FEATURE: Dylan, Dada and @Horse_ebooks – The Limits of Nonsense

“It’s not Dada that is nonsense—but the essence of our age that is nonsense.”—The Dadaists

There are a lot of spam accounts floating about on Twitter. If you’re even a semi-regular user of the service you’ll have no doubt encountered the appearance of new “followers” who turn out not to be fellow social medial converts charmed by your witty 140-character musings, but instead are computer-driven “bots” intent linking you to dating sites which require you to be unusually rash with the sharing of credit card details. Usually they vanish almost as quickly as they appeared. Then, as with anything, there are exceptions: One in particular is a spam account that people choose to follow.

@Horse_ebooks is a spam bot, designed by “some Russian guy” in order to sell e-books. The account has inspired a cult following, of sorts, not (just) because there’s a growing need for equestrian literature online. No, the attention is down to the frequently hilarious, often profound non-sequitirs the account spits out: usually one or two lines from one of said e-books, chosen at random, which has resulted in the likes of:


If I (didn’t have a Creative Writing degree and therefore) know better, I might even describe the automated writings of @Horse_ebooks as haikus. They have a comparable cadence and existential quality. They are also, more often than not, absolute nonsense. Profound nonsense.

As too were the lyrics of every Bob Dylan album from Bringing It All Back Home to Blonde on Blonde (so, every good one). And a large portion of the work of writers such as William Burroughs. Not to mention the majority of children’s nursery rhymes, “The Owl and the Pussy Cat” and Spike Milligan’s “The Ning Nang Nong” being particularly cogent examples.

So: people, on the whole, like nonsense. But how much nonsense are we willing to take? What is it that makes this:

Get sick, get well
Hang around a ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is goin’ to sell
Try hard, get barred
Get back, write braille
Get jailed, jump bail
Join the army, if you fail

brilliant, counter-cultural, stream-of-consciousness poetry, but this:

Wiggle ’til your high
Wiggle ’til your higher
Wiggle ’til you breath fire

in the words of Patrick Humphries, “worse than anything Dylan has ever recorded”? What makes the first season of Twin Peaks exciting, bizarre TV, but the second series cancellable clap-trap?

Until recently, my suggested reason people can accept one form of nonsense (or what seems to be nonsense) and not another, is similar to the reason people were fully on board for the first season of another weird TV show, Lost; then it came to light that the writers didn’t, in fact, have any real idea how the show was going to end, and they abandoned it in droves.

People want things that seem nonsensical, but whose meanings are perfectly clear for the artist who made them; at least, they want the illusion of comprehension on the artists’ part. Otherwise, it’s “lesser”, in a way. It’s not nonsense with some deeper meaning, it is just nonsense. And what good is nonsense on its own?

My explanation for why kids are accepting of nonsense poetry without giving it a second thought is two-fold:

  1. They’re kids, duh
  2. Our language receptors are still in development at a young age and, therefore, we’re less likely to think critically of things that appear grammatically incorrect or completely incomprehensible to the adult mind.

But what about the adult mind? The former explanation doesn’t really cut it in the Internet age. It certainly doesn’t explain the “success” of @Horse_ebooks, which is complete nonsense, and arguably the purest example of the Dadist cut-up technique of composition. We live in a post-Death of the Author world (sorry, Creative Writing degree rearing its pretentious, Patrick Marber-shaped head again) where, presumably, whoever is responsible for a text’s creation has no bearing on how that text is read.

The Internet is about providing one’s own context for things. That’s why YouTube videos of nonsense spoken by kids in news interviews are stumbled upon and become memes – which are then remixed and recreated endlessly – and why websites like this exist, and why something like @Horse_ebooks can be seen as providing a kind of fractured, existential poetry in its outpourings of randomly selected e-book quotations. Because that’s what people choose to see in these bits of nonsense that float about in our chaotic, random universe.

We’re about hundred years late, but as a culture we’ve caught onto what the Dadists were telling us: it’s “the essence of our age that is nonsense”. LMFAO have had chart hits like “Party Rock Anthem” (sample lyric: “Top jeans tattoo cause I’m rock ‘n’ roll / Half-black half-white, domino / Gain the money Oprah though / Yoooo!!”). There was a rom-com made a year or two back called Made of Honour, a pun which literally does not make sense. People are using the word “literally” when in fact they mean the exact opposite (I used it correctly, though, don’t worry). We live in the age of nonsense. It’s up to us what we make of it.

Maybe Dylan should re-release “Wiggle Wiggle”.


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