Hugo Ball Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.”