|Lasker-Schüler in 1875
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.
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
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)