The authorized version has it that Lucifer and the angels loyal to him fell through pride, having set themselves up as equal to the Almighty, and thereafter sought revenge by seducing God’s newly created favorites, mankind. (See Milton for details.) The German novelist Stefan Heym has now come up with an alternative version. According to this, Lucifer and the others, including the archangel Ahasuerus or Ahasverus, whose name means “beloved by God,” were expelled because they refused to bow down before man, that curiously arbitrary invention—Lucifer on the not unreasonable grounds of superior birth and qualities, and Ahasverus out of pity for man, since they both saw how he would turn out. “It was such a great hope,” sighs Ahasverus as they fall toward the depths. “Such a beautiful world! And such a beautiful man!”
And so they both abide their time, Ahasverus fretted by his “Jewish impatience”: “little angel,” Lucifer calls him, “a regular saviour of mankind,” unrest personified, driven by the desire to change things. Whereas he, Lucifer, insists—as would any expert in dialectical thinking—that every thesis carries within itself its antithesis and one simply has to wait for things to change in their own time, “their own, God-given time,” as he puts it.
In time, and in accordance with the medieval legend, Jesus, bearing the cross, pauses wearily outside the house of the cobbler Ahasverus. But Heym’s Ahasverus, eager to redeem the world through action, tells Jesus that he possesses a sword of God, whereby the soldiers can be put to flight and Christ lead the people of Israel to victory, “as is written in the book.” But Christ murmurs that his kingdom is not of this world, and the meek shall inherit the earth. In anger and despair, Ahasverus, though he loves Reb Joshua, as he calls him, drives Christ away from his doorstep: “Get going, you idiot!” Christ then speaks the words that initiated the legend of the Wandering Jew: “You shall remain here and tarry till I come.”
In Stefan Heym’s brilliant theological fantasy, simultaneously profound and comic, spiritual and fleshly, we subsequently catch sight of Ahasverus in different guises, at various times and in various places, including the Warsaw ghetto, where he suffers death without dying. For the larger part the story shifts between the sixteenth century and the present. As is generally the case, however, the devil has the best tunes, and the liveliest passages concern a mysterious, scruffy but powerful clubfooted hunchback named Leuchtentrager, which translated into Latin makes “Lucifer.” He takes under his wing a dim but sharply self-seeking young cleric, Eitzen, whose career, by virtue of his knowledge of the future, he promotes with outstanding success. Eitzen can never tell whether his friend is being serious or not when he advances what seems like unorthodox theology:
But I have a liking for the snake. The snake saw that God had equipped man with two hands to work and a head to think with, and to what good purpose might man have used those in paradise? In the end they might have withered like any thing not being used, and what, my dear Studiosus, would under these circumstances have become of the likeness of God?
But Eitzen knows which side his bread is buttered on. By means of magic, Leuchtentrager ensures that he passes the examination in divinity. Having answered a question about angeli boni, he finds himself discoursing expertly on angeli mali:
And behold, the power of the bad angels is greater than any which humans possess, for it derives from divine force, and is but a whit less than the power of God. And their lord is the angel Lucifer…and another of them is Ahasverus who wants to change the world as he believes it can be changed, and man along with it.
His examiner, Luther, is uneasy but impressed: this fellow, he thinks, is worth watching.
We are on familiar (and fertile) German ground. Eitzen rises to fame and prosperity as Luther’s chief apostle and superintendent of the duchy of Sleswick—in which capacity he has the Jew Ahasverus whipped to death. Eventually, in return for services rendered, his miserable little soul is forfeit to Leuchtentrager, and he is found with his head twisted backward, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, and his eyes staring in horror. In one of the sixteenth-century Faustbooks, Faust’s head has been twisted back to front. Moreover, Heym introduces a female demon to stir but not assuage Eitzen’s lust; Margriet, as she is called, is ostensibly Leuchtentrager’s housemaid and prefers a young Jew whose hands wander all over her body. Rude knockabout comedy carries theological overtones: souls are laughed at, but souls are in peril. Finally Margriet turns into a scarecrow made of a bundle of straw and a feather duster.
Such a demon appears in the Faustbooks, and also in Marlowe’s play as “a Devil drest like a Woman, with fireworks,” i.e., “a hot whore.” The name “Margriet” is bound to remind us of Faust’s “Gretchen”; and other possible sources of inspiration (a quality in which Heym himself is not lacking) are Goethe’s “Prologue in Heaven,” where Mephistopheles jokingly bemoans the sorry condition of mankind and swears to reduce Faust to eating dust “like my cousin, the well-known snake,” and even Leverkühn’s seedy visitor in Chapter 25 of Mann’s Doctor Faustus, who has come “to talk over our affairs” and describes himself as by now the sole custodian of things religious.
As if all this were not riches enough, Heym interlards the story with a sustained correspondence on the legend of the Wandering Jew, dated 1979/80, between a Professor Beifuss of the Institute for Scientific Atheism in East Berlin and a Professor Jochanaan Leuchtentrager of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, both of them in their different ways specialists in the subject. The Israeli professor is actually acquainted with a Mr. Ahasverus, and sends Beifuss a snapshot of him outside his shoe store on the Via Dolorosa: “The person portrayed indubitably is a man of character, intelligent and—if you will look at his mouth and eyes—with a good sense of humor.” “On principle,” the German professor replies, “I should like to state that we in the German Democratic Republic do not believe in any kind of miracles, just as we do not believe in spirits, ghosts, angels, or devils.” To accept the longevity of Mr. Ahasverus would be tantamount to believing in Christ knows what. In a fit of donnish jocularity he allows himself to smile at the idea of almost two thousand years of business carried out by the same proprietor at the same address: “What capitalist enterprise could claim for itself a record even approximating this one!”
Although the correspondence preserves the civility of tone (“Dear Colleague”) one would expect from scholars of integrity and international standing, the watchdog at the Ministry of Higher Education, GDR, advises Beifuss to concentrate on “the close interaction of religion and imperialist expansionism, particularly in relation to Israel,” and later warns him (an instance of Heym’s unobtrusive yet effective way of making connections) that he had better steer clear of the Lutheran aspect in view of the approaching Luther anniversary of 1983, “sponsored by the highest representatives of our state and party.” Beifuss confides to his Israeli confrere that his institute has promised a paper, to mark May Day, on an allied topic, “the reactionary character of the myth of the transmigration of the soul.” The soul itself is of course a myth, unlike the psyche, a function of the nervous system, which we know about through the endeavors of psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and psychotherapists.
Next the Israeli academic informs his opposite number in Berlin that Mr. Ahasverus has recently encountered Reb Joshua, the alleged Messiah, dragging himself along the Via Dolorosa—whereupon he invited him into his house for a drink of water and to have the wounds on his head cleaned. Professor Beifuss will understand his correspondent’s happiness, Leuchtentrager writes, “at being able to have just such a Marxist skeptic as yourself as the first person to be informed by me of so astonishing and cataclysmic an occurrence as the second coming of Christ, even though, for the present, it is confirmed only by one source.” Professor Leuchtentrager promises that Mr. Ahasverus and he will visit East Berlin shortly for a fruitful exchange of views. But Beifuss points out tactfully that while Leuchtentrager, seemingly a champion of law and order, might conceivably be allowed in, there is no chance of his friend qualifying for an entry visa. Somehow the man reminds him of Trotsky.
Despite this—if I may run impatiently ahead—the two of them, later identified as secret agents specializing in “ideological penetration,” show up on New Year’s Eve and make off with Beifuss through a hole inexplicably blown in the wall of his eighth-floor apartment. Two policemen, subsequently disciplined for drinking while on duty, report having seen three shapes in the air, two of them with fiery tails (jet-engine exhausts?) and the third, in the middle, hauled along by the other two. So much for that fruitful exchange of views.
The best fantasy always has its roots in reality, like dreams, like nightmares, but to modulate from fantasy into reality is always a tricky task. Ha, we think, now we are being manipulated! We think that when Mr. Ahasverus has a conversation with Reb Joshua in 1980 and the Rabbi talks of Armageddon as a matter of nuclear submarines and intercontinental missiles:
In his lust for power, paired with fear of his own kind, man had made a grab for the forces of the universe, but without being able to control or regulate these; thus Adam himself, once made in the image of God, had turned into the beast with the seven heads and the ten horns, the alldestroyer, the antichrist.
There needs no ghost, holy or otherwise, come from the tomb to tell us this. But Heym is trickier even than the subjects he sets himself, and the book ends with a touching coda—though for us mortals an ambiguously consoling one. Encouraged by Ahasverus, Reb Joshua ousts his fainéant father, old and feeble, and announces the creation of a new heaven and a new earth where love and justice rule and the wolf shall lie down with the lamb. Armageddon is fought, and the old earth is destroyed. Then the father reappears, transformed into a giant, and reminds the Rabbi that “your image is also my image because you cannot be seen separate from me, as no man can.” To the echoing laughter of the angel Lucifer, the great champion of law and order, and in a repetition of the fall with which the book began, Ahasverus and the Rabbi merge lovingly into one and, becoming one with God, into “one image, one great thought, one dream.”
Beer and onions, bums and breasts, metaphysics and damnation, slapstick and horror…. This is the matter in which the German genius is most at home. Stefan Heym has surpassed himself here, sustaining his imagination and maintaining our engagement with it; and by force of wit holding in check what might be thought—or are we merely jealous of the love that exists between angels?—a drift toward sentimentality. Heym, who lives in East Berlin, spent some twenty years in the United States and writes English with brio and apparent ease; he has a weakness for the progressive form—“I am still seeing the Rabbi’s face growing pale”—though such minor eccentricities may be supposed appropriate to the story’s time and indeed its timelessness.
A writer-character in Heym’s previous novel, Collin, gave as his reason for staying in East Germany the opportunities provided for observing so much that is contradictory. And Heym has remarked in propria persona that East Berlin is a fascinating place for a writer to live in because “there are a lot of contradictions.” It is perhaps no contradiction that The Wandering Jew is unpublishable in the author’s country. Its meaning, or part at least of the fable’s meaning, present in Ahasverus’s conviction that man is free to make changes and redemption requires revolution, may appeal to the authorities. But, even if the story’s Manichaean implications are glossed over, Heym’s metaphors are likely to appall them. He arrives at what might just be considered sound doctrine via distinctly unscientific means. And, what is worse, while his narrative is full of vigorous disputatio, its use of dialectics smacks of the sterile formalistic device known as parody. It occurs to us that the Devil cited scripture when, in tempting Leverkühn, he dismissed parody as a form of aristocratic nihilism generating little profit.
April 26, 1984