“Emmy Hennings: ‘Star of the Cabaret Voltaire’ and Dada’s Mystic Mother”

(As presented at ATHE 2010)

I was introduced to the artist, poet, cabaret performer, chanteause, dancer, and painter Emmy Hennings, through the work of her much more easily recognized husband, Hugo Ball, who is widely regarded as the mystical founder of DADA. This is perhaps what she herself hoped for, as she spent the latter years of her life promoting him tirelessly and altering or writing out of her autobiographies any aspect of her life which would not coalesce with the Catholic mythology which she painstakingly constructed out of their lives together, a fact which she reluctantly admitted in a letter to Herman Hesse, her closest  friend after the death of Ball (quoted in Weinstein 37). For example, Hennings preferred to keep from history most of the creative work produced during her long career as a member of Munich and Zurich’s Avant-Garde inner circles, as it would unfortunately also reveal a long career as a morphine addict, prostitute, and hustler, who frequently promoted free-love, anarchy, and social revolution, and spent several stints in prison, at least once for forging passports for draft dodgers. For this reason, it seems that Emmy Hennings welcomed individual artistic anonymity in favor of becoming a footnote to Hugo Ball’s career. I open on this note, not only to provide background to Hennings’s career, but also because her rewriting of her life to appear more conventionally religious serves an appropriate touchstone for the topic of this paper, which is Emmy Hennings’s unique performance of her spirituality in her life and in artwork, which as you might already be able to see, more often than not indistinguishable are from one another. In this task, I will focus on the unfortunately extraordinarily gray area of her period of involvement with Zurich Dada.

The subject of the inherently religious, spiritual, and mystical nature of Zurich Dada is not one that has been left untouched in recent years. Several scholars have been working to dispel the myth that Dada was solely a nihilistic movement. In fact, renowned DADA scholar Richard Sheppard lends a significant portion of his book Modernism-Dada-Post Modernism to revealing and analyzing the mystical elements of the work of Hugo Ball and Hans Arp and how it shaded the happenings at the Cabaret Voltaire with ritualistic and often religious overtones. Yet, despite the recent resurgence of interest in the female Dadas and new sources of information on Hennings’s early life, with the publication of formerly unavailable journals of her peers, such as her close friend and lover, famed German anarchist Eric Müsham, Shepphard fails to note Hennings’s contribution to the mystical nature of these happenings.  In this case, I struggle to see any reasonable cause for this glaring oversight.

For example, Despite the fact that her peers, such as Richard Huelsenbeck and Hans Arp, regarded her as the most mystically-inclined member of Zurich Dada. And, despite the fact that it was Hennings who was held at fault for Ball’s movement toward  a more “mystical” understanding of the world and his ultimate defection to Catholicism, Shepphard inexplicably gives Hennings neither agency  nor voice in this matter. When discussing Catholic mystic writer, Jacob Böhme and his influence on Ball, he ignores the fact that Hennings almost certainly introduced Ball to his works other works of Catholic mysticism, and in fact makes a claim that that her readings from Catholic mystic texts at the fourth Dada Soiree  were “almost certainly prompted by Ball”, despite that fact her interest in Catholic mysticism  far pre-dated his own (273).

Earlier histories of Dada, such as that of Kenneth Coutts-Smith, published in 1970, often mentioned Hennings as a side-note (9), despite the fact that she was called the “Star of the Cabaret Voltaire” by the Zurich Chronicle, had paintings hanging in the Galerie Dada alongside Kandinsky and Arp, and was largely responsible for founding the Cabaret Voltaire. In fact, you can rarely find her name in their indexes. However, ignoring her contributions at this point is unforgivable; particularly in a matter, which I will argue, she had such significant influence over: that of the Avant-Garde Spirituality which imbued those legendary early Dada performances.

According to her contemporaries Hennings’s spirituality was most apparent in her general manner of interacting with the world and the “being” she presented in her art.  Most often referred to as a mystic by such peers, she seems to have believed that her life on earth was not just reflection of or a step toward her infinite spiritual life, but that it was in fact one in the same. God and spiritual connections to god were to be found in the everyday world, so long as one is capable of seeing it. Hennings was first introduced to mysticism, according to her biographies in 1906, when she was staying in a farmhouse in Silesia before the birth of her daughter and there discovered the writings of the seventeenth century mystic Jakob Böhme (Steinke 101). Jakob Böhme, like many mystics, believed that in order to know God one must learn to see unity where there are apparently contradictions. Bohme did so even to the point of risking appearing heretical by promoting the concept that God and Satan are one in the same. This is where it become easy to argue that both Hennings and Dada, as a whole, are inherently mystical in their philosophies.

Hennings was a woman of contradictions that often seemed to exist in two worlds at once. Sabine Werner- Birkenback remarks in an essay on her writings from prison that this makes her a difficult individual to study in anything resembling a linear manner (172).  Despite the fact that she wrote on and took an interest in politics and social criticism, when reading accounts by her male contemporaries she represented for many, the furthest thing from worldly concerns: mysticism and holy fairy tales. She was the embodiment of childlike naiveté and purity, yet he relied on her to managed day-to-day finances of the Cabaret and the Gallerie Dada and occasionally make ends meet by working as a prostitute. She was a poet and a writer, but she and Ball claimed that their primary means of communication was not words, but instead a “secret” and “silent” language and shared dreams. This affinity for contradictions resonate with and perhaps emanate from Eastern  mystical traditions, which  see the balance and unification of opposites as necessary, both universally and individually, for harmony and enlightenment to exist, or as Annie Besant explains in her book Mysticism, to obtain “the direct knowledge of God ” (11).

“Direct knowledge of God”, also requires the crossing of boundaries and the experience of extremes of existence. These are two other elements and major themes in the life and art of Emmy Hennings which are inherently mystical and contributed heavily to the spiritual atmosphere of early Dada happenings. Both of these elements; however, are directly tied with Hennings’s affinity for embodying and enacting contradictions: the most obvious of which being her practice of Catholicism while living what could be termed an artistic and somewhat debauched bohemian lifestyle.

Heubert Van de Berg finds that Hennings’s  initial conversion to Catholicism did not possess “religious sincerity;” however, when reading his translations of Musham’s journals it becomes clear that her conversion did not lack sincerity, but instead displays the conflict that she dealt with in leading a life of  two opposing mystic spiritualities, one Catholic and the other intuitive and Dionysian in nature. She managed, though not without significant pains to lead a bohemian lifestyle, obviously believing in and practicing many of the central tenants of the most radical ilk of anarchists and expressionist artists and thinkers in Munich, while also having a deep and abiding faith in the Catholic tradition. The pain of carrying on these conflicting lifestyles was, in fact, occasionally too much for her, occasionally causing her to break down. About a week after her initial conversion Müsham writes
“Bolz just left. He tells horror stories of Emmy’s condition which has apparently deteriorated into complete religious madness. She condemns me and almost all of her other friends as heretics and hallucinates about the devil trying to drag her off…”(from Van de Berg 79)
The way that she melded these opposing traditions was by consistently maintaining a  mystic sensibility in all of her practices and interactions with the world, which necessitate being liminal in all things and crossing, breaking down, and blurring binary relationships . This manner of interacting with the world, as well as the psychic and spiritual dissonance which she occasionally felt are all apparent in her creative works, as well.

What I refer to as Hennings’s “Avant-Garde spirituality” is as easily found in her poetry as it is in accounts of her performance of it in day to day life. However, her poetry is unfortunately, all but ignored by scholars of the Avant-Garde, even those particularly interested in the mystic aspects of early Dada. You can see her artistic take on the popular mystic traditions of the period in her themes of transcendence; death and other forms of worldly escape towards salvation or enlightenment, such as drugs and dreams; the combining of opposites to find unity; and the blurring of and crossing of boundaries. Those scholars who do study her work, such as Rugh, Weinstein, and Van de Berg, unfortunately do not associate these themes with her spirituality or mystic tendencies. Weinstein notes, for example, that many of her poems explore the theme of separation of mental life and physical body (57); however, when seen through a spiritual lens it becomes clear that these examinations are actually of spiritual release from the physical body, rather than release from mental activity.

An example is her poem “Dancer,” which reveals her complex relationship with death. The speaker says that her constant closeness to death both “keeps me from my many sins” and gives her reason to live life to its fullest, to seek kisses and to dance until she is out of breath. In addition to displaying many of the mystic tropes which we mentioned above, this interest in and feeling of closeness with death, to the point where it is a comfort and a guiding principle of her life, has a basis in the mystic tradition, which often glorifies the communion of the life and death and views death at the moment of transcendence, when one is finally totally given to the higher power.

Her poem “Morfin,” which was published in the only issue of the journal “Cabaret Voltaire,”  is often interpreted as merely a poem about drug use written in the Expressionist vein, Rugh and Weinstein both primarily interpret it as such; however, this is far from the case. Before we delve into an analysis of this poem, I would like to do a performance of this piece inspired by what little know of her performative style.

(Interpretative performance of “Morfin” with musical accompaniment provided by Michael Lubbert)

“Morfin” opens with the statement, “We wait for the last adventure” and immediately, the speaker wonders whether or not they are included in the “we;” who exactly the “we” is that is being referred to. Though left ambiguous clarification is given little by little throughout the poem. “The last adventure”, most likely being the experience of bodily death, the reader knows that “we” don’t all necessarily wait for death with anticipation, as the speaker of the poem seems to, and the title “Morfin,” not actually a word in any language, gives heavy connotations of morphine and also possibly a state of change or transmutation, therefore it is possible that the speaker speaks of all users of morphine or drug users in general. Yet, whoever “we” is, by the next line the reader recognizes that  “we” choose darkness over light, and therefore, the theme of the distinguishing and the disappearance of binaries is set simultaneously with the  recognizing that the poem will be addressing issues related to the darker side of Morphine addiction and whatever that state might be symbolic of. When speaking of “sunshine” it is also likely that the speaker is referring to the light of god and choosing, or being forced to choose between, the comfort of otherworldly darkness over the difficulty of facing God’s direct gaze.

The next line sets up the contrast between this state and that of preoccupation with earthly existence, as she pronounces that “High Towered days tumble down/ Into restless night—Prayer into Purgatory.” Here the reader confirms the  metaphorical dichotomy between light and dark and holiness and worldliness. The phrase “high towered days” is possibly a reference to the Tower of Babel, where all languages were understood (this would be extremely relevant at any given time one might hear at the Cabaret Voltaire  a minimum of five languages being spoken); however, it is more directly a reference to disintegration of an overly ambitious society into a state of anxiety far from the light of God. Not only this, but prayer has likewise degenerated into purgatory. In other words the means of communication with the divine has fallen into a state of numbness, stagnation, and uncertainty, much like the general state of blissful, timeless numbness that an addict feels—or a nation of people who have traded in a hopeful state of industrial revolution and nationalistic pride for a state of horrific war losses and technological terror. I find that two readings exists simultaneously in these lines, a universal reading where society is falling out of God’s graces and an individual reading, where the speaker is seeking a colder, darker, more comfortable relationship with the Godhead than one where she is ambitiously striving for his direct approval.

The second stanza begins by stating that “We no longer read the daily mail,” signifying the intentional disconnect or lack of concern with day-to-day life that both a drug addict and a mystic would typically show, in favor of concern with issues of the “other world”, be it the dark comfort of closeness to death and “purgatory” or the silently longed for life in “sunshine” of the holy. But instead “We”, “Only occasionally smile quietly into the pillows.” Accepting the darkness and their state of perpetual sleep and dream, “because we know everything, and slyly,” an odd exclamation to find in the midst of a poem, which an unfamiliar reader or listener, might until this point have found to be purely lamenting and bleak. Such a reader might also call into question the seriousness of the tone, suspecting irony, yet I argue that this is not in fact the case. The speaker, the “we” accepts her state of darkness and therein finds the same infinite that one does in the light, she embraces her disconnect from the world and knows that she can still obtain wisdom and enlightenment at these depths, at least more so than those who foolishly continue to build towers destined to tumble.

Hennings was the not the first and certainly not the last to make such an indirect claim that drug use can lead to knowledge of the infinite. The next line pushes this metaphor even deeper, as  she exclaims, “We fly back and forth in a fit of shivering,” associating the “we” with witches of old, whose flights were understood to be psychic, spiritual, and often assisted by consciousness expanding drugs. This association with witchcraft, popularly understood to be the realm of the feminine, when coupled with the next line, “Men may hurry and strive,” is the first hint that the reader is given to the “We” of the poem being a distinctly feminine voice. Perhaps revealing some other layer to the kind of relationship that Hennings imagined being possible between women and the godhead, particularly, that perhaps women, maybe even particularly creative and powerful women, are destined to have colder, darker relationships with the divine.

The connection between the line “Men may hurry and strive”, and the one which follows “Today the rain falls more darkly” is ambiguous, but I assert that the only reasonable conjunction to be implied is “yet”, the conjunction which displays the hopelessness and powerlessness and that permeates the mood of this stanza, yet does not override the message of “Morfin.” Hennings wishes to show here that while men strive and rush to build towers and spend their days in the sun of an approving God, the war still rages and evil dictates the actions of masses, “Yet, the rain falls more darkly”. Hennings herself chooses to embrace this darkness and situate herself in it, to transmute it through sleep and dreams, to smile in her pillow as she makes love to it. And fly through it to see its beauty and move towards its escape. It’s a dangerous road, the modus operandi of junkies, artists, and madmen, but Hennings argues that you can find God here, as well, at least one half, her half—the darkness which is mutually dependent upon the light.
She follows this up by telling us that “We drive ceaselessly through life” and it seems a line too similar to the `first in the stanza. How are “We” differing here from “Men” who strive and hurry to no avail? A direct question is now being raised about this dichotomy about the borders between men/women, j`unkies/non-junkies, artists/non artists, success/failure, light/dark, life/death. Yet the only real border that exists here is a simple one, Hennings and not Hennings; the only real border that has ever existed from the beginning of time, you and not you.  “We”/you “drive ceaselessly through life.” Hennings is telling us that this is the only end. “Men” strive and hurry to no avail. “We” merely need to live until it comes to an end :“And in sleep, bewildered, pass away…” Finding the dark comfort of pillows and the enlightenment to avoid worldly concerns such as the daily mail and building towers.

In Greil Marcus’s study of the 20th Century: Lipstick Traces, he notes that “Along with Hugo Ball’s drive to create, there was Emmy Hennings’s need to destroy” (45). Add Marcus to the laundry list of men who have attempted unsuccessfully to simplify or make sense of Hennings’s role in Dada.  Her contradictory existence could never be made sense of. She was largely considered unintellectual; however, she was a well-published writer and an active member of the Bohemian intelligentsia. She was against systems and an anarchist; however, she longed for the comfort of Catholicism and would have been a nun had her nature allowed for it. She was fiercely independent and unrooted; however, she longed for the companionship of men, even when it did more harm emotionally and spiritually than it did good. She had more life experience packed into her short years than most of her companions could boast of, as a prostitute, drug user, shyster, vagabond, mother, and wife; however, she gave the impression of naiveté, simplicity, and of having a child-like nature. It was for these paradoxes that she was almost entirely erased from the history of the movement that she helped to found and largely inspired. It was for these paradoxes that she felt the need to spent the latter part of her life writing and rewriting her history and that of her savior and spiritual other half, Hugo Ball. This study argues; however, that despite Hennings’s own rewritings she be cast in her proper role in the mythos of Cabaret Voltaire, simultaneously its Mystic Mother and High Priest.

6 responses to ““Emmy Hennings: ‘Star of the Cabaret Voltaire’ and Dada’s Mystic Mother”

  1. markus manstroma

    enjoyed this very much. Hennings was indeed a major talent within the movement…may I ask if this blog is still active? I like it very much :)

    • Just recently came back. I hope that you visit again!

      • markus manstroma

        I have visited again and enjoyed much! My name is Markus Manstroma and I am a part-time artist working in acrylic. I so enjoyed the piece on Hennings as there is so little out there to read about her. Beautifully written.

  2. Pingback: Weekend Links, 20/01/13 | hecavanagh.org

  3. Roger van Wyk

    great article, i have researched links between dada and african art. the performative side of dada is crucial to its side stepping of most primitivist discourse. hennings was key to this foundational moment. is your research still active? roger van wyk, cape town

  4. Sid Sachs

    Trying to find the rights info for Emmy Hennings with Dada puppet image for a publication.

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