AUGUST 12, 2022
BRANDON SHIMODA SAID of the Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun’s oeuvre,
One characteristic of Tomaž’s work I find fascinating is the constant naming of people — family members, friends, lovers, acquaintances, heroes, poets, artists, politicians, villains — that seems partly not able to be helped: a both conscious and unconscious uttering of names emerging from a true exuberance for being in relation to PEOPLE.
Ironically or appropriately enough, such a description could very well have applied to the work of early-20th-century German Jewish writer Else Lasker-Schüler, particularly The Peter Hille Book (1906). This prose work is populated with the names or avatars of her friends and contemporaries, one of whom warned the author that her work will be completely indecipherable in the future due to these arcane references. Her friend was not wrong: Else Lasker-Schüler died in obscurity and poverty in Israel, a German Jew escaping the Holocaust. For that reason, this new book — which gathers The Peter Hille Book, The Nights of Tino of Baghdad (1907), and The Prince of Thebes (1914) — is particularly welcome. Known (and only barely) up to now solely for her poetry, this volume presents Lasker-Schüler’s most important and daring prose works, translated into English for the first time by James J. Conway.
Part bildungsroman, part fairy tale, The Peter Hille Book transparently announces its artistic aim of interweaving fact and fiction, thereby undoing the putative boundary between the two. The historical Peter Hille was a sort of vagabond who took the young poet Lasker-Schüler under his wing; the two were active in the German Expressionist movement, staging impromptu performances in the streets of early-20th-century Berlin and completely polarizing contemporaries (Kafka couldn’t stand her). In The Peter Hille Book, Lasker-Schüler recasts Peter as “Petrus,” a godly guide figure who in turn names his acolyte, a Lasker-Schüler avatar, “Tino”:
To every cloud at night, to every day I called your name, and the sun has embroidered an altar for it […] and one day a life will surround me with people like walls, all wishing to hear your name. And my voice shall be an ocean. Your name is the name of the world!
The “you” here is Peter, who, in real life, died before Lasker-Schüler could write The Peter Hille Book, a memorial or “altar” for him — hence renaming him Petrus, which means “stone,” as if the pages are a grave marker on which the author has drafted her eulogy. In the works of Lasker-Schüler — which read like prose poems, where each short episodic “chapter” is an adventure in language and the possibilities of metaphor — each adjective contains and reflects its opposite. And so, Petrus’s heaviness is heavenly, too, if one can imagine a heavy thing that floats beyond reach:
We stood on a small hill near the city and looked off into our yonder. Petrus pointed to the dark silvery line that united Heaven and Earth. He said: “That is where I came from.” And it was clear to me: he is a wandering landscape, that homeland for which the jubilant yearn. And when I tried to speak to him, my eyes could not reach him, he had grown higher than the moon — and he held it in his hand, the greatest golden orb.
The work is thus a celebration of life as much as it is a stark reminder of death, a joyful enumeration of itinerant travels as much as a mourning, and an exercise in remapping a world that, for Lasker-Schüler, is ripe for renaming. If, for example, “your name is the name of the world,” then changing that name will change the world. During their travels, the pair encounter courtly figures, anthropomorphized animals, magical tricksters — it is a sort of 1001 Nights story set in idyllic landscapes, with many Old Testament tales recast and reshaped, especially the biblical and Qur’anic story of Joseph. It is no wonder that Lasker-Schüler often signed her letters of correspondence “Jussuf,” a Germanization of an Arabized spelling; in all the Abrahamic sacred texts, Joseph is famed for his diasporic fate, for his powers of prophecy, and for his tragic overfamiliarity with abandonment and betrayal. In one episode of The Peter Hille Book, “Petrus Puts a Father’s Son Back in the Earth,” the brothers of a boy kill their brother and bury him, a more extreme spin on the biblical story of Joseph. Petrus finds the boy’s body and confronts his father:
“The way his conscience afflicts him, he must share some of the blame.” […] Petrus leaned over the pale golden body. “Farmer, here is your seventh son. Gold amidst the gold of autumn.” And I asked Petrus to wake him. But he shook his head gravely. “Farmer, your son is dead” — and turning to the six: “Your brother was a poet.” And the trembling breath which yet shimmered over the dead son melted away. “But tell us, what is the name of the man with the coarse beard?” Petrus nodded at me to deflect the question, but I said to the brothers: “His name is the name of the world.”
In the biblical account, the brothers are jealous of Joseph because he is his father’s favorite; in her story, Lasker-Schüler imputes blame to the father too, for betraying this favoritism, a judgment absent in the Torah. It is also worth noting not only the power of naming but also of withholding the given name in favor of a more numinous one, thus wielding a kind of protective obscurity. Not only is Petrus’s name safeguarded, but the boy — whose name may or may not be Joseph — also remains anonymous, except for the surprisingly damning revelation that he was a poet.
Poets in the work of Lasker-Schüler are doomed to obscurity and death, perhaps a reflection of the struggles of the penniless artist herself. In life, she constantly changed her name — absorbing, as noted, the diasporic fate and prophetic powers of Joseph — and ultimately “settled” on the gender fluidity of the name “Tino.”
If The Peter Hille Book functions as a sort of “Portrait of the Artist as a Shifting Name,” both The Nights of Tino of Baghdad and The Prince of Thebes showcase the exercise of this artistry. These works display the geographical and temporal scope of the epic alongside the deep psychological probity of the lyric. They are like miniature epics, but instead of detailing the founding of a nation or a world, they describe the founding and dismantling of a poet. In The Prince of Thebes, we encounter, on top of the requisite doomed poets, gender-nonconforming names that confer great power:
Yet Abigail crawled into the belly of every virgin and now longed only for the moon when it pounded round and tender in the sky. Then, early one morning, his palace caught fire, killing Abigail the First, the son of Diwagâtme who took to her grave the secret that her son was a poet.
This story chronicles the kingdom of the three Abigails, a female name applying nonetheless to male kings. All are ruined by love; the first Abigail is also destroyed by being a poet, which Lasker-Schüler likely saw as synonymous with being a lover. Lasker-Schüler’s work is deeply libidinous: gender defies binaries, sexuality is multilateral, and this motley, charged eroticism flows from story to story, never at rest because it is always persecuted. The emancipatory promise of freewheeling sexuality meets, in Lasker-Schüler’s work, the sort of punishment it would meet in patriarchal, nationalistic Western Europe:
Among the Occidental enemies near his city, Abigail the Lover saw blond hair and blue eyes for the first time. From his roof he admired the fair locks of the sleeping men and failed to come to the aid of friendly tribes when they were attacked. When he awoke from his blond rapture he sentenced himself and signed his own death warrant.
As the word “Occidental” hints, the space for fantasy here is “the Orient,” an all-too-common fetishization by Western European writers that is nonetheless also responsible for the translational fervor that gave us the 1001 Nights in French, German, and eventually English. Lasker-Schüler’s The Nights of Tino of Baghdad and The Prince of Thebes are by no means exempt from the charge of Orientalism: she never visited Baghdad, and her works deal in many of the offensive tropes and stereotypes that were popular at the time — tales of eunuchs, “perverse” and “exotic” sensualities, the demonic Mohammedan, and so on:
I tremble, the eunuch reaches for one of the many whips; each strap has lead shot at its tip; he whets it side to side through the air several times then slowly lowers it to dash against the wide, full moon of my feverish aunt’s behind and she, I swear to Allah, turns it towards him wherever he moves, screaming blue murder, coquettishly baring her teeth at him. Her daughters are seated on the divan; enviously they bare their breasts which bloom in gold carnations.
Lasker-Schüler does, nonetheless, demonstrate a rare and nuanced celebration of ethnic and religious hybridity, particularly in synthesizing Jewish, Christian, and Islamic symbologies, even inventing an “indecipherable” language that mixes Yiddish and Arabic:
My father caresses my hands, my fingers like weary rays. But a lust for battle blinds my eyes. Ichneumon of Uskub is already standing before our palace. I pull the last splinter of thistle from my toe — abbarebbi, lachayare, lachayare! Passionate martial music bears me aloft on its shoulders through the streets. That very same night I vanquish the Christian dogs. My father tends my courage and my valour like two grandchildren. Never before has a Princess of Baghdad advanced into battle.
Lasker-Schüler identifies with Arabic characters, attempting to enter into their cultural, psychological, and emotional circumstances, rather than simply superimposing Western values on them. Her work displays a compelling attempt to cross and even undo the divide between East and West, a boundary-erasing impulse that likely derives from her Jewishness, since Jews in Germany were pejoratively called “Orientals.” And so, in a sense, to practice “Orientalism” as a German Jew was a sort of reclamation, an act of resistance that does not neatly fit the traditional model of Orientalist writings.
Such a sustained act of literary resistance would seem unthinkable during the violently fomenting nationalism and racism of early-20th-century Germany, and yet Lasker-Schüler managed it, only to fade into obscurity. The interweaving of fact and fiction so intrinsic to her work is not an act of escapism but, rather, a reflection of her culture’s violent social imaginary. Lasker-Schüler is as vigorous a critic of the brutality and soullessness of modernity as her contemporary Kafka (who disliked her garish street performances, though he watched them), while simultaneously displaying — and celebrating — an orgiastic eroticism that transcends gender binaries and heteronormativity. On the other hand, her work is littered with constant references to “Negro” servants who are either servile or demonic — strange, unfortunate moments that showcase the author’s inability to recognize Black agency: “My dark-skinned slaves stand around me like black marble pillars, and always love stands before my soul as though before a temple.”
These moments, and there are many of them, are difficult to read. I had to put the book down several times in visceral disappointment. I was reminded of the words of another German writer, Judith Schalansky: “The ruins are a utopian place in which past and future become one.” I wanted a better past to present to the future. Or, as Lasker-Schüler puts it:
And on your shoulders
I have built my land —
Where are you?
The breathless ecstasy of Lasker-Schüler’s writing is reminiscent of Clarice Lispector, her whimsy and dark nostalgia evoke Yoel Hoffmann, and her disquieting identity-shifting games invite comparison to Fernando Pessoa. Relentlessly, she focuses on the dual power of the name: on the one hand, as a bureaucratic technology that reduces and surveils, producing data points to memorize; on the other, as a liberatory potential of plasticity and growth, stories that memorialize. Lasker-Schüler has been largely forgotten, but the resurfacing of her work now is part of a welcome project of restoration, of memory.
Jared Joseph lives and writes in Los Angeles. Recent work has been published in Interim, The Iowa Review, and Gulf Coast, whereas his book Drowsy. Drowsy Baby is available from Civil Coping Mechanisms Press, and A Book About Myself Called Hell was just published by Kernpunkt Press in February 2022.