Nonsense is hard to do

It is a wonder that I don’t regard the nonsense writings of the French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp as a kind of personal holy grail. Beginning in adolescence, non-sequitur, absurdity, and nonsense thrilled me in ways that meaning, even clever meaning, only ever disappointed.

I was drawn to the early films (especially Take the Money and Run) and the books (Getting Even, Without Feathers) of Woody Allen. Monty Python of course provided an uncommonly pure supply of the stuff, especially on such LPs as Matching Tie and Handkerchief and Another Monty Python Record.

But no popular comedy, even Allen and Python, was ever quite nonsensical enough for my satisfaction. It would frequently dawn on me that moments I had delighted in as pure nonsense without reason were actually sensible and explicable humor, usually sex jokes, puns, or topical barbs that I had simply missed. It was deflating and disillusioning to suddenly understand what they meant. And I figured out early that no one — no one — would ever be quite silly enough for my tastes.


A lively, disruptive artist most famous, perhaps, for a urinal, Duchamp tried his hand at writing pure nonsense in grammatical forms. He found it very difficult. If he let down his guard even a little, sparks of connection, meaning and sense kept happening on his watch. If you are a musician, try playing perfectly “out” some time — sounding only “wrong” notes relative to the chords of the song. It is difficult, if not impossible.

I am not sure why Duchamp’s impressive, clinically pure nonsense writings do so little for me, or rather why they don’t strike as that thing I have always been looking for. I guess the magic of nonsense to me had everything to do with the expectation of meaning and its derailment. In any case, I moved on and learned to appreciate adult meaning. But there hath passed a glory from the earth.


Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.