Lavinia Schulz

The dream is abstract, shifty, as soon as it is written it loses itself. The handwriting shrinks and will later be unrecognizable. The whole thing, a pronoun of masks, cannot land.

The men that have touched my life often return in ghostly, unannounced measures. They appear after long absences with a note between their beaks. They come to me involuntarily in my dreams, perform some last affection or remind me of an unresolved contract. They line up at noon, from far away places, one last time to hold my hand. I love my men, their good hard deeds in the realm of intimacy. Their lack and tender bodies. When the men come to me at noon from the ports and ruins of their habitats, they come in fragments. Their hair caskets for boons. They begin to stretch out their hands toward me to touch my face. I do not fear them. They have been good to me. They have been cruel.

When the men come to me their silhouettes cast different sizes and shapes. No man alike. They pose and dangle for a moment before approaching. Why I am vertical and fatigued I do not know. Each man I remember briefly. Each man from a place I have once lived. It is in the most pleasant sense that I feel through them a way to be home. Here comes a small bungalow at the edge of an Australian winter, a sweaty hand, a boyish kiss. Here the carpet hard and scratchy, your eyes, your name nesting in my sternum. Here come your arms wrapped around my knees, your doubt in my voice returns. Here comes a long wail, blood in the sheets. Language becomes silent and the eyes a full-grown calf’s. Here your dead mother, your call at 2.00 a.m. in times when letters were long and common. You are here for beauty, I sense.  Here fall the fingers; you never touched me right. Your body has bloated, no children, not yet. Inside a year of your phone calls, arguing our way out of Marrakech. Here, your Russian forefathers, your hand on my back, thirty minutes on my back. You approach with your proposition, a ring, knee-high grasses. I wait for hours. I wait for the other one. My breasts, you will say again, you love most.

One by one the men come, suckle and squeal, frown and turn mute. I accumulate unwillingly their gestures, temperature and gorgon will. Their shrinking cisterns of luck. Men have uplifted me in appropriate and inappropriate ways, whereas women have forced me to travel into my most disquieting rooms. This is not an argument or a stance but a protocol of release.   

***

If you are wondering why I seem to be only able to write about the female history, as I do, know that it is not for some redemptive measure. The women in this book continue to call me; they seem to demand return, not through dreams or some sleight-of-hand, but through rite. The rite can be convalescent, but more often it is just meridian. Raising children to see them leave. Living thoroughly to die.  The women coax me from a distance to come closer and, of course, to come alone. They do not seem to care about my preoccupations, my fears and uncertainties. They affirm a ridiculous movement: to go into it again, the body, the absence, the exclusion, the catastrophe, the trembling throat. They are long-dead and so are their lovers, spouses, friends. They do not encourage visiting their gravestones or tracing remains. Though I will go to Landskrona one day. The return means to stretch out my hands into the past and toward the future, as inconsistent as these categories may be. To get up and place my feet. Walk and then crawl through the narrowest cave tunnel, some light playing on the walls. No one to show me the way. In fact, I have no idea where I am. Clay walls, an ochre color. It is not a rabbit hole, not a birth channel but deep within the earth. Plausible routes shoot out ahead, like veins or the branches of a tree. It is after some moving and halting that I find myself in a cavern, which means a room within the cave that is dimly lit and filled with women, all in pursuit. Of what I cannot immediately say. Solitary but together they weave and laugh, brush hair, write on bricks, compose and bathe, dance, make gestures with their hands, their voices, squat. I am kindly acknowledged and greeted though paid no further attention, and so the quality is one where each woman is communing through her acts with the other women in the room, without ever leaving her own space of occupation. I find a shallow ledge in a corner. Sit and listen, which seems to be what I am communing through. The cavern quietly hums.

***

Lavinia Schulz is now mostly remembered as Lothar Schreyer’s “demonic” first student and as tragic mask dancer. There are some photographs of her in surreal costumes and as the creatures that she created for her performances. Schulz’s Niggur and Vladmirnir are hybrid beings, reminiscent of beings from northern mythologies. Even though these costumes survived Schulz and are still exhibited, I am mostly struck by a photograph of her performing as Sancta Susanna in August Stramm’s eponymous play in 1918.

Sancta Susanna was performed in October, around the time of the German capitulation, riots in Berlin, and the brewing revolution. The German population’s disappointment, its losses in the Great War might have contributed to the play suffering from threats and sensational review. Half the audience, overwhelmed from the performance, lay down on the floor while the other half left in outrage. Meanwhile, the police had to protect the premises from demonstrators and the military commando decreed that no public advertisement was to take place in advance of the play.  Or so the legend portends itself. Only two aspects will be remembered: That Schulz appeared completely naked in one scene and that she sang her text like an animal.

Though the Vossische newspaper on Oct 16th 1918 scornfully remarked that Lavinia was not entirely naked but wore “a kind of mini-bikini.”

She sang her text, it was spoken theater after all, but the solemn proclamations must have stood in stark contrast to her dance, her costume, and her nakedness, which again stood in stark contrast to the content of the 30-minute play circling largely around the life of a celibate nun.

Though the nun is in ecstasy, in awakening. The ellipses, extensive stage directions indicate shock, the inability to language, proliferate meaning.

Though halfway through she announces to another nun: “I am beautiful, I am beautiful.”

Is the exorcism and violence of the play, the surrounding chaos of its time, a portal through which Lavinia Schulz could maneuver herself elsewhere? Stomping and vagrant at the edge of a stage, always near collapse with nails against her skin.

Sancta Susanna holds my attention, not her cape or the character’s utterances but her child-like confoundedness. She stands raised and wrapped in something white, perhaps linen. The saints, as Imre Kertezs has written, are infinitely more interesting than the catastrophe and evil that we fixate and draw our mirrors from. At night, when the lights turn inside themselves, when everything sleeps or pretends to, when the stomach clears its walls in half hungry anticipation of daybreak, I am stuck in my route back to the cave. It is so dark; calamity has a lack of contour. I sit upright in my bed listening to voices of the meridian. A little creature with the absurd hope to live one more day. Upright and without sleep, inside of nothing, I gleam an answer from vacant air. It is not so much an answer as it is a dream. The dream resembles a memory or a hallucination, both the edges of despair. To live like a nun, apart from the blister, caught inside of monotonous walls, in daily musings, and work without much consequence. To weed the garden or chop onions for the soup. To wake at 5:00 a.m. for prayer inside of a world that no longer exists. To be elsewhere, to be firm outside a scuttle inside. To drift and iron. To sleep or not to sleep. To be ecstatic, to be communal as oneself. To not keep up with it but to keep clean. To not affiliate through speech patterns, amphibian desires. To let the light go out, be without relatives, without Sunday roast. My nunnery is a wide-open realm. One cannot be driven and there is music, the company of saints.

***

Lothar Schreyer, who debuted his first public Buehnenkunstwerk with Sancta Susanna, dramatically revised the original script written by the late August Stramm. The play turned libretto emphasized “sound-speaking” instead of acting. The actors glided down, with sighs and words, over a gradation of tones. Dissonances, high-pitched stutters and a singsong of litanies. “Before a gaudy black, yellow, green and red wall stands a woman wearing a dress and facial mask that mimics the background, her arms are stretched forward while she sings, speaks and sounds. Cowering on the ground with her back to the audience a second woman, Susanna, answers in a shrill, whistling and giddy high voice. The antiphony continues until the woman on the ground sings a colatura aria.”

While the reviewer and several critics tended to focus on Schreyer’s mixing of realist drama with expressionistic forms, I cannot help but think that this might be the way women would speak to one another had civilization played out differently. I think of the cave, women in pursuit, who communed with no identifiable language except the sounds and manifestations of their acts. This is not silence, but highly varied drifts of sound, poetry. Neither archaic nor universal, the female history, stored away in some subterranean monastery, may have existed outside of the alphabet, made up instead from a body of tones, grafting, and telepathy.

I wake from this reverie and think about the ants that make the peonies blossom, certain fruits and spices that only turn red in the shade. There is the onset of fall, a soft breeze that makes everyone giddy. And what are the saints but the frightful otherness within us, the plain stakes under the magnifying glass? These saints in paintings, masks, emboldened planets, the curious word, sleeplessness, creatures in the flower realms travel so widely under the sun, come to me, long after the men have gone.

Originally Published: April 17th, 2018

Yanara Friedland is a German-American writer, translator, and teacher. Her first book Uncountry: A Mythology was the winner of the 2015 Noemi Press Fiction award. Abraq ad Habra: I will Create As I Speak, a digital chapbook, is available from Essay Press. She is the recipient of research grants from...