylvania.
CAVANAUGH: Now do you – have you returned to Romania?
CODRESCU: Oh, many times.
CAVANAUGH: Many times.
CODRESCU: Yeah, I went there in 1989 to cover the so-called revolution they had for ABC News and NPR, and I've been back almost every year since because they've been translating my works and now I'm writing in Romanian again because I reconnected with the language quite a bit.
CAVANAUGH: Now since it was so different when you were growing up to the Romania today, does it ever occur to you that maybe you want to move back?
CODRESCU: Oh, no, I never had that. Europe, I don't feel home in. It's too bound by its culture of manners and things. I feel oppressed by invisible things and then I can't wait to come back to America so I can stretch.
CAVANAUGH: Well, that's what I was thinking when I was looking through your book, "The Posthuman Dada Guide," that Dada, even though it came to New York, was a very European sort of an art movement and it railed against that very kind of society you were talking about, that very closed society in comparison to the United States. And I'm wondering how we could, you know, benefit from Dada?
CODRESCU: Well, Dada became American very quickly and the best known Dada is sort of people like Marcel Duchamp who made an art form of the found object, his most famous one being the upside down urinal, which is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There were – The Dadaists took to New York instantly because they loved found objects and New York was full of all kinds of modern things. They loved the style, the styles, the anonymous design styles of the new world and they employed them. So they found very much at home. They also transferred the kind of angry energy from the original Dada into the – into New York Dada which then later became abstract expressionism and it kept moving on through flocsis and happenings in the sixties into, you know, into our time. So actually Dada found new life in the new world.
CAVANAUGH: And you write in your book that the Dadaists who came over found that there was very little distinction between life and art in New York at that time. Do you find that there's – people can live a life that is artistic in the United States anymore?
CODRESCU: Well, I think that Dadaists, that was their chief principle was that there was no difference between art and life. And this is something I believed myself in the sixties and many of my contemporaries did. And I think we've forgotten that to some extent and – because art is not the creation of little objects to sell in galleries but the process of thinking about the world and the free thinking of the world and so there is no difference. And I think we could all benefit from thinking and if that happens, then we're in – then we're in the territory of art.
CAVANAUGH: Art is, for a lot of people, though, those little things that you can buy in a gallery or you can see in a museum. How do you expand that consciousness?
CODRESCU: Well, the people who made those things had some thoughts but they disappear when the things themselves become commodities and just things to sell and trade and exchange. So, you know, I mean, they have their place, esthetic beauty. It's nice to have something hanging on the wall but if it's just hanging there and it's dead, it doesn't do anything. If it makes you think about new things every time you wake up then it's a good thing.
CAVANAUGH: I was wondering if you hear about some young person doing some elaborately inappropriate thing and blaming your book, will you be happy about that?
CODRESCU: I'll be very happy about it. I always tell my students to write a poem they could get arrested for.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you, you know, we were talking a little bit during the break about your coming to San Diego and actually traveling around the United States now that all we hear about is this epidemic, this swine flu epidemic. And, of course, it's tragic in Mexico and there are people who are ill, but I'm wondering if you were going to write a commentary about the swine flu for NPR, what are some of the things that you might mention in that?
CODRESCU: Well, right now I'm just spreading the Dada epidemic…
CODRESCU: …through the U.S. but, you know, I mean, this – the fact that we're so connected these days makes us susceptible and the computer has been getting plenty of viruses. We – anything that collects us is going to give us what's – what was obscured before, so I think we should get ready for, you know, being just as sick as possible and as well as possible. Dada will cure you.
CAVANAUGH: All right. I want to thank you so much for talking with us today. Andrei Codrescu, thanks for coming in.
CODRESCU: My pleasure.
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