Hugo Ball was born in Pirmasens, near the German border with France, on 22 February 1886, and raised by a middle-class Catholic family. He studied sociology and philosophy at the universities of Munich and Heidelberg, becoming interested in Nietzsche and writing plays, before moving to Berlin to study acting at Max Reinhardt’s drama school. Having worked for a short while as a stage manager, he was back in Munich by 1912, where he came into contact with the Blaue Reiter circle, and became critic-playwright at the Kammerspiele Theatre.
Around this time, Ball met a number of people who would have an influence on his life: Emmy Hennings, an actress and singer whom he would marry in 1920; Richard Huelsenbeck with whom he would open the Cabaret Voltaire; Hans Leybold, a young student radical, with whom he launched a new magazine, Revolution, though the first issue was confiscated by censors; and Wassily Kandinsky, the greatest of the Expressionist painters in the Munich circle.
In 1914, Ball applied for military service but was turned down several times. Impatient to experience war, he made a trip to Belgium. Appalled by what he saw, he turned pacifist, antiwar protester and anarchist. Soon after, he moved with Hennings, to Zurich, in neutral Switzerland, where the couple lived as unregistered aliens, unable to get work. It is thought, Ball tried to commit suicide at this point.
Nevertheless, things began improving for Ball. In 1916, he was able to get work as a touring pianist, but he also continued working on a book about German culture, and writing poems. His beliefs were shifting from anarchism towards mysticism, and he began experimenting with drugs. In 1916, back in Zurich, he opened Cabaret Voltaire, which served as the breeding ground for the Dada movement. In July of the same year, Collection Dada issued its first volume of writing (by the youngest member of the Zurich movement, Tristan Tzara). The following year Ball and Tzara opened Galerie Dada.
Ball’s involvement with Dada was short-lived. He left the movement and moved to Bern, to work as a journalist, and he published Zur Kritik der deutschen Intelligenz, a strident attack on German politics and culture. He then journeyed back, spiritually speaking, to Catholicism, and a couple of years later, published Byzantinisches Christendom.
For a while, during his early and difficult days in Zurich, Ball kept a diary of sorts, in which he jotted down philosophical musings. These were were first published by Viking Press, New York City, in 1974 as Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary. The text was edited by John Elderfield and translated by Ann Raimes. More recently, in 1996, University of California Press has reissued the book with a few additions. Parts of the book are available to read online at Googlebooks or Scribd.
18 September 1915
‘The collapse is beginning to take on gigantic dimensions. We will not be able to use the old idealistic Germany as a basis any more either, so we will be completely without any basis. For the devout Protestant-enlightened Germany of the Reformation and the Wars of Liberation produced an authority, and one could say that this authority confused and destroyed the last opposition to the animal kingdom. That whole civilization was ultimately only a sham. It dominated the academic world enough to corrupt the common people too; for even the people approved of Bethmann’s words about necessity knowing no law; in fact, the Protestant pastors were the most unhesitating spokesmen and interpreters of this degrading slogan.’
20 September 1915
‘I can imagine a time when I will seek obedience as much as I have tasted disobedience: to the full. For a long time I have not obeyed even myself. I refuse to give ear to every halfway reasonable or nobler emotion; I have become so mistrustful of my origin. So 1 can only confess: I am eager to give up my Germanity. Is there not regimentation, Protestantism, and immorality in each of us, whether we know it or not? And the deeper it is, the less we know it?’
25 September 1915
‘The philosophy with which the generals try to justify their actions is a coarse version of Machiavelli. The peculiar words of the language of government (and unfortunately not only of the language of government) go back to a stale Renaissance ideal: the “right of the stronger,” the “necessity that knows no law,” the “place in the sun,” and other similar terms. Machiavellianism, however, has ruined itself. The Machiavellians are being called by their true name; the articles of the law are being remembered and used against them. Machiavellian wars in old Europe no longer succeed.
There is, in spite of everything, a folk morality. Frederick II’s saying “When princes want war, they begin one and call in a diligent lawyer who proves that it is right and just” is being rejected. How might a man feel, how must he live, when he feels he belongs, and when he seems disastrously willing to apply all kinds of adventure, all con- fusion of problems and offenses to his own unique constitution? How could a person assert himself if he is someone whose fantastic Ego seems to be created only to receive and suffer the scandal, the opposition, the rebellion of all these released forces? 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.’
4 October 1915
‘I tend to compare my own private experiences with the nation’s. I see it almost as a matter of conscience to perceive a certain parallel there. It may be a whim, but I could not live without the conviction that my own personal fate is an abbreviated version of the fate of the whole nation. If I had to admit that I was surrounded by highwaymen, nothing in the world could convince me that they were not my fellow countrymen whom I live among. I bear the signature of my homeland, and I feel surrounded by it everywhere I go.
If I ask myself in the dead of night what the purpose of all this might be, then I could well answer: So that I might lay aside my prejudices forever. So that I might experience the meaning of what I once took seriously: the backdrop. So that I might detach myself from this age and strengthen myself in the belief in the improbable.
The naiveté of those people who are afflicted with incurable diseases and are treated for rationalism. There is no doubt that it is a great time - for a healer of souls.’
25 November 1915
‘Each word is a wish or a curse. One must be careful not to make words once one has acknowledged the power of the living word.
The artist’s secret lies in fear and awe. Our times have turned them into terror and dismay.
People who live rashly and precipitately easily lose control over their impressions and are prey to unconscious emotions and motives. The activity of any art (painting, writing, composing) will do them good, provided that they do not pursue any purpose in their subjects, but follow the course of a free, unfettered imagination. The independent process of fantasy never fails to bring to light again those things that have crossed the threshold of consciousness without analysis. 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.’