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From the moment of its inception in 1916 Zurich, the Dada movement has inspired a seemingly compulsive drive to documentation. During this avant-garde movement’s short lifespan, its members produced anthologies and almanacs collecting and canonizing their most significant works. Many Dadaists later published their own accounts of the movement in the form of memoirs, diaries, and collections of essays or letters, often strongly flavored by feuds and ideological oppositions. The intervening years have spawned no shortage of secondary literature on the movement, ranging from anthologies to museum catalogs to works—such as Peter Bürger’s classic Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974; English translation 1984), or more recent books such as Richard Sheppard’s Modernism-Dada-Postmodernism (2000) and Matthew Biro’s The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin (2009)—that advance broader claims for the movement’s significance in the history of modern art and culture. In the past decade alone, the breadth of Dada scholarship available in English has expanded appreciably thanks to books such [End Page 473] as Marius Hentea’s TaTa Dada: The Real Life and Celestial Adventures of Tristan Tzara (2014) and Tom Sandqvist’s Dada East: The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire (2006), both of which add significant new background about the movement’s Romanian roots, and Ruth Hemus’s Dada’s Women (2009) and Paula K. Kamenish’s Mamas of Dada: Women of the European Avant-Garde (2015), which address the still-undervalued contributions of female Dadaists.
Amidst this abundance of publications, it is startling to realize that until now there has been no comprehensive, English-language history of the Dada movement in all of its international incarnations. While readers of French have Marc Dachy’s Dada et les dadaïsmes (1994), Anglophone offerings have historically focused on one Dada center or another, as is the case with Francis M. Naumann’s New York Dada 1915–23 (1994), Michael White’s Generation Dada: The Berlin Avant-Garde and the First World War (2013), or Michel Sanouillet’s Dada in Paris (2009), first published in French in 1965 and only recently translated into English. This is the significant gap that Jed Rasula seeks to fill in his ambitious and accessible history Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century. Taking a “big umbrella” approach, Rasula covers Dada’s major European centers of Zurich, Berlin, and Paris, with a trans-Atlantic detour to the developments retrospectively dubbed “New York Dada”; he also spends ample time on the short-lived Dada Cologne, on Kurt Schwitters’s activity in Hanover, and on later Dada offshoots in Central and Eastern Europe, with a brief mention of Dada’s export to Japan. Additionally, Rasula’s history traces the emergence of other movements that Dada influenced or intersected with on its travels, most notably Surrealism and Constructivism.
This global approach naturally entails certain challenges; the movement took such widely disparate forms from city to city, from year to year, even from person to person, that it takes a steady hand to weave all of Dada’s fraying threads together into a finished tapestry. Rasula wisely acknowledges as much, describing the movement as “a tangle of vivid personalities intersecting at cross-purposes and in momentary alliances, variously taking up the Dada label” (xi). Consequently, and in welcome contrast to scholars who seek a single “essence” of Dada, Rasula largely shies away from broad generalizations about what Dada was or what it meant, preferring Tristan Tzara’s characterization of the movement as a “virgin microbe” which, in Rasula’s words, “pursued its infectious course, rousing scores of individuals with its feverish animation, inspiring fitful bursts of collective activity here and there” (215). This emphasis on the individuals who composed the movement is paramount throughout the book, as Rasula reiterates in his afterword, writing: “Yes, Dada was collective, historically speaking. But the individual prevailed, and this book has charted the divergent and idiosyncratic course of figures unparalleled in their individuality” (304). What...