Marie Therese Luger writes about the poet Nelly Sachs.
On Friday, 22nd of January, a poet and writer held a lecture at Kungliga Konsthögskolans Research Week. A poet and writer I say, because it would not be wise, to mention her name right away.
So, on Friday 22nd of January, Mara Lee held a lecture at Kungliga Konsthögskolans Research Week. She repeated a similar talk at Konstfacks Research Week some days later. Both lectures were centered around ”othering” in writing, and specific metaphores therein. The public got introduced to the homophones ”La Mere” and ”La Mer”. The Mother. And the Sea. Followed by a reconstruction of the word ”Transit”. Lee brought up this term to suggest a different naming-process for movements, that include flight or diaspora, somewhat corresponding with the literary metaphore of ”the journey”. She illustrated the term ”transit” with examples of literature taking place in, on or around a train seat.
On Friday, 22nd of January I sat in the audience of this very lecture and was too shy to raise my hand and ask, if the ”train seat” and the ”transit” should be given the possibility to be seen as homophones, and if so, they were placed and conjoined either by purpose, coincidence, psychoanalysis or merely a piece of research that fell into place as in a jigsaw puzzle.
Falling into place, because only recently had I myself heard a story, about transit, that almost began with a train seat. Yet, this story would not exist, if it actually had. Instead, it began with a seat on an airplane, and from there on has – allegedly – made a now rediscovered poet and writer possible.
„He advised them not to take the train. She had bought train tickets to get out of Germany. But by that time, things had already gotten so far, that trains were stopped at the borders and sent back. So he begged her to buy a plane ticket from Berlin. And she did.“
”She” was called Nelly Sachs, born 1891 to Jewish parents in Berlin, Germany. Taking off exactly there from, she landed at Stockholms Bromma Airport in the afternoon of May 12th 1940. By that time, she was 49 years old and had – rather unsuccessfully – been involved in writing and poetry since her late adolescent years.
In 1966, 21 years after her transit to Stockholm, Nelly Sachs was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Her work, by then, featured poetry that was influenced by Swedish modernism, as well as the terrible things, that had happened during the Holocaust.
„…and it was then she began to write in a serious manner. At first very conventional, romantic poems. Because it was first in Sweden, she began to develop a completely different style, because she got to know what had happened in Hitler´s Germany and so on. Then and there, her themes began to change, and the whole direction of her work did.“
Today, Nelly Sachs is very IN again. She has surfaced on the ocean of literary studies through the work of (among others) Karin Johannisson, Anders Olsson and Daniel Pedersen, the latter ones attributed to the University of Stockholm. Especially Daniel Pedersen, who is writing his PhD thesis on Nelly Sachs, is interested in her writing and her work BEFORE. Before she came to Sweden.
Anders Olsson shows a similar approach, his work is – at least according to a written statement on Stockholm University´s website- influenced by the idea of the topos ”exile” and it´s profound impact on the work of Nelly Sachs: ” The project attempts by way of archive studies and comparative analysis an explanation of the change in Sachs´ poetry in exile, of how she quickly becomes 1. poet of Holocaust, 2. Modernist and 3. poet of exile in universal terms. (…)The claim of the project is that Swedish poetic Modernism has been decisive for Sachs´ new language in exile, and its special motivation is the lacking competence in Swedish language and literature within international Sachs´scholarship (sic!).“
Whether one agrees with these terms, theses and assumptions is to a certain degree influenced by one´s subjective position. Still it is based on an appropriated picture of Nelly Sachs: Nelly Sachs the Nobel-prize-winner. Yet, Nelly Sachs, the Nobel prize winner, and the Nelly Sachs that becomes apparent though her own applied language, are very different ones.
It is easy to agree with what Hilde Domin – in an epilogue to a German anthology of Sach´s poems – mentioned, when talking about the irritation and „Unlust“ that hit her while working through Nelly Sach´s poetry. She describes „die gebetsmühlenhafte Widerkehr von Thema und Metaphor, immer in der hohen Tonlage, den „Nelly-Sachs-Effekt“, wie jemand es nannte.“ and continues on to questioning the true meaning of Sach´s poetry.
According to Domin, the suffering that is apparent in Sachs´s poetry derives first and foremost from lamenting “den Einen Ermordeten” and becomes substitute for “alle die Ermordeten” while the origin of the suffering had until this point never been feasible for Domin. Here she refers of course to a tragic love affair, taking its beginning when Sachs was seventeen years old, that she suffered from her whole life and that was undoubtedly a recurring theme in all her writing, from beginning to end.
This allows the question, if Sach´s writing has actually really changed at all, or if just the pictures projected on the canvas and the cinema these projections were shown in, changed. In any way, it is easy to see, that Nelly Sachs excessively made use of metaphores, and used them in a suffocating way, that shaped the language of her poetry more than the also recurring themes could.
Accompanying stars, space, mystery and the night, it is the apartment that becomes a constant visitor in Sach´s writing. Her initiative work bears the title “In den Wohnungen des Todes”. If Sachs should indeed be a “poet of exile, universally speaking” as Olsson is stating in his description, then she must at least be as much a poet of the home as well.
There is, and it never seems to go away, a certain tie between Sachs and the notion of space, the notion of architecture. Her housing situation itself is the first spot to start digging into the matter, since it is not an unknown fact, that the maker of poems mentioning “nattmurarna”, “bostad av tystnad”, “dödshuset” or “hemlängtans födelsehus” had lived a rather withdrawn live in a two-room-apartment on Bergsundsstrand, Södermalm. And she did rarely – almost never – travel, as Hilde Domin notes. Except for extended stays in clinics, Sachs only left Sweden on two occasions, accepting literature-prizes in Meerburg, as well as Frankfurt, Germany. Her stays in clinics were caused by psychological struggles, commonly stated as some form of paranoia (which is a diagnosis I would dare to disagree on). Apparently Sachs believed to be spied on and hunted by Nazis, at times allegedly spent nights in a friend´s apartment, because she believed her own one was being filled with poisonous gas. It seems legitimate to attribute these fears to the gas chambers in concentration camps in Germany during World War II, and these terrible events have undoubtedly influenced Sachs in a profound way. Yet, I would not claim, that her translation of these events into artistic output are shaping factors for her work, rather than symptoms. A closer reading of these symptoms would of course be necessary to evaluate and re-evaluate their application to culture as well as to science.
Concerning the change Sach´s body of work underwent and Anders Olsson is locating within the realm of influence of exile and Swedish modernism, I am reminded of T.W. Adornos roaring quote: “Nach Ausschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch!”, because this is exactly, what Nelly Sachs did. And what she is known for. We know of course, that Adorno has tried to annul this phrase in 1966, one year before our writer and poet got awarded the Nobel prize. Yet, his claim is of course concise with the impetus the impossibility to collectively digest the Holocaust had on numerous artists and writers and their legacy.
Yet, I would like to propose, that this is not the key to defining Nelly Sachs´ artistic work.
It is indeed sometimes suggested, that Nelly Sachs did not eventually have success with her writing because of its quality, but because of it´s themes. Thus she “remains” a poet OF the holocaust, OF modernism, OF exile. And this should keep one thinking.
„She read also Selma Lagerlöf. She had stumbled upon „Gösta Berlings Saga“, this is her own copy, a book obviously often and thoroughly read, the edges are all soft, and from there on developed what the Germans call „Nordsehnsucht“, a longing after the far north, and she started corresponding with Selma, and Selma Lagerlöf became a huge inspiration for her. To the extent, that she herself wrote a book in German, in Selma Lagerlöfs spirit, with the exact same title, which is called in German: Legenden und Erzählungen, Legend and Stories, which she then sent to Selma, with a dedication. And she received an answer from Selma, saying, that she, Selma, couldn´t not have written it any better herself. It looks like she didn´t catch the irony in this.”
This description of Sach´s artistic output, long before her transit to Sweden is important for various reasons. It practices the early stages of artistic development as well at it breaches into a technique or strategy that is somewhat connected to the Situationist´s concept of “Detournement” but is not yet the same. Following the concept of “Detournemet” a liberating change of “society and life in which we find ourselves confined” is possible through “appropriate actions”. Guy Debord, who wrote this in a statement about the Situationist Movement and their activity, can at this point be interpreted when it comes to the use of the word “appropriate”. The meaning is active both towards being interpreted as “fitting” as well as “making something one´s own” or “taking on”.
Further, I am aware of the fact, that “appropriation” in itself can be considered a capitalistic act. And even thought it is not the only reason this assumption is built upon, it is easy to interpret the act of appropriating as an act motivated by the urge “to have” or “to own”.
This indicates, that the strategy of Detournement would either be an act of re-appropriation, thereby “doubling” a power strategy and becoming a tool for critique.
Especially when applied to understand the conditions of artistic and creative production following up on this idea could be very rewarding.
The fact, that Nelly Sachs had actually written a book with the exact same title as her idol Selma Lagerlöf, sent it to her, and gotten back a response, that stated, that Selma herself had not been able to do it any better, is therefore of vast interest to me.
I wonder, is it safe to say, that Nelly Sachs has appropriated Selma Lagerlöfs artistic content, through her action. Is this maybe a much more liberating scenario, than the confinement to pain, suffering and death. Would this maybe be more fun ? But also, would this have had potential for being a critical act?
By now, we know, that being fun doesn´t exclude the ability for critical thinking and the distribution of critical thoughts. I often wonder, what had happened to Nelly Sachs, had she made use of the potential, irony offered her during the incident with Selma Lagerlöfs book. One can only assume, but her voice would be a different one.
In Today´s setting, of literary or contemporary artistic practice, Nelly Sach´s work could be describe as much more emancipatory, had she not lingered, and is still made to linger by her rediscovering audience, in her confinement to suffering. This suffering is constantly present in her representation and points once again to the fact, that becoming a voice of collective pain is the driving force in the reception of Nelly Sachs work. Becoming a voice of collective pain is neither unethical nor unimportant, but it is of course a power structure. One that is arranged side by side with the overall conditions of artistic production. Too often, the writers and poets become „others“ by themselves. By following the call so stand outside and look in, to sadly observe the world around them and submit their share of suffering and death. This is what history tells us and what societal, cultural structures tell us. Mara Lee might be able to develop strategies to avoid confinement to these terms and tropes. Nelly Sachs is not.
Thus it seems ironic, as well as fitting, that Kungliga Biblioteket, almost in analogy to „her“ voice, is keeping the apartment of Nelly Sach in confinement: The interior of Nelly Sach´s apartment is still preserved and existing. Not located on Bergsundsstrand anymore, but 40 meters below ground, kept in a cellar-archive under the main building of Kungliga Biblioteket, where it can be visited every first Wednesday of the month. To function as an analogy, it needs to be mentioned, that the apartment is not kept there in spatial originality and some of the bookshelves had to be sawn off to fit the height of the archive. Due to the size of the apartment and the difficulty to access, Kungliga Biblioteket has considered stopping guided tours to the place and instead wants to produce a videofilm, that can be shown to the public in order to consume the spatial and linguistic remains that in it´s representation ignores the importance of re-evaluating and re-appropriating space: Exile and home are no dichotomies, but more like homophones. They are both illustration of movement, where society wants to see static existence. They are, as well as re-appropriation of artistic voices, part of a definitive craft we are not yet practicing.
och ingen form
Jenks, Chris (Editor): ”URBAN CULTURE: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, Volume 3”, Routledge, 2004
Tafuri, Manfredo: ”The Sphere and the Labyrinth”, MIT Press, 1987
Sachs, Nelly; Domin, Hilde (Hrsg.): ”Gedichte”, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1977
Debord, Guy: ”Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Action“, 1957
Luger, Marie-Therese: ”förnellysachsad: A book of appropriated poetry”, 2016
Marie Therese Luger is a cultural scientist and curator. She sometimes writes.