Else Lasker-Schüler Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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."