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  • The Birth of the Poetess from the Spirit of the Avant-Garde:Else Lasker-Schüler's Die Nächte Tino von Bagdads
  • Vivian Liska (bio)

Else Lasker-Schüler's Die Nächte Tino von Bagdads (The nights of Tino from Baghdad) is an iridescent work, combining prose and poetry, the sublime and the grotesque, and the autobiographical and the fantastic. Critics have often regarded it as an immature early work. One of the first doctoral theses on the poetess remarked that one could indeed "write a commentary on the Nächte as on Faust," but that "such a commentary would be unnecessary for literary studies" (Goldstein 12).1 What is considered "necessary" changes with the times, however, and already implies an interpretation: whereas the postwar period "needed" the restorative eternalizing of the poetess as a conciliatory figure of redemption, the seventies demanded the debunking of this mystification, and the eighties required a reading of her works as an example of feminist writing. Currently, as context-oriented cultural studies presents a challenge to the close study of literary texts, it is timely to see her work as a display of innovative poetics in which the power of literature unfolds its critical and creative potential. In this perspective, the Nächte, in which a self-reflexive writing style meets a performative autopoiesis, proves to be an early manifestation of the avant-garde that is as subversive of aesthetic conventions as it is self-critical of the avant-garde's own revolutionary confidence. The work [End Page 556] combines formal traits of experimental writing with characteristic themes of the literary avant-garde, most prominently, the role of the artist at the threshold between the old and the new world. Conspicuous in this convergence is Lasker-Schüler's ambivalent relationship to the "will to pathos" (see Zweig), so widespread in expressionism—the most German of all avant-garde movements. She complements her ambivalence on the level of content with a simultaneous poetic self-empowerment and rejection of claims to sovereignty, hierarchy, and mastery.

Lasker-Schüler's Nächte is directed against a repressive patriarchal world, which it opposes through an anarchic and destructive act of writing. The book can be read, in this sense, as the performance of her own birth as a poetess: the persona of Tino conveys Lasker-Schüler's own vocation to this apocalyptic act of writing, which the Nächte simultaneously enacts and reflects. The Nächte thus carries out the tabula-rasa gesture of the avant-garde without, however, filling the newly created empty space with heroic evocations of a new power. Instead, the Nächte offers the radical idea of the "new human being" ("Neuen Menschen"), whose dangers it reveals and repels. Die Nächte Tino von Bagdads can thus be seen as an experimental artistic program and a rebellious self-project on the part of the poetess, who leaves the restrictive house of the pater familias and, as a mischievous poeta vates, declares war on the bourgeois order.

A claim to the sublime undoubtedly inheres in the poetess's self-presentation as a chosen figure of redemption whose own awakening is destined to bring cosmic renewal to completion. Aspects of the mischievous and the grotesque, however, subvert the attendant arrogance of this "grandiose attempt" at messianic self-invocation and the "aristocratism of wholeness and strength" (Bänsch 212). They manifest themselves in the playful, at times self-ironic poetic consciousness of this mission and in the unorthodox adaptation of archaic forces to effect the renewal of a declining culture. On the level of content, they extend from explicit self-presentations as the Other of the established cultural order to the suspension of the demarcation between the private and the cosmic, the sacred and the profane, reality and fiction, up to resistance and mutiny against the preeminence of the paternal world and its heirs. This rebellion finds its formal expression in the simultaneity of the "high" and "low" that juxtaposes and comingles a lyrical-hymnal and a grotesque poetic voice or suggestive elliptical gestures that point both to the "occult" (Bänsch 213), a mysterious unsayable, and to poetic quackery. Other such expressions...


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pp. 556-574
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