IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD
The goal of this chapter is to build solid connections between the different transmutations of Hugo Ball’s creative spirituality: his obsession with the concept of the word, its mystical properties, its role as creator and agent of change, and in some cases, even the savior of mankind. John Elderfield rightly stresses these connections in his introduction to Hugo Ball’s diaries, Flight out of Time, when he writes that “’The word’ was of such central importance to Ball’s ideas that one might well say that his last Cabaret Voltaire performance was the summit of his active Dadaism” (xxvi). This study hopes to extend that performance and his Dada experimentation with the word, in general, to being the summit of all of the language experimentation, where all of his influenced and artistic goals melded most perfectly and produced the effects that he had been building toward his entire literary and artistic career.
This chapter traces the parallels between stages of Ball’s experimentation with and use of language and symbolic sound devices and his greater creative spiritual transformations—from his days in the Black Forest as a young poet utilizing his musical training and deep connection with the harmonies of the natural world to reveal and create fantastical and mystical experiences; to his expressionist period (after his break with the Catholic Church) and his use of creative language and theatrical experimentation to “seize the moment for direct political intervention” and the unexpected word to disorder reality and dissolve logical relationships; then to his Dadaist period, where through the power of performance and complete theatre, the truly mystical powers of language and the “alchemy of the word” reached its peak of his experimentation, and then to his final conversion to Catholicism, where he would devoutly wait for the word to become flesh in the form of his lord and savior. In tracing this parallel between his different pre-Dada artistic phases, I hope to offer a corrective showing that, while it is easy to see Ball’s early poetry as Romantic melodrama, his Expressionist work as blasphemous provocation, and his Dada work as mere jest, Ball was in fact working toward a coherent project of using the word to both communicate the divine to mankind and to communicate with the divine directly. He wanted to envision and perform a true spiritual transformation through word magic. As Arp once noted, for Ball language was always “a magic treasure and connects him with the language of light and dark” (224-25).
Hugo Ball’s earliest published poetry (1905-1908), not rediscovered or discussed critically until 1983 when it was reprinted in the Hugo Ball Almanach (Riha 64), gives readers and scholars solid groundwork for a fuller understanding and appreciation of Ball’s lifelong fascination with the power of the word and his attempts to hone language into a tool for understanding of and communication with the divine. Written between the years of 1905 and 1908, it shows a young man with a keen interest in supernatural and invisible powers. Gerhardt Stienke, his earliest English-speaking biographer, tells us that these interests were cultivated separately and simultaneously by particular relatives, for each of whom he had an equal admiration: his sternly religious mother regularly imparted parables and old testament tales; his father, who had a particular fondness for tall-tales of all sorts, often coming back from long sales trips with fantastic stories of his adventures, also told folk stories and fairy tales to Hugo and his siblings as a means of family entertainment # In addition, his aunt, with whom he was particularly close, taught him Greek and Roman mythology (15).
These stories of the unexplainable took root in Ball’s highly sensitive nature, and he was fortunate to have the perfect grounds for their mingling and proliferation at his disposal: the woods of Pfälzerwald, the Palatinate Forest which to this day is one of the largest wooded areas in Europe. In his college days, he would reflect that if not for the woods his hometown would have been insufferable. However, they did not serve as mere medicine for Ball during his youth; they were his sanctuary, his muse, and the source for many of the philosophies that were later to come. It was here that Ball’s unique sense of the spiritual would emerge–it would include reverence towards art and language. It was also an all-encompassing sense of what connotes the divine. This spirituality emerges in his early poetry as a central theme, expressed through a collage of mythic and folkloric creatures, Greek goddesses, and Catholic themes and figures. These poems are the beginnings of what would become a spirituality in continual flux.
Centripetal elements of the poetry of his youth, such as the fairy tale images and the innocent atmosphere come back to inform, though sometimes in a mutilated and disturbing fashion, the poetry that would prove to be the most long-lasting images of his career as a wordsmith. Karl Riha, in his essay, “I Was Born a Great Enthusiast: Hugo Ball” tells us that “Hugo Ball sought to recall his childhood and document it in a variety of contexts and in the most diverse situations of his active life” (60). He goes on to point out that Ball’s diaries — which are cited extensively throughout the many histories of Dada, as well as in this study — frequently relate events to his childhood. He then refers to Hesse’s observation that Ball’s intellectual life, as well as his spiritual self, actually hinged on his ability to tap into his childhood and child-nature. Hesse stated, “He could rediscover consolation and innocence in flowers, the songs of birds, in scribbling little scurrilous drawings, the writing and reciting of phantastic verse” (qtd. in Riha 61). His original fantastic verses, therefore proves to be an essential source for the discovery of the foundations of Ball’s relationship to “things invisible” and his spiritual transformations that would unfold throughout his career. In particular, this study shall focus on his use of words as the medium for the expression of his spiritual, fantastical, and mythical sensibility.
This early poetry was published in the local paper of his hometown. A cycle of seven poems was published, two of which particularly display the thesis that Ball, even from these earliest ventures into the poetic world and before his experiences with the European avant-garde and Nietzschean philosophy, was heavily interested in the idea of the “word” and symbolic associations to the “thing-itself” and intertwined that interest with his preoccupation with “things invisible “and spiritual forces. These poems are surprisingly traditional in style, seeming mostly Romantic in nature.# They are filled with reflections on the natural world, spontaneous outbursts of emotions, odes to muses and goddesses lurking in forests, and are composed in primarily standard language and stanza structures. However, they do contain occasional elements that foreshadow Ball’s future experimental preoccupations, such as ellipsis and neologisms, which will be discussed below. In addition, in poems such as “Night’s Dream” and “Bagatelle, (which this study will focus on) Ball’s interest in language and his belief in the power of “the word” to act as a mediating device between the divine and the terrestrial is clear and lay a foundation for concepts that come into fruition during Dada such as the “revolution of the word” or the “alchemy of the word.”
In the poem “Night’s Dream,” Ball paints a classic scene of the artist’s refuge in the natural world and in the heavens. This is a poem that one might find in any young poet‘s repertoire: the poet staring out his window into the night sky and waxing philosophical on the relationship between the heavens and the earth below. However, what is interesting to note is the fact that Ball‘s thoughts on this relationship and the manner in which he expresses it at this point in his career is almost radically similar to and certainly foundational to his more complex and revolutionary writings later on in life.
Ball portrays the goddess Selene as a fellow artist, whose artwork, namely the night sky, soothes the speaker’s soul, which is troubled by the banal human world out from which he looks. He not only draws the connection between god and artist in this moment, but he also chooses to make Selene‘s craft both visual and aural: “When Selene’s rapidly embroidering/Silver needles sound faintly,/Upon broad blue curtain,” thus making it a similar experience to that of the production of language. Even while this young, Ball connected the art of poetry to music, often reciting it aloud to revel in its inner harmonies. Later in life, particularly while in Zürich, he would create a quasi-religious practice out of his belief in the power of the word when spoken.
The speaker tells us that “[v]iewing this lovely work/I always feel as if before magic,/And my soul’s burdened wings/Calmly come to rest.” The fact that the speaker of the poem is finding spiritual rest in consolation outside of the church and through the craft of a pagan goddess is quite unusual if Ball’s early biographers, such as Steinke, are correct in their observations that he, at this time, was a strict and unwavering Catholic. Indeed, this kind of rest should only be found in the works of the lord and in a church. However, what we see instead from Ball is a certainty in his own kind of artistic amalgamation of spirituality, which is based in nature, the creations of human minds, and the mediation of nature, man, and “the invisible powers” through words and “silent speech.” Though this spiritualization of nature is a familiar aspect of the Romantic poetry which Ball emulates in some ways, the ease with which Ball combines each conflicting spiritual element is unique. I would argue that this is made possible by the placement of the “word” and other tools of the artist as the ultimate power of mediation between man and the divine or unseen forces.
Perhaps the most pivotal aspect of this poem for this particular study deals with the concept of “silent speech”; and interestingly enough, the poem also contains the only truly experimental moment of any poem in the Pfälzerwald cycle, an ellipsis: the absence of text calling attention to itself: “If it’s true that the poet/Is blessed, in hours such as these,/To hear even silent speech/And to feel it inwardly…” The ellipsis serves to clue the reader to that which is in essence the unutterable and the “secret language”, which he would build his career and his reputation attempting to convey to others. The speaker not only is blessed among men “to hear even silent speech,” but he also “feels it inwardly.” Here, the connection between the divine and the poet is built up even more strongly. The power to relate to “silent speech,” through manipulation of the Word, is very clearly here in this moment of Ball’s thinking directly related to his spirituality.
Karl Riha, in his essay “’I was Born a Great Enthusiast’: Hugo Ball,” also notes this reference to “silent speech” in this poem the translator renders the German line in English “to hear silent language/and to empathize with it inwardly” (64). The short discussion is then referenced again later in the essay when the author describes Ball and Hennings’s secret names for one another; he was her Saint Anthony of Padua and she his Seahorse. He uses the reference to highlight Ball’s continual interest in the “secret language of nature” and “the secret language of animals” which appear in his works throughout his career. Riha shows how the language of the natural world guided him and showed him how to shape reality with true names and words. However, his argument could be extended to show how this love for secret, numinous languages guide his expression of the avant-garde and his attempts to shape a new movement with this language which is truly “holy” and truly regenerative.
The idea of naming and the concept of the “word” as a symbol or referent versus the “word” as a thing in and of itself, a shape and a sound, are most clearly referred to in the poem “Bagatelle” (which means “trick”). This poem, like most of the others, shows a magical and spiritually relevant act happening outside of the domain of man and in the realms of nature, where Ball has declared dominion for the unexplainable and invisible. In this poem, we see creatures of Christian myth performing miracles and enacting mischief, which is slightly unusual in these poems. And this time the mischief is done directly with the tools of the poet himself: letters, language, words, his own name.
The next poem to be analyzed, “Night’s Dream,” foreshadows slightly different issues which will recur throughout Ball’s career: that of the open, fluid, and sometimes tumultuous state of his religious beliefs. “Night’s Dream” opens with the speaker looking outside his window longingly to find creatures of myth there to entertain and engage his lonely mind. There he finds three angels waiting to bait him. “They breathe on the panes/and chuckle amongst themselves,/And write down/Your name.” This direct manner of interaction between the “invisible powers” is particularly interesting as they are representatives of Ball’s major spiritual influence at the time, Catholicism, acting in an entirely different role, that of fairies, pixies, and other mischievous folkloric creatures that appear throughout the Pfälzerwald cycle. Again, this hints at the fact that Ball’s feelings toward Catholicism at even this early period were not strictly orthodox, and that he was ready to begin to molding new beliefs, stories, and myths into his concepts of the divine and divine communication. Though different varieties of Catholicism had opened themselves to folkloric and even pagan elements through to this time, Ball is still incorporating these elements in a self-directed and striking manner which merits noting and analysis.
The interaction takes place with the speaker inside of a house, a representative of civilization and culture, with the angels outside, in nature, the grounds of the mythological world where the poet “always feels as if before magic” and where transcendence of the ordinary is not only possible but expected. The dichotomy is clearly set up. Glass stands between the two worlds, simultaneously an invisible artistic medium and divider. The speaker watches the angels through the glass. The angels then use their breath, a force created using many of the same instruments from which speech is made, to create a canvass for communication with the speaker. They then proceed to write the speaker’s name, the first “word” that an individual associates himself with. The magic of this occurrence is therefore two-fold. One element is the very recognition of one’s existence by creatures of the divine and the second is the means and lesson of the ensuing communication.
This word, their breath, and the glass are all symbolic of different levels of interaction between the divine and the artist. Through these symbols the angels, who are multi-faceted representatives of the spiritual realm, and the speaker are able to recognize one another and for a moment directly interact. The speaker; however, only gets this connection for a moment. “And chuckle amongst themselves/And wipe it off.” The name is gone. The word is gone. Man is temporary. Yet, the word itself is not simply the word in form of man and the name associated with the “thing” itself is temporary. The angels then “wink diabolically, And teasingly,/And flutter onward,/The three small angels.” The speaker recognizes both his own ephemeral nature and the permanence of the word and the name itself that was just written, that can get written and wiped away a million times, but yet remain the same in and of themselves. This recognition of the importance of the power of the ephemeral would prove to be a major theme in the works of the Dadaists at the Cabaret Voltaire. In fact, many of the tropes in Ball’s early poetry (fairy tales, divine communication, conglomeration of myths and spiritualities, and impermanence) remain relevant throughout his lifetime. Looking onward to Expressionism, many of the same tropes in “Bagatelle” and “Night’s Dream” are raised again in the poetry that he will compose under the influence of Nietzsche, Kandinsky, and Expressionism.
The next phase of Ball’s evolution in experimentation with “the word” was spent as a member of Munich’s Expressionist inner circle (1911-1916) and as a key player in the German avant-garde. This time served to both clarify and engage Ball’s sense of poetry and the word as key to communication with the divine (White 66). During this period, he was intensely involved in the theater and it further drove him to the belief that if language and the performance of it could be perfected and purified it could also serve as the agent for radical social and political change. Ball was drawn to this group of artists for their belief in the necessity of intensity of feeling and extremism in art and life. They, like Ball, were influenced by Nietzschean ideals, promoting the Dionysian, or the revolutionary potential of the artist to surpass reason and human rationality to find truth (Miesel 43). While the Expressionist circle was not necessarily concerned with communication with the divine per se, Ball seamlessly melded his own philosophies of spirituality and the divine with their revolutionary sentiments seamlessly.
The writings of two particular figures had the largest impact on Ball’s writing and thoughts on language and concepts of the “word” after leaving Pfälzerwald and attending the University of Munich in 1906: Nietzsche and Kandinsky. At this time, Ball had merely observed in his own parochial and nearly pastoral existence the effects of his creative output and word-play on his spiritual life and relationship with the divine. He seems to have come to the conclusion that through his word crafting and creative energies he was most able to commune with invisible and divine forces, as he worked obsessively in theater and on his writing producing works who intents he described in his philosophical writing as spiritually transformative and purifying. When he entered the wider community of artist and intellectuals, he would find complications of theory and complexities of action in his spiritual, artistic, and social life that it would take nearly a lifetime to resolve.
Ball wrote his unfinished doctoral dissertation on Nietzsche, having become obsessed with his concept of the Dionysian, or the necessary and revolutionary creative and irrational impulse of man, as well as his criticism of the truth value of language or what he called “logo-centrism.” Ball’s fascination with Nietzsche often led to spiritual and religious turmoil, due to the contradiction between his ardent Catholic upbringing and Nietzsche’s anti-religious, demonic stance. Gerhardt Steinke, Ball’s first English language biographer, spends a significant amount of time reflecting on the effects of this turmoil on Ball’s philosophical evolution and artistic production (56). However, Nietzsche’s take on the Kantian concept of “the thing-in-itself” aspure truth influenced his own linguistic experimentation.
A quick analysis of Nietzsche’s philosophies on language is all that is required to understand how and why Ball became so intensely and immediately influence fixated on him. Scholars such as Martin Gaughan and Rudolf Kuenzli have observed that Nietzsche’s linguistic influence on Ball and his experimentation with sound proves that Ball was attempting to accomplish much more with his sound poetry and other experimental works than the mere play which many formerly have believed it to be. Kuenzli observes in his study that Ball took Nietzsche concept of “logo-centrism” to a logical conclusion and offered the resolution that Nietzsche never brooches. Nietzsche first presented the concept of the sign as a lie, but never offered a way in which to supersede this problem and create real truth. Ball, Kuenzli states, formed a new sign system based off of onomatopoeia, which he hoped would reveal real spiritual truth (in “The Semiotic of Dada Poetry” 75). Gaughan agrees with Kuenzli’s analysis of the relationship between Nietzsche and Ball, but extends it to state that Ball did not merely work wish to create onomatopoeia, but that he was forming a system which scholars still tend to oversimplify and misunderstand. He offers no further resolution however (in “Dada Poetics, Flight out of Sign” 50-51). Further focus on the inherent spiritual basis and effects of Ball’s work is necessary to clarify this issue.
Nietzsche states in “On Truth and Falsehood in an Extramoral Sense,”“The thing-in-itself (for that is what pure truth would effectively be) is totally inconceivable to the creator of language…We believe we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers but possess nothing but metaphors, metaphors which are in no way adequate original substitutes” (34). To one so driven to discover a purer means of expression and natural and unhampered communication with the spiritual world, it is easy to see how a philosophy such as this could be quite seductive. During his Expressionist period, Ball would not be able to fully enact a solution to this problem; however, we will see below in his Expressionist poetry that he recognizes the problem and puts a call out for a solution. The solution to the problem of a lack of an untainted, adamic means of artistic expression, of course, would be Dada. During this period, he merely allowed his frustrations with language and its stale associations to boil out over into his themes, imagery, and his own philosophical writing.