Nelly Sachs | Critical Essay by Lawrence L. Langer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Nelly Sachs.
This section contains 3,385 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Lawrence L. Langer

Critical Essay by Lawrence L. Langer

SOURCE: "Nelly Sachs," in Colloquia Germanica, Vol. 10, April, 1976–77, pp. 316-25.

In the following essay, Langer discusses Sachs's treatment of divine and human justice in her writings.

One of the last poems Nelly Sachs wrote before her death is called "Teile dich Nacht" (the name also given to her last volume of poems by its editor). Her first collection of verse was called In den Wohnungen des Todes. It should come as no surprise to us that the two words used most often in her poems, according to the count of a diligent scholar, are "Tod" and "Nacht". For in the twentieth century, we have lived in the habitations of death as no previous generation has been compelled to, and no matter how we "divide" night in our search for greater light, we only seem to encounter the memory of more corpses. "Death" and "night" are not merely metaphors for Nelly Sachs, they literally describe the reality of her experience, the history of her time—and ours. They define the terrain which the imagination must cross in its search for a vision to restore to men a sense of justice and a justification for human life. For without that sense, how can men tolerate their pain, or endure their existence? Night and death are powerful masters that challenge the poet to find counter images to resist their dominion. We survive the threat of annihilation only by "seeing", and the poet's images are indispensable beacons toward such insight.

Earlier poets have faced similar challenges, but their task seems to have been more simple. The literary imagination has addressed itself to the problem of divine and human justice—and injustice—from the beginning. Near the outset of the Odyssey, Zeus complains: "Oh, for shame, how the mortals put the blame upon us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness win sorrow beyond what is given." Milton is even more explicit, for the opening words of Paradise Lost sing of "man's first disobedience", placing the responsibility for human suffering firmly in the hands of the human chooser. The author of the Book of Job offers a vision potentially more tragic, for here it is difficult to reconcile divine displeasure with human agency. Unlike Adam and Odysseus, Job has not consciously transgressed divine ordinance; if, as the magisterial Voice from the Whirlwind chastises him, he was not present when the morning stars sang together, the fault can hardly be Job's. Beyond the assertion of his moral innocence lies the melancholy fact that we live in a universe where men often "win sorrow beyond what is given", even when the recklessness of their behavior is not to blame. Job's comforters would have preferred Zeus's version.

What would Nelly Sachs have preferred? As a Jewish writer, she inherited an ancient tradition of suffering far in excess of comprehensible cause, but still compatible with spiritual aspiration and a tragic view of existence. As a Jewish writer who lived through the Holocaust (though not a literal survivor), she inherited a modern tradition of suffering so far in excess of comprehensible cause that it is not compatible with any view of existence hitherto available to the human imagination. The Holocaust has so complicated the question of justice that some have suggested the temporary withdrawal of divine presence from human affairs. But Nelly Sachs wrote as a poet, not as a philosopher or theologian, and once having accepted the challenge of finding a language to express the paradox of inexplicable Jewish suffering (which gradually merges with the larger idea of inexplicable human suffering), she was faced with the task of locating images to animate this paradox.

Nelly Sachs has been called one of the great language healers of our time. George Steiner and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, among others, have commented on how an age of atrocity has wounded the word and thus victimized both art and the artist. For Nelly Sachs, the dilemma is not merely restoring health to the word, as if language could be cured of corruption by a stroke of the imaginative pen, but recognizing that some words are incurable—"Wahrheit" and "Recht", for example, scarcely appear in her poems—while others, like "Tod" and "Nacht", achieve a resonance that resembles no familiar refrain. Just as music is politically suspect to Mann's Settembrini, all nominatives are untrustworthy for Nelly Sachs, including the commonest nouns in our vocabulary. Indeed, she argues that one must return to the separate letters of the alphabet if one is to re-establish a link between words and spiritual reality. "The alphabet is the land where the spirit settles and the holy name blooms", she says in a note to one of her dramatic pieces. "It is the lost world after every deluge. It must be gathered in by the somnambulists with signs and gestures." The poet plays a major role in restoring connection with the spiritual powers, thereby saving the drowned word.

Sometimes it seems as if Nelly Sachs has narrowed her artistic goal to rehabilitating the purity of the noun. Her poems are signs and gestures in tribute to this part of speech, not to verbs, and least of all to adjectives, as if for her, poetry were no more than a renaming of the items of creation, a sanctification of reality by a reassertion of the noun. Forty-eight of the fifty commonest words in her poems are nouns. One would like to say that she uses them precisely, so that the reader might define their meaning unmistakably. She chooses words precisely, but their echo, the reverberations they cause when we drop them like shining pebbles in the pool of the imagination—these are less clear. We know what "night" and "death" mean, but she refuses to use them in familiar contexts, we must guess at their allusions, while remaining only half-convinced of our solutions to their shadowy enigmas. It is not just that reality is enigmatic, but that language, having been shaken loose from its usual moorings, continues to float on an ocean of uncertainty. Her nouns, unencumbered by descriptive epithets, are like new-baked bricks thudding on the pavement of the mind. Death, love, time, night, star, earth, blood—those favorite words of Emily Dickinson too—seek to reconstruct a reality out of the void, solid blocks of experience that will rebuild the continuity of our lives while reminding us what we have paid for the spare architecture of her vision.

That very continuity, however, requires an unprecedented revision of the vision of reality that makes it possible in the first place. The dilemma, the abyss between God's will and man's fate, is exposed in the initial poem of In den Wohnungen des Todes—"O die Schornsteine". The epigraph to this poem from Job is both paradox and affirmation: "Und wenn diese meine Haut zerschlagen sein wird, so werde ich ohne mein Fleisch Gott schauen" ("And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God."—Job, 19:26). It reminds us that man's longing for continuity is eternally contradicted by his physical suffering, and that when such suffering exceeds the bounds of moral reason—as it did in Job, and even more, during the Holocaust—the issue is not merely a simple test of one man's faith, but the hope of a people, and the survival of a feeling for spiritual reality. How, asks Nelly Sachs, shall that feeling endure? Not, she replies, by returning to the terms offered by the Book of Job. For Job still thinks of a personal God, demands a confrontation, while Nelly Sachs introduces her epigraph only to warn us against false expectations: a Voice from the Whirlwind would be choked by the smoke from crematorium chimneys.

The New English Bible translation of this passage from Job shifts the emphasis to judicial metaphor, making it an even stronger testament of faith, but the last such unequivocal statement we will find in Nelly Sachs's poems; its irrelevance to her imaginative world confirms the need for a new version of justice, human and divine: "But in my heart I know my vindicator lives, and that he will rise last to speak in court. And I shall discern my witness standing at my side, and see my defending counsel, even God himself. Whom I shall see with my own eyes, I myself and no other." (Job, 19:25-27.) The poem "O the Chimneys" and its successors eschew such affirmations for questions; to the question, "Wer erdachte euch und baute Stein auf Stein / Den Weg für Flüchtlinge aus Rauch?" ("Who devised you and laid stone upon stone / the road for refugees of smoke?"), we are left with anguish in place of an answer, the perplexing fact of extermination of "Israels Leib" ("Israel's body") but no vindicator to justify or transcend that awful human fate.

Uncertainty looms between grief and consolation in most of Nelly Sachs's early poems. In a climate of justice, one knows one's loss, even if the reasons for it are obscure. But in a poem like "Wenn ich nur wüßte" ("If I only knew"), there is a gulf between mourner and victim, an ineradicable scar on the memory, forbidding any reconciliation between justice and suffering:

      Wenn ich nur wüßte
      Worauf dein letzter Blick ruhte.
      War es ein Stein, der schon viele letzte Blicke
      Getrunken hatte, bis sie in Blindheit
      Auf den Blinden fielen?
      (If I only knew
      On what your last look rested.
      Was it a stone that had drunk
      So many last looks that they fell
      Blindly upon its blindness?)
      Oder sandte dir diese Erde
      Die keinen ungeliebt von hinnen gehen läßt
      Ein Vogelzeichen durch die Luft,
      Erinnernd deine Seele, daß siezuckte
      In ihrem qualverbrannten Leib?
      (Or did this earth,
      Which lets no one depart unloved,
      Send you a bird-sign through the air,
      Reminding your soul that it quivered
      In the torment of its burnt body?)

We are not in search of new images, but of new ways to assimilate the old ones: earth and air, body and soul are not alien to our ears, but appear strange to our imagination because of the uses to which the human form has been put in their behalf.

This was the quandary Nelly Sachs faced as a poet, as normal human relationships disintegrated and men lacked a frame for reshaping the ensuing chaos into a usable form. This is the lament of "Chor der Waisen" ("Chorus of the Orphans"):

     Welt warum hast du die weichen Mütter genommen
     Und die Väter, die sagen: Mein
     Kind du gleichst mir!
     Wir Waisen gleichen niemand mehr
     auf der Welt!
     O Welt
     Wir klagen dich an!
     (World, why have you taken our soft mothers from us
     And the fathers who say: My child, you are like me!
     We orphans are like no one in this world anymore!
     O world
     We accuse you!)

Once again we are faced with unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions, and no voice to speak with majesty or vindication as witness for man. Nelly Sachs is more concerned with recognizing the alienation which such unprecedented violations of justice have imposed on the human spirit. At least this is a necessary first step. In "Chor der Sterne" ("Chorus of the Stars"), she makes clear that man must be his own witness, that only man can incorporate the catastrophe of the Holocaust into a cosmic vision which includes and reaches beyond disaster:

     Erde, Erde, bist du eine Blinde geworden
     Vor den Schwesternaugen der Plejaden
     Oder der Waage prüfendem Blick?
     Mörderhände gaben Israel einen Spiegel
     Darin es sterbend sein Sterben erblickte—
     Erde, o Erde
     Stern aller Sterne
     Einmal wird ein Sternbild Spiegel heißcn.
     Dann o Blinde wirst du wieder sehn!
     (Earth, earth, have you gone blind
     Before the sister eyes of the Pleiades
     Or Libra's examining gaze?
     Murder hands gave Israel a mirror
     In which it recognized its death while dying
     Earth, O earth
     Star of stars
     One day a constellation will be called mirror.
     Then, O blind one, you will see again.)

But if, to restore the lost connection between earth and stars, men and constellations, a mirror reflecting not man's destiny but his murdered past must ascend into the heavens as a permanent fixture in the divine cosmology, then a reordering of how we perceive our fate is crucial. For if "they" recognized their death while dying, we must renew acquaintance with their death while living, gazing into the skies of the mind to see their murdered past each time we seek a token of our eternal future. We pay a painful price for the right to "see again". The unborn in "Chor der Ungeborenen" ("Chorus of the Unborn") offer promise for the past dead "Wir kommenden Lichter für eure Traurigkeit" ("We future lights for your sorrow")—but mourning is now indistinguishable from hope, and if Nelly Sachs were to join two nouns to urge on us a fresh way of perceiving, she might call it "Trauerhoffnung".

In a world where "tears mean eternity", as Nelly Sachs writes in "Stimme des Heiligen Landes" ("The Voice of the Holy Land"), abstractions like justice and injustice lose their vigor as part of a poetic vocabulary. Night was once an interval between twilight and dawn, but atrocity has permanently altered its symbolic possibilities, as the following lament confirms:

     Nacht, Nacht,
     einmal warst du der Geheimnisse
     (Night, night,
     Once you were the bride of mysteries adorned with lilies of shadow—)
      Nacht, Nacht
     jetzt bist du der Friedhof
     für eines Sternes schrecklichen
     Schiffbruch geworden—
     sprachlos taucht die Zeit in dir
     unter mit ihren Zeichen:
     Der stürzende Stein
     und die Fahne aus Rauch!
     (Night, night
     now you are the graveyard
     for the terrible shipwreck of a star—
     time sinks speechless in you
     with its sign:
     The falling stone
     and the flag of smoke.)

Time sinks speechless into night as a kind of requiem to the fate of humanity at the hands of history. It will reemerge, as in the poem "Auf daß die Verfolgten nicht Verfolger werden" ("That the persecuted may not become persecutors"), but accompanied by images that do not coalesce, that threaten disorder, and disrupt the harmony which once enabled good and evil to achieve some kind of balance in a divine plan. The murdered past furnishes a different measure for time, while the clock hours of man and the eternity of God are stained by a violence that will not conform to old visions of order:

      die Zeit zahlend mit Schreien,
      Austritt des Blutes bis es gerinnt,
      Todesschweiß zu Stunden häufend—
      Schritte der Henker
      Uber Schritten der Opfer,
      Sekundenzeiger im Gang der Erde,
      von welchem Schwarzmond
      schrecklich gezogen?
      In der Musik der Sphären
      wo schrillt euer Ton?
      measuring time with screams, groans
      the seeping of blood until it congeals,
      heaping up hours of sweaty death—
      Steps of hangmen
      over the steps of victims,
      what black moon pulled with such terror
      the sweep-hand in earth's orbit?
      Where does your note shrill
      in the music of the spheres?)

The "Schwarzmond" ("black moon") of Nelly Sachs is comparable to the "Schwarze Milch" ("black milk") of Paul Celan's Todesfuge, emotional opposites that fuse into a single image what once was a polarity. Our challenge is to find in the music of the spheres a note to harmonize with the steps of such victims and such hangmen. God's will, in this matter, if it exists, is to be discovered, not revealed; one commentator speaks of Nelly Sachs's need to pierce the "Ungeist" of the world, and goes on to describe this world in terms of Jakob Böhme and the Zohar that would have been familiar to the poet: "God is unreachable. He is the holy Nothing … God has no qualities, no desires. He is eternal silence, eternal night. In this abyss of infinity life begins in that a will or longing arises, like light when it is born out of darkness." But silence and night are eternal, and the light and life which may be reborn from their womb possess only a fragile and tentative strength. Although she longs for recovery herself, Nelly Sachs is never certain how much is possible, as the following lines suggest:

     Wenn die Propheten
     mit den Sturmschwingen der Ewigkeit hineinführen
     wenn sie aufbrächen deinen Gehörgang mit den
     Wer von euch will Krieg führen gegen ein
     wer will den Sterntod erfinden?
     Wenn die Propheten aufständen
     in der Nacht der Menschheit
     wie Liebende, die das Herz des
     Geliebten suchen,
     Nacht der Menschheit
     würdest du ein Herz zu vergeben haben?
     (If the prophets
     rushed in with the storm-pinions of eternity
     If they broke open your acoustic
     duct with the words:
     Which of you wants to make war
     against a mystery
     who wants to invent the star-death?
     If the prophets stood up
     in the night of mankind
     like lovers who seek the heart of the beloved,
     night of mankind
     would you have a heart to offer?)

Neologisms like "Schwarzmond" and "Sterntod" represent attempts to use a process of linguistic annealing to squeeze fresh vision out of weary words and wearier men. To invent a "star-death" is to revise the relationship between heaven and earth, and even if the prophets, inspired by eternity, have the strength to embrace a destiny that includes the Holocaust, is the human heart strong enough to endure such an encounter? The entire poem is written in the subjunctive mood, a conditional interrogative. If divinity tried to restore justice, offer love anew, would the human longing for justice be vital enough for revival, the heart still have enough blood to respond? Again the night of mankind looms between past and future, extinction and renewal, a negation so pervasive that it may have withered the arteries of feeling through which once flowed the blood of faith and love.

But Nelly Sachs hopes that the withered arteries of Israel's body are flexible. Out of the unpromising matter of a tainted blood, a vital future may yet flow, though its origin must not be suppressed. The Dajan, a sober voice in the play Eli, cautions his more optimistic fellow-survivors:

      Der neue Pentateuch, sage ich Euch
      der neue Pentateuch,
      steht mit dem Schimmel der Angst geschrieben
      auf den Wänden der Todeskeller!
      (The new Pentateuch, I tell you, the
      new Pentateuch
      is written in mildew, the mildew of fear
      on the walls of the death cellars.)

If men are to return to the beginning to recreate their universe and reconstitute its holiness, they must acknowledge the difference between the post-Holocaust era and the original moment of creation. Adam's was the innocence of not-yet-having-lived. Nelly Sachs's survivors are heirs of annihilation, vessels of memory who seek equilibrium between an unaccountable past and an indefinable future. "Alle Zeit", says Beryll in Nelly Sachs's brief dramatic piece called Beryll sieht in der Nacht (Beryll Sees in the Night), "ist Sieger-und Besiegten-Zeit" ("All time is conqueror- and conquered-time"), while another character announces: "Immer das Reine aus Unreinem" ("Always the pure from the impure"). One is reminded of Elie Wiesel's new formulation of the old tragic dilemma: "The problem is not: to be or not to be. But rather: to be and not to be." Whatever principle of justice emerges from this chaos, good will always reflect the shadow of evil, while the Urlicht or primal light will shine through, not in opposition to the darkness. Beryll is Hamletlike in his uncertainty, as he gazes at a stone floating in the twilight of space and fails to perceive how little it takes to transform this "Stein" into a "Stern":

      Ist das die Erde—ist das ein Totenschädel?
      Ich zweifle—ich zweifle—
      Im traumhaften Raum des Wortes leben wir
      Schlafen wir oder wachen wir?
      oder im Nichts—
      Ich lausche an einem Totenschädel—
      (Is that the earth—is that a skull?
      I waver—I waver—
      In the dreamlike space of the word we live
      Do we sleep or do we wake?
      or in nothingness—
      I listen to a death's head—)

For also swimming in space are the letters of the alphabet, and another figure in this mystery play combines them into words, which light up in a message: "Nichts—ist die Sucht nach Etwas" ("Nothing—is the passion for Something"). This echo of Böhme makes even more meaningful Nelly Sachs's dictum that the "alphabet is the land where the spirit settles and the holy name blooms."

For though Beryll wavers between earth and skull, the poet is more secure. "Gesang ist Leiden" ("song is suffering") says the voice of Night in this mystery play. Poems renew life by forming letters into songs, letters that peer "aus dem Fenster der Einsamkeit" ("from the window of loneliness") in a continuing "Sucht nach Etwas", not in light or eternal being but "im dunklen Stoff der Nacht" ("in the dark substance of night"). Divine and human justice are replaced by a darkness that threatens to engulf even as it encourages insight, while the conquering and conquered word is man's chief weapon against nothingness. Men are totally responsible for making something out of it. Nelly Sachs's verse is her contribution to this passion for Something that was once called Order or Justice, a Something that comes into being in the very process of creation, celebrating the human imagination which conquers through art even as it is conquered itself by time and night and death.

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