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  • Reading the Visible:Else Lasker-Schüler's Early Prose Texts and the Small Form
  • Patrizia McBride (bio)

When Kurt Hiller said of Else Lasker-Schüler that her work lacked "das Mentale," that is, a level of reflexivity that exceeds merely sensual and sentimental expression, he was trying to set the record straight after a disastrous encounter with Wieland Herzfelde, who had slapped him in the face at the Café des Westens in 1915 for making disparaging remarks about his revered poet-friend.1 Hiller's sour comment about Lasker-Schüler's lack of reflexivity struck at an aspect of her public persona that invited both praise and controversy from contemporaries, who marveled at her fearless self-presentation as a radical performance artist whose biographical self was all but indistinguishable from the characters she developed. Lasker-Schüler played this role in a literal-minded way that foreclosed conventional forms of mediation, whether identificatory or allegorical. Her apparent disinterest in reflecting on or gaining distance to this performance, if only to be able to describe her poetics to others, would seem to support Hiller's assertion that Lasker-Schüler was generally unconcerned with metapoetic reflection. In this essay I take Hiller's concern seriously but reframe it by assuming that Hiller missed the reflexivity in Lasker-Schüler's work because it did not look like anything he would recognize as such. This poetological moment unfolds via Lasker-Schüler's engagement with the protean non-genre of the "kleine Prosa" propelled by the proliferation [End Page 625] of feuilletonistic forms of writing in both mainstream print media and the rapidly differentiating niche market of little magazines. Within this frame I will focus on the poetological reflection that unfolds in short prose texts from one of Lasker-Schüler's early collections, Gesichte (1920): specifically, three essays that lend themselves to reconstructing the role of vision and the visual in her poetics.

Let me preface my analysis by briefly outlining the status these texts enjoy within Lasker-Schüler's oeuvre. The 1920 Gesichte collection encompasses prose texts that had previously appeared as stand-alone pieces in newspapers, periodicals, and little magazines. The book was part of Lasker-Schüler's twenty-volume edition of collected works that was published by Paul Cassirer and included a companion prose volume titled Essays. The texts in this latter collection have been termed "portrait essays" to reflect the collection's driving conceit, which labels each text for the individual it features and thus turns the short pieces into a portrait gallery of sorts, lending the volume a fairly unified character and a high degree of predictability. By contrast, the texts in Gesichte are marked by far greater heterogeneity in terms of both the generic conventions that frame them and the themes and occasions that prompt the writing.2 They include autobiographical vignettes, anecdotes, street scenes, personal reflections, sketches, and reviews of various kinds of performances, including stage drama, circus, and variété. Such textual heterogeneity shines a light on the modular arrangement that informs both collections and ultimately drives all of Lasker-Schüler's works from the years 1900–1920, including her early poetry collections and especially the prose works (Das Peter Hille Buch, 1906; Die Nächte Tino von Bagdads, 1907; Mein Herz, 1912; and Der Prinz von Theben, 1914). Yet these works retain a recognizable overall structure and a pronounced narrative and thematic continuity that override or at least disguise their piecemeal construction. By contrast, the 1920 Gesichte volume stands out for its heterogeneity and generic fluidity; one can clearly recognize the various units as having been conceived as stand-alone contributions. In sum, the strong heteronomous character of the texts ties them directly to the journalistic environment for which they were conceived: in particular to the literary experimentation that falls under the heading of the small prose form at the time. [End Page 626]

Although the term kleine Prosa was reportedly first used by Alfred Polgar in 1926, debates about the reach and value of short prose forms date back to the rise of modern aesthetics in the course of the eighteenth century and flare up...


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