Hugo Ball with his wife Emmy Hennings and, to the left of the photo, his friend the writer Hermann Hesse, of whom he wrote a biography in 1927.
In 1921, after his final break with the radical movement he had helped to found, Hugo Ball wrote a curious note in his diary: ‘When the word “Dada” came to me, I was twice called upon by Dionysius. D. A. – D. A. (H[uelsenbec]k wrote about this mystical birth; as did I myself in earlier notes. At the time I was practicing alchemy of the letter and the word).’ Ball’s retrospective invocation of the fifth-century mystic Dionysius Areopagita (also known as pseudo-Denis the Areopagite) came after his own radical conversion to a devout and austere Catholicism and in the midst of intense study of gnosticism and the early Church Fathers. He devoted the largest chapter of his 1923 book, Byzantine Christianity, to Dionysius. This talk considers the significance of Ball’s encounter with this elusive mystic and with other overlooked sources for how we understand Dada and the post-Dada life and work of this most original and idiosyncratic thinker today.