Murray, the Trickster: Correcting Ernest Becker’s neglect of Carl Jung

October 12, 2017


Jordan B. Peterson remarked in the fourth installment of his biblical lecture series that Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death, is “seriously flawed, but wrong in useful ways.” Becker, according to Peterson, “missed the point in the way that Freud missed Jung’s point,” and a “major mistake” of Becker’s work was only briefly referring to Carl Jung in the introduction to his book. Peterson quickly digressed and never followed up on his claims about Becker’s work, or what “the point” is, but much can (and should) be inferred from Peterson’s equation: Becker’s theoretical sketch of Heroism and its inescapable ubiquity is an astonishing but incomplete answer to Freud’s psychoanalytic writings on religion; Freud and Becker share the mistake of missing Jung’s point, according to Peterson; Jung’s point is more sophisticated, more all-encompassing, and better accounts for the situation that Becker outlines (in response to Freud); therefore, revisiting and correcting Becker’s and Freud’s mistake will yield a more accurate and more useful account of the human situation.

The most economical way to demonstrate this pattern of inferences from Peterson’s ambiguous thesis is to analyze Don Delillo’s novelization of Becker’s theories in White Noise, a book of death denial in which the character Murray is a clear instantiation of how Jung’s reading of the human situation, though similar in scope to Becker’s, is greater in explanatory power. Murray is better represented by Jung’s “trickster” archetype than Becker’s sketch of “heroism,” and, further, Delillo’s book could be more accurately read by a Jungian framework than a Beckerian reading – all the way down.

Peterson’s accusation that Becker missed Jung’s point can be sourced to the tepid conciliatory gesture at the end of Becker’s introduction, in which he dismisses Jung’s theoretical relevance. Instead of grappling with Jung’s arguments, Becker grounds many of his core arguments in the writings of Otto Rank, whose neglected writings become a sort of causa-sui revival project of Becker’s own. To these “heroic” ends, Becker attributes Jung’s absence to the then culturally prominent status of psychoanalytic literature, but doesn’t resist the temptation to jab (thus revealing a deeper-seated motivation to ignore Jung’s work): “I can’t see that all his tomes on alchemy [my italics] add one bit to the weight of his psychoanalytic insight.” That is, Becker conceived of his own central claims as operating independently of Jung’s more obscure works primarily because of Jung’s willingness to encompass seemingly any metaphysics within his own; Becker’s reading of Jung thus discards the nuance of Jung’s more central claims: the collective unconscious, the archetypes, the symbols of transformation – all of which litter the otherwise vacant cavities of Becker’s massive theory. Here is where Becker “misses the point,” as Peterson would have it: Becker confused Jung’s “needless esotericism” with his more important writings. Becker’s compartmentalization and thus misreading of Jung admits to a faulty first premise by which Becker (incompletely) argues the rest of The Denial of Death.

Even the explicit intertextuality of Don Delillo’s White Noise and Becker’s The Denial of Death is interrupted through a more patient inclusion of Carl Jung’s arguments, yielding a more complete sense of the work that Becker (and Delillo after him) was trying to accomplish. Delillo’s illustration of Becker’s work is most obviously present in White Noise’s protagonist, Jack Gladney, but Delillo’s illustration loses focus when peripheral characters, like Murray, collide with Jack’s heroism. Delillo’s focus on Jack’s heroism by definition excludes the heroic complexity of the novel’s less immediate characters, a subtlety that Becker’s account of heroism similarly omits. Becker stretches the theory of heroism across all swaths of society but Jung goes deeper, detailing and accumulating evidence of archetypal manifestations beyond the generalities of heroism.

Carl Jung’s illumination of the trickster archetype more powerfully explains Murray’s character than Becker’s rendering of heroism. Murray is an embodied counterexample to Becker’s claim that “our central calling, our main task on this planet, is the heroic,” and that Jung’s archetypes – personified representations of instinctual systems – have a greater explanatory power than Becker’s heroism – attitudinal descriptions of terror management. Murray symbolically embodies Jung’s response to an ambiguity at the heart of Becker’s thesis: “If the basic quality of heroism is genuine courage, why are so few people truly courageous?” One might imagine that Murray has read Becker and is investigating this question of courage at different levels of analysis throughout the novel. White Noise’s protagonist, Jack, shores himself with the courage to pursue heroic projects like learning German, while Murray, Jack’s colleague and friend, is written into the novel as an unorthodox, brilliant, and foolish character. Murray’s absurd investigations into Becker’s question of genuine courage are best explained through Jung’s “trickster” archetype, a character that evades direct contact with powerful threats while at the same time more cleverly deals with these powerful threats than the “hero” archetype.

Murray’s presence as the Jungian “trickster” archetype first becomes clear at the Most Photographed Barn in America (Barn, hereafter). Becker’s heroism would interpret the following exchange as a demonstration of neurotic, learned, narcissistic character traits:

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.’ He seemed immensely pleased by this.

Murray’s phenomenological remarks in this scene examine the “aura” that Becker describes with regard to psychological transference. The Barn’s aura is sustained by the masses who pilgrimage to the site, and Murray’s comments to Jack juxtapose their own silent presence to the unthinking, “incessant clicking” of the masses. This juxtaposition sustains Murray’s sense of heroism, and Jack’s own by extension, according to Becker. Jung’s account of this juxtaposition, however, in terms of the “trickster,” clarifies what Becker would call Murray’s heroism as the “therapeutic effect.” The therapeutic effect of Murray’s character, in Jung’s terms, presents the “low intellectual and moral level before the eyes of the more highly developed individual,” namely, Jack, “so that he shall not forget how things looked yesterday.” Murray’s presence reinforces Jack’s heroism, but Murray himself cannot be described in the same terms. Recall Murray’s supposition that “we can’t answer these questions […] we can’t get out of this aura.” Jung would argue that these remarks came straight from the mouth of the trickster: “We like to imagine that something which we do not understand does not help us in any way. But that is not always so.” Here, both Murray and Jung’s trickster archetype presuppose intrinsic worth in (seemingly) impractical knowledge, as well as take pleasure in the impracticability. Seen in this way, the questions Murray says we “can’t answer” are, as Jung’s portrayal of the trickster suggests, “helpful” – a claim that doesn’t traditionally make sense. The immediacy of this parallel demonstrates how Jung’s explanatory power outshines Becker’s with relation to the manifestations of heroism in Delillo’s novel. Heroism doesn’t sufficiently account for Murray’s presence in this scene; or, at least, Jung better details and contextualizes the uncanniness of Murray’s presence as it relates to Jack’s heroism.

Murray’s response to Babette’s uncanny television appearance is, similarly, only partially explained by Becker’s account of heroism. Babette’s television appearance startles every character except for Murray, whose “sneaky” smile and notetaking unhinge Jack’s sense of heroic certainty. In Becker’s terms, Murray calmly reasserts his heroism in this unexpected scene, a response which “covers over” the anxiety that Babette’s appearance has produced. A Beckerian reading of this nature might ignore Murray’s emphasis on “the wrong kind of attentiveness” so present in the characters’ attitudes towards television, and might renegotiate (or undermine) Murray’s palpable ambiguity within the Gladney family dynamic.

Jung’s characterization of this television scene would critique the generality of Becker’s reading of Murray, which allows for but does not predict Murray’s specific responses. Jung’s “trickster” explicates Becker’s vague reading of Murray to the extent that a primary feature of the trickster is “a reversal of the hierarchic order.” Murray argues that society has “reversed the relative significance” of higher and lower order consciousness in passive engagement with television. Murray goes on to say that “misuse” has lead to this reversal, a trend similarly found in Jung’s discussion of the trickster’s origin in which “a higher level of consciousness has covered up a lower one [while] the latter was already in retreat.” Murray thus embodies the revelatory aspect of Jung’s trickster as well, as evidenced in his critique of society’s “misuse.” Seen this way, Jung might correct Becker’s emphasis on the heroic aspects of Murray’s critique in terms of the “gradual civilizing” force of television. Murray, as does the trickster, behaves in the most uncivilized ways in situations when Jack’s heroic narrative fails; Murray is most alive in times when Jack is most flustered. Reading Murray’s character in this way further demystifies Jung’s remark that “the so-called civilized man has forgotten the trickster” until the “shadow,” the dark force of the unconscious, arises. That is, Jack, like Becker’s heroic portrait of humanity, has forgotten the importance of recognizing archetypes – perhaps with mortal consequences at stake.

Murray’s encounter with the prostitutes during the Great Airborne Toxic Event (GATE, hereafter) most benefits from a Jungian revision to more obvious Beckerian readings throughout the novel. An unorthodox encounter with a car full of prostitutes undermines Jack’s relief at Murray’s familiar presence during the alienation of GATE. Jack, surprised, asks Murray what he’s solicited these prostitutes to do for “twenty-five dollars,” to which Murray’s deadpan answer shocks Jack into silence: “The Heimlich maneuver.” Murray’s answer subverts the casual reader’s expectations of lust, sexual fulfillment, and economic predation associated with prostitution. Becker might describe Murray’s justification to Jack that he will be satisfied “as long as she collapses helplessly backward into my life-saving embrace,” in terms of a way to reinforce his sense of heroism. Murray externalizes his anxieties in the form of what might otherwise be read as a “love object.” More accurately, however, the trickster’s “divine-animal nature” emerges in this scene. That is, two fundamental identifying aspects of the trickster archetype are “extraordinary clumsiness” and a “considerable eagerness to learn.” In this scene, Murray’s “extraordinary clumsiness” arises in his catechetical diction with regards to prostitution (e.g., “representative” and “fellow” clearly refer to a pimp), and Murray’s “considerable eagerness to learn” about the Heimlich maneuver serves to confuse Jack as to Murray’s “divine-animal nature.”

Becker might object that he accounts for Jung’s distinction when he writes that man’s “paradoxical nature” arises from “the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic.” In other words, Jung and Becker may eventually agree about Murray. But Jung’s distinction is more subtle, in that the trickster is a “primitive ‘cosmic’ being,” something prior to the symbolic move towards the heroic on which Becker’s book focuses. In Jung’s revised account, then, Murray, the trickster, never quite makes the Beckerian move into the heroic. Murray’s role as the trickster in White Noise embodies more primitive elements of Jack’s character.

In contrast to the archetypes, Becker has much to say, but Jung says it better and more thoroughly – especially in the task of analyzing Murray’s character. One might suggest the ambitious project of nesting the totality of Becker’s heroism into Jung’s archetypes and collective unconscious; for the trickster archetype is hardly all Jung has to offer in this theoretical domain. Jack Gladney, for instance, might benefit from a cross-examination of Becker’s heroism and Jung’s hero archetype. Babette, as well, might gain symbolic depth through a deeper integration of Jung’s writings on the mother archetype into her character. And so on. Delillo’s White Noise might not exist if not for Becker’s Denial of Death, but it might come back to life through a Jungian revival.

These brief examples of Murray’s better-suited role as the trickster archetype rather than a manifestation of heroism return to a higher-order theoretical concern: Does Ernest Becker’s theory of heroism warrant a full-scale Jungian revision? After all, Peterson’s adamant accusation that Becker “missed the point” still remains. In fairness, Becker’s avoidance of Jung’s more esoteric, amorphous, relativistic metaphysical investigations (on alchemy, on religion, etc.) wisely focuses the scope of Denial of Death’s arguments. Murray’s role as the trickster, however, demonstrates the imperfections of Becker’s oversights as they apply to individual cases and idiosyncratic characters – whether Becker intended for this or not. Parsing this relationship requires a patient negotiation of neglected Jungian nuance into the increasingly anachronistic isomorphism of Becker, a task which might be taken up by Jordan B. Peterson if he ever gets back to his point.


Works Cited

Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. Free Press Paperbacks, 1973. Print.

Delillo, Don. White Noise. Penguin Books, 1984. Print.

Jung, Carl G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton University Press, 1969. Print.

Peterson, Jordan B. “Adam and Eve: Self-Consciousness, Evil, and Death.” YouTube, 19 June 2017,



Joyshtick: Approaching Video Game Ludonarratives as Literature

October 8, 2017

Part One of the “Joyshtick” ludonarrative panel series:


Instances of Irritatingly Terse Poetry (from “Wilpower”)

September 22, 2017

I’m happy to share that some of my experimental poetry has been accepted by a Floridian literary magazine. Thanks to Emily Wilson for the opportunity to interrupt the normal flow of literature. Click through to Wilpower’s website for my poems; stay for some adjacently pleasurable authorial content.

Asking the Ashplant: A Literary Investigation into Stephen Dedalus’ Walking Stick

May 9, 2017


The image of the walking stick manifests itself in seemingly all cultures, in religious ritual, and in rites of passage ceremonies. One can find the image of the walking stick permeating some of the oldest tales in literary history, including early Biblical tales. Thus, it is no surprise that the walking stick makes an appearance in James Joyce’s penultimate work, Ulysses. For Ulysses gives the reader explicit clarity that it recycles imagery, themes, tropes, and narrative voices from the Western canon (as contemporaneous with Joyce). The presence of the walking stick in Ulysses Stephen’s ashplant – is no exception. Yet, like many “recycled” elements in Ulysses, the ashplant takes on uncanny, surprising roles throughout the novel. Most critics, for instance, have assigned the role of Stephen’s ashplant to be a manifestation of his (lack of) phallus. This simple reading of the ashplant neglects its larger significance for the novel. Not only is the ashplant a crucial symbol throughout Ulysses, it also solves Stephen’s artistic troubles from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, threading the conceptual needle between two of Joyce’s major works. Without the ashplant, there would be no realization of Stephen’s artistic vision, nor would the climax of “The Odyssey” in Ulysses be possible.

Stephen Dedalus’ ashplant first appears in Joyce’s preceding work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. During a vision towards the end of the novel’s fourth chapter, Stephen picks up “a pointed salteaten stick out of the jetsam among the rocks,” and clambers down the slope of the breakwater. This “salteaten stick,” though not immediately described as such, eventually takes the form of the ashplant that appears throughout Ulysses. The grasping of the ashplant in this scene coincides with some meditations of Stephen’s thalassophobia (fear of the ocean), and frustrated sexuality, as he gazes on the “birdgirl” in the water before him. As Benjamin Harder, in his essay, “Stephen’s Prop,” suggests, the salteaten stick, not yet an ashplant, is “a means of stability, a crutch,” which allows Stephen to navigate difficult terrain, both physical and emotional. Keeping in mind the title of the novel, Harder argues that the stick has incredible influence on the “young artist’s sight and self-image” throughout Portrait. For, in grasping this salteaten stick from the jetsam, Stephen begins his transition from boyhood into manhood. As Stephen develops into the “young man” that the novel’s title suggests, he must face the loss of his boyhood, the fact that he is now “alone.” Or, rather, the realization that Stephen was “unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life,” coincides with the consequence that he, with the aid of the salteaten stick, is on the cusp of achieving artistic and personal individuality.

The presence of the stick persists throughout the end of Portrait, entering into the final chapter when it finally changes symbolic form. Standing on the steps of the library, Stephen notices a flock of birds pass by, and is described as “leaning wearily on his ashplant.” Not a page later, this freshly described “ashplant” transmogrifies in Stephen’s imagination into “the curved stick of an augur.” This new form of the walking stick is described in Don Gifford’s book, Notes for Joyce, in which he adds the following description of what will later become, in Ulysses, the “augur’s rod”:

49:10 (48:19). Augur’s rod of ash – the Roman augur’s rod, the lituus, was a staff without knots, curved at the top. It was one of the principal insignia of the augur’s office and was used to define the templum, the consecrated sectors of the sky, within which his auguries (observations of the omens given by birds) were to be made.

The Roman connotations are not lost on Joyce’s character, Stephen, who makes innumerable references to Roman (and Greek) tropes, mythology, and history, throughout the novels. Nor is the aforementioned birdwatching simply an idle activity for Stephen. As Gifford notes, the “consecrated sectors of the sky” appear before him on the library steps. Another consideration for Stephen’s walking stick is the shift in diction across Portrait and through the narrative arc of Ulysses; tracing Stephen’s own growth, the stick evolves from the meager “salteaten” stick to the proper “ashplant.”

The transformation of Stephen’s ashplant into the augur’s rod brings with it some additional implications of potential violence. Harder elucidates these implications through an earlier scene in Portrait when Cranly snatches the ashplant from Stephen’s hand and chases Temple away with it. Harder writes, “Stephen’s prop, when appropriated by another, is susceptible to violent scenes. The question is whether Stephen can control his own use of the staff.” Harder’s suggestion that the ashplant develops pernicious symbolic potentials in the hands of other characters will become of greater concern in Ulysses, in which the character, Leopold Bloom, briefly handles Stephen’s abandoned walking stick. Not long after this exchange between Stephen, Cranly, and Temple, Portrait comes to a close.

It is curious that Joyce specified the nature of Stephen’s walking stick as an “ashplant” in these novels, for the botanical sources of walking sticks have varied greatly throughout human history. Materials such as bamboo, maples, hickories, walnuts, oaks, cedars, pines, cherries, rhododendrons, and so on, have been more common sources of walking sticks in adjacent cultures. The ash tree of which Stephen’s ashplant originates is a plant whose roots grow at such an oblong and horizontal direction that, when dug up from the ground and clipped back, makes for a perfectly shaped walking stick. The horizontal root serves as a smooth handle. One can see how Joyce’s choice to place Stephen’s walking stick within the roots of Ireland is, in fact, a pointed gesture, as Joyce would be well-acquainted with Ireland’s tallest, most common native tree: the ash tree. Thus, upon further reflection, Stephen’s ashplant seems to serve as an embodiment of Ireland (and Stephen’s Irish identity) itself.

The ashplant makes its first, rather innocuous, appearance in the opening chapter of Ulysses, entitled “Telemachus.” As Stephen and Buck Mulligan prepare to leave their living quarters for the day, Stephen takes his ashplant from its “leaningplace” (U 1.528). The walking stick isn’t mentioned again until Buck, in the middle of a chant, “tug[s] swiftly at Stephen’s ashplant in farewell” and exits the scene, leaving Stephen and Haines alone. Joycean critics have all seemed to neglect the bird imagery cloaking this exchange with the ashplant, however. Taking a look at the diction surrounding Buck in this scene, one can’t help but wonder if the “bird” elements are present to suggest that Buck’s “tugging” of the ashplant is also, in fact, a birdlike gesture (that of attempting to build a nest with sticks). For, he is described as “fluttering his winglike hands,” with “birdsweet cries,” and so on (U 1.600-02). This connection might be worth exploring further. The silence by literary critics on this matter, however, suggests that the connection between the birdlike elements of this scene and the tugging on the ashplant is not as strong as it might be.

As Buck leaves, Stephen and Haines continue discussing theological concerns, and here the ashplant makes yet another peculiar appearance. As the characters walk, Stephen’s ashplant is “trailing […] by his side” (U 1.627). Its “ferrule” – the end cap – is described as following “lightly” on the path with the characters, almost like a pet dog walking alongside them. Yet the ferrule’s light contact with the path produces a “squealing” sound, which generates the following moment of Stephen’s inner monologue: “My familiar, after me, calling, Steeeeeeeeeeeephen!” (U 1.628-29). Again, the descriptions resemble something pet-like. Furthermore, the ashplant’s presence in this scene produces psychological absence – it takes Stephen out of the scene. The connotations of the stick’s sound being “familiar,” like an old friend, following “after me,” as though it were evoking memories from the past, and the childishly embellished “e” sound in Stephen’s name all suggest a youthful quality about the ashplant. The “youth” of the ashplant, in these descriptions, manifests itself as an inherited quality from the “youth” of Portrait, one which remains rather implicitly acknowledged throughout the progression of Ulysses.

The ashplant disappears from the novel until the third chapter, “Proteus,” in which its role in the novel is first properly explored. This monologic scene in which Stephen plays at being blind allows for the ashplant to take on multiple symbolic functions at once. Stephen thinks, “I am getting on nicely in the dark. My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: they do” (U 3.15-16). The “they” in Stephen’s interior monologue is undoubtedly the blind, as Stephen mimics the act of finding one’s way around with a probing cane. Harder notes how there is a symbolic tension within these few lines, in how the ashplant is plainly described as a weapon (“my ash sword”), and yet is “plainly a compensatory tool of vision.” And yet, one might suggest, there is no reason to suppose that either of the ashplant’s dual functions need necessarily preclude one another. In any case, Harder proceeds to link this scene with Portrait in that the ashplant conveys “extraordinary sight, which elevates his station in a moment of wish fulfillment.” The ashplant clearly functions in the opening scenes of this chapter as a visual prosthetic for Stephen, both in terms of his physical senses (the “ineluctable modality of the visible”) and his mental faculties.

The ashplant also functions as a tool for Stephen’s self-defense and the overcoming of fears in the “Proteus” chapter. As seen in Portrait, Stephen’s thalassophobia remains present throughout his wanderings on the Sandymount Strand. Stephen takes special caution to distance himself from the waters throughout the chapter and, as he situates himself on a rock to take a break from walking, he thinks, paranoidly, “The flood is following me” (U 3.282). As Stephen climbs up onto his perch, he “rest[s] his ashplant in a grike,” temporarily abandoning his crutch, and allows his mind to wander away from the scene at hand (U 3.284-85). Harder suggests that Stephen’s ashplant here functions as “a comfort against falling into the ocean,” and even goes as far to consider this action of releasing the ashplant is “a protection against suicide, and a means of approaching the rushing, frightening jouissance that is just under Stephen’s consciousness.” The connection to suicide is not unwarranted, however, as will be seen in the “Circe” chapter in which Stephen encounters figures of the dead, including that of his mother.

Another of Stephen’s grave fears makes itself known in the “Proteus” chapter as well, and is dispelled by the comforting presence of his ashplant. Continuing its “violent” function from Portrait, Stephen considers using it on the dog running around Sandymount Strand. It has already been made clear by this point in the novel that Stephen is a cynophobe (one who fears dogs). Thus, his first thought upon seeing the “live” dog running across the sand is, “Lord, is he going to attack me?” (U 3.295). Stephen’s impulse is to expect the dog to become violent with him, hence his instinct to protect himself with the ashplant. As with the ocean, Stephen keeps his ashplant close so as to defend himself at any time. But, in keeping with Stephen’s character, he does not engage with this dog. Rather, he reassures himself: “Respect his liberty. You will not be master of others or their slave. I have my stick. Sit tight” (U 3.295-96). Here the thought “I have my stick” could be interchangeable with “I have my sword” or any other means for self-defense. Without the ashplant, as Harder has suggested, Stephen would become unmanned and even  “unselved” by these encounters with his fears. Indeed, Stephen allows himself to sink into morbid thoughts once more towards the end of the “Proteus” chapter.

The notion that Stephen’s subconscious is magnetized towards suicidal impulses is reinvigorated when he thinks about the flowing waters of Cock lake. Stephen imagines the waters flowing in, “covering greengoldenly lagoons of sand,” perhaps even the very beach on which Stephen has been walking, taking him back out into the waters (U 3.453-54). “My ashplant will float away,” thinks Stephen, rather detachedly, and he continues, “No, they [the waters] will pass on” (U 3.454-55). The ashplant, as critics have argued at length, is in many ways a symbol of Stephen himself; the notion that his ashplant would “float away” like the bloated dog carcass from earlier in the chapter implicates Stephen’s own life. Furthermore, Stephen’s diction regarding the waters – the notion that they will “pass on” – is uncannily that of someone describing a death, as though Stephen, without his sturdy ashplant at his side, would soon “pass on.” Luckily, these thoughts are interrupted once more, and Stephen’s chapter comes to a close. As he gathers himself up to leave Sandymount Strand, he takes the “hilt” of his ashplant, and briefly swings it around like a sword (U 3.489). “Yes, evening will find itself in me,” he thinks, “without me. All days make their end” (U 3.490). The evocation of “evening” in connection with “end” yet again restores the suicidal impulse in Stephen’s mind. The ashplant, faithfully at his side, serves as an emotional crutch to these feelings as much as it supports and protects him physically.

Joyce also describes the ashplant in performative terms, as though it were merely one of Stephen’s “effects” of dress. It is as though Joyce deliberately downplays the ashplant’s obvious symbolic role as a means of confusing those who track the ashplant’s movement throughout Ulysses. After “Proteus,” the ashplant vanishes from the novel until its ninth chapter, “Scylla and Charybdis,” in which Stephen’s “ashplanthandle” is hung over his knee (U 9.296). Later on in the chapter, Stephen examines himself: “Stephen looked on his hat, his stick, his boots” (U 9.946). These simple images immediately transform into more complicated ones, however: “Stephanos, my crown. My sword. His boots are spoiling the shape of my feet. Buy a pair. Holes in my socks. Handkerchief too” (U 9.947-48). The shift in description immediately connotes a kingly image, with “crown” and “sword” being the lustrous features of Stephen’s appearance. Yet, these connotations are simultaneously undermined by the peasant-like “holes” in the socks and handkerchief. The double-image of Stephen’s hat/crown and stick/sword seems to undermine the larger significance of the hat and ashplant throughout the novel. Yet, as will be seen in the “Circe” chapter, that would be to misunderstand the ashplant’s role as more than a walking stick.

Though the ashplant does make a few cameos in the “Wandering Rocks” chapter of the novel, its role is rather subdued. The ashplant properly comes to life – almost taking on the role of a character – in “Circe.” This chapter, written as though it were to be performed on stage, mentions the ashplant more than any other. The ashplant first makes its appearance in the chapter’s stage directions, where Stephen is described as “flourishing the ashplant in his left hand” as he chants with other characters (U 15.73). Once again, the ashplant’s flourish provides for a kind of performative quality on Stephen’s behalf. Indeed, drunk and showing off in front of the ladies, Stephen tells Lynch, “Hold my stick” (U 15.118-19). Lynch begrudgingly accepts – or, rather, “Stephen thrusts the ashplant on him” – though not without complaint: “Damn your yellow stick” (U 15.120). This exchange is described in Randall J. Pogorzelski’s book, Virgil and Joyce, as paralleling Aeneas’ golden bough from the Aeneid. Pogorzelski writes, “It is hard not to recall the ‘aureus . . . ramus’ [golden bough] that gains Aeneas entrance to the underworld.” There are undoubtedly many references to Virgil throughout Ulysses; whether this exchange is one of such references, however, is contestable. If, in fact, Stephen’s “yellow stick” is to be thought of as Aeneas’ “golden bough,” then it serves to explain the mythic, quasi-supernatural characteristics of the ashplant in this chapter.

As the “Circe” chapter continues, and Stephen becomes progressively more drunk, the role of the ashplant becomes more and more perplexing. Stephen thinks to himself that he is “out of it now,” presumably (but not limited to) his drunkenness (U 15.2535). Following this thought, the siamese twins, Philip Drunk and Philip Sober, appear to reaffirm Stephen’s thought: “Out of it out of it. By the bye have you the book, the thing, the ashplant? Yes, there it, yes. Cleverever outofitnow. Keep in condition. Do like us” (U 15.2537-39). These rather sing-songy lines aside, it seems that Philip Drunk and Philip Sober bring up the ashplant in passing, especially considering how it is named offhandedly, as though the twins Philip were trying to remember the term for the ashplant. However, their inquiry ceases once they find the correct word. The twins Philip proceed to affirm its presence, repeat Stephen’s “out of it” comment, and then advise Stephen to “do like us” by keeping the ashplant in good condition. This scene, taking place as though it were a hallucination, prophecies the later culminating scene in which the ashplant’s violent potential displays itself.

The ashplant retains (and develops) its sense as a mythical object when Stephen refers to it, not as his stick or ashplant, but as his “augur’s rod.” In a scene of dancing and festivities, Stephen says, “Quick! Quick! Where’s my augur’s rod? (he runs to the piano and takes his ashplant, beating his foot in tripudium)” (U 15.4011-12). Stephen proceeds to dance with Zoe and other characters in this scene, eventually announcing “Pas Seul!” (a dance for one person) to the group. As Stephen dances, the descriptions of his movements always reference the ashplant (U 15.4120-4129), and as his moves become wilder, the grammar breaks down: “Stephen with hat ashplant frogsplits in middle highkicks with skykicking mouth shut hand clasp part under thigh” (U 15.4123-25). These descriptions are curious for a number of reasons. First, as the reader is undoubtedly supposed to infer, the ashplant serves as a walking stick for Stephen; presumably Stephen has a lame leg or needs the support when moving. Second, all of the dance moves described in this section refer to leg movements – “frogsplits,” “highkicks,” “skykicking.” The ashplant, acting as a kind of “third leg” becomes, for Stephen, a prosthetic device. For, with the aid of the ashplant to balance his movements, he performs more complicated dance moves than would otherwise be expected from a character carrying a walking stick.

The ashplant’s ultimate significance is brought about through visions of Stephen’s dead mother, towards the end of the “Circe” chapter. Stephen’s mother proselytizes him, warning him to repent and to beware of God. In keeping with other religiously ambivalent overtones of the novel, Stephen attempts to rebel against his mother in this scene, replying “Non serviam!” (I will not serve) (U 15.4228). Harder suggests that this declaration mimics Peter’s denial of Christ, which is aligned with Stephen’s antipathy towards both religion and his mother’s death “No! No! No!” Stephen shouts, “Break my spirit, all of you, if you can! I’ll bring you all to heel!” (U 15.4235-36). And with this penultimate line, Stephen ceases to listen to reason; rather, he lashes out in an act of physical violence. “Nothung!” he shouts, and the stage directions describe the ashplant’s unforgettable apotheosis: “(He lifts his ashplant high with both hands and smashes the chandelier. Time’s livid final flame leaps and, in the following darkness, ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry.)” (U 15.4243-45). It is notable that Stephen challenges those in the room to “break” his spirit before proceeding to physically break the chandelier. Furthermore, Richard Ellman suggests that Joyce’s reference to Wagner – “nothung,” Siegfried’s sword – is also a parallel to Odysseus’ “Noman,” the identity he gives the Cyclops after blinding him in The Odyssey. It’s as though Stephen doesn’t know how to channel his emotions in this scene, which, compounded by his excessive drunkenness, physically escapes his body through this violent gesture. He is, in other words, blinded to reason. As Ellman suggests, Stephen channels his spiritual rebellion into physical rebellion. And yet, this isn’t entirely a destructive act; rather, this scene represents the fact that Stephen has finally graduated from the “young man” he was in Portrait. In this scene, Ellman writes, “ the destruction-creation at the centre of the artistic process is realized.” Despite the resounding drama of this scene, Stephen proceeds to “[abandon] his ashplant” after someone yells for the police (U 15.4255). Bloom, in a moment of lucidity, has the sense to collect Stephen’s ashplant before making reparations with the owners of the “tenshilling house.” Though, in so doing, he mimics Stephen (“he raises the ashplant”) and startles the ladies in the room.

Bloom’s involvement with the ashplant is a source of all kinds of scholarly intrigue.

The most extensive conversation surrounding this act is to be found in Mark Osteen’s The Economy of Ulysses, in which he argues that Bloom becomes a “transvestite” towards the end of the “Circe” chapter. Osteen writes, “by picking up the ashplant and preparing to strike the shade again, Bloom acts as Stephen as well as for him.” The ashplant, so central to Stephen’s identity, has the power to confer identity onto Bloom in this scene. Osteen argues that Bloom “becomes” Stephen through the final act of dressing and performing as him. This is borne out in moments where, for instance, Bloom “tightens and loosens his grip on the ashplant” as he hears a dog bark in the distance (U 15.4945-46). But this reading goes against much of the overtones of fatherhood throughout the novel. That is, the paternal relationship of Bloom and Stephen is transfigured by this scene into a more homoerotic one. For, Osteen argues, this scene is the first in which Bloom intentionally touches Stephen (with concern), and calls him by his first name. These unique gestures are not repeated elsewhere throughout the novel. With these notions in mind, moments when Bloom “stands erect” with Stephen’s hat and ashplant further complicate their relationship to suggest something more overtly homoerotic (U 15.4946). Thus, between their newly altered friendship and Bloom’s possession of the ashplant – Stephen’s essential identity marker – this scene demonstrates how “extremes meet through exchange.” That is, the diametrically opposed dispositions of Stephen and Bloom are united through the act of dressing up in the role of the other character.

As Bloom’s character changes with the ascertainment of the ashplant, so too does Stephen’s with the loss of his stick. This is evident in the stage directions surrounding the ashplantless Stephen, as he “staggers,” needs to be propped up by Bloom, “sway[s],” and “falls back a pace” (U 15.4428-31; U 15.4481). Eventually Stephen realizes that his “centre of gravity is displaced” (U 15.4434). The “centre of gravity” almost undoubtedly refers to his still-missing ashplant. Joyce even takes the opportunity for Stephen to drop the pun, “How do I stand you?” (U 15.4590). Of course, Stephen’s lack of balance all has much to do with the fact that he has been drinking. That aside, Stephen’s newly unbalanced characteristics wear off almost immediately upon regaining his ashplant.

As many scholars have argued at length, Stephen’s ashplant is commonly seen as a phallus. The connection is obvious, if not juvenile. What seems to be omitted from the larger discussion is the moment that Stephen regains his “phallus” from Bloom. Running up to Stephen, Bloom offers up the ashplant, to which Stephen rejects: “Stick, no. Reason. This feast of pure reason” (U 15.4745). Recalling the fact that Stephen abandoned his stick after his physically violent, hyper-masculine outburst, the ultimate reason for his attack on the chandelier was that Stephen was unable to reason with his mother. Through excessive alcohol intake, and through the stupor of the evening, Stephen could not summon his adept reasoning and thus resorted to brutish violence. Upon regaining the ashplant, now seen as the weapon for which it always had potential, Stephen rejects its role as a violent object. Hence his insistence on “reason” being in opposition to the stick. If other scholars are correct in deeming the ashplant as a phallus, it then becomes a vexatious problem of how to sort out Stephen’s preference for the intellect over brute force. Keeping traditional notions of masculinity in mind, the phallogocentric path would be to accept the ashplant. Stephen rejects it at first, realizing, as he did not in Portrait and thus far in Ulysses, that his path forward in life would indeed require a different understanding: one primarily imbued with reason.

Following the “Circe” chapter, Bloom is finally able to return the ashplant to Stephen, and it goes unremarked upon for the remainder of the novel. However, in Bloom’s chapter, “Ithaca,” the ashplant makes its final appearance. Stephen, leaving Bloom’s house, is described in similar stage directions to that of “Circe”: “Lighted Candle in Stick / borne by / BLOOM / Diaconal Hat on Ashplant / borne by / STEPHEN” (U 17.1023-28). The presentation of this passage is with centered texts, lines breaking in such a way as to suggest performativity. As Stephen now realizes, the ashplant is “a tool that must be borne as a burden or punishment.” Throughout the novel, he has carried the walking stick around as a means of self-defense, of prosthetic aid, and to continue with it further brings with it the memories of his violent, drunken outburst in “Circe.” It is probable to suppose that Stephen finally abandons his ashplant, having learned the lessons – lessons of his identity as a man, as an artist, and so on – along the novel’s course. The ashplant does not reappear in Ulysses.

The ashplant is an object within the text which offers a host of interpretations. This is in keeping with the rest of Ulysses, a text that defies scrutiny and yet offers endless possibility for such scholarly inquiry. At times, the ashplant appears as a force of good in Stephen’s life. It keeps him upright, it helps him face his fears, and assists him in carving out his identity as a young artist. That said, the ashplant also carries with it the potential for violent action, not to mention its role as a “crutch” in the truly deprecating sense (i.e. relying on something too much). The ashplant, in any interpretation, is the connecting object between Portrait and Ulysses. It walks the reader along, through the treacherous paths that Joyce has written, and allows the reader a sense of efficacy that they, too, can be aided in their journey through the life of Stephen Dedalus.


From Chekhov to Solzhenitsyn: The Writings of Confinement

April 25, 2017

The majority of Anton Chekhov’s short stories are grim vignettes of a troubled and intellectually frustrated people of pre-revolutionary Russia. In many of Chekhov’s works, characters wax philosophically on such subjects as human nature, the contemporarily fraught political climate of Russia, life following the industrial revolution, and so on. Chekhov’s writings, however, always couch his own critiques through his characters, and it is not uncommon for Chekhov to interrupt (or outright ignore) these moments of seriousness and sincerity, leaving the reader with a rather fragmented sense of Chekhov’s own views on these matters. One of his short stories, Ward No. 6, however, is uniquely vivid, charged with mordant critique of the injustices inflicted upon the mentally ill. The degree to which Chekhov’s account is fictionalized remains unclear. It is accepted, however, amongst the Russian people, that Chekhov published Ward No. 6 as a case study depicting the simultaneously ignorant and malicious aspects of Russian medicine. Despite the morbid despair that Chekhov so masterfully captured, this story has influenced Russian intellectuals for a century. It’s a wonder, then, that the obvious links between Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have been rather un(der)explored by literary critics and scholars. For, in reading the works of Solzhenitsyn, one gets the impression that Chekhov’s prescient presence persists in a 21st century Russia.

Chekhov’s influence on Russian thought was such that Vladimir Lenin, the communist revolutionary, once remarked to his sister of the “horror” of reading Ward No. 6. Chekhov’s story was so powerful that Lenin “could not bear to stay in his room” due to the “horror” that had seized him, and went out to find someone to confide in. “‘I absolutely had the feeling,’ he told his sister the next day, ‘that I was shut up in Ward 6 myself!’” And indeed, the narrator of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 takes deliberate care to walk the reader into the ward, where they are then confined and forced to bear witness to its secrets. The story begins with a description of the “burdocks, nettles, and wild hemp” of the hospital yard. As if these thorny, unkempt, weedy images were not enough to deter the reader from entering the hospital – “if you are not afraid of being stung by the nettles” – the bleak images only decay in invitingness. Chekhov’s narrator describes the hospital’s “rusty” roof of the hospital, the “tumbling” (presumably crumbling) chimney, the “rotting” steps of the entrance, and the overall overgrown nature of the lifeless place. Indeed, even the “grey” fence has nails on it which “point upwards,” deterring any possibility of cheerful visitors. Chekhov’s narrator concludes these observations by noting that the whole environment had “that peculiar, desolate, God-forsaken look which is only found in our hospital and prison buildings.” These observations take but a paragraph, and yet the tedium of detail contained within harbors the dread of an eternity – the opening paragraph feels, like Lenin said, real, as though the reader is in fact shut up in Ward 6.

Chekhov’s centripetal introduction to Ward No. 6 only worsens in detail as the reader enters the hospital, as the narrator forces the reader to endure the “sickly smell” of the building, the “heaps” of rubbish lining the building’s interior. The building’s walls are “dirty,” its ceiling is “sooty,” the windows are “disfigured” by iron bars, and the grey, wooden floor is “full of splinters.” Finally, after walking past this disgusting scene, Chekhov’s narrator introduces the “lunatics” of the ward.

Compared to the dismal setting, the five lunatics are surprisingly normal, one of which is described as “upper class,” while the rest are “artisans.” Each ward member’s mental illness is unique: the Jew Moiseika is described as a harmless simpleton (always begging for a kopeck), Ivan Dmitritch Gromov suffers from a (not altogether unreasonable) mania of persecution, and so on. With the exception of Nikita, the brutal porter, each member of the story is described in genuinely pitiable terms. Chekhov’s portrayal of the contextual and causal stories of degenerative mental health illustrates the compassionate view that, unfairly, the “dull” and “stifling” town was what drove people into the ward; that is, the Russian people were bound to end up in the “monotonous” ward. The ward, once entered, functions as all such isolating government institutions are designed: to prevent people from escaping.

It is with these aporetic insights into the inner machinations of the hospital that the morally aggressive tenor of Chekhov’s story first asserts itself. The character Ivan, with whom the doctor Andrey would later argue, muses on theories of justice in relation to his own position in the ward. Recalling Chekhov’s earlier likening of the hospital to a prison, Ivan’s observation that “the agelong experience of the simple people teaches that beggary and prison are ills none can be safe from,” suggests a moment where Chekhov’s own moral indictments arise in the story. Ivan observes how a “judicial mistake” could be at the heart of some of the country’s worst sufferings, and concludes that “people who have an official, professional relation to other men’s sufferings […] in the course of time, through habit, grow so callous that they cannot, even if they wish it, take any but a formal attitude to their clients.” One thing – “time” – is at the heart of this callousness.

Ivan’s indictment of the professional, callous relationship to suffering eventually manifests itself in the ward’s doctor, Andrey Yefimitch Ragin. Chekhov introduces the doctor in optimistic terms. Andrey is described as shabby but intelligent, with a morally alert conscience: “Andrey Yefimitch came to the conclusion that [the ward] was an immoral institution and extremely prejudicial to the health of the townspeople.” Thusfar in the story, Chekhov has given the reader reason to agree with Andrey’s moral concern towards the ward’s institutional efficacy. As Chekhov’s descriptions continue, however, the “callousness” that Ivan described becomes evident. For instance, Andrey loses his status as a sympathetic character through the deadpan delivery of his cynical realization that he is only a cog in the inevitable social machine: “‘I serve in a pernicious institution and receive a salary from people whom I am deceiving. I am not honest, but then, I of myself am nothing, I am only part of an inevitable social evil.’” Thus, a culminating moment of the doctor’s waning moral convictions bursts forth in a discussion with Ivan: “‘So long as prisons and madhouses exist someone must be shut up in them’” [my italics]. This moment of realization seems to be one of the few moments when Chekhov’s own views bleed through the dialogue of his characters. Andrey’s suggestion that the evils of the ward were “inevitable,” that the very existence of the institution was “pernicious,” as their empty wards magnetically trapped their future patients – all of these observations speak to the existing institutions that Chekhov was clearly critiquing in his short story. Similarly, all of them undermine the attitude that the doctor was “an oracle who must be believed without any criticism even if he had poured molten lead into their mouths.”

Another trenchant critique in Ward No. 6 is displayed through Chekhov’s scrutiny of stoic philosophy, as argued by Andrey. During an exchange between Andrey and Ivan, Chekhov’s position on the question of how to properly address the problem of human suffering is illuminated. By this point in the story, the reader has good reason to scrutinize Andrey’s aphoristic suggestion that “the wise man, or simply the reflecting, thoughtful man, is distinguished precisely by his contempt for suffering; he is always contented and surprised at nothing.” Here, Andrey is parroting Marcus Aurelius, the great stoic philosopher. It is very possible that Chekhov was sympathetic with the stoics’ existential project, as he demonstrates a deep understanding of their ideals, but the passion with which his character, Ivan, refutes Andrey suggests an opposing interpretation:

To pain I respond with tears and outcries, to baseness with indignation, to filth with loathing. To my mind, that is just what is called life. The lower the organism, the less sensitive it is, and the more feebly it reacts to stimulus; and the higher it is, the more responsively and vigorously it reacts to reality. How do you not know that?

Ivan continues, arguing that Andrey’s adherence to stoicism is insincere, and in fact “quite unintelligible” to the majority of all men. The reason that the doctor is able to speak with such blasé regarding human suffering, Ivan argues, is that Andrey was “only theoretically acquainted with reality.” Similarly, the doctor is only theoretically acquainted with suffering, hence his stoic view. Chekhov’s own attitude towards human suffering, cloaked within this argument, starts to take shape through the bickering of the ward members.

Chekhov’s commentary on human suffering is left unspoken for the majority of the story’s final pages, until, suddenly, Andrey finds himself thrown in the ward with Ivan and the others. Upon realizing that the new ward member was the (now former) doctor, Ivan hoots with excitement, “You sucked the blood of others, and now they will suck yours. Excellent!” In other words, Andrey no longer will be able to maintain his strictly “theoretical” understanding with suffering; he is now one of the “lunatics” that he was in charge of. “Cursed life,” grumbles Andrey, “and what’s bitter and insulting, this life will not end in compensation for our sufferings, it will not end with apotheosis […] but with death.” As Andrey curses his new condition, he tries to find any possible way to break the monotony of the ward. He looks out the window, observing the yard, the moon, the fence, and thinks, “This [is a] prison.” Again, the analogy between prisons and hospitals becomes unignorable. The key connection, for Chekhov, seems to be in the forced “waiting” that is shared both in prisons and in hospitals; it is in the waiting that insanity truly develops, that psychological suffering becomes unimaginable:

[Andrey] bit the pillow from pain and clenched his teeth, and all at once through the chaos in his brain there flashed the terrible unbearable thought that these people, who seemed now like black shadows in the moonlight, had to endure such pain day by day for years. How could it have happened that for more than twenty years he had not known it and had refused to know it?

It is with this realization that Andrey finally regains some sympathetic qualities to his character. After beginning to experience the suffering of others, he can finally begin to understand it as well. Like so many of Chekhov’s prescient writings, this discussion of human suffering would remain relevant throughout the eminent Russian revolutions, specifically in the labor camps where unspeakable, incalculable amounts of human suffering were inflicted on the Russian people.

One can find the perennial relevance of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6, its critique of contemporary institutions, and its investigation into the problem of human suffering, all within the writings of another powerful Russian writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Chekhov’s influence is most explicitly acknowledged in the “Interrogation” chapter of Solzhenitsyn’s infamous (and formerly banned) book, The Gulag Archipelago:

If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia […] not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

This insight must not be taken lightly, and is nested in a broader discussion – the topic Solzhenitsyn’s chapter refers to – of the tortures inflicted on Solzhenitsyn and others in the Gulag. Half a century divides Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, and so one senses in Solzhenitsyn’s writings a matured view of mental health from Chekhov’s 19th century understanding. To that end, one of the largest differences between these authors is the aforementioned normalcy with which Chekhov cloaks the conditions of the ward members. That is, the characters of Ward No. 6 all seem to have fallen ill gradually, with little explanation; Solzhenitsyn suggests that the Gulag was enough to reliably produce insanity. And it is no coincidence that Solzhenitsyn evokes the insane asylum in the same sentence that he mentions Chekhov’s characters.

As Chekhov’s story condemns the tendency of institutions to fill themselves (specifically the hospital, but also the prison system), so too does Solzhenitsyn indict the system of Russian prison camps. Though these prison camps were entirely unlike any prison contemporary to Chekhov’s life, one can still trace a similar critique through Chekhov’s writings and into Solzhenitsyn’s. The early chapters of Gulag Archipelago describe the soaring rates of arrest in Russia – which led to Solzhenitsyn’s own imprisonment – the contagiousness of which spared no one. “The circles kept getting bigger,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “as they raked in ordinary believers as well, old people, and particularly women.” The “circles” Solzhenitsyn describes refer to are the concentric social circles which grew exponentially as the definition of a “traitor” broadened. Whereas Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs began arresting people on ostensibly evidential grounds, soon they were arresting people to inspire political fear, citing “incidental irrelevancies” as warrant for arrest. And thus one can see the connection to Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and the warnings embedded in Andrey’s observation that “‘So long as prisons and madhouses exist someone must be shut up in them.’” It’s as though Solzhenitsyn’s writings demonstrate the veracity of Andrey’s cynical pronouncement in Ward No. 6. For as soon as the parameters expand of what constitutes grounds for arrest, naturally more arrests were made in Russia. This influx of arrested citizens would require more, larger institutions and, thus, “someone must be shut up in them” [again, my italics].  

The parallels between the writings of Solzhenitsyn and Chekhov are so obvious, that even Solzhenitsyn’s gloomy description of the prison -an unintelligibly dismal venue – echoes the depressing introduction to Chekhov’s Ward No. 6. “We have been happily borne,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “or perhaps have unhappily dragged our weary way – down the long and crooked streets of our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings.” Immediately this description of the “crooked streets” recalls the “narrow footpath” leading to the hospital in Ward No. 6. Furthermore, the adjectives in Solzhenitsyn’s description – “rotting,” “rammed earth” – match with the objects in Chekhov’s story – the rusted roof, the iron gratings, barbed fences, crumbling brick, and so on. Solzhenitsyn goes further, however, to explicate the authorial intent which Chekhov has hidden in Ward No. 6, namely that “We have never given a thought to what lies behind [the walls of the institution]. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding.” While Solzhenitsyn is writing of prison walls, as opposed to hospital walls, the broader principle rings true throughout Chekhov’s story. Not only has Chekhov already made the connection between the “God-forsaken” atmospheres of prisons and hospitals, but one can also find a double meaning in the writings of Solzhenitsyn. It’s as though Chekhov wrote Ward No. 6 because we have “never given a thought” to what lies behind the hospital walls; furthermore, “we have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding.”

A final, crucial consideration regarding the similarities between Ward No. 6 and Gulag Archipelago is in the way both authors pull the reader into a confined space along with the prisoner or ward member. As Chekhov’s introductory description makes the reader feel like a patient being escorted into the ward, so too does Solzhenitsyn drag the arrested reader into the Gulag: “And all of a sudden the fateful gate swings quickly open, and four white male hands, unaccustomed to physical labor but nonetheless strong and tenacious, grab us by the leg, arm, collar, cap, ear, and drag us in like a sack, and the gate behind us, the gate to our past life, is slammed shut once and for all.” Solzhenitsyn’s description is startling in its brevity – “all of a sudden” the gate “swings quickly” open – and yet also suggests the agony, through precision of detail, that one must have felt while being grabbed. Solzhenitsyn names the series of body parts these prisoners are likely to be grabbed by, which evoke the multiple “white male hands,” indiscriminate in their treatment of the prisoners. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn’s analogy of the human body being treated like a “sack” reinforces the inhuman, impersonal nature of the prison guards. And, as the doors to the ward close forever on Andrey, a physical barrier between the doctor’s old “sane” life and his new “insane” one, so too do the prison gates close between Solzhenitsyn’s old and new life.

A less explicit connection between the writings of Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn is to be found in Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. Though the titles share the word “Ward” in their title, the narrative arc of the two stories – Ward No. 6 and Cancer Ward – could hardly be more different. The ward of Solzhenitsyn’s novel, unlike Chekhov’s, is number thirteen, the cancer wing of the hospital. Time had progressed many decades since Ward No. 6, and the characters within Solzhenitsyn’s ward are written very differently. Yet, there are intense similarities as well throughout both stories. Early on in the novel, Solzhenitsyn repurposes a nearly identical description from Gulag of the “door to all your past life” being slammed behind you upon entry into the ward: “it frightened you more than the actual tumor.” This could also be said of Chekhov’s mental ward, and the fear Andrey feels upon his entry as a patient. Similarly, Solzhenitsyn’s protagonist, Pavel Nikolayevich, shares the same disdain for the “uncultured creatures” of the town and the ward that is displayed in Chekhov’s character, Andrey, and his pretentious arrangements and tastes. And, as with Chekhov’s ward and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, characters in Cancer Ward remark on the idea that “even if [the hospital staff] do let you go home, you’ll be back here pretty quick […] once [the doctor has] grabbed you with his pincers, he won’t let go till you croak.” This common theme, as it runs through the works of Solzhenitsyn and Chekhov, maintains the idea that institutions function to prevent escape, even if patients don’t belong in them.

The Chekhovian parallels in Cancer Ward continue, recalling Ivan’s accusation in Ward No. 6 that Andrey’s intellectualism was insincere, that his theoretical understanding of suffering was insufficient to truly understand suffering. Solzhenitsyn’s character, Kostoglotov, reminds Dyomka, another ward member, that “education doesn’t make you smarter.” Dyomka questions this, to which Kostoglotov clarifies, “Life, that’s what [makes you smarter].” Though the power dynamics of this scene differ from Chekhov’s ward, there is still the intense debate of ideas – distinguishing the differing values of theoretical versus practical education and understanding – which seems to be Solzhenitsyn speaking, like Chekhov, through the characters in the ward.

As Chekhov’s story describes the callous, professional relation to suffering that doctors have, so too does Solzhenitsyn’s story remark that “an unpleasant feature of all public hospitals is that nobody stops for a moment to exchange a few words.” The impersonal haste of hospitals is reflected more in the contemporary story of the cancer ward than in Chekhov’s mental ward. Likewise, even Solzhenitsyn’s doctor parallels that of Chekhov’s doctor, Andrey, recalling – through a more contemporary lens – the desensitization of doctors to their patients. Kostoglotov, in a rare moment of gentle conversation, remarks to the doctor in charge of his care:

‘No sooner does a patient come to you than you begin to do all his thinking for him. After that, the thinking’s done by your standing orders, your five-minute conferences, your program, your plan and the honor of your medical department. And once again I become a grain of sand, just as I was in the camp. Once again nothing depends on me.’

This exchange recalls, not only the “callous” professional interactions of doctor and patient, but also Andrey’s nihilistic declaration that “‘I of myself am nothing, I am only part of an inevitable social evil.’” The tone of Solzhenitsyn’s character, Kostoglotov, has the same tenor of feeling like “nothing” is of consequence for their position in the ward. Like Chekhov’s characters, the physical space of the ward – the sheer proximity of it, the closeness, the “God-forsaken” nature of the building – shapes the interactions more than any moral qualities of the characters themselves.

As though the parallels were not enough between the prose, plot, setting, and other crucial features of Ward No. 6 and Cancer Ward, there is the deeper political critique of their stories. As John Arnold suggests in his book, Life Conquers Death, “just as Chekhov’s Ward 6 was read as an allegory of Tsarist Russia, so Cancer Ward can be read as an allegory of the contemporary Soviet Union.” Arnold’s analogy is apt, especially in that Chekhov’s critique of Russia was less overt than Solzhenitsyn’s. Though, the concern remains, that “the allegorical method of interpretation” tends toward “simplistic [political] exegesis,” thus, we should limit such speculation when explicit evidence isn’t present in these texts. And yet, as Jeffrey Meyers argues in his article, “Cancer Ward and the Literature of Disease,” there is an undeniable connection between the project of these two writers: courageously confronting disease, profound sympathy for the diseased, a “transformation of the clinical into the poetical,” and the moral examination of social pathology. Even if we are to ignore the similarities between Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn in terms of style, detail, prose, or subject matter, these writers indisputably have overlapping moral concern with aspects of Russian medicine and confinement.

It would be impossible to exhaust the literary connections between Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn’s writings within the space of a single essay. Rather, other critics have suggested, “[Chekhov] is indeed a cultural inheritance and always present in the consciousness of any Russian reader,” an inheritance which can certainly be seen in the writings of Solzhenitsyn. A plethora of possible connections remain between Solzhenitsyn’s time in the Gulag Archipelago and Chekhov’s similarly autobiographical exploration of Russian penal camps, as recounted in Sakhalin Island. Natalia Pervukhin goes so far as to suggest that Solzhenitsyn practically litters his writings with references to Chekhov – forty in one book alone. These connections, rich as they surely are, would require an entirely additional literary investigation to bear out.


Works Cited

Arnold, John. Life Conquers Death: Meditations on the Garden, the Cross, and the Tree of Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007. Print.

Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, Richard Ford, and Constance Garnett. “Ward No. 6.” The Essential Tales of Chekhov. New York, NY: Ecco, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2015. N. pag. Print.

Meyers, Jeffrey. “Cancer Ward and the Literature of Disease.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 29, no. 1, 1983, pp. 54–68.,

Pervukhin, Natalia. “The ‘Experiment in Literary Investigation’ (Čexov’s Saxalin and Solženicyn’s Gulag).” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 35, no. 4, 1991, pp. 489–502.,

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich. The Cancer Ward. New York: Dell, 1968. Print.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956. an Experiment in Literary Investigation. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007. Print.

Wilson, Edmund. To the Finland Station: A Study in Writing and Acting of History with a New Introduction. New York, NY: Noonday, 1999. Print.


Camera Violentia (from “Undistributed”)

March 15, 2017


1951: Beckett reminds us that the role of objects is to restore silence.

So we continue to build the loudest tools we can. Our objects must deafen us

with bravado, with mystery, with intrigue. We must be able to hear it and

proclaim that we could produce such heroic notes if the gods rattled our dense



1962: Malcolm argues that death is the price of liberty.

But do we keep our hands clean of the carnage when we can pull the trigger

ourselves? The fingerprints of history do not easily conceal the tribalistic vitriol

of violent human impulses. Resettling, negotiating, contesting the numbers. A

revolver is one thing, but nuclear holocaust would be like no other.


1970: Blue on blue disguised as black and white.

Ouroboros of Schopenhauerian tragedy. Kent turns the gun to his own temple

without realizing it. My Lai drowns its legacy; Ohio waterboards its memories.

We all bury our children. Nixon’s eventual eviction.


1985: No Explanation Offered.

Suicide [CLASSIFIED] season.


1992: The White Glove Debate.

Gloves don’t kill people; people kill people. Delicate raw rays of Rawls. Do I

have the right to conceal my hands with a license. Pull the trigger, pull the

trigger, pull the trigger. Don’t be diligent, be disciplined. Do it legally.


2001: Birds flying into the window.

Clear the desk, pay the scapegoat, burn the last match. Unforgettable physics.

Boxcutters. Vexatious, uncanny familiarity with the unknown weapon in your

hand: On the one hand, if you can take the whole barrel down your throat,

you’ll realize you have a future career in adult film. On the other hand, if you

gag halfway down, you’ll go beyond magic out the back of your throat.


2008: Hope & Change.

Columbia & Heller. No one is going to riddle holes into our future. Women in

menopause gravitate towards my garden. It’s where I provide for pollinators,

where I grow gunpowder, where I harvest my young and

Narratricide: An Analysis of the Tree in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot

March 1, 2017


“I don’t know why, but I just don’t trust trees. I appreciate that they are supposed to provide oxygen for us, but I’m not entirely sure that I believe that. They intimidate me—probably because I’ll end up dressed in one before long.”
—Jarvis Cocker

The famously sparse stage directions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot begin with three terse images: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” Beckett’s simple images are often deceptive and transmographic – ideas that resist any artistic tendency to linger over specificity or detail. Lest the mind become lulled into lazy, comfortable patterns of thinking, Beckett creates images that take on quasi-symbolic roles, serving to provoke an unclarity in the imagination. This lack of clarity is employed by Beckett to suggest what is suggestible but isn’t already there on stage, or on paper, mise en scene. Of the three opening stage directions, the tree becomes of most concern – mostly because it recurringly appears, but also because of its narratological significance. Though the tree appears to be as symbolically feeble as its branches, it keeps Godot’s characters rooted to the spot throughout the play.

Beckett’s stage directions are rather bare like Godot’s tree, and have presented a challenge to set designers over the years. Indeed, Beckett himself fell victim to his own brevity in 1961, attempting to revive Godot in Paris. At the time, Beckett had found himself persistently critical of the productions of his own works, particularly the shortcomings of set designers for Godot. Thus, in 1961, Beckett reached out to Alberto Giacometti, a sculptor with whom he had long held drinking ties. Giacometti’s task was to collaborate with Beckett on the (in)famed tree’s design, a task which “confounded them both.” Beckett and Giacometti spent the whole night sculpting Godot’s tree, “trying to make it sparser, smaller, the branches thinner. It never looked any good,” wrote Giacometti, “and neither he nor I liked it. And we kept saying to each other, Perhaps like this…” It is with this anecdote in mind that Siobhan Bohnacker writes, “What motivates Beckett’s protagonists is the pursuit of the Absolute, similar to [Beckett and Giacometti’s] persistent, deep-rooted doubt that they would ever find the perfect artistic form.” In comparing Beckett and Giacometti to Godot’s characters, Estragon and Vladimir, one can see how Beckett eventually embodied the very “plot” to which he subjected Godot’s characters: waiting. It’s as though Beckett, in leaving the stage directions as bare as the tree he wrote, was playing a trick on himself, taunting his future self’s frustrated attempts to reify what would otherwise belong to the hidden, personal realms of the imagination.

Beckett’s tree frustrated not only himself and his sculpting companion, but the characters in (and audiences to) Godot as well. In Beckett’s play, the tree is first acknowledged by the characters when Estragon questions Vladimir on why they are, in fact, waiting for Godot – and yet this serves to calm no one and solves no questions:

Estragon: [despairingly] Ah! [Pause.] You’re sure it was here?
Vladimir: What?
Estragon: That we were to wait.
Vladimir: He said by the tree. [They look at the tree.] Do you see any others.
Estragon: What is it?
Vladimir: I don’t know. A willow.
Estragon: Where are the leaves?
Vladimir: It must be dead.
Estragon: No more weeping.
Vladimir: Or perhaps it’s not the season.

The tree, in this scene, serves as an organizing plot device which anchors Vladimir and Estragon to the location that will remain constant on stage throughout Godot’s performance. They are waiting there, on stage, because “he” (presumably Godot) told them to wait by the tree. And yet, “he” is never quite specified, nor is Godot ever made present to Beckett’s characters. It’s as though this tree were a stand-in for Godot himself. What’s curious about this interpretation, however, is in the symbolism underlying Vladimir’s characterization of the tree as “a willow” and the subsequent exchange that follows. For the image of the willow tree is religiously charged, both in the Celtic and Christian traditions (which Beckett, an Irish expatriate, would be no stranger to). Planted in memorial of the dead, a willow tree is a sign both of grief and of hope for new life. Furthermore, willows are usually planted along the coast of a body of water, at a site that physically represents the ever-changing nature of life. It is with these mortal concerns in mind that one can find morbid humor in Estragon’s classic non-sequitur, “No more weeping.”

The debate between Estragon and Vladimir regarding the tree’s “tree” status is also of note for Godot. In an otherwise humorous exchange that wouldn’t be out of place in a Monty Python skit, the tree is examined:

Estragon: Looks to me more like a bush.
Vladimir: A shrub.
Estragon: A bush.
Vladimir: A–. What are you insinuating? That we’ve come to the wrong place?

As the characters argue about the nature of the tree (as a beaconing object) by which they were told to wait for Godot, they simultaneously call its role as a symbol into question. If we entertain the common interpretation of Godot’s (lack of) arrival as symbolizing salvation for Vladimir and Estragon (i.e. Waiting for Salvation), then the characters, as early as the sixth page of the play, negate the tree’s possibility as a “site of salvation.” For, in questioning its existence as a tree, Vladimir and Estragon question salvation itself. Despite their simultaneous faith and eschatological skepticism towards Godot’s arrival, the characters remain rooted to the spot, in vain, waiting for Godot.

Staring into the blank, infinite morass of boredom, Estragon eventually offers to Vladimir a solution to confront their own existential ennui: “What about hanging ourselves?” In other words, Estragon presents an inversion to their own hopeless situation of boredom; if salvation isn’t coming for them, then they must confront it themselves, by suicide. Both characters rather abruptly agree that hanging themselves would indeed be a welcome respite from their endless waiting (as Estragon continues, “Let’s hang ourselves immediately!”). Yet, Beckett doesn’t allow the tree to provide the characters (or the audience, in fact) with the means to flee their existential confinement. Rather, as the characters quickly discover, the tree’s branches wouldn’t be strong enough to hang even one of them. Thus, Estragon and Vladimir are forced to abandon their suicidal impulses (to kill time), lingering around this tree, waiting for Godot.

Act Two begins with more robust stage directions, including how “The tree has four or five leaves,” a marked change from yesterday’s bare limbs. The stage directions continue, as Vladimir enters “agitatedly” and “halts,” taking a long look at the tree. Then, as though the tree’s regeneration has sparked some kind of revelation (or panic) in Vladimir’s mind, he “suddenly begins to move feverishly about the stage.” Unlike the introduction to Act One, the second act overtly begins with the tree as the main object of concern in the play. As critics of Godot, such as Emily Atkins, have suggested, the tree’s very obvious presence in the beginning of the second act is an “indication of the characters’ impending salvation.” The dawn of the new day in Act Two is accompanied by a seemingly symbolic regeneration of the tree – an act which harkens (and yet subverts) mythology from time immemorial such as the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, and so on. The tree’s regeneration deceptively suggests that the second act will bring about the conclusion for which Vladimir, Estragon, and the audience, are waiting for.

Further on in Godot’s second act, Vladimir and Estragon reenact a scene from Act One. Estragon asks Vladimir what they do now that they are “happy,” to which Vladimir responds, “Wait for Godot. [Estragon groans. Silence.] Things have changed here since yesterday.” After a moment of puzzlement between the two characters, Vladimir implores Estragon to look at the tree:

Vladimir: The tree, look at the tree. [Estragon looks at the tree.]
Estragon: Was it not there yesterday?
Vladimir: Yes of course it was there. Do you not remember? We nearly hanged ourselves
    from it. But you wouldn’t. Do you remember?
Estragon: You dreamt it.
Vladimir: Is it possible you’ve forgotten already?
Estragon: That’s the way I am. Either I forget immediately or I never forget.

This exchange between Beckett’s characters must indeed be as frustrating to the audience as it is to his characters. As far as the audience (and Vladimir) is concerned, the tree is the same – give or take a few leaves. Estragon, on the other hand, in the act of forgetting, radically calls the tree’s continuity into question: “Recognize! What is there to recognize?” However, as Atkins suggests, Estragon is not madly arguing against Vladimir’s memory – the tree is clearly on set, and the characters have interacted with it multiple times – thus Estragon’s “exclamation” of recognition must be interpreted as his undermining the very stability of symbolic meaning, as well as the stability of memory’s fixation of objects (such as the tree) in time. Atkins concludes that Estragon’s outburst “undermines any hope that the tree is moving toward a symbol of possible redemption, despite its new leaves.”

Further on in Godot, Vladimir and Estragon return to their hollow affirmations of happiness. Trailing off between ellipses, Vladimir drones on:

Vladimir: Wait…we embraced…we were happy..happy…what do we do now that we’re happy…go on waiting…waiting…let me think…it’s coming…go on waiting…now that we’re happy…let me see…ah! The tree!
Estragon: The tree?
Vladimir: Do you not remember?
Estragon: I’m tired.
Vladimir: Look at it. [They look at the tree.]
Estragon: I see nothing.

As Vladimir seems to recognize in this scene of meditation around the tree, happiness is manifest through his memory, not through his experience of the present. His insistence that “we were happy” [my italics] coupled with “go on waiting” indicates that happiness, as conceptualized in Godot, is as transient as the other fleeting aspects of this play. That is, happiness is something only identifiable in retrospect, and if we seek to prosthetically emulate the feeling in the present, then we will, like Vladimir, “go on waiting.” The characters in Godot are so intent on coming to an end – a conclusion, a closed stage curtain, Godot’s arrival, etc. – that they have, like Estragon, missed what has been right in front of their eyes for the entire play: the tree and its new leaves.

Vladimir is not willing to allow Estragon’s forgetfulness to distract the audience from the tree’s newly formed leaves. He insists that the tree has significance, that the seasons have changed, that time has passed:

Vladimir: But yesterday evening it was all black and bare. And now it’s covered with leaves.
Estragon: Leaves?
Vladimir: In a single night.
Estragon: It must be the Spring.
Vladimir: But in a single night!

Vladimir and Estragon have radically different interpretations of the tree’s imbued significance, both as a stage prop and a symbol of potential meaning. Vladimir, excited by the tree’s new leaves, projects hope (for the future, for life, for creation) onto the tree, while Estragon sees the tree with a sense of loss (of memory, of time, of meaning). Atkins suggests that, “by playing with the image in this way, Beckett removes its ability to convey a set answer or explanation to his characters or his audience. It is up to each person to determine for himself the tree’s ultimate significance.” The tree, devoid of objective meaning, purposefully presented as an anti-symbolic image, becomes itself a kind of character – one which the audience must interact with as they negotiate the tree’s meaning.

The tree, understood as a symbol of a symbol, is an instance of what H. Porter Abbot calls “narratricide,” a dismemberment of narrative meaning. In his book, Beckett Writing Beckett, Abbot writes, “[Beckett’s] texts are littered everywhere with the barest fragments of narrative irrelevancy which lead nowhere and […] frequently feature objects,” a tree in this case, “which augment their alinear, achronological condition.” The tree in Godot, according to Abbot, augments the achronological condition of Vladimir and Estragon’s predicament, serving to alienate (rather than situate) them within the broader narrative arc – if that could be said – of Godot. Beckett, it would seem, “unwrites” his images as soon as he allows us to see them.

As the second act progresses, Vladimir and Estragon mistakenly hope for a moment that Godot is on his way (“At last!” “We’re saved!”), only to panic in the realization that they are “surrounded.” The characters rush to escape the scene, and Vladimir says to Estragon:

Vladimir: Your only hope is to disappear.
Estragon: Where?
Vladimir: Behind the tree. [Estragon hesitates.] Quick! Behind the tree. [Estragon goes and crouches behind the tree, realizes he is not hidden, comes out from behind the tree.] Decidedly this tree will not have been the slightest use to us.

This moment of comic relief demonstrates yet again the tree’s loss of all objective meaning. Not only is the tree “useless” to the characters as a source of symbolic meaning, but it is useless as a physical prop to hide behind. Vladimir’s remark, despite its self-referential tone, speaks to our need as an audience to have allegorical meaning imbued in scenes such as this one in Godot. By resisting the obvious symbolism of trees, Beckett presents to us an image as image, or, as Abbot writes, “an image of an image.” The image of an image, in Abbot’s conception, is not penetrable in the way that a traditionally symbolic image would be. The tree, then, does not offer concrete, objective meaning to the audience; it rather opens up the audience to projecting their own meaning onto the tree.

As Godot concludes, Estragon suggests to Vladimir that they abandon their persistent waiting. This sense of downtrodden failure, fatigue, and spiritual famine culminates in one final scene with the tree:

Estragon: And if we dropped him? [Pause.] If we dropped him?
Vladimir: He’d punish us. [Silence. He looks at the tree.] Everything’s dead but the tree.
Estragon: [looking at the tree] What is it?
Vladimir: It’s the tree.

To this end, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty comes to mind, in which he expounds upon theories of epistemic agreement. “The information ‘That is a tree,’ when no one could doubt it,” Wittgenstein writes, “might be a kind of joke and as such have meaning.” In this light, Vladimir’s remark, “It’s the tree,” become itself a sort of joke which we, the audience, are in on. Wittgenstein’s idea is that making obvious remarks, such as Vladimir’s, is a way of turning what is otherwise forgettably mundane into something remarkably memorable – in this case, Godot’s tree. Vladmir’s comment could also be interpreted as “a platitude that houses a profundity,” as Matthew Bevin suggests, or that the presence of the tree is a paradox: “things are both clear and not clear.” If Bevin is correct, then Wittgenstein’s remark that “a good and serious philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes” becomes all the more relevant to Beckett’s play. For, as is frustratingly evident in Beckett’s writings, Beckett was well-versed in philosophy and yet refused to engage seriously in its work. If Wittgenstein can be read as applying to Beckett, then it seems that this tree – a joke, in Wittgenstein’s conception – appears to meta-textually evoke the sort of “serious” philosophical work that Beckett refused to write.

[Estragon draws Vladimir towards the tree. They stand motionless before it. Silence.]
Estragon: Why don’t we hang ourselves?


Threading the Temporal Needle: The Dada Movement’s Flight From Time

December 11, 2016



Many Dadaist authors accept the malleable and elusive nature of trying to aphoristically define “Dada” in a traditional line definition. To that end, my own survey of the Dada movement has been tailored towards proposing my own definition. But, as one might expect, this aim has yielded little in the way of conceptual motif. One idea, however, is constant throughout the works of each Dadaist author: a hyper-sensitivity and resistance to time passing. Embedded in this line of inquiry is the implicit division between scholarly understanding of the Dada movement as a historical phenomenon–as “creatures of their epoch”–and as state of mind, something enduring beyond its historical situation. Inevitably and inexorably, the Dadaist’s attempt to escape time failed–time moved on–but looking at the Dada movement as “anti-time” serves as an example as to how we can better understand our mortal relation to time’s passing.

Creatures of their Epoch

Looking back on the Dada movement, Hans Richter concluded that “each generation must have its own avant-garde.” Given that the Dada movement was, in essence, the definitive avant-garde around the time of World War I, the immediate aim of the avant-garde, for Richter, “was an action directed against the conventional routine with which the generation preceding [them] made war, rules, art, and [the Dadaists].” The negation of convention and historical precedent “broke up what was past & dead, and opened the way to emotional experience from which all the arts profited and still profit.” Thus, ironically, despite the Dada movement’s recalcitrance to their own epoch, we have inherited the Dada movement as a tradition in art, an emotional experience (often of shock or liberation) that is both immediate and historical.

The Dada movement didn’t announce itself as the self-appointed avant-garde, though they readily adopted the title and exploited it. “It wasn’t Dadaists who made Dada;” writes Jed Rasula, “the times themselves propitiously excreted Dadaists like lava from a volcano…they were merely holding a mirror up to the audience to cull its opposite, a pure distillation straight from the age itself.” Reflected in the mirror, the tempestuous conditions of their time would have appeared so disgusting to the Dadaists that their art would have very consciously, according to Tristan Tzara, presented the “thousandfold problems of the day, the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions of last week, which is forever trying to collect its limbs after yesterday’s crash.”. Tzara continues to argue that the “true” artist would be one who, at every hour, would “snatch the tatters of their bodies out of the frenzied cataract of life.” The “frenzied cataract of life,” the historical epoch in which the Dadaists found themselves, was to be torn away as an ultimate project of the “true” Dadaists.

The essence of how the Dada movement responded to their historical epoch, is captured in Tzara’s Zurich Chronicle: “But the mechanism turns / turn turn Baedeker nocturnes of history / brush the teeth of the hours.” The “mechanism” Tzara refers to can be understood as the rise of industrialism and nationalism that swept the turn of the century, almost as if history itself–the myth of human progress–was a machine that ground up all in its wake. As this machine turns, Tzara points us to “Baedeker nocturnes of history.” Understanding “Baedeker” as a term for map or guide to the “nocturnes” of history, Tzara suggests that an understanding of the “mechanism” of time serves as a roadmap through human history, specifically the dark parts: namely, war. Thus, we understand Tzara’s final line, “brush the teeth of the hours,” to convey our need for a hygienic cleansing of the temporal palette–so as to live better, more harmonious lives–which Modernism had, in Tzara’s view, corrupted.

Tzara’s jabbings at modernity are echoes in Hans Arp’s Notes from a Dada Diary, in which Arp jabs instead at expressions of modern economics, namely, capitalism: “was there ever a bigger swine than the man who invented the expression time is money. time and space no longer exist for modern man.” If we ignore Arp’s resistance to punctuation and capitalization, the critique of modernity embedded within his writings suggests a similar account to Tzara’s own. For instance, in asserting that the cliche, “time is money,” came from the mouth of a swine, Arp echoes the grumblings of Marx and the anti-capitalists, Tzara’s notion of the “Baedeker nocturnes” of Modernism’s unhygienic palette. Arp’s critique of modern values, specifically capitalistic currency and its commodification of time, is yet another instance of the Dadaists undermining the imposing presence of both modernity and time’s passage.

In considering the question of Dada’s relation to time’s passage, the question inevitably arises regarding the dualistic nature of the Dada movement: that of being a historical phenomena and/or an attitudinal state of mind. “Dada is ageless,” proposes George Hugnet in his The Dada Spirit in Painting. Hugnet’s conception of Dada as “ageless” is clear evidence to ground an understanding of the Dada movement as a state of mind, a flight from time. But Hugnet’s indelible image of Dada being a “scarecrow erected at the crossroads of the epoch” is ample reason to take both views into serious consideration. As scarecrows were first invented to protect the land of Egyptian farmers, so too was the Dada movement itself a scarecrow to protect art (and reason) from itself, as manifest in modernity. “Dada made a clean sweep of the past,” writes Hugnet, “the state of mind represented by Dada was only a state of mind.” In negating the past as a value, Hugnet clarifies how the Dada movement repudiated time’s passage by rendering itself an “an astonishing halting-place, an escape, a liberating, shocking force”; in this instance, Hugnet’s diction is revealing, as it implicitly endorses the notion that the Dadaists succeeded in their attempt to flee from time though the Dada state of mind.

Think Like a Child

The Dada movement, understood as a state of mind which seeks to escape and negate the passage of time, implies the question of what kind of “state of mind” is most characteristic of the attitude of Dadaism. An answer is suggested in Hugo Ball’s Dada Fragments, namely the entry labeled “August 5, 1916,” and its discussion of childhood. Ball writes of childhood as a “new world” which embraces the phantastic, direct, and symbolical “opposition to the senilities of the world of grown ups.” This opposition indicates an implicit duality between adulthood and childhood, the former of which can be characterized as rational (or orderly/boring), indirect, and literal (or, as I prefer, material). The “senilities” to which Ball refers are to be found in these qualities of adulthood, “of a youth which never knew how to be young.” The child, in other words, has access to something alert and real, something not senile, which we as adults have lost access to.

Further on in Ball’s Fragments, he states that “Childhood is not at all as obvious as is generally assumed. It is a world to which hardly any attention is paid, with its own laws, without whose application there is no art.” If we “generally assume” childhood to be “obvious,” then the obviousness of it must be in relation to age. Childhood, in other words, is a very explicit period that our society recognizes; childhood is understood to eventually cease. Furthermore, Ball’s suggestion that the “obvious” characterization of childhood is mistaken, that we are “senile,” invites us to explore childhood as something else, which I’d argue is to be understood as a process of perception. That is, childhood is not just a period of time but a way of being in time. Childhood, then, is accessible to all of us, even now.

In asserting that without the application of childhood there would be no “art,” Ball commits to the claim that all art requires a childlike state of mind. If we consider the Dada movement to be “art” (as opposed to anti-art), then it follows that the Dada movement was, at its heart, a return to a childlike state of mind, a way to escape time.

To further embolden the notion that childhood is an activity of mind (and body), rather than a straightjacket of prepubescence, consider what children are best known for doing: play. Playtime is a common activity in which children are allowed to have fun, that is obvious; but recall, Ball warned us not to buy into “obvious” understandings of childhood. Play–at its essence–is the manipulation of objects and ideas, altering their function in the world; this can be understood as a manifestation of the “credulous imagination” of children that Ball describes. That is, a credulous and imaginative mind is the mind of a child at play (i.e. role playing, acting, even sports, etc.). Due to necessity and responsibility, it is not characteristic of adults to spend time “playing.” To see an adult pretending that a toy airplane is real, or to see them having conversations with a stuffed animal, would lead most bystanding adults to the reasonable conclusion that the “playing” adult were a bit mad. In considering this example of anachronistic childhood (adulthood?), we arrive at the critical component linking Dadaism to childhood: play. Thus, we can see how the Dadaists willingly and actively subverted their “sanity” as adults to escape time’s passage. They became children to avoid going mad.

Our discussion of the Dadaist “childlike” state of mind can be grounded in empiricism through Henri Bergson’s book, Duration and Simultaneity, which discusses the relationship between simultaneity and time. “Ageing and duration belong to the order of quality,” writes Bergson, “no work of analysis can resolve them into pure quantity. Here the thing remains separate from its measurement, which besides, bears upon a space representative of time rather than upon time itself.” Bergson’s distinction between the quality and quantity of ageing (and duration) harkens the Dada movement’s regard for childhood as a (qualitative) state of mind. In dividing the “thing” from its “measurement,” Bergson, like the Dadaists, complicates the self-evidence of childhood. Childhood, then, “bears upon a space representative of time rather than upon time itself,” which is to say that we no longer have “obvious” (recall Ball) means to discuss what childhood is and isn’t.

Time flows flows flows

Time flows flows flows

Time flows flows flows flows Time flows flows

flows flows flows drop by drop

drop drop by drop drop drop drop by drop drop drop drop drop drop drop by drop drop drop drop

Tristan Tzara, “Handkerchief of the Clouds”

We’ve seen how the child is allowed to play–an activity that otherwise, in adulthood, equates with madness and the absurd–but the adult is not, per se. Adults have professions, not playtime. This lack of play is evidence of what Ball describes as the “corruption and deformation” of the child’s imagination; in learning the rules of society and adulthood, no longer playing, our imaginations–once that of a child–are corrupted and deformed. The antidote, for Ball, is to “surpass oneself in naivete and childishness.” Ask yourself, dear reader, if naivete and childishness of the mind isn’t precisely the right frame from which to participate in producing Dada works. Recall Tristan Tzara’s prescription to cut out every word of the newspaper, gently shake it in a bag, and assemble a poem resembling yourself. Tzara offers us a literal process by which we can, I’d argue, access childhood through the act of playfulness–or, with Ball in mind, a cultivated naivete and childishness.

A final consideration regarding Dadaism and its commitments to a childlike state of mind arises (again) from a rather unexpected discussion of war. War, as discussed in Richard Huelsenbeck’s En Avant Dada, is another activity which challenges our understanding and experience of time. Huelsenbeck writes of war as “the highest expression of the conflicts of things, as a spontaneous eruption of possibilities, as movement, as a simultaneous poem, as a symphony of cries, shots, commands, embodying an attempted solution of the problem of life in motion” [my italics]. War, in other words, is a quintessentially Dadaist facet of humanity. Life, understood as “in motion,” for the Dadaist, is not to be understood simply in terms of physical movement, but rather through movements in time. Hence, the “problem of life,” is that of approaching one’s mortality, of finding oneself in the world, being-towards-death, yet with every action affirming one’s own will-to-live (Nietzschean life-affirmation). Time, in the Dadaist conception, as we’ve explored, is something to be rallied against, a force to be objected to and (simultaneously) obeyed. This temporal function of war yields a particularly odd view of time, namely, simultaneity.

Huelsenbeck continues these aporetic threads of war and simultaneity, regarding Bruitism, as a “return to nature,” and as “the music produced by circuits of atoms,” thus “death ceases to be an escape of the soul from earthly misery and becomes a vomiting, screaming and choking.” Death, for the Dadaists, was likely more real and terrifying than it is for those of us who are not so incriminated in war as they were. In fact, their draft dodging–as opposed to the millions who faced combat in the early 20th century–speaks to their attitudes towards time, as death positioned itself as more immanent for those who’d otherwise be drafted. In avoiding the “vomiting, screaming and choking” of war and death, they were seeking out a creation of the opposite: that which consumes (instead of vomits), which listens (instead of screams), and which breathes (instead of chokes). These qualities are at the essence of life, the essence of childhood, once again; kids don’t do much but consume (food and information), listen (eventually speaking back), and breathe back into the world (as we all must do). In the childlike state of mind, there is no thanatos, only eros; the Dadaist had to confront thanatos to rediscover eros. Furthermore, in understanding the simultaneous nature of childhood–the barrage of new experiences–we now turn to a specific, refined instance of the Dada movement’s attempted escape from time: the simultaneous poem.

Hurrah for Simultaneity!

The word “simultaneous,” is first explicated in Huelsenbeck’s En Avant Dada, where he describes simultaneity as that which is “an abstraction, a concept referring to the occurrence of different events at the same time.” Simultaneity, though straightforward as a concept, is complicated by its “abstraction,” in the same way that, when we try to pin down what defines “childhood” (apart from the arbitrary markers of psychological development and physical age) we are faced with capricious distinctions. “[Simultaneity] presupposes a heightened sensitivity to the passage of things in time,” Huelsenbeck writes, “it turns the sequences a=b=c=d into an a-b-c-d,” confusing our distinctions between positions in time, “and attempts to transform the problem of the ear into a problem of the face.” We, in other words, try to falsely identify the distinct moments of transition between the sounds of simultaneity, as manifest in the Dadaist simultaneous poem. “Simultaneity,” for the Dadaist, “is against what has become, and for what is becoming.” It’s as if one could replace the word, “simultaneity” with “childhood”: childhood is against what has become, and is for what is becoming (i.e. Kids are the future!). The simultaneity of the childlike experience was understood by the Dadaists to be a more authentic state of being, a state in which, Huelsenbeck writes, “I become directly aware that I am alive.” This awareness is such that Huelsenbeck concludes, “And so ultimately a simultaneous poem means nothing but ‘Hurrah for life!’” Through this rejoice, one can find further justification for seeking refuge in the childlike state of mind–a celebration for life and a rebellion against death–through simultaneity, as means for escaping the horrors (death) of adulthood.

Returning to the works of Bergson, we find an empirically grounded and philosophically nuanced discussion of simultaneity. It turns out that the Dadaists, lunatics though they might have been, were anticipating contemporaneous (simultaneous!) developments in physics. Bergson first rhetorically asks what simultaneity is, to which he responds, “First, [it is] an instantaneous perception; second, the capacity of our attention to divide itself without being split up.” Thinking of the Dadaist “simultaneous poem,” one can imagine how the experience of either performing or spectating the act of poetic simultaneity would be “instantaneous,” as Bergson writes, and “[divided] without being split up.” That is, perception oscillates between noticing multiple and singular instances of the simultaneous performance. Bergson continues with an appeal to our own faculties: “I open my eyes for a moment: I perceive two flashes in that instant, coming from separate points.” The two “flashes” can be understood as the multiple languages of the simultaneous poem, while the “separate points” represent the performers, separate on stage. “I call them simultaneous because they are both one and two at the same time: they are one in that my act of attention is indivisible, yet they are two in as much [sic] as my attention is at once shared between both of them, divided but not split up.” Thus, an aporia of the mind arises between an “indivisible” perceptive capacity, and the fact that the simultaneous poem demands of the audience to “divide but not split up” this “indivisible” perception. This tension between performer and audience, between indivisible and forcibly divided perception, noticeably alters the experience of identity and time’s passage throughout the performance.

Bergson’s description of simultaneity in physics, as well as in terms of the Dadaist simultaneous poem, has been further explored in modern psychology. These experiences of simultaneity, in which one’s sense of identity is lost and one’s sense of time is distorted, are known in the modern vernacular as “flow states.” Though in their scientific infancy, the study of flow states, specifically the works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, reveals that we can improve both our quality of life and our quantity of it by accruing more “flow” in our everyday lives. Understood through the empirical lens, Hugo Ball’s charge to “rewrite life every day!” seems all the more prescient, as Csikzentmihalyi’s work accounts for flow states being a way to escape one’s sense of time’s passage; that is, flow-inducing activities reduce one’s sense of the past and the future. In these states, Bergson might suggest, “I can also conceive how every part of the universe which is mathematically linked to the present and past — that is, the future unfolding of the inorganic world — may be representable in the same schema.” In describing the future as an “inorganic” unfolding of the world, Bergson subtly critiques the conventions of clock time without explicitly naming it. The collapsing of time into one continuous “flow,” as it were–understanding, as the Dadaists did, that “now” is the only moment ever experienced by humans–is best exemplified in the energy of the simultaneous poem, and serves as a successful instance of the Dada movement’s perpetual flight from time.

Be Drunk

Through a temporal survey of the Dada movement, we know that many of the Dadaists had scholarly backgrounds, borrowing from Nietzsche, Freud, and Einstein. What is often scantily explored in the relevant scholarly literature, however, is Charles Baudelaire’s influence on the Dada movement. Regarding our question of how time’s passage appears in the Dada movement, Baudelaire’s figure looms above our discussion. An essential project of the Dada movement was to escape the “death-throes and death-drunkenness of [their] time,” according to Hugo Ball. The language of Ball’s declaration is uncannily similar to the language of Baudelaire’s poem, “Be Drunk”, which beautifully wraps up the varying projects of the Dada movement’s attempted escape from time.

“You have to be always drunk,” begins Baudelaire’s poem, “That’s all there is to it–it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.” From the outset, this poem strings together the ideas of time’s passage, death, and drunkenness. The senseless and commonplace death of World War I would have intensely revealed to the Dadaists the “horrible burden” of time, as described by Baudelaire. But, as far as we know, the Dadaists weren’t all raging alcoholics, so Baudelaire continues: “But [drunk] on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.” Baudelaire’s broad definition of drunkenness, as achievable through wine, poetry or virtue, is further revealed in his book, The Painter of Modern Life, through a discussion of the child: “The child sees everything as a novelty; the child is always drunk.” As we’ve seen, the Dadaist imperative to think like a child can be said in another way: the Dadaist imperative is to be drunk. Drunk on wine, drunk on poetry, drunk on virtue or, in the case of the Dadaists, drunk on art, so as to escape time’s “horrible burden.”

Baudelaire’s poem continues with a discussion of sobriety, which is a state that, if we find ourselves in it, we must ask “everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking” what time it is, to which they unanimously reply, “It is time to be drunk!” This beautiful series of images recalls, like childhood, another crucial feature of our discussion: simultaneity. For, if “everything” replies, then everything is happening at once, everything is simultaneous. The response of simultaneity, in Baudelaire’s poem, is an impulse towards drunkenness, an impulse away from time’s “horrible burden.” The Baudelairian sense of drunkenness was, for the Dada movement, at the heart of all their spontaneity, simultaneity, and creativity. They got “drunk” on playfulness, childishness, and were able to forget, for the time, their own passage through time.

In concluding our discussion of Baudelaire’s poem–its precise encapsulation of the Dadaists’ time anxiety and the means to escape it–there is one final consideration. That is, Huelsenbeck’s notion that “everyone can be a Dadaist.” The recurrence of the openness and accessibility of the Dada movement to all individuals is, like time, at the heart of the Dada movement. However, an exploration of Dadaism as a democratic ethos would require another discussion entirely. For our purposes, we are to understand Huelsenbeck to be offering a similar account to Baudelaire’s; that is, the notion that we must always be drunk (regardless of our means and social status) coincides with the notion that we must rewrite life every day (because we all can be (and are!) Dadaists). If we take the Dadaists at their word, and Baudelaire’s drunken proffering, then it becomes apparent that both the Dadaists and Baudelaire found their own unique ways to escape time’s “horrible burden.” Furthermore, if we reinterpret their solution through the lens of modern psychology and its affinity with “flow states,” then we have a road map to reinvigorate the immortality projects of Baudelaire and the Dadaists, recreating them in the twenty-first century, one hundred years later.

The Clock is Ticking

Understanding the Dada movement as a flight from time, the writings of Ball, Tzara, Huelsenbeck and Arp, all propose one constant: the notion that we can, at any moment, escape our epoch, return to childhood, steep ourselves in the simultaneity of the world, allowing for a temporary (temporal) escape from the clutches of clocktime. All of this can be achieved, simply by being a Dadaist. The Dadaist formula is thus one that allows us to veritably “rewrite life every day!”


Dada, Nietzsche, and the Art of Madness:

November 4, 2016


dadaThe Dada movement–a counter-revolutionary recalcitrance to the cultural enshrinement of art, politics, and reason–has been described as “anti-art.” Despite Dadaism’s antagonism towards art, and such post-Enlightenment ideals listed above, many Dadaists and, consequently, much Dadaist art, rebrands the robust and philosophically respected tradition of Nietzschean thought. Their art, in other words, often pays homage to the enduring literary works of Friedrich Nietzsche.

One must not confuse the Dadaists’ ardent interest with the Nietzsche of the Futurists, nor of the Expressionists, but instead, of “the Nietzsche who questioned everything, who found every idol, every truth to be hollow.” The Dadaists are often credited with transgressing the frontiers of the avant-garde, but one can conclude a more academic vision of the Dada movement, that is, as an explosion of Nietzschean thought–manifested through art–at a pertinent and poignant epoch in human history.

Part I: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

“All becoming conscious is bound up with great and radical perversion, falsification, superficialization, and generalization.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Most fundamental to the Nietzschean influence on the Dadaist movement is what Rudolf Kuenzli calls, Nietzsche’s “radical critique of all cultural values and truths. ” Nietzschean thought is very critical of the “will to truth” because of the intrinsic errors accompanying our normative value judgments regarding existence itself.  The same can be said of the Dadaist attitude toward truth, for asserting that humans don’t accurately understand the world, or that it could be improved, is an act of negation of our own lives. Our will-to-truth, according to Nietzsche, is in bad taste because it vainly seeks something “better,” a state which in actuality does not exist and, thus, makes us miserable. The Dadaists embrace Nietzschean life-affirmation instead, in which life–and, in this case, art–is invited to express itself in its ugliest, otherwise repugnant, forms. In the writings of Andre Breton, for instance, he claims the effect of Dadaist thought serves to “keep us in a state of perfect readiness, from which we now head clear-mindedly toward that which beckons us.” In other words, Dadaism frees one from preoccupation with the culturally invented “truths” of science, reason, and art. These truths are not “clear-minded,” rather they shroud that which is, for Nietzsche and the Dadaists, clear: the naked fact of reality, undisguised. The Dadaists’ skepticism of truth-seeking is predicated on society’s precarious assumption that an objective, epistemological, metaphysical, or moral truth exists; or, that we could obtain some kind of answers from such truth. Nihilistic towards truth, the Dadaists emphatically reject this proposition, chanting, “Nothing, Nothing, Nothing!” These attitudes of Dadaism are, in a self-aware manner, practically plagiaristic of Nietzschean thought.

The Dadaists’ critical (perhaps acritical) attitude towards society’s “will to truth” is revealed in Hugo Ball’s charge that “life asserts itself in contradictions.” This crucial tenet of Dadaist thought is an embrace of what Nietzsche describes as a “Dionysian” worldview, that is, accepting things in totalities. Ball’s conception of the Dadaist is of one who “no longer believes in the comprehension of things from one point of departure, but is nevertheless convinced of the union of all things, of totality, to such an extent that he suffers from dissonances to the point of self dissolution.” The Dionysian reality of the Dadaists resisted the world of “Apollonian” linearity and distinctions, no longer trusting in the straightforwardness of the world. The Dadaist “simultaneous poem,” for instance, is a non-linear rejection of cultural values, expectations, and especially what is thought to be “reasonable” to expect in poetry: clarity, insight, poignance, diction, etc.

Though never explicitly described as a dichotomous blend of the Apollonian and Dionysian worldview, as explored by Nietzsche, one can read Dadaism as parroting The Birth of Tragedy. In the book, Nietzsche writes of Greek tragedy, anticipating the Dada movement, as a “Dionysian chorus which discharges itself over and over again in an Apolline world of images. ” It’s as if the Dadaists stripped this description of Greek tragedy from Nietzsche’s florid prose as their modus operandi, and became living Dionysians. Nietzsche’s description, in other words, anticipates Ball’s own mantra that “life asserts itself in contradictions,” implying a Dionysian tendency for reality to sometimes assert itself all at once (yes-no), against the Apollonian wish for distinction, logical agreement, and linearity. Nietzsche’s “Dionysian chorus” can be understood as the “contradictions” that Ball mentions; while the “Apolline world of images” is the rational, post-Enlightenment ideology that had gifted Europeans with, for instance, World War I.

Nietzsche’s echo, priming the artistic scene for what would later be described as the  “madness” of Dadaism, can be heard specifically in his discussion of tragedy:

“[The] primal ground of tragedy radiates, in a succession of discharges, that vision of drama which is entirely a dream-appearance, and thus epic in nature; on the other hand, as the objectification of a Dionysiac state, the vision represents not Apolline release and redemption in semblance, but rather the breaking-asunder of the individual and its becoming one with the primal being itself.” 

The precision of language here, from which Ball borrows, is crucial. Ball repeatedly uses the words “primal” and “primitive,” for instance, to describe the state of mind to which Dadaism returns the artist. “The direct and the primitive,” Ball writes, “appear to [the Dadaist], in the midst of this huge anti-nature, as being the supernatural itself”; this is the language of Nietzsche, written with the pen of Ball. As the Dadaist “suffers from dissonances to the point of self-dissolution,” so too does Nietzsche’s objectification of the Dionysian state manifest itself as a “[breaking]-asunder of the individual” and “becoming one” with all. Both Nietzsche and the Dadaists take up life in its totality, incorporating the uncanny, dissolving the boundaries between self and other, which then set the stage for a truly unique art (of anti-art) that would ricochet through the world.

By channelling the Dionysian worldview as an artistic starting point to reject the modern Apollonian tradition of society generally, and art specifically, the Dadaists effectively warred against what Ball describes as the “death-throes and death-drunkenness of [their] time.” Not only has the “world of systems” been torn asunder, for the Dadaists; the “bargain sale of godless philosophies” (nearly an explicit reference to Nietzsche’s “God is Dead”) has led to the travesty that was the first World War. The Dadaist movement responds–one surmises–to the slaughter of millions, in not-so-frank terms: If this is the product of rationality, science, and reason, we want no part of it! Or, in the Nietzschean vernacular: If this is the product of an Apollonian approach to reality, we will take up the Dionysian cause! Dadaism and Nietzschean thought both wage war on, and in defense of, themselves. Freud’s thanatos lurks in the background of Dadaism, that is, a death instinct. The Dadaists, and Nietzsche, understood that they must lay waste to traditional values for new ones to arise in their place.

Part II: “Destroy, Rebuild, Until God Shows”

“Only those who perpetually destroy what is behind them to rebuild themselves for the future can arrive at the new and the true.”
– Theo van Doesburg, De Stijl

With Nietzsche in mind, one can begin to appreciate the permeation of what appears to be “madness” in the disorienting Dada movement. The Dadaist wields what one might call “madness” as a politically provocative, counter-intuitive, revolutionary catalyst for creativity. Many of the original Dadaists directly confronted this accusation of “madness,” and most of them embraced the veneer of insanity as a shroud, or one might say a badge of honor, for the more serious precepts of their movement, namely the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Dada initially appeared to be nearing the brink of institutionalization (i.e. the extreme irreverence towards the sacred cows of their time), but was soon revealed to be a very calculated, channeled madness, properly (but playfully!) explored on the frontiers of the avant-garde. Through the exploration of Nietzschean thought, the works of the Dadaist movement become less strange to art critics, and can be better understood as an existentialist project, practicing a temporary suspension of the rational. In suspending rationality, one becomes unfettered by the chains of reason, logic, and “common sense,” which would otherwise hinder one’s conception of what constituted art. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” for instance, would not have seemed so shocking and transgressive had there not been artistic rules in place to be broken.

The organization of the modern world was, for both Nietzsche and the Dadaists, a “misapplication of reason.” The madness of Dada, then, must in fact be a proper application of reason. A proper application of reason presupposes a willpower–or a “will to power,” in the Nietzschean vernacular–behind the reasonable or deliberative act. This worship of rational faculties is pernicious when solely relied upon; the human animal, at its most reasonable, still wages war and destruction on life forms everywhere. The world’s attitude towards reason (a disregard for what was perceived to be “non-human” or “sub-human” life) was so common during the early twentieth century, that the charge of “madness” levied against the Dada movement was rendered laughably insipid. Francis Picabia, for instance, must have been fed-up with the familiar pejorative of “madness” when he wrote, “One thing opposes this assertion [that we are mad]: lunacy necessitates the obstruction or at least the alleviation of the will, and we have willpower.” Again, the degree to which Picabia’s language reflects that of Nietzsche is stunning. If the Dadaists had “willpower,” or a “will to power,” what was it aimed at? Perhaps the Dadaists wielded Nietzsche to unlearn sanity, so as to break free of the values of what Tzara described as the “vulgar herd.” One might respond in kind that at the heart of both Dadaism and Nietzschean thought is a critique of the “herd mentality,” the idea that consciousness is mediated by the degree of its usefulness insofar that it benefits society as a whole. We are, in other words, “slaves” to our own collective consciousness.

The Dadaists agree with the Nietzschean insight that thought is controlled by the boundaries of signs and symbols that are developed and commonly imposed on, and by, the society in which one finds oneself. For instance, Tristan Tzara writes, “My words are not mine. My words are everybody else’s words: I mix them very nicely.” Understanding “words” as “symbols,” Nietzsche claims that grammar itself is the “metaphysics of the people,” which points again to the fact that we tend to only recognize things through the words we have been exposed to and the symbols–Tzara’s “commodities of conversation”–through which we have been taught to understand experience. 

The peculiarity of Dadaism is its outright repudiation of expectation, that is, the Dadaists reject the accustomed nature by which we engage language, as it has lulled us into lazy thinking. We can’t, in other words, help but see language as language. Dadaism exploits this linguistic expectation (and expectation in general), using fragments of language to disorient us from meaning; in sum, we temporarily escape the metaphysics of the herd. Our expectation for language to make sense is undermined with embarrasing ease, as demonstrated in Hugo Ball’s “sound poems.” Dadaism’s linguistic manipulations reveal both the fragility of language and its tenuous grasp on truth. In rejecting the “herd’s” rules of language, Nietzsche’s “metaphysics of the people,” the Dadaists freed their artistic antics from the shackles of sanity. Understood in this way, Andre Breton’s charge against Tzara’s Dadaism, as that which “today no longer corresponds to any reality,” becomes, ironically, all the more reasonable. 

Of course, it would be absurd to suppose, as Breton ostensibly did, that Tzara’s Dadaism lacked direct correspondence with reality as such, through its purported madness. A cynical observation of that nature clashes with Breton’s own notion that Dadaism was “where one idea is equal to any other idea, where stupidity encompasses a certain amount of intelligence, and where emotion takes pleasure in being denied,” spelling out Dadaism’s wink-and-nod “madness.” Dadaism was, in truth, a series of conceptual experiments, in terms of its seeming stupidity or lunacy. These mental orchestrations arose from the playfulness of one of Picabia’s aphorisms, “Our head is round to allow thoughts to change direction.” One might imagine a thought changing directions as a precondition for logical contradictions, in other words, negating itself by making a conceptual U-turn, so-to-speak. Returning to Ball’s “contradictions,” one might even imagine thoughts changing multiple directions at the same time. Thus one begins to unravel the deliberative playfulness, naivety, and craziness which manifests itself as the “impotent, desperate laugh” of the Dadaists in the face of a shattered culture, of so much destruction and tragedy in the world. One can’t help but marvel at the Dadaists’ playful reaction to such a bleak situation.

The negative, counter-culture machinations of Dadaism have been elucidated at length, here, notably through Nietzsche’s paternal relationship to the Dadaists. But, given their heavily Nietzschean framework, I would be amiss to neglect the affirmative, culture-creating activity of Dadaism. “It takes discipline to be modern,” observes a critic of the Dadaist movement. One can see, through the conceptual rigor of Dadaism’s flagrant Nietzscheanism, that it takes discipline to be a Dadaist. As Rasula notes, “Dada negation was a force, not simply a dispirited wail,” nor simply an adolescent reading of Nietzsche. The Dadaists were destroying to create, boasting ignorance as a means for understanding, and searching through the eyes of madness to disconceal the principles of sanity.

Modern reactions to Dadaism are softened by the cushion of history. What was once shocking, new, and unusual, now has been integrated into our culture such that some aspects of Dadaism are practically pedestrian (i.e. photomontage). “[Ubiquitous] on the Internet,” Rasula writes, “the proprietary relationship to images is presumably swept away because of their universal accessibility.” During the time of the Dadaists, what was considered to be “art” and “high culture” was not, as Rasula writes, “universally [accessible].” Dadaist works, in the postmodern (or post-postmodern) world, have lost much of their “shocking” quality that once led art critics so readily to the charge of madness. Ensconced by history, the emancipation of the Dadaists no longer strikes onlookers as “radical” (and thus “mad”) as it once did. In some ways, though, Dadaism still retains its “madness” (i.e. sound poetry).

Members of the “De Stijl” movement, a movement designed to rebuild art from the ashes of Dada’s destruction, capitalized on Dadaism’s historical donation, demanding “the annulment of any distinction between life and art.” Art, by such a conception, is everything that breathes, that experiences, that is experienced, and has Being. The emulsification of life and art, then, elucidates critics of Dadaism as to the uncanny characteristics which have often manifested themselves as “madness.” That is, the Dadaists’ fixation on states of madness was foregrounded in a reaction to the trauma of World War I; for the Dadaists, and the members of De Stijl, there was no distinction between art and life, nor sanity and madness. This seemingly obvious insight regarding World War I’s effect on Dadaism becomes less obvious when one recalls that many Dadaists actively avoided conscription into the war, notably, through “feigning madness.” “Consequently,” writes Elizabeth Benjamin, “it might be suggested that [the Dadaists] came to identify with this mental state, where it seemed to them that it was the world itself that had gone mad.”

In quintessential Dadaist “yes-no” fashion, acting mad to avoid conscription was a strategic performance which kept alive (and thus sane) the Dadaists who would avoid the true madness of combat at any cost: “in this respect, madness equals sanity.” The emancipation of the Dadaists who grew accustomed to their “feigned madness” to avoid conscription must have no doubt been addicting. Thus, one can surmise how “feigned madness” could have been conceptually integrated into Dadaism as a way to emancipate art itself from the austere, quasi-despotic monopoly of post-Enlightenment, rationalistic and capitalistic ideals. If sanity was learnable, so was madness.

The Dadaist approach to artistic creation–the act of destroying in order to create–became itself a metaphor for life, thus fulfilling the aim of the De Stijl movement: to render art and life indistinguishable. The division between sanity and madness, blurred through the kaleidoscopic lens of Dadaism, affords the “madness” of Dadaism both historical merit and artistic distinction. At the heart of Dadaism, one sees the refrains of how life (art) consumes in order to produce, it kills (destroys) in order to live (create). At its essence, Dadaism was a mirror which all-too-accurately reflects the all-too-human state of modernity. Unfortunately, the state of modernity, for Dadaism, was that of true madness, a neurotic, quasi-pathological madness of feigned normalcy and “sanity,” a state of mind which denied the inevitable destructive participation accompanying one’s being in the world. Thus, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes’ remarks on Dadaism come into clearer focus: “[Dadaism] freed the individual from the mind itself.”

One must not be surprised at how those who viewed art conservatively, when seeing their reflection in the proverbial mirror of Dadaism, would recoil at their own bad faith, quickly smashing the mirror into pieces, denouncing Dadaism as “mad.” The conservative contemporaries of the Dadaists who did not revel in irreverence would think they had done away with Dadaism by writing it off as insane (which it certainly wasn’t) and ridiculous (which is undoubtedly was), thereby smashing the mirror. To conclude the conservatives won and the presumed sanity in art resumed, however, would be mistaken, as we’ve seen. For, even in pieces, the fragmentations of Dadaism, like a mirror, still had (and has!) the capacity to veritably reflect life itself, sanity itself, better than any deliberative, rational thought would be able, or willing, to produce.


October 21, 2016


Standing in line at the corner store, I overhear the customer ahead of me. “That thing is totally misleading, you know,” she says to the cashier. Her finger is pointing at a donation jar for a child stricken with a terminal illness. Taped to the front is a picture of an employee holding her bald child, both of them beaming. I’ve known the woman, but never met the child. (She tells me he’s doing better.)

The cashier doesn’t know what to say. She sputters out something about how the child in the photo is recovering, yes, but the family’s finances are far from polished. The customer responds, almost as if she didn’t care to hear the explanation, “Well I just think it’s false advertising, saying a kid is dying when he’s not.” She has my attention.

I take a good look at this customer. Between the love handles drooping over her overly tight shorts, and the skin that could have upholstered the most luxurious of leather interiors, there were simply too many details of her personal appearance that would be easily exploitable–especially for a petty, vindictive joke. And let’s just say she didn’t seem the type to entertain nuanced discussion. Rather than say something, I simply raise my eyebrows, intimating to the cashier that I, too, think this lady is ridiculous.

The lady gets her receipt, collects her change, and then adds, almost offhandedly, “His mom is just a greedy bitch. I regret donating.”

She slips out the door, and the cashier, understandably flustered, takes a moment to collect herself before inviting me forward. “Don’t worry,” I say, softly, “when she is dying of skin cancer, you don’t have to donate.” I tipped my change into the jar.