General 12-31-2002

Hugo Ball: Flight Out of Time

From time to time we run quotes or excerpts from historical sources relevant to the site's current focus (now, on how artists survive). What follows is a series of short excerpts from the diary of the Dada founder and impresario Hugo Ball.

Hugo Ball was a German philosophy student, playwright, dramaturg, and vaudevillian who was one of the founders of the Dada movement in Zurich in 1916. With Emmy Hennings, a cabaret performer and risk-taker whom he met in 1913 at the Cafe Simplizissimus in Munich, and others, Ball set up in Zurich the Cabaret Voltaire, the natal spot for the Dada revolution that spread after World War One to influence avant-gardes around the world.

As Ball noted in the first line of his Prologue to the published version of his diaries, “The world in 1913 looked like this: life is completely bound and shackled. A kind of economic fatalism prevails; each individual, whether he resists or not, is assigned a specific role and with it his interests and his character . . . . The most burning question day and night is this: Is there anywhere a force that is strong enough and above all vital enough to put an end to this state of affairs?” He devoted his life to this question.

August 31, 1915
The stamp of the times has been put on me. It did not happen without my help. Sometimes I longed for it. How does it go now in “Visionaries”? “They let us out into the night and forgot to hang weights on us. Now of course we are floating in the air.” . . . .

In Geneva I was poorer than a fish. I could not move. I sat by the lake next to a fisherman and envied the fish the bait he threw them.

Zurich, October, 1915
Two days have passed [since a suicide attempt] and the world looks different. I am now living in Grauen Gasse and am called Gery. In the theater, that is called a change of scene, or reconstruction. The strange bird whose nest I am in is called Flamingo [the vaudeville troupe that Ball and Hennings joined; they were living on the street and hungry] With his tattered wings he governs a little district that changes character in the evenings. Egyptian magic flourishes here, and the people who go about in the daytime with closed eyes keep the dreambook on their night tables.

November 4, 1915
The tattooed lady is called Mrs. Koritzky and refers to herself as Nandl. She has a little room in a beer parlor and she invites the guests over to her. It costs 30 cents, artists go free. She bares her chest, arms, and thighs (morality is irrelevant, art keeps the balance) and is completely covered with portraits, waterlilies, climbing flowers, and garlands of leaves. Her husband plays a zither accompaniment. Her behind is covered with two butterfly wings. It is delicately done and is evidence of an aesthetic standard. I once read somewhere about a tattooed Indian woman who had the names of her lovers tattooed over her. That is not the case here. With her portraits Nandl offers rather a course in the history of German music and literature. . . .

Quotes taken from Flight Out of Time by Hugo Ball, ed. John Elderfield, trans. Ann Raimes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.