Any book with a title that references drug use, esotericism, and Naziism makes several bold promises that will give wary readers pause. Fans of provocative entertainment have been burned time after time by exploitation hucksters, quick to capitalize on outrageous claims while delivering only the paltriest of payoffs. Fortunately for these weary souls, the contents of Priestess of Morphine live up to the book’s salacious title while adding lesbianism, doomed love, and decadent art to its alluring mix.
Once the toast of Wilhelminian and Weimar, Germany, author Marie-Madeleine captivated readers with prose and poetry that wove together seething eroticism and depictions of drug use. Her first book of poems, Auf Kypros, was published when the author was only nineteen years old and became an immediate sensation. Marie-Madeleine would go on to write scores of novels, short stories, plays, and poetry collections, capitalizing on her dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty and air of mystery to grow her fan base. Her lesbian desires and morphine addiction were laid bare in prose that skirted the edges of what would be considered overly explicit at the time of publication. Sexually ambiguous and unrepentantly decadent, her works were some of the first to fall victim to Nazi book burnings. By the time of her death in 1944, Marie-Madeleine was a relic of the past, all but forgotten by the public. Her name was kept alive largely by her lesbian fan base, who cherished Marie-Madeleine’s heady poems on female love and held her as a symbol of enduring creativity against unspeakable odds. Ronald K. Siegel’s Priestess of Morphine seeks to reintroduce the author to a new audience of underground culture enthusiasts.
Drawing back the veil on this enigmatic figure, Priestess of Morphine presents a carefully curated selection of her work, much of it translated to English for the first time. Marie-Madeleine was the pen name of Gertrud Günther, the daughter of a Jewish merchant family. Her marriage at the age of nineteen (the same year that saw the release of Auf Kypros, her debut succès de scandale) found her elevated to the world of German nobility. Thirty-five years her senior, General Heinrich Georg Ludwig Freiherr von Puttkamer was no stranger to controversy himself, having published satirical writings on the Prussian military tradition. This fact, combined with his wife’s erotic writing, led him to break ties with the more traditional members of his family line. By all accounts, the two were deeply in love, and the Baron’s death from pneumonia in 1918 left Gertud/Marie-Madeleine devastated. This event turned her from a writer dabbling in the world of drugs into a woman with a full-blown morphine addiction. Her wealth and fame enabled her dependency, which would ultimately find her languishing in the Nazi-run sanitorium where she died.
Priestess of Morphine beautifully contextualizes the work of the woman known as Marie-Madeleine against trends in German popular culture. Permissive attitudes towards drug use and sexuality permeated even the most seemingly conservative circles, as is demonstrated by the fact that some of the author’s most fervent devotees were military officers who would display her glamorous photographs in their barracks. Reviewers of the time made specific note that her sensual works were unsuitable for women and children, though impressive sales of her books indicate that readers of all kinds were captivated by her stories of doomed romance, drug and sex addiction, and tragic death. Marie-Madeleine’s poetry was even adapted into popular songs to be sung in parlors across Germany.
Eric A. Bye’s translations preserve the insistent rhythms and eccentric punctuation that characterized Marie-Madeleine’s writing style. Frequently melodramatic, her poems range in theme from moody intoxication to bittersweet love to the desire for venomous revenge. What follows is a characteristic passage from a poem titled “Morphium”:
You, needle, who struck so true,
And stung my skin blood red, —
Pallid venom, blessings on you,
Whom into my veins I fed.
The pains that wildly scream,
Fall silent now, scarce aroused,
As dark clouds downward stream,
And let my sorrows calmly drowse.
On the significantly less languid end of her poetic spectrum, Marie-Madeleine berates her lover in “Unfaithful”:
Don’t stand there at the door,
I don’t want to see you any more.
Don’t look at me so dazed and disorderly,
I can love only what belongs to me!
Along your throat the bloody tear, —
It’s not my mouth that bit you there!
And though for pity you hotly cry,
In my arms you never again will lie.
I do not want to save you. Go and putrefy, —
Bed down somewhere else. Rot and die!
And if my yearning for you consumes me, —
I can love only what belongs to me!
The book makes the case that Marie-Madeleine’s death was caused by the doctors charged with her care, a theory that appears to be supported by her son (and former Nazi), Jesco Gunther Heinrich. There is speculation that the author’s passing was hastened by an overdose of morphine, but this aspect of the book feels as if it’s included to attach a Nazi narrative to what is, at its heart, an exploration of queer sexuality and drug culture in early twentieth-century Germany. The death of a sixty-three-year-old former star with a decades-long addiction may be tragic, but it can’t be said to be surprising or mysterious. Similarly, the book’s subtitle is somewhat misleading in its emphasis on “the Time of Nazis”—by the time the Nazis rose to power in 1933, Marie-Madeleine had shifted her focus from swooning poetry to writing and editing crime novels, and she passed away in relative obscurity.
Speculative links to horrific political movements aside, Priestess of Morphine is a fascinating work of scholarship and literary archaeology. Editor Ronald K. Siegel has carefully selected poems, stories, and novels from his RKS Library of Drug Literature that demonstrate Marie-Madeleine’s brand of heated erotica. The morphine-addicted artists in garrets, war veterans dying of consumption, and wild-eyed seductresses of her fiction are presented with her poems of painful, sensual love of men, women, and drugs. Considered by many readers of the time to be at least somewhat autobiographical, Marie-Madeleine maintained that her poems were simply expressions of her dreams. Whatever the case, Priestess of Morphine demonstrates that her work maintains the power to thrill. The book is lushly illustrated both with images that accompanied original editions of her books as well as additional paintings and drawings from contemporary artists. Beautifully decorated pages from her 1920 poetry collection, Taumel (Frenzy), are reproduced alongside translations, demonstrating the jewel-like nature of the original books. These small volumes captivated the eyes as well as the mind, and it’s suggested that Marie-Madeleine’s works were de rigeur for the libraries of German bachelors.
A fascinating look into the life and work of a once-famous author, Priestess of Morphine bookends the poetry and fiction of Marie-Madeleine with painstakingly researched biographical sketches. Siegel pens essays that link passages from the author’s works to historical events and aesthetic trends she would have lived through. Interestingly, in spite of careful research and copious photographs, Marie-Madeleine remains a mystery even after reading this book. She appears to have concentrated her writing efforts on her poetry and fiction to the exclusion of keeping a diary, so there is little evidence to contest her public protests regarding the non-autobiographical nature of her work. The reader is left to contemplate the true personality and desires of this prolific yet still enigmatic writer.
Written by: Tenebrous Kate
Publisher: Process Media (United States)
Editor: Ronald K. Siegel
Publication Date: March 2016
File Under: Poetry / Culture
ISBN: 1934170607 / 978-1934170601