onsdag den 2. februar 2011


In a sense, this blog entry is a continuation of the one on Knud Pedersen (see under January), so if you have not read that, you may want to do so first. What I want to write about here is something that annoys me – not massively, but just slightly. And one of the main reasons why it annoys me is the very fact that it annoys me. It is a matter that I could have addressed in many different ways, but I have opted for a relatively safe way, namely a historical one. None of the protagonists are with us any longer.
The annoying thing is actually an assemblage of three things: a very well-known photograph of Zürich Dadaist Hugo Ball dressed in a Cubist costume, a printed version of his poem “Karawane” and a diary entry from 23 June 1916, reprinted in Ball’s book Flight out of time, in which he describes a performance. You will find the photograph on the Dada Companion website (top right hand corner) and the poem on Wikipedia.  The diary entry does not appear to have been reproduced on the internet, so I will summarise it instead. Ball writes that he has invented something he calls “poems without words” or “sound poems” and that he has performed some of them. He then describes the outfit he had made for the occasion (a collection of cardboard tubes and other constructions, more or less similar to the ones shown in the photograph), and finally he moves on to the performance itself.  He writes that he “began slowly and solemnly”, but that “the stresses became heavier” until “his voice had no choice but to take on the ancient

The three bits of documentation can - and often are - be combined to form a kind of multimedia Dada show. Word (the poem), image (the photograph) and the spoken word (Ball's diary entry) come together to create a multisensory image of “Hugo Ball performing ‘Karawane’ at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich in 1916". But there are some problems. First of all, the diary entry actually quotes one of the poems he recited, and it is not “Karawane”,but another one called “Gadji beri bimba” (you can read the poem here). It mentions an “Elefantenkarawane”, but there are trumpeting elephants in “Gadji beri bimba” as well (“elifantolim brussala bulomen brussala bulomen tromtata”). The only other title Ball quotes is “Labadas Gesang an die Wolken”, and that is not the one either – so we simply do not know whether Ball actually performed “Karawane” that night. It is very likely, but we cannot be certain.
Secondly, the specific version of “Karawane” that is usually reprinted together with the photograph and/or the diary entry is the one from the Dada Almanach, published in Berlin in 1920, i.e. four years later and 850 kilometers away. According to Berlin Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, the distinctive typography is by Richard Hülsenbeck, who moved from Zürich to Berlin in 1917 and ended up creating an alternative Dada headquarters there. In fact, the use of different type faces is rare in the publications of the Zurich Dadaists, but highly characteristic of the Berlin Dadaists. Especially Hausmann did so extensively . The Berlin Dadaists even made a collage that combined the photograph of Ball with a Berlin-style rendition of the poem, albeit not the one that is usually reproduced these days (just to make things easier). The collage was intended for publication in Dadaco, the “Dadaist hand atlas” that never saw the light of day. The combination of the photograph and the poem, then, seems to have been a German fabrication, a piece of internal Dada politics, and not the original document we would like it to be.

If I used some time and energy on the matter, I am sure I could find out who fabricated it, when and why, but I will not. Because it is at exactly this point that I get annoyed. I get annoyed at the ease with which people heap fragments together in order to create the suggestion of a coherent whole and I get annoyed at myself for getting annoyed because it is a sign that I am no better.
Perhaps I should try to be surprised instead. In an essay called “Presence” (in History and Theory no. 45, February 2006), Dutch historian and philosopher Eelco Runia makes a plea for surprise, and it is a convincing one. History, Runia claims, is all about avoiding surprises. It seeks patterns, either in history itself or in metahistory (the writing of history). “What looks like the royal road to the past”, he writes, “never takes you anywhere but to places within sight of your point of departure”; but “exploring the present might have you, somewhere, someplace, tumbling into depths you didn’t suspect were there”. More specifically, Runia wants the historian to look for “metonymies”, “displaced words”, words that connect different contexts, “holes through which the past touches the present”. Viewing Ball’s caravan as a metonymy means watching the elephants march from the past into the present and from the present into the past, both at the same time.
One very good reason for doing so is that it represents a break with the oh-so-appealing idea that texts and photographs can turn us into eye witnesses of something that happened 95 years ago. More specifically for the assemblage discussed here, it means that we can turn our attention away from the factual information contained in Ball's diary entry and towards his opening line, where he announces that "I have invented a new genre of poems, Verse ohne Worte or Lautgedichte, in which the balance of the vowels is weighed and distributed solely according to the values of the beginning sequence". Instead of connecting it to the photograph and the printed version of the poem, which makes authenticity the central subject of discussion, it can then be connected to the Dada Manifesto that Ball read out just a week earlier: "I shall be reading poems that are meant to dispense with conventional language, no less, and to have done with it. (...) I don’t want words that other people have invented. (...) I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own. (...) The word, the word, the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness. The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance". In such a context, authenticity could never be an issue. Language and its limits, on the other hand, could. 

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