a dada life: “pranks, buffoonery, masking, deranged senses, intoxication, sabotage, taboo breaking”

the introduction to Andrei Codrescu’s 

The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess  


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. It is and it was always foolish and self-destructive to lead a Dada life because a Dada life will include by definition pranks, buffoonery, masking, deranged senses, intoxication, sabotage, taboo breaking, playing childish and/or dangerous games, waking up dead gods, andnot taking education seriously. On the other hand, the accidental production of novel objects results occasionally from the practice of Dada. During times of crisis like wars and plagues, some of these objects can be truly novel because they sabotage prevailing sentiments. At other times, Dada objects are merely interesting, by virtue of an added layer of irony, an extra punch line, or a new twist to an already-consecrated object. In such times Dada objects amuse everybody, and since these objects are (mostly) made collectively, they are a strong community bond. Amusement (of oneself and others) and the making of art communities are the goals of Dada. Dada is a priori against everything, including goals and itself, but this creative negation is very amusing and is meant to be shared. For one whole century, Dada has delighted in uncovering and using contradictions, paradoxes, and negations, the most important of which are: 1. most people read signs, Dadas make signs, and 2. most people are scared of scary faces, Dada makes scary faces. No one should go Dada before  1. considering whether one would rather be  a. amused or b. grim; one must weigh in the balance childishness and seriousness; both a and b have a history; both affect everyone in the world; both are possible at any moment, but the difference is that being childlike (a) is pleasing to creatures lighter than air (with or without wings), angels, St. Francis, and Candide, while being serious (b) is a weight, like the cross, and heavy as a lead ball (see hugo, ball) and iron chains;  and 2. understanding that art is life and vice-versa and Dadais against both, except on the road to ecstasy when it stops for exceptions. It is the thesis of this book that posthumans lining the road to the future (which looks as if it exists, after all, even though Dada is against it) need the solace offered by the primal raw energy of Dada and its inhuman sources. 

If you have any doubt as to whether you are posthuman or merely human, take a look at the following parts of your body: the city, the house, the car, the iPhone, the laptop, the iPod, the pillbox, the nonflesh surround. If sixty percent of your body is now electronic or bioelectronic, living in space designed for efficiency, you will need Dada as a corrective to what will certainly be the loss of the modicum of liberty you still possess. The first Dadas lived in cities that contained the means for a thorough critique of the world: Zurich, Paris, New York, Vienna, Berlin, Bucharest, Prague, Zagreb, Budapest, Petersburg. They had virtual summations (libraries), evolution-planning centers (cafés), body-centering (or -decentering) loci (bordellos), hungry provincial student clusters (universities), geniuses (random selection), mass-media (printing presses, newspapers, the telegraph), the option of moving the body through space faster than the body could move on its own (trains, cars, carriages), models for imaginary worlds (cinema), the tools of propaganda (advertising, manifestos, podiums), memory (museums, statues, history books), sentiment (cabarets, songs, theater, carnivals), weapons (cobblestones), hope (money, God), social flexibility (learnable codes of manners, uniforms), ubiquity (the feeling that you know, or think that you know, everybody) and, most importantly, a sense that time was relative (some people had a lot of it and dreaded its immensity; others had only a little and dreaded its passing). The revelation of the substance of time preoccupied Freud, who saw it as a repository for repressed history, Carl Jung, who discovered (or thought he did) a space inhabited by prehistoric souffleurs who dictated their nature to ongoing generations of human actors, Albert Einstein, who added time to the three known dimensions, Heisenberg, who denied time altogether, and a variety of artists who adopted one or another dimension of time (futurists, the future; simultaneists, simultaneity; Dada, all or no directions). These cities were concentrations of virtualities that offered the possibilities of creative reinvention of the world. Within these rapidly morphing intensities, the fixities of societal conventions that led inevitably to war became painfully apparent. The bright energies remaking human beings drew their force from everything and anything, but mostly from laughter. Nothing fixed by convention could withstand the Gordian-knot-cutting laughter of Dada, though resistance was not futile (see lenin).

Today, a century later, the merger of software and wetwear is ongoing and speeding up. Dada has nothing, or maybe everything, against doing well and doing good. Buy biotechs. The fondest wish of all well-wishers, and that includes many dadas, is that we will say hello to a green organism that is born by natural birth, will lead a carbon-footprint-conscious life, and will biodegrade without toxic waste. Planetary thinking in its most digestible form makes sense, and the future seems open to every individual initiative that is aware of the collective predicament. Living aware is the current desideratum, and if we destroy non-renewable resources, we’ll at least downsize or vanish with our eyes open. Dada is for all of that, but within (non)reason. For the majorities, profligacy is no longer desirable. In effect, desire is no longer desirable. If previous dada-minded people with nothing to lose (or so they thought!) could afford to be profligate, seminal, and ecstatic, this is no longer the case. Substitute “wishing” for “desire.” Wishing accommodates acting, while desire is unpredictable. Posthuman life is based on the alleged awareness of all living connections, unlike the irrepressible and murderous peaks and valleys of human life in the past. The rational description of our posthumanity would have it that the societal mechanisms that were of such great concern to thinkers have been automated. Political structures larger than the family are projections of automatic economic systems. Borders are largely imaginary and will become wholly imaginary, soon to be replaced by aesthetic differences.1 In other words, there will be privately constructed borders created by everyone everywhere, enforced by pocket nukes capable of eliminating entire cities or regions. Arbitrary moral systems will back up private aesthetic borders, making it imperative for everyone to receive the correct medication. Unmedicated people will not be allowed pocket nukes, which makes it necessary that they be naked and searched often by local militias of art students. In this environment, which is almost completely current, the simulations of pleasure within zones of medicated liberty can be literally life-saving. These simulations will be a new medium (using all the media) for plotting escape routes and egress points that may or may not lead out of Eden. These potentially liberating simulations promise anescape into reality, but, reader beware, all realities adjoining present tightrope Eden may be virtual and not real at all. With that proviso, an alternative escape project called Dada is being made available here. Dada is the viral option to the virtual certainty. What the Dada life is will be explained in the following pages with a minimum of tedious reference, i.e., we will record only what can’t be googled. In other words, only what hasn’t yet been captured. Dada is the Western Now, a Zen that employs fullness instead of emptiness, so much fullness, in fact, that there isn’t enough matter to fill its fullness, so it resorts to imagination in order to create ever more paradisiacal objets, better iPods made from shredded dreams.2 Each imagination unit (IU) expanded here will be spent for your instruction, reader, but you will notice that each entry is constructed to self-erase as soon as it is understood, and to generate its own IU as soon as it disappears. The claim to the nongooglable is pretty huge and I’m making it lightly. The good available information googled either from Google or out of books written by Dada chiefs will be used here to its utmost, that is to say, used in order to extract or prolong the vital fluids, which are as yet ungooglified. (At least until this is e-published). I know that Google, a mortal company, could go the way of Xerox, which used to be synonymous with copying, but in the grand collage that is Dada, past and future are equally usable. Look at the fragment from a newspaper inserted by Kurt Schwitters in his 1920 Collage:3 the actual newspaper, with its oh-so-urgent events of the day, is long forgotten, but the section preserved in Schwitters’s collage is immortal. I am not saying that this guide, a simple book, will outlast both Xerox and Google, but it is possible. If the 20th century has taught us anything, it is that we will forget everything except the box it came in. The substance of what it was, what it felt like, what could be usefully gleaned from it, was buried with the persons who felt andgleaned. Memoirs and history further dismember the past by articulating it: every articulated experience is as good as forgotten. Forgetting is a human specialty that was greatly refined by the recently deposed century. We’ve kept the wrappings, though: the styles, the anecdotes, the narratives (the sexy ones, not the academic), and we are using them to deposit new contents inside. The end of the 19th century put an engine in a horse, and, even though there was no more horse, literally speaking, the form of the mechanically-powered horse was marvelous to behold. Today, of course, there is hardly any need to remember why a mechanical horse needs to look like a living horse because most of us don’t know what a horse is: even the horse-form is being forgotten. As oblivion speeds up and facts store themselves in a memory stick, we are free to splash around in the funhouse of forms. Thank God for Dada, the engine of empty forms! This (or the next this) is a time to be human without the weight of history, beliefs, feelings, vendettas, or school grades. We are in a Dada state of grace. For the Dada Guide-users, you and me, there isn’t even a point in the dated distinctions between “human” and “nonhuman,” “remembered” or “forgotten,” because the literature of those distinctions is ubiquitous and serves no purpose other than mutual accusation: those who think of themselves as “human” will claim that they have a “soul” and an indelible “history,” while posthumans will claim to be part of everything and that everything has a soul, including the web they are presently setting to vibrating with their indignant thumping. This is a useless argument and if anyone feels uncomfortable about being called “posthuman,” please call yourself whatever you want. My distinction is this: a posthuman is a human who has put nature (including herm own)4 between parentheses. (Or convinced hermself that everything nonhuman is human and, therefore, human = nature. This used to be called “anthropomorphism,” but lately it is known as a “user-friendly interface.” In current popular discourse, nature has come to mean “nature,” or “the nature channel,” and thus is wilderness removed from it and its destructive and creative force neutralized. Putting the world between either parentheses or quotes is an effective way to erase it, indifferent of how warmly we feel about it. We are replacing wilderness by self- reflection and are making huge (virtual) efforts to make the self-reflective sensorium look demiurgic and various like nature. If early in the 20th century only poets had the gall to conceive of themselves as “pequeños dios” in César Vallejo’s phrase, now everyone feels entitled to a god-degree because the tools for faking it are part of every body (see e-body). Dada intends to open the doors at night to let the wilderness back in. Dada is a tool for removing parentheses and removing the world from between quotes with the forceps of inspiration. Sometimes this will call for disruptive spontaneous action, creating and holding TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zones), actualizing dreams, running with gangs, living with animals, and making  peace with weather. Sometimes it will mean going after parts of speech, like “like,” or other rhetorical devices, but we will never discourage direct address, on the off chance that someone is listening. Historical Dada was a metaphor factory, but we will try to abstain and be as dry as a properly made Cabernet. Dada, like every living thing, has a problematic relationship with language, which is why it has employed it collectively, nonsensically, mystically, and in combination with other media, such as paint, pixels, bodies, couture, sex, sound, newspapers, advertising, and necromancy. Language has been slipping like a coarse blanket from humanity’s nightmare-racked body for centuries, but 20th-century dadas like Ludwig Wittgenstein and George Steiner (who were not officially Dada) and Tzara (who was, see tristan, tzara) revealed that it had been yanked off by Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao (big yankers) and by myriads of smaller yankers who use language to poke holes in reality and to put nature between parentheses. Big and small yankers (language-users) have been fueling their enterprise with portions of liberty, mine and yours. The motor for creating posthumans runs on stolen freedom.5 Now there are two entities: language, lying at the foot of the bed, as freezing thieves with a yen for power crawl toward it, and a flesh body that is quickly becoming a metaphor for all that used to be called “human.” The Dada project is to make the body warm by covering it with the blanket again and demetaphorizing it. This project requires abandoning all the humanities’ approximate definitions of “human,” because “the approximate man” (see, again, tristan, tzara) turns out not to be a man at all. Or a woman. Those lovely forms have vanished and can now be found only as skeuromorphs in media, including writing. The vague yearning for the “not human” is now no longer vague, it is pure efficiency. We look nostalgically at waste: there isn’t any. All is now open for Dada (as Nietzsche suspected) but not everyone knows how to live the Dada life, to press the “restore” button. In other words, nobody knows how to act when all knowledge seems available, and claims to difference look like either reinventing the wheel or retrofitting the posthuman lump (“body without organs,” Antonin Artaud) with dated forms. Mysticism and metaphysics are the popular forms of Dada now in vogue, particularly in science fiction, the New Age, Oprah, churches, mosques, and pagan-trancing moonlit groves. There is a lot wrong with those practices, namely, that they are all about the consciousness of humans on their way to perfecting posthumanity. Most of them pretend to worship or at least acknowledge the nonhuman, but it’s only a cover, superstitious salt thrown into the eyes of whatever looks back at us, amused or annoyed, Nietzsche’s abyss with eyes. Dada, too, is a form of mystical currency, but it likes to think of itself as too radical for narrative and parable, and too agnostic to take itself seriously. We will see. We need a guide that is at once historical and liberating. Or just hysterical and tonic.

Nothing illustrates better the difference between the human and the posthuman than a chess game that took place in October 1916 at the Café de La Terrasse in Zurich, Switzerland, between Tristan “all thought is formed in the mouth” Tzara, the daddy of Dada, and V. I. (“communism = socialism + electricity”) Lenin, the daddy of communism. These two daddies battled each other over the chessboard of history, proposing two different paths for human development. Dada played for chaos, libido, the creative, and the absurd. Communism deployed its energy for reason, order, an understandable social taxonomy, predictable structures, and the creation of “new man.” The Dada man was an actor and a peformer, a clown, and a drunken fool, a mystic. The “new man” was a well-behaved worker who would eventually be so well served materially that he would become posthuman, a being to whom all nature, refined and motorized, would pay homage. Dada was born onstage from satire, disgust, angst, disgust, terror, improvised materials, and channeled snippets of verse, while Communism came out of books of philosophy and economy, terrorism (with its technologies of disguise, conspiracy, and homemade explosives), and church-inspired forms for synthesizing dogma. Who won the game? After the collapse of Soviet-style communism in 1991, it looked as though Dada had. But if it had, why do the non- Soviet posthumans of late capitalism feel such despair? Could it be that late-capitalism posthumans have arrived in the leninist future without communism? And if they have, is the game still going on, and does Dada still have work to do? Are languages (including programming e-languages), print, reason, the fear of nature, and the impulse to vegetate still in charge? Is performance today mainly palliative, validated by reviews? Was that game of chess a win for Tzara or Lenin or a draw? Why did the two men sit down to play in the first place? Obviously, it was cold and there were snow flurries, and the café was full of people of intelligence and feeling, and some shady drunks and thieves, but beyond that, did either of them sense a metaphorical gravity? I doubt it. Chess is the game of choice for people who must think in a crowd: chess is the quintessential “meditation in an emergency” (Frank O’Hara) for people forced by circumstances (overcrowding, prison, a chattering roommate) to seek solitude in a crowd. The laws of chess (they are not called “rules”) have been designed over a millennial history to provide a maximum of thinking space within a small square, and a sense of movement and change by means of a number of symbolic figures. Even if Tzara and Lenin, alone or together, sensed the making of a metaphor, they would not have been interested because 1. it was other people’s metaphor, and 2. they were both animated by passion about injustice. Tzara: “But suppleness, enthusiasm and even the joy of injustice, that little truth that we practice as innocents and that makes us beautiful: we are cunning, and our fingers are malleable and glide like branches of that insidious and almost liquid plant: this injustice is the indication of our soul, say the cynics. That is also a point of view; but all flowers aren’t saints, luckily, and what is divine in us is the awakening of anti-human action.”6 Lenin: “. . . the development of capitalism has arrived at a stage when, although commodity production still ‘reigns’ and continues to be regarded as the basis of economic life, it has in reality been undermined and the big profits go to the ‘genius’ of financial manipulation.”7 Tzara is talking about flowers, soul, the divine, and fingers, while Lenin explains how easily people are distracted and robbed while being handed “commodities.” Both passages proceed from the basic acknowledgment of the existence of injustice, but Tzara welcomes its cruelty and pushes its contradictions to where it will cease to function within language and, it is hoped, life, because it’s been sabotaged by poetry. Lenin has found the villain: sneaky, insidious capitalism robbing the workers while amusing them. There is also another difference: boredom. Tzara is fresh, Lenin is boring. Lenin is not boring just in retrospect, he was boring at the time he wrote that. As we know from Baudelaire, Boredom is the worst evil of all: “Among the vermin, jackals, panthers, lice / gorillas and tarantulas that suck / and snatch and scratch and  defecate and fuck / in the disorderly circus of our vice, // there’s one more ugly and abortive birth. / It makes no gestures, never beats its breast, / yet it would murder for a moment’s rest, / and willingly annihilate the earth. / It’s boredom. Tears have glued its eyes together. / You know it well, my Reader. This obscene / beast chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine— / you—hypocrite Reader—my double—my brother.”8 Yes, but, pace Baudelaire, was Lenin wrong? Not really. Atthe start of the 21st century we are in an even better position to appreciate Lenin’s insight into the nature of capitalism. He goes on to explain, by means of tedious citations from German economists, exactly how prices rise as a result of the formation of  monopolies, and the subsequent impoverishment of the proletariat. Lenin is setting up his chessboard minutiously, preparing for what will be his real intention: plotting in detail the coming revolution. In addition to setting up the board, he needs to cleanse the socialist movement, which agrees with him on the analysis of capitalism, which only reiterates, after all, what Marx explained in equally tedious prose decades previous. Lenin does not even bother with Marx’s preoccupation with the alienation of worker from product. For Marx, this alienation brought about by automation must be combatted in order for communism to be built. Lenin couldn’t care less about how workers feel. Let’s make the Revolution, then automate everything, and, in the end, everyone will feel better.9 Tzara would rather be the object of violent ridicule than the cause of a yawn. “Every act is a cerebral revolver shot—both the insignificant gesture and the decisive movement are attacks.”10 That’s invigorating, but is it true? The man he’s playing chess with will make sure that it isn’t, for a century at least. He’ll leave a trail of corpses from Russia to Japan to Europe and beyond, to prove Tzara wrong. Not every act is cerebral: some acts, like a real pistol shot, are repetitious, monotonous, mindless, set in motion by a barked order. Tzara, the revolutionary poet, is playing chess with Lenin, a mass-murdering ideologue. The winner will win the world, a prize neither is thinking about in 1916.

Their projects were as different as their game, but the feeling that the world was unjust was in both of them like a root. We will go back and forth in time to check various moves and consider some possibilities. Although our sympathies are with Dada, we are not all that sure about the outcome of the game. You will notice that we have retained the alphabet and ordered the Guide alphabetically. This is also a book, so pages are conventionally numbered. This may very well be the last (necessary or unnecessary) book, so we scrupulously observed all the conventions we could remember, typographical, grammatical, anal, oral, and chronological. With a tip of the hat to the kabbalah, we are working against (and for) time and amnesia. The waters of oblivion are rising, memory is as fragile and thin as matter in a black-hole universe, but as Tristan Tzara said, “Dada is against the high cost of living.” Lenin was against that too, but since he thought he’d found the villain, he was going to do something about it. We can’t do anything about it, so we will make this cheap and painless.



1. A longer discussion on borders and aesthetics may be in order here: I refer the reader to my two earlier texts The Disappearance of the Outside (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1999) and “before the storm: geographers in new orleans,” a discussion of anarchist geography published in the book Jealous Witness (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2008). For now, suffice it to say that the notion of “privately constructed borders” is an extension of the Republican impulse to privatize everything, from health care to prisons. Borders today are largely imaginary: the Mexican-American border, for instance, runs through every major American city, wherever illegal immigrants go for work. The “border” is a metaphor that separates the so-called legal entity from the “paperless” one. In this sense, constructing borders will eventually be a full-time occupation for anyone involved in proving herm (see n. 4 below) legality, while the aesthetics will be simply the manner in which the entity constructs the argument. Anyone who wants to be “legal” will eventually want to be “legally elegant,” that is, as aesthetically concise as the law itself. As for “pocket nukes,” these will most certainly be available to the public under the Second Amendment, because they are already in the U.S. arsenal. In the matter of “art student” squads searching people for illegal nukes, the author hopes that he’s being ironic, but not really sure. He is most definitely not ironic about the zones of “medicated liberty” or about medications of any sort. In fact, he is going to swallow a pill right now in order to continue the utopian enterprise of typing.


2. Hippies were often misconstrued as being antimaterialistic and Zen inclined, a misconception aided by poets Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, Diane di Prima, and Philip Whalen, who were Zen trained. In fact, the baroque imagination of LSD led most young counterculturists away from emptiness and toward fulsome teeming matters like instant communication, better bodies, cosmetics, immortality, and youth potions, all of which translated two decades later into the internet and biotech.


3. The Dada Painters and Poets, an anthology edited by Robert Motherwell (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1951). From the introduction by Jack Flamm, p. 56.


4. Pronoun problem solved in favor of “herm” as opposed to s/he or he/her, because the word is the first part of “hermaphrodite,” which, as will be seen, is both a Dada desideratum and an affirmation of totality.


5. This text discusses two answers to the question What is that motor?


6. “Dada Manifesto of 1918,” from Seven Dada Manifestoes and Lampisteries, with llustrations by Francis Picabia, trans. Barbara Wright (London: John Calder; New York: Riverrun Press, 1981).


7. Essential Works of Lenin, What Is to Be Done? and Other Writings, ed. Henry M. Christman (New York: Bantam Books, 1966). Lenin wrote the essay we quoted from in Zurich, early in 1916; it appeared in St. Petersburg in September 1917 as “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.”


8. “To My Reader” by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Robert Lowell, in The Flowers of Evil, ed. Jackson Mathews (New York: New Directions, 1955).


9. It has been noted that “Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, which do present this utterly brilliant analysis of the alienation (Entfremdung in the original) of workers under capitalism . . . were completely unknown until they were first published in 1932 by the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. The first English  translation only appeared in 1959. They have been absolutely central to the emergence of a critical (i.e., non-Stalinist, non-SPD-like) Marxism from the 1960s onward, but were completely unknown to Lenin. I’m not even sure Entfremdung appears in any of Marx’s later writings, as he himself turned more to the economic analysis of capitalism and away from the more philosophical (and Hegel-influenced) critique of his early years.” This may be so, but here we take the Dada approach of assuming that even if Lenin had read those notes by Marx, he would have had neither the time nor the inclination to follow the implications that seduced neomarxists in the 1960s.


“born to become a cult object”—umberto eco’s casablanca, or a deep-structured carnival of archetypes


Umberto Eco, "Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage"


Umberto Eco (b. 1929) was born in Allesandra, Italy, and studied at the University of Turin. He has taught at universities in Turin, Milan, Florence and Bologna, and is a frequent academic visitor to the United States. In 1981, he achieved international fame with his novel, The Name of the Rose, which was both a bestseller and a literary success. Before that, he had established himself as an authority in the fields or semiotics, cultural studies and literary theory, with such publications as A Theory of Semiotics (1976) [first published in Italy 1975] and The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1981) [1979].


Semiotics is the general science of signs, of which linguistics, according to Saussure, is a subdivision. One consequence of this way of looking at language has been to encourage comparative study of literary and visual media, especially in the area of narrative. Another has been to break down the traditional prejudice of the custodians of "high culture" against the products of popular or mass culture. These tendencies are exhibited very clearly in Eco’s work, which is notable for its broad range of illustration and eclectic methodology. He is interested in the semiotics of blue jeans or the Superman story as in the dense polysemy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and this, combined with a lively, with style, make him one of the most accessible of critics in this structuralist tradition.


In "Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage," he turns his attention on one of the popular classics of Hollywood cinema, reading off its multiple meanings in a manner reminiscent of Roland Barthes. In the famous Humphrey Bogart — Ingrid Bergman movie, Eco suggests, filmic archetypes (or clichés, as a more élitist critic might call them) are multiple to the point where they begin to "talk among themselves" and generate an intoxication excess of signification. This process, by which kitsch, in its reception by a finely attune audience, can allegedly achieve something approximating the sublimity of classic art, is a recurrent theme and subject of controversy in discussions of postmodernism.


"Casablance," first published in this form in 1984, is reprinted here from a collection of Eco’s occasional and journalistic essays, Faith in Fakes (1986) (published in the United States and (as a paperback) in Britain under the title, Travels in Hyperreality).


—David Lodge



"Casablanca: Cult movies and intertextual collage"




"Was that artillery fire, or is it my heart pounding?"1 Whenever Casablanca2 is shown, at this point the audience reacts with an enthusiasm usually reserved for football. Sometimes a single word is enough: fans cry every time Bogey says "kid." Frequently the spectators quote the best lines before the actors say them.


According to traditional standards in aesthetics, Casablanca is not a work of art, if such an expression still has a meaning. In any case, if the films of Dreyer, Eisenstein, or Antonioni are works of art, Casablanca represents a very modest aesthetic achievement. It is a hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly, its characters are psychologically incredible, its actors act in a mannered way. Nevertheless, it is a great example of cinematic discourse, a palimpsest for future students of twentieth-century religiosity, a paramount laboratory for semiotic research into textual strategies. Moreover, it has become a cult movie.


What are the requirements for transforming a book or a movie into a cult object? The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared expertise. Naturally all these elements characters and episodes) must have some archetypical appeal, as we shall see. One can ask and answer questions about the various subway stations of New York or Paris only if these spots have become or have been assumed as mythical areas and such names as Canarsie Line or Vincennes-Neuilly stand not only for physical places but become the catalyzers of collective memories.


Curiously enough, a book can also inspire a cult even though it is a great work of art: both The Three Musketeers and The Divine Comedy rank among the cult books; and there are more trivia games among the fans of Dante than among the fans of Dumas. I suspect that a cult movie, on the contrary, must display some organic imperfections. It seems that the boastful Rio Bravo is a cult movie and the great Stagecoach is not.


I think that in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole. In the case of a book one can unhinge it, so to speak, physically, reducing it to a series of excerpts. A movie, on the contrary, must be already ramshackle, rickety, unhinged in itself. A perfect movie, since it cannot be reread every time we want, from the point we choose, as happens with a book, remains inour memory as a whole, in the form of a central idea or emotion; only an unhinged movie survives as a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs. It should display not one central idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness.


However, it must have some quality. Let me say that it can be ramshackle from the production point of view (in that nobody knew exactly what was going to be done next) — as happened evidently with the Rocky Horror Picture Show — but it must display certain textual features, in the sense that, outside the conscious control of its creators, it becomes a sort of textual syllabus, a living example of living textuality. Its addressee must suspect it is not true that works are created by their authors. Works are created by works, texts are created by texts, all together they speak to each other independently of the intention of their authors. A cult movie is the proof that, as literature comes from literature, cinema comes from cinema.


Which elements, in a movie, can be separated from the whole and adored for themselves? In order to go on with this analysis of Casablanca I should use some important semiotic categories, such as the ones (provided by the Russian Formalists)3 of theme and motif. I confess I find it very difficult to ascertain what the various Russian Formalists meant by motif. If — as Veselovsky says — a motif is the simplest narrative unit, then one wonders why ‘fire from heaven’ should belong to the same category as ‘the persecuted maid’ (since the former can be represented by an image, while the latter requires a certain narrative development).


It would be interesting to follow Tomashevsky and to look in Casablanca for free or tied and for dynamic or static motifs. We should distinguish between more or less universal narrative functions a la Propp4, visual stereotypes like the Cynic Adventurer, and more complex archetypical situations like the Unhappy Love. I hope someone will do this job, but here I will assume, more prudently (and borrowing the concept from research into Artificial Intelligence) the more flexible notion of "frame."


In The Role of the Reader I distinguished between common and intertextual frames. I meant by "common frame" data-structures for representing stereotyped situations such as dining at a restaurant or going to the railway station; in other words, a sequence of actions more or less coded by our normal experience. And by "intertextual frames" I meant stereotyped situations derived from preceding textual tradition and recorded by our encyclopedia, such as, for example, the standard duel between the sheriff and the bad guy or the narrative situation in which the hero fights the villain and wins, or more macroscopic textual situations, such as the story of the vierge souillée [dishonoured virgin] or the classic recognition scene (Bakhtin considered it a motif, in the sense of a chronotope).5 We could distinguish between stereotyped intertextual frames (for instance, the Drunkard Redeemed by Love) and stereotyped iconographical units (for instance, the Evil Nazi). But since even these iconographical units, when they appear in a movie, if they do not directly elicit an action, at least suggest its possible development, we can use the notion of intertextual frame to cover both.


Moreover, we are interested in finding those frames that not only are recognizable by the audience as belonging to a sort of ancestral intertextual tradition but that also display a particular fascination. "A suspect who eludes a passport control and is shot by the police" is undoubtedly an intertextual frame but it does not have a "magic" flavor. Let me address intuitively the idea of ‘magic’ frame. Let me define as "magic" those frames that, when they appear in a movie and can be separated from the whole, transform this movie into a cult object. In Casablanca we find more intertextual frames than "magic" intertextual frames. I will call the latter "intertextual archetypes."


The term "archetype" does not claim to have any particular psychoanalytic or mythic connotation,6 but serves only to indicate a preestablished and frequently reappearing narrative situation, cited or in some way recycled by innumerable other texts and provoking in the addressee a sort of intense emotion accompanied by the vague feeling of a déjà vu,7  that everybody yearns to see again. I would not say that an intertextual archetype is necessarily "universal." It can belong to a rather recent textual tradition, as with certain topoi of slapstick comedy. It is sufficient to consider it as a topos or standard situation that manages to be particularly appealing to a given cultural area or a historical period.


The making of Casablanca


"Can I tell you a story?" Ilse asks. Then she adds: "I don’t know the finish yet." Rick says: "Well, go on, tell it. Maybe one will come to you as you go along." Rick’s line is a sort of epitome of Casablanca itself. According to Ingrid Bergman, the film was apparently being made up at the same time that it was being shot. Until the last moment not even Michael Curtiz knew whether Ilse would leave with Rick or with Victor, and Ingrid Bergman seems so fascinatingly mysterious because she did not know at which man she was to look with greater tenderness.


This explains why, in the story, she does not, in fact, choose her fate: she is chosen.


When you don’t know how to deal with a story, you put stereotyped situations in it because you know that they, at least, have already worked elsewhere. Let us take a marginal but revealing example. Each time Laszlo orders something to drink (and it happens four times) he changes his choice: (1) Cointreau, (2) cocktail, (3) cognac, and (4) whisky (he once drinks champagne but he does not ask for it). Why such confusing and confused drinking habits for a man endowed with an ascetic temper? There is no psychological reason. My guess is that each time Curtiz was simply quoting, unconsciously, similar situations in other movies and trying to provide a reasonably complete repetition of them.


Thus one is tempted to read Casablanca as T. S. Eliot read Hamlet, attributing its fascination not to the fact that it was a successful work (actually he considered it one of Shakespeare’s less fortunate efforts) but to the imperfection of its composition. He viewed Hamlet as the result of an unsuccessful fusion of several earlier versions of the story, and so the puzzling ambiguity of the main character was due to the author’s difficulty in putting together different topoi.


So both public and critics find Hamlet beautiful because it is interesting, but believe it is interesting because it is beautiful.


On a smaller scale the same thing happened to Casablanca. Forced to improvise a plot, the authors mixed a little of everything, and everything they chose came from a repertoire that had stood the test of time. When only a few of these formulas are used, the result is simply kitsch. But when the repertoire of stock formulas is used wholesale, then the result is an architecture like Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia:8 the same vertigo, the same stroke of genius.


Stop by stop


Every story involves one or more archetypes. To make a good story a single archetype is usually enough. But Casablanca is not satisfied with that. It uses them all.


It would be nice to identify our archetypes scene by scene and shot by shot, stopping the tape at every relevant step. Every time I have scanned Casablanca with very cooperative research groups, the review has taken many hours. Furthermore when a team starts this kind of game, the instances of stopping the videotape increase proportionally with the size of the audience. Each member of the teamsees something that the others have missed, and many of them start to find in the movie even memories of movies made after Casablanca — evidently the normal situation for a cult movie, suggesting that perhaps the best deconstructive readings should be made of unhinged texts (or that deconstruction is simply a way of breaking up texts). However, I think that the first twenty minutes of the film represent a sort of review of the principal archetypes. Once they have been assembled, without any synthetic concern, then the story starts to suggest a sort of savage syntax of the archetypical elements and organizes them in multileveled oppositions. Casablanca looks like a musical piece with an extraordinarily long overture, where every theme is exhibited according to a monodic line. Only later does the symphonic work take place. In a way the first twenty minutes could be analyzed by a Russian Formalist and the rest by a Greimasian.9 Let me then try only a sample analysis of the first part. I think that a real text-analytical study of Casablanca is still to be made, and I offer only some hints to future teams of researchers, who will carry out, someday, a complete reconstruction of its deep textual structure.


1. First, African music, then the Marseillaise. Two different genres are evoked: adventure movie and patriotic movie.


2. Third genre. The globe: Newsreel. The voice even suggests the news report. Fourth genre: the odyssey of refugees. Fifth genre: Casablanca and Lisbon are, traditionally, hauts lieux [favourite places] for international intrigues. Thus in two minutes five genres are evoked.


3. Casablanca-Lisbon. Passage to the Promised Land (Lisbon-America). Casablanca is the Magic Door. We still do not know what the Magic Key is or by which Magic Horse one can reach the Promised Land.


4. "Wait, wait, wait." To make the passage one must submit to a Test. The Long Expectation. Purgatory situation.


5. "Deutschland über Alles." The German anthem introduces the theme of Barbarians.


6. The Casbah. Pépé le Moko. Confusion, robberies, violence, and repression.


7. Pétain (Vichy) vs. the Cross of Lorraine. See at the end the same opposition closing the story: Eau de Vichy vs. Choice of the Resistance. War Propaganda movie.


8. The Magic Key: the visa. It is around the winning of the Magic Key that passions are unleashed. Captain Renault mentioned: he is the Guardian of the Door, or the boatman of the Acheron to be conquered by a Magic Gift (money or sex).


9. The Magic Horse: the airplane. The airplane flies over Rick’s Café Américain, thus recalling the Promised Land of which the Café is the reduced model.


10. Major Strasser shows up. Theme of the Barbarians, and their emasculated slaves. "Je suis l’empire à la fin de la décadence/Qui regarde passer les grands barbares blancs/En composant des acrostiques indolents. . . ."10


11. "Everybody comes to Rick’s." By quoting the original play,11 Renault introduces

the audience to the Café. The interior: Foreign Legion (each character has a different nationality and a different story to tell, and also his own skeleton in the closet), Grand Hotel (people come and people go, and nothing ever happens), Mississippi River Boat, New Orleans Brothel (black piano player), the Gambling Inferno in Macao or Singapore (with Chinese women), the Smugglers’ Paradise, the Last Outpost on the Edge of the Desert. Rick’s place is a magic circle where everything can happen — love, death, pursuit, espionage, games of chance, seductions, music, patriotism. Limited resources and the unity of place, due to the theatrical origin of the story, suggested an admirable condensation of events in a single setting. One can identify the usual paraphernalia of at least ten exotic genres.


12. Rick slowly shows up, first by synecdoche (his hand), then by metonymy (the check).12 The various aspects of the contradictory (plurifilmic) personality of Rick are introduced: the Fatal Adventurer, the Self-Made Businessman (money is money), the Tough Guy from a gangster movie, Our Man in Casablanca (international intrigue), the Cynic. Only later he will be characterized also as the Hemingwayan Hero (he helped the Ethiopians and the Spaniards against fascism). He does not drink. This undoubtedly represents a nice problem, for later Rick must play the role of the Redeemed Drunkard and he has to be made a drunkard (as a Disillusioned Lover) so that he can be redeemed. But Bogey’s face sustains rather well this unbearable number of contradictory psychological features.


13. The Magic Key, in person: the transit letters. Rick receives them from Peter Lorre and from this moment everybody wants them: how to avoid thinking of Sam Spade and of The Maltese Falcon?13


14. Music Hall. Mr. Ferrari. Change of genre: comedy with brilliant dialogue. Rick is now the Disenchanted Lover, or the Cynical Seducer.


15. Rick vs. Renault. The Charming Scoundrels.


16. The theme of the Magic Horse and the Promised Land returns.


17. Roulette as the Game of Life and Death (Russian Roulette that devours fortunes and can destroy the happiness of the Bulgarian Couple, the Epiphany of Innocence).


The Dirty Trick: cheating at cards. At this point the Trick is an Evil one but later it will be a Good one, providing a way to the Magic Key for the Bulgarian bride.


18. Arrest and tentative escape of Ugarte. Action movie.


19. Laszlo and Ilse. The Uncontaminated Hero and La Femme Fatale. Both in white — always; clever opposition with Germans, usually in black. In the meeting at Laszlo’s table, Strasser is in white, in order to reduce the opposition. However, Strasser and Ilse are Beauty and the Beast. The Norwegian agent: spy movie.


20. The Desperate Lover and Drink to Forget.


21. The Faithful Servant and his Beloved Master. Don Quixote and Sancho.


22. Play it (again, Sam). Anticipated quotation of Woody Allen.14


23. The long flashback begins. Flashback as a content and flashback as a form. Quotation of the flashback as a topical stylistic device. The Power of Memory. Last Day in Paris. Two Weeks in Another Town. Brief Encounter. French movie of the 1930’s (the station as quai des brumes15).


24. At this point the review of the archetypes is more or less complete. There is still the moment when Rick plays the Diamond in the Rough (who allows the Bulgarian bride to win),16 and two typical situations: the scene of the Marseillaise and the two lovers discovering that Love Is Forever. The gift to the Bulgarian bride (along with the enthusiasm of the waiters), the Marseillaise, and the Love Scene are three instances of the rhetorical figure of Climax, as the quintessence of Drama (each climax coming obviously with its own anticlimax).


Now the story can elaborate upon its elements.


The first symphonic elaboration comes with the second scene around the roulette table. We discover for the first time that the Magic Key (that everybody believed to be only purchasable with money) can in reality be given only as a Gift, a reward for Purity. The Donor will be Rick. He gives (free) the visa to Laszlo. In reality there is also a third Gift, the Gift Rick makes of his own desire, sacrificing himself. Note that there is no gift for Ilse, who, in some way, even though innocent, has betrayed two men. The Receiver of the Gift is the Uncontaminated Laszlo. By becoming the Donor, Rick meets Redemption. No one impure can reach the Promised Land. But Rick and Renault redeem themselves and can reach the other Promised Land, not America (which is Paradise) but the Resistance, the Holy War (which is a glorious Purgatory). Laszlo flies directly to Paradise because he has already suffered the ordeal of the underground. Rick, moreover, is not the only one who accepts sacrifice. The idea of sacrifice pervades the whole story, Ilse’s sacrifice in Paris when she abandons the man she loves to return to the wounded hero, the Bulgarian bride’s sacrifice when she is prepared to give herself to help her husband, Victor’s sacrifice when he is prepared to see Ilse with Rick to guarantee her safety.


The second symphonic elaboration is upon the theme of the Unhappy Love. Unhappy for Rick, who loves Ilse and cannot have her. Unhappy for Ilse, who loves Rick and cannot leave with him. Unhappy for Victor, who understands that he has not really kept Ilse. The interplay of unhappy loves produces numerous twists and turns. In the beginning Rick is unhappy because he does not understand why Ilse leaves him. Then Victor is unhappy because he does not understand why Ilse is attracted to Rick. Finally Ilse is unhappy because she does not understand why Rick makes her leave with her husband.


These unhappy loves are arranged in a triangle. But in the normal adulterous triangle there is a Betrayed Husband and a Victorious Lover, while in this case both men are betrayed and suffer a loss.


In this defeat, however, an additional element plays a part, so subtly that it almost escapes the level of consciousness. Quite subliminally a hint of Platonic Love is established. Rick admires Victor, Victor is ambiguously attracted by the personality of Rick, and it seems that at a certain point each of the two is playing out the duel of sacrifice to please the other. In any case, as in Rousseau’s Confessions, the woman is here an intermediary between the two men. She herself does not bear any positive value (except, obviously, Beauty). The whole story is a virile affair, a dance of seduction between MaleHeroes.


From now on the film carries out the definitive construction of its intertwined triangles, to end with the solution of the Supreme Sacrifice and of the Redeemed Bad Guys. Note that, while the redemption of Rick has long been prepared, the redemption of Renault is absolutely unjustified and comes only because this was the final requirement the movie had to meet in order to be a perfect Epos of Frames.


The archetypes hold a reunion


Casablanca is a cult movie precisely because all the archetypes are there, because each actor repeats a part played on other occasions, and because human beings live not "real" life but life as stereotypically portrayed in previous films: Casablanca carries the sense of déjà vu to such a degree that the addressee is ready to see in it what happened after it as well. It is not until To Have and Have Not that Bogey plays the role of the Hemingway hero, but here he appears "already" loaded with Hemingwayesque connotations simply because Rick fought in Spain. Peter Lorre trails reminiscences of Fritz Lang, Conrad Veidt’s German officer emanates a faint whiff of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He is not a ruthless, technological Nazi; he is a nocturnal and diabolical Caesar.


Casablanca became a cult movie because it is not one movie. It is "movies." And this is the reason it works, in defiance of any aesthetic theory.


For it stages the powers of Narrativity in its natural state, before art intervenes to tame it. This is why we accept the way that characters change mood, morality, and psychology from one moment to the next, that conspirators cough to interrupt the conversation when a spy is approaching, that bar girls cry at the sound of the Marseillaise . . .


When all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb Homeric profundity. Two clichés make us laugh but a hundred clichés move us because we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion.


Just as the extreme of pain meets sensual pleasure, and the extreme of perversion borders on mystical energy, so too the extreme of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime.


Nobody would have been able to achieve such a cosmic result intentionally. Nature has spoken in place of men. This, alone, is a phenomenon worthy of veneration.


The charged cult


The structure of Casablanca helps us understand what happens in later movies born in order to become cult objects.


What Casablanca does unconsciously, other movies will do with extreme intertextual awareness, assuming also that the addressee is equally aware of their purposes. These are "postmodern" movies, where the quotation of the topos is recognized as the only way to cope with the burden of our filmic encyclopedic expertise. Think for instance of Bananas,17 with its explicit quotation of the Odessa steps from Eisenstein Potemkin. In Casablanca one enjoys quotation even though one does not recognize it, and those who recognize it feel as if they all belonged to the same little clique. In Bananas those who do not catch the topos cannot enjoy the scene and those who do simply feel smart.


Another (and different) case is the quotation of the topical duel between the black Arab giant with his scimitar and the unprotected hero, in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you remember, the topos suddenly turns into another one, and the unprotected hero becomes in a second The Fastest Gun in the West. Here the ingenuous viewer can miss the quotation though his enjoyment will then be rather slight; and real enjoyment is reserved for the people accustomed to cult movies, who know the whole repertoire of "magic" archetypes. In a way, Bananas works for cultivated "cinephiles" while Raiders works for Casablanca-addicts. The third case is that of E.T., when the alien is brought outside in a Halloween disguise and meets the dwarf coming from The Empire Strikes Back. You remember that E.T. starts and runs to cheer him (or it). Here nobody can enjoy the scene if he does not share, at least, the following elements of intertextual competence:


(1) He must know where the second character comes from (Spielberg citing Lucas),18

(2) He must know something about the links between the two directors, and

(3) He must know that both monsters have been designed by Rambaldi and that, consequently, they are linked by some form of brotherhood.


The required expertise is not only intercinematic, it is intermedia, in the sense that the addressee must know not only other movies but all the mass media gossip about movies. This third example presupposes a "Casablanca universe" in which cult has become the normal way of enjoying movies. Thus in this case we witness an instance of metacult, or of cult about cult — a Cult Culture.


It would be semiotically uninteresting to look for quotations of archetypes in Raiders or in Indiana Jones: they were conceived within a metasemiotic culture, and what the semiotician can find in them is exactly what the directors put there. Spielberg and Lucas are semiotically nourished authors working for a culture of instinctive semioticians.


With Casablanca the situation is different. So Casablanca explains Raiders, but Raiders does not explain Casablanca. At most it can explain the new ways in which Casablanca will be received in the next years.


It will be a sad day when a too smart audience will read Casablanca as conceived

by Michael Curtiz after having read Calvino19 and Barthes. But that day will come. Perhaps we have been able to discover here, for the last time, the Truth.


Après nous, le déluge.20



NOTES (from David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader)


1 Like the more famous line, "Play it again, Sam" (actually "Play it, Sam") this quotation is not quite accurate. Ingrid Bergman’s words in the film are: "Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding?"


2 The action of Casablanca (made in 1942, directed by Michael Curtiz) takes place early in the Second World War, when Morocco was controlled by the Vichy French government. The American Rick (Humphrey Bogart) runs a café-night club in Casablanca which is a place of passage for refugees trying to get exit visas to the United States, usually by bribing the Prefect of Police, Renault. A Czech Resistance leader, Victor Laszlo, turns up with his wife, Ilse (Ingrid Bergman), who had a love affair with Rick in Paris just before the German Occupation, when she believed her husband to be dead. On discovering that he was alive, she parted from Rick without explanation. Bitterly hurt by this experience, Rick is at first hostile to Ilse in Casablanca, but on learning the truth, and that she still loves him, chivalrously helps her and Laszlo to escape the clutches of the Gestapo chief Strasser, at considerable risk to himself. In the final sequence, Rick and the implausibly reformed Renault go off to join the Free French.


3 A reference to what were in effect two Russian groupings that flourished in the pre- and immediately post-revolutionary years, the Moscow Linguistic Circle, which included Roman Jakobson (see headnote to essay, p. 30, in from David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader (1998)), and the Opoyaz group based in St Petersburg, including Viktor Shklovsky. Motifs were particularly memorable and "defamiliarized" symbols to be considered aside from their position within narrative frameworks or "themes."


4 Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (1928).


5 Chronotope is a term coined by Mikhail Bakhtin to analyse the ways in which time and space are represented and related in narrative.


6 As it does in the work of Carl Jung and critics influenced by him, such as Maud Bodkin and Northrop Frye. (See sections 14, 15 and 31 of Lodge (ed.), 20th Century Literary Criticism.)


7 Something already seen.


8 Antonio Gaudí (1852-1926), Spanish art nouveau architect best known for his (still uncompleted) Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona.


9 See note 3, p. 342. above.


10 "I am the empire at the end of its decline/Watching the great white barbarians pass/While composing idle acrostics." (I do not know the source of this quotation.)


11 Casablanca was based on an unproduced stage play entitled, Everybody Comes to Rick’s.


12 See note 1, p. 56, above.


13 Another Hollywood classic, made in 1934, also starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre.


14 Play It Again, Sam is the title of a film made by Woody Allen in 1972, about a neurotic film critic obsessed with Humphrey Bogart.


15 Literally, "quay (or railway platform) of fogs," this was the title of a classic French film, directed by Marcel Carné in 1938.


16 To be precise, Rick ensures that her husband wins at the roulette table, thus ensuring that the couple can buy their exit visas from Renault for cash, instead of the girl having to sleep with the police chief to obtain them.


17 Film made by Woody Allen in 1971.


18 E.T. was made by Stephen Spielberg; The Empire Strikes Backby George Lucas.


19 Italo Calvino ( 1923-86), Italian experimental novelist.


20 "After us, the deluge" — Proverbial expression variously attributed to Madame la Pompadour and Louis XV of France.



—from David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Harlow, England: Longman, 1988.