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Our Lady of Morphine

Priestess of Morphine: The Lost Writings of Marie-Madeleine, Edited with Introduction and Notes by Ronald K. Siegel, PhD, 335 pp. Process Media/ RKS Library Editions. $34.95. Pub date: March 15 2016

The poppy its abundance grows
As red as the hot blood from his mouth
As from his lips it flowed
In his bitter hour of death –

Like all products, opium and its derivatives have their own language. Opium literature of the 19th Century was filled with Mughal color and the tight rictus of death. Claustrophobia and expanse agree; boredom is used like a secret handshake. In the 20th, the language of drugs became scientific rather than poetic. The addict was a researcher and no longer a debased flâneur. The language of street drugs is more conservative and concerned with rhythm rather than precision, but the user has changed from a fiend to a test subject. Drug literature in general is popular because it both exalts and condemns. Looking at a ruin brings nostalgia and meditating on it thrills your sense of destruction. You can see the revenge of the body in the addict like you see the revenge of labor in the ruin: J’accuse! The product of history is the product of crime and crime is the expression of trade cycles by other means. Opium comes from a secretion of poppies which protects the little flower against predators in the natural world and as a symbol on Remembrance Day, the poppy is perfect because it recalls the Opium Wars and gives the soldier the most vivid dreams before it drowns him in that time-outside-of-time peculiar to all opiates.

German Poetess Marie-Madeleine was one of many addict-authors, born at the right moment to see the first indoor gas lighting, the birth of machine warfare and mass transportation systems, the first flights in air, home refrigeration, psychiatry, Cubism, the Russian Revolution, cinema, radio, and the rise of Fascism in Europe. A new book on this obscure writer collects her poems, ephemera, and biography in one very striking volume. Her language is the last of the Romantic Nerval-type, languid but arthritic, a late blossom of the bourgeois Oriental dope pilgrimage style in the time of Hitler.

It seems strange that Marie-Madeleine has been forgotten. Her first book, Auf Kypros (1901), sold over a million copies and its lovely fin de siècle illustrations served German soldiers as Betty Grable-like keepsakes on the battlefield. It was reprinted 52 times, the last edition on the eve of total power for the National Socialists:

I swept you away at first

            With autumn’s frantic flames, –

            With joys and bitterness

            Into your blood I blazed.

Marie-Madeleine A.K.A. Gertrude Gunther A.K.A. Baroness Gertrude von Puttkamer was born in East Prussia in 1881 to a somewhat provincial merchant father and a Jewish mother. At age 19, the very lovely Gertrude married Major General Heinrich von Puttkamer, a Prussian aristocrat 35 years her senior. She was able to move from her small town and divide her time between a lush German family villa and France. She had always written poetry and in the year of her marriage, she began to publish it:

The hills spread out so far and wide!

            So narrow and steep the trail

            Will you consent to be my guide

            Across the darkened vale?

Despite the age gap, Marie-Madeleine appears to have been very much in love with the Freiherr von Puttkamer. His death in 1914 turned her into a morphine addict and plunged her into the swinging depths of Weimar bondage clubs, dyke dives, opium dens and the company of late-walking phantoms dreaming away the end of liberal democracy in Germany. She floated around Monte Carlo and Vienna on her inheritance, danced and loved and drugged, and picked her women and men from the streets and nightclubs. She continued to write poetry, plays, sketches, novels and short stories, numbering some 29 volumes, until almost the end of her life.

Loopy Weimar Berlin is often seen as an antithesis to National Socialism, but it informed Nazi chic and it fed their black propaganda organs. Without another rival decadent, how could the ultimate decadence of the Nazi party possibly prevail? The Nazis loved to compete; just watch Riefenstahl’s Olympia. Louche Herman Goering was himself a morphine addict. Hitler’s mad doctor of the Bunker was the kind of proto-new age quack who would have operated out of the back pages of Weimar porn priestmorphinerags. “Nacht und Knabel” was a designation of the transport trains. Occult sigils, flashy tight clothes, the symbol of the swastika as copulating bodies (first identified by Wilhelm Reich), rabid emotionalism, and an aesthetic of shadows all sold the National Socialists as swank puritans. Their program was one of reactionary contradictions which matched and modified the psychological contradictions of the times. Goebbels was the first to equate modernism in art with the unbridled art of the insane and the ancient traditions of Africa in a series of wildly successful exhibitions that both condemned the paintings and used them as bait. In the end, the Nazi atrocity effortlessly outdid the Grand Guignol and Caligari: “What do you mean, pretense? Ladies and Gentlemen! Reality!” The shining eagle stands out best at night.

I want to build you a monument like none other. Of marble and bronze, and it will reach as high as a mountain into the sky. Thousands of people will work on it day and night, pant with collapsing lungs under the vehemence of the stony blocks, and work for you until they collapse.

Why should they live when you are dead?

During this period of her life, the Nazi Party also honed its poetics with works like Kristallnacht,“Night of Broken Glass”, and the famous Fawkes’ fires made of banned decadent books (Marie-Madeleine joined Freud, Marx, and Mann in the flames). It is tempting to see many things at this point: a terrified girl and her pipe sealing off the outside, an oblivious aristocrat who had loved oblivion a long time anyway, the inner migration of a Junger or a Fest but accompanied by opium, a witless Prussian who never suspected they would come for her, fascism conspicuous by its absence, the metaphorical or unconscious appearance of the Thousand Year Reich:

But ramparts loom up, and walls

            And threaten, invincible and wide;

            They will outlast I know full well,

            My brief and barren life.

Her fame and infamy did fade long before the Beer Hall Putsch or the Reichstag Fire, but the Nazi period is a still prominent in the story and the subtitle of the book is The Lost Writings of Marie-Madeleine in the Time of Nazis. Little is known about the period of her life after her wild Wien days except that it seems to have been mellow and fairly anonymous, punctuated by the odd book, without sensation except the sense of opium.

Nevertheless, Nazis flicker in and out of the book and our collective image of the times allows them to dominate it. Her childhood best friend went on to act in several war-time propaganda films, emigrated to Hollywood after, and apparently whispered her name on his deathbed. Her mischlinge son Jesco Carl Eugen was a hardcore Party man. He had helped his mother write detective novels, worked for Alfred Rosenberg in Shanghai, and later did a little postwar POW time. He quickly dashed off a mea culpa tract and emerged as German Ambassador to Israel in 1951. All in all, was what you might call the available type. The rest of her family had all joined the NSDAP in various degrees on her husband’s side; her Jewish side ended up in the camps or suicided.

When the Nazis did finally come for her, it was money they wanted. Marie-Madeleine was 65 when she died and not, as you might imagine, a lithe daughter of Lesbos imprisoned in all her beauty by a cruel regime. It was an odd martyrdom done in late style, more of a loose-end clipped years too late or an afterthought. She ended up in a kind of Magic Mountain and the institute got what was left of her inheritance with nary an outcry from her living family. Her books were long out of print by the time she went up the hill, past the gardens, into the fine chambers of the Katzenelnbogen Sanatorium and died there by a timely overdose on Sept 27 1944.

 So inconceivably blessed

            The flower-death falls down

            It gradually comes to rest

            On me and all the world around.

The publishers have attempted something different with this handsome book. They’ve dug up anecdote, frontispiece, only copies of forgotten works, deleted records and battered sheet music with the doggedness of detectives on a case. Huge gaps remain, but they’ve found an ingenious solution that uses these ellipses to pull in the reader. The lacunae in Marie-Madeleine’s life become a kind of zero gravity ride, plastered with plates from her books, posters of Weimar sideshows, adverts oozing sex, fading photographs of allies and foes, the odd emblem of a swastika or a bottle of heroin, old Symbolist routines and photos of dirty dopey girls. Vertigo constantly threatens the single Poetess subject. Figures and events, clues, fellow-travelers, and wispy underlying themes and coincidences are constantly uncovered and allowed to flutter past like Biblical tracts on the wind. The tension between all these parts makes for an absorbing read, a dossier haunted by the mythic and the indistinct which has become unsure of its own contents. This is a hex of a book with more than a touch of the carny about it.

The introductory material, forward, and afterward (by Ronald K Siegal, Stephen J Gertz and Amy Shapiro, respectively) is excellent, obsessive work by an odd group of PhDs and reads like an informal chat rather than an exercise in trendy jargon or a school lecture. The translations use an intentionally archaic tone to match the originals, most of which were set in old German Fraktur typeface. Three groups worked to produce the book: drug archive RKS and Process Media-Feral House.

From my yielding body wrenched…

I can’t share the authors’ view, perhaps necessary given their project, that Marie-Madeleine’s life was an act of martyrdom or artistic defiance. The intersecting lines of oblivion in her life and poetry converge on a figure talking, writing, screwing, drugging and dying: just a woman who went through the world in a crowd. Morpheus was a winged daemon according to Burton, but the ancients say he took on human guise at times like any other deity. Like them all, he was an inveterate liar. Marie-Madeleine‘s deal with annihilation is hardly less moving because of its refusal of politics, the slow descent of its chosen poison, and the selfishness of its love-death art. We have a need to uncover countless secret heroic histories under tyranny but only in order to convince ourselves that we would act likewise and also be saved. Ordinary hopeless mortals remain unforgiven and all of history’s stinking abattoir is the sin of those who did not do what they should have done. Selah.

The Editors point out that Marie-Madeleine had a series of doubles in name and fate as well as reflections in oil-paint and cinema (For example, there is a poster from Fassbinder’s Veronica Voss, partly based on the tragic life of actress Sybille Schmitz, which has striking parallels). When her writing returns today perhaps it reveals our schadenfreude and bad conscience in a smoky glass, roaming free like the sadistic reflection which Conrad Veidt shoots in The Student of Prague. In the film, he dies himself when his bullet shatters the mirror. Rita Hayworth shoots at herself and her lover in a thousand mirrors in The Lady From Shanghai. Beware your reflection, every one. No wonder Marie-Madeleine chose the timeless empire of opium over the dream of the Third Reich. There are perhaps always only three choices: death, oblivion or everyday life. The last is the most mysterious in flickering pictures by the million.

(Note: Quotations in italics are from Marie-Madeleine’s works)

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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