Hugo Ball and Ridiculous Modernism

My last day of classes for the semester was yesterday, and my students’ final papers are trickling in. I’ll have more to say about my thoughts on the semester and the results of making my course theme the University of Virginia itself in the near future, but I’m also shifting modes back to finishing up a revision of the chapter of my dissertation in which I lay out what I mean by “ridiculous modernism.”

The chapter looks at the explicitly pejorative side of nonsense, the one that usually expresses itself as “nonsense!” in a swift dismissal of something. It’s a sense of nonsense, I argue, that pervades all the other sense of the term—whenever someone talks about nonsense, they cannot avoid the negative connotations that accompany the term. This chapter therefore outlines relationships between ridicule, ridiculousness, and various senses and practices of nonsense.

The ridiculing cry of “nonsense!” was an especially prevalent reaction to the rise of modernism, as recent work by both Leonard Diepeveen and Daniel Tracy points out. My chapter looks at a spectrum of responses to early of modernism, each of them engaged with nonsense in one way or another. First, I consider G.K. Chesterton, an ardent anti-modernist who at once proclaimed nonsense “the literature of the future” and regularly parodied modernism, both in prose narratives and in nonsense-like light verse. Chesterton earnestly viewed modernism as a cultural threat, but he also, I argue (along with Robert Caserio), demonstrates surprising formal affinities with the modernist project. From Chesterton’s antipathy for modernism, I move to a consideration of satires of modernism in the American popular press, a section that culminates in a reading of Mary Mills Lyall’s and Harvey Earl Lyall’s Cubies ABC. I’ll have more to say about the Lyalls and their abecedarian satire as MLA approaches—I’ll be presenting on their work at the American Humor Studies Association‘s panel. The final section of the chapter involves an extended consideration of the Dada sound poet Hugo Ball. Dada is both a response to earlier modernisms and a radical new modernism of its own. In my chapter, I argue that Dada, with Ball as my prime example, does not just honor but also ridicule earlier modernisms even as it absorbs some of the ridicule faced by earlier avant-gardes into a self-consciously ridiculous aesthetic of its own. I have been developing this material on Ball over last six months for presentations at UVA, at Princeton, at ACLA, and at MSA, so I’m excited to finally be incorporating the feedback of my kind audiences at those venues and revising the section into a more polished piece of the the dissertation.

The most famous example of Ball’s sound poetry, which attempted to use no word that had been used before, may well be “Karawane,” recordings of which can be heard here (by Christian Bök), here (by Trio Exvoco) , or here (by Marie Osmond), and which appeared like this in Richard Huelsenbeck‘s 1920 Dada Almanach:

I do some extended thinking about this page and its typographical appearance in my chapter, but my main concern is with how we should interpret the bizarre performance through which Ball introduced the poems. As you’ll see below, Ball wore a shiny painted costume made of cardboard so elaborate that he could not even walk onto the stage of the Cabaret Voltaire himself. As he read the poems, Ball flapped the cardboard wings of the costume. Understandably, perhaps, the audience laughed at the performance. The costume looked like this:

In my chapter, I attempt to think through the relationship between this performance and the sound poems (are the two even conceptually separable?), the way we should interpret the spirit of the audience’s laughter (and Ball’s complicity in its production), and the way this “original” performance and its subsequent remediations raise crucial issues about the materiality of poetic language.

How should we interpret a laughing response to this kind of radical aesthetic experiment? While we might be inclined to situate such laughter according to a stock narrative of avant-garde shock—the audience laughs because they are uncomfortable with the newness of Ball’s art and poetry—I argue in this chapter that their laughter actually participates in the art itself. I offer an extended reading of Ball’s account of the episode, suggesting that he thought he himself might succumb to laughter. If nothing else, he must have expected it. If the audience is more involved with and friendly to this artistic event than is often assumed, Ball is complicit in, perhaps even encouraging of, their laughter. His costume, in fact,  resembles parodies of Cubism that predate Dada by several years:

M. Armand Berthez in Cubist costume, 1911


image from The Cubies' ABC, 1913

In this Dada moment, the satiric practice of mockers of modernism and the practice of modernists themselves converges in many ways, and both are engaged in circuits of ridiculing provocations and willful aesthetic ridiculousness. While many would be inclined to treat these dynamics as unique to Dada, in my dissertation I argue that a similar kind of playfulness and willful ridiculousness, which often manifests itself through an engagement with one or another modes of nonsense, runs through experimental modernism more generally. Strains of nonsense bring elements of the anti-serious into the work of even many of the most putatively serious modernists, from T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein to Laura (Riding) Jackson and Virginia Woolf.

In future posts, I will describe the split identities of language at play in Ball’s scene and explain my conception of  “ridiculous modernism” more thoroughly. For the time being, though, I’m excited to have a break from teaching so I can get back to finishing up the dissertation.

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