HEINRICH HEINE’S “TRAVEL PICTURES”
THE PORTRAIT BEHIND THEM | August 15th 2008
Heinrich Heine was a great poet. Yes, but a marvelous prose writer too, writes James Guida, and a biting humorist way ahead of his time …
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) wanted to have his cake and eat it too. In his writing he succeeded on this point, and mostly splendidly. He was hugely knowing and not a little naive; an eccentric who had lucid and prophetic insights about his time; an ardent defender of liberal causes yet an anarchic humorist who laughed at most things under the sun. Before his mid-20s he emerged, virtually fully-formed, as one of Germany’s leading poets. Only a few years later, he was one of Europe’s liveliest prose writers. Baudelaire saw a kindred spirit, praising him as a writer who “would be a genius if only he turned himself more often to the divine.” George Eliot, adamant that he was a genius, asserted that Heine did more for German prose than Goethe.
His place in the German literary canon is evident. Indeed his songs were set to music by the likes of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Strauss. But his position in the English-speaking world remains somewhat obscure. Here Heine is known more for his poetry than his prose, which tends to be relegated to semi-academic editions of his selected writings. This is a shame, but all the more reason why we should be grateful for a new layman’s edition of Heine’s witty “Travel Pictures”, translated by Peter Wortsman. It’s a work that remains strikingly fresh in style and tone.
“Travel Pictures” consists of four sketches based on trips he took, between 1826 and 1831, to Germany’s Harz region, the Italian town of Lucca and the island of Nordeney in the North Sea. But this is not a travel book in any straightforward sense, and there aren’t any pictures in it. Classifying it as a work of nonfiction is hard enough–everything is so clearly coloured by Heine’s will or whim. Discerning the difference between truth and fiction may be beside the point.
It is tempting to say that the poet himself is the subject of the work, but that won’t take you far. Heine moulds his autobiography into fairy-tale forms that suit his purpose. The moment you think you have a clear image of him, the diamonds in his kaleidoscope fall into yet another arrangement. When Heine talks of himself he is in fact talking about everything else, and the opposite is also true. Eliot, in her essay about him, was on the mark when she suggested that a certain stripe of modern humorist is essentially a prose poet.
But the book’s title is accurate for the way Heine draws picture after picture–sketches, literary cartoons, cameos. In ‘The Harz Journey’, he dreams himself chatting to the ghost of a late professor from Gottingen. A rigid rationalist in life, the professor’s spirit lectures on in death, insisting that there are no such things as ghosts. In ‘The City of Lucca’ Heine converses with a sage old lizard, who tells him that “Nothing in this world wants to go backwards.” The reptile grows jealous upon learning of the fame of Schelling and Hegel, and declares that no human truly has thoughts. The lizard condemns the efforts of philosophers, describing the fruits of their labours as mere passing fancies. The highest wisdom, the sage says, is printed on his very own tail, which Heine describes as having “the most wondrous characters displayed in brilliantly coloured significance all the way to the tip”–a sort of emblem of the artist’s ideal.
A portrait emerges from these pictures, but it is still worth inquiring into the man behind the page. Heine’s slippery humour secretes allusions left and right. It is hard to get a grip on it all without some context, which perhaps helps to
explain the neglect of his prose in English. Heine was an outsider in more ways than one: a German living in France, a lyrical poet interloping in satirical prose. He loved art, but held that the age of ‘pure art’ was over; delighted in nature, yet scorned the fashion for rhapsodising about it; championed liberation, but still jokingly thanked God “that one lay quietly in bed, sipping excellent coffee, with one’s head still comfortably attached to one’s shoulders.” He was a Jew who converted to Protestantism, having succumbed to the anti-Semitism of the age. But this was a choice he lived to regret. He read the Bible throughout his life, comparing Judaism with Protestantism and Catholicism. He admired aspects of them all, and poked fun at all of them too.
It is well known that laughter can mask tears, but Heine’s wild humour is sometimes still steamy with their evaporation. Despite his easy literary success, his writing makes plain that his life was ill-starred. He often laments the torn quality of modern life, its burden of self-consciousness, and so on. But it is unlikely he would have fared better in another age. Heine’s irony is unique for the very personal current of melancholic sincerity running through it.
Perhaps to counter-act this gloom, the poet strove to unearth the endearing qualities of unworldliness. Few writers have so winningly sung the value of innocent foolishness. Here he is in joyful argument in “Travel Pictures”, attaining lift-off with the help of exclamation marks: “The cool-headed and savvy philosophers! How they look down with a sympathetic smile on the self-inflicted torments and mad escapades of a poor Don Quixote, and, in all their pedantry, fail to notice that such Donquixotery is still the most precious part of life, indeed the essence of life itself, and that this Donquixotery emboldens the whole world and all that’s philosophised, fiddled, yielded and yawned upon it to evermore daring flights of fancy!” All of Heine’s writing is a kind of rebuttal to the literalist school-teacher spirit, and also to complacent common-sense. A flight of fancy is still flight, he seems to be saying. Intelligence turned inside-out might even yield a finer form of wisdom.
Strengths and weaknesses were conspicuously mixed in Heine, and one senses that this, together with his talent for provoking people, is why he drew critics easily. His promise to the folks of Gottingen, delivered in a prefatory poem to ‘The Harz Journey’, is to go up into the mountains and, “laughing, look down upon you all”–the threat of a sulky child, to be sure. A quarter of ‘The Baths of Lucca’ in “Travel Pictures” is famously devoted to sustaining a nasty feud with a fellow poet. Heine taunted Count von Platen in an earlier piece by quoting a friend’s couplet that mocks him. Heine usually spreads his malice with a carefree brush and gets away with it, probably even getting his own victims to smile; here, though, he digs his claws in, going in for embarrassing, insecure over-kill. But this is hardly reason enough for dismissing the poet as “hard of heart”, as a critic in the New York Times did recently. The passages are evidence of the personal shortcomings even Heine’s most enthusiastic admirers didn’t deny, but with von Platen conveniently out of sight, some of the ad hominem can now settle into general invective, and embedded in the rant are some brilliant reflections on the nature of art and poetry.
The best side of Heine’s humour, and the best introduction to the prose, still lies in ‘The Harz Journey’. Heine was young all his life, and only 33 when he wrote the last of these sketches, but this first frolic captures the youth at his most sunny and spirited. He spends the piece talking nonsense to pretty girls and comparing university academics to livestock (unfavourably). He hikes to the town of Klaustal, where he descends into two mines. Mindful of their perilous lives, he’s charmed by the miners, and stays up late into the night listening to their stories. The experience leads him to consider the relationship between a quiet contemplative life and the imaginatively charged world of fairy-tales. He then writes some touching passages on time, memory, childhood and the sacrifices of adulthood:
“Now we are grown up, noble folk … Even our clothes remain strange to us, and we hardly know how many buttons are attached to the jacket we are wearing this very minute… Why, we can hardly still remember what that brown waistcoat looked like, the one that used to draw so much laughter and on whose broad stripes the dear hand of an old flame so sweetly lay!
“[Childhood] is so unlike adulthood, when we become more intentional, dwelling on the particular, having cashed in the clear gold of contemplation for the paper money of dictionary definitions, gaining in life experience what we lose in the deep lustre of looking.”
Heine was sometimes criticised for his supposed hedonism and open admiration of pagan views. But he saw in the ancients an adult version of the frank candour of childhood. He argued that their greatness consisted “not as our aestheticists maintain, in an eternal quietude without passion, but rather in an eternal passion without disquiet.”
Half-blind, suffering from semi-paralysis in his long last years, Heine presumably knew about all kinds of disquiet. This didn’t stop him from flying like a darting sparrow between youth and maturity, personal delight and political indignation. He is commonly criticised for being an essentially negative writer who is not for anything. But the truth is that he was, in his singular way, for everything. Like a child, he didn’t want to have to choose. At his best, he found some wonderful ways not to.