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05 February 2016

Why can’t a tree be called Pluplusch?

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On 5 February 1916 at the Holländische Meierei restaurant on Spiegelgasse 1, Zürich, the Cabaret Voltaire was launched. The Cabaret was the brainchild of Hugo Ball (1886-1927) in collaboration with a small group of artists and writers disillusioned with conventional politics and an equally conventional aesthetic response. 100 years since the inauguration of the Cabaret Voltaire, it is worth sparing a thought for this radical intervention that resonates still today. Dada m’dada, dada m’dada dada mhm, dada dera dada.

Hugo Ball 1916 Hugo Ball in 1916, reproduced in Hugo Ball, Gesammelte Gedichte (Zürich, 1963). X.907/140.

Immediately unsuccessful and threatened with closure, the Cabaret Voltaire housed performances of progressively more outrageous, absurd and irrational pieces of poetry (of the “sound” and “parallel” varieties most famously), song, drama and manifesto. Their provoking output piqued the curiosity as well as the anger of the Zürich public.

Hugo Ball Cabaret Voltaire

Hugo Ball performing at the Cabaret Voltaire, image from Wikimedia Commons 

Irrationality was precisely the point, as Richard Huelsenbeck explains in his interview with Basil Richardson entitled ‘Inventing Dada’. Huelsenbeck, a German expressionist writer who helped establish the Cabaret in 1916, gives an account of the invention of Dada out of the foundations of the Cabaret Voltaire. He describes the humble beginnings borne out of life experience and not any concerted artistic movement as such. Ball and his companion Emmy Hennings worked factory jobs before deciding they must do something. This “something”, Huelsenbeck continues, was uncertain and undefined, or undefinable– what were they fighting for or against? He and the others soon realised that it was precisely this uncertainty that could define the motivations of their activity – irrationality was its essence.

En Avant Dada
Richard Huelsenbeck’s history of Dada, En avant dada (Hanover, [1920]). British Library Cup.403.z.47.

Out of this sense of novelty and unconventionality came Ball’s sound poems, first performed in June at the Cabaret Voltaire. One famous example is ‘Gadji beri bimba’ (1916), a recording of which among other sound poems is to be found on the audio collection Dada for Now. The first verse reads:

gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori
gadjama gramma berida bimbala glandri galassassa laulitalomini
gadji beri bin blassa glassala laula lonni cadorsu sassala bim
gadjama tuffm i zimzalla binban gligla wowolimai bin beri ban
o katalominai rhinozerossola hopsamen laulitalomini hoooo
gadjama rhinozerossola hopsamen
bluku terullala blaulala loooo

Ball tried to free himself from everyday language and invent new sound patterns, ultimately attempting to display a new level of artistic invention and creativity. (The Talking Heads song ‘I Zimbra’ from the album Fear of Music sets ‘Gadji beri bimba’ to music, giving it an African-inspired beat.) One month later, on 14 July 1916, at a Dada Soirée, Ball presents the first Dada manifesto, explaining his impulse to break from all rational notions of “the word”:

Each thing has its word, but the word has become a thing by itself. Why shouldn't I find it? Why can’t a tree be called Pluplusch, and Pluplubasch when it has been raining? The word, the word, the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness. The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance.

Ball soon separated himself from the ambitions of the Dadaists and, consequently, the group’s second driving force, Tristan Tzara, declared a “Dada Movement”, exactly the kind of fixity and purpose Ball and Huelsenbeck wanted to avoid. However, the last word should go to the founder of the Cabaret Voltaire, the Hugo Ball of 100 years ago,

gaga di bumbalo bumbalo gadjamen
gaga di bling blong
gaga blung

Hugo Ball Marcel Janco

Hugo Ball ca 1916, drawn by fellow-dadaist Marcel Janco. Reproduced in Gesammelte Gedichte.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library / University of Bristol


Breaking the rules: the printed face of the European avant garde, 1900-1937 (ed. By Stephen Bury) (London, 2007) YC.2008.b.251

Richard Huelsenbeck, Inventing Dada (interview with Basil Richardson) (1959), 1CD0268503

Dada for Now: A Collection of Futurist and Dada Sound Works (1985), 1LP0007598

Talking Heads, Fear of Music (1979), 1CD0000326

Hugo Ball, Gesammelte Gedichte. Mit Photos und Faksimiles (Herausgegeben von Annemarie Schütt-Hennings) (Zürich, 1970) X.900/11006.

Cabaret Voltaire
 The Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich today (Photo from Wikimedia Commons


02 February 2016

Sceptical medicine

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Martín Martínez (1684-1734) was a major figure in the reform of Spanish medicine.

Medicina sceptica BT
Martín Martínez, Medicina sceptica, y cirugia moderna, con un tratado de operaciones chirurgicas ... (Madrid, [1748]). British Library RB.23.a.36759

This newly-acquired book is a nice example of how in times earlier than our own there was no division between the Two Cultures: in the 18th century scientific works had to written with literary style.

Science in Spain was still heavily dependent on unquestioning acceptance of the authority of the Greeks and Romans. But Martínez was a sceptic, defined by the first dictionary of the Spanish Academy as: “adjective applied to a certain philosophical school, which affirmed nothing and defined nothing, and was empoyed only in impugning the opinions of others, doubting everything” :

SCEPTICO, CA. adj. que se aplica à cierta secta Philosóphica, que nada afirmaba, ni definía; sí solo se empleaba en impugnar las [r.57] opiniones de los otros, dudandolo todo (Diccionario de Autoridades, Tomo VI (1739))

Note that for the Academicians these Sceptics lived (past tense) in Antiquity.

This work on modern medicine takes the form of a dialogue between Galenico (a follower of Galen), Chimico (a chemist) and Hippocratico (a follower of Hippocrates). But the author, as a true sceptic, is not himself mired in the past: he cites “Hyppocrates, Erasistrato, Celso” [all ancients] but also “Boyle, Sidenham, Capoa, Silvio, Gassendo ... and the most celebrated men of the last century” (I, Introduccion, e3r).

Although the language of medicine in the 18th century was still Latin (the language in which he read those foreign worthies cited in the previous paragraph), Martínez writes in Spanish, because “mejor es saber en Romance, que ignorar en Latin” [it is better to be knowledgable in the vernacular than ignorant in Latin].

If there was a controversy going in 18th-century Spain, Father Benito was not going to be left out. Here he weighs in with a defence of his fellow sceptic and doubter of authority.

An added interest is the contemporary soft parchment binding, with bead and loop fastenings. In this case, as usual, the loops are there and the beads have gone.

Medicina sceptica binding 1

And although there is a printed table of contents (I, d5rv) an early reader has added his own handwritten table of contents on the flyleaf at the end of vol. I.

Medicina sceptica MS index

This book fills a gap in the British Library’s collection which goes back to 1955. In that year the Library acquired a pamphlet written in defence of the Medicina sceptica:

Opusculo nuevo 1481.c.41(48)
Pedro Salinas, Opusculo nuevo. Monita chimica secreta, en favor de la Medicina sceptica del Doctor D. Martin Martinez. ([Madrid?,c. 1760] ) 1481.c.41.(48)

And now we know what the fuss was about.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies 

29 January 2016

Playwright, peacemaker, polymath: Romain Rolland (1866-1944)

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When Romain Rolland was born on 29 January 1866 into a prosperous middle-class family in Clamecy, Nièvre, there was little to indicate that he would grow up to be a dramatist, critic and pacifist who would one day win the Nobel Prize. His ancestors included solidly well-to-do farmers, and he would describe himself as an offshoot of an ‘antique species’ deeply rooted in la France profonde

From the first, his attempts to follow the predictable path towards a respectable calling as a schoolmaster were beset by problems; entering the Ecole normale supérieure at the age of 20, he rejected his course in philosophy to study history and, after two years in Rome, gained his doctorate in 1895 with a thesis entitled Les Origines du théâtre lyrique moderne. Histoire de l'opéra en Europe avant Lully et Scarlatti (British Library Hirsch 1877).

Rolland as a young man
Romain Rolland during his time at the Ecole normale supérieure. Reproduced in Stefan Zweig, Romain Rolland (Frankfurt, 1921)

This was to be the beginning of a distinguished career as a music critic and historian which had been launched by his encounter in Rome with Malwida von Meysenbug, governess to Alexander Herzen’s daughters and friend of Liszt, Wagner and Nietszche. After teaching at several Paris lycées while publishing studies of musicians past and present (Les musiciens d'autrefois and Musiciens d'Aujourd'hui ) he became the director of the newly-founded Ecole des Hautes Etudes Sociales and was appointed in 1903 to the first chair of the history of music at the Sorbonne.

However, at the same time he was developing a career as a dramatist. Like Wagner, he believed passionately in the power of theatre as a unifying social force rather than a mere pretext for pretentious display, and advocated a ‘people’s theatre’ going back to the dramatic tradition of the ancient Greeks. In his plays he portrayed the great events and personages of French history, from Madame de Montespan and Louis XIV (1904) to the French revolution in Le Triomphe de la raisonGeorges Danton and Le Quatorze juillet, convinced that a people which was truly happy and free would need festivities rather than theatres, and would ‘always see in itself the finest spectacle’, as he wrote in Le Théâtre du peuple. His ideas were enthusiastically adopted outside France, notably by Erwin Piscator and the Freie Volksbühne in Germany.

The transcending of national and cultural boundaries through art was a central theme of Rolland’s writings and of his whole life. Although his retiring nature did not make him a natural teacher, leading him to resign from the Sorbonne in 1912, he spread his pacifist internationalist beliefs through his writings, and, unable to tolerate the chauvinistic patriotism reigning in France during the First World War, he moved to Switzerland, where he published his anti-war essay Au-dessus de la mêlée (‘Above the battle’) published in the year in which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His principles enabled him to overcome his natural diffidence and to engage with Mahatma Gandhi  (on whom he published a study in 1923), Sigmund Freud and Stefan Zweig. The latter described their friendship extensively in his autobiography Die Welt von gestern, while Freud acknowledged the importance of Rolland’s influence in his Civilization and its Discontents (1929). He was also a close friend of Hermann Hesse, who dedicated his novel Siddhartha (1922) to him in tribute to their discussions of Eastern philosophy.

Rolland Masereel
Rolland in 1919, portrait by Frans Masereel, reproduced in P.J. Jouve, Romain Rolland vivant (Paris, 1920) 011853.t.64.

Rolland’s great sequence of 10 novels Jean-Christophe (1904-1912) similarly explores the power of art to bridge cultural differences through the career of his hero, a gifted young German musician who settles in France and acts as the author’s mouthpiece for his ideas on the profound significance of music as a force for human understanding.

Rolland Jean-Christophe Zweig 184 f2r
Opening of the preface from Rolland's manuscript of the last volume of Jean-Christophe Zweig MS 184, f.2r

In view of his achievements as a pacifist, including his work as a founding member in 1932 of the World Committee Against War and Fascism, it may seem startling that when, on a visit to Moscow three years later as the guest of Maxim Gorky, he met Joseph Stalin, he declared him to be the greatest man of his time. Although disillusionment set in as he became better informed about Stalin’s treatment of those who opposed him, he continued, with tact and fortitude, to represent the interests of French artists in his dealings with the U.S.S.R. and to campaign for the release of the writer Victor Serge and the Soviet politician Nikolai Bukharin, who was nevertheless executed in 1938.   

Rolland Jean-Christophe Zweig 184 f1r
Dedication from the manuscript of the last volume of Jean-Christophe, ‘To the free souls - of all nations - who suffer, who struggle, and who will triumph’

Rolland returned in 1937 to make his home in Vézelay, where he remained in complete isolation throughout the German occupation, working tirelessly on his memoirs, his life of Beethoven, and a study of the Catholic poet Charles Péguy, which he completed not long before his death on 30 December 1944. His message of pacifism and the power of art to speak above narrow political and national interests continues to make him an author of lasting significance in an age which sorely needs to hear it.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities & Social Sciences), Research Engagement.

Works by Rolland referred to in the text:

Les musiciens d'autrefois  (Paris, 1908) W19/0525

Musiciens d'Aujourd'hui : Berlioz - Wagner - Saint-Saëns - Vincent D'Indy-  Claude Debussy - Hugo Wolf - Richard Strauss - Le Renouveau de la Musique Francais depuis 1870 (Paris, 1908) W8/7005 

Le Triomphe de la Raison (Paris, 1899) 11736.f.54.

Danton (Paris, 1901) 11740.d.35.

Le 14 juillet (Paris, 1902) 12208.pp.1/13.

Le Théâtre du peuple (Paris, 1903) 12208.pp.1/44.

Au-dessus de la mêlée (Paris, 1915) W18/5841

Mahatma Gandhi  (Zürich, 1923) YA.1992.a.10990

Jean-Christophe (1904-1912) 12550.t.14.