In Conversation with James Reidel

The Adirondack Review: Tell us about the Jesus poem with the rather gruesome title.

James Reidel: That poem is from Werfel’s 1915 book EinanderOne Another, Each to Each, take your pick—but it was likely written in April–May 1913, when Werfel and some other chaps from the editorial department of Kurt Wolff took a month-long vacation in the Italian resort town of Malcesine on Lake Garda. Werfel had just shepherded the publication of Georg Trakl’s first book and now returned to his own work, a
collection of hymns and odes.

TAR: The poem seems to have a holiday air to it, a working holiday given who this is about.

JR: Yes. I’ve not been to Lake Garda, of course, but Goethe has and many Central Europeans before and after him. The salubrious climate is one attraction … as are the breathtaking views and mountain walks. There are ruins, ancient fortifications, that kind of thing. It wouldn’t be hard for Werfel to imagine this poem in such a setting with his own friends following him. But bear in mind that the poet is writing a kind of gospel lesson here, one not found in the New Testament but rather in what is called the Agraphon, literally that which is not written.

TAR: That which is not written?

JR: Well, the parable is written in a number of places. Before Werfel there was Goethe, who, in turn, adapted it from the Persian poet Nizami, whose sources are from earlier Islamic legends about Jesus. After Werfel, the Greek poet Sikelianos writes his version too. So, plenty of reason not to sniff at this just because of its title. The poem caught my eye and I translated it a few years ago and put it away. I did not look at the two other versions I found. They tried to be true to the rhyme rather than the content, and the content, the parable, is what drives this poem.

TAR: How did it come up again?

JR: I was helping a friend identify a letter in the University of Pennsylvania’s Werfel collection. It was addressed to a “dear lady” who turned out to be Thea Sternheim. She was convalescing from surgery in May 1913, so Werfel sent her some poems, probably his new book Wir Sind (We Are/Exist). To be a “useful” foil for my friend, to test her theory, I suggested that Werfel might have sent new work to her since he was always looking for a good muse. Sternheim was, like Werfel, a Jew who had been educated at a Catholic school. She had a similar interest in seeing Christ outside of the New Testament and more himself.

TAR: Himself?

JR: Yes, more human, even metahuman, and Jewish and more palatable as such to modern Jews, a rebel and so an emblem for outsider thought in the early twentieth century. (You see, Werfel and some of his friends were living experiments in comparative religion, Theosophy, etcetera.) And this parable presents us with a kind of Sufi Christ, which picks up on ancient Hindu philosophy, of seeing beauty in corruption. I think Werfel also drew on a Baha’i text that adapted this Islamic Jesus legend. The commentary stops at the dog’s teeth and expresses the rather trite understanding that the dead dog’s teeth is this lesson for “when we direct our gaze toward other people.” Then we should “see where they excel, not where they fail.” Werfel seems to part ways with Abdu’l-Bahá and his epistle “O lover of humankind!” You see, Werfel’s poetry at the time, his reputation, cast him as one of these lovers, too. His first book is titled Der Weltfreund. But he means this ironically, too.

TAR: That it’s impossible to be a humanist?

JR: Impossible for Christ, too, perhaps, a kind of PETA Christ if you think about it. Did you know there is a moment in that first stanza that will remind you of Barfly? In the first few minutes of the film, where the Mickey Rourke character walks down the street and goes up to a car in which a dog is barking furiously at him and barring its teeth, to which he responds, “Beautiful!”

TAR: Now you’re double-dipping at the deep end of the allusion pool, but I can see it. PETA, Barfly

JR: Okay, mea culpa. But the Christ in this poem lapses from his love of mankind and sees it for what it is and what men are capable of. He does something to shock his disciples, something with the same shock value of the crucifixion—history’s greatest piece of performance art. It’s like Werfel is saying that we have only seen but a little of Christ’s repertoire. And this poem was written just a year before the First World War. Werfel being prescient again.

TAR: Prescient?

JR: Well, the same way he is in The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. He comes so close to seeing—I prefer the word expecting—the death camps, the Holocaust in what happened to the Armenians. Here Christ becomes the god of death for but a flash, almost a subliminal flash, it’s filmic, that image of him with the belt of skulls. It’s as shocking as those Hindu paintings of Kali Ma wearing a necklace of beheaded enemies.

TAR: The other poem we’ve chosen is about religion, too, a far different faith.

JR: Yeah. He, Werfel, was very much interested in Akhenaton and he wrote a number of poems with these imagined Egyptian settings and ceremonies devoted to the worship of the sun. This poem, too, is from Einander and has its own ironies, I think. Here the grotesque is sublimated. As I translated this and knowing something about Werfel’s night life, it’s not hard to see him waking up here next to one of his favorite prostitutes. There is even that morning ritual for a man waking up, too, of micturition with that Nile flooding at the end. But is the Nile more a Danube?

TAR: A Danube?

JR: A friend of mine in Austria also told me to be mindful here of the Hapsburg symbolism—the eagle soaring in the poem. It being World War I. The forced ritual of old ways, an old regime, trying to stay awake like its old emperor. But I don’t think so, ultimately. I think here, again, you have Werfel’s method, like Christ’s, of finding shock and beauty. Both poems have birds at the end …

TAR: That is one reason for their juxtaposition here.

JR: It works.

JAMES REIDEL is a poet and writer. He recently finished revising and expanding Geoffrey Dunlop’s English translation of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which is Werfel’s longest novel, and he has translated Werfel’s shortest, Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand, both of which will be published together by David R. Godine in spring 2011.