Hugo Ball, Dada and “Elefantenkarawane”
By TOBY LICHTIG
In this week’s issue of the TLS (out today) David Collard reviews Hugo Ball’s Dada novel Flametti, which first appeared in German in 1916 but is only now available in an English translation (by Catherine Schelbert).
To accompany his piece on this “wildly inventive” little book, which – according to Ball – contained the author’s entire Dada philosophy (or, rather, anti-philosophy), Collard recently came into our studio to give a little background to the novel, to read out a passage from it, and to give a wonderful recital of Ball’s sound poem “Elefantenkarawane” (Elephant Caravan):
As Collard explains, this poem is meant to be performed. . .
And it was first performed by Ball – dressed in the extraordinary garb of a kind of “cubist bishop” (see above) – before a noisy crowd at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, 1916, and against the horrific backdrop of the First World War. It was a cross, it was said, between a liturgical chant and an angry “articulation of unreason”.
The liturgical element is important. Ball was raised a Catholic and died one, and – although Dada was anti-religion as well as anti-philosophy and anti-art – his poetry recalls, in effect if not sound, the Latin Mass, recited in a language unspoken by the congregation yet made familiar through repetition (the same could be said about the Ancient Hebrew chanted each day in synagogues across the world).
Ball explained that his sound poetry was based around “the equilibrium of vowels”, and, as Collard’s performance shows, the inflections that recall African as well as European languages reflect the Dada movement’s interest in primitivism and other non-Western forms.
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