Nelly Sachs | Critical Essay by Dinah Dodds

This literature criticism consists of approximately 9 pages of analysis & critique of Nelly Sachs.
This section contains 2,448 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Dinah Dodds

SOURCE: "The Process of Renewal in Nelly Sachs' Eli," in German Quarterly, Vol. XLIX, No. 1, January, 1976, pp. 50-8.

In the following essay, Dodds examines Eli as a work representative of the influence of Hasidism on Sachs's writing. The piece includes a concise explanation of Hasidism and its place within Judaism.

In 1940 Nelly Sachs fled Germany for Sweden, leaving behind her the country of her German-Jewish heritage. The war years 1943 and 1944 saw the composition of the verse drama Eli and of many poems, which appeared in 1946 as In den Wohnungen des Todes. Here almost her sole poetic theme was death…. This preoccupation with the images of war manifests itself in Eli and in the poems of In den Wohnungen des Todes. The same tone, the same metaphors and symbols permeate both works. In the poems of the volume Sternverdunklung, published in 1949, death continues to be the prominent theme.

Nelly Sachs' work transcends, however, this brief period of history. Having been uprooted from her native tradition, she sought to reestablish ties with a much older tradition, with that found in Hasidism. For her, the years 1939–1945 were not linear history but rather constituted one revolution of a repeating cycle. In addition, they became part of a myth which, although resting on the basis of Hasidism, represented her own attempts to come to terms with her new life. Working within the myth of Hasidism, she created her own myth. In doing so she suspended the sensation of historical time and replaced it with mythic time.

What is mythic time? W. F. Otto states: "Der eigentliche Mythos ist immer Göttermythos. Zu ihm gehört auch der Heroenmythos." The gods and heroes of myth are seen by Mircea Eliade to have existed at the beginning of time, and enact a "sacred history, that is, a primordial event." For the man who believes in it, this primordial act becomes present reality during his religious ceremonies. Here man actually re-creates original acts of the gods, thus reactivating sacred time. Ernesto Grassi summarizes: "Mythos ist das Ordnende, das in einer unvergänglichen, stets gegenwärtigen Zeit ruht." Mythic time, then, is past and present, is timelessness, or is eternally repeating time. For us, as products of the Enlightenment and of a technological revolution, myth is a story, and the past is history. For Nelly Sachs, however, myth was alive through Hasidism, a myth which had begun with the events of the First Book of Moses and would end with the destruction of the world.

Hasidism itself was formed around the myth of the Baal Shem in eighteenth century Poland, and thus constitutes a relatively recent religious development within Judaism. Martin Buber characterized Hasidism as a combination of mysticism and saga in which tradition joined with folktale to produce a viable religion. Buber found further that "the Jews are a people that has never ceased to produce myth…. The religion of Israel has at all times felt itself endangered by this stream [of myth], but it is from it, in fact, that Jewish religiousness has at all times received its inner life."

It is through new or revitalized myth that religion endures. If myth is not constantly renewed by the individual, it turns stagnant and petrifies. "Living" myth is so only because it has become virtually an organic part of the believer. For Buber, Hasidism is the most viable form of Judaism since it is "the latest form of the Jewish myth that we know." Buber further states: "the Hasidic teaching is the proclamation of rebirth. No renewal of Judaism is possible that does not bear in itself the elements of Hasidism." Hasidism took mythic elements from the past and centered them around a new figure, its founder Israel ben Eliezer, who then came to be called the Baal Shem and provided believers with a renewed faith.

A careful reading of Nelly Sachs' work reveals a similar process of renewal occurring artistically. The existing body of Hasidic faith brings forth a new personal religion, which process is perhaps best illustrated by the verse play Eli. In Eli, Nelly Sachs never explicitly states the time of the action. The time is designated "Nach dem Martyrium," which could be taken to mean any of the countless times that Jews have been driven from their homes. Nelly Sachs only implies the present time of World War II, for this present is also a renewal of the past into which she slips repeatedly and almost unnoticeably. Similarly the words "deutsch" or "Deutschland" are never mentioned, for the persecutors of the Jews have had many names. Significantly, Eli takes place in Poland, the country in which Hasidism originated.

The play revolves around an event which had occurred earlier: the killing of eight-year-old Eli by a guard who thought he heard in Eli's pipe-playing a secret signal. Indeed, Eli was sounding a signal. He was calling to God to prevent the soldiers from taking away his parents. Michael, the town cobbler, arriving too late to save Eli, seeks out the guard upon whom divine justice is finally carried out.

The process of mythic renewal described by Buber is encountered in Eli on various levels. The most obvious renewal is the rebuilding of the town, which is depicted in ruins. This physical rebuilding can be seen to have a metaphysical parallel represented by the fountain, which occupies the central position on the stage. The fountain has been damaged, and Samuel, Eli's grandfather, struck dumb at the sight of his grandson's murder, is repairing it. The time is the New Year, for which the fountain will be ready: … with the advent of a New Year, life will start afresh in a renewal of the cycle of time. The fountain symbolizes this new life. Standing at the fountain, two women are deep in conversation about the recent events and the "Schritte" of the invading soldiers which still echo in their ears…. At the end of the scene the fountain begins to flow…. The Bäckerin thus appeals to the fountain for renewed life.

The water which is drawn from the fountain is also used for the building bricks of the town…. The buildings are renewed, as is the spiritual state of the people. As the fountain is repaired, optimism grows among the people, as evidenced in the words of the Bäckerin as well as in the prayer of one of the Beter…. His prayer for the reinstatement of lost unity with God may now, at this time of renewal, be heard…. Nelly Sachs has chosen a traditional image, the fountain of life, to express the revitalizing of this town. With the coming of the New Year, life also begins anew.

The fountain imagery has a deeper meaning, as it does also in a poem from Sternverdunklung…. In the first strophe, Nelly Sachs suggests that the fountain can be read as a chronicle of the Jewish people. Each time the Jews have moved to a new spot in their desert wanderings, they have dug a new well. And each time, this well has been a vital source: it has cut away a slice of death from the whole body of life. The phrase "Wieviel Münder" suggests the uncountable number of such new fountains…. Where they thirsted, they dug new wells. This thirst can be seen as a drive for life.

In the figure of Eli himself a mythic renewal can be seen. Just as Buber saw Hasidism spring out of the small streets in Poland and form around the figure of the Baal Shem, so one can witness the origins of a myth centering around Eli. Eli's death is related in the manner of a myth: by word of mouth. The Wäscherin retells the story which die Witwe Rosa had told her before she died. Eli's tale, already told at two removes, will eventually become a vital and integral part of the Hasidic tradition as it exists within the fictional context of this small Polish town.

Furthermore, Eli's flute-playing can be seen as a repetition of an act which occurred thousands of years ago—the exact time is irrelevant—at the foot of Mt. Sinai. In a poem from In den Wohnungen des Todes, we read:

    Einer war,
    Der blies den Schofar—
    Warf nach hinten das Haupt,
    Wie Rehe tun, wie die Hirsche
    Bevor sie trinken an der Quelle.

Almost identical words describe Eli in the play. One can assume that Eli, in playing his flute, was symbolically blowing the shofar, the rams' horn that was sounded when God revealed himself on Mt. Sinai. Later, in the eighth scene, the shofar sounds as part of the New Year's celebration. One of the Beter cries:

     Das Heimholerhorn hat geblasen.
     Er vergass uns nicht!

Although this reference is specifically to the New Year's ceremony, which has been in progress since the beginning of the scene, it is possible to interpret it to include Eli's pipe-blowing. For through Eli there has been direct communication between God and Israel…. The people feel hope that God has been called "home" and that the covenant has been renewed.

Buber relates a tale of a foolish man who climbed the Mount of Olives and blew the shofar, and a "rumor spread that this was the shofar blast which announced the redemption." The shofar, then, signals the hope for redemption as well as redemption itself. Eli, through a symbolic ritual act united the past of Mt. Sinai, the present of World War II and the future.

It is no accident that Eli is a child. Children occur often in Nelly Sachs' poetry. They are close to their origins, unspoiled by materialism and mundane life, and still in contact with God, especially in their dreams…. But Eli is no ordinary child. As the Hebrew name indicates, he is a God child. Thus it is appropriate that Eli should attempt to contact God directly with his pipe in a time of need: for Nelly Sachs, Eli's piping was a "versuchter Ausbruch des Menschlichen vor dem Entsetzen." It is also fitting that Eli's slayer be sought out by a figure who, like Eli, has mythic overtones: Michael.

Michael is one of the "sechsunddreissig Gerechte" (Zaddikim), who, according to Hasidic tradition, directly receive the light of God. Gershom Scholem cites a fourth century Babylonian teacher Abbaye who stated: "The world is never without thirty-six just men who dialy receive the Divine Countenance." In her notes to Eli Nelly Sachs writes "Nach der chassidischen Mystik ist er [Michael] einer der geheimen Gottesknechte, die, sechsunddreissig an der Zahl—und ihnen gänzlich unbewusst—, das unsichtbare Universum tragen." And Buber writes in his Hasidism that the Zaddik leads the community in God's stead, acting as mediator between God and the people. He is the man "in whom the metaphysical responsibility of human beings steps out from mere consciousness and takes on an organic existence." It is he who performs the decisive, renewing movement of the world….

The concept of "Scherben sehen," a plight in which man finds himself with his handcrafted world, is found often in Nelly Sachs' work and reflects her concern for man's loss of awareness of the basis of his existence which is rooted deeply in his beginnings and in God. The Baal Shem, in unity with God, has "den ungebrochenen Blick," which sees the whole, "von einem Ende der Welt zum anderen."… Michael is a second Baal Shem figure in the play. As the avenger of Eli's death, he can also be seen as Eli's spiritual father; in addition to God child, the name Eli in Hebrew also carries the meaning of "foster son." The name Michael means literally "who is like God" and carries connotations of "the loving one," and of the Biblical archangel who fought and defeated the devil. Michael is also the guardian angel of Israel. Michael, like Eli, performs a priestly function. In communication with God, he carries out God's mission.

He is in addition, a cobbler, as was Jakob Böhme, whose mystical thought influenced Nelly Sachs. Hasidic legend also tells of a certain patriarch Enoch, who was a shoemaker: "At every stitch of his awl he not only joined the upper leather with the sole, but all upper things with all lower things, until he himself was transfigured from earthly Enoch into the transcendent Metatron, who had been the object of his meditation." As Ehrhard Bahr has pointed out, the words "lower" and "upper" occur frequently in the Zohar, the "Book of Splendor" and the testament of faith of Hasidism, to indicate the "lower" and "upper" realms of man God, of this life and the next…. Thus, Michael takes Eli's shoes with him on his search for the soldier. These shoes simultaneously embody Israel's past….

Through his shoes, Eli is linked to the Sinai sand of his ancestors. His shoes are not of the present, rather "von noch fruher." Herein is further evidenced his mythic existence. In these same shoes Moses wandered, and every other Jew of the Bible as well as all the wandering Jews of the future.

Samuel gives Michael Eli's pipe which, like a Mozartian Magic Flute, leads him to the goal of his quest. Michael's quest is ostensibly for Eli's slayer. But in fact Michael reaches the ultimate goal of life's quest in a mystic union with God. His union is not restricted to himself as an individual: he is "einer, der Israels Wanderschuhe zu Ende trägt."

The murder is also broadened into a re-enactment of the archetypal murder of Cain….

By creating on multiple levels, Nelly Sachs effects a suspension of historical time and replaces it with mythic time where past, present and future are indistinguishable. And she sees in this leveling ability of mythic time the potential salvation not only of Judaism but of mankind in general….

Eli ends with the transfiguration of Michael: a strong light and the image of an embryo appear above his head. The embryo signifies Michael's return to his beginnings as well as a rebirth of all. It is a sign of hope, denying the finality of death and reaffirming the presence of God.

This hope and faith lie at the very basis of the process of renewal. Like the fountain in Eli which, when not seen on the stage can still be heard splashing in the background, hope can be heard in all of Nelly Sachs' work. As the town is rebuilt with water from the fountain, so Nelly Sachs' life is rebuilt and renewed through her faith. Perhaps this is seen nowhere more clearly than in one of the poems of the cycle "Gebete für den toten Bräutigam":

   O mein Geliebter, vielleicht hat unsere Liebe in
   den Himmel der
   Sehnsucht schon Welten geboren—
   Wie unser Atemzug, ein—und aus, baut eine
   Wiege für Leben
   und Tod?
   Sandkörner wir beide, dunkel vor Abschied, und in das goldene
   Geheimnis der Geburten verloren,
   Und vielleicht schon von kommenden Sternen,
   Monden und Sonnen umloht.

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