Rosa’s Letters

Review by Anthony Leslie


It begins with Luxemburg’s very last letter to Clara Zetkin, dated January 11, 1919, just four days before Luxemburg was murdered by the right-wing paramilitary Freikorps.  She writes, “I hope the situation will be clearer in a week” but she will not live to see that it won’t be.  And then, as if turning away from a trauma of history we are not yet prepared to face, we find the remaining letters are arranged in reverse chronological order—we are walking backwards through the archive.

In Rosa’s Letters, Pia Rönicke responds to the experience of reading Rosa Luxemburg’s letters a century after they were written.  A selection of these letters, newly translated, are printed alongside color reproductions of pressed flowers on yellowed paper from Luxemburg’s personal collection. The historical texts that the book presents are complemented by visual materials from the past and the present: black-and-whites of the artist’s workspace, snaps of landmarks relating to Luxemburg’s biography, and documentation of the a multimedia installation of this work.


One could perhaps write Rönicke’s project into the history Sven Spieker traces in his 2008 book The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy, which explores artworks like Susan Hiller’s From the Freud Museum that draw on archives for material even as they subvert the underlying structures that organize the archive.  In Rosa’s Letters, the critique of the archive is subtle and it has to do with registering time, with the archive’s principle of provenance, the connection of the historical object to the original conditions of its production.


Rönicke, in her role as editor, seems to favor the letters written in states of heightened emotion—most of these selections were love letters and/or written from prison.  The letters occasionally contain curiously reflexive moments when Luxemburg addresses art and aesthetics, or history and memory, and seems for a moment almost to prefigure the very activity we now find ourselves engaged in.  In a letter from prison addressed to Sophie Liebknecht, Luxemburg is upset about a poem she can’t quite remember.  It seems to be making her anxious and she wants Sophie to write it down for her.  It is Goethe’s “Blumengruß”, and she has been trying to use the melody of Hugo Wolf’s setting of the poem to guide her memory.  She has written down a few lines but feels uncertain about them.  I couldn’t resist the temptation to compare her remembered “Blumengruß” to Goethe’s original.  She has written to Sophie, “I picked a single flower / In tortuous longing / I pressed the flower to my heart / O many thousands of times!” and all but one of her lines remain faithful to the sense of Goethe’s text; the rhythm of Wolf’s song has evidently preserved for her a sense of the meter as well.  However, one line is totally off—“In tortuous longing.” Nothing resembling it appears in Goethe’s text. Does this false line represent the memory of a reading between lines, of what is but is not written in the poem?  Or do we have the impression of present conditions, the tortuous longing from within the prison cell, inscribing itself over memory’s record of the past?


The flower, that quintessential poetic image of Romanticism, returns again and again in the volume, in the text and in the images, always accompanied by Luxemburg’s somewhat surprising affinity for Romantic art—for Goethe, Mörike, Wolf, Gounod. The Romantic flower is everywhere; we almost expect to find Heinrich von Ofterdingen’s elusive blue flower among the plant pressings.  Paul de Man, in his reading of the flower image in a Hölderlin poem (in “Intentional Structure of the Romantic Image”), asks, “How do flowers originate?”  He then answers that unlike language, which always comes into being within a chain of reference, the flowers “rise out of the earth without the assistance of imitation or analogy.”  The Romantic artist’s dream of an epiphany in which language will originate as flowers do is doomed to fail, “for it is in the essence of language to be capable of origination, but of never achieving the absolute identity with itself that exists in the natural object.”  From this perspective, the act of pressing a flower seems the ultimate Romantic gesture, to literally press the natural object into the page.  And yet, Rosa’s flowers no longer obtain that self-identity with the original flower characteristic of the natural object; they have entered the archive and retain only the particularity of their new role as documents.  I suddenly realize I have been reading Rosa Luxemburg’s plant pressings as nature poems.


Rönicke writes, in a letter she addresses to Luxemburg, that her first experience of these letters was initiated by a scene in Margarethe von Trotta’s film Rosa Luxemburg which shows Barbara Sukowa as Luxemburg writing a letter in a prison garden. Rönicke goes on, in an incredibly strange passage, to describe the scene… to Rosa Luxemburg.  At such moments, this book is very much about the complex and paradoxical process of coming into historical consciousness in a world saturated with visual media.  In our dreams we can drift through a busy square in Weimar Berlin, if we want to, but every face in the crowd will have Liza Minnelli’s eyes.


Rönicke has selected so few of Luxemburg’s letters (only 27 out of the thousands of extant letters) that the book can almost seem like a work of erasure.  In particular, there is one conspicuous hole in our timeline. The reverse momentum of the book’s chronology keeps a relatively steady rhythm until, about midway through the volume, we encounter a gap spanning from January 1917 to March 1906, the decade of empty space at the absent center of the book (think of the black square in the center of El Lissitzky’s Untitled [Rosa Luxemburg] of 1921) filled in with several pages of plant pressings. This gap abruptly elides the period of Luxemburg’s decisive break with the SPD (not to mention her personal break with her lover Leo Jogiches), the founding of the Spartakusbund, her longest terms of imprisonment, her activities in opposition to the War, as well as the composition of her most important theoretical contribution to Marxist political economy, the Accumulation of Capital. But letters always involve the play of absence, don’t they?  Rönicke knows she won’t find Luxemburg in any of the places she goes looking for her. The present blots out the past in a very literal sense in one photograph of a memorial plate to Luxemburg outside a women’s prison, now covered in graffiti.  Importantly, the only images of Luxemburg that occur in this book are on banners in a contemporary demonstration.

Hannah Arendt, in her essay on Luxemburg, discouraged mythologizing “the sentimentalized image of [Rosa Luxemburg as] the bird watcher and lover of flowers, a woman whose guards said good-by to her with tears in their eyes when she left prison.”  Rönicke’s project at times nearly fails to heed Arendt’s warning.  In fact, the above quote could almost describe the impression of Luxemburg that Rönicke’s book is most likely to leave with us.  But what we feel when we read the most fervent of Luxemburg’s letters is not cheap sentiment, and Rönicke uses the emotional weight of Luxemburg’s voice to explore the place of affect in historical consciousness, at the intersectional site offered by the most personal papers of a very public figure.


When I first read the letter addressed to Luxemburg that opens this collection, as interesting and full of ideas as it is, I thought of it as merely a preface, perhaps written as an afterthought.  Now I have come to see it as the crux of the project.  It is a radical demonstration of how to read history.  It teaches me to stop reading the past as if nothing ever happened since, to allow myself to engage in the audacious and always potentially ridiculous activity of writing back. We have to look back to look forward. The last letter in the book is also the first, and its last two words are: “You’ll see.”



Pia Rönicke, Rosa’s Letters