Dada, Extrinsic Comedy, and the Violence of Purity

Were it appropriate to define Dada, one might describe it as diametrically opposed to conceptions of purity, or any other structures seemingly pertaining to virtue or morality. If one shifts the connotation of purity to its alternate context, however — purity in the sense of sterility, as the product of some aggressive corrosion — it then appears fitting to Dada’s stated purposes, or lack thereof.

In the 13th issue of the Dadaist magazine Littérature, published in May of 1920 and entitled “The Twenty-Three Manifestos of the Dada Movement,” Dada’s obsessive preoccupation with graphic physical and sexual violence becomes evident. Particularly within the text “Dada God-swatter,” authored by Paul Dermée, Dada positions itself as superior to other modes of expression through its defamation of God, rejection of societal structures, and vivid illustration of excretory and sexual bodily functions. Of course, any analysis herein is constrained by the fact that Dada takes specific care not to confine itself by devotion to any objective standards. Nonetheless, if one allows for the assumption that some Dadaist works explicitly set out to produce comedy, it would not be outrageous to suggest that Dada at times uses the casual expression of graphic violence to create comedy that is dependent on shock-value: the creation of this uncomfortable reaction in the reader is meant to amplify feelings of disgust toward people and structures that conform to non-Dada standards.

Paul Dermée’s “Dada God-swatter” juxtaposes images of God and godliness with references to filth; these are expressed both by moral impurity via implications of fornication and by a sheer lack of cleanliness accented by verminous characterizations. In doing so, the text yields a censure of all non-Dada modes of expression (in this case, faith and art). This censure in turn creates a self-contradictory value system which prejudicates Dada as pure and intellectual, and non-Dada as some kind of physical or metaphysical pollution which must then be corrected through violent extermination and the complete obliteration of society — hygiene through destruction.

Paul Dermée’s “Dada God-swatter” serves in many ways as an ideal representation of this somewhat ideologically-dissonant Dadaist movement towards purity. The “comedy” of the passage is derived almost entirely from the shock-value of associating God, the utmost expression of esteemed goodness in any monotheistic religious tradition, with such base notions as sexuality and uncleanliness. Take, for example, Dermée’s portrait of God:

He poisons life for a bunch of imbeciles, God’s a fool, God’s got goitre, God struts about like a dandy, God dresses to the left. How many poets, painters, musicians, — the most ignorant of all people — pull on a God every morning like a condom, and thus disguised extend a great green belly for the worship of the masses! (Dermée 189)

The shock-value of this section is dependent upon the outrageous depiction of God with base human characteristics; beyond ascriptions of foolishness, Dermée attributes physical and characteristic imperfections to the image of God — “goitres” denoting a somatic disfigurement, “strut[ting] about like a dandy” as an expression of arrogance or self-involved materialism, “dress[ing] to the left” as an indication that God possesses human sexual organs, and so on. Dermée even suggests a certain sexual voracity of God, asserting that “He screws our mistresses and sticks himself in between their skin and ours,” invoking the humorous impression of a kind of divine cuckolding, which, at the risk of blaspheming, does in fact hold a degree of truth as far as we can interpret the ‘immaculate conception’ in the Christian Bible, for instance (Dermée 189). The deconstruction of the immaculate mystification of God into a human-like figure replete with flaws challenges the very image of God. Where for society at large God expresses immaterial perfection and virtuousness, Dermée — through a kind of verbal violence characterized by sacrilegious insult — instead ascribes to God physical characteristics which are unique to humans, for no other creatures, physical or metaphysical, can be said to “strut about like a dandy” or “dress left” (Dermée 189). Such illustrations invite us to ridicule God, which as an expression of subversive comedy, offers a kind of verbal violence in itself.

In a different sense, Dermée also takes care in describing God as an expression of mortal egotism, noting how “poets, painters, [and] musicians” have the tendency to “pull on a God every morning like a condom” (Dermée 189). There is, of course, a kind of taboo, outrageous humor in the description of God as a condom, which in itself suggests a constriction or shielding of the self from the outside world. Even so, the likening of God to a condom that artists regularly use in one stroke (no pun intended) criticizes the egotistic divinity which creatives ascribe to themselves as well as positions the concept of God as one which exists in multiple disposable iterations to be used repetitively in one’s morning ablutions. Thus, Dermée uses the violence of profane and explicitly sexual speech to insult the image of God, therein attempting to incite the rage of those who believe in God, or at least those who are respectful of the image of God. As we will see, Dermée takes this further in his language of extermination within the next portion of the passage, which contains more explicit objectives of violent purification.

In the latter portion of “Dada God-swatter,” Dermée literalizes the term “Dada God-swatter” by prescribing Dada as the remedy to the infestation of faith. The zeal of Dermée’s manifesto reaches an inflection point as he sets out the means of purification:

Well we’re going to shout about it: ENOUGH of all these annoying stinking gods festering like a disgusting verminous pea pod.

Let’s QUICKLY carry out some corrosive fumigations to purify the atmosphere and scour the house with lashings of alcohol.

Cover EVERYTHING in Dada bug powder! No nonsense hygiene!

Dada God-swatter

Dada omni-swatter

Dada anti-taboo! (Dermée 189)

It is perhaps important to note in this instance that the object of the narrator’s derision is no longer capital-G God, but a collection of “annoying stinking gods,” alluding to the ignorant “poets, painters, [and] musicians” whose self-importance present a “great green belly for the worship of the masses” (Dermée 189). In doing so, Dermée carries out a three-part transmutation of God into a collection of gods who lack divinity but imagine they possess it, and in turn, the transubstantiation of those ‘gods’ into pests with “great green bell[ies].” This development in the object of the narrator’s frustration once again reinforces the notion that godliness and divinity (with the inclusion of both God and ‘gods,’ both literal and self-perceived) are symptomatic of a societal deficiency for which Dada is the remedy. To prescribe Dada as a remedy is to recognize it as superior to its affliction, and it is thus that Dermée constructs a value system in which Dada is superior to non-Dada modes of expression.

The sheer violence of fumigation, too, serves as an indication of the supposed superiority of Dada. To begin with, the reduction of godliness, the most unadulterated expression of moral purity and goodness in the West, not to mention the highest possible figure of reverence, to a “disgusting verminous pea pod” suggests a parasitic infestation causing active harm to its host, which in this extended metaphor, can be interpreted as society. The profane violence of mere suggestion, then, is taken completely to the realm of physical violence as Dermée calls for “corrosive fumigations to purify the atmosphere and scour the house with lashings of alcohol.” (Dermée 189). Not only does “Dada God-swatter” call for the violent asphyxiation of all images of God, but the use of such intense terms such as “corrosive,” “scour,” and “lashings” illustrates a method of decontamination which necessitates caustic abrasion as the precedent for cleanliness. The only means of “purify[ing] the atmosphere,” then, is to introduce acidic chemicals to the surrounding environment; Dada, by this token, becomes both a curative measure and a toxic sterilization. While this may appear on the surface to complicate the implication that Dada is superior to non-Dada modes of expression, it is crucial to note that the superiority of Dada is not predicated on the effective provision of a service to its participants. Dada owes nothing to those who engage with it; it is at once reinforcing and self-destructive. The commercial language employed in the latter half of the passage also serves to illustrate the supposed superiority of Dadaism and its worth as a toxic cure to the ills of society. Beginning at “well we’re going to shout about it,” the indentation of the sentences to create short phrases, especially coupled with the inclusion of exclamatory fragments (“No nonsense hygiene!”), and the capitalization of the words “ENOUGH,” “QUICKLY,” and “EVERYTHING” mimics the urgency and enthusiasm of early-20th century advertisements, almost as if Dermée were generating a series of taglines for a Dadaist extermination service. Whether this kind of profit-oriented marketing of Dadaism is a genuine attempt at recruiting members to the Dada Movement or merely a humorous satirization of the conceited self-promotion of God or the artist-‘gods’ is unclear, but it nonetheless prescribes Dadaism as a cure to society’s ills by means of destruction.

In “Dada God-swatter,” the superposition of images of God amid images of filth leads to the expression of both moral impurity (sexual perversion) and physical impurity (verminous filth), indicating the acknowledgement of a pollution which must then be corrected through violent extermination. The interpretive result of the aforementioned text yields a censure of all non-Dada media as arbitrary for the sake of not recognizing itself as arbitrary. This lambast in turn creates a self-contradictory value system which prejudicates Dada as pure and intellectual and non-Dada as impure, base, and most importantly, in need of prescriptive violence which remedies the affliction by instigating a larger destruction. Integral to this interpretation is the conception that Dada, by definition (or lack thereof) concerned with the insurmountability of inherent irrationalities, does not necessarily set out to correct the ills it perceives; it means simply to eradicate them, and if the price of that hygiene is the destruction of society at large, then so be it. For the sake of brevity, more abstract interpretations of the passage have been omitted, but the implications of quasi-genocidal rhetoric, the post-Dada ideological trajectory of the author, and the bridge between nihilism and surrealism are nonetheless worth introspection. Moreover, analysis of “Dada God-swatter” cries out for comparison with other manifestos in the section; in particular, the role of cleansing violence is taken to further extremes in Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes’ “To the Public,” which features even more extreme graphic expressions of physical and sexual violence, as well as in Philippe Soupault’s “Literature and the Rest,” which turns the expression of violence inward toward a kind of frustration-induced self-immolation. Overall, though, Dermée’s “Dada God-swatter” provides a singular portrait of the mutually associative relationship between violence and purity. Occupying a simultaneously corrosive and curative space, Dada shrouds itself in some abstract iteration of the “pharmakon” — a circumferential unity of toxin and antidote.

This essay was originally written for a special topics English course at UC Berkeley in April 2018. It was subsequently published in the Spring 2019 edition of The Folio, UC Berkeley’s English journal.

Citations referent to The Dada Reader: A Critical Anthology, edited by Dawn Ades, The University of Chicago Press, 2006, pp. 189.

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