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When Dada meets Dodo – Nothingness in Literature and Illustration

Nur um es klar zu stellen: Der folgende Post beschäftigt sich nicht ausdrücklich mit Illustrationen. Es ist vielmehr der Versuch die Einflüsse von Wort- und Bildmedium aufeinander darzustellen. Es ist in diesem Zusammenhang weder wünschenswert noch besonders zuträglich die Begriffe Bild/Wort bzw. Signifier/Signified semantisch voneinander abzugrenzen. Es geht vielmehr darum, die Aphasie durch Kunst zu rekonstruieren – die Sprachlosigkeit in der Auseinandersetzung mit dem Bild / dem Text / der Illustration ist eher Thema als die klar umrisseneInterpretation des Einen oder Anderen. Deshalb lässt sich an vielen Stellen der Begriff „literature“ auch durch „illustration“ ersetzen (aufgrund der engen Verwandtschaft der beiden medialen Konzepte ergibt sich diese Sebstreferentialität ja fast zwangsläufig).

 When Dada meets Dodo – Caught in the Nothingness of Nonsense Literature and Dada

“There is a literature […] in which laws wither away.”

(From “Dada Manifesto” by Tristan Tzara)

When Dada entered the world in Zurich 1916 critics were desperately looking for an approach to explain this new art phenomenon. In his novel Tenderenda the Fantast Hugo Ball’s protagonist Donnerkopf gets to the heart of the critics dilemma when he says:

Verily, nothing is the way it appears. Rather it is possessed of a vital spirit and goblin, which remains motionless as long as one looks at it. But once discovered, it transforms itself and becomes monstrous.[1]

This quotation can easily be applied to not only to the works of Dada but to Nonsense literature in general and here specifically to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Just as Dada wouldn’t surrender to any of the common principles of art, Carroll would withdraw his work from the common standards of interpretation by letting Wonderland redefine meaning and saying, blurring the border between logic and insanity, identity and names; reducing everything to the sheer nothingness of word. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland represent a nonsensical even Dadaistic attempt to call in question the conceptual foundations of the reader’s world.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is composed of the most bizarre comical turns, which create a miniature Bildungsroman assuming great nonsensical proportions. The heroine Alice’s fall down the rabbit-hole takes the reader on a disturbing journey containing both, strong parodic elements of philosophical and linguistic authority and the wish to destroy meaning altogether.

After having taken an unintended bath, Alice is suggested a Caucus-race by the Dodo. When she asks what the rules are he replies: “Why, the best way to explain is to do it.” The scene continues with the Dodo marking out a race-course: ‘“The exact shape doesn’t matter” […]. When they had been running half an hour […] the Dodo called out “the race is over” and they all crowded around it, panting, and asking “But who has won?” […] At last the Dodo said ”Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”’

In Alice’s Wonderland the ignoring of all normal speech conventions and rules of any kind are common (none)sense. Despite Alice who appears to be constantly puzzled by the characters arbitrary behavior, all the inhabitants of Wonderland live in worlds in which rules do not exist until they make them up. This arbitrariness induces the readership to choose from two divergent approaches to reading Lewis Carroll’s story. The reader either chooses to acknowledge the hybrid nature of the text by reading it as a book originally written for children or he contrariwise insists on Carroll’s nonsense expressiveness and judges it to be necessarily interpretative.[2]

Just as Dada avows irrationalism and heterogeneous messiness, Nonsense literature uses the absence of meaning to emphasize that it neither exists as an abstract set of rules, nor does it follow a guiding principle. In his Wonderland Lewis Carroll presents rationality as absurd.  Following the rule ‘there is no rule’, Nonsense literature exploits the wealth of language foregrounding problems of grammar, syntax and meaning. “Nonsense results from the juxtaposition of incongruities, from the preservation of form at the expense of content.”[3] The result is a squandering of meaning at the expense of task-oriented conversation

Together with Alice the reader abandons all conventions of language and enters a world in which coherence is of a different importance, a world in which conversation is hardly ever serving a purpose other than distortion and confusion. Nonsense and Dada celebrate contradictory poetics on the levels of form and content. In his Dada Manifesto Tristan Tzara wrote, “No more manifestoes,” declaring, “to be against this manifesto is to be Dadaist… in principle I am against manifestoes, as I am also against principle”[4] The more astonishing it is that the reader comes to acknowledge that in Wonderland everybody but him and Alice seem to survive the raging arbitrariness of linguistic coherence.

After having read a poem called Jabberwocky Alice’s statement may reflect the reader’s opinion on the book ‘”It seems very pretty […] but it is rather hard to understand! […] Somehow it fills my head with ideas […] only I don’t know what they are!”’[5] Nonsense is a serious threat to the reader’s common sense; the unleashing of the unconscious may be both, a total inspiration to everybody, as well as the provocative inversion of linguistic discourse straining the reader’s patience.

When we read about Alice’s adventures we plunge into a world Dada would have wished to create, something innocent, something provocative, something that mocks all definition. Dada was the visible incarnation of the Dodo’s freedom – playing games without rules on race-courses without shape, winning without winning. Wonderland – the place where laws wither away. Dada is Dodo and Dodo is Nonsense.


[1] Ball, Hugo, Tenderenda the Fantast, trans. Malcolm Green (London: Atlas 1995), 93

[2] Haugthon, Hugh, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the centenary edition (London: Penguin Books, 1998), xi

[3] Stuart, Susan, nonsense, (Maryland: 1979) 76

[4] Tzara , Tristan, Dada and Surrealism, (London: Methuen, 1972) 4

[5] Carroll, Lewis, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 1

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