Even just a few years ago, Best Of lists tended to turn up almost solely in December; if a reader, his enthusiasm for such attempts at ranking having long since palled, could grit his teeth through the holidays, he could probably live without suffering the blight of reverse-ordered numbers for another eleven months.
Sadly, that is no longer the case. The oft-creepy hive mind that is the Internet seems in recent years to have decided to deal with its fundamentally non-hierarchical, wide-open structure by attempting to assign every possible production of human culture a rank of some sort. The Victorian mania for classification had nothing on us–hell, somewhere out there in the hinterlands of Serverfarmia you can probably find an explanation of why the Great Chain of Being is only like the fourth-best potentially racist natural-history-based theory of social organization ever to be devised by humanity, nipping Nazism (Uh, derivative?) by a nose but unable to topple some little-known priestly-caste system thought to obtain among the ancient Holothurians.
Readers thus beset by lists have some solace this month: the opening article in the new issue of Cabinet, Number 37, is for you! Written by Triple Canopy editor Colby Chamberlain, it explores the results of a curious survey that were published in the March 1921 issue of a Paris journal, Litterature.
Conducted by Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault, the editors of the journal, the survey asked a group of writers and artists–most of them Dadaists, to rank “a reasonably comprehensive roster of the Western canon–from Alcibiades to Zola,” assigning numbers to signify their admiration of or disdain for the figures, which were then averaged. Chamberlain explains,
The rating system was rigged to favor disdain: admiration topped out at 20, yet aversion dipped as low as -25. Two of the judges themselves, Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault, garnered the highest scores, 16.85 and 16.30, respectively; Proust and Stravinsky each managed a perfect 0.
That may not sound like much, but it’s better than Jesus (-1.54), Homer (-6.81), or Walt Whitman (-8.27). Even to note that, however, is to begin to fall once again into a mistake: the mistake of taking these rankings (or any rankings) seriously. As Chamberlain points out, this list is a wonderful counter to the top-tens of our time precisely because it can’t be taken seriously. He writes, “I’ve come to think of this chart, entitled ‘Liquidation,’ as a preemptive parody,” which, in the Dada context, seems entirely correct.
There’s much more in the article, including lots of great detail about the split among the Dadaists that, in part, precipitated this list–enough to make Chamberlain’s piece alone well worth seeking out the magazine for. And that’s to say nothing of the many other odd and often amusing byways of thought and culture explored by the rest of its contents, many of which, methinks, are likely to interest Constant Conversation readers.
By the way, Dante gets a -1.54.Verlaine? -11.90. But Swfit? Oh, he does well: 11.09. A vicious wit appealed to the Dadaists, it seems.