Category: Poetic Systems

Sibyl, Kurt, and I (Variation 17)

I found out a few years ago that shortly after László Moholy-Nagy’s death from leukemia, his second wife, Sibyl, wrote his biography titled Moholy-Nagy: Experiment in Totality. It seems to be out of print now, but luckily the Chicago Public Library has a copy which I borrowed and devoured. I don’t read many biographies, but this one was striking: there are no words or passages to which I could directly point as evidence, but throughout the book, perhaps hidden in the blank spaces between letters and lines, there is a pervasive and overwhelming sense of love and loss and tenderness. I found it extremely effective — perhaps the key to a moving biography is to make sure that the author loves the person about whom they’re writing.

O du, Geliebte meiner siebenundzwanzig Sinne, ich
liebe dir! -- Du deiner dich dir, ich dir, du mir.
-- Wir?

In recounting the life of her late husband, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy ended up introducing me to the Dada artist and poet Kurt Schwitters, with whom I had previously been unfamiliar, despite his being, as it turns out, the topic of the Brian Eno song ‘Kurt’s Rejoinder’, which I had already heard quite a number of times. In the background can be heard bits of Schwitters reciting his ‘Ursonate’ sound poem. Perhaps it’s not as famous as the Talking Heads’ transformation of Hugo Ball’s ‘Gadji beri bimba’ into the song ‘I Zimbra’, but I nevertheless developed a new appreciation for it.

O thou, beloved of my twenty-seven senses, I
love to thee! -- Thou thy thee to thee, I to thee, thou to me.
-- We?

There is a passage in Experiment in Totality which describes an official government press banquet attended by Moholy, Sibyl, and Kurt Schwitters on the eve of the “great diaspora” of artists and intellectuals from National Socialist Germany. Moholy had been personally invited by Futurist artist F. T. Marinetti, who was by then Italy’s minister of cultural affairs and had been brought to Berlin as a gesture on the part of Hitler as he strengthened his alliance with Mussolini. It was Schwitters who convinced Moholy to go, despite the latter’s reluctance. At this time, according to Sibyl:

Ô tu, beloved meiner siebenundzwanzig senses, I
aime to thee! -- Tu thy toi dir, I à toi, tu mir.
-- Nous?

“Kurt was profoundly worried about the political tide. His rebellious days were over. At forty-six he wanted to be left unmolested, enjoying a secure income from his real estate and typographical work, and puttering away on his gigantic MERZ plastic, a sculpture of compound forms which extended from a corner of his studio through two stories of his house, winding in and out of doors and windows, and curling around a chimney on the roof. There was nothing he dreaded more than emigration. He died a broken man in England in 1948.”

O tu, bien-aimée meiner siebenundzwanzig sens, I
aime dir! -- Du ton dich dir, ich to thee, tu to me.
-- We?

Near the end of the banquet, in order to break the tension in a room containing many a high ranking SS officer, along with a number of revolutionary artists of the kind the SS were already beginning to imprison, a politically immune Marinetti launched into a spirited recitation of his Dada poem ‘The Raid on Adrianople’, at the culmination of which he fell to the floor, “pulling [a] tablecloth downward, wine, food, plates, and silverware pouring into the laps of the notables.” A drunken Schwitters reacted:

O du, beloved de mes vingt-sept senses, j'aime
to thee! -- Du ton dich dir, ich dir, du à moi.
-- Wir?

“Schwitters had jumped up at the first sound of the poem. Like a horse at a familiar sound the Dadaist in him responded to the signal. His face flushed, his mouth open, he followed each of Marinetti’s moves with his own body. In the momentary silence that followed the climax his eyes met Moholy’s.
“‘Oh, Anna Blume,’ he whispered, and suddenly breaking out into a roar that drowned the din of protesting voices and scraping chair legs, he thundered:
Oh, Anna Blume
Du bist von hinten wie von vorn

O thou, bien-aimée of my siebenundzwanzig sens, ich
liebe à toi! -- Du deiner toi to thee, je à toi, du to me.
-- Nous?

I was entirely unfamiliar with the poem ‘An Anna Blume’, but I did make sure to read it soon thereafter. I find it simply devastating the way that Sibyl Moholy-Nagy was able to capture Schwitters’ anguish over the loss of what he and his fellow artists had been able to accomplish since the end of the first World War. In the larger scheme of the Nazi rise to power, this might be a small and minor event, but in its quietness it carries a terrible and powerful foreboding and hopelessness, a crushing of the will. Surely that is a necessary first step in the kind of barbarism that the National Socialists were able to perpetrate.

Ô thou, Geliebte meiner siebenundzwanzig senses, ich
aime à toi! -- Tu ton thee à toi, I dir, tu mir.
-- Nous?

That episode became even more poignant when I later encountered a statement that Schwitters had made in 1930, in which he realigned the beginning of his own personal artistic revolution to coincide with the end of World War I and the beginning of the Weimar Republic:

O du, bien-aimée meiner siebenundzwanzig sens, I
love à toi! -- Tu deiner toi dir, je dir, tu à moi.
-- Wir?

“I felt myself freed and had to shout my jubilation out to the world. Out of parsimony I took whatever I could find to do this, because we were now an impoverished country. One can even shout with refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together. I called it ‘Merz,’ it was a prayer about the victorious end of the war, victorious as once again peace had won in the end; everything had broken down in any case and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz.”


Merzgedicht I

O du, Geliebte meiner siebenundzwanzig Sinne, ich
liebe dir! -- Du deiner dich dir, ich dir, du mir.
-- Wir?