Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Else Lasker-Schüler: Orientalist Poet

Lasker-Schüler in 1875
Once called “a bohemian princess who lived in the belief that she was the prince of Thebes [Egypt],” the German-Jewish author Else Lasker-Schüler was dubbed “The Black Swan of Israel,” by the poet Hille, who nurtured her career. Widely regarded as one of the most important German lyric poets, one rhapsodic fan proclaimed, “To know Else Lasker-Schüler was the nearest to God that a mortal can hope to reach” (quoted in Else Lasker-Schüler: Inside this Deathly Solitude, by Ruth Schwertfeger).

As a child Else was diagnosed with either epilepsy or St. Vitus dance, “for which there is no factual record, but which played a central role in the feeling life and imagination of the poet—one that was undiminished over the years" (Else Lasker-Schüler: A Life by Betty Falkenberg).*

Believing that she was “a misunderstood, mystical visionary,” (Jewish-German Identity in the Orientalist Literature of Else Lasker-Schüler, Friedrich Wolf, and Franz Werfel, by Donna K. Heizer), she left her first husband, a bourgeois doctor, and had a child out of wedlock to an unknown father.

In 1903, at the age of 34, she took up with 25-year-old George Levin, who she renamed Herwarth Walden. In 1910 the pair, already foundering as a couple but remaining devoted to each others’ work, co-founded the influential literary magazine Der Sturn (The Storm) in Berlin. Lasker-Schuler meanwhile was having success as a poetess, both in ink and in performance.

One of her expressive poems reads:


BUT YOUR EYEBROWS ARE STORMS 

At night I hover restlessly in the sky, 
undarkened by sleep. 

Around my heart dreams buzz, 
searching for sweetness. 

But my edges are spiked— 
only you drink gold unharmed. 

I am a star 
in the blue cloud of your face. 

When my rays shine in your eyes 
we are one world. 

And would fall blissfully asleep— 
but your eyebrows are storms. 


Readers of this blog know I've connected Europeans' fascination with the Orient in the 1800s with their discovery and use of cannabis, and that I've reported that some think the incense of biblical times, caneh bosom, was cannabis.

In 1906, Ruth St. Denis, who had not yet been to India, created her famous solo dance “The Incense.” Coaching a dancer for this role, Martha Graham told her, “Your arms become the smoke, which is your prayer.”

Else too was an Orientalist, traveling east and penning The Nights of Tino of Baghdad, (1907) and The Prince of Thebes (1912) in the style of the Arabian Nights.  Even her style of dress was avant garde for the time: she chose Oriental-style trousers over dresses. "Lasker-Schüler was fascinated with what she saw as the exotic, the mythical and the mystical in Oriental culture," wrote Heizer. "It was a culture filled, she thought, with visionary artists like herself.

Heizer argues that for Jewish-Germans, whom Germans often saw as Orientals, "writing about what they considered to be Oriental culture enabled them to examine not only the exotic Other but also themselves. Through their Orientalist works they could thus explore their own cultural identities. Coming to terms with their own identities became a pressing concern for Jewish-Germans at this time because of the rise of volkisch ideology, which, with its stress on national uniqueness, asserted that they did not belong in German society."

Lasker-Schüler in Oriental garb
I haven’t yet found a reference to Lasker-Schüler taking hashish, only opium once during an illness. But it's recorded that her crowd indulged. One friend, Hanns Heinz Ewers, took haschich starting in 1895, adding opium and mescaline by 1903.

In 1914, a young Walter Benjamin was drawn over to Lasker-Schüler’s table at Berlin’s Café des Westens, which he called “the headquarters of Bohemia.” Benjamin called Else's poem “David and Jonathan” one of his all-time favorites. He wrote, “the true, creative overcoming of religious illumination does not lie in narcotics. It resides in a profane illumination, a materialistic, anthropological inspiration, to which hashish, opium, or whatever else can give an introductory lesson.” (quoted in Primitive Renaissance: Rethinking German Expressionism by David Pan).

Modigliani (a hasheesh user) was one artist who was shown at Der Sturm Gallery, owned by Walden, who is credited with introducing the term "Expressionism." One of Walden’s “circle of expressionists” was Harald Kreutzberg, who in 1920, while attending art school in Dresden, performed a "hashish dance" at a student carnival party. The dance was so well-received that Kreutzberg enrolled in a dance class and later paired with the exotic-looking dancer Yvonne Georgi for and act that “enjoyed enormous and unprecedented international appeal” from 1928 to 1930. (Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910–1935, Karl Toepfer).

Lasker-Schüler’s lover Ernest Junger, a prolific German novelist and essayist who is “considered among the forerunners of Magic Realism,” used ether, cocaine, and hashish in the early 1920s; thirty years later he turned to mescaline, ololuqui, and LSD. His experiments were recorded comprehensively in Annaherungen (1970)

Else was reportedly abused by the right-wing press and beaten unconscious by Nazi thugs when she won the German Kleist Prize for her body of work in 1932. She fled to Switzerland and then Israel. "She often gave money to people in need, leaving herself in poverty, and she spent her last years that way, dying in Jerusalem." (Notable Women in World History, Lydia G. Adamson.)

*St. Vitus dance, or chorea is an involuntary movement disorder that can have several causes, including drug intoxication (commonly levodopa, anti-convulsants and anti-psychotics). Sources of L-DOPA include Mucuna pruriens (velvet bean), and Vicia faba (broad bean or fava bean). “Like all priests of the Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries who were forbidden from ever touching, mentioning, or looking at Fava beans, Pythagoras forbade his followers from doing the same and some claimed that it was due to his belief that fava beans contained the souls of the dead. …Initiates of the Eleusinian mysteries where studies were done on a ritual that transmogrified participants were said to have a deathlike experience after ingesting the kykeon and would then pass by the home of Kyamites, the Greek demigod of Fava beans." (Wikipedia)

Friday, March 24, 2017

Janis Ian and the Summer of Love

"I was born into the crack that split America."

So begins Society's Child, the autobiography of singer/songwriter Janis Ian. Writing about her side of the generation gap, Ian goes on to say, "We marched, wrote polemics, started magazines, took over universities. And in between, we smoked a little pot, made a little love, and changed the world forever."

Ian published her first song at the age of 14 in the magazine Broadside and earned two standing ovations from the likes of Judy Collins and music industry execs when she first performed them. By 15, she had a hit on her hands with "Society's Child," despite the fact that many radio stations banned the song about an interracial relationship, and she met with hostility when she performed it. One station in Atlanta that played the song was burned down, and people would spit in her food in restaurants. She writes:

I was having a hit record.
I was singing for people who wanted me dead.
I was fifteen years old. 


Ian was no stranger to controversy, or hostility. Her father, a farmer, attended a meeting about the price of eggs and was thereafter followed by the FBI as a suspected communist. The family lost the farm and moved every two years when her father was unable to get tenure at the schools where he was a respected teacher, after the FBI would pay a visit to school administrators. Added to that was abuse Janis suffered from her family's dentist and the early realization that she was attracted to women at a time when homosexuality was not well accepted.

She found her salvation in music, with the help of teachers and counselors who recognized her intelligence and potential. After she hit the charts, she traveled West and played the Berkeley Folk Festival, where she befriended Janis Joplin, eight years her senior. "We went to a party at Peter Tork's house one night, where everyone was wearing bright silk Indian clothing and crashing on a floor filled with pillows and hashish pipes," she wrote. At the next party, where a heroin dealer went around the room shooting people up, Joplin turned to her and said, "Kid, time for you to go home."

Jimi Hendrix used to call her, "that girl who wrote that song, man, you know." He let her try some of his cocaine, but her reaction was so extreme that she never tried it again. "Lucky for me, because cocaine could easily have come my drug of choice," she wrote. "I'd have loved the extra energy, the sense of power, and I'd have ended up like so many of my friends, strung out or even dead."

When Ian taped the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (below), Bill Cosby saw her sleeping with her head in her chaperone's lap during a break, and proceeded to tell several industry people that she was a lesbian and shouldn't be on national TV. Now that we know about what Cosby's been accused of, one wonders if he was really upset that Ian wouldn't be drinking wine with him.



Ian herself became an object of government surveillance, through the CIA's "Operation CHAOS" program, whose goals were to target war protestors, civil rights activists, and public figures, and:

Show them as scurrilous and depraved. Call attention to their habits and living conditions, explore every possible embarrassment. Send in women and break up marriages. Have members arrested on marijuana charges. Investigate personal conflicts or animosities between them. Send articles to the newspapers showing their depravity. Use narcotics and free sex to entrap. Use misinformation to confuse and disrupt. Get records of their bank accounts. Obtain specimens of handwriting. Provoke target groups into rivalries that may result in death. 

"For us, it was impossible to separate protesting against the war from the civil rights movement, using drugs, and living on music," Ian wrote. "The rest of the country had managed to ignore most of it, until San Francisco's 'Summer of Love' [50 years ago in 1967] got national attention from the press, and large portions of America that still yearned for the simplicity and rigidity of the fifties had their minds blown."

Ian enjoyed smoking pot and listening to a roommate recite Russian poetry and Dostoyevsky. "We confined ourselves to marijuana and hash, although once in a while something else snuck past," she wrote. She and a boyfriend declined an invitation from Stanley Owsley to try his LSD, but did accept some THC pills from him, which they liked to take while flying (on planes), with Ian hiding it in an empty makeup tube.

The day after Martin Luther King was shot, Janis was assaulted on the streets of New York and given a Coke to drink that was laced with too-strong acid; she was prescribed Stelazine to come down from it but still experienced flashbacks later.

After Robert Kennedy was also shot, "Every hero I had was dead," Ian wrote. "The war on drugs dried up the border, and there was next to no marijuana in the five boroughs. The Mafia moved in with heroin, and normal people my age, not in the music business, not on the fringes, started dying. It seemed death was all around me."

Around this time Ian's agent David Geffen arranged for her meet to fellow songwriter Laura Nyro. On their evening out, "We spent most of it in his limousine, riding around downtown and smoking pot." On another occasion, Nyro took a TV to Ian's apartment to watch the premiere of "The Mod Squad" with her friend Peggy Lipton; "So we watched TV through dinner, smoked some dope, and made our good-byes."

Nyro, Ian wrote, would constantly sip Cheracol, a cough syrup with codeine, "her eyes getting duller by the hour." Once during a recording session Nyro pointed to a purple chair and said, "I want it to sound like that." Ian was able to translate that she wanted it legato.

Somewhat abandoned by her now-divorced parents, unhappy with the state of the world, and stressed from the pressures of her career,  the young singer took refuge in marijuana. "Since the world refused to change, I stayed stoned," she wrote, though she never smoked while working. Then a book called The Day on Fire, a fictionalized account of the life of VIP Arthur Rimbaud "turned my world upside down," she wrote. "Overnight, I becomes steeped in the mysteries of being an artist....Just being a person wasn't enough after reading Rimbaud, not by a long shot."

She started seeing a therapist who told her, "You don't trust anyone. You're scared of everyone." Not surprising, considering she was surveilled since she was a child, and overdosed with a drug by a stranger. She overdosed on Seconal, and then stopped eating, her weight dropping to 82 pounds just as she turned 18. Once more music brought her back, and she wrote her hit "Stars" after being inspired by Don MacLean's "Starry, Starry Night."

Ian's songs have been covered by Joan Baez, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Bette Midler, Amy Grant, Shirley Bassey, Cher, and Mel Tormé, among others. In 1993, she released the album Breaking Silence and came out as a lesbian; she was interviewed by Tokin' Woman Melissa Etheridge for The Advocate.  

Ian, who will turn 66 on April 7, is now writing for the Huffington Post. Her latest article, Women Under Trumpcare—A Proposal, is well worth a read. Keep up with Janis at JanisIan.com