- Karl Wolfskehl: A Poet in Exile by Friedrich Voit
By Friedrich Voit. Lyttelton: Cold Hub, 2019. 231 pages + 33 b/w images. NZ$40.00.
Stefan George’s cultural legacy vastly extends beyond his own literary production; in fact, one might argue that under his charismatic influence, equally inspirational and [End Page 739] oppressive, the circle of friends, followers, and disciples emerged perhaps as the Master’s greatest creation, a collective, if often highly divided body struggling to maintain its own intellectual, political, and ethical profile. Among those who managed to combine fervent adoration with self-confident independence, few were more remarkable than Karl Wolfskehl (1869–1948). As Thomas Karlauf has shown (Stefan George: Die Entdeckung des Charisma, 2007), Wolfskehl—in an essay that, unbelievably enough, surpasses the Master’s own style by its ecstatic, mythical excess—was largely responsible for celebrating George as the priestly creator of darkly pro-found song, but he also objected to the idolatry of the poet’s biography, insisting on the total self-realization of George in and through his poetic œuvre alone. In his poetic credo, Wolfskehl was firmly rooted in the Jewish belief in the theological significance of the written word as a revelation of God (Karlauf, 169–72). It was perhaps this insistence on the religiously inspired, but ultimately aesthetic and ethical autonomy of poetry that allowed Wolfskehl to assert his own intellectual independence.
Marked by a seemingly endless curiosity, a free-wheeling Bohemian temperament, and a restless acquisition of an astoundingly diverse erudition, Wolfskehl became paradigmatic of many Jewish writers of his generation, deeply rooted in German culture but expelled into exile after the Nazi’s takeover of power. Friedrich Voit’s meticulously researched biography is the first in English to document Wolfskehl’s tumultuous years in exile since 1933, first in Switzerland, then in Italy, and finally in New Zealand. Voit makes a convincing case for the writer as a “leading voice for German Jews, expressing their feelings and fears and encouraging them to meet the prevalent oppression by returning to and relying on their own age-old religious tradition and history” (9). If this mission emerged with the publication of the collection Die Stimme spricht (The Voice Speaks, 1934), Wolfskehl’s poetic address An die Deutschen (To the Germans, final version, 1947) asserts his importance in German culture, accusing the Germans of betraying their cultural heritage while reaffirming his own loyalty to the German spirit as represented by George. It contains the remarkable line, written in response to the Nazi book burnings, “Wo ich bin ist Deutscher Geist” (9–10; 38–41)—one thinks of Thomas Mann’s equally defiant and proud “Wo ich bin, ist deutsche Kultur.” Self-consciously comparing his role in exile to the banishment of Ovid and the captivity of Ulysses, the writer, in a late cycle of poems, most fervently identified with the Biblical Job as a figure who served “to encapsulate Wolfskehl’s vision of the essence of Judaism” (10–11).
Although a central, flamboyant voice in the Schwabing art scene of Munich, Wolfskehl’s “proudly asserted Jewishness” led to the break-up of the infamously esoteric Cosmic Circle, which he had founded with the viciously anti-semitic philosopher Ludwig Klages and the arch-reactionary mystic Alfred Schuler (19–20). One can only imagine what the geographic and cultural distance of New Zealand must have meant to this quintessential German-Jewish poet, who came to describe the almost Mediterranean country as the “remotest and the ultimate Thule, the one near the South Pole” (10), symbolically the furthest removed from Europe’s catastrophic betrayal of humanist values (50). Although complaining of loneliness and other sorrows, Wolfskehl adapted remarkably well to the rich and stimulating cultural scene in Auckland, including its vibrant literary community. Voit mentions twice that the “Enemy Aliens” Wolfskehl and Margot Ruben, his secretary and long-term lover, had to register trips with the local police, were not even allowed to have a short-wave [End Page 740] radio and a camera, and saw their correspondence steadily examined by the censor (62; 77–78). Wolfskehl’s insatiable hunger for new...