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Words and Worlds:
Dada and the Destruction of Logos,
Zurich 1916

by John Scanlan


3. The Destruction of Logos

With Dada, it is sometimes difficult to know how seriously the intentions of the participants were, mainly because it is clear that there were differences all along as to the purpose of a phenomenon that had ‘no programme’ (Richter, 1997: 34). However, Richard Huelsenbeck’s statements/ writings/ contributions to Dada literature allow one to suggest that Dada was established in opposition to what we might recognize as dualistic modes of conventional thinking, of the categorization of concepts, objects, and so on, in oppositional terms (e.g., subject/object; theory/fact, etc.). These “loving polarities” as Harvie Ferguson has called them “are so many ways of rendering experience accessible by dividing it against itself” (Ferguson, 1990: 7). But Dada, if one reads Huelsenbeck’s words in this way, recognized no such conceptual ordering, and instead proposed that the reinvigoration of language would see such polarities collapse. Dada, he said (and the demonstration is in the language) “blusters because it knows how to be quiet; it agitates because it is at peace” (Huelsenbeck, 1993: 10). In other words, Dada traded on the indeterminacy of ‘is-ness,’ on the elasticity of being where one quality is identified in terms of an opposite, rather than in oppositional terms.

In the varied responses of the members of the Cabaret Voltaire between 1915 and 1919 one can plot the dissolution of Dada as anything resembling a coherent movement (Richter, 1997; Huelsenbeck, 1993). Hugo Ball, the principal founder of the Zurich Dada group, would have no truck with the issuing of manifestos, or with any other propagandist work (which seemed to emulate the activities of futurism), but this was eagerly taken up by others, such as Tristan Tzara, and then exported to a variety of other European cities (5). One thing that did bind them was the idea that language had to follow painting in re-ordering the world, in making the sensible human image that language portrays equally as fragmentary as the abstract and cubist paintings of the time. Ball, for example, wrote in 1916 that:

The image of human form is gradually disappearing from the painting of these times and all objects appear only in fragments. This is one more proof of how ugly and worn the human countenance has become, and of how all the objects of our environment have become repulsive to us. The next step is for poetry to decide to do away with language for similar reasons (Ball, 1996: 55).
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Figure 7
Text of Hugo Ball's 'Karawane'

The power behind the Dada destruction/reinvention of language was found in the belief that language and literature had already been debased--in patriotic declarations of support for the war, and in the use of literature in providing moral sustenance for soldiers at the front. The point was that language had become abstracted from life to the extent that it was rendered worthless--for example, what value did words have when they could support butchery? And what of modernity? Did not the very ‘nuts and bolts’ of reason deliver war as a “vindication of modernity, violently completing the abstraction of the world”? (Conrad, 1998: 211) So, whilst Ball sought to situate language within the evident dissonance of the times, his aim was also to create, as Malcolm Green has said, “a field of words that bypassed the author's own associations and triggered new ones in the listener” (Fig. 7) as an aspect of regaining the world, and words, from such abstraction (quoted in Huelsenbeck, 1993: v). One important point that Dada had picked up from Italian futurism was the idea that art was created in the spatio-temporal dimension, rather than being produced merely in time, or in space. The printed word, as a possible medium for creation, was staid and fixed in both of these dimensions (although texts in Futurism and Dada experimented with font styles), and in books and newspapers, it was seen to abstract language from its real context, the context within which life takes place. What Ball and the others sought to achieve at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 was a way past this abstraction to a synthesis of the arts that would surpass the mimetic and representational limitations of mediation and traditional artistic practice (whether in writing, painting, or poetry).

This introduced the masked dances, and simultaneous recitals of poems (and so on) to combat the conventional trappings of performance in which the stage--‘staging’ suggesting a set of expectations--as the medium got in the way of substance and delivery: acting was a mask--a truth so obvious that it had become invisible. In the performances at the Cabaret Voltaire words were transformed, they became ‘vocables’; not really words at all, but concretized combinations of sounds produced by the performer voicing what can only be called a series of combined letters of the alphabet which had apparently been randomly jumbled into a new kind of vehicle for expression, and these then delivered without any regard to reference or identity (6). This corresponded in some small way to Luigi Russolo’s new idea of the human voice, the characteristics of which he listed as comprising one of six “families of noise of the Futurist orchestra,” under the heading Voices of Animals and Men (Apollonio, 1973: 86). These he listed as, “Shouts, Screams, Groans, Shrieks, Howls, Laughs, Wheezes, Sobs,” and the similarity between the two divergent movements with regard to the elevation of ‘meaningless’ sound in performance is shown if we compare the Dadaist Jean Arp’s remarks about “automatic poetry,” which he claimed “springs directly from the poet’s bowels or other organs, which have stored up reserves of usable material. The poet crows, curses, sighs, stutters, yodels, as he pleases. His poems are like Nature” (cited in Richter, 1997: 30). Of course, this ideal could only be realized in certain kinds of performance, and consequently was considered a more laudable goal in some cases than in others. It is in this respect that Hugo Ball seems to have diverged from the others. In his introduction to Ball’s diaries, translated as Flight Out of Time, John Elderfield writes that:

Ball had found that the act of recitation itself tested a poem’s quality and determined its impact. Basic to his interpretation of poetry was his conviction that it had far more aspects to it than its written words (quoted in Ball, 1996: xxvii).
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Figure 8
Hugo Ball in performance, 1917 (source unknown)

What the sound-poem had that was greater, according to Ball, was its connection to a realm of spiritual logos that was mediated through the performance and universal recognition of ‘ancient mystical words’ (which one takes to have been given form by the vocables). Not at all incidental to Ball’s view that performance should converge upon new possibilities was the use of masks and costumes in the Cabaret, and these, it turned out, were to become an essential component in transcending the limitations of words and language, bringing Hugo Ball, in particular, to a startling realization of the possibility of renewing the Word (i.e. logos) through the sound-poem which, in connecting to the spiritual would unmask the fakery of ideas about language and truth. The accidental nature of this discovery reveals a serious point behind the use of masks, which seems only to have been realized after Marcel Janco had prepared the costumes and the participants in the Cabaret had taken up ‘character’ under the influence of these new appearances. The masks, in fact, only highlighted the protean nature of expression--which is to say, the elusiveness, the naked strangeness of the sound and motion of performance--and Hugo Ball in particular noted that a transformation had overcome the performers (Fig. 8). The mask, he observed, “Demanded a quite definite, passionate gesture, bordering on madness” (Ball, 1996: 64). The masks also brought home to Ball the deceitful nature of the phenomenal world, the ambiguity of appearances (of words, gestures, etc.) that taken together provide a stage for meaningful life, and suggested the possibility that the only way to come to terms with this illusion was through the transforming power of a more serious kind of gesture:

Although we could not have imagined it five minutes earlier, we were walking around with the most bizarre movements, festooned and draped with impossible objects […] the motive power of these masks was irresistibly conveyed to us. All at once we realized the significance of such a mask […] they represent not human character and passions, but character and passions that are higher than life. The horror of our time, the paralyzing background of events, is made visible (Ball, 1996: 64).

The power of the mask lies in its relation to indeterminate play. In modern society play is not readily understood by the categorical mind (i.e., ‘play’ is a residual category), and certainly not as the route to truth--rather, in its frivolity and sensuousness, play is contrasted with reason and emerges as the source of error, which means it is an aspect of existence that reason-as-logos seeks always to overcome (Ferguson, 1991: 7-27). In archaic societies, on the other hand, play is taken as the return of an arbitrary cosmos to the divine lottery of Zeus--in other words, as an earlier way to divine truth, or we may say to the spiritual-as-logos (Spariousu, 1989). For Hugo Ball and the others the donning of masks and costumes upset the cozy familiarity of a modern world charmed into existence by the bending of language to suit the most grotesque ends. In the Cabaret Voltaire the liquidity, or protean quality, of the performance of bizarre movements and ecstatic recitation presented language (in the unstable form of the Dadaist vocables) ‘draped’ in the unrecognizable garb of meaninglessness. “We have now driven the plasticity of the word to the point where it can scarcely be equaled,” Ball remarked on the success of performances:

We have loaded the word with strengths and energies that helped us to rediscover the evangelical concept of the word (logos) as a magical complex image […] touching lightly on a hundred ideas at the same time without naming them. (Ball, 1996: 67-68).

Thus, the notion of logos as reason’s progress to perfection was destroyed by the impenetrable vocables and simultaneous poems, which were intended to drag the listener underneath the deceptive appearance of an industrial society that proclaimed the triumph of reason--to touch on a hundred ideas at the same time. And to return to the problem of appearance, what is crucial to our understanding is that performances like these, which employed disguise on several levels, dramatized the very problem of appearance and reality within the context of change (Napier, 1986: 2-3). This seemed to open the gap that had driven philosophy to strict terms of language association: what now was real, and what was fake, it asked. It said that change is found in unpredictable performance, but identity by contrast (as a kind of tautological redescription-of-the-same) only pertains in a state of changelessness. Yet, it is undeniable that things in the ‘real’ world (and not just in performance) do change--being is becoming--thus, the possibility that the world, or nature, may be ambiguous is rehearsed through the disguises of performance. Nevertheless, the potential disorder implied in such upsetting of certainties can hold a certain degree of danger, and the experience of Hugo Ball seemed to demonstrate this.

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Figure 9
Hugo Ball in performance, 1917 (source unknown)

It was in June 1916, and barely a year after arriving in Zurich that Ball began to drift apart from the others involved in the Cabaret after one particularly harrowing performance. In his diaries he describes giving a reading of some of his sound-poems in a costume specially made for the event. The costume was so confining as to require many on the spot adjustments to the performance, and so it determined his movements in a particular way that he could not have foreseen, which in turn influenced the modulation and timbre of his readings. And having been carried on stage due to his immobility, Ball was left with only his arms free; the rest of his body, wrapped in a tightly fitting cylinder, was stiff (Fig. 9). Nevertheless, with arms free he found that he was able to “give the impression of winglike movement by raising and lowering [the] elbows,” which he duly did by flapping them energetically between readings, at the same time furtively trying to work out how this thing might end:

I noticed that my voice had no choice but to take on the ancient cadence of priestly lamentation […] for a moment it seemed as if there were a pale, bewildered face in my cubist mask, that half-frightened, half-curious face of a ten-year-old boy, trembling and hanging avidly on the priest’s words in the requiems and high masses in his home parish. Then the lights went out, as I had ordered, and bathed in sweat, I was carried down off the stage like a magical bishop (Ball, 1996: 70-71).

This removal of self--a destruction of the world of self--is wrought by an incalculable plunge. In letting himself be taken by events he permitted the experience to become one where the world was, for him, transformed into a magico-religious sensorium. Delving deeply into the unknown--these were performances, remember, that were described as ‘bordering on madness’--he becomes caught in the vertigo of the playful forces of denial and affirmation. He may have chosen the stage, but in the act, and through the mode of presentation he loses dominion over it. The audience witnessing this was equally unsettled; after initially being baffled, it ‘exploded’ (Richter, 1997: 42).  The impact on Hugo Ball was no less emphatic--after this he “progressively disengaged himself from Dada” (Richter, 1997: 43). Tristan Tzara had begun to take a more prominent role in the presentation of Dada, nudging things in a more propagandist, pamphleteering, and confrontational direction, which seemed to be diverging sharply from the kind of activity Hugo Ball was involved in, one which aimed at the destruction of world and will, and seemed on this occasion to have been successful on at least one count, the destruction of his own will to continue: “I have examined myself carefully,” Ball said, “and I could never bid chaos welcome” (quoted in Richter, 1997: 43). The truth was that he already had, and it proved disconcerting enough to draw him back from the abyss.

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Figure 10
Figure 11
Cover of Serner's 'Letze Lockerung' (Last Loosening), Hanover: Paul Steegman, 1920.
Walter Serner, Zurich 1917. By Hans Richter.

With Ball’s disengagement Dada then spread out into other European cities (and was exported to New York), and what followed the Cabaret Voltaire was a continuation, if not repetition, of an ever more provocative tomfoolery (minus Ball’s pursuit of a spiritual logos), and instead of Ball’s declared intention to create a new fusion of arts, Dada became an attack on art itself. With a barely concealed hint of nihilism, Walter Serner, a latecomer to the Cabaret Voltaire, took the radical nominalism of Dada rhetoric to an extremity of meaningless and disintegration in his Last Loosening (Figs. 10 and 11)(7). This riposte to good taste, executed to hilarious effect in a slim volume of fifty pages, displayed a keen sense of the ultimate profanity of things, of the obvious cosmetic re-ordering of filth and garbage that provides a basis for identity and meaning, and that no less provides the spur for art as well. Although it is not clear whether he included his fellow Dadaists in his disparaging appraisal of the artistic objective of appropriating the world (but a good guess would suggest it is likely), it is evident that he was reaching for the chaos that Hugo Ball recoiled from: “It is generally known that a dog is not a hammock; less so that failing to accept this tender hypothesis would cause the painter’s daubing fists to slump at their sides” (Ball, Huelsenbeck and Serner, 1995: 155). Ergo, painting is hamstrung by problems of identity and representation. He goes further, suggesting that the artistic impulse derives from an embarrassment at the thought of doing nothing, from a kind of impotence compounded by an inability to constrain oneself. And all this in the face of the gratuitousness of existence:

It’s all just the same […] the desire to escape one’s embarrassment by giving it (stylistic, ogodogodo) form. Dreadful word! Which is to say: to make something that is profitable out of life, which is improbable to the tips of its toes! To clap a redeeming heaven over this filth and enigma! To perfume and order this pile of human excrement! (Ball, Huelsenbeck and Serner, 1995: 156)

In short, art was evidence of an inability to get to grips with being, to refrain from fixing things--it was a manifestation of impatience: “all in all, my dearest,” Serner wrote, “art was just a teething problem” (Ball, Huelsenbeck and Serner, 1995 : 156).


(5) See Hugo Ball (1996) ibid. Entry for 24.V.1916: “we are never in complete or simultaneous agreement” (63); and Richard Huelsenbeck (1993) ibid: “Whoever turns ‘freedom’ or ‘relativity’ including the insight that the contours of everything shift, that nothing is stable, into a ‘firm creed’ is just another ideologue, like the nihilists who are almost always the most incredible, narrow-minded dogmatists. Dada is far removed from all that.” (11)

(6) Tzara took this principle from performance into the printed word, and created the ‘cut-up’. According to Hans Richter (1997) ibid: “he cut newspaper articles up into tiny pieces, none of them any longer than a word, put the words in a bag, shook them well, and allowed them to flutter onto a table. The arrangement (or lack of it) in which they fell constituted a ‘poem’” (54)

(7) Huelsenbeck (1993) in the Dada Almanac describes him thus: “Dr. Walter Serner…extreme adventurer, nihilist and venereologist…The epitome of the ‘gentleman burglar’ (Arp), he was later the author of numerous sleazy crime stories.” (92)



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