Nelly Sachs | Critical Essay by Elisabeth Strenger

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of Nelly Sachs.
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Critical Essay by Elisabeth Strenger

SOURCE: "Nelly Sachs and the Dance of Language," in Bridging the Abyss: Reflections on Jewish Suffering, Anti-Semitism, and Exile, edited by Strenger and Amy Colin, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1994, pp. 225-36.

In the following essay, Strenger examines Sachs's use of the body as a symbol in her work.

The Hasidic tales collected by Martin Buber constituted part of Nelly Sachs's initial significant intellectual and poetic contact with Jewish culture. The following anecdote, entitled "Silence and Speech," evokes the historical reasons Sachs had for maintaining the struggle for her poetic voice, at first as the memorializer, then as the singer, of her people:

A man had taken upon himself the discipline of silence and for three years had spoken no words save those of the Torah and of prayer. Finally the Yehudi sent for him. "Young man," he said, "how is it that I do not see a single word of yours in the world of truth?" "Rabbi," said the other to justify himself, "why should I indulge in the vanity of speech? Is it not better just to learn and to pray?" "If you do that," said the Yehudi, "not a word of your own reaches the world of truth. He who only learns and prays is murdering the word of his own soul …"

In her own poetry, Nelly Sachs locates the poetic voice in the throat, die Kehle, at times, more specifically—the nightingale's throat. In the nightingale, we recognize the romantic icon of Brentano and Eichendorff's poetry and also the Baroque emblem of the German metaphysical poets. One is reminded especially of Friedrich von Spee's devotional "Trutz Nachtigall." The conscious use of the nightingale reveals Sachs's continuing interest in the Baroque and Romantic poetic traditions. In addition to these intertextual possibilities, the throat, as a physiognomic feature, signifies the frailty of the voice and of the material aspect of life. This constellation of associations, juxtaposed with the biographical incidence of Nelly Sachs's loss of voice occasioned by a Gestapo interrogation ("Fünf Tage lebte ich ohne Sprache unter einem Hexenprozeß."), underscores her dual vulnerability as a Jewish woman and her awareness of that vulnerability.

As a German Jew, exile and exodus determined the poles of Nelly Sachs's experience of culture and history. Her fate exemplifies how question of identification was intensified for all Jews writing in the German cultural context. The equation was solved differently by each individual: either the Jewish or German side is weighted with varying degrees of assimilation or commitment to Judaic tradition in response to historical, political, or personal pressures. The Nuremberg laws forced a realignment, a re-evaluation of points of orientation. The content of German culture, now radically shifted to a position of "otherness," was called into question. In Nelly Sachs's case, this shift manifests itself in her rejection of the literary norms of German Romanticism and her subsequent exploration of Hasidic mysticism and the adaptation of its ontological and semiotic systems.

Sachs's metamorphosis into a Jewish poet acknowledges her continuous development of Jewish issues and motifs that exist in a symbiotic relationship with the German language, for, as a modernist poet, her poetry's formative theme is language and its ability to bear meaning. The German language was discredited as a system encouraging meaning because it had been the language of the disruptive oppressors. She developed a strategy for salvaging her means of expression and communication—her system of metaphors, which is, in effect, a reinvention of language. Her system affirms the existence of bonds between words and their meanings, while opening up a new range of meanings, and it challenges words to describe what has been termed the indescribable.

To reject completely the German language would imply the loss of her poetic voice and the structuring element of her personal and cultural experience. For Sachs, inspired by the theological and linguistic precepts of Kabbalistic and Hasidic mysticism, the agent that initiates and sustains the creation and the creative process is language. Her poetic and semiotic experiments are conducted in German, on German, and through these she attempts to transform the language of the oppressors ("die Jäger") and reclaim it on behalf of the oppressed ("die Gejagten"). Two pieces that illustrate the process by which she appropriates and reshapes German as a medium to express the Jewish experience are "Chassidische Schriften" from the collection Sternverdunkelung and the scenic poem "Der magische Tänzer." "Chassidische Schriften" represents the initial stage of this process where she begins to develop a metaphoric system based primarily on the Book of the Zohar, one of the central Kabbalistic texts from thirteenth-century Spain. The dramatic poem "Der magische Tänzer" with its evocation of Kleist's Uber das Marionettentheater reveals the deeply problematic relationship between the German and Jewish cultural spheres. It questions the possibility of reconstituting the language and posits two extensions to the traditional poetic medium: silence and dance.

Within the Jewish mystical tradition we find a perception of human language that emphasizes the ambivalence of language itself as a possible system of access to divine understanding. Human language is opposed to the immanent Creative, Divine Word. Medieval German Hasidism delivers perhaps the most unequivocal faith in the power of language. In this movement with its belief in mystic ascent, as Gershom Scholem describes, "the emphasis is no longer on the approach of the mystic himself to God's throne, but on that of his prayer. It is the word, not the soul, which triumphs over fate and evil." But when commenting on Jewish mysticism's relationship to language, Scholem asks, "how can words express an experience for which there is no adequate simile in this finite world of man?" There is a strong sense that we can only know by analogy or association. The Kabbalistic tradition also operated within metaphors—these being the only means by which to "name" the "deus absconditus": "that which is infinite, that which is not conceivable by thinking. At best these are words with close approximations." Sachs extends the limitations of language so that it can form a bridge between experiential "Bezogenheit" and the place in which language has its source—the place before language.

Fashioning one's own language is in keeping with the great Jewish mystic traditions, from the secret passwords for protection on ecstatic journeys to the Zohar's artificially reproduced Aramaic. So too Nelly Sachs seeks to transform her language into one that can express the inexpressible. Her transformed language includes non-verbal communication strategies. Her highly visual metaphors become emblems in the reader's eye. The human body itself is pressed into service—gestures and dance are summoned to convey meaning both to the reader, and, in prayer, to God.

A consideration of the physical, sensual aspect of her imagery and communicative strategy, as represented by description and inclusion of gesture, reads 'to the observation of how verbal and non-verbal communication merge in the image of having the word, or sign, inscribed upon the body. Even in transcendent poems describing mystic projections, the reader finds Sachs's attention on the intersection between the material and spiritual. In the "Magischer Tänzer," the body becomes the word: first in dance, and then, finally, when the heart is torn from the body. Unmediated communication via the body takes place as the Hasidic mystic completes his journey to the place before language.

If we continue to interpret Sachs's poetry as attempts at transcending the strictures of the material world, we will only focus on the abstract qualities of her metaphorical system which, as Ruth Dinesen points out, is one of the obstacles to her critical reception. At the core of her transcendent impulses lies an acute awareness and understanding of the materiality that constitutes the human experience of one's surroundings, of history, and of self. In the reading and the speech of bodies are found occasions not only for vertically channeled contact between the divine and human spheres, but her poems also record the touching between bodies as a means of establishing lateral bonds, or community. Sometimes the simple human or animal gestures echo contact between man and God. A mother stroking her child's hip in "Ein totes Kind spricht" parallels Jakob's encounter with the angel: "And there was one that wrestled with him until daybreak who, seeing that he could not master him, struck him in the socket of his hip … (Gen. 32:26). Sachs's lines transform the blow to the hip:

     Die Mutter löste ihre Hand aus der meinen,
     Damit es mich nicht träfe.
     Sie aber berührte noch einmal leise meine Hüfte—
     Und da blutete ihre Hand—

Feminist questions, on the identification of a woman through her body and with her body, arise in relation to certain aspects of Sachs's poetry. She concretizes the body in her poetry, and though this body is not always a feminine body, hers, the poet's, is, and feminist implications, especially in evaluating the link between biography and poetry should not be overlooked. Johanna Bossinade began the feminist exploration of Sachs's work. She discusses the importance of the feminine identity for her poetics in terms of Freud's theory of the female wound, the wounded female. She too has noted that many of Sachs's images of separation or loss are opposed to metaphors of maternal security or "Geborgenheit."

Throughout her oeuvre we find the cosmos, that same starry realm that represents the patriarchal promise to Abraham, associated with feminine terms: the milky way, if we wish, becomes the mother's milk way. We find umbilical cords binding us to the divine in the form of crystalline wombs. And pervasive is the blood, not always the blood of victims or death, but the blood of exuberant, painful, beginning life. Sachs gives birth to language renewed, and this metaphorical feminine presence is far more pervasive than is warranted by traditional Jewish mysticism and the limited role it ascribes to the Shekinah, that feminine manifestation of God.

Sachs lets her body, the body, be heard, but not in a manner easily accounted for by a single theoretical model. And for Sachs, it is not just a question of what the body says, but what the body hears. What experiences does the body react to, testify to? Mystics transcend the body, but the locus of their experience remains the body, and their bodies are said to bear signs of light or blood in response to that experience. It is significant that the strongest statements we have about Sachs and the production of her poems is that she felt them burning within her. One can read these either as the signs of a changing woman's body or the searing ecstasy of a mystic. Her epoch has seen the fragility of the body—she writes against this thoughtless, horrific waste. Her epitaphs for the Holocaust's nameless victims collected in Wohnungen des Todes contain detailed descriptions of their bodies or gestures, of their physical existence, as well as testimonies to their spiritual presence.

The poem "Chassidische Schriften" serves as a significant marker in Nelly Sachs's quest to transform language. Blomster, Klingman and Weissenberger have viewed this poem as a poetic / mystic manifesto and have discussed it in terms of how systematic her analysis and integration of Kabbalism and Hasidism have been. Sachs's mysticism is not a system of abstractions. She poetically transforms personal memory into an evocation of the cosmos and fate of a people. In this poem, she seeks to produce her own Hasidic text: a mystical contemplation on the opening passages of the Kabbalistic Book of the Zohar. But whereas the Zohar's author was inspired to seek for the layers of illumination contained within each word of the Creation narrative, Sachs's meditation telescopes the entire Torah as it moves from Creation through Exodus.

The poem's epigram reads: "Es heißt: die Gebote der Thora entsprechen der Zahl der Knochen des Menschen, ihre Verbote der Zahl der Adern. So decks das ganze Gesetz den ganzen Menschenleib." It invites us to contemplate the convergence of word and body although the dynamics of this convergence remain a mystery, a mystery which the poem goes on to invoke as the space in which all is whole and intact, and for which all creatures long.

The epigram is echoed within the poem: "Und die Knochen leben die magische Zahl der Gebote / und die Adern bluten sich zu Ende." The poet's eye transgresses the boundaries of the body, passes through the permeable barrier of skin. The skeletal and bleeding body, the bones and open veins, transcend their conventional association with death to connote life as well, a life encompassed by, or more accurately stated, circumscribed by the Laws of the Torah. The body, an object of death and genocide in the Wohnungen des Todes, functions here primarily as the living symbol of a god's covenant with his people. The gender specific sign of circumcision is replaced by the whole inscribed body. In a fashion reminiscent of Christianity's saints who bore stigmata as signs of mystical union, the body becomes the sign of God's Covenant with his people. It can be "read" according to Kabbalistic numerology and one perceives the possibility of an unmediated experience of divinity.

The poem places the reader at the beginning of creation as light is born of darkness in the protective, nurturing matrix of the universe. The entire process is distilled into the elemental images of night, stars, water and sand that we find recurring in Sachs's poetry. The agent which initiates and sustains the creation is language: "und das Wort lief aus / … Namen bildeten sich / wie Teiche im Sand." In as much as man participates in the naming activity he participates in creation, as Blomster has elaborated in his essay on Sachs's theosophy of the creative word.

In this poem, darkness and light have universal significance, but Sachs expresses her hopeful belief in transformation when she imagines the night giving birth to the stars. Dark and light are not in perpetual conflict, rather one can engender the other. Similarly she transforms the image of the stone, (hard, lifeless matter and symbolic of exile in the barren desert), into a petrified darkness that still contains the promise of divine movement and light. Even threatening quicksand becomes a metaphor for the potential for change on the most elemental level.

In conjunction with the final images of fertile seeds and stars, sand assumes yet another dimension inspired by the Bible (Genesis 22:17). God promises Abraham, "I will shower blessings on you, I will make your descendants as many as the stars in heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore." The poem closes with the image of another stigmatized figure: Jacob, whose injured hip bore the trace of his encounter with his deity. No longer the Jew victimized by history, Jacob is the emblem for an Israel which continues to sleep with the stars that betoken the promise to engender a people.

If we can "read" God's presence in or on our bodies, then the possibility exists that we might reverse the direction of communication in accordance with the mystics' belief that the path to God is the reversal of the path from God. For the Psalmist David, for the Hasidic pious, and for Nelly Sachs, the body could then speak back to God, in dance.

Hellmut Geissner has attempted to describe the nature of dance as it is understood and applied by Nelly Sachs according to anthropological categories of ritualistic dance. He defines it as "enthusiasmic" dance which is at once inward and outward turning, seeking both to conjure the god and to join with him. Such an ethnographical definition ignores both the communal and personal / psychological aspects of dance. These other forces operating on dance are represented in Sachs's work by Hasidic dance and by the expressive / interpretative dance of her childhood. Only when one considers dance within this triad of contexts can one understand the complex dynamics of dance as an act of communication.

Critical interpretations measure carefully the weight of autobiography in her works. Bahr describes her symbolic autobiography: "Sie wollte hinter ihrem Werk verschwinden, wollte anonym bleiben." Her individuality may have been suppressed, but not her humanity. Of the few facts that can be gleaned from her self-representations, her autobiographical sketches or references in letters, the most consistently mentioned by biographers and critics is her fascination with dance….

As a mature poet she still feels that dance is her natural element, not the word. In the scenic poem "Magischer Tänzer" dance is the return to cosmic harmony, harmony with the breath which animates the universe….

Besides the desire to recover a lost harmony, a desire strongly associated with nostalgic attachment to her father, Sachs's autobiographical reflections on dance contain another mystical aspect which illuminates her relationship to language. Of her dancing as her father played she writes: "Ich folgte ihm weit hinweg, um die Fernen zu erreichen, beugte mich hinaus in ein sprachloses Gebiet."

One more piece of biographical evidence suggests that dance had not lost its attraction as a means of personal expression for the mature poet. Lili Simon reports Ingeborg Drehwitz's anecdote that tells of Sachs dancing with abandon when she saw the Berlin Tiergarten again for the first time after twenty-five years. She had returned to Germany to receive the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels, Frankfurt, 1965. In light of her constant experimentation with mime and movement that accompanied her poetic endeavors, we cannot easily dismiss this interest's childhood origins.

Theorists of dance and of its essential component—movement—emphasize the developmental aspects of kinesthetic awareness. Kinesthetics has been defined as:

the sensual discrimination of the position and movement of body parts based on information other than visual, auditory, verbal…. Sensors in muscles, tendons, joints, as well as the vestibular apparatus of the inner ear … provide a constant, though subliminal, knowledge of the arrangement of body parts. This awareness is enhanced by the sense of touch—the contact and pressure sensors.

In infancy, kinesthesis and physical contact with the external environment are instrumental in helping the individual "begin to conceptualize the world as an orderly and understandable place."

Conceptualization then is grounded in movement. Isadora Duncan and the proponents of dance education / dance therapy insisted that the relationship between movement and the conceptualization of the self and the world extends throughout one's life. Isadora Duncan writes in her essay "Dancing in Relation to Religion and Love": "a child can understand many things through the medium of the body which would be impossible for it to comprehend by the medium of the written or spoken word."

Beyond the tactile exploration of one's own body, movement is incorporated early into a pattern of communication strategies. For infants there are the touches, gestures and facial expressions of caregivers. This stage of kinesthesis is found in many moments in Nelly Sachs's poetry: the cow licking her calf, the mother stroking her child's hip, the old women combing their hair. These gestures, seen as either direct expression of emotion or as symbolic, establish the communal matrix onto which language (verbal communication) is grafted.

The power of Hasidic dance is best observed in its communal implications. For the Hasid, dance is much more than the expression of a single individual's encounter with God; the message the dancer conveys to his pious observers is an equally important function. Through dance, the hasid teaches and inspires. The Hasidic Tales contain many reports of the infectiousness of dance; strangers, passersby, skeptics are drawn into a communal ecstasy. Their oral tradition also tells of rabbis who communicated their enlightenment through dance: The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Eastern European Hasidism, danced with the Torah, and when he set it down in the midst of the dance one of his disciples proclaimed, "Now our master has laid aside the visible, dimensional teachings, and has taken the spiritual teachings into himself." And of a nameless, pious grandfather is remarked, "You may believe me: he has made all his limbs so pure and so holy, that with every step he takes, his feet accomplish holy unifications."

Nelly Sachs emblematizes the Hasidic dancer in her scenic poem "Der Magische Tänzer." The stage directions for the first scene describe impoverished surroundings hung with laundry. Marina, who has devoted her life to David, the former stage-dancer turned mystic, struggles to support him by taking in washing. The scene's opening dialogue between Marina and her neighbor is about a head of cauliflower. This portrayal of quotidian life reminds one of the lack of disjuncture between daily and mystical / religious experience advocated by the Eastern European Hasids.

The figure of David gives the impression of being a large wounded bird ("den Eindruck eines großen angeschossenen Vogels"), and in this posture are suggested his vulnerability as a hunted object, his ungainliness and his interrupted flight. His metaphoric association with the bird indicates that he is not completely earthbound, he occupies a space between the material and celestial realms. David sits with his head dropping down until it hangs between his knees in the contemplative position of the early Merkabah or throne mystics. After fasting this position was required for the soul's mystic journey through the gates to the throne of God. It is a position many religions have in common: it influences the blood's progress to the brain—induces physical and psychological "symptoms." The rushing heard in the ears, the play of light against the eyelids, the changing body temperatures are all translated into different aspects of the ecstatic experience.

In the first scene the entire onus of David's functioning (as a subject as well as an object of our gazes, as someone who interprets or configures reality as well as someone who invites interpretation) is placed on his postures, gestures and movements. He is speechless, and the only way he communicates his mystical experience is through dance. His utterances during the second scene mark the stages of his spiritual journey through history and the cosmos. His seeking for the doorway into the night parallels experiences of the Merkabah mystics who confronted gatekeepers at each stage of their ascendancy to God's throne.

An ironic juxtaposition to this silent yet expressive figure is created by the figure of the neighbor, who is represented by a marionette with a built in tape for a voice. Through this figure Sachs dehumanizes the subject. This dehumanization is appropriate for the neighbor who, completely focussed on material reality, is lacking in sympathy for David's ecstatic re-enactment among the clotheslines of King David's dance before the Ark. This David's Ark is Marina's keepsake chest. Of course, the saint appears as crazed to the neighbor, to someone representing society's norm, just as King David's dance was derided by his wife, Michal.

For the second scene, the stage is transformed by lighting techniques into a crystalline globe in which the figures of David and Marina are encased. The crystalline globe creates the effect of a cosmic womb and indicates the return to a pre-creation state. The visualization of the womb pierced by light parallels the Book of the Zohar's Creation myth in which the male ray enters the female womb.

David's somnambulistic dance continues and a cosmic wind, the breath of the universe, sets the clotheslines into movement. The magic dancer, portrayed by a marionette, appears and the stage retains an enormous amount of kinetic energy until the piece concludes. David's somnambulism indicates the movements of one who has no self consciousness.

The marionette's presence on stage and David's unself-conscious movements stand in an interesting relationship to Heinrich von Kleist's critical musings Uber das Marionettentheater. This connection may serve as yet more evidence of Sachs's continuing connection to the German Romantic literary heritage. The most striking parallel with Sachs's understanding of dance is the reason given for preferring marionettes over the self-conscious, hence distorted movements of dancers, because they have the advantage of being anti-gravitational, or defying some of the rules of materiality. Kinetic energy overcomes considerations of mass and gravity….

Dance, pure movement, for Kleist and Sachs presents the possibility of transcending materiality. Sachs's dancer takes on some of the characteristics of Kleist's marionettes in order to problematize the paradox of achieving transcendence of the body, through the body.

The magic dancer serves as guide along the mystical journey; he assists in preparing David for his ecstatic encounter. In a stark counterpoint to the scene of cultic, ritual preparations in Euripides' Bacchae where Dionysius suggests transformative actions to Pentheus, who dons the costume of a Bacchante, the magic dancer, by means of naming, shapes David's perception of the process in which he is engaged. Urged to burst from his skin, David flings off his coat; a belt is perceived as a tonguing snake. While the magic dancer's kinetic energy dismantles the world projected on the hanging linens and unravels the meridians hence negating the distinctions, divisions and confinements imposed by man upon the geos, David continues stripping until, in his shredded undergarments, he bares his chest.

The mention of the snake, its mouth open, winding about David's waist introduces the thematic of Eden and the Fall of Man which figures in Kleist's deliberations on the causes of man's loss of physical grace: "Anmut und Grazie." This loss is associated with Adam and Eve's shame upon becoming conscious of their nakedness. If we superimpose a mystic's reading of this scriptural passage, the awareness of nakedness represents a distinct separation from God. Kleist couches the idea of retracing our steps to God in satirical wit: "Mithin sagte ich ein wenig zerstreut, müßten wir wieder von dem Baum der Erkenntnis essen, um in den Stand der Unschuld zurückzufallen? Allerdings antwortet Herr C; das ist das letzte Kapitel von der Geschichte der Welt."

David continues his dance, unwinding the confining threads, unraveling the cocoon so that he can undergo his final metamorphosis. The butterfly, that royal sign, Sachs's metaphor of transformation, is here embodied in David's dance. The concluding gesture of his dance is to tear the heart from his bared chest. With this, the interior becomes the exterior, expression occurs through the body, since the living heart, not the work, becomes the bearer of the self, and ultimately, of meaning.

For Nelly Sachs, the human capacity to communicate, to express, to configure reality includes both verbal and non-verbal languages. The rhythmic movement of dance can overreach the body's boundaries of space, time, and gravity. Jewish mystical voices cry out over the uninitiated language of the German oppressors. Sachs's German dances in a new rhythmical ascendance to spiritual freedom. She explores and acknowledges the paradoxical nature of the mystic journey to God: the body is both the starting point of that journey and the vehicle through which the goal of transcendence is attained.

On every sabbath eve Rabbi Hayyim of Kosov, the son of Rabbi Mendel, danced before his assembled disciples. His face was aflame and they all knew that every step was informed with sublime meanings and effected sublime things. Once while he was in the midst of dancing, a heavy bench fell on his foot and he had to pause because of the pain. Later they asked him about it. "It seems to me," he said, "that the pain made itself felt because I had interrupted the dance."

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