Seelisches Heimweh: Else Lasker-Schüler und H.D.

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Contributor: Prof. Dr. Jill Scott, Queens University

There are plenty of reasons why a comparative study of the modernist poets H.D. (1886-1961) and Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945) makes good sense. The similarities in biography and thematic orientation abound. They were both gifted women forging new ground in modernist poetics; each was known for her cultivation of an eccentric personality, led an itinerant lifestyle, was surrounded by famous male modernists, stretched the limits of sexual identity, was fascinated with the fantastic world of myth, and challenged the traditional boundaries of autobiography and other genres, fantasy and fiction, truth and lies.

As interesting as these similarities may be, they are not the focus of this paper. Instead, I would like to consider the ways in which H.D. and Lasker-Schüler negotiate through the written word the experience of trauma and the loss and renewal of voice. I will read H.D.‘s poem cycle “A Dead Priestess Speaks” (1931-8) and her experimental memoir The Gift (1941-44) against Lasker-Schüler‘s Hebräische Balladen (1914) and Hebräerland (1935) asking whether and how an engagement with spirituality leads to ways and means of embracing forgiveness as a practice of life/writing. Both H.D. and Lasker-Schüler were raised in a specific religious tradition – H.D. in the mystical Moravian brotherhood and Lasker-Schüler in a strong Jewish community – but each woman distanced herself from this upbringing and exchanged these values for modernist positivism and the cult of form, technique and tidy poetic perfection. I would like to propose that each of these writers found it necessary in her own way to break with these secular and predominantly male modernist values and to invent new rituals and a sense of ceremony, indeed to explore her psychic and spiritual roots.

In addition to my general focus on the development of a personal spiritual engagement on behalf of H.D. and Lasker-Schüler, I am specifically interested in tracing what I am calling a “poetics of forgiveness” in each author‘s writing. Much work has been done on grief, loss and mourning in a psychoanalytic context, but I would like to take this one step further and explore the possibilities for human compassion in poetry and narrative prose. The model of forgiveness I am working with comes from Julia Kristeva, for whom forgiveness is “giving meaning beyond non-meaning/ nonsense” (“donner du sens par-delà du nonsens”), and comprises both apology and gift. This notion of gift extends beyond equality or compensation and is, in Jacques Derrida‘s terms, aneconomical: “Forgiveness forgives only the unforgiveable.” Forgiveness, then, involves both the memory of loss and renewal through the gift.

Why forgiveness? It seems to me that contemporary consciousness is shaped by a culture of revenge, a trend which has only become more pronounced in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001. This essay is part of a larger study, which attempts to trace a “poetics of forgiveness” in various literary works of the 20th century as an alternative response to trauma and crisis. I ask the questions: Is forgiveness possible? Is there such a thing as a poetics of forgiveness in literature? Can we learn anything from our literary heritage that will enhance our understanding of contemporary culture? Can we speak of a gender-specific response to trauma, and do women have a special relationship to forgiveness?