Hugo Ball

I have spent a few days intensively reading Hugo Ball's diaries, a flight out of time, which encompasses his life in Munich during the 1910's, his decisive role in the first actions of Dada and then a decade long period of retreat and thought with his wife Emmy Hennings in Italy and Switzerland. Ball edited the diary scrupulously from the point of view of his later turn to Catholicism, and with this in mind I felt some trepidation, but after taking to the work with the concentration it required, I found profound insights within the book. His political engagement is lucid and wholly honest, and his conversion is in very personal, idiosyncratic terms - he was drawn into mysticism against Prussian positivism, and as a way of navigating certain ethical and aesthetic questions. I too, still a stringent atheist mind, have felt the same draw into ecclesiastical sources, early christian philosophy and religious writings. The work of Augustine, Eckhart and Paul has been extremely important in the context of my wide readings even though I remain demonstratively against contemporary religion and those that would formulate their belief system as an engagement with traditional notions of a judeo-christian god, which strikes me as both absurd and immeasurably harmful, not only for its delusion, but its adherence to a tradition that is almost entirely defined by abuse and an arrogance so enormous it is the primary reason for pessimism in our age, as any other. 

Ball's life and thought was both brilliant and to me at least, cautionary. often as deluded as insightful, and precisely because his commitment to ideas was so utterly all encompassing. He could not set a ken for his own personal well being beyond his ideas. He speaks often of Nietzsche, of Baader, of Bakunin and these associations of kind are not accidental. There is much to take from his writings, but much to learn too, even 90 plus years on, in a world unrecognisable. His friendship and acquaintance with so many remarkable minds of the age, including Ernst Bloch, Herman Hesse and Walter Benjamin, also strike me with the feeling that whether he continually reiterates his intellectual solitude of sorts, he was part of a milieu, a wider intellectual community that simply does not exist in the present age.

It is imperative to write invulnerable sentences. Sentences that withstand all irony.

One must give up lyrical feelings. It is tactless to flaunt feelings at such a time. The plainest decency, the simplest politeness, demands that you keep your sentiments to yourself.

If language really makes us kings of our nation, then without doubt it is we, the poets and thinkers, who are to blame for this blood bath and who have to atone for it.

It is necessary for me to drop all respect for tradition, opinion, and judgement. It is necessary for me to erase the rambling text that others have written.

for a man of culture it is the worst immorality to accept the standards of his time.

Remove yourself as far as possible from the times in order to assess them. But do not lean so far out of the window that you fall out.

The activity of any art (painting, writing, composing) will do them good, providing that they do not pursue any purpose in their subjects, but follow the course of a free, unfettered imagination… In an age like ours, when people are assaulted daily by the most monstrous things without being able to keep account of their impressions, in such an age aesthetic production becomes a prescribed course. But all living art will be irrational, primitive and complex; it will speak a secret language and leave behind documents not of edification but of paradox.

It can probably be said that for us art is not an end in itself – more pure naivete is necessary for that – but it an opportunity for true perception and criticism of the times we live in, both of which are essential for an unstriking but characteristic style. The latter does not seem to us such a simple matter as one is often inclined to think. What can a beautiful, harmonious poem say if nobody reads it because it has nothing to do with the feelings of the times? And what can a novel have to say when it is read for culture but ir eeally a long way from even touching on culture? Our debates are a burning search, more blatant every day, for the specific rhythm and the buried face of this age – for its foundation and essence; for the possibility of its being stirred, its awakening. Art is only an occasion for that, a method.

Perfect scepticism makes perfect freedom possible. When no definite conclusions can, must, or may be reached about the inner contour of an object, then it is handed over to its opposite, and it is only a question of whether the new order of the elements, made by the artist, scholar or theologian, can gain recognition. The recognition is tantamount to the fact that the interpreter has succeeded in enriching the world with a new phenomenon. One can almost say when belief in an object or a cause comes to an end, this object or cause returns to chaos and become common property. But perhaps it is necessary t have resolutely, forcibly produced chaos and thus a complete withdrawal of faith before an entirely new edifice can be built up on a changed basis of belief. The elemental and demonic come to the fore first; the old names and words are dropped.

Huelsenbeck speaks against “organisation"; people have had enough of it, he says. I think so too. One should not turn a whim into an artistic school.

The Dadaist loves the extraordinary and the absurd. He knows that life asserts itself in contradiction, and that his age aims at the destruction of generosity as no age has ever done before. He therefore welcomes any kind of mask. Any game of hide-and-seek, with its inherent power to deceive. In the midst of the enormous unnaturalness, the direct and the primitive seem incredible to him. As the bankruptcy of ideas has stripped the image down to its innermost layers, instincts and backgrounds are emerging in a pathological way. As not art, politics, or knowledge seems able to hold back this flood, the only thing left is the joke and bloody pose.

The Dadaist pus more trust in the honesty of events than in the wit of people. He can get people cheaply, himself included. He no longer believes in the comprehension of things from one point of view, and yet he is still so convinced of the unity of all beings, of the totality of all things, that he suffers from the dissonances to the point of self-disintegration.

The Dadaist fights against the agony and the death throes of this age. Averse to all clever reticence, he cultivates the curiosity of one who feels joy even at the most questionable forms of rebellion. He knows that the world of systems has fallen apart, and that this age, with its insistence on cash payment, has opened a jumble sale of godless philosophies. Where fear and a bad conscience begin for the shopkeeper, hearty laughter and gentle encouragement begin for the Dadaist.

The word and the image are one. Painter and poet belong together.

We have now driven the plasticity of the word to the point where it can scarcely be equalled. We achieved this at the expanse of the rational, logically constructed sentence, and also by abandoning documentary work (which is possible only by means of a time-consuming grouping of sentences in logically ordered syntax.) Some things assisted us in our efforts: first of all, the special circumstances of these times, which do not allow real talent either to rest or mature and so put its capabilities to the test. Then there was the emphastic energy of our group; one member was always trying to surpass the other by intensifying demands and stresses. You may laugh; language will one day reward us for our zeal.

In these phonetic poems we totally renounce the language that journalism has abused and corrupted. We must return to the innermost alchemy of the word, we must even give up the word to, to keep for poetry its last and holiest refuge. We must give up writing secondhand: that is, accepting words (to say nothing of sentences) that are not newly invented for our own use. Poetic effects can no longer be obtained in ways that are merely reflected ideas or arrangements of furtively offered witticisms and images.

In its fantasising art is indebted to total scepticism. Consequently, artists, inasmuch as they are sceptics, flow into the stream of the fantastic age; they belong to destruction and are its emissaries and blood relatives.

The academy itself is fantastic and irrational. Its belief in ‘objective science’ is the basis of all phantasms. The future will, therefore, probably not sacrifice the intellect, but oppose it to the fantast cult of science in a formative way.

In a world that has been supplanted and buried beyond recognition, a world that is liberated in art by unrestrained enthusiasm, bt in the lunatic asylum is freed by a disease. The revolutionaries I mean are to be sought there, rather than in the mechanised literature and politics of today.

we had to be independent of any morality and yet proceed from the one moral premise that the whole man could be elevated (and not only a part of the man who is agreeable to being educated; who advances society; or who fits into the existing system).

It is just a noise. It makes no difference if it is with cannons or debates.

The only thing we can put our hopes in is unconditional honesty, even if it cuts into our own flesh.

Art cannot have any respect for the existing view of the world unless it renounces itself. Art enlarges the world by negating the aspects that were known and in operation up to now, and putting new ones in their place. That is the power of modern aesthetics; one cannot be an artist and believe in history.

The faults one discovers in others are often only one’s own. Anyone who is familiar with this idea drives great benefit from it.

Sexual abstention is defined by the Fathers as a Christian innovation, and they see it as a supernatural virtue; it seems to me to be a result of the experience of death. “I die every day” says Paul. The dying man is not interested in sexual intercourse.