Baroness Elsa and FPG
- Paul Hjartarson (Editor) and Tracy Kulba (Editor)
The Politics of Cultural Mediation. Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Felix Paul Greve. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Rosmarin Heidenreich
This handsome volume offers a systematic and coherent examination of cultural mediation that draws on contemporary critical theory as well as on the philosophical and aesthetic concepts of the nineteenth century relevant to the two “cultural mediators” on whom it is centred: New York Dada queen Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and German writer and translator Felix Paul Greve, alias Canadian novelist Frederick Philip Grove.
The parameters of cultural mediation laid out in the introduction, namely translation, migration and institutional and social factors, illuminate both its synchronic and diachronic dimensions. The works of Greve/Grove and Elsa, emerge as paradigms of the “translated” individuals described by Rushdie in the singularly well-chosen epigraph (from Imaginary Homelands): both were diasporic in the cultural as well as the spatial sense; the works of both were mediated by translation; and for both Elsa and Greve/Grove, the social conditions and political events experienced in North America determine the unfolding of their personal lives as well as the production of their works. Hjartarson’s and Kulba’s invocation of Clifford Geertz’s concept of “thick description” to characterize the complex interrelationships that come into play in cultural exchanges is extremely useful in identifying the various elements of the “contact zone” of diverse cultures as these elements pertain to the life and work of “the Baroness” and Greve/Grove.
The contributions on the Baroness focus on influences that gave rise to her extraordinary art, which Irene Gammel sees as an aggressive contesting of patriarchal bourgeois norms, a thesis supported not only by Elsa’s biography (her rebellious mother) but also by the coherence of Gammel’s interpretation of Elsa’s work as a whole, for which she draws on feminist critical theory as well as on her impressive familiarity with the various European and North American art movements.
Richard Cavell’s essay discusses Elsa’s art following Robert Vischer’s ideas of an aesthetics of “empathy,” “a transference of our personal ego, one in which our whole personality…merges with the object,” and argues that the architect August Endell, Elsa’s first husband, was a more profound and immediate influence on his former pupil and wife than has hitherto been acknowledged.
In his contribution, Klaus Martens proposes another source for Elsa’s work, arguing against the reductiveness of situating her artistic productions exclusively in the context of New York’s Dada scene. Martens systematic on-site research yields compelling evidence that Elsa’s grounding in various types of theatrical performance, ranging from variety shows in Berlin to serious roles in classical dramas professionally staged in Cottbus, equipped her to assume the striking poses and enact the parodic and highly allusive performances that characterized her work in New York. Martens further suggests that her linguistic shortcomings in English would have been turned to advantage in the non-sens of her Dada writings, which exhibit the same qualities of parody and allusiveness as her visual art and body performances. Given that Elsa moved in Berlin circles that overlapped with those of the poet, dramatist and painter Else Lasker-Schüler, Martens sees another important influence in the androgynous “orientalism” that characterized the latter’s work. Further, Elsa’s radical feminism, like that of her celebrated namesake, was no doubt influenced by German feminist movements of the time.
Jutta Ernst shows how Felix Paul Greve used literary magazines to promote his career, the ultimate goal of which, however, was not to gain “influence” in literature but rather in “life, as he put it in a letter to André Gide. Ernst demonstrates that Greve’s periodical publications followed a specific pattern, using reviews and self-reviews to interest publishers not only in his literary translations but also, and above all, in his own original works and critical writings. His strategy, however, met with only moderate success, and his writing and translation career, prolific as it was, yielded neither the affluence nor the influence he so ardently sought.
In his analysis of Wildean elements in Grove’s novel Settlers of the Marsh, Paul Morris identifies parallels and divergences in the life, work and aesthetics of the two writers, arguing that while Grove reproached Wilde for his dismissal of “life” in art, nonetheless his quest, in the Canadian novels, was for the kind of “Truth” Wilde describes in “The Truth of Masks”: the goal is not verisimilitude, but an “ability to represent ‘pure concepts’ in living form.” Specifically, Morris sees manifestations of Wildean influence in the figures of Niels Lindstedt and Clara Vogel, invoking Greve’s discussion of the déraciné in Randarabesken zu Oscar Wilde and applying it to Grove’s protagonist, a Swedish immigrant, “uprooted” from his native soil and “transplanted” into the Canadian wilderness, a pioneer with an artist’s sensibilities. Wilde’s image of the mask as portrayed in Dorian Gray underlies Grove’s depiction of the female décadente Clara Vogel, whose hedonistic “mask” and artifice in her seduction of Niels causes him to abandon his life-affirming vision.
Paul Hjartarson’s account of the socio-historical context in which Grove found himself on coming to Canada and how it manifested itself not only in Grove’s novels but also in his personal life is nothing short of a documentary tour de force. His point of departure is the strange formulation Grove uses to describe the status of the immigrant protagonist of Settlers of the Marsh: “He looked upon himself as belonging to a special race—a race not comprised in any limited nation, but one that cross-sectioned all nations: a race doomed to everlasting extinction and yet recruited out of the wastage of all other nations.” Hjartarson’s subsequent description of the social, political and institutional realities that governed Canadian life in the early to mid-twentieth century, eloquently documented, allows us to recognize to what degree not only many of Grove’s protagonists, but also Grove himself were paradigmatic of the status of “non-preferred” (non-British) immigrants in the Dominion of Canada before, during and after the two world wars. The “cultural acceptability” of these “non-preferred” immigrants hinged on their assimilation into Anglo-Canadian culture. Hjartarson’s contention that Grove deliberately cast himself as a Canadian writer and public speaker representing European immigrants assimilated into this Anglo-Canadian culture, to demonstrate that they “could be transformed into intelligent and loyal citizens of the nation,” is irrefutable. Hjartarson’s impressive contribution to this volume allows the significance of its title to emerge in its fullest sense.
The volume concludes with Paul Morris’s translation of Greve’s Randarabesken zu Oscar Wilde, arguably the most crucial of Greve/Grove’s non-fictional texts to determine its author’s perspective on the debate on aesthetics raging in Europe at the turn of the last century, a perspective which manifested itself not only in his German texts but also in his Canadian works. The context is a complex cultural “contact zone,” involving the multiple literary movements of the late nineteenth century, including, of course, the décadence emblematized by Oscar Wilde. The publication of this translation, printed opposite the original German, represents a significant contribution to literary studies of the period in which it was written. While the translation, generally, is faithful and competent, it would have benefited from more intensive editing to eliminate a few inaccuracies and the occasional error.
This book represents an important expansion of the debate on cultural mediation launched by Klaus Martens in a preceding volume titled Pioneering North America. Mediators of European Literature and Culture. Its significance for postcolonial theory and research goes well beyond the life and works of the figures who constitute its thematic focus.
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MLA: Heidenreich, Rosmarin. Baroness Elsa and FPG. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 140 - 142)
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