Heinrich Heine’s Excellent Adventure


By Joshua Cohen

Published July 01, 2008, issue of July 11, 2008.
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Travel Pictures

TIME TRAVEL: It is only now, argues Cohen, that Heine can be read as both a Jew who wrote Jewishly, and a German national epicist.
TIME TRAVEL: It is only now, argues Cohen, that Heine can be read as both a Jew who wrote Jewishly, and a German national epicist.
By Heinrich Heine Translated from the German by Peter Wortsman Archipelago Books, 375 pages, $17.

At the age of 27 and already a failure at the textile business, Heinrich Heine abandoned his law studies, first at Bonn and then at Göttingen, to hike around the Harz Mountains for three weeks. This excursion, like his education, was financed by his wealthy banker uncle, Salomon Heine. The nephew Heine — resentful, ungracious, genius of German letters — thanked his sponsor with the following endearment: “You know, dear uncle, the best thing about you is that you bear my name.”

Karl Kraus, the Jewish Viennese satirist who accused Heine of having “uncorseted the German language,” enabling anyone who so desired to “fondle its breasts,” perfected the feuilleton, an informal, often ironic journalistic form that Heine pioneered. Heine himself perfected a genre that Goethe had developed: the travelogue. He perfected it literarily, and he perfected its wild, soulful liberties in life.

It was as if Heine was born to his itinerancy: The date was 1797, and the place was Düsseldorf, in the Rhineland, which was then still under French dominion. With the defeat of Napoleon, Heine embarked on an Elba of his own, finding himself exiled without having had to obtain documents or cross a border. He became a disloyal Prussian subject and, later, an unwilling but pragmatic Protestant, changing his name, “Harry,” to Christian Johann Heinrich. In 1831, he decisively left Germany in search of Gallic comforts, moving to Paris and consorting with a circle that included the illiterate shop clerk he married, and also Marx and Engels. His works, like most readable books of those days, were banned in Germany as subversive; their author was world famous but died in penury. This man who loved hiking and fording streams was bed-bound for most of the final eight years of his life (he died, at last, in 1856).

“The Harz Journey,” written in 1824, was only the first of Heine’s published peregrinations, known collectively — and collected in a newly issued translation by Peter Wortsman — as his Reisebilder, or “Travel Pictures.”

Beginning in Göttingen — “The city itself is lovely and most pleasing to look upon with your back turned to it” — Heine “crisscrossed the country, visited the Brocken [the Harz’s highest peak], and Goethe, too, on my return trip through Weimar,” as he wrote in a letter to a friend. “I traveled via Eisleben, Halle, Jena, Weimar, Erfrurt, Gotha, Eisenach and Cassel, back here [to Göttingen] again. I have seen many beautiful things on this trip, and the valleys of the Bode and Selke Rivers remain unforgettable. If I husband my memories, I ought to be able to plant my poems with Harz trees for the rest of my life.”

Heartfelt descriptions of nature alternate with drunken graduate student argumentation and attempted seductions — sometimes of both a mother and her daughter: “I believe we also spoke of Angora cats, Etruscan vases, Turkish shawls, macaroni and Lord Byron, from whose poems the older lady recited some sunset passages with a lovely lisp and a sigh.”

The next account, “The Northsea,” was written in 1826 on the island of Norderney, where generous Uncle Salomon sent Heine on a graduation trip after he’d finally obtained his doctorate in law. Here, Heine casts the knowing net of his eye on the interactions of rich German tourists and the fisherman locals, and makes pronouncements on the careers of Napoleon, and that Napoleon of literature, Goethe — while inveighing against “the bad upbringing of the Hanoverian nobility.” This “picture” also contains, in its capacious frame, an unambiguous metaphor for Heine’s Judaism — and that nested in an account of hunting:

“A sense of the noble, the beautiful, and the good can be acquired through education, but a love of hunting is in the blood. If one’s ancestors since time immemorial already shot roe-buck then the descendant is inclined to derive a pleasure from this legitimate pursuit. My ancestors, however, did not belong to the hunters, but rather to the hunted, and were I to pull a trigger at the descendants of their former colleagues my blood would curdle in disgust.”

The travelogue that follows, “The Baths of Lucca” (succeeded in this volume by its brief sequel, “The City of Lucca”), expends great gumptious energy to repeal any sense of solidarity that the previous statement might have inspired.

Into the midst of Tuscan Lucca’s sunning and summer fun, of German tourists stripping naked for tans on the nearby beaches, and taking the air, the waters and swarthier lovers, Heine introduces two comic characters — a Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, or Quixote and Panza, of the international (if undeniably Semitic) nouveau riche: “Marquis” Gumpelino, suspected to be a repentant Gumpel, is a Jew converted to Catholicism, and his footman, Hirsch, lately known as Hyacinth, is a recovering amateur podiatrist and salesman of lottery tickets. Gumpelino, smitten with Julia Marxfield, needs an aphrodisiac or spirit-lifter, but Hyacinth-Hirsch administers to him mistakenly, or not, a laxative — on the night of a planned tryst. What follows is a slapsticky, shticky rewrite of the cross-purpose poisonings of “Romeo and Juliet” (Act V, Scene 3, if it’s the Montague who’s being parodied; Act IV, Scene 3, if Gumpelino’s being made into a crapulous Lady Capulet):

“‘Woe is me, unlucky lunatic!’ Gumpelino yammered — ‘love holds forth its goblet of nectar, and I, dear God! a fool for love, just downed the cup of miracle salts! Who will help me pump this wretched brew out of my gut? Help! Help!’”

Exeunt the lovers — and enter a scabrous parody of Jewish ascension. His Excellency the Marquis Christophoro di Gumpelino, as he’s known, is a German wishing to forget his Judaism, even as his physiognomy doth protest: “For one could tell from his nose that he came from noble stock, that descended from an ancient international family with which even our Lord God established nuptial ties without fear of rendering himself déclassé.” While Hyacinth-Hirsch (the letter “H” that remains on his signet ring is the same that unites Harry with Heinrich) is a Jew of a more sentimental species, hoping for spiritual betterment from the secular world and his Italian turismo, he’s ultimately at home only in Hamburg, and in the world of Jewish finance, however lowly his position. He feels — or his pride does — that he has less in common with the Roman Catholics and Protestants he meets (even those of his own social standing as valet) and more with Nathan “the Wise” Rothschild, banker of London, whose feet he once treated for corns, and with that magnate’s brother, Salomon Rothschild of Frankfurt, at whose table he was once invited to dine, where, by his own account, he was treated altogether “familionaire” (famillionär).

Sigmund Freud made much of this pun, citing it as an example of humorous contraction in which double meanings double themselves up into laughter, while revealing essential if suppressed social truths, and providing salutary psychoneurotic relief. In his “Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten” (“Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious,” published in 1905), he interprets Hyacinth-Hirsch’s portmanteau with the following gloss: “Rothschild treated me quite as his equal, quite familiarly [familiär] — that is, so far as a millionaire [Millionär] can.” What this entendre of a joke reveals is a chaffing against the bourgeois order of assimilated German Jewry, a rebellion with which Freud himself was not familiar, but wholly intimate.

If Heine felt estranged from, and derided by, the moneyed, business-minded Jewish bourgeoisie of his day, then the Jews themselves, each one of them, were to become, in the next century, deputy Heines of Europe — desperate for acceptance, and yet repulsed by total assimilation. Nazism wrote Heine out of the literary history of the Reich, and it’s only recently that he can be read for who he is: as both a Jew who wrote Jewishly, which is to say with skepticism in another’s language, and as a German national epicist, whose Loreley will last as long as the Rhine will flow.

Among the books burned on May 10, 1933, in Berlin’s Opernplatz were volumes by Heine. To memorialize Göbbels’s Feuersprüche, the German government installed a monument engraved with the following lines from Heine’s otherwise forgotten 1821 play, “Almansor”: “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen” (“Where they burn books, they’ll ultimately burn people, too”).

It should speak to our contemporary conflicts — to our own recent “travels” in the Middle East — that Heine, in his original, was referring to the burning of the Quran during the Spanish Inquisition. The books change, the fire remains.

Joshua Cohen is a literary critic for the Forward.

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