Either Commit Suicide or Start Giggling: An Interview with Andrei Codrescu
Interview by Sophie Erskine.
3:AM: Andrei, thanks so much for agreeing to answer my questions. I hope they won’t be too stupid. You became an American citizen in 1981 but had grown up in Romania. Do you think this sort of culturally-mixed background is helpful to creative individuals? For example, does it mean you can understand different points of view better than if you had only lived in one country?
AC: You should live in at least seven countries for a minimum of one year in each before you are seventeen, and must speak and write at least five languages in order to be a half-decent poet. I would like to add that the hour of 3 a.m. is itself a foreign country, and that even if you don’t live in any place where the natives speak a “foreign” language, being present for a year or so at 3 a.m. will give you the same tonic results that a mud-bath in the Czech countryside would.
3:AM: You famously covered the Romanian Revolution of 1989 for National Public Radio. You impressed zillions of people by doing so. Do you think your writing background helped with this at all?
AC: My ignorance and nostalgia helped more than my writing. I had nostalgia for the smells of my birthplace and the sounds of my birth language(s). I was also ignorant of how people had coped for the 25 years that I’d been gone, and so I sniffed my way backward, looking for my childhood. The houses and the people smelled just the same — of poverty and sadness — but they had grown meaner. One thing hadn’t changed: everybody got cheerier when they lied, and they lied a lot. Writing the book was easy once I figured out (or remembered) what dissimulators my people are: then I could introduce the drama of what was REALLY going on behind their mouths and mellifluous bullshit. That’s what makes for good writing: knowing that two completely different worlds coexist simultaneously, one made of what people say, and another of what’s really going on. You can add layers to those, of course, but you have your basic tension there.
3:AM: I’m loving your new book, The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara & Lenin Play Chess. The first two sentences say: “This is a guide for instructing posthumans in living a Dada life. It is not advisable, nor was it ever, to lead a Dada life.” So what’s the purpose of writing this book? Is it for pure amusement, Dada-style?
AC: The book is a spiritual guide for the creatures we are becoming: I don’t know what the shape of the animal is going to be (round, I suspect, with one eye that doubles as a sexual organ), but right now “posthuman” will have to do. In about five years when we internalize all the connective technology of the internet and we become truly immortal (trading livers like poker chips, for instance) we will need a new name because we won’t be human at all anymore. Maybe we can be gods or something. The vampire shows and some sci-fi (Battlestar Galactica, for example) have already created fictional prototypes for the coming race. As for Dada, it’s a tool for posthumans to transition to the next stage, because it provides the means to generate forms and amusements with which to fill eternity. The biggest problem of the coming über-race will be how to spend time — how not to become bored. Dada is a machine for generating contents, an inexhaustible fountain of styles. In this book I give out the Dada formula for making it through the posthuman stage, which is hard: we are like those creatures who first came out of the water to live on land, we are taking big clumsy steps and our fins hurt. My book makes it easier, but it’s also a mystery you have to read from beginning to end because it’s about Tzara and Lenin playing chess, and the plot is actually the sequel to the Da Vinci Code.
3:AM: Speaking of amusement, you say that the first Dadas “drew their force from everything and anything, but mostly from laughter. Nothing fixed by convention could withstand the Gordian-knot-cutting laughter of Dada…” Can you elaborate on this idea of the power of Dadaist laughter? It’s not a notion I’ve encountered very often.
AC: Well, whenever I explain this to a live audience, the first thing they do is stop laughing. It’s a serious matter, because there are all kinds of laughter, but Dada laughter is dangerous because it’s spontaneous and people don’t know why they laugh when they run into a Dada thing. When they stop laughing, they think about it and are horrified — they think: “Did I just laugh at that? Did I just burst out into hysterical giggles at an image of a woman with a hundred heads?” Then they get the pun of Max Ernst’s image, “La Femme Cent Têtes”, which could also mean “The Woman Without a Head”, and they think, “Maybe I laughed because I’m so clever! I got the pun before I knew I got the pun!” But then they get depressed again because they really truly don’t know why they laughed, and this is where we come in: you laughed because you were SURPRISED! Your fucking life is so boring you suddenly understood the obvious! And it’s also obvious that if you’re going to quit suffering the tyranny of complete sentences, you’re going to have to be SURPRISED. Etonnez-moi! And you realize that all your posthuman urgency is way too synergetic, way too logical, way too predictably cute, and you must either commit suicide or start giggling. Dada humor is also gallows humor: Morgenstern’s “Gallow-Songs” were very popular at Cabaret Voltaire in 1916.
3:AM: To what extent have you yourself lived a Dada life? Has your life, too, included “pranks, buffoonery, masking, deranged senses, intoxication, sabotage, taboo breaking, playing childish and/or dangerous games, waking up dead gods, and not taking education seriously”? I sincerely hope so.
AC: Yes, indeed, and like Piaf says, “je n’regrette rien.”
3:AM: Lastly, the review of your book in The Village Voice talks about how the imagined rivalry between Tristan Tzara and Lenin dramatizes the seminal struggle between lifeless mechanization on the one hand and chaotic spontaneity on the other. You talk about Dada insisting on “the raw energy of unconsciousness and freedom”, and say that artists “can’t do without” its fierceness and savageness. This sort of discussion reminds me of Nietzsche’s distinction in The Birth of Tragedy between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, one representation of which is the contrast between civilisation or order on the one hand and primal nature or spontaneity on the other. How much was this distinction an influence on your work? Do let me know if I’m just rambling incoherently. Thank you for the interview, Andrei — you’re a legend.
AC: You’re rambling beautifully, and from now on, you’re a legend, too. Welcome to the Legend Gang. Once in New York, at the St. Marks’ Poetry Project (about 1970, I think) Bill Knott read an anti-New-York-School poem that went something like, “The New York School/ is a spigot on a corpse,” and Ted Berrigan shouted from the audience, “You’re in the New York School now, Bill!” You didn’t do anything egregious, of course, but I give you membership anyway. In any case, the Nietzsche analogy is appropriate, with the only proviso that we have been thinking hard and trying even harder to get around it since FN scribbled the obvious. On the one hand, you have the poetic-dadaist-anarcho branch of Deleuze, Guattari, and Co., on the other the neo-marxist Frankfurters and the Jungian crypto or not-so-crypto fascists, and they keep at it. The marxian economies may have collapsed but the machines of logic that set them up are still functional. The posthuman road diverges along these lines, too: we can either go into the future light, with interchangeable bodies that are just info input/output devices, or we create hierarchies and systems for regulating emotional/resource flows. I think that we’ll be light as dandelion puffs, hopefully, and my fear is that we’ll be as heavy as artillery shells. We’ll see. Send me a picture. “Take a Dada to bed and see me in the morning.” Happy Afterworkers’ Day.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Sophie Erskine is part-time research assistant to the novelist Karen Essex. She is the media manager for the poetry group Perdika Press and is in the first stages of writing a film with the neuropsychologist Paul Broks and the theatre director Mick Gordon.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 3rd, 2009.