One of Us?

Heinrich Heine
Heinrich Heine; drawing by David Levine

In life (1797-1856) Heinrich Heine was generally admitted to be a superbly gifted but “difficult” man. In death his being “difficult” was so obstinately and even vindictively remembered that Hitler, flushed with triumph when he occupied Paris, ordered that Heine’s grave in Montmartre be destroyed. This may have seemed extravagant to many “internal émigrés” in Germany at the time. But Heine was a problem and embarrassment to many Germans in the “educated classes.”

Today opinion of Heine in Germany is more relaxed, more appreciative, but it is also distracted. Although the complexity of his character, the sharpness of his intellect, and the storminess of his life are hardly unknown, the real complaint against him now, especially in English-speaking countries where his early “romantic” poetry was once almost as popular as Longfellow’s, is that he is not sufficiently “modern.” The early twentieth-century modernist revolution (which now dominates literary opinion in the universities) revived many long-dead dramatists as incompatible as Büchner and Ibsen; fiction writers as opposed as Flaubert and Dostoevsky; seventeenth-century poets like Donne, visionary contemporaries like Blake and Hölderlin.

Goethe never needed to be “revived”; his place seemed immovable; his fame stretched from his own capacious lifetime to the twentieth century, not only as the supreme figure in German literature but as a wisdom figure that somehow redeemed German history from its more hideous recent episodes. But Heine—Heine had notoriously escaped many honors during his lifetime, and even now escapes the currently necessary distinction of being considered not just “modern” but a modern, one of the elect ahead of his time.

So Heine, unlucky fellow, was still not considered “one of us.” One of us in self-conscious, superior taste. No doubt one reason for this was a certain embarrassment at having to reclaim, for purely patriotic and remorseful reasons, someone who had been excluded from German history and literature, positively expunged from the noble record of German Geist. Although such classics as “Die Lorelei” were enshrined in German memory and affection even during the Hitler years, such poems fared better than their author. They were included in schoolbooks but attributed to “author unknown.” To make amends after 1945 was not only necessary but easy. What was apparently not easy was how to fit the almost too-well-known Heine, the famously sentimental but also insurrectionary, bewilderingly contradictory Heine into the same modern canon that had no trouble accommodating Nietzsche, Kafka, Rilke.

The necessity of being “modern” has somehow been unquestioned in many Western literatures since T.S. Eliot in England, Paul Valéry in France seemed not only to establish the canon but pronounced the rules for belonging to it. No matter how far back he lived, a poet as venerable as Dante or Shakespeare was “modern” if he seemed to be talking to us of issues still unsettled, in language novel enough to provoke us still. The genius in each case had of course…

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