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
(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 now the same poem in "mystical Asiatic":
Min salihi wali kinahu
fi is bahi lahi fassun—
Min hagas assama anadir,
Wakan liachad abtal,
Latina almu lijádina binassre.
Wa min tab ihi
Assama ja saruh
fi es supi bila uni
El fidda alba hire
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...
(The entire section is 4820 words.)