Totentanz – the dance of death

Totentanz – the dance of death

The First World War unleashed a torrent of artistic responses, not only agitational in nature or designed to combat official propaganda, but moreover a symptom of young minds desperately trying to confront the brutalities of their new century. The influence of the time can be seen in the big, sweeping colours of De Stijl, the deeply damaged and alienated characters of works such as Im Westen Nichts Neues, but also in particular in the uninhibited outbreak of emotion that was Dadaism. Rejecting measured, rational response in favour of absurdity, the nonsensical outbursts bely a seriousness that can only be the product of a constant attempt to transcend trauma. Indeed, it could be argued that even a consciously absurdist cultural outpouring could never rival the insane horrors of the “Great” War. Here we present a new translation of Hugo Ball’s Totentanz 1916.

Dance of Death (1916)
Hugo Ball

So we die, we die
And die every day,
For it is so comfortable to let ourselves slip away.
The morning, stuck in sleep and dream,
By midday already there,
Come evening deep within our graves.

The battle is our pleasure-house,
Our sun is made of blood,
Death our emblem and our password.
Child and wife we leave behind:
What use have we for them!
When we can only rely upon ourselves!

So we kill, we kill,
And every day we kill
Our comrades in the dance of death.
Brother, present yourself before me!
Brother, your breast!
Brother, that you must fall and die.

We don’t grumble, we don’t groan,
Every day we hold our tongue
‘Til our leg wrenches from the hip.
Hard is our resting place,
Dry is our bread,
The dear Lord bloodied and soiled.

We thank you, we thank you,
Herr Kaiser for your mercy,
In choosing us to die.
Sleep, sleep softly and still,
Till you are woken
By our poor bodies, shrouded beneath your lawn.

Translated from the German by Edmund Potts

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