Oh, my soul murmured, as your mouth confessed to mine.
–Else Lasker-Schüler, “Es kommt der Abend” (“The evening comes”)
Else Lasker-Schüler confessed. But unlike many of her compatriots in the Expressionist circles in Weimar Berlin, who grappled in their art with the hopelessness of a fractured, post-war Europe, the work of Lasker-Schüler bubbled over with an incandescent kind of joy. Her ebullience in print belied an often grim and desperate daily life, and in light of it, her poetry’s striking lack of darkness is what draws me to it. When this poet confessed, she did it not to purge herself of darkness but to flood her reality with a quixotic inner light.
Lasker-Schüler, born in 1869 to a prominent Jewish family in a small town in Western Germany, had left behind a limping marriage at the end of the nineteenth century and showed up in Weimar Berlin’s cafes full of young, revolutionary artists—almost all of them men—and demanded a place for herself among the city’s avant-garde. She was polarizing: a woman, a Jew, middle-aged and with a young child in tow. Walter Benjamin couldn’t bear her personality; Kafka disdained her writing for its drama. And yet she insisted on a place for herself. As shimmering blue horses and geometric shapes in primary colors rioted across Expressionist canvases, Lasker-Schüler’s poetry flushed with eroticism as she celebrated Old Testament women and relished moments with lovers in bed. She would eventually become renowned for her Liebesgedichte, her sighing, simmering love poems.
Fin-de-siècle Germany was a society in which women weren’t allowed to vote, where they were cast far more often as muses for male artists rather than allowed to claim the role of creator for themselves, and in which anti-Semitism was only a couple of decades away from becoming a political platform. As the years marched on, Lasker-Schüler would lose her only child to tuberculosis; her close friend and confident, the painter Franz Marc, to the first World War; and would witness the Nazi party’s indomitable rise to power until, after she was beaten on the street by SS officers, she was forced to flee in a night to Switzerland. She would make her way, finally, to what was then still Palestine, where she died penniless and alone mere months before the end of the Second World War. But Lasker-Schüler created an escape, an Ausweg, through fantasy: her imaginary land of Thebes was a wholly realized alternate reality in which art was paramount, love the primary mode of communication, and where she could surround herself with friends and lovers who returned her adoration in its entirety. She inhabited Thebes not just in her art, but also in life.
Thebes was named and fashioned after the Ancient Egyptian city, and Lasker-Schüler declared herself Abigail Jussuf, its prince. Franz Marc became “Der Blaue Reiter,” or the Blue Rider. The poet Gottfried Benn, her most painful and longest love affair, was “Giselheer”—presumably from “Giselher,” the name of a king in the famous Nibelungenlied, an epic German poem from the Middle Ages. Theban identities often bled into reality: Lasker-Schüler gave Georg Lewin, her second husband, the new name “Herwarth Walden” (after Henry David Thoreau’s Walden). He went by that name for the rest of his life.
Throughout the 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s, the Expressionist world whirled around Lasker-Schüler, and she in turn wove it into her imagined narrative. At the height of her fame, in the 1910s, her contemporary Kurt Pinthus described her as “black-eyed, black-haired, small and dark, wearing bizarre jewelry and always in the throes of some passionate love-affair.” Lasker-Schüler, for a time, occupied the nebulous center of Berlin’s avant-garde.
A photo from Lasker-Schüler’s first marriage shows her facing the camera stiffly, contained in a voluminous Victorian skirt and a tightly buttoned high-collared jacket. A photo taken twelve years later has her in bloomers, a men’s jacket, and a glittering belt with a dagger stuck through its loops. Her hands lightly touch a flute to her lips. She’s Jussuf, her prince of Thebes. The second photo was taken at a poetry reading, when she was one of the most talked-about writers in Berlin. Through imagining herself into a fantasy world, she claimed a place in the real one. In costume and in character, Lasker-Schüler was a prince.
My father was born in the tiny village of Carrot River, in the middle of Saskatchewan, Canada, in the winter of 1948. It was the kind of place where everyone knew everyone, and there weren’t many to know. He’d pull himself to school on subzero winter mornings by hanging onto the backs of pickup trucks, sliding on the ice-coated roads, gripping extra tight when the drivers made turns on the gridded, prairie-flat streets. He’d mash the red sphere of dye in the middle of his mother’s slabs of margarine, massaging the dot outward so that the color bled into the surrounding fat, turning it a butter-like yellow and covering his fingers in grease. In his house, aluminum foil was “silver paper” and toast that fell butter-side down was stolen by the wicked brownies, the little house fairies that my grandmother inherited from her Scottish ancestors.
My father skipped two grades in middle school, was bullied horribly, and had few friends throughout high school. As a teenager he’d collect old candles and stay up all night burning the last bits of wick, dripping the wax slowly into enormous molten castles. I’ll never know when his first manic episode occurred but sometimes I picture it brewing during the candle-dripping nights, his inner life churning itself into a silent fever. But then again bipolar disorder is a mental condition, possibly a genetic trait, and according to our current psychological model a case of altered brain chemistry and not an existential state. The DSM does not allow it an external cause. Still, this is the first time I see my father’s brain going elsewhere, his thoughts dallying in a place that feels not normal.
When I was very young I’d ask my father how to see the things that he saw. While he worked in our garden, he taught me how to see flower fairies. “Close your eyes,” he told me, “and imagine a flower fairy. Just let her show herself to you.” I closed my eyes and imagined my best friend, her dark hair and tan skin, because I thought she was the most beautiful person I knew. I put her in a frilly dress because it seemed fairy-like. “I can’t see a fairy,” I said. My father told me to keep imagining until it felt right. “You can see a flower fairy through intuition,” he said. “Use your mind’s eye.” All I could conjure up was that same frozen image of my pretty friend, and so I gave up, disappointed. My father’s world, I half-believed, would reveal itself to me when I was a grown up. When I was finally like him.
I remember a summer when my father wrapped duct tape in thick layers around his midsection. He explained to my siblings and me that he needed to do this in order to contain himself, that he would otherwise disperse into the ether and dissolve. I was young, maybe seven or eight or nine. We spent summer weeks at my parents’ lake house in New Hampshire, where my father delicately kept his duct-tape-swaddled belly out of the water. That particular summer, I once threw a rock at one of my sisters while we splashed in shallow water at “the beach”—a small patch of sand at the water’s edge—and it hit her in the forehead. My father sloshed through the clear lake water to her. He cradled her forehead in his palm, and asked her to imagine her pain pouring into his hand. She did as he told her to, gulping air, but she couldn’t stop crying, and I felt a rock of guilt harden in my gut as I watched her scalp bloom into a bruise. I’m not sure when this memory takes place—if I was nine, he would have already been diagnosed as manic-depressive and was taking lithium. If I was seven, or eight, he hadn’t yet.
A few months ago I was riding the subway uptown, in a seat at the back of the car, reading a book for the class I was headed toward. A man sat down next to me, and I slowly became aware of the heavy stench of hot garbage. I ignored it. The man had his back to me and his body started bumping rhythmically against my elbow but I stuck with my book, steadfastly refusing to look over its pages, attempting to sustain normality by force of will alone. I kept reading until the man’s motion became so violent that the words on my page were rocking with him, and I looked up to confirm that this man was insane. He was immersed in hallucination. He had leaned over the seat to his right and was moving his left hand as though he were writing feverishly on a page floating just above the seat. His fist clenched a nonexistent pen. I looked around and realized that everyone else had dispersed, that only this man and I were left in our section of the car. Straphangers huddled a few feet away, looking up and sideways and down at their own feet. About a yard of empty space seemed to be what the commuters felt would keep their world from being contaminated by his.
In the fall of 2008, several months went by in which I spoke to my father exclusively about dreams. That period came after his most violent manic episode to date: it had culminated in him wrapping his hands around my mother’s throat while she drove him to the hospital. In the two and a half years that followed it, he would be hospitalized over, and over, and over again. Doctors prescribed him off-label antipsychotics not popularly used since the 1970s, my mother moved him out of the house I’d grown up in, and he eventually had a nurse regularly visit him in his new apartment to ensure that he was taking all of his medication. He was physically accounted for, but he was not reachable.
That fall, I knew he couldn’t pay attention to the banality of real world things—the details of the activities and relationships that comprised my daily life, like my classes, my friends, the guy I was newly seeing—and I couldn’t handle his talk of visits with sentient trees and the archangel Gabriel. And so I limited the conversation to dreams, an unreality we could both inhabit. Every week or two, I’d call him and describe an especially vivid dream or nightmare, and he’d exclaim over the imagery and come up with some kind of meaning for it all. As time went on, though, our conversations began to make me feel unbalanced: dreams use such a detailed dictionary of private symbols, and my father would ask too-personal questions about my emotional state and close relationships, looking for answers that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with anyone: “Are you worried this guy will leave you?” “Have you slept with him yet?” The dream world is thin on boundaries, and our conversations evaporated the ones I’d tried to set up between us, too. I stopped calling about dreams.
Privately, I still wonder about my dreams. I have lucid ones most nights, and in them I’ve been working on flying. I’ve run into trouble, though. In each dream I leap up and it’s as though a wind current lifts me higher, higher, higher, until I am rocketing through layers of ozone and find myself suspended in the stratosphere, and it’s then that I look to earth and I fall. I wake up from the sickening drop with my heart still thumping with adrenaline. An ex-boyfriend’s eyes used to roll when I talked about dreams and so now I try to keep them to myself in the mornings. I wonder if it’s better not to indulge in talk of dreams when I’m awake; to keep my mind on the hard facts of the real world when I’m not unconscious.
My father is different than he was when I was a child. Years and years of lithium pills have expanded his belly, so the flat abdominals of his thirties and forties have dissolved and given way to a Santa-like rounded expanse. The pills make his hands tremble and his answers to questions arrive after a long delay, as if delivered over a spotty long-distance connection. He has flat feet from performing modern dance barefoot throughout his twenties and thirties, and his ankles collapse so extremely that his feet squish outward into what he calls his “duck feet.” His hold on reality feels loose. In conversation, particularly in groups, I can watch his gaze fog over and his movements slacken, and I know that he is lost in his mind. It’s more difficult, now, to call him back, and to catch him up on the goings on of the world around him. His slipping grip on reality frightens me in a way I can’t articulate; when I am around him I sometimes feel as though my father’s suspension in his own mind will cause me to slip into his world, too.
When I was a child my father was the parent who helped my siblings and me when we had nightmares. We’d draw a picture of the bad dream, which according to him kept it stuck to the page and out of our heads. The technique worked for my sisters and me—there was a palpable, warm relief when I’d look at the finished drawing—but when my brother was old enough to draw his nightmares he experienced the opposite effect. “When he draws a dream, it takes over the page, and then he asks for more paper,” my father explained to me once. “The dream becomes larger, it comes alive. He can’t stop drawing.” Recording the inner world of dreams gave it entry into reality; the mental could not be contained to the mind. This is my father and Else Lasker-Schüler’s daily experience. It’s perhaps my deepest fear.
Lasker-Schüler sued a newspaper once. The small local paper had lampooned one of her poems, publishing her words without her permission for its village-dwelling readers—who reacted to Expressionism as something weird and unsavory—and described her poem “Leise sagen” (“Say quietly” or “Say softly”), as “a total softening of the brain.” The German scholar Jennifer Redmann describes how when Lasker-Schüler went to court, her case was initially decided in the newspaper’s favor: the judge claimed that there could be no copyright because the poem was such “unintentional comedy” that it held no literary value, which only amplified the indignity of the newspaper’s blow.
Lasker-Schüler won her case on appeal, but later wrote a satirical essay about the experience, in which she said, “Ever since a number of newspapers created such a stir over my lyrical poem “Say softly” and declared me mentally ill, a group of supporters has risen up around me and assumed the task of eliminating this dangerous claim with legal counterevidence. The result is: I am being observed, not only by a psychiatrist, but by myself as well (I wish I could bill myself something for it).” She writes that her first symptom of mental illness is amnesia: she forgets the name of her fictional great-grandfather, the “Sheik of Baghdad.” Redmann notes that were Lasker-Schüler to forget her fictionalized biography, outsiders would have presumably interpreted this as a sign of mental health, but it is precisely this loss of fantasy that lays the bedrock for her diagnosis of mental illness. Lasker-Schüler is only healthy and whole when she can be her imagined self.
While her fellow artists came to her legal aid during the newspaper saga, she was not always accepted in her own milieu. After an encounter in Berlin’s Café des Westens, Walter Benjamin told a friend, “In conversation, she is empty and sick—hysterical.” Even Franz Marc, one of her closest friends, wrote about her in a letter to his wife, “Else is a notable soul; how diverse all people are! I don’t only see Lasker as hysterical or neurotic,—she’s too refined for that; but she is already long dead, overgrown and gone to seed, ‘degenerated.’” A few months earlier, Lasker-Schüler had written to him, “My dearest and good and best Ruben of all, your letter blesses everyone who reads it. We all love you. I will let the holy horse speak in the newest book. I love horses best of all. […] Is my package there yet? Forever and in eternity, your Jussuf.” Then she drew eleven stars, all in a row.
The tragedy of a mentally ill mind or a richly realized fantasy is that its world exists only for its inventor. It is the loneliest party, the most isolating game. And yet in my father’s and Lasker-Schüler’s inner worlds I see a bid for company: Lasker-Schüler populated hers with her dearest friends and lovers, imbuing them with the loyalty she consistently sought but didn’t always receive. Although in actual fact my father is largely confined to his apartment, winded by a short walk and addled by unexpected conversation, in dreams and in meditation he communes intelligently and deeply with god, angels, ghosts, and the souls of the people he loves. I tend to overuse the word “crazy” when I describe him to those who have never met him, because it is such easy shorthand for describing—and dismissing—his unreal world. I depend on the word, painfully, because it distances me from him: I hope to signal that I cannot be crazy, because I recognize that he is.
In her essay about her court case, Lasker-Schüler grew serious as she mourned the effects of being dismissed as insane. She wrote, “Since then, I can’t feel any more either, I am fumbling; the observatory of my heart is clouded.” She could not conform to the outer world’s definition of sanity and actually retain her own. Her inner world sustained her. And yet I can’t stop calling my father crazy. I understand that he is genuinely mentally ill, that Lasker-Schüler wasn’t, and yet in reading her letters I see my relationship with my father: Lasker-Schüler’s compatriots treat her with the same kind of patient indulgence, a particular mixture of fear and affection, and never come close to the depth of the love she continually, ardently, uncontrollably expresses for them. When my father answers the phone with his effusive, bellicose, “Hello, my darling daughter!” I imagine that I know how they felt.
 Translation my own.
 Redmann, Jennifer. “Else Lasker-Schüler: Writing Hysteria.” Women in German Yearbook 18 (January 1, 2002): 202–24.
 Rumold, Inca. “Der Malik: Else Lasker-Schüler’s Anti-War Novel.” Women in German Yearbook 14 (January 1, 1998): 143–161.
 Lasker-Schuler, Else and Marc, Franc. Mein Lieber, Wundervoller Blauer Reiter: Privater Briefwechsel. 1. Aufl. Artemis & Winkler, 1998. (Translation my own.)
 Redmann, Jennifer. “Else Lasker-Schüler.”
Rumpus original art by Zea Barker.