Poetry and Exile: Letters from New Zealand 1938–1948 by Karl Wolfskehl, edited and translated by Nelson Wattie (Cold Hub Press, 2017), 464 pp., $45
Now virtually unknown in New Zealand, the German-Jewish poet Karl Wolfskehl (1869–1948) made a great personal impression on the first generation of postcolonial writers. Frank Sargeson, writing about his first encounter with the physical and intellectual giant in an Auckland cinema, said:
I was astonished by the slow entry of a giant figure who, accompanied by a small and slight woman, made his way to the front row of seats … Karl Wolfskehl could immediately be recognised as a figure from a previous century: dark clothes, cravat or great bow, a crop of hair, artist’s wide-brimmed hat, immense: poet scholar patrician-bred Jew.
It is a marvellous achievement by the Wellington cultural scientist Nelson Wattie to present here, for the first time in English, a groundbreaking selection of expertly translated and commented letters of Wolfskehl’s exile years in New Zealand. Wolfskehl did not only excel as a poet; he was also an accomplished translator, a cultural and philosophical essayist, and a collector and editor of rare manuscripts (the list of his activities fills almost a whole paragraph in Wattie’s book). He was also a bon vivant and a Freundschaftsgenie: a lover of the good life and a genius of friendship.
During his time in Europe Wolfskehl was in close contact with many artists and scholars who are still famous today. He exchanged letters with, for example, Stéphane Mallarmé, Rainer Maria Rilke, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, as well as the Nobel laureates Thomas Mann, Romain Rolland and Albert Schweitzer. Wolfskehl’s correspondence with many artist friends intensified after his expulsion from Nazi Germany.
Wolfskehl spent his exile years in Switzerland and Italy (1933–38) and later in New Zealand (1938–48). As Sargeson immediately realised, the epitome of European culture in the late 19th and early 20th century had finally made landfall in New Zealand with Wolfskehl’s arrival. The ‘small and slight woman’ at his side was his secretary and lover Margot Ruben, forty years his junior, without whom the almost completely blind giant could not have written his exciting and often deeply moving lyrical poetry and correspondence during his Auckland exile.
As Sargeson continued:
It was a real privilege and a treat … A humanist, a friend of Rilke, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka. He’s incredible to look at, like something you have dreamed of or seen on film. I hope to see him again & possibly I shall read to him a couple of hours a week. He moved me no end. He said: ‘Kafka is full of emptiness’. The real thing that.
Wolfskehl was a prolific letter writer who wrote in an elaborate, old-fashioned style. He was fluent in German, French, Italian and Dutch; as a student he had studied Latin and Greek as well as the old Germanic languages, and later in life he acquired knowledge of Hebrew and English. Many of his exile letters are interspersed with quotations from and allusions to these linguistic cultures.
To select and translate the most representative and important exemplars of Wolfskehl’s exile correspondence is therefore a challenging task. No one in New Zealand is better qualified to do this than Wattie, who has spent a significant portion of his academic life in Europe and is well versed in both the social and intellectual history of European and New Zealand cultures. Wattie has done an excellent job: his translations are fluid and often elegant and his comments make the socio-historical context of the letters accessible to contemporary English-speaking readers. Assessing the enormous achievements of Wolfskehl’s poetry and avoiding anachronistic judgements, Wattie’s introduction to the book – which is based on a scholarly account of Wolfskehl’s life and work – strikes me as the best biographical essay on the poet in English.
Wolfskehl envisaged his cultural identify as ‘Jüdisch, Römisch, Deutsch zugleich’ (‘Jewish, Roman, German all at once’). Unlike some better-known German-speaking Jewish exiles who championed progressive and liberal causes – such as Sigmund Freud, Herbert Marcuse and Karl Popper – Wolfskehl belonged to a group of German-Jewish traditionalists and anti-modernists. At the outbreak of World War I in a letter to Romain Rolland, Wolfskehl, anticipating a short and gallant campaign, had defended the German war effort as a two-front war against ‘Western materialism’ and ‘Eastern despotism’. Although soon disillusioned by the realities of modern ‘total war’, throughout the inter-war years the ‘latest of the Romantics’ (Wolfskehl about himself) nonetheless remained a staunch adherent of his youthful Romantic and Symbolist dreams of a European cultural renewal in an anti-modernist spirit.
Together with his friend Stefan George, a European ‘intellectual super-power’ (Thomas Nipperdey) of the early 20th century, Wolfskehl was a co-founder and active member of a group of conservative intellectuals known as the George Kreis (the George Circle). These men, by invoking the transformative power of poetry, tried to revive the ‘true spirit’ of Ancient Greece, medieval chivalry and 19th-century Classicism and Romanticism, in order to overcome the ‘spiritual emptiness’ and ‘superficiality’ of modern life. The George Kreis adopted the Nietzschean ideal of the ‘Übermensch’, propagated holistically educated heroic artists, and referred to itself as ‘das Geheime Deutschland’ (‘Secret Germany’). In the late 1920s and early 1930s the Fascists usurped some ideas of the George Kreis. Several of George’s non-Jewish friends joined Hitler’s National Socialist Party. Jewish members of the group, such as Wolfskehl’s friends Ernst Morwitz (who became an academic at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Erich v. Kahler and E.H. Kantorowicz (Princeton), emigrated. Wattie’s book includes examples of Wolfskehl’s correspondence with Morwitz and v. Kahler.
As late as in his Auckland exile years, Wolfskehl saw himself as a guardian of traditional European poetic culture(s) in the wake of George’s ‘conservative revolution’. One of the most exciting chapters of his exile writing and correspondence concerns his relationship with the v. Stauffenberg brothers. Active young members of the George Kreis, Claus and Berthold v. Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 and were executed by the Nazis when the plot failed. Their last words were a salute to the ‘Geheimes Deutschland’, a term that Wolfskehl had introduced into the George Kreis before the turn of the century. Shortly before his death in Auckland Wolfskehl wrote a poem entitled ‘Zu Schand und Ehr’ (‘Honour and Shame’), which remembers those of George’s friends who became traitors and those who resisted the Nazis.
Wolfskehl also briefly corresponded with Alexander v. Stauffenberg, the third brother, who had survived the Nazi reprisals. Although New Zealand-based scholars have worked on Wolfskehl’s relationship with the v. Stauffenberg brothers, the correspondence with Alexander v. Stauffenberg is not included in Wattie’s collection; it is only mentioned in footnotes. What Wattie does include, however, is Wolfskehl’s post-war exchange of letters with Emil Preetorius, another conservative friend who was not a member of George’s group. An art historian and stage designer, Preetorius was very close to the poet during his Munich years but did not speak up for Wolfskehl when the Nazis forced him into exile. Preetorius made his career at the Richard-Wagner-Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Hitler’s favourite opera house.
Wolfskehl’s exile correspondence about anti-modern and traditionalist ideas and movements is not just interesting from a historical perspective. His own humanism, by which he invokes and reclaims the traditional humanism of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the biblical archetypes of Job, the Suffering Servant (in his poem ‘Hiob oder die Vier Spiegel’/‘Job or the Four Mirrors’) and the Rabbi Jesus (‘INRI oder die Vier Tafeln’/‘INRI or the Four Tablets’), is a stance against Social-Darwinism and modern totalitarianism. In these days with extreme right-wing/fascist movements again on the rise in Europe, including Germany, and in North America, the traditionalist humanism of the exile poet, together with the critical academic thinking of his correspondents (such as Hannah Arendt, Leo Baeck, Martin Buber, Curt v. Faber du Faur, Helmut v. d. Steinen, Karl Viëtor, Kurt Wolff, Kurt Heinrich Wolff and Abraham Yahuda – all of whom are included in Wattie’s collection) assume new significance.
So does Wolfskehl’s lifelong advocacy of artistic and academic sophistication and gentlemanly manners. Even in later life when he was physically handicapped and impoverished and had to shift his humble Auckland accommodations several times under trying circumstances, Wolfskehl displayed ‘Herzensbildung’ (literally ‘education of the heart’), which he saw embedded in the age-old traditions of a humanitas that had its centre in Mediterranean culture. The exile poet’s erudition and humanity met with the admiration of the first generation of post-colonial New Zealand writers such as Frank Sargeson, Rex Fairburn and R.A.K. Mason, even if their own aesthetics and political outlooks were quite different. In documenting aspects of the epistolary and personal encounter of ‘the last European’ (Faber du Faur) and the ‘first New Zealanders’, Wattie’s book provides some insight into an early chapter of New Zealand’s postcolonial history.
Unfortunately, Wattie does not include any of Wolfskehl’s correspondence with New Zealand writers in their entirety, perhaps because the collection focuses on the poet’s overseas contacts, as the subtitle ‘letters from New Zealand’ suggests. On the other hand, the book includes some of Wolfskehl’s correspondence with other exiles in New Zealand. There are a few other inconsistencies in the detail and selection of the bibliographical notes, and in the references to secondary literature: for example, the omission of seminal scholarship about Wolfskehl’s Jewish self-construction by Hamilton-based scholar Norman Simms.
Wattie fully appreciates Wolfskehl’s fine ear for the specific talents and needs of his old European and new New Zealand correspondents, to whom the exile poet gave ideas, advice, encouragement and often a good dose of his humour. In line with his humanist philosophy, intellectually and stylistically, Wolfskehl’s correspondence is highly refined and complex; Wattie’s translations do this full justice. Fine examples are his rendering of Wolfskehl’s letters to Siegfried Guggenheim and Margarete Pohl-Collin. It seems a pity, though, that the book’s scope did not seem to have allowed for the publication of their powerful replies.
For Wolfskehl, the centre and essence of his life and work was his poetry. Biographical writings, letters and essays were secondary; their main purpose was to elucidate the poetry. Wattie accordingly provides an impressive list of Wolfskehl’s poetry titles in the book’s index; the titles are given in the German original, although an English translation of Wolfskehl’s works is now available. Well intended and containing some good translations, Karl Wolfskehl, Three Worlds/Drei Welten: Selected poems, translated and edited by Andrew Paul Wood and Friedrich Voit (Cold Hub Press, 2016) is ultimately unconvincing. Based on the sound and metre of German prosody, and full of atavisms, numerology and scholarly allusions, Wolfskehl’s poetry does not easily translate. The translator of Wolfskehl’s poetry needs to be more than an ambitious academic: they need to master the skills of pre-modern poetry and be deeply familiar with religious poetry. There is no short-cut to the understanding of the magnificent poetic cycles the exile poet wrote in unheated Auckland boarding houses, cycles in which he explored the depths and heights of Jewish, Christian and late Romantic religion. In a way, this is a dilemma for Wattie’s book: it gives fascinating insights into the personality and social connections of a superb poet, but the poetry itself is not accessible to the majority of the book’s readers. Departments of German (the widest spoken first language in the European Union) and religious studies have recently been closed at New Zealand universities; the number of scholars and students with a sound understanding of European languages and cultures is dwindling. Many of the managers behind the global attacks on the humanities are monolingual ideologues of neo-liberalism and narrow identity politics, representatives of the spiritual void and parochialism that Wolfskehl had always warned against. There is a growing number of career academics who feel entitled to critique the works of ‘dead white men’ without being able to read them. However, Wattie’s expertly researched and edited book will stand the test of time and may eventually, in better times for the humanities, motivate more readers to go ad fontes, to the sources. The cultural history of a place may be different, richer and more complex than it seems to its cultural bureaucrats. As Wattie writes:
It could be argued that Wolfskehl was the greatest New Zealand poet scholar, a ‘New Zealand’ poet by force of his naturalisation and the fact that his greatest work was written in Auckland and (arguably) greater than [some] competitors’ … because of the vast range of his cosmopolitan learning and the extraordinary qualities of his poetry.
NORMAN P. FRANKE is a New Zealand-based poet and scholar. He has published widely about 18th-century literature as well as German-speaking exile literature (Albert Einstein, Else Lasker-Schüler, Karl Wolfskehl) and ecopoetics. Franke’s poetry has been broadcast on radio and published in anthologies in Austria, Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland and the UK (2017 finalist at the Aesthetica (UK) and Feldkircher (Austria) literature contests).