Modernism, the Germans & the Jews
This Jewish obstinacy! Enough to make an anti-Semite of a man! This pride of race, this feeling of solidarity! Do you believe I am ever, in any of my actions, guided by the thought that I am “German” (perhaps, qui le salt)? Do you believe that Mozart composed as an “Aryan”? I know only two types of people: those with and those without talent.
letter to Stefan Zweig, June 17, 19351
To the love of the Jews for Germany there corresponded the emphatic distance with which the Germans encountered them. We may grant that with “distant love” the two partners could have managed more kindness, open-mindedness, and mutual understanding. But historical subjunctives are always illegitimate.
On Jews and Judaism in Crisis
The modern historical fate of Jews among the German-speaking peoples is a continuing source of puzzlement, wonder, and brooding reflection. It was here that the Jewish entry into modern European culture began, rapidly releasing, as has often been observed, an unprecedented torrent of creative energies, so that German and Austro-Hungarian Jews, within a generation or two of emergence from the ghetto or shtetl, became leading figures in the arts, and in intellectual and economic life, a few of them actually helping to transform prevalent conceptions of human nature and society. In many instances, of course, from Heine and Felix Mendelssohn to Marx and Georg Simmel, these signal contributions were made by Jews who had themselves converted to Christianity or who were the children of converts, and the powerful impulse to self-effacement in the most literal sense is surely one of the more dismaying themes of the German-Jewish story.
But our consciousness of this extraordinary movement outward into the expanses of the surrounding culture should not lead us to forget that the Germanic realm was also the seedbed for developments of supreme intrinsic importance to the survival of the Jewish people and the reshaping of its own culture. To be sure, these developments themselves had their “assimilatory” motives, but one could hardly refashion Jewish existence without emulating available models, and it was through such emulation that Jews acquired many of the intellectual and political tools for coping with a radically new historical predicament.
The revival of Hebrew as a secular literary language, which would eventually contribute to the emergence of a modern Jewish nationalism anchored in the Jewish past, began in 18th-century Koenigsberg and Berlin. (Over a century later, when the Hebraist movement had almost entirely migrated to Eastern Europe, its German background was still so keenly felt that proponents of the Hebrew Enlightenment were derisively referred to as “Berliners” by the defenders of tradition.) The study of Judaism as a rigorous academic discipline, the Wissenschaft des Judentums, to which we ultimately owe much of our historical self-understanding, began in 19th-century Germany, as did—at least at first, with somewhat less admirable results—the modern efforts to reform Jewish religion. By the end of the century, political Zionism was brought into being through the prod-dings of an Austro-Hungarian Jew working out of Vienna.
Whether we choose to focus on the Freuds and Wittgensteins or on the Graetzes and Herzls that Germanic Jewry produced, our vision of that whole richly ambiguous episode in history is bound to be enormously complicated, perhaps obfuscated, by the awareness that the systematic program for the extirpation of the Jewish people was conceived on German soil, shaped out of the authentic materials of 19th-century German ideologies and age-old German popular feeling. The danger of distorting the variegated facts of Wilhelminian Germany and late Hapsburg Austria by seeing them through the flames of the Nazi crematoria is a paramount concern of Peter Gay in his new book of essays, Freud, Jews, and Other Germans: Masters and Victims in Modernist Culture.2 Gay is that rare scholar who combines immense learning with grace and lucidity, and there is something bracing about the way he reexamines with such poised reasonableness the most deeply entrenched views about the nature of modernism, the role Jews have played in it, and the relation of Jews to recent German culture. His discussions of Freud’s Vienna, the Berlin-Jewish spirit, the encounter of Jews with German modernism, provide valuable correctives to many prevalent simplifications, but at least some of his lucidity, I shall argue, is achieved by neglecting features of his subject that might tend to undermine his firm conception of it.
It is common to imagine the modernist stance as characteristically marginal, disaffected, oppositional to the dominant bourgeois culture, and to see a crucial congruence between this general adversary posture of modernism and the predicament of the Europeanized Jew, who had mastered all the nuanced idioms of Gentile society and yet was condemned to remain at least partly an outsider to it. Gay questions these views on several grounds. First, he makes the simple, convincing observation that in strictly numerical terms Jews were by no means so preponderant in the various modernist avant-gardes as they are usually thought to have been. It is only a mystique of the alienated Jewish intellectual—George Steiner’s lyric celebrations of that figure come to mind—that could have attributed such cultural centrality to the marginal Jew, and Gay’s demystification of this notion is most welcome.
With regard to modernism itself and the position of German Jews after the so-called Emancipation, Gay stresses, against prevalent conceptions, a strong theme of conformism in both cases. That is, he sees far more frequent instances than one generally allows in which the descendants of the ghetto dwellers succeeded in being simply Germans like everyone else, socially, culturally, and even psychologically. And in the case of modernism, he argues, with tact and deference, against observers like Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe who have defined modernism as primarily an adversary phenomenon, the anguished expression of the artist as pariah. Gay reminds us that in fact one also encounters powerfully celebratory, exuberant, life-affirming elements in the spectrum of modernist expression, and that many of the modernist masters maintained an unshaken allegiance to the social and moral values of the bourgeoisie from which they derived.
The argument about modernism is, I think, the more firmly grounded of Gay’s two revisionist contentions. He of course does not deny that modernism in some phases has been destructively rebellious, impelled by a kind of spirituality of radical disgust, but he has a fine awareness of how we become the captive of our own forceful formulations of historical phenomena and thus fail to see their variety and contradictions.
He makes a telling case for the presence of social conservatism among the makers of revolutionary modernism in his admirable essay on Freud. Freud may have irrevocably changed the way we think about man, but he remained a loyal member of the bourgeoisie, not only in his personal habits but also in some of his guiding intellectual principles. His commitment to the positivist assumptions of 19th-century science and his demonstration, as Gay puts it, “that it was more than possible, it was necessary, to be rational about irrationality,” set him more on the side of the gray-bearded defenders of the established order than of the anarchic adolescent rebels like Rimbaud and Jarry. And Freud, Gay argues, is a particularly striking case, but not at all a special one: “To be, as Freud was, a thoroughgoing revolutionary and a thoroughgoing bourgeois was by no means a paradox, an anomaly, or even a rarity.”
My one reservation about Gay’s correction of the popular notion of the modernist enterprise is that his own picture of modernism tends to be a little blurry around the edges. There is a good deal of cogency in the accepted view of a modernist tradition that has its origins in the middle of the 19th century, most plausibly with Baudelaire, that receives a major impetus in the philosophy of Nietzsche, and that in the early years of the 20th century achieves a full sunburst of innovative expression in figures like Freud, Conrad, Joyce, Proust, Rilke, Yeats, Kafka. At times I think Gay makes his refutation of the view of Trilling and others a little too easy by writing as though virtually any important manifestation of artistic or intellectual life in the past 150 years could be called modernist. The essay here on Brahms, for example, though intelligent and informative in itself, tends to weaken the general argument by leading us to wonder what precisely modernism might be if it is to include Brahms. Trilling clearly had no one even remotely like Brahms in mind when he began Beyond Culture by speaking of a “bitter line of hostility to civilization” that runs through modernism.
In any case, it might be more helpful to shift the grounds of discussion altogether from the hostility or friendliness of the modernists to civilization—Gay is surely right that one finds both—to the question of the modernists’ relation to the heritage of the past, the modernist sense of history. Gay makes some beautiful observations on Freud’s fascination with archeology, though he does not generalize from these about the modernist imagination of the past, as he might well have done. One of Hugh Kenner’s most suggestive perceptions about modernism in The Pound Era is that its preoccupation with actual and literary archeology signals a new relation to the past in which the fragmented physical vestiges of the past interpenetrate the present. Modernism, I would add, evinces this new fascination with the recovery of the immediacy of the archaic past at the same time that it rejects or is estranged from the past as a continuous tradition embodying normative values.
The notion of being cut off from a normative past, a condition which would make modernism a real historical watershed, is the central thesis of the Rumanian scholar, Matei Calinescu, in his useful (if somewhat repetitious) new book, Faces of Modernity: Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch.3 Modernism, as Calinescu defines it through a careful study of its intellectual antecedents beginning in the Renaissance, represents “a major cultural shift from a time-honored aesthetics of permanence, based on a belief in an unchanging and transcendent ideal of beauty, to an aesthetics of change and novelty.” Within this framework, he makes a basic distinction between two opposed ideas of modernity, the bourgeois notion, which is grounded in technology, pragmatic reason, a cult of progress, a concern with measurable time as a commodity, and the artistic notion, which is anarchic and apocalyptic, in conscious rebellion against the bourgeois version of modernity. Though the two modes of modernity may not have always been so distinct from one another as Calinescu proposes, one suspects that Peter Gay at some points in his argument blends the two more than the historical facts will allow. Be that as it may, if the defining condition of modernism is the withering of the authority of the past, it is quite conceivable that certain newly acculturated Jews, severed from their own cultural past but not quite at home with the European past, or “at home” with it perhaps to excess through a self-conscious effort of will, might have been in a specially advantaged position to articulate the radical new intellectual assumptions and aesthetic modes of modernism.
What I think leads to the most debatable consequences in Gay’s portrayal of the German-Jewish experience is precisely his tendency to play down the double tension in which so many of these Jews lived, between the lingering, ambiguous claims of their own past, on the one hand, and the “emphatic distance,” on the other hand, with which they were generally encountered by Germans. This leads him repeatedly to insist that there was nothing at all distinctively Jewish about the cultural activity of German Jews, and to assume that the much discussed German-Jewish symbiosis was a reality, not an illusion. Both these claims require scrutiny.
Gay’s attachment to the idea of symbiosis is particularly perplexing because it runs counter to some of the historical materials he himself discusses so well. This seeming contradiction may be the consequence of a tightrope act of historical imagination he tries to perform. Again and again, setting aside the hindsight of the Holocaust, he sympathetically identifies with the viewpoint of enthusiastically Germanizing Jews in the pre-Nazi era, but in so doing, he comes perilously close to accepting their consciously held view as a valid account of the historical reality in which they were enmeshed. He observes, for example, of the refugees from Nazism:
For most German Jews, wherever their exile, however much they had undergone, the Jewish-German symbiosis was not a mirage that had finally lifted but a reality that had been wantonly destroyed. They postulated two Germanies, one civilized and the other barbarian; Hitler’s seizure of power had placed the latter in control, without therefore defining the former out of existence.
This is, of course, a report of the mentality of the refugees, not necessarily of the author’s view, though the larger context reflects considerable readiness on his part to accept their outlook. Indeed, even the terms he chooses in these sentences tend to tip his hand: it is questionable whether “most” German Jews, rather than many of them, responded in this way, though one assumes this must have been the attitude of Gay’s own family; the Jews who managed to escape the genocidal attentions of their German hosts are designated exiles, not refugees; and, most surprisingly, Hitler, who was democratically elected by the German people, is said to have seized power. Having identified to this extent with the Jewish devotees of Germanism, Gay can make confident assertions such as the following (it occurs two pages after the passage just quoted) about the experience of Jews in Wilhelminian Germany: “The slights that many German Jews experienced . . . carried far less weight than the German culture in which most of them moved as their element.” That is clearly how many Jews of the period, out of an emotional commitment to assimilation, chose to interpret their own condition of wavering distance from the Germans around them, but the strong implication of one of Gay’s most instructive essays here, “Hermann Levi: A Study in Service and Self-Hatred,” is that such interpretations were ultimately painful exercises in self-delusion.
Hermann Levi was Wagner’s Jewish conductor. The characterological ramifications of that startling contradiction are lucidly traced by Gay in his analysis of the German chauvinism, the auto-anti-Semitism, the abject self-abasement which Levi displayed in serving as the indispensable conductor for the rabidly anti-Semitic composer who alternately teased, tormented, and encouraged him. Gay shows, moreover, that such internalization by Jews of the contempt Germans felt for them was a widespread phenomenon. The essay on Levi is accompanied by graphic illustrations from comic pamphlets of the 1880’s, written and drawn by Jews and printed by the Jewish house of Eduard Bloch, in which these “German citizens of the Mosaic persuasion” are represented more or less in the same terms of vilification they would be half a century later in the pages of Der Stürmer. One illustration, for example, shows a little boy toppling from the highest tier of balconies at the opera, the spectators all around flinging up their arms in dismay, while the child’s hook-nosed, coarse-featured father calls after the tumbling figure, “Jacob, verlier’ mir die Uhr nicht!” (Jacob, don’t lose me the watch!). Gay fully recognizes the virulence of such self-hatred, but he is not quite prepared to draw the necessary inferences from it.
There obviously must have been marked differences in the individual encounters of different Jews with their German compatriots, depending on their social class, their profession, on whether they lived in a big city or a small town, and on plain luck. Gershom Scholem, for example, in a recent interview, recalls his boyhood in Wilhelminian Berlin with an edge of impatience that has not abated after more than six decades. Scholem’s father, the owner of a printshop, was a staunchly loyal German who had shed almost all the vestiges of his ancestral faith, but the child noticed that no Christian German was willing to set foot in their house, and this contradiction made him feel something essentially hollow in his father’s German affirmations, impelling him when he reached adolescence to the triple heresy of learning Hebrew, embracing Zionism, and delving into Jewish scholarship.
The perspective Scholem gained through those early choices enables him to see a crucial aspect of the German-Jewish relationship which Gay does not take into account at all: that no matter how decent or considerate individual Germans may have been to individual Jews, the culture as a whole was not prepared to tolerate Jewish existence as a collective presence, and precisely for this reason, most German Jews were encouraged to feel at least to some degree that it was wrong for them to imagine self-realization as Jews, indeed, that their real vocation was to transcend mere parochialism and merge into the nobler sphere of Deutschtum. The case of Hermann Levi, in other words, is not just an instance of one disturbing trend among German Jews but a paradigmatic illustration of the pathology suffered by German Jews as a group because of the terms of highly conditional acceptance imposed upon them by their Gentile neighbors. This posture of self-abnegation, Scholem shrewdly argues in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis, instead of achieving its conscious goal of acceptance, produced the most destructive kind of dialectic relation with Germans:
Such solutions [of self-surrender] have been offered to Jews again and again, and from various sources. They bespeak a great inner demoralization, an enthusiasm for self-sacrifice which has necessarily remained wholly without meaning for the Jewish community itself, and which no one ever took seriously except the anti-Semites, who found in them an especially nefarious trick of the Jews, an especially conspiratorial note. For it was precisely this desire on the part of the Jews to be absorbed by the Germans that hatred understood as a destructive maneuver against the life of the German people—a thesis repeated indefatigably by the metaphysicians of anti-Semitism between 1830 and 1930.
Peter Gay properly observes that the experience of World War I, with the flood of anti-Semitic feeling released by the conflict even as Jews rallied patriotically to the German cause, came as a profoundly traumatic surprise to many German Jews. “The desperate years between 1914 and 1918 converted German Jews from an easy confidence as German citizens of the Jewish faith to a defiant Zionism, to self-imposed social isolation, and more often, to sheer confusion and disheartened aimlessness.” Gay, in the momentum of his sympathetic exposition of cultural symbiosis, would himself appear to regard this turning point as something of a surprise, by no means predictable from the logic of previous relations between Germans and Jews, though his own illustrations of repellent self-hatred from the pages of Eduard Bloch’s pamphlets might suggest that the “easy confidence” of those 19th-century German Jews was often more asserted than inwardly possessed.
Gay tends to set aside both Zionism and cosmopolitan socialism as purely peripheral phenomena among German Jews, but perhaps both should be seen instead as authentic reactions to the historical situation which, in opposite ways, responded to its full range of implications more adequately than the century-long Jewish romance with German culture. Certainly Jews from the Germanic sphere played essential roles in the shaping of both Zionism and socialism, and one could argue that it was the spiritual bankruptcy of Emancipation from its earliest phases that provided much of the impetus for both these movements.
If German Jews, as I have intimated, were caught in a double tension between their frequent rejection by German culture, to which they were drawn, and their intermittent attraction to Jewish antecedents, from which they were in flight, Zionism provided one viable solution to this ultimately intolerable situation by making possible a return to origins without a turning away from modernity. Peter Gay is not in a position to catch the historic resonance of the Zionist solution very well because he has no real understanding of the attraction—however ambiguous it may have been—exerted by Jewish antecedents. His lack of perception on this fundamental issue is mainly what compels him to a denial that there were any detectably Jewish elements in the cultural activity of German Jews.
Now, this denial is to a degree commendable because it exposes the facile imprecision with which certain stereotypes have been applied to Jews both by philo-Semitic sentimentalism and by anti-Semitic hostility. According to the prejudices of both, the Jew is characterized by qualities of nervous cleverness, aggressive intellectuality, daring iconoclasm, which make him the ideal avant-gardist or the perfect cultural subversive, depending on one’s point of view. Against such notions, Gay helpfully points out that the great swarm of Jewish thinkers, artists, and writers in the Germanic sphere had its healthy share of old-fashioned bourgeois conservatives, and that German Jewry as a whole was by no means predominantly intellectual, and even included appreciable numbers of that rarely mentioned species, the stupid Jew. Insisting in this way on the broad variety of German-Jewish cultural stances, Gay argues vigorously against those who are constantly disposed to finding an essential component of Jewishness in any creative figure of Jewish extraction: “Just as there was no Jewish way to cut furs,” he sums up his account of the elusiveness of the Berlin-Jewish spirit, “there was no Jewish way to paint portraits, play Beethoven, produce Ibsen, or fence in the Olympics.”
The point is well-taken as a debunking of the intellectual mystique of Jewishness, but in the final analysis, it is also a little too simple. As George L. Mosse, the distinguished historian of modern Germany, has aptly noted in a New Republic review of the Gay volume: “The problem of what remained Jewish about such Jews cannot be answered by attacking the myth of their alienation or avant-garde leadership. It turns out to be more complicated than that.” Perhaps the principal complication is that in very many instances, German Jews, even without being champions of alienation, made the culture they did out of the psychological squirm of their ambiguous location between two worlds, and this meant that what they made often did exhibit certain differences, for better or for worse, from the work of their Gentile counterparts.
No one has expressed the negative side of this difference more ruthlessly, more brilliantly, than Franz Kafka, commenting in a 1921 letter to Max Brod on the Jewish wit of the Viennese satirist, Karl Kraus. (Though Gay does not include Prague in the sectors of German-speaking Jewry he means to consider, it is astonishing and symptomatic that there is not so much as a single passing reference to Kafka in his book.) “Most young Jews who began to write German,” Kafka observes,
wanted to leave Jewishness behind them, and their fathers approved of this, but vaguely (this vagueness was what was outrageous to them). But with their posterior legs they were still glued to their fathers’ Jewishness and with their waving anterior legs they found no new ground. The ensuing despair became their inspiration.4
With the sharpness of immediate experience, Kafka perfectly catches the crucial element that is blurred in Peter Gay’s account of German Jewry—the acute pain of contradiction of those caught between two cultures, the emotional destructiveness of the double message imparted by the fathers to the sons. Kafka goes on to argue that the literature generated out of this psychological predicament had certain sad peculiarities:
First of all, the product of their despair could not be German literature, though outwardly it seemed to be so. They existed among three impossibilities . . .: the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently.
Gay’s discussion of Freud in his lead essay strikingly illustrates how he simply does not take into consideration the whole vexed phenomenon of dual identity that Kafka describes. The essay in itself is one of the finest pieces of writing in the book. It vividly evokes Freud’s home and office, his Viennese surroundings, the general tenor of his daring enterprise, and by firmly showing Freud’s connections with German culture at large and with European science, it explodes still another myth: that psychoanalysis was somehow the product of a particularly Viennese spirit.
All this is admirable, and Gay is probably right in not deigning to mention the dubious interpreters of Freud’s Jewishness who have derived all of his thought from the Kabbalah, on the one hand, or from his hostility to Christian society as a supposed shtetl Jew, on the other. Nevertheless, it is more than a little peculiar that in a sixty-page essay on Freud in a book entitled Freud, Jews and Other Germans, Gay should see fit to mention Freud’s Jewishness only in two brief paragraphs on Viennese anti-Semitism. I am not proposing that there has to be a “Jewish key” to Freud’s originality, but there is a good deal of evidence in his letters as well as in his professional writing from The Interpretation of Dreams to Moses and Monotheism that he repeatedly experienced that psychological squirm of ambiguous cultural location to which I have referred and that, early and late, he was working out strategies to overcome or compensate for the discomfort he felt. This important aspect of Freud’s life and thought has been carefully documented and judiciously analyzed by the French critic and scholar, Marthe Robert, in From Oedipus to Moses: Freud’s Jewish Identity,5 and Peter Gay’s suggestive but incomplete account (which shows no awareness of Marthe Robert’s book) might usefully be complemented by her intelligent study.
In Freud’s case, the two-sided discomfort of an acculturated Jew in the German-speaking world led, as Marthe Robert nicely shows, to an early fascination with Rome as the archetypal symbol of Christian Europe, to an odd identification with Hannibal, the Semite who aspired to be the conqueror of Rome, and ultimately to a personal absorption in the scholarly fiction of Moses as a Gentile leader of the Jewish people who is destroyed by his own recalcitrant followers. For other Jewish shapers of culture in the Germanic sphere, the contradictions of their situation generated not only the “sad peculiarities” of marginal men and women seeking to transcend their marginality, like Freud, by an assertion of imaginative will, but also a tendency to draw on their Jewish origins as intellectual resources. Precisely in this connection, it is instructive to note that in many signal instances the interest in the values, symbols, and organizing categories of classical Jewish experience was accompanied by some degree of personal involvement, or at least curiosity about involvement, in Zionism.
Thus, if one considers the Jews writing in German who came of age toward the end of the 19th century through the first two decades of our own century, the greatest writer of prose fiction is clearly Kafka, the most original literary critic, Walter Benjamin, the major historian, Scholem, the finest poet, Else Lasker-Schüler. Scholem is a convinced Zionist who chose to emigrate to Palestine in early manhood and who has dedicated his life to Jewish scholarship, though continuing to write much of his work originally in German. His friend Walter Benjamin long entertained the fantasy of following Scholem to Jerusalem, learning Hebrew, and becoming a kind of latter-day exegete, and his readings in Jewish mysticism and theology exerted a certain oblique but substantive influence on his thinking even in his adherence—always an idiosyncratic one—to Marxism.6 Else Lasker-Schüler took refuge from Nazism in Palestine toward the end of her life, although she did not do so out of Zionist conviction. But there was a congruence between her verse and her final residence in Jerusalem, for the Judean landscape, filtered through Luther’s translation of the Bible, had figured importantly in her poetry, and in 1913, when she was a prominent figure among German Expressionists, she made the pointed decision to call a collection of poems on biblical motifs, Hebräische Balladen. Finally, Kafka was an avid Zionist through much of his adult life, dreaming of the idea of emigration to Palestine but imagining that the act of Zionist fulfillment was a spiritual impossibility for him just like marrying and having children. As he lay in a sanitarium the year before his death, he was arduously making his way with his newly acquired Hebrew through Yosef Haim Brenner’s despairing novel, Breakdown and Bereavement. It is a haunting emblematic scene: the supreme genius of prose fiction that emerged from German-speaking Jewry turning in his last months—quite without hope of consolation—from the “impossible” native language he had made his own crystalline medium to the language of national origins long forgotten by his father and his father’s father.
Peter Gay, as I have said, does not even glance at Kafka, nor does he make any passing reference to Scholem, while Benjamin is mentioned only once, briefly, as part of a list of Jewish intellectuals who committed suicide during the Hitler era. Gay devotes several pages, however, to the career of Else Lasker-Schüler, and precisely because he addresses himself chiefly to the question of whether to classify her as a Jewish poet, the case of Else Lasker-Schüler provides an apt concluding example of the problems involved in defining the German or Jewish character of German-Jewish writers and artists.
Gay quotes the famous remark Else Lasker-Schüler made to a friend in Jerusalem in the early 40’s in refusing to allow her poems to be translated into Hebrew: “Aber sie sind doch hebräisch geschrieben” (But they are written in Hebrew). (In 1968 a selection of her poems at last was beautifully translated into Hebrew by the leading Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai.) Peculiarly, Gay interprets this statement simply as an expression of the poet’s “monumental . . . pride in German,” though it surely also suggests that she thought of her poetry as German but somehow not Germanic, that she felt she was imaginatively in touch with a kind of primordial Hebraic vision. Her own tendency to mystification on this subject encouraged many of her German contemporaries as well as some later commentators to adopt a mystique of Else Lasker-Schüler as die jüdische Dichterin who cast an exotic spell of “Oriental” magic in her verse, and Gay is quite right to object to the foolishness of such views, pointing out that there is very little of the real Orient but a good deal of European Romanticism in her images and her sense of poetic structure. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Gay obliterates self-evident and necessary distinctions when he asserts, “What Else Lasker-Schüler was doing when she leafed through her Old Testament was precisely what Gottfried Benn was doing when he recorded his visits to the morgue.” Else Lasker-Schüler’s relation to her biblical materials, as her Hebräische Balladen abundantly illustrates, was not merely a technical one of finding, like Benn at the morgue, a source of unsentimental poetic diction. She turned to the Bible at least partly because she felt she had some special connection as a Jew with the Bible.
Gay recognizes that at various times, or often simultaneously, Else Lasker-Schüler evinced a passionate identification both with her Jewish origins and with the German culture in which she grew up, but it is characteristic of his general outlook that he should be roundly affirmative about the German allegiance and oddly concessive about the Jewish one. “Firmly, eloquently Jewish as she was, her Jewishness was drenched in poetry; it was wholly personal, profoundly unorthodox.” But how else should any modern poet be Jewish, or, for that matter, German or French or American? The iconoclastic use of biblical materials, the imaginative flirtation with the figure of Jesus, which Gay goes on to cite as evidence of a “not unproblematic” lack of orthodoxy in Else Lasker-Schüler are in fact commonplace features in the work of Yiddish and Hebrew poets whose Jewishness is usually taken for granted. The point is that modernism in general, as Matei Calinescu observes, represents a break with the normative force of the past, and it is therefore predictable that a Jewish modernist in any language, medium, or cultural setting, will exercise an unprecedented degree of freedom with the materials he or she has inherited from the Jewish past. There is no longer any other way to express Jewishness in art.
Keeping in mind this general aspect of the modern cultural condition, we may be less inclined to view Else Lasker-Schüler’s decision to stress a highly personal “Hebraic” element in her work as an incidental quirk in the career of a German poet, and more prepared to see in that choice a partial but real realignment of identities, reflecting a shift in awareness of historical realities. “There are three intertwined and overlapping ways,” Gay writes, “for a poet to be Jewish—or for that matter, anything else: by choice of audience, choice of language, or choice of subject matter,” and he finds Else Lasker-Schüler ultimately German in all three categories. But the clarity of all this is a little specious, for what it omits is the elusive but essential consideration of outlook, values, tonalities, and cultural references in a poet’s work. Else Lasker-Schüler was imbued with German literary ideals, and the famous symbiosis had clearly not broken down for her, but she felt the necessity to introduce into it a dialectical moment of forthright particularism that would not have occurred to her 19th-century predecessors who set out on the adventure of assimilation.
The special resonance of this German turning to the classical Hebrew past can be illustrated by juxtaposing “The Shulamite,” a 1913 poem of mystical desire by Else Lasker-Schüler with “The Lonely Say,” an analogous mystical poem written just two years later in Vienna by the Hebrew poet, Avraham Ben Yitzhak Sonne. Formally, both poems reflect trends of post-Symbolist German verse, while the expressed yearning—solemn for Sonne, sensual for Else Lasker-Schüler—to pass out of this life into an ultimate state of unending oneness, probably has its roots in German Romanticism. Yet both poets articulate their vision with biblical images, work with the potent memory of specific biblical texts, and there may be an advantage in comparing the poems in translation (both English versions are mine), for the comparison reveals a kind of cultural substratum shared by the two poets beneath the pronounced differences of their linguistic surfaces. In the case of the Sonne poem, which is written in a predominantly biblical Hebrew, there is a phrase-by-phrase adherence to a particular biblical source—the great evocation at the beginning of Psalm 19 of the heavens’ speechless praise of God, day and night:
Day unto day will bequeath a guttering sun
and night over night will lament
summer after summer gone into leaf-fall
the world in its sorrow exults.
Tomorrow we die reft of speech
as we leave we stand at the closing gate
and the heart God gladdened with nearness
will regret—and tremble for fear of betrayal.
Day unto day will bear a burning sun
and night after night will spill stars
on the lips of the lonely, song stops:
by seven ways we part and by one we return.
It is a poem surely conditioned by German influences, but it is also a strong reshaping, done with the freedom of a true modernist, of the Psalmist’s vision, and as such an authentic lyric masterpiece of the modern Hebrew revival. “The Shulamite,” by contrast, does not have the same textural closeness to its biblical source, though the poem’s informing sensibility is kindled by the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs, which is fused in the poet’s mind with the mystical-allegorical interpretation that religious tradition has given to the Song of Songs. Perhaps the heritage of Hölderlin is also detectable here, but the German poet has manifestly chosen for the moment to flaunt another heritage, has projected herself, with a terrific energy of imagination, out of her native sphere, into a landscape of ancestral remembrance:
O, from your sweet mouth I have come
to know beatitude so well!
Already I feel the lips of Gabriel
burning on my breast . . .
And the night-clouds drink
my deep dream of cedars.
O, how your life beckons me!
And I vanish
with flowering heartache,
I flow away into space,
and my soul burns away in the evening colors
1 A Confidential Matter: The Letters of Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig, translated by Max Knight, University of California Press, 122 pp., $8.95.
2 Oxford University Press, 289 pp., $12.95.
3 Indiana University Press, 335 pp, $15.00.
4 Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Schocken, 509 pp., $2450.
5 Translated by Ralph Mannheim (the original French version appeared in 1974), Doubleday/Anchor Books, 229 pp., $2.95.
6 I have argued this view at length in these pages in “On Walter Benjamin,” September 1969.