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Blago Bung Blago

Bung Bosso Fataka!

The First Texts of German Dada

Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, Walter Serner

Translated and introduced

by Malcolm Green

Atlas Press (London; dist. by

Serpent’s Tail), 176 pp.,

$15.99, paper

It is not hard to shock the bourgeoisie. The real question is: What does one do afterward? It’s a question that’s been asked by every generation of artists compelled to clear away the aesthetic clutter of an older generation before launching into an art of their own. The trouble is that a great deal of art has little beyond shock value—and when that inevitably fades, what’s left seems merely quaint, shot through with too much earnestness and too little real talent.

The consummate 20th-century shockers were the dadaists, an international group of poets, sculptors, and painters who emerged during World War I with a series of incomprehensible written manifestoes (and art works that were themselves manifestoes) declaring the end of art, of good taste, of complacency. “We want to provoke, perturb, bewilder, tease, tickle to death, confuse, without any context,” one early dadaist tract declared. “We propagate metabolism, break-neck somersaults, vampirism and all forms of mimicry.”

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At the time, the dadaists managed to accomplish a little of each (except perhaps the vampirism). But today, the dadaists are remembered more for scandal-mongering (and proto-punkish typographical innovations) than for what they actually wrote; it is rare to find more than a snippet of dadaist writing in an art history book. That is why Blago Bung Blago Bung Bosso Fataka! is so remarkable. This volume compiles the first English translations of three germinal works: Hugo Ball’s impossible-to-understand novel, Tenderenda der Phantast (Tenderenda the Fantast); Richard Huelsenbeck’s Bruitist poetry collection, Phantastische Gebete (Fantastic Prayers); and the lesser-known Walter Serner’s wryly abrasive Letzte Lockerung manifest (Last Loosening Manifesto), which promotes itself as “the sole possible SOLUTION TO THE MYSTERY OF THE UNIVERSE.” Editor and translator Malcolm Green provides a dry but useful historical overview of the movement, illustrated with small photos of the dadaists and their creations. His title—a bit of absurdity taken from a 1917 “phonetic poem” by provocateur Ball—sets the tone for the anthology’s energetic writings.

The texts look tame on paper, three-quarters of a century and many artistic revolutions later. Oddly, it is the sometimes sneering, sometimes pedantic writing of the largely unknown Serner that still seems fresh, if only for its ironically witty asides. Ball’s and Huelsenbeck’s nonsense words and strange incantations often seem little more than gimmickry, enlivened from time to time with a sharp turn of phrase, as in this piece by the latter:

We want to love our fatherland the grand cheese-cake

And the moon and old Bismark

And the boats that sail around the mashed potatoes

at midnight

At the time they were written, though, these works had the impact of a slap in the face. Part of their power derived from their presentation: Ball read his work at Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire dressed in a cardboard caricature of a priest’s garments, and Huelsenbeck recited his works with an affected arrogance that one can only just begin to sense from the photos of him included in the book. “His nostrils quiver, his eyebrows arch,” Ball wrote of his friend. “An ironic sneer plays across his lips….And he reads, accompanied by the big drum, roars, whistles and laughs….His verses are an attempt to capture in a lucid melody the totality of these unspeakable times, with all its cracks and tears, all its din and mindless racket.”

It’s true that Huelsenbeck and his ilk approximated that racket. But now that the noise has died down, there’s little significance left in Blago Bung’s deliberate preposterousness. Green’s book reintroduces some historical curiosities, but does not speak to the present. This is a work of another era, long gone.CP