Between 1914 and 1920, the years in which Hugo Ball gestated, founded, and eventually fled Zurich Dada, he wrote a little-known novella, Tenderenda the Fantast. As the title might imply, it is a fantastic combination of primal, anarchic scenes taking the reader through imaginary cities, silly ascents to the stratosphere, and tragic descents into various levels of hell. It mirrors and distorts both Ball’s Dada adventure and the inner torment which pulled him in opposite directions, and eventually led him to the contemplative life of a Catholic ascetic.
Throughout the eighties and nineties, Jonathan Hammer was a constant and complicating presence in the San Francisco art scene. He published chapters of his new translation of Tenderenda the Fantast, and created prints and collaborative books, a body of visual art itself mirroring and distorting Ball’s artistic journey, torment, and influence. The result of this focussed investigation and reinterpetation of Ball’s legacy is the publication of an idiosyncratic book from Yale University Press, Ball and Hammer: Hugo Ball’s Tenderenda the Fantast Illustrated by Jonathan Hammer. Not only are we given a more vigorous and readable translation of Ball’s novel, we are given the rarest of pleasures, art-work that is both conceptually and visually interesting. The text and illustrations are framed by two provocative essays on Ball, by Hammer and by editor Jeffrey Schnapp.
Dada has been mythologized as both founding and essential art movement of the twentieth century. Because there was little stylistic coherence to the Dada program, it could be viewed as an original impulse leading most anywhere that followed. Its spirit of anti-everything, its radical critique of existence, its blurring of the boundaries between art and life, its penchant for fragments, debris, and performance, and its attack on rationality could suggest most every art movement that followed: Breton’s ideological surrealism, abstract and conceptual arts, socially engaged artistic interventions, pop art, performance, punk, etc. The struggle over interpreting Dada’s legacy has been a struggle, in part, over whether to harness this energy toward social and political ends or whether such goal-directed behavior is itself a betrayal of the spirit of Dada.
In a line in his diary Ball wrote, "Today I saw a brand of shoe polish bearing the legend ‘The thing in itself.’" The debasement of thought and language through advertising that Ball decried has been taken to its extreme, until it is indistinguishable from the atmosphere; our current situation makes it difficult to read the seriousness of Ball’s intent in Tenderenda. From our vantage point, the actual text can come across as facile surrealism. Images of destruction, anarchy, mob violence, and sheer absurdity have become thoroughly cheapened in the intervening century; for Ball this play of imagery was part of a life or death struggle, crucial toward maintaining a balance of creation and destruction in himself, in Dada, and in the world.
Hammer’s essay and translation help to place the novel in context by highlighting its more profound roots in Dante and in apocalyptic literature. His major interpretative conceits are two-fold: outing Ball as homosexual mystic, and placing Zurich Dada in the context of 19th century spiritualism and the western esoteric tradition, blending gnostic, Rosicrucian, and Kabalistic influences. In the first decades of the century, these ideas were not underground threads peeking out of a rationalist discourse; they were a significant part of the intellectual context leading to the development of the attitudes and techniques we call modernist. Ball’s project, while at times embracing nihilistic forces, was always doing so on behalf of larger goals. Ball’s project, like that of his contemporary Carl Jung, was one of reconciling opposites and of regenerating society and the cosmos. This becomes apparent throughout Tenderenda as scenes of prophecy and flight are juxtaposed with scenes of ridiculous debauchery.
Hammer credits Ball with the oft-disputed discovery of the word DADA itself, which for Hammer is Ball’s equivalent of the name of God in Kabala. Ball’s vision of regeneration owed a great deal to painter Wasily Kandinsky. Kandinsky spoke of a grammar of painting, and spoke of words as objects which could also be abstracted in the service of revealing inner harmonies. The enlightened artist was a magical and experimental controller, working through recombination to create particular vibrations within the human soul. Ball took the idea of spiritual energies and magical recombination to heart. His interest in rediscovering "the hieroglyphic language of God" and recharging with magic a language he saw degraded by politics and advertising led to his famous sound poems, incantations seen as more elemental and beyond mere sense. Tenderenda incorporates these sound poems, and Ball’s alchemical play with language. The energies he unleashed set the stage for Zurich Dada’s exploration of chance and recombination with language and images. When Tristan Tzara cut newspaper articles into pieces, shook up the words, and let them fall in a random arrangement he called poems, he was animated by Ball’s kabalistic principles which would then wind their way through 20th Century art, science, and literature.
Ball’s wordplay with the recombination of syllables echoes his pre-Dada involvement with the young student radical, Hans Leybold. They mingled the syllables of their names to publish provocative collaborative poems under the name Ha Hu Baley. Leybold’s death in 1915 in the War was a crucial event in Ball’s journey toward an artistic brotherhood united against church, state, family, and the status quo. If Balls’ actual homoerotic longings were buried under meaningless and overdramatic gestures of violence (he reportedly followed around his future wife Emmy Hennings and her handsome lover with a revolver in his pocket), clearly he lived a virtual sexual life through language. Hammer dispenses with the tiresome task of excavating "evidence" of homosexuality in Ball’s life, and instead excavates the spiritualized and anarchic homoeroticism of his language. His translation aggressively highlights those homosexual references which were buried in previous translations, and his compelling illustrations of demented clowns, futuristic sea-creatures, and Sadean toys underline the parallels between Ball’s thwarted yearnings, apocalyptic literature, and the age of AIDS.
If the death of Ball’s lover/twin transformed Leybold into the sacrificial scapegoat that enabled Ball’s ascent as Dada godfather, Ball’s guilt forced him to transform himself into scapegoat through his tormented alter egos in Tenderenda. His characters, conflated versions of himself and others, are forced to eat nothing but their own self-made shit, and wander through landscapes where dead soldiers’ corpses burn through the night. They are pursued, fragmented, and usually confused as to "whether they belong to those above or those below." Despite the chaos and the wordplay, the narrative is surprisingly vivid and readable. Although scenes and characters shift, merge, and reappear with no apparent order, there is an underlying rhythm of horror and transcendence that provides an overarching coherence. Hammer’s "illustrations" are multi-layered additions to Ball’s text. They are visions of monstrous and mutating humanity, layered with his own sense of self portraiture, highlighting a modern artist’s role as a clown, publicly tortured and humiliated for the sake of questionable revelations. Hammer is not simply excavating the esoteric and homoerotic threads of Ball’s novel, he is interrogating the postmodern art world, the distortion of its Dada legacy, and its desire for carny thrills and cheap mysteries.
In the process, Hammer himself wears Ball’s multiple hats as clown, prophet, and charlatan. If his playful "revisioning" of Ball’s legacy implies, on the one hand, that we might someday view Madonna’s interest in Kabala as central to the formation of music’s future, on the other hand it asks: why not imagine Dada’s conflicted impulses as forces aimed at a vast social healing process? Why not ourselves embark on a Dada journey, questioning and breaking down all forms and dogmas, balancing the destruction of an unsatisfactory social reality with the tentative creation of something new?
Ball and Hammer make such a journey seem unbearably wretched. But both see their transgressive scenes as a personal exorcism of demons. As their imaginations plumb the depths and heights of human experience, the journey also begins to seem oddly seductive.