Hugo Ball exposes the myth of primitive authenticity (1916)

Hugo Ball (1886-1927) was an author and poet perhaps best known for his contributions to Dadaism. In this excerpt from his diary, he critiques the late nineteenth-century French poet and relentless traveler Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) for the idealized view of “nègres” expressed in his 1873 poem “Season in Hell” (Saison en Enfer). Rimbaud depicts Africans as simple brutes and thus more natural and redeemable than the “false negroes,” those Europeans who act bestially because they have been corrupted by the decadence of civilization. Ball points out how Rimbaud’s fantasy had little to do with actual Africans or any other rural peoples but everything to do with his discontent with modern life.

Jeff Bowersox


20 April 1916:

In our universe we cannot avoid the name Arthur Rimbaud. We are Rimabaud-ists without wanting or knowing it. He is the patron of our many poses and sentimental prevarications; the start of modern aesthetic desolation. Rimbaud breaks down into two parts. He is a poet and a refractory, and the latter is of primary significance. He sacrifices the poet for the refugee. As a poet he has achieved great things but not the ultimate. He lacks tranquility, the gift of being able to wait for it. A savage or feral nature stands in the way of and destroys the priestly-gentle, the measured power of a synthesized human, of a born poet. Harmony and equilibrium seem to him not only occasionally but almost unceasingly as sentimental weaknesses, as decadent incantations; as a poisoned blindfold of the European world longing for death. He fears succumbing to the general weakness and effeminacy; fears being the dupe of an unworthy decadence if he follows the coy, quiet stirrings. He cannot resolve to give Europe over to the mirage of splendid adventure.

Rimbaud’s discovery is that Europe is the “false Negro.”

He has a religious, a cultish ideal, of which he admittedly only knows the one thing, that it is greater and more important than a special poetic ability. This idea gives him the strength to voluntarily expunge, annulling what he created, even were it a masterpiece of his, something that his time would consider European poetic art.

Source: Hugo Ball, Die Flucht aus der Zeit (Munich: Duncker & Humblot, 1927). Translated by Jeff Bowersox.

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