'O you Berlin, you colorful stone, you beast.'
Thus does the German poet Alfred Lichtenstein begin 'Songs to Berlin.' The address is cast in a familiarity necessarily lost in the translation of du, in an intimacy that was Lichtenstein's birthright. He was born 23 August 1889 in Berlin, raised there in the upper-middle class home of David and Franziska Lichtenstein, and chose to attend college in the city.
It was while studying law at the University of Berlin (1909-1912), that Lichtenstein initially attracted attention for self-described 'fantastic, half-playful constructions,' which appeared in die Aktion, Simplicissimus, Maerz, and Pan. Even as the poet was being gradually admitted into Berlin's literary society, he increasingly incorporated the city into his cabaret lyrics.
In all of these works, the 'colorful stone' of Berlin is appropriated as a stage upon which treads a motley troupe: lieutenant-generals, beggars, poets, prostitutes, inn-owners, barbers, gluttons, and athletes. Lichtenstein's spotlight shines on each figure, in turn, bringing him/her to center stage. The loquacious among them respond with a recitation (or recitative) of their respective situations and thoughts; those more reticent are revealed by means of a third-person account.
The resulting show is a medley in the best comic tradition of cabaret. Yet beneath the comically absurd and ridiculous in each lyric lies another ‘half’: a deep-seeded ennui epitomized by the poet's exclamation in 'The Patent-leather Shoe': 'Ah, I have enough trash!'. More so than by the city-stage, the poetic figures are united by an overwhelming sense of boredom, a sense of the hopelessness and pointlessness of buergerlichen life in the Wilhelmian empire.
This underlying desperation most frequently manifests itself in innocuous yawns, burps, excessive eating and drinking, as well as other materialistic preoccupations. It also gives rise, however, to various forms of what D.H. Lawrence, at the beginning of WWI, would call the 'European death wish.' The despondent urge to break the cycle of everyday life drives a number of the cabaret characters to fantasize about and long for the violent deaths of themselves ('Dreaming'); of other individuals ('Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Barber'); and, more disturbing in hindsight, of entire armies in battle ('A Lieutenant General Sings').
The identical urge is also to be found in Lichtenstein's prose, where in 'The Cafe Kloesschen' his alter-ego, Kuno Kohn, offers a solution of sorts: 'The only consolation: to be sad. When sadness degenerates into despair, then one should become grotesque. One should live on for the sake of fun. One should try to rise above things, by realizing that existence consists of nothing but brutal, shabby jokes.'
This reflection strikes deep into the core of Lichtenstein's life and works. Its implications regarding his poetry assumed a new resonance after he read 'Weltende' by Jakob von Hoddis (1911). The poem's publication electrified 'Expressionistic' circles in Berlin; its apocalyptic tone and imagery acted as a catalyst, triggering changes in the focus and style of Lichtenstein's verse.
The poet treats these new poems extensively in a self-criticism, at one point describing them as works in which 'The comical is felt tragically. The portrayal is >grotesque<.' In doing so, he intimates that the essential components of the earlier cabaret lyrics remain in the second group of poems, which begins with 'Twilight.' This latter group, however, is centered firmly on an imminent apocalypse, the descendant of the 'death wish' that has matured beyond human control.
Accordingly, humanity no longer claims center stage in these poems; the now dimmed spotlight shines upon its individual members but for the space of a single action, or illuminates them only indirectly. These peripheral rays diminish humanity to a single grotesque shadow, to a collective 'smear' upon the stage, in which persons are often nothing more than 'human animals' ('Menschenbieste').
Over this inconsequential, powerless mass stands the immense 'beast' of Berlin, its every house and bar; its every bridge and street; its every river, tree, and sky promising destruction. The conglomerate city is now stage and puppeteer, pulling the strings that give its residents the last mad appearance of life (see 'The Concert'). But even this performance is a mere sideshow, a diversion of 'brutal, shabby jokes' before the main act: the apocalypse.
Lichtenstein's imaginings of 'the end of the earth' are manifold in form: 'the huge horror'; 'an empty slow sea'; 'a black bleeding hole'; 'a fog'; 'a mortal storm'; 'a wind'; and 'the great killing.' Couched in an ambiguity as ominously thick as the originating cause behind them, these images are undoubtedly brutal and grotesque in their effect, but they are also vague.
This situation changed, however, after Lichtenstein earned his law degree and began serving a compulsory one-year term in the 2. Bavarian Regiment. Outside Berlin, in the 'merciless human mills' of the military, the coming apocalypse assumed a more definite shape. With his 'strange civilian eyes,' Lichtenstein watched the heretofore nebulous disaster harden into the lucid form of war.
The results become immediately clear in 'But War Comes,' which he wrote a full three weeks before the German mobilization of July 1914. The fifth line of the fragment, in particular, illustrates the effects of military experience on Lichtenstein's verse: 'You drown. Explode. Bleed to death....' ('Ertrinkst. Zerknallst. Verblutest...'). These word-images powerfully condense the idea of death, fully maximizing the tension between comedy and tragedy so essential to the poet's vision.
This vision remained intact when Lichtenstein was sent 8 August 1914 to the Western Front; for he refused, unlike the overwhelming majority of his poetic peers in Germany, to heed the admonition of General Bernhardi in The Next War (1914): 'We must...sacrifice on the altar of patriotism, not only life and property, but also private views and preferences in the interests of common welfare.' Indeed, he not only abstains from adopting this idea, but actively ridicules it in such works as 'Prayer before Battle' and 'Romantic Journey.'
Though his 'war' poems are scarce in number, totaling six in all, they are among the most remarkable to be written during WWI. Its battlefields, where Lichtenstein's long-envisioned apocalypse arrived, provided a forum for him to combine the human scale of the cabaret lyrics with the full tragicomical power of the 'Twilight' poems. The resultant works are unique in their frank depiction of war and soldier's attitudes towards it; they show, to the fullest extent, Lichtenstein's promise as a poet.
Unfortunately, like so many writers of his generation, he did not live long enough to fulfill this promise. He was killed 25 September 1914 on the Somme. The works he left behind him, with the exception of 'Twilight,' have been largely ignored. This volume may play some part in mitigating this undeserved neglect.