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Else Lasker-Schüler

Else Lasker-Schüler Essay - Critical Essays

Lasker-Schüler, Else

Introduction

Else Lasker-Schüler 1869-1945

(Born Elisabeth Schüler) German poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist.

A noted Expressionist poet and playwright, Lasker-Schüler is best known for works in which she presents a fictionalized version of her life. The subject of critical controversy, these works have been alternately viewed as enigmatic masterpieces and as the failed experiments of a highly egocentric talent. Lasker-Schüler's books were burned by the Third Reich and were not republished until the 1950s, when they were read and admired by many postwar German poets and critics. The obscurity of her works and the confusion surrounding the facts of her life have made her both an alluring and a puzzling subject for literary critics and biographers.

Biographical Information

The daughter of a cultured and prosperous German Jewish family, Lasker-Schüler was born in Eberfeld, Germany. She married Dr. Jonathan Berthold Lasker, a Berlin physician, in 1894 and gave birth to a son, Paul, in 1900. In 1899 Lasker-Schüler published her first poems, some of which she had written as a teenager, in various literary journals. At this time she also began to act out the personality traits and the lifestyle of characters in her poems, such as "Prinz von Theben" ("Prince of Thebes") and "Tino of Baghdad." She wore colorful, unusual clothing and pursued an itinerant existence, occupying various furnished rooms and hotels and often sleeping on park benches. She frequented the cafes where Expressionist artists and writers gathered, and became acquainted with such prominent figures as painter Franz Marc, poet Gottfried Benn, critic Karl Kraus, and film director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. During this period, Lasker-Schüler also met poet Peter Hille, who became her close friend and mentor. In 1903 she divorced Lasker and married Georg Levin, a noted Expressionist writer who used the pseudonym Herwarth Walden. Walden published a great many of Lasker-Schuler's poems in his Expressionist periodical Der Sturm and was an avid promoter of her works. The two divorced for unknown reasons in 1911. In 1933, when the political climate became hostile for German Jews, Lasker-Schuler fled the country and traveled through Europe before settling in Palestine in 1937. Refusing all offers of assistance from friends, Lasker-Schuler lived in poverty until her death in 1945.

Major Works

Lasker-Schuler's works reflect a fictionalized version of the realities of her life and portray actual people as extravagant characters in fantastic settings and imaginary circumstances. For example, she portrays her relationship with Hille in Das Peter Hille-Buch, which comprises forty-six short scenes in which the Apostle Peter and his female follower Tino travel through forests and mountains, encountering other characters with whom they attempt, unsuccessfully, to establish an isolated community in order to escape what they perceive as a hostile world. When Peter dies, Tino becomes grief-stricken and lives out the rest of her life in the mountains in a state of solitary, self-imposed exile. The character Tino returns later in the collection of short stories Die Ndchte der Tino von Baghdad. Other examples of Lasker-Schuler's use of autobiographical material include her depictions in her poetry of her mother, her brother, and her son as idealized, saintly figures. Several of the literary figures with whom Lasker-Schüler was acquainted, including Benn and the poet Jakob van Hoddis, serve as the models for such characters as The Slav, The Bishop, The Dalai-Lama, and The Son of the Sultan of Morocco in her epistolary novel Mein Herz. In her last collection of poetry, Mein blaues Klavier, Lasker-Schüler expresses her readiness for death and the pain and loneliness of living as an exile in Palestine, where she feels she has lost her will to live and her ability to write. In the title poem, she states: "I have a blue piano at home, / But I don't know a single note. / It is standing in the dark of the cellar door / Since the world turned savage."

Critical Reception

Lasker-Schüler's poetry has often been faulted for its egocentrism and obscurity. In a letter to philosopher Martin Buber, she defended her highly personal imagery and subject matter by stating that since she knew only her own life, this subject was the only one about which she could write with authority. G. Guder asserted: "Else Lasker-Schüler … wrote her poems in the first person singular, but she is not subjective in the worst sense of the word.… Even at a time when the motif of her poems was increasingly homelessness, uprootedness and dread of life, she the ageing, ailing woman, remained concerned with the efficiency of her poetic voice as mediator, so that her last poems, too, with the same subjective tone transcend all that is purely individual and are timeless symbols of the fate of man and of the artist in an age of increasing inhumanity."

Principal Works

Styx (poetry) 1902

Der siebente Tag (poetry) 1905

Das Peter Hille-Buch (short stories) 1906

Die Nächte der Tino von Bagdad (short stories) 1907

Die Wupper: Schauspiel in fünf Aufzügen (drama) 1909

Meine Wunder (poetry) 1911

Meine Herz: Ein Liebesroman mit Bildern und wirklich lebenden Menschen (novel) 1912

Gesichte: Essays und andere Geschichten (essays and poetry) 1913

Hebrdische Balladen (poetry) 1913

Der Prinz von Theben: Ein Geschichtenbuch (short stories) 1914

Die gesammelten Gedichte (poetry) 1917

Der Malik: Eine Kaisergeschichte mit Bildern und Zeichnungen (novel) 1919

Die Kuppel: Der Gedichte zweiter Teil (poetry) 1920

Theben: Gedichte und Lithographien (poetry) 1923

Ich räume auf I Meine Anklage gegen meine Verleger (essays and poetry) 1925

Arthur Aronymus: Die Geschichte meines Vaters (drama) 1932

Konzert (essays and poetry) 1932

Das Hebräerland (poetry) 1937

Mein blaues Klavier: Neue Gedichte (poetry) 1943

Dichtungen und Dokumente: Gedichte, Prosa, Schauspiele, Briefe, Zeugnis und Erinnerung (poetry, short stories, letters, and essays) 1951

Gedichte, 1902-1943 (poetry) 1959

Gesammelte Werke. 3 vols. (poetry) 1959-1962

Verse und Prosa aus dem Nachlafi (poetry and short stories) 1961

Sdmtliche Gedichte (poetry and short stories) 1966

* Hebrew Ballads, and Other Poems (poetry) 1980

Your Diamond Dreams Cut Open My Arteries (poetry) 1982

* This collection contains selected poems from Styx, Meine Wunder, Hebrdische Balladen, and Mein blaues Klavier.

†This collection contains selected poems from Gesammelte Werke, vol. 1.

Criticism

Heinz Politzer (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "The Blue Piano of Else Lasker-Schueler," translated by Ralph Manheim, in Commentary, Vol. 9, No. 4, April, 1950, pp. 335-44.

[Politzer was an Austrian-born American educator, editor, and critic who became personally acquainted with Lasker-Schüler in Palestine, and has written a number of scholarly works on the role of Jewish writers in German literature. In the following excerpt, he surveys Lasker-Schüler's career, noting especially her wordplay, and her role in the evolution of Jewish-German literature.]

On a cold winter's day at the end of 1944, as the war was drawing to its close, we buried Else Lasker-Schueler. Services were held in the mortuary of the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, under the merciless sun of Palestine, on a vitreous clear noonday, in view of the desert which descends in dunes to the Dead Sea.

The sextons busied themselves with a little bundle smaller than the body of a child. The last words were spoken by a friend of the dead woman who had feared her and cared for her, smiled and worried over her, like almost everyone who had befriended her here in Palestine. The portly rabbi with the face of an actor suffering because he had to play-act and because his sufferings were also play-acting, did something unheard of in view of the vast hatred that prevailed in Jewish Palestine for all things German: he recited a poem in German, a poem by Else Lasker-Schueler:

Ich weiss, dass ich bald sterben muss.
Es leuchten doch alle Bäume
Nach langersehntem Julikuss—

Fahl werden meine Träume—
Nie dichtete ich einen trübern Schluss
In den Büchern meiner Reime.

Eine Blume brichst du mir zum Gruss—
Ich liebte sie schon im Keime.
Doch ich weiss, dass ich bald sterben muss.

Mein Odem schwebt über Gottes Fluss—
Ich setze leise meinen Fuss
Auf dem Pfad zum ewigen Heime.

(I know that I must die soon.
Yet all the trees are radiant
After summer's long-awaited kiss—

My dreams grow gray—
Never have I written a sadder ending
In my books of rhymes.

You pluck a flower for me—
I loved it in the bud.
Yet I know that I must die soon.

My breath hovers over the river of God—
Softly I set my foot
On the path to my long home.)

But there was an inner rightness in reciting this German poem in Palestine instead of the Hebrew prayer for the dead, which should traditionally have been said. For this poetess had written Hebrew poetry in German.…

Her life and work place her in the last generation of German Jews, whose origins were, in a way, less of a problem for them than they had been for Heine and Boerne. There was no conflict between her Jewishness and the language she spoke, and she did not, like her contemporary Jakob Wassermann, look upon her "road as a German and as a Jew" as a Calvary. From this she was saved by her boundless spontaneity of expression. More than almost any other poet, she was voice and nothing but voice; with a candor bordering on sadism she expressed what poured from the depth of a soul which she herself, as she said, often did not understand. If ever a poet has embodied in his work C. G. Jung's concept of the collective unconscious—the sum of the experience of our fathers that lies dormant in the mind of the individual—it was Else Lasker-Schueler. This experience, inherited with her blood, consisted in the wild and tender images of the Biblical world or rather, in memories of the pre-Biblical era of the Jews, which she came to identify with names and places that she found in Scripture. She dreamt Hebrew visions, but the only words she could clothe them in were German.

And it is the grotesque tragedy of Else Lasker-Schueler and of the best of her generation that they never learned to speak the language of their dreams and that the language that was the source of her songs sounded weird and unfamiliar in her ears when she first went to Palestine. In Germany she called herself "Prince Yussuf" and was proud to be a foreigner; when she went to her homeland she remained Else Lasker-Schueler, and a foreigner.

She knew of this foreignness and bore it with a dignity which gave her witchlike presence a ludicrous human dignity. In 1925, she wrote: "I composed the poems of my first book between the ages of 15 and 17. At that time I found my way back to my primal language, derived from the era of Saul, the royal wild Jew. Today I can still speak this language, which probably came to me in my dreams. Among others, my poem 'Weltflucht' ('Flight from the World') is written in this 'mystical Asiatic.'"

Here, first of all, is the poem as it was written in German:

Ich will in das Grenzenlose
Zu mir zuriuck,
Schon bliiht die Herbstzeitlose—
Vielleicht ist es zu spat—zuruck
Ob ich sterbe zwischen euch
Die ihr mich erstickt mit euch.
Faden mochte ich um mich ziehen
Wirrwarr endend,
Verwirrend,
Zu entfliehen
Meinwarts.

(Into the boundless
Let me go back to myself,
The autumn crocus is flowering—
Perhaps it is too late—let me go back
Even though I die among you
Who smother me with your selves.
I would draw threads around me
To end confusion
And confuse,
To escape
Me-wards.)

And now the same poem in "mystical Asiatic":

Min salihi wali kinahu
Rahi hatiman
fi is bahi lahi fassun—
Min hagas assama anadir,
Wakan liachad abtal,
Latina almu lijádina binassre.
Wa min tab ihi
Anahu jatelahu
Wanu bilahum.
Assama ja saruh
fi es supi bila uni
El fidda alba hire
Wa wisuri—elbanaff!

This of course was a game, but a meaningful game. Amid the childish euphony of this wishful dream language, we note intimations of Hebrew roots ("liachad," "lijadina," etc.) and Hebrew endings. But this language sounds both more primitive and more beautiful than any idiom of historic growth.

It is an old dream of the poets to find a language in which feeling and vision can express themselves without subservience to the rules of linguistic logic. The creative imagination has long yearned to soar free, without regard for the social obligation to communicate; an understandable desire, though dangerous in its undisciplined manifestations.

Most poets have rejected this desire as a sin of youth. But we do know that the hieratic German, Stefan George, invented such a language of his own, in which the Romance element was predominant—as was the Hebraic in Else Lasker-Schueler's "mystical Asiatic."

The country of which the Rhinelander Stefan George dreamed was strangely compounded of Dante's Italy and Mallarme's Parnasse. But the compulsive, infantile repetition of Gertrude Stein and the cryptically lulling and compelling measures of Finnegans Wake embody a similar longing for a language that is autonomous and free from communication, that carries its own fulfillment. And in Gertrude Stein, as well as in the late Joyce, we clearly discern the tendency to return by way of a magical, unintelligible idiom into the magical labyrinth of the poet's own childhood.

But Else Lasker-Schueler did not go back to her childhood or past, but to the myth, the prehistoric past. She who in her life was so entirely individualistic and so filled with herself that, with lucid self-knowledge, she could entitle her last play Icb und Icb, was, in the best of her poems, absolutely anonymous. She saw the patriarchs: Jacob, the "buffalo of his flock," Abraham and Isaac and the sacrifice of Isaac, the women of the Old Testament, Esther, "slender as a palm tree," or Ruth:

Am Brunnen meiner Heimat
Steht ein Engel,
Der singt das Lied meiner Liebe,
Der singt das Lied Ruths.

(At the well of my native place
Stands an angel,
He sings the song of my love,
He sings the song of Ruth.)

And in her late years, in her last poems, she saw Jerusalem ("Out of his spine God built Palestine; out of a single bone, Jerusalem"), and she captured the moonlight landscape of the hills of Judea in visions upon which she was able to set the stamp of authenticity not because, but although, she lived among them. There is in her verses an inhuman, primeval tone, a sobriety of image that combines with the drunken, melodic intertwining of her rhymes to produce an effect that is unique. Her visions have the bareness of Biblical imagery, while her melodies carry the lyric richness of Oriental poetry.

She was, in her self-willed way, as un-German as Franz Kafka. And like him, she does not fit into the tradition of German Jewish literature, let alone of German literature proper. Asia is in her and the myth of Asia, as it was also in Kafka and his work. She wrote the main body of her work during the rise and fall of German Expressionism.

From Expressionism she took certain mannerisms, some of them unfortunate, but essentially her work is primordial, alien to Europe and Germany. She has had no disciples except for the German Jewish poetess Nelly Sachs, who more than a generation later [in Stern verdunkelung, 1949] wrote of her experience of Hitler's pogroms and the concentration camps in verses which echo the style of Else Lasker-Schueler but lack her depth. And there is a profound irony in the circumstance that figures like Franz Kafka and Else Lasker-Schueler, in whom for the first time German Jewish writing achieved originality and legitimacy, belonged essentially to a realm outside German culture.

For this reason the history of German Jewish literature is, properly speaking, a history of disassimilation. There was Richard Beer-Hofmann, who cast his Biblical dramas and his feelings for the blood bond between the generations in Goethean verses (Miriams Schlaflied). There was Karl Wolfskehl, disciple, herald, and in certain critical respects also preceptor of Stefan George, whom the persecutions of 1933, of which he had long had a foreboding, threw back on a Judaism whose substance is the dialogue of man with God. There was Rudolph Borchardt, the lie of whose existence, the lie that he was a German, was at the heart of his creative impulse—and also of the grotesque doom that befell him when the Nazis deported him, the German officer, the self-styled German national poet. There was Alfred Mombert, who built himself a world-removed dream realm of art and myth, and Karl Kraus who purified the German language until in his hands it became a lifeless, sterile organism, and then revived it with his anger, his prophetic Jewish anger.

Richard Beer-Hofmann attempted to advance the process of disassimilation by combining a pseudo-Biblical Judaism with a pseudo-classical...

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G. Guder (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Else Lasker-Schüler," in Modern Languages, Vol. XLIII, No. 2, June, 1962, pp. 53-60.

[In the following essay, Guder surveys the major themes of Lasker-Schüler's poetry.]

Examining the whole body of [Lasker-Schüler's] poetry from the publication of her first volume of verse, Styx, in Berlin, 1902, to Mein Blaues KinFier, written in exile and published in 1943 in Jerusalem, two years before the poet's death, one realizes that throughout her whole life her poetry was the expression of one unchanging experience. This experience was the outcome of an aim which was deeply rooted in Else Lasker-Schuler's thought and feeling, and of...

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G. Guder (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "The Significance of Love in the Poetry of Else Lasker-Schuler," in German Life & Letters, Vol. XVIII, 1964-65, pp. 177-88.

[In the following essay, Guder compares Lasker-Schüler's concept of love to that of the German Expressionists, and examines the effect of her personal experiences on the emotional outlook of her poetry.]

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Bernhardt G. Blumenthal (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Play Element in the Poetry of Else Lasker-Schüler," in The German Quarterly, Vol. XLIII, September, 1970, pp. 571-76.

[In the following essay, Blumenthal discusses Lasker-Schüler's use of childhood and play imagery in her love poetry.]

The poetry of Else Lasker-Schüler is distinguished by its rich and deceptively simple imagery and by the fact that almost all of it consists of love poems. Her poetic acts of love are at once ritual, entertainment, artistry, riddle-making, doctrine, persuasion, sorcery, soothsaying, prophecy, and competition: in short—play. Gottfried Benn knew this and dedicated his volume of verse, Söhne, to her playfully: "Ich...

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Hans W. Cohn (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "The Swing of the Pendulum: The Backward Movement, Withdrawal," in Else Lasker-Schiuer: The Broken World, Cambridge University Press, 1974, pp. 37-79.

[In the following excerpt, Cohn examines several of Lasker-Schüler's works, demonstrating the departure from reality evidenced in her poetry.]

It is my intention to show the bipolar structure of Else Lasker-Schüler's mode of being, as it manifests itself in her poetry. I have chosen to start with an examination of the various manifestations of her tendency to withdraw from reality, and to follow this with a consideration of the opposite tendency, her outgoing search for contact.

This order of...

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Jakob Hessing (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Else Lasker-Schüler and Her People," in Ariel, Jerusalem, No. 41, 1976, pp. 61-76.

[In the following excerpt, Hessing discusses Lasker-Schüler's regard for her Jewish heritage and its influence on her works.]

I am not a Hebrew for the sake of the Hebrews, but—for God's sake! This confession, however, includes the love and the faith of an unshakeable devotion to His people. To my smallest nation amongst the nations, to which I belong with heart and soul.

Else Lasker-Schüler, Dos Hebräerland (The Land of the Hebrews)

She was born in 1869, into a pious Jewish family of...

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Audri Durchslag and Jeanette Litman-Demeestere (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: An introduction to Hebrew Ballads and Other Poems by Else Lasker-Schüler, edited and translated by Audri Durchslag and Jeanette Litman-Demeestere, The Jewish Publication Society, 1980, pp. xi-xxii.

[In the following excerpt, Durchslag and Litman-Demeestere survey Lasker-Schuiler's career and discuss major images and themes in her poetry.]

[In 1902, Lasker-Schüler's first book of poetry], Styx, appeared. Certain general themes and characteristics which appear in this early volume were to recur—though in different guises and styles—throughout Lasker-Schüler's poetic career. Like a mystical Ovid, Lasker-Schüler saw the world as a tribute to and an...

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Robert P. Newton (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: An introduction to Your Diamond Dreams Cut Open My Arteries by Else Lasker-Schuler, translated by Robert P. Newton, The University of North Carolina Press, 1982, pp. 3-50.

[Newton is an American educator, translator, and noted scholar of German poetry. In the following excerpt, he provides an overview of Lasker-Schüler's career and the criticism on her works.]

Though the basic themes of Lasker-Schüler's art persist through all of her books, lines of thematic and formal development do exist.… Her first-born (Stvx, 1902) contains, if we may believe the poetess, some poems that had been written in her adolescent years, from the age of fifteen to...

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