Hugo Ball Essay - Critical Essays

Ball, Hugo


Hugo Ball 1886-1927

German poet, novelist, dramatist, biographer, critic, and diarist.

Ball was a founding member of Zurich Dada. Together with the other members of the early Dada group who met at the celebrated Cabaret Voltaire—Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Richard Huelsenbeck, Marcel Janco, and others—Ball led a nihilistic revolt in arts and literature against the dominant, bourgeois social and aesthetic values of Western culture. Though he did not remain a part of the Dada collective for long, Ball wrote and delivered the “First Dadaist Manifesto” in 1916 and produced many expressionistic poems and experimental works, such as the novel Flametti oder vom Dandysmus der Armen (1918) and his diary Die Flucht aus der Zeit. Tagebücher 1912-1921 (1927; Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary), that are numbered among the most significant Dadaist writings. Following a conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1917, Ball also wrote several religious and political works of a more scholarly nature, including his polemical Zur Kritik der deutschen Intelligenz (1919; Critique of the German Intelligentsia).

Biographical Information

Ball was born in Pirmasens, Germany on 22 February 1886. His father was a shoe salesman, and his mother a profoundly religious woman, whose spirituality was to have a deep impact on Ball throughout his life. After completing high school, Ball became an apprentice leatherworker, acquiescing to his parents' desire that he focus on work rather than academics. Displeased with this occupation, he entered the University of Munich in 1906, where he studied philosophy and wrote a dissertation on Friedrich Nietzsche. His first published work, a satirical drama entitled Die Nase des Michelangelo (1911), was also written in Munich. Determined to pursue a career in the theater, he entered the Max Reinhardt School in Berlin, and between 1910 and 1914 attempted to support himself as an actor and director. Concurrently, Ball began to frequent the cafés of Berlin and Munich, associating with German artists and intellectuals. With the outbreak of war in 1914, Ball enthusiastically enlisted in the German military, but was soon discharged for health reasons. The following year, Ball and his wife, the artist and writer Emmy Hennings, moved to Switzerland. A period of desperate poverty followed, until Ball's transformation of the backroom of a Zurich café into a venue for avant-garde artists, poets, and musicians called Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. That year Ball, clad in a bizarre uniform made of painted cardboard, read an early “sound” poem before the collected audience at the café—an event generally associated with the initiation of the Zurich Dada movement. Ball's official involvement with Dada was relatively short-lived; he defected from the movement by July of 1917, after stating his belief that no attempt to form Dada into an artistic school should be made. During the ensuing decade, Ball produced his principal literary works, and contributed poems and essays to numerous literary journals. Ball died on 14 September 1927.

Major Works

Ball's earliest works include a number of expressionistic lyric poems first published in the journals Die Aktion, Die neue Kunst, and Die Revolution prior to 1915. “Der Henker” combines erotic and religious imagery in a chaotic and near-blasphemous display of the lustful excesses of modern European civilization. Written at the dawn of World War I, “Das Insekt” equates humanity with insects as it forwards the theme of impassioned self-destruction. Another segment of Ball's poetic work includes the so-called “sound” poems, which defy ordinary textual interpretation, and instead are designed to conjure rhythms and associations in the minds of listeners. For instance, Ball described the nonsense lyrics of “Karawane”—which features the line, “jolifanto bambla o falli bambla”—as evocative of the sounds of an elephant caravan. The experimental novel Tenderenda der Phantast, written between 1914 and 1920 but first published in 1967, lacks plot or characters, but is instead an inchoate blending of poetry and prose, religious imagery, and metaphysical musings concerning the artist's precarious place within modern society. Ball presents a similar theme in his more traditional novel Flametti oder vom Dandysmus der Armen (1918). The novel follows Flametti, the vagabond leader of a troupe of impoverished artists and performers, in his attempts to secure work; efforts that ultimately end in the band's dissolution. These early Dadaist works offer a considerable contrast to Ball's later writings, including his attack on German nationalism in Critique of the German Intelligentsia (later significantly revised and republished as Die Folgen der Reformation, 1924) and his Byzantinisches Christentum. Drei Heiligenleben (1923), which contains hagiographies of three Byzantine saints. Ball's other work includes his Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary, and a biography of his friend, the German writer Hermann Hesse.

Critical Reception

Critical evaluation of Ball's writing has generally focused on the intensely personal and subjective nature of his work, as well as the wide stylistic variety of his output. Some modern commentators have also noted the significant influence of Nietzschean thought on his writings, particularly in regard to irrationality and the modern collapse of traditional morality. Overall, Ball has been viewed as a seminal Dada figure, though critics continue to emphasize his idiosyncratic relationship to the movement. Rex W. Last has written, “for Ball, Dada represented the culmination of his revolt against external authority, and at the same time a means of breaking through the surface appearance to the realms of the spirit beyond. But Dada turned against him and threatened to destroy him.”

Principal Works

Die Nase des Michelangelo (drama) 1911

Der Henker von Brescia (drama) 1914

Flametti oder vom Dandysmus der Armen (novel) 1918

Zur Kritik der deutschen Intelligenz [Critique of the German Intelligentsia] (nonfiction) 1919

Byzantinisches Christentum. Drei Heiligenleben (nonfiction) 1923

Die Folgen der Reformation (nonfiction) 1924

Die Flucht aus der Zeit. Tagebücher 1912-1921 [Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary] (diary) 1927

Hermann Hesse. Sein Leben und sein Werk (biography) 1927

Briefe 1911-1927 (letters) 1957

Gesammelte Gedichte (poetry, novels, dramas, and diary) 1963

Tenderenda der Phantast (novel) 1967


Hugo Ball (essay date 1916)

SOURCE: “The First Dada Manifesto,” translated by Erdmute Wenzel White, in The Magic Bishop: Hugo Ball, Dada Poet by Erdmute Wenzel White, Camden House, 1998, pp. 228-29.

[In the following reprint of his “First Dada Manifesto,” originally delivered in 1916, Ball relates the significance of Dada.]

Dada is a new art movement. One can tell this from the fact that until now nobody knew a thing about it, and tomorrow everyone in Zurich is going to be talking about it. Dada comes from the dictionary. It is terribly simple. In French it means “hobby horse.” In German it means “so long,” “go fly a kite,” “I'll be seeing you sometime.” In Romanian: “Yes, indeed, you are right, that's it. But of course, yes, it's a deal.” And so forth.

An international word. Just a word, and the word a movement. Very easy to understand. Quite terribly simple. To make an art movement of it must mean that one wants to avoid complications. Dada psychology, Dada Germany cum indigestion and fog paroxysms, Dada literature, Dada bourgeoisie, and yourselves, most honored poets, who are always writing with words but never writing the word itself, who are always writing around the actual point. Dada world war without end, Dada revolution without beginning, Dada, you friends and also-poets, esteemed sirs, manufacturers, and evangelists Dada Tzara, Dada Hülsenbeck, Dada m'dada, Dada m'dada Dada mhm, dada dera dada, Dada Hue, Dada Tza.

How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying Dada. How does one become famous? By...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

Rex W. Last (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Hugo Ball: A Man in Flight from His Age,” in German Dadaist Literature: Kurt Schwitters, Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1973, pp. 62-115.

[In the following essay, Last surveys Ball's life and career, emphasizing “the variety of styles and forms which he adopted.”]

Of all the Dadaists, Hugo Ball was the one whose life was the most fraught with physical deprivation and inner tension, and torn between the most violent extremes. And yet, at first sight, it appears somewhat surprising that this should be so, for the usual image of Ball is that of a man reveling in the artistic revolution, rather than of an individual borne along upon a tide...

(The entire section is 19536 words.)

John Elderfield (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: An introduction to Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary, by Hugo Ball, edited by John Elderfield and translated by Ann Raimes, University of California Press, 1996, pp. xiii-xlvi.

[In the following introduction to Ball's journals, originally published in 1974, Elderfield details Ball's life, explores his relationship to the Dada movement, and evaluates his prose works.]

Die Flucht aus der Zeit, Hugo Ball's diaries for the years 1910-21, has long enjoyed the reputation of one of the seminal documents of the dada movement. Hans Richter has written that of all the dadaists only Ball has so precisely expressed the inner conflicts of that period, and that he...

(The entire section is 14652 words.)

Paul Auster (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Dada Bones,” in The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews, Sun & Moon Press, 1992, pp. 54-61.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1975, Auster considers Ball the principal force behind Dada.]

Of all the movements of the early avant-garde, Dada is the one that continues to say the most to us. Although its life was short—beginning in 1916 with the nightly spectacles at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, and ending effectively, if not officially, in 1922 with the riotous demonstrations in Paris against Tristan Tzara's play, Le Coeur à gaz—its spirit has not quite passed into the remoteness of history. Even now, more than fifty...

(The entire section is 2308 words.)

Philip Mann (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Ball and Nietzsche: A Study of the Influence of Nietzsche's Philosophy on Hugo Ball,” in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XVI, No. 4, October, 1980, pp. 293-307.

[In the following essay, Mann examines the impact of Friedrich Nietzsche's nihilism, observations on morality, emphasis on the irrational, and critique of modern culture on Ball's thought.]

When discussing Hugo Ball's life in his book Begegnungen, Siegfried Streicher (who had worked with Ball on the Freie Zeitung in Berne in 1917) comments on the great influence which Nietzsche's philosophy had on Ball. He writes: “Ball kam ganz aus der geistigen Essenz Nietzsches. Und er...

(The entire section is 6757 words.)

Anna Balakian (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “A Triptych of Modernism: Reverdy, Huidobro, and Ball,” in Modernism: Challenges and Perspectives, Monique Chefdor, Ricardo Quinones, and Albert Wachtel, eds., University of Illinois Press, 1986, pp. 111-27.

[In the following essay, Balakian explores the Modernist poetics of Ball, Vicente Huidobro, and Pierre Reverdy.]

Three poets of the early decades of this century shed light on the major paradoxes of modernism. I am not trying to establish this triptych to exercise random intertextuality nor as a basis for a study of influences. Geography separated these poets; the age connected them. From Paris to Zurich, to Santiago and Buenos Aires, the clocks were...

(The entire section is 7404 words.)

Anson Rabinbach (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: An introduction to Critique of the German Intelligentsia by Hugo Ball, translated by Brian L. Harris, Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. vii-xl.

[In the following essay, Rabinbach analyzes Ball's polemic against German nationalism in Critique of the German Intelligentsia, establishing the work's historical contexts and noting its themes and anti-Semitism.]


Hugo Ball's Critique of the German Intelligentsia is simultaneously a historical document and a provocation. A passionate indictment of the German intelligentsia for its chauvinism in the First World War, the Critique is also an extraordinary instance of the...

(The entire section is 12747 words.)

Erdmute Wenzel White (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “The Expressionist Poet—‘Realism of the Uninhibited’,” in The Magic Bishop: Hugo Ball, Dada Poet, Camden House, 1998, pp. 27-43.

[In the following essay, White explicates four of Ball's Expressionist poems, observing the ways in which these works “offer a compendium of styles and mannerisms and reflect the diversity of Ball's work.”]

Ball's poetic gift was given new impetus by theories that gained prevalence during his Munich years. These theories were in turn influenced by his work in the theater: in Munich he became an expressionist poet. Ball was a spectacular expressionist, given to manic exaltation. His poetry, much like Gottfried Benn's...

(The entire section is 7449 words.)

Further Reading


Allen, Roy F. “Zurich Dada, 1916-1919: The Proto-Phase of the Movement.” In Dada/Dimensions, edited by Stephen C. Foster, pp. 1-22. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1985.

Recounts Ball's involvement with and early departure from the short-lived Zurich Dada movement.

Bridgwater, Patrick. “Lichtenstein, Ball and Klemm.” In The German Poets of the First World War, pp. 62-95. London: Croon Helm, 1985.

Mentions Ball's early enthusiasm for military service in 1914 and subsequent anti-war poetry.

Robertson, Ritchie. Review of Hugo Ball: An Intellectual Biography. The...

(The entire section is 141 words.)