4.46. Geoffrey Hartman, poem ‘Elegy at the Bodensee’ (1984)

The poem Elegy at the Bodensee (1984) by the American poet and literary theorist Geoffrey Hartman (born in Germany in 1929), is the literary evocation of a concert. This concert with Jewish music and shofar blowing before a German, non-Jewish audience takes place in a historically-charged location: the former Dominican monastery in the German city of Konstanz (Constance) at the Bodensee (Lake Constance); this monastery was founded in 1235, converted into a hotel in 1875 and later used by the University of Constance. *The poem might contain autobiographical elements. In 1979, Hartman was attached to the University of Constance. Born in Germany in 1929, he survived the Shoah by fleeing to England. The Collegium Musicum Judaicum was a Dutch ensemble, which gave concerts in Germany at that time. It was led by the singer Chaim Storosum, and one of its members was the shofar blower Pieter Dolk. In this location, the Czech reformer Jan Hus was imprisoned and sentenced to the stake. While listening to the concert, the Jewish persona of the poem reflects on this Christian martyr and on the martyrs of the Shoah, which he himself survived. Below, vv. 1-16 of the 46 verses of the poem.

Elegy at the Bodensee

And to Konstanz in the year of the Lord nineteen hundred and seventy-nine,
to harp, flute, fiddle, in the Dominican cloister,
there came, severe yet beautiful, like reformed poisons
now in the pharmacopeia of conscience:
[5] the sounds of the Collegium Musicum Judaicum.

Presenting to an understanding auditorium
renovated psalms of suffering and joy
rescued from the fires of the Final Solution.

Each survivor from an utterly past past
[10] was exhumed by composer and cantor; Christian ears
that longed for “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen,” or
Schubert, Mozart and the revived Monteverdi,
sat patiently to Susskind von Trimper and “Zug schon Rebbeniu.”

I had never heard the Shofar applauded, God have mercy,
[15] the Teruah Gedolah and its aching last note
that already draws on the Messiah’s breath.

*Süsskind von Trimper[g] from the second half of the 13th century was the first documented Jewish poet in the German language. “Zug schon Rebbeniu” (Yiddish): “Tell me, Rabbi, [what will be when Messiah will come?]” The Collegium Musicum Judaicum, consisting of harp, flute, fiddle, shofar, and a cantor, performs Jewish music, unknown to the German audience, which consists of Christians, judging from the designation of the year in v. 1 and the “Christian ears” in v. 10. In vv. 14-16, the shofar is blown, possibly to demonstrate the four traditional blasts. *Cf. Chapter 3.3. The teruʿah gedolah in v. 15 is a Sephardi variant of the tekiʿah gedolah. In the context of the concert, the applause is obvious, but the persona is unpleasantly surprised by it, because he had always experienced shofar blowing as a religious ritual instead of an artistic event. According to the Talmud, aesthetic considerations do not count: “If its sound is thin, thick or dry, it is valid, since all sounds emitted by a shofar can pass muster.” *Talmud Rosh Ha-Shanah 27b. A shofar blower on the bimah has a different addressee than a musician on the concert stage and this is stressed in traditional prayer: “I do not have the understanding or wisdom to hold the correct intentions, with the right holy names, while blowing the shofar – but I place my trust in Your compassion[.]” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 492. Therefore, shofar blasts are not followed by applause. In the following excerpt, the words “oldest sounds” and “Ur-Klänge” (“primeval sounds”) might refer to the shofar blasts, which could well constitute the oldest item of the concert program.

The program notes spoke as exquisite a German
as the darksuited cantor: it had to be so,
I said to myself, this ecumenical medley
of “Songs of the Jewish People,” “oldest sounds,”
[25] “Ur-Klänge” in chamber music dress.

V. 25, “‘Ur-Klänge’ in chamber music dress,” expresses the stylization process to which the shofar blasts are subjected in the secular concert setting: the discourse of the stylizer, the “darksuited cantor” (v. 22), who addresses the audience in perfect German, uses the traditional shofar blasts as raw material and presents them as music and an item in a concert program. And after that, the audience acknowledge the shofar blowing with applause. Though it is not known what the cantor told the audience about the meaning of the shofar blasts, it is likely to differ from the emotional and subjective judgment of the persona in vv. 15-16: “the Teruah Gedolah and its aching last note / that already draws on the Messiah’s breath.”

Hartman’s whole poem is determined by antithesis: first, by ritual elements in an artistic context; second, by religious music in a former religious building; third, by Jewish culture in a city from which Jews were expelled; fourth, by Jewish heritage in an “ecumenical medley” (v. 23); and fifth, by the reception of Jewish music by a contemporary German “understanding auditorium” (v. 6). One could add the implicit antithesis between the “understanding” of this auditorium and the above-mentioned lack of “understanding or wisdom” of the shofar blower in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service. To express his feelings of frustration and helplessness, the persona takes his ironic metaphors from the pharmacy, the forensic laboratory and the first-aid post, and presents the Jewish compositions before the non-Jewish German audience as “reformed poisons . . . in the pharmocopeia of conscience” (v. 4), and the Jewish artists as “exhumed” (v. 10), whereas the non-Jewish Monteverdi only had to be “revived” (v. 12) by the historically-informed performance practice of early music.

Hartman draws attention to cultural phenomena that were considered degenerate under the Nazi regime: the German poems by the 13th-century Jewish author Süsskind von Trimper[g] (v. 13); the niggun by the Polish rabbi who praised God before being killed by Crusaders (vv. 18-20); and the much-maligned Yiddish language versus the High German (vv. 26-27). There is a villainous antithesis in v. 25 between the civilized music and the sounds with the prefix Ur-, which was to express healthiness and “racial purity” in the Third Reich, but which is applied here to the archaic shofar. In the final vv. 33-46, the poet’s active attitude turns into a passive one; rather than searching for antitheses, he is surprised or even haunted by them. When listening to a comforting Yiddish lullaby (v. 33), he thinks of the music of prisoners in the concentration camps, *Cf. Chapter 4.66 on Heucke, The Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz and watching the Jewish musicians, he sees Jewish corpses. V. 39 ends with Nachamu, nachamu, ami (“Comfort, oh comfort My people”) and this quotation from Isa. 40:1 is the only one from the Bible. Looking at the “elegant white walls” (v. 41) of the former monastery, the persona sees specters of medieval martyrs, “as if inscribed by an archaic Matisse.” *The French artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954) made “paper cutouts” with colored motifs of plants, animals and men on a white background.

The persona may be aware of the fact that the teruʿah gedolah of the shofar (v. 15) in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service is followed by the Aleinu, a prayer expressing the antitheses between Jews and Gentiles:

It is our duty to praise the Master of all,
and ascribe greatness to the Author of creation,
who has not made us like the nations of the lands,
nor placed us like the families of the earth;
who has not made our portion like theirs,
nor our destiny like all their multitudes.

*The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 648, 882. Whereas the antithesis between Jews and Gentiles is present in the poem, another antithesis is absent, that between Jewish and Christian martyrs, in particular that between the Polish rabbi (v. 18) and the Czech reformer Jan Hus (v. 40). As a chronotope, Constance is anything but neutral: after 1312, there were pogroms; from the 15th to the 19th century, Jews were not allowed to live there; and in the 20th century, the new Jewish community came to an end in the “fires of the Final Solution” (v. 8). The Dominican monastery in which the Collegium Musicum Judaicum performs, accommodated the Council of Constance (1414-1418), which dealt with the Czech reformer Jan Hus, to whose memory the concluding vv. 40-46 of Elegy at the Bodensee are dedicated. Considering himself protected by the safe-conduct from the German King Sigismund, Hus went to his judges in Constance; there, his opponents imprisoned him in the Dominican monastery, whereafter he died as a martyr at the stake on July 6, 1415. Hus’ arrival in Konstanz is reflected in vv. 1-5 of Hartman’s poem, where the sounds of the ensemble come to Konstanz as “reformed poisons.” The poem ends with an explicit commemoration of the Christian martyrs and an implicit commemoration of the Jewish martyrs of the Shoah, and an enumeration of their “stylized tortures” (v. 43). As Geoffrey Hartman puts it in one of his essays, “Inscribing, naming, and writing are types of a commemorative and inherently elegiac act.” *Hartman, “Wordsworth, Inscriptions, and Romantic Nature Poetry” 223.

[40] This sixth of July, Jan Hus had cause to remember,
I see around me on the elegant white walls
(as if inscribed by an archaic Matisse)
the faint and stylized tortures of the martyrs:
stabbed, burnt, sawed through, quartered, impaled,
[45] decapitated, dismembered, hacked, nailed through,
blinded, castrated, pincered, disembowled.

The Present of Hartman’s poem is indirectly directed by the Past in two ways: first, by the concert of the Collegium Musicum Judaicum; second, by another literary work, the ballad Der Reiter und der Bodensee (“The Horseman and Lake Constance”), written in 1826 by the German poet Gustav Schwab (1792-1850). In this ballad, a horseman in a snowy valley sets out for Lake Constance in order to cross the lake in a small boat. After some time, the landscape turns into a bare plain, and finally, at nightfall, the horseman reaches an inn, where he asks the way to Lake Constance. It turns out that the lake lies behind him: he has crossed it on the snowy ice, being unaware of the icy water with the predator fishes beneath him. The villagers are surprised that he is still alive and invite him for a fish dinner at the inn, but he stiffens with fear; “Sein Geist versinkt in den schwarzen Grund” (“His mind sinks into the black earth”); he sighs and falls off his horse in the “dry tomb” of the shore. The horizontal white ice surface with the deadly cold and the predators beneath appears in Hartman’s poem as the vertical whitewashed wall of the monastery, on which the martyrs appear to the poet. And the awareness among hospitable villagers of the danger the horseman has endured on the lake, returns in Hartman’s poem as the anxiety caused by memories of the Shoah, during the concert with Jewish music amidst a German “understanding auditorium.”

In the poet’s own words, it can be said that the Present of the concert by the Collegium Musicum Judaicum before the non-Jewish German audience and the Jewish persona is directed by the “utterly past past” (v. 9) of “renovated” (v. 7), “rescued” (v. 8), and “exhumed” (v. 10) Jewish music. Shofar blasts occupy a central place in the program (vv. 14-16). Though the persona is pained by the secular use of the ram’s horn, as well as by the terrible memories and visions evoked, he qualifies the shofar blasts and the Jewish songs and pieces as “reformed poisons” (v. 3) from the “pharmacopeia of conscience” (v. 4) of the concert program, while the adjective “reformed” at the same time represents an allusion to the Christian martyr Jan Hus.


Nederlandse vertaling van het gedicht

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