Anna Louisa Karsch: Female Peasant Poet (A Foucauldian Reading)
What does the famous twentieth century philosopher and social theorist, Michel Foucault, have to do with Anna Louisa Karsch, a more or less unknown female peasant poet, who was born in Upper Silesia in 1722? The short answer is ‘not very much.’ Read on for the long answer.
Foucault’s 1977 essay ‘What is an Author?’ argued against our common insistence on the importance of knowing who wrote a text. For Foucault, knowing the author’s identity is unnecessary, and can be misleading, as it will encourage us to make certain assumptions about the text’s meaning. He imagines an ideal world of literary criticism (if this is not an oxymoron), in which ‘discourses could circulate without any need for an author.’ Instead of asking for the identity of a text’s creator, in Foucault’s ideal world, we would ask:
- “What are the modes of existence of this discourse?”
- “Where does it come from; how does it circulate; who controls it?”
- “What placements are determined for possible subjects?”
- “Who can fulfill these diverse functions of the subject?”
This second question proves particularly pertinent in the case of Anna Louisa Karsch.
Having received only a few years of education by her uncle, during which she learned how to read and write, Karsch consistently presented herself as an unlearned poet, even after her later rise to fame. It was her ability to compose high-quality patriotic verses in praise of King Frederick the Great during the Seven Years’ War which first brought her to the attention of the literary scene, and she became a sensation almost overnight.
In her autobiographical accounts, however, she always described her poetic method as one of unconscious passivity, rather than one of conscious, imaginative creation. In 1762, she used metaphors of biological reproduction to describe both the source of her poems, and the works themselves:
‘The father of my genius is friendship; I do not know if these children [these poems] are yet fully formed. Art has had no part in them; my own reading has added only a touch here and there.’
Recounting the composition of a patriotic victory poem written for Frederick the Great after the battle of Leuthen, she remembered:
‘I bade my muse to sing that very moment, for the festival of thanksgiving was only 24 hours away. […] Everybody was saying I must have conjured the song by magic.’
Here, she presents her poetry as originating from somewhere beyond or outside of her: it is inspired by an external muse, or by a magical power. Yet these stylized depictions of her poetic method as passive, rather than active, were no more than what was required to legitimize her ambition to write at all – as a woman in the eighteenth century. In this period, whereas men could imagine, design and create, the creations of women were limited to the biological realm.
Applying Foucault’s second question to Karsch’s poetry – “Where does it come from; how does it circulate; who controls it?” – thus digs to the bottom of a myth that has endured since Karsch’s lifetime. The mythology of Karsch as a ‘naturally inspired’ still crops up in scholarship of her poems today that reads her patriotic poetry as proof of a deeply held love for king and country.
If we probe deeper, however, we can see that the patriotic sentiments expressed in her works are drawn from a broader public discourse which has also barely changed since the eighteenth century, rather than springing from a real patriotic passion. She only presented herself as unaware of pre-existing literary works. She claimed she was unable to make use of the devices of fiction, reducing her poetic ability to a natural, even biological function instead. To anyone reading her poems, though, it is clear that she knew exactly what she was doing.
Foucault’s questions were intended to argue for the irrelevance of the author’s true identity. Yet, if we apply them to Karsch’s poems, they reveal a model of authorship necessitated by nothing less than Karsch’s gender identity. Her gender may not have affected her creative process, but it certainly affected the way she presented herself as an author. Foucault’s questions have proved useful in ways he cannot have intended.
Ellen is in the final year of her PhD in German at University College London, where she also teaches. She has a degree in English and German from the University of Oxford (2012), and an MPhil in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic from the University of Cambridge (2014).
Feature image: Portrait of Anna Lousia Karsch by Karl Christian Kehrer, 1791.