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Critical Essay by Ehrhard Bahr
SOURCE: "Shoemaking as a Mystic Symbol in Nelly Sachs's Mystery Play Eli," in German Quarterly, Vol. XLV, No. 3, May, 1972, pp. 480-83.
In the following essay, Bahr explains the elements of Jewish mysticism in Eli.
Nelly Sachs' Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels, one of her Szenische Dichtungen, as she has called her verse plays, has received much attention by the critics. Nevertheless, some important features of the play, such as the figure of the protagonist Michael, the motif of his trade as a shoemaker, and the central image of the joining of the upper leather to the sole of a shoe, have so far remained unexplained. This omission may be due to the fact that any meaningful interpretation of Nelly Sachs' lyric and scenic poetry cannot ignore certain basic concepts of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalism and Hasidism), especially with reference to religious promise and fulfilment. Analyzed in the light of these concepts, some of the problematical symbolism of Eli emerges in clearly understandable form.
Nelly Sachs' mystery play concerns the murder of Eli, an eight-year-old boy, a God child, as indicated by the Hebrew name. The action takes place in a small town in Poland, the home of Hasidism, "the latest phase of Jewish mysticism," as Gershom Scholem has called it. The time of the play is defined symbolically rather than historically, as the period "Nach dem Martyrium." Eli was killed by a guard when his parents were led through the streets of their little town for deportation. Trying to follow them, Eli blew his shepherd's pipe as a call to God for help:
den Kopf hat er geworfen nach hinten,
wie die Hirsche, wie die Rehe,
bevor sie trinken an der Quelle.
Zum Himmel hat er die Pfeife gerichtet,
zu Gott hat er gepfiffen, der Eli,…
reminiscent of the words of the 42nd Psalm: "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God." In a postscript to Eli, Nelly Sachs interprets the shepherd's pipe with which the boy, in his despair, calls to God, as a "versuchter Ausbruch des Menschlichen vor dem Entsetzen."
At this moment, when Eli is piping his call to God, one of the guards turns around and, assuming the pipe to be a secret signal, he kills Eli with his rifle butt. The soldier's fear of a secret signal is explained by the poet as a symbol of unbelief.
After the war a new city is being built outside the gates of the old town. But the townspeople continue to grieve about the murder of their loved ones, especially about Eli, the God child. Michael, the shoemaker, who has the eyes of the Baal Shem, the saint-mystic of Hasidism, cannot find peace. Shoemaking traditionally is a mystic trade. Jacob Böhme, for instance, the German mystic at the beginning of the seventeenth century, who was strongly influenced by Kabbalism, was a shoemaker. It was Böhme who became a source of inspiration for Nelly Sachs, in whose work these two parallel strands, Jewish and German mysticism, are united.
Another mystic cobbler may be found in the figure of the patriarch Enoch "who … was taken from the earth by God and transformed into the angel Metatron," according to a Hasidic story told by Martin Buber. "At every stitch of his awl he not only joined the upper leather with the sole, but all upper things with all lower things. In other words, he had accompanied his work at every step with meditations which drew the stream of emanation down from the upper to the lower (so transforming profane into ritual action)." Similarly, in Nelly Sachs' Eli, the other characters say of Michael:
Näht er auch Sohle an Oberleder fest,
weiss er doch mehr als nur Wandern zum Grabe
In the terminology of the Zohar, the "Book of Splendor," the most important book of Jewish mysticism, the words "lower" and "upper" frequently denote the distinction between men and God, earth and heaven, this world and the world to come.
Michael is also one of the Thirty-Six Pious or Just Men for whose sake the world was saved by God. Nelly Sachs here draws on the same legend as André Schwarz-Bart in his novel Le Dernier des justes (1959). As one of the Thirty-Six, Michael takes his people's grief into his own heart, so that they are relieved of the burden of their sorrow and thus are able to build the new town without grief. Taking with him Eli's pipe—the instrument for invoking God—Michael leaves the town and goes into the world in search of Eli's murderer. Wherever he meets people, he takes their sorrows, too, unto himself, so that they can live or die in peace.
Finally, Michael finds work in a village "in the West, beyond the border," where Eli's murderer lives. Again, the direction is indicated symbolically rather than geographically or politically. Michael works at his shoemaker's trade, but he cannot mend the murderer's shoes:
Die Sohle ist nicht mehr zu flicken,
ein Riß geht in der Mitte—
It is impossible for Michael to connect the "lower" and the "upper," because the murderer has split the "lower world" into two pieces.
When the murderer's child comes to Michael's shop with his father, he wants to blow on the pipe of Eli, the God child, but the father will not permit it. Denied the whistle, the child is overcome by a strange, powerful yearning for the toy which the father tries to ridicule. In his harshness the murderer prevents his child from establishing a relationship with God through an instrument giving voice to longing. Instead, he promises the child the flute of the Pied Piper, expressing worldly domination and demagogy:
Wenn du sie hast,
so folgen dir alle Kinder
und geben dir ihr Spielzeug—
He does not allow his child to blow the shepherd's pipe whose sound reaches God. The child dies, not because of the sins of his father but because of the denial of his yearning for God. The killer thus repeats his murderous act. In his innocence this child, too, dies, as Eli did, both victims of evil, as Nelly Sachs explains.
Confronting the murderer, Michael now becomes the guardian angel of Israel. A primordial light shines from a symbolical embryo in the sky, representing the original God child. The murderer crumbles into dust—a picture of remorse, as the poet interprets this scene. The primordial light now fastens onto Michael's brow. His mission has been fulfilled, and he is taken to God, just as "the earthly Enoch" was transfigured "into the transcendent Metatron."
Now the town can be built again. The New Year liturgy which forms the central part of the play, offering a promise of the Lord's return, is fulfilled in the last scene.
Jewish mysticism thus provides Nelly Sachs with "objective correlatives" to describe the unfathomable, the mystery of religious promise and fulfilment. The torn sole of a shoe which cannot be repaired symbolizes the destruction of the world by the murderer and the inability of the killer to relate to God, even through his own child. The sole and the upper leather cannot be joined, just as the evil on this earth cannot be embraced by the heavenly powers. But the mystic shoemaker, in his quest for justice, is led to his goal, thus redeeming the town of its evil past.
This section contains 1,221 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)