Lost Poets of the 20th Century

January 4, 2007 at 10:45 am (Borjes Society)

Von Josti

Through the auspices of Grunwald’s Antiquarian Books I was able with great difficulty to obtain a copy of Sonnentraumen, the rare German anthology published in 1937 by Rosenkranz which contains the collected works of the ill-fated circle surrounding the young widow Baronness Sophia.

Her spiritual and literary salon was well attended by many of the young academy graduates in Vienna, and some of their teachers as well. She herself was a spiritualist and preferred all things otherworldly to those of the senses. Her striking personality coupled with a certain gentleness and good humor inspired much serious verse. Berchold reports in his memoir Days in the Garden that “all were in love with her, and yet she moved like a spectre among them, thin and pale, absent even when she was present.”

Rosenkranz’s book contains the works of six of the poets in the group, friends and co-conspirators of Rosenkranz. Although they all share a preoccupation with the invisible, the specific standing each enjoyed in the twilight world varied considerably. Perhaps I would do well to introduce them.

Christina Else-Niesse (1904-1981) was born in Neisse, Silesia, the daughter of a Lutheran minister. She studied Art History and Classical Greek in Munich and Bratslavia. She moved to Vienna in 1931 where she made her living as a teacher and translator. Her shifting intimacies with several of the circle’s members and her role as the “White Princess” and leader of the group’s ill-fated festivals are now legendary. Her writing attempts a balance of the Apollonian and Dionysian elements, but despite certain concessions to restraint, the latter appears to predominate. Escaping Austria in 1938, she lived the remainder of her life in relative obscurity in Switzerland.

Friedrich Gustav Gedantz (1895-1936) was a history teacher at the academy . Son of Pietist parents, he was one of the oldest members of the group. His involvement in certain Gnostic circles and his scorn for organized religion was reflected in much of his work. His publication of some of the first German translations of certain heretical Christian writers in 1935 earned him the enmity of certain highly-placed clerics and provoked several threats on his life. Married with two daughters, he died mysteriously in a train accident shortly before the circle disbanded.

Erich Cohn (1897-1963) was born in Trieste of German-speaking parents. Cohn went to sea at 16 and served in the Austrian army in World War I, when he was wounded. After the war, he spent a number of years in France and then in Haiti. The reason for his presence in Vienna in the 1930’s isn’t quite clear, although it appears he may have had ties to various left-wing political groups. After the circle’s demise in the summer of 1937 he returned to Haiti, where he spent the remainder of his life. Famous early as a war poet, his later work reflects a more than casual involvement with the native Haitian religion.

Else Saint-John (1915-1944) was a native of Salzburg and student at the Athenian Academy there, Else was the youngest member of the circle. A surviving photograph of her shows a pale thin girl with a decidedly dreamy look. She was a student of divination and was popular as a spiritualistic medium. Her brooding, oracular poems were published in several small volumes now lost. She was killed in the allied bombing of Dresden.

Franz Bachman (1901-1973) studied Chinese at the University of Vienna and lived in China for a number of years. Returning to Austria in 1932, he lectured on Chinese and Buddhist Studies at various schools around Vienna. He was introduced to the circle by his former schoolmate Rosenkranz and participated in their activities including the notorious festivals until the group dispersed. He returned to China, and after the collapse of the Nationalist government in 1949, he emigrated to America where he continued to write and teach. Bachman was easily the most optimistic member of the group–his faith no doubt fortified by his long study of Eastern contemplative practices.

Albin Landauer (1911-1940) was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna and studied in at the University there. He was part of the Baronness’s circle when it first began to form in the early 1930’s. Although one of the youngest members of the group, he was perhaps the most gifted. A close friend of Else Saint-John, he went into hiding after the group’s demise and was active in the anti-Nazi resistance until his discovery and execution in February of 1940.

Concerning Rosenkranz himself there is decidedly less information. He is almost invisible as the editor of Sonnentraumen and only a little more revealed in the few pieces of his own work that survived, which consist mostly of philosophical aphorisms. Perhaps the most famous of these is his statement, “It is the text that explicates the dream, and the dream that explicates the text.”

Rosenkranz never claimed to have written anything himself but said that he merely transcribed and alphabetically organized aphorisms he had collected from conversations in various cafes and coffeehouses of Vienna. However, according to the historian Reinmetz, it was a common practice of Rosenkranz’s between 1937and 1938 to sit alone each evening in these smoke-filled cafes and write hurriedly in a blue notebook as if in a trance, totally oblivious to everyone around him.

Reinmetz further notes that Rosenkranz was one of those who indiscriminately studied everything: Greek religious cults, Chinese metaphysics, English alchemy, German romanticism, and Russian devotional texts, to name a few of his interests. His major literary achievement was the publication of Sonnentraumen. He also was believed to be responsible for furthering its translation into English and publication by Berkeley‘s Intertext in 1939. On this I must take Reinmetz’s word, for I myself have not been able to find any mention of this edition nor of Berkeley‘s Intertext in other works I have consulted.

The German edition of Sonnentraumen runs almost 200 pages, which is long for a book of poetry. When I first acquired the work, it was my intention to do a fresh English translation, but as I began my labors I ran into numerous obstacles. There were the normal difficulties of the translation itself. Although I am not without merit as a poet (my first book of poems having received kind notice by the Omaha Arts Bulletin and others) it was hard to do justice to the grace many of these poems have in the original German. Certain allusions are almost impossible to render, and the use of obscure and archaic words, unusual syntax, and the generally oracular and ambiguous tone of many of the works make the task even more difficult. Also, in German the poems have a certain incantational quality which is difficult to capture in English. Perhaps as Rosenkranz himself suggested, they should be read very late at night, preferably in an abandoned churchyard.

It was not the literary obstacles that ultimately prevented my efforts from reaching fruition, however. I found that the book had, shall we say, certain desires of its own. It took me some time to fully realize this. There were the dreams of course–not just my own, but those of my family, which began to be very upsetting. Then there was the waking up at night, the lights, the sounds of voices, footsteps and so forth. All of these events I ascribed merely to my somewhat overwrought imagination. More disturbing was the way the book would move from room to room in the house. Wherever I set it down the night before, it would certainly not be there in the morning.

One night I will not soon forget I woke up in a cold sweat about four in the morning. I had terrible dreams but on waking they dispersed so suddenly that I could not recall a single image. Through the bedroom window I could see the full autumn moon and the room itself was lit in a most unusual way. I got out of bed and went downstairs to the library to read. I read for perhaps an hour and then feeling tired went back upstairs. Just as I reached the landing, I heard a voice in German coming from my young son’s room. Startled, I slowly approached the room and looked in. My son was sitting up in bed with his eyes wide open. He was looking right at me, but I could tell he didn’t see me. Rather, he was looking past me at something else. I turned around but saw nothing. Then he started to speak in perfect Austrian-accented German,

“Lassen uns allein bleiben.”

At that I jumped, for I was quite sure that my son, who was only nine, did not know a single word of German.

Lassen uns allein bleiben!”

He spoke more forcefully and then slumped over, apparently asleep. I rushed to him and woke him immediately.

“There. You were just having a bad dream,” I said to him.

“But I wasn’t dreaming at all,” he replied, confused. There was no point in pushing the matter, so I stayed by his bed until he fell back asleep.

Leave us alone!” Yes, perhaps I should have taken that as a warning, for it was scarcely a week after this when continuing my translation work late at night I felt someone walk up behind me. Before I could turn around, the pen in my hand rose up into the air and flew across the room. Quickly I jumped up, but again I saw no one. This sort of event began to happen more often, yet stubborn to a fault I continued my work. I had perhaps translated about a quarter of the poems in the collection when I noticed that my translations were reverting back into the originals. That is, the notebook that contained my English versions began to show German mixed with the English. At first I thought I had been careless or distracted, even though my method is to keep the translated work quite separate from the original. As the number of lines in German continued to increase, I realized that other forces were at play.

I was at a total loss as to what to do. Obviously, I could not continue with the project. At the same time, having read and reread the original work I was ever more convinced that a translation of it would secure my literary reputation once and for all. Many writers of this period are widely acclaimed, but in my mind, they pale in comparison to the six writers Rosenkranz chose to include in Sonnentraumen. But what use is it to sing their praises, when I cannot provide a single specimen of proof to back up my claim? Completely frustrated, I decided that my only course of action was to reprint the book in the original German. I could prepare a new edition, and no doubt someone less troubled by spirits than myself would convert it to English.

To this end, I arranged a trip to Vienna to talk with several publishers I know there. Unfortunately, even this small initiative proved ill-fated. The agents at the airport had no record of my electronic ticket, and I could not find my confirmation number. On top of that, I discovered that my passport was missing as well. And to add insult to injury, while I was arguing with the airline agents, someone walked off with my laptop computer containing my working copy of the book. I began running through the terminal after them, only to crash into a woman who spilled coffee all over me. When I helped her up, she said only one word to me: “Allein!” I realized then that it was futile to persist and went home.

The book itself I then kept in a very secure safe. This had proved a successful deterrent to its nocturnal wanderings. On arriving home, I checked to see if it was still there–which it was–and then locked the safe again. I was now prepared to give up my efforts toward either translating or reprinting the book. I would have to be content with being one of the few who owned one of the great lost masterpieces of 20th Century literature, even though I could do absolutely nothing with it.

And so it was. I went on to other projects. I wrote a book about Brazilian spiritualist movements and started another on Shinto shamanism. From time to time I would open the safe and take the book out and read some of the poems in it and then carefully put it back again. Years went by, and I had almost forgotten my ambitions and difficulties concerning the book. Then a few months ago I was looking for a lost file on my son’s computer when I discovered, quite by accident, that he had been writing poetry himself. Curious, I began to read his works. You can imagine my great surprise to discover that he had unconsciously composed flawless English versions of many of the Sonnentraumen poems. That night when he got home from high school, I questioned him excitedly about his writing. Unfortunately, he became incensed at the fact that I had read his private works without his permission. No amount of pleading or bribery on my part has since induced him to part with any of them. Not only that, but he now keeps all of his poems on a disk whose hiding place I have yet to uncover.

“They’re quite good poems,” I tell him, “You really should think about publishing them.”

“Dad,” he invariably replies, “Just leave me alone.”

 

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