9 – Heine


The highest concept of the lyrical poet was given to me by Heinrich Heine. I seek in vain in all the realms of history for an equally passionate music. He possessed that divine malice without which I cannot imagine perfection. I estimate the value of men, of races, according to the necessity by which they cannot conceive the god apart from the satyr.
And how he handles his German! One day it will be said that Heine and I have been by far the foremost artists of the German language — at an incalculable distance from everything mere Germans have done with it. 30

Lyric poetry in the Dionysiac tradition, as Nietzsche understood it, is not confined to the Greeks, the intoxicated lyric of festivity born with Archilochus reappears in Nietzsche’s much maligned birthplace — in Germany — only to move to France. For Nietzsche, Heine became an European event. Heine is not only Nietzsche’s modern stylistic model but as a poet, and man, an example for Germans of a cultural and personal transformation from the accident of national birth into a good European. That Heine could not conceive of the god apart from the satyr makes his poetry and his prose provoke an irony, a down-to-earth, sometime sexual, fleet sense of humor which dances in accord with an open-hearted insight into our Dionysiac origins, with a twin cultural vision of taste, and urbanity.
The modern poet Nietzsche admires above all others lived as a cultural exile, an expatriot and a Jew. Heine’s politics were liberal-progressive to Socialist (more on this below) yet Nietzsche’s vision of the good European is fulfilled by him not by politics or the accident of birth but by an expatriotism which makes one, if not a citizen of the world, than of all of Europe: a communitas of genius, a sense of largess in what might be “allowed” as artistic or scientific renovation, a delight in the affirmation of life. All this might explain Nietzsche’s odd claim that he was Polish nobleman, and, adding to the health and economic considerations, it explains something of Nietzsche’s wandering Mediterranean life after leaving Basel, writing, often while walking, many of his aphoristic works in the Alps of Southern France and Northern Italy.
The light, melodic tempo of Heine’s verse, the lilt, the effortless flow of precise imagery intimating a musical presto — in German — an expression which seemed to incarnate song, as it refuted small minded convictions and stretched out a wholly other story of limpidity, or radiance in style, seems to have delighted Nietzsche into writing much of his own poetry. Perhaps Nietzsche took his inspiration more from Heine than from the Greeks, here, at least he encountered a radically different German than the plodding or heavy intonation characterized by “Teutomaniacs”.
Certainly Heine’s early lyrics, Das Buch der Lieder, could not contrast more sharply with Wagner’s operatic rhetoric. Instead, singing rhythms lift from the page with punctuated landings, creating a metrical dance, without evidence of strain, no hoary breast-plate beating, no Sturm and Drang, only transparent syllables recorded by a visionary traveler and Southern sunlight filtering through them.
Further, Nietzsche often steals from Heine’s writings on culture with no intention of covering his tracks. According to Nietzsche, “Heine who has long become part of the very flesh and blood of the subtler and more demanding lyric poets of Paris.” 28 seeks to denationalize European questions of culture or, at least, to deconstruct the boundaries erected by philistines who stand to gain by atavistic war and national cultural isolation. When confronted by hypocritical “stick in the mud” morality, Heine responded with irony and wit, not ressentiment. Heine made it seem futile to resist laughing at moral hypocrisy, and surpassing its frontiers to a finer world, he was helping us make, beyond it.
Heine’s prose portraits of artists and philosophers are usually not as sardonic as Nietzsche’s. He celebrates the idiosyncratic ground upon which these high-flown cultural productions rest, including philosophy, and gives them the room, the “air”, the benefit of a doubt, to breathe, yet also time to reveal their wants. Constantly, however, to Nietzsche’s delight, the poet’s eye for telling detail exposes the “all-too-human” motivation, without (as Nietzsche certainly did) challenging its purely philosophic or conceptual structure. Heine knows why Kant’s mechanical daily life or Luther’s private vulgarities interest us. In discussing Kant’s writing style, for instance, Heine asks:

Why did Kant write The Critique of Pure Reason in such grey, dry buckram style? I believe it is because, while rejecting the mathematical form of the Descartes-Leibniz-Wolf school, he feared that science might lose some of its dignity if it were expressed in a light, attractive and cheerful tone. There he endowed it with a stiff, abstract form which rigidly repelled all familiarity from the lower intellectual classes. He wished to set himself aristocratically apart from the popular philosophers of the day who aimed at bourgeois clarity, and he clothed his thoughts in the cold speech of the court chancellor. Here he shows himself the true Philistine. Yet it is possible that for his carefully measured pace of thought, Kant needed a more carefully measured language, and he was unable to create a better one. Genius alone has new words for new ideas. Immanuel Kant was no genius. Conscious of this defect, Kant became, like the good Maximilian, all the more distrustful of genius, and in his Critique of Judgment he even maintained that genius had no place in science, and that its sphere of action lay only in art.
Kant did much harm by his unwieldy, stiff buckram style of his principle work, for his imitators who lacked talent aped the external form; and a superstition grew up among us that no man who wrote well could be a good philosopher. 29

In his descriptions of Goethe, there is the same psychological struggle between the seeming greatness of the man and the idiosyncrasy of his genius. He describes Goethe’s oeuvre as a “great ornament of our Fatherland — much as beautiful statues adorn a garden, but they are sterile.” 30 Heine temporarily prefers Schiller. He also maintains that pantheism made Goethe, “a complete indifferentist and instead of occupying himself with the loftiest interests of humanity [he] devoted himself to artistic games — anatomy, the theory of colors, botany and the study of colors.”31 Yet Heine relates that, when he met Goethe, the latter could only comment on how delicious the plums were between Jena and Weimar.
Beautiful poetry, the kind which Heine writes, at once lightly melodic and ironic, seasoned by experience and realism, full of seamless concrete narrative imagery, challenges style, and debunks philosophical pretension. Its lyric ease, the pleasure taken in natural rather than technical expression is meant to contrast with Kant’s chancellery style and Goethe’s sterile Apollonianism. Between the academic court and its wreathed statues, a god walks, Dionysius, and a correspondingly natural language which Nietzsche demonstrably achieves without compromising conceptual truth, makes new truths as it critiques and understands the idolatry of science. Nietzsche’s concept of poetry, then, is not exhausted by his comments or aphorisms on poetry. His career as a philosopher was utterly changed by Greek poetry, by the sublimations of Goethe, the aristocratic radicalism of Byron, and by the simple moving power of Heine’s lyrics. To strip the rhetoric from philosophy is not to lose its conceptual accuracy, to recover the poetic immediacy of language in philosophy, does not make it less profound.
If one reads, for instance, a selection from Heine’s “The Homecoming” from which “The Lorelei” is drawn, one encounters immediately the “tension of pathos” that embodies the style which Nietzsche felt essential not only in literature, but in European — in French — culture. It is light years from Kant’s cold ministrations, and from any gnarled technical or academic journalese:

On a journey I chanced to run into
my love’s own family.
Little sister, father, mother,
All cheerfully greeted me.

They asked how I was, and forthwith
Described their own health in detail:
It seemed I hadn’t changed much,
Only — my cheeks were pale.

I asked about relatives, cousins –
Straight down the catalogue
Of all the boring people –
And about the little dog;

And in passing, my married sweetheart –
I asked about her; they smiled
And happily informed me
She was to bed with child.

I murmured congratulations
in friendliest tone: they were
To convey a thousand greetings
And my best regards to her.

Little sister interrupted:
“That gentle puppy of mine,
It grew so big and savage
We drowned him in the Rhine.”

The little one’s like my darling –
When she laughs it’s especially plain,
She has the very same eyes that
Once brought me so much pain. 80

Heine’s relation to Germany is at least equal in pain and in paradox to Nietzsche’s and explains Nietzsche’s linking himself with Heine as the two greatest German stylists, though both were lifetime expatriots and both to this day are appreciated mostly abroad. In contemporary Germany, it is still problematic to study Nietzsche, the cloud of his sister’s manuscript sale to the Nazis, their joint subsequent plagiarizations, still casts some very un-Mediterranean shadows. We must remember too that Nietzsche was nearly unknown during his time, and so has, apart from the major philosophers, had to be “struggled against”, or delicately relegated to the French. In Heine’s case, there is today, in Germany, an sad struggle over his grave (he is, in fact, buried in Paris) and over the meaning of his literary inheritance. Though this partisanship may not seem of any philosophic purport, it does indeed reflect a public on-going prejudice against his expatriotism, if not his Jewish birth. Heine pursued cultural and aesthetic values which denounced not only German but all myopic nationalism and Nietzsche intended to continue the battle (now for the Good European) in philosophy. Just a few years elapsed since a protracted debate in Dusseldorf over the naming of its University after Heine. Even though Dusseldorf was his birthplace the discussion focused not only on nationalist sentiment (which Heine flouted) or against the native son’s expatriotism but also his Jewish origin. The pretext for his rejection was that Heine was a law student and the college to be named was a medical school. On the other hand, in Tel Aviv where it is common to name streets after successful Jews, Heine was rejected for having converted as young man seeking to practice law, to Protestantism.81 Grotesquely, in the slowly fading nightmare of Soviet East Berlin that one could buy cheap and abundant copies of a work like Deutschland: Ein Wintermarchen, by a poet who loathed secured borders and repressive bureaucracies. It would seem that the Good Europeans of yesterday are still only filtering through our cultural paradoxes.
In this book-length poem, Heine returns home to Germany, crossing the border after living years abroad. In contrast to spike-helmeted calvarymen, long moustachio’d police and luggage-snooping border guards, Heine declares nothing (to focus Oscar Wilde) but his own — style:

Hier hab ich Spitzen die feiner sind
Als die von Brussel und Mecheln,
Und pack ich einst, meine Spitzen aus,
Sie werden euch sticheln und helchen. 82

They can confiscate his possessions but not his individual culture, defended by the fine, needlelike accuracy of his pen. Style, for Heine, and so thereafter, for Nietzsche, is the final expression of an individual’s cultural choice and proof that the brilliant thought can realize itself in natural language. Nietzsche and Heine’s Germany are problematic before the twentieth century’s catastrophes, and represent an authentic embodiment of the Good European before history made it obligatory.*
Through disarming humor and rigorous technique Heine fulfills Nietzsche’s concept of the free spirit: a creator beyond ressentiment or reactive struggle, an originator with an overflow, with a style. The self-overcoming of narrow national interest, the joyous “yea-saying” — the light, laughing irreverence with a touch of divine malice — explains in part why Heine’s poetry and Nietzsche’s philosophy work. If Heine’s troubadorian joie de vivre defines for Nietzsche his “highest example”, then this purely lyric yet urbane impulse, as it surfaces into style, embodies what is great, or yet-to-come, for “free spirits” in Europe.

* Heine’s concept of poetry, however, is not as exclusively “light” as Nietzsche’s comments and his interest seem to indicate. Heine’s poetry is socially engaged with democratic liberation, which, for Nietzsche, is only a decadent precondition for the creativity of great individuals. Nietzsche, of course, inherited a different historical reality, but the substance and direction of his political philosophy is fundamentally different. The practical social liberation and equality which Heine sought is, for Nietzsche, however enlightened, a precursor to the modern democratic State, which, in actuality ends supporting only what is socially “useful” among interchangeable members of a leveled herd. These may be the kind of “decadent” conditions which make for the artist or poet who spends himself tragically in battling them, a culture which requires new expenditures of heroic or noble spirits in opposition to that leveling, but this would be so not because democratic society or its optimistic equality, for Nietzsche, is right. Heine’s social emphasis is pro-French and solidly democratic, and these rights which the French Revolution and French Socialism allowed him as a Jew, protected his freedom. For Nietzsche, Heine’s resistance to the German State and his struggle, without malice or ressentiment, justifies his optimism for a dream which will never come true. So, it is his lyric style, the derision of the Germans and his sense of festivity and wild humor that Nietzsche takes from Heine, leaving democracy which he seemed to equate with washed-out mass culture, behind. It is interesting, however, that these last two author from whom Nietzsche borrowed (Byron and Heine) were both liberal thinkers in opposition to the State, and one can maintain that there are some liberal results from Nietzsche’s anti-politicism. Poets and philosophers might contribute to European culture rather than to national conformism. While it is clear that neither Heine’s nor Byron’s political liberalism influenced Nietzsche — their cause of political emancipation was also a very personal way to free themselves from the constraints of religious and nationalist persecution. This poetic love of freedom is also a European response to national boundaries.