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The Dada Within

Mike Silverton


e are fortunate as a society that certain endeavors require certification. Should I one day awaken convinced I’ve an aptitude for reconstructive dental surgery, pediatric oncology, gastroenterology, ophthalmology, veterinary medicine or, sidewise, electrical engineering, it would not be unreasonable to haul me away in a strait jacket. At the very least you’d best decline my offer to rewire your home. Or neuter your kitten.

However, “It’s a free country” obtains in practices less available to prosecutorial scrutiny. Charlatans come fast to mind, especially in the God dodge. To explore deeper here would plunge me into a simmering rage, nor do I propose to impose on the reader’s patience.

Obviously, given our context, we’re about the arts. Creativity. Dare we say it, sublimity. The transcendental. From certain angles and in a certain light, the divine. The Good Lord willin’ and the crapper don’t back up, when all goes flawlessly, unreasonably—nay, miraculously—well, something interesting might happen. While it’s true that art schools and writing workshops exist, with proofs of attendance moreover, individuals can with a clear conscience declare themselves artists or writers, or maybe both in the same carcass, on the strength of a say-so.

“I’m a writer.”

“Have you published anything?”

“Not yet.”

Therefore and so forth and by my green candle, to state one’s theme, I am in the great tradition of soi-disantitude a full-feathered Dada innocent of validation beyond the skin I occupy. Nihil obstat. Devil take the hindmost. Damn the torpedoes but be mindful of the reef.

To which forebears is one especially beholden? To Marcel Duchamp, certainly. His lifelong insouciance remains a standard to emulate, not to neglect the readymade, Art’s tectonic shift. In a broader sense, to Alfred Jarry and his assault on propriety. I stand in particular admiration of his gift to humankind, ’pataphysics, an as yet immeasurable leap beyond metaphysics. Yet am I reluctant to acquire membership in the Collège de Same Name inasmuch as this requires application and (I’m guessing) a registration fee. From a respectful distance I continue to admire ’pataphysics’ embrace of imaginary solutions, no less the impertinent apostrophe. Assigning to the already large Cosmos an exponential expansion, more likely infinite, introduces freedoms as gratifying as good afternoon sex.

We won’t complicate the discussion with Thespis’s offspring. Further, I’ll endeavor to keep autobiography to a barely audible mumble, notwithstanding some good stuff, e.g., my having deflowered Shirley Temple. For another time. The Dada Within is a topic—to be hoped—of general interest and application. Indeed, but what do you mean by Dada, granddad?

Can we agree to call it a free-wheeling, sometime destabilizing state of mind?

To begin, my identification with Dada flounders in anachronism. Call it twilit senescence. Geriatric willfulness. I align with the originals in the Cabaret Voltaire despite having little in common, least of all one’s wardrobe. Europe, at the height of a rather fastidious civilization, descended into a war the duration and ferocity of which took all by surprise. The machine gun played a prominent role. (I digress: given the run on guns and the price of ammunition, when available—blame the pandemic and the right wing’s tribal drift—shooting a fully automatic weapon at a range is a luxury just south of Patek Philippe. I ought to have mentioned earlier that one’s Jarry admiration also looks to sidearms. The reader may know of this anecdote. Jarry was shooting his revolver in a backyard. A neighbor complained that this reckless behavior endangered her son. Should that possibility become a reality, Jarry offered to help the lady make another.)

Anger, disillusion, cynicism, la vie bohème’s persistent undertow, all (as the narrative has it) explain why Dada popped up at its moment in history. At a far remove from the War to End All Wars it pleases this fantasist to think that absurdity’s cultivation and maturation better describe Dada’s precious bodily fluids as and where they nowadays flow.

Does a sharply drawn line between Dada and Surrealism exist? Hardly. Or maybe. Or no. Or yes. A good deal of Surrealist art seems to me Dada in spirit. Max Ernst’s painting of the Virgin Mother spanking a young Jesus’s bare ass, with Surrealism’s heavy hitters looking on through a window is pure Dada. Freud’s subconscious plays no role in this psychodrama. René Magritte’s work is Surrealist in its dream-like aspect and Dada in its drollery. This can be said: Surrealism in its French heyday was authoritarian. Andy Breton ran a tight ship. More than a few heretics walked the plank. The Dadas were anarchic. A favorite Dada object, Man Ray’s Gift, is an upright clothing iron, its plate lined down the center with a row of spikes (glued nails, actually). It was my great good luck to find a miniature wooden ironing board of the same period, intended, I believe, for shirt sleeves, to which, in homage, I glued a line of nails and hung on a wall—a footnote to a brilliant absurdity.

As a writer, I identify with participants in a movement I might well have regarded with suspicion and, who knows, disdain were I a contemporary in fact rather than tepid spirit. As a good, law-abiding bourgeois, this anachronistic impulse began a ton of years ago and continues with chance operations—the gathering of alphabetical shrapnel I fashion over stretches of time into images, thoughts and associations that, when all goes well, engage and perhaps even startle and amuse. I welcome beauty to remain in the beholder’s eye. Nor am I much concerned with the participation of my subconscious or unconscious. They’re on their own. Look, if the superficial dazzles, depth need not apply. Think of spectral insects skimming across a still pond, lightly disturbing the water’s surface. In bright sunlight. With frogs. Lily pads even.

Mike Silverton's collection of exuberant poetry and reluctant prose, Anvil on a Shoestring, is coming out April Fool's Day from Sagging Meniscus.

Mike Central Park 05.jpg

Mike Silverton