Monday, 14 December 2009

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 6


Her `dimensions', needless to say, were the dimensions of the entire universe, which she had experienced as a personal crisis and which had led her to reject all partial positions. Such an experience seemed merely luidcrous to the critic of Dagens Press. On 4 January 1919, signing himself `Pale Youth', he dismissed the poems of Septemberlyran as `31 laughing pills' and wrote a parody of the poem `The Bull' called `The Cow'. Referring to the passage in the Introduction about `dimensions', he directed his readers' attention to the portrait of the poet which appeared in the publishers' Christmas catalogue and wrote that `íf the body fulfils what the face promises, the dimensions could be reduced by a couple of dozen ounces without harm to her poetry.' As Tideström points out, the reviewer could certainly had had no idea that he was writing about someone literally on the brink of starvation.

Other reviews were equally offensive. The poet was accused of megalomania and called a `Nietzsche-crazed woman'. What had really drawn the ire and contempt of these critics was a notice Edith Södergran had published in Dagens Press before they had a chance to publish their reviews. Called Individual Art, it had stated that the new book was `not intended for the public, not even for the higher intellectual circles, but only for those few individuals who stand nearest the frontier of the future.' The poet could `not help those who will not feel that it is the wild blood of the future that pulsates in these poems.'
The inner fire is the most important thing that mankind possesses. The earth belongs to those who bear the highest music within them. I address myself to the exceptional individuals and exhort them to heighten their inner music, and build the future. I myself am sacrificing every atom of my strength for my great cause, I am living the life of a saint, I am immersing myself in the greatest that the human spirit has produced, I avoid all inferior influences. I look upon the old society as the mother-cell which must be sustained until individuals construct the new world. I exhort individuals to work only for immortality (a false expression), to make the highest possible out of themselves - to put themselves at the service of the future.

The notice ended with a plea:
I hope I shall not remain alone with the greatness I have to bring.
It is easy to see how such a statement could have aroused the conservative critics. Totally caught up in her experience of oneness with nature, revolution and the cosmos, cut off from the everyday world of literary journalism by sickness and political events, Edith Södergran never even considered that her words might be construed as the ravings of a megalomaniac, a pompous and hysterical female aristocrat. Her insistence on `the future' was seen as a craven alignment with Bolshevism, and her talk of `height' and `dimensions' as folie de grandeur. In order to overcome this tendency in an appreciation of Edith Sodergran's poetry-and it is a tendency that is not always entirely avoided even by her most devoted admirers (witness Tideström's constant reference to her `disturbed' state of psychic health in his critical biography)­it is necessary to understand how complete was the experience that she had undergone and would continue to undergo until her death. She had absorbed the whole of the external crisis, both that of the outside world and that of her own ailing body, into a subjective pathos which every so often gave rise to the writing of poems. It is important to see that she regarded the willed and conscious development of this extreme subjectivity as a kind of duty, a holy sacrifice. This is what she means when she says that she is living the life of a saint. The victim of this sacrifice was her uwn body, and she tried to communicate the sacrificial act by means of another kind of sacrifice, more symbolic: the poem. Georges Bataille has defined poetry as a sacrifice in which words are the victims.* His contention is that poetry leads from the known to the unknown, and the images conveyed by the words it uses are doomed to disappear and die. Edith Södergran's poems are imagistic in the extreme-but the images (of childhood, of Raivola and the lake, the garden, and so on) are nearly aways used not for their own sake, but in order to render more vivid an ecstasy, a state of mind and soul. In a poem like `Fragment', language is used to create a sensation of chaos, of time and space collided to induce a feeling of dizziness. Through her poems, Edith Södergran was trying to bring her readers into contact with the cosmic forces she had encountered. There is evidence that the act of writing the poems was for her a very arduous business. The excitement which accompanied their composition usually led to an attack of pulmonary bleeding. Thus the sacrifice was also a very real one.

Not all the reviews of Septemberlyran were as damning as the ones referred to above. Ragnar Ekelund sprang to the poet's defence, but his review was not published until 10 January. A literary feud began to develop around the book, until psychiatrists were even claiming in printed articles that the poet was either mad or immoral, or both, and a few literary "names" upheld her integrity and dissociated themselves from the published slanders. One review by a member of the latter group is of especial interest. Hagar Olsson, then a young Helsinki writer just beginning her literary career, wrote a sympathetic article about Septemberlyran in Dagens Press on 11 January. She wrote admiringly of the poems themselves, while deploring the damage their author had brought to her own cause by publishing accompanying `explanations'. Quoting Nietzsche (`Der Autor hat den Mund zu halten, wenn sein Werk den Mund auftuť*), Hagar Olsson reproached Edith Södergran for having set herself out on the market-place for the jeers of the crowd, and accused her of acting `like some cheap chanteuse out to make propaganda for herself.'

This latter remark stung very deeply. A few days later Hagar Olsson received a long letter from Edith Södergran (whom she did not know personally) which began: `You ascribe to me unjustly cheap motives for my public action' She went on to explain why she had acted as she had done:

I had asked for a selection. The publisher took a good part of the best poems out of the collection (thereby robbing the book of its weight).

(to be continued)

Biographical profile - 1
Biographical profile - 2
Biographical profile - 3
Biographical profile - 4
Biographical profile - 5

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