While not exactly an encounter on the operating table between a sewing machine and an umbrella, a 21st-century reading of Hugo Ball’s Critique of the German Intelligentsia (1919) creates one of those discomforting juxtapositions that were the very essence of surrealism.
A founder of Dada and the influential Café Voltaire in Zurich, Ball exposes the sometimes informed, sometimes blind eagerness with which German intellectuals over centuries abetted the growth of an increasingly militaristic culture. Ball’s study deserves to be read alongside Simone Weil’s classic Nationhood and Uprootedness—for the forcefulness of its thought as well as its insight into the evolutionary possibilities still latent in Catholic mysticism. Both writers emphasize the terrible effects of confusing earthly with heavenly powers—of mixing religion with politics. Ball specifically focuses on the vicissitudes of spiritual freedom and its gradual co-optation by the rising Prussian military state as fueled by the logic of the Reformation. Improbable as it sounds, the world Ball describes sounds eerily like the United States of today.
First, Hugo Ball asks, What is culture? His definition is memorable: “Interceding for the poorest and most humble among the people as if from them the noblest beings and the rich plenitude of heaven are to be born.” The clarity of this insight is startling, and of course hard for us to take seriously. Ball’s subsequent arguments and criticism grow out of this central observation, which conditions all his values. To a society gone mad with quantification, seized by a lunatic faith that more money and higher property values and better test scores will bring happiness, Ball must sound as though he’s from another planet. Needless to say, his definition of intellect does not translate into a three-digit number. Instead, he observes that intellect is “conscience applied to culture.” Money and a cultivated intelligence are understandably coveted but they become meaningful primarily when used as tools for encouraging the growth of juster societies.
Do we need to reflect very long before realizing just how we as a nation would fare on the Ball Test? The cost of one Stealth bomber would cover the annual salaries, including benefits, for 38,000 elementary school teachers. In the current climate, an argument for the fair and equitable distribution of resources seems an unpatriotic heresy.
And that’s because the struggle of our time is between the ideal of democracy and the reality of feudalism. Unfortunately, most of the New Feudalists are firmly ensconced inside Western governments and corporations. And much of the world suffers under their savage reign. Today just about everyone in this country uses whatever advantages they have to advance themselves and theirs—even the liberal rich do what they can to secure for their families an edge in education, health-care, and living arrangements. How can they not? It would be unnatural for them not to.
Quite possibly, Justice is not a “natural” state of affairs.
A lay person reading the potted science elaborated by Steven Hawking in The Universe in a Nutshell must conclude that according to the new physics, virtually nothing imaginable is off-limits. The vivid and expensive sci-fi epics saturating popular culture are based on fact, or rather on possibility: somewhere in the universe is that planet specializing in hybridizing bromeliads with blondes. It therefore isn’t inconceivable that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are no more than holograms projected by a malevolent spirit residing in a distant galaxy.
One fears an autopsy on most members of the current administration would reveal a common yet utterly remarkable physiological abnormality: somehow we have generated an entire governing class who look more or less normal yet whose very existence testifies to the presence of a supernatural element. It is, after all, still impossible for a human to live without a heart.
Class divisions today are so extreme they make it hard even for friends to communicate and understand each other above their great and growing differences. The rich and the poor do not live, shop, or fight wars together; they do not go to school or on holiday to the same places. Indeed, they see each other, if at all, largely in severely circumscribed roles in which, in order to ensure their own physical survival, the have-nots are forced to act as supplicants to the haves.
With no demonstrable commitment to the values of real equality and justice, the sort of “free market capitalism” we suffer under barely masks under the soft folds and dark hues of Hugo Boss a savagery found in no jungle. This, alas, is a cliché. And that fact is itself increasingly a problem. A writer’s job is to keep the language efficient so that it communicates. But words wear out; through misuse and overuse, they grow unmoored from meaning. When slaughter is defined as liberation, when justice is color-coded, when governments feel free to pull a bait-and-switch in a matter so serious as a war costing thousands of lives, when that same government can continue decimating after-school programs for children, summer programs for teenagers, and support for the mentally disabled while escalating expenditures on state-sponsored murder, when society continues to sanction improbable levels of compensation for a handful of people while turning a blind eye to the distance between the minimum wage and a realistic living one, then language may indeed have reached a dead end.
“Satanic forces are at work,” Ball warned, “where the torment with which everyone is born is doubled by existence instead of being relieved.” The system in which we live strives to persuade us that a status quo of gross inequality is precisely what it is aiming to change. But evidence suggests the contrary. Eventually people will recognize this. And when they awaken, someone will pay.
Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.
In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York Times, The Nation, The Partisan Review, Grand Street, Ploughshares, AGNI, Poetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry, Literature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.
He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.
Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College and Arrowsmith Press in 2006. (updated 10/2022)
See him interviewed on New England Authors.