Issue 206, Fall 2013
Along with Goethe, Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) was the most famous German literary figure of the nineteenth century. He was known not for his novels (he didn’t publish any) or his drama (his plays were never much produced) or his thinking (it was deliberately unsystematic) but for his lyric poetry and for the characteristic wit and irony of his reportage and travel writing and polemics. His countrymen could all quote his witticisms (e.g., “The more I get to know people, the more I like dogs”) and recite his poems (an extraordinary number of them were set to music), and his style and attitudes made him an attractive figure internationally. Although he had some of Norman Mailer’s pugnacity and political ambition and talent for self-advertisement, and some of Mark Twain’s quotability, his posthumous reputation probably bears better comparison with a figure like Bob Dylan’s than with that of any writer. To his many admirers, especially in France, Heine’s flight in 1831 from German repression to Parisian “exile” was a moment of iconic significance akin to Dylan’s switch to electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Like Dylan, Heine was a Jew who converted to Christianity (for Heine, it was an early and humiliating career exigency), but in the eyes of his readers he remained distinctively a Jew, and the reader of this essay should keep in mind that Karl Kraus’s attempted demolition of Heine’s reputation was not simply an assault on a pop hero of Dylanesque stature but a salvo in the cultural wars of anti-Semitism and Zionism that were raging in Germany and Austria at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The non-German-speaking reader may want to know that “Heine” rhymes with “mynah.”
Karl Kraus (1874–1936) was an Austrian satirist and a central figure in fin de siècle Vienna’s famously rich life of the mind. From 1899 until his death, Kraus edited and published the influential magazine Die Fackel (The Torch); from 1911 onward, he was also the magazine’s sole author. Although Kraus would probably have hated blogs, Die Fackel was like a blog that pretty much everybody who mattered in the German-speaking world, from Freud to Kafka to Walter Benjamin, found it necessary to read and have an attitude toward. In Kraus’s many aphorisms, he was no less quotable than Heine—“To be sure, a dog is loyal. But why should that make it an example for us? It’s loyal to man, not to other dogs”—and at the height of his popularity he drew thousands to his public readings.
The following pages are from Kraus’s essay/polemic/satire/manifesto “Heine and the Consequences,” which appeared in Die Fackel in 1910 and which, like much of Kraus’s best work, has hitherto frightened off English translators. In the footnotes to my translation, I have tried to elucidate his topical and literary references, to offer some shortcuts to deciphering his sentences, and to explain why his work has meant so much to me. For now, let me just make a small plea for patience with Kraus’s prose. He’s hard to read in German, too—deliberately hard. He was the scourge of throwaway journalism and a stickler for the interpenetration of form and content, and to his followers (he had a cultlike following) his dense and intricately coded style formed an agreeable barrier to entry; it kept the uninitiated out. Kraus himself remarked of the critic and playwright Hermann Bahr, whom he’ll be attacking here, “If he understands one sentence of the essay, I’ll retract the entire thing.” When I first read Kraus, I was completely baffled by a lot of his sentences. But as I reread him and began to figure out what he was up to, the sentences suddenly popped into clear focus, one after another, until eventually I could understand almost all of them; it was like learning a foreign language.
And Kraus is foreign, more so than any of those contemporaries of his who are better known today, because his work was so particularly tied to his own time and place—to long-forgotten controversies, to rivals now obscure, to newspapers and literary works that only scholars read anymore. And yet, paradoxically, and frustratingly, Kraus has more to say to us in our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment than any of his more accessible contemporaries now do. He himself was well aware of the paradox: he was a far-seeing prophet whose work was always focused on what was right in front of him. He was, very consciously, speaking to us.
Two strains of intellectual vulgarity: defenselessness against content and defenselessness against form. The one experiences only the material side of art. It is of German origin. The other experiences even the rawest of materials artistically. It is of Romance origin. To the one, art is an instrument; to the other, life is an ornament. In which hell would the artist prefer to fry? He’d surely still rather live among the Germans. For although they’ve strapped art into the Procrustean folding bed of their commerce, they’ve also made life sober, and this is a blessing: fantasy thrives, and every man can put his own light in the barren window frames. Just spare me the pretty ribbons! Spare me this good taste that over there and down there delights the eye and irritates the imagination. Spare me this melody of life that disturbs my own music, which comes into its own only in the roaring of the German workday. Spare me this universal higher level of refinement from which it’s so easy to observe that the newspaper seller in Paris has more charm than the Prussian publisher. Believe me, you color-happy people, in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads. And spare me this mediocre chicanery in place of one’s own stupidity! Spare me the picturesque moil on the rind of an old Gorgonzola in place of the dependable white monotony of cream cheese! Life is hard to digest both here and there. But the Romance diet beautifies the spoilage; you swallow the bait and go belly-up. The German regimen spoils beauty and puts us to the test: How do we re-create it? Romance culture makes everyman a poet. Art’s a piece of cake there. And Heaven a hell.
Heinrich Heine, however, has brought the Germans tidings of this Heaven, to which their heart is drawn with a longing that has to rhyme someplace and that leads in subterranean passages directly from the countinghouse to the Blue Grotto. And on a byway that German men avoid: from chopped liver to the blue flower. It was inevitable that the one with their longing and the other with their longings would consider Heinrich Heine the Fulfiller. Tuned by a culture for which the mere material of daily life suffices as a complete artistic experience, Heine provides mood music for a culture whose experience of art begins and ends with the attractions of its content. His writing works from the Romance feel for life into the German conception of art. In this configuration it offers the utile dulci, it ornaments German functionality with French spirit. And so, in this easy-to-read juxtaposition of form and content, in which there is no discord and no unity, it becomes the great legacy from which journalism continues to live to this very day, a dangerous mediator between art and life, a parasite on both, a singer where it should only be a messenger, filing reports where a song would be in order, its eye too fixed on its goal to see the burning color, blinded to all goals by its pleasure in the picturesque, the bane of literary utility, the spirit of utiliterature. Instrument made into ornament, and so badly degenerated that even the current mania for decorating consumer goods can scarcely keep up with the progress of applied art in the daily press; because at least we have yet to hear that the Wiener Werkstätte is manufacturing burglary tools. And even in the style of the most up-to-the-minute impressionistic journalism, the Heinean model does not disqualify itself. Without Heine, no feuilleton. This is the French disease he smuggled in to us. How easy it is to get sick in Paris! How lax the morality of the German feel for language becomes! The French language lets every filou have his way with her. You have to prove yourself a man in full before the German language will give you the time of day, and that’s only the beginning of the trouble you’re in for. With French, though, everything goes smoothly, with that perfect lack of inhibition which is perfection in a woman and a lack in a language. And the Jacob’s ladder that leads to her is a climax you’ll find in the German dictionary: Geschmeichel, Geschmeide, geschmeidig, Geschmeiss. Anybody and everybody can procure her services for the feuilleton. She’s a lazy Susan of the mind. The most well-grounded head isn’t safe from flashes of inspiration when it deals with her. We get everything from languages because they contain everything that can become thought. Language arouses and stimulates, like a woman, brings joy and, with it, thought. The German language, however, is a companion who will think and make poetry only for the man who can give her children. You wouldn’t want to be married like this to any German housewife. And yet the woman of Paris need say nothing except, at the crucial moment, trés jolie, and you’ll believe anything of her. Her mind is in her face. And if her partner had beauty in his brain as well, Romance life would not be merely trés jolie but fecund, ringed not by bibelots and dainties but by deeds and monuments.
If they say of a German author that he must have learned a lot from the French, this is the highest praise only if it isn’t true. For it means: he’s indebted to the German language for what the French gives to everybody. People here are still being linguistically creative when people over there are already playing with the children, who came blowing in, nobody knows how. But ever since Heinrich Heine imported the trick, it’s been purely an exercise in diligence if a German feuilletonist goes to Paris to fetch himself some talent. If somebody nowadays actually goes to Rhodes because people dance better there, he is truly an excessively conscientious swindler. That was still necessary in Heine’s day. You’d been to Rhodes, and back here people believed that you could dance. Today they’ll believe that a cripple who has never left Vienna can dance the cancan, and many a person who didn’t use to have a single good finger now plays the viola. The profitable return on distance from the reader should never be underestimated, and foreign milieus continue to be what gets taken for art. People are very talented in the jungle, and talent begins in the East around the time you reach Bucharest. The writer who knocks the dust off foreign costumes is getting at the fascination of the material in the most convenient way imaginable. And so a reader with a brain has the strongest distrust imaginable of storytellers who knock about in foreign milieus. The best-case scenario continues to be that they weren’t there; but most of them are unfortunately so constituted that they actually have to take a trip in order to tell a story. Of course, to have spent two years in Paris isn’t merely the advantage of such Habakkuks, it’s their definition. They strew the drifting sand of French, which finds its way into the pockets of every dolt, into the eyes of German readers. And let the inverse of an epigram of Nestroy, of this true satirical thinker, apply to them: things go well enough from Paris to St. Pölten, but from there to Vienna the road gets very long! (If the local swindlers don’t make a killing of their own along this stretch.) Now, with Paris, not only the content was acquired but the form as well. The form, though—this form that is only an envelope for the content, not the content itself; is merely dress for the body, not flesh to the spirit—this form only had to be discovered once for it to be there for all time. Heinrich Heine took care of that, and thanks to him our gentlemen no longer need betake themselves to Paris. You can write feuilletons today without having personally sniffed your way to the Champs-Élysées. The great trick of linguistic fraud, which in Germany pays far better than the greatest achievement of linguistic creativity, keeps working in generation after generation of newspapers, furnishing casual readers everywhere with the most agreeable of excuses for avoiding literature. Talent flutters aimlessly in the world and gives sweet nourishment to the philistine’s hatred of genius. Writing feuilletons means twining curls on a bald head; but these curls please the public better than a lion’s mane of thoughts. Esprit and charm, which presumably were necessary in developing the trick and becoming adept at it, are now passed on by it automatically. With an easy hand, Heine pushed open the door to this dreadful development, and the magician who brought talent within reach of the unendowed surely himself doesn’t stand all that far above the development . . .
The trick keeps working. Paralleling the kitschification of practical life via ornament, as traced by the good American Adolf Loos, is an interlarding of journalism with intellectual elements, but here the resulting confusion is even more catastrophic. Instead of draining the press intellectually and restoring to literature the juices that were “extracted” from it—extorted from it—the progressive world proceeds ever afresh with the renovation of its intellectual decorations. The literary ornament doesn’t get demolished, it gets modernized in the Wiener Werkstätten of the mind. Feuilleton, mood reporting, fluff pieces—the motto “Feather Thy Nest” brings the poetic flourish, too, into the homes of the masses. And nothing is more important to journalism than restoring the gloss, again and again, to the glaze of corruption. The more it adds to the profiteer’s intellectual and material wealth, the greater its need to cloak its ill intentions pleasingly. In this, the Mind itself lends a hand, sacrificing itself, as does the spirit that was stolen from the Mind. A Sunday edition’s catch can no longer take place without dangling the highest of literary values as bait, the “Economist” no longer goes in for robbery unless the surviving representatives of culture act as lookouts. But far more disgraceful than literature’s marching in the triumph of this pillage, far more dangerous than this attachement of intellectual authority to the villainy, is the villainy’s interlarding, its gilding, with the Mind, which it has siphoned off from literature and which it drags along through the local pages and all the other latrines of public opinion. The press as a social institution—since it’s simply unavoidable that the dearth of imagination get filled up with facts—would have its place in the progressive order. But what does the news that it rained in Hong Kong have to do with the Mind? And why does an arranged stock-market catastrophe or a small extortion or even just the unpaid suppression of a fact demand the entire grand apparatus, on which academics don’t shy from collaborating and for which even aesthetes offer a taste of the sweat of their feet? That train stations or public toilets, works of utility and necessity, are cluttered up with decorative junk is tolerable. But why are thieves’ dens fitted out by van de Velde? Only because their purpose would otherwise be obvious at a glance and passersby would not willingly have their pockets turned inside out twice a day. Curiosity is always stronger than caution, and so the chicanery dolls itself up in tassels and lace.
It owes its best advantage to that Heinrich Heine who so loosened the corset on the German language that today every salesclerk can finger her breasts. What’s ghastly about the spectacle is the sameness of these talents, which are all as alike as rotten eggs. Today’s impressionistic errand boys no longer report the breaking of a leg without the mood and no burning of a building without the personal note that they all have in common. When the one describes the German kaiser, he does it exactly the same way the other describes the mayor of Vienna, and the other can’t think of anything to say about wrestlers except what the one has to say about swimming in a river. Everything suits everything always, and the inability to find old words counts as subtlety when the new words already suit everything. This type is either an observer who, in opulent adjectives, amply compensates for what Nature denied him in nouns, or an aesthete who makes himself conspicuous with his love of color and his sense of nuance and still manages to perceive things in the world around him as deeply as dirt goes under a fingernail. And they all have a tone of discovery, as if the world had only just now been created, when God made the Sunday feuilleton and saw that it was good. The first time these young people go to a public bath is when they’re sent in as reporters. This may be an experience. But they generalize it. The method for depicting a Livingstone in darkest Leopoldstadt is obviously of great help to the impoverished Viennese imagination. For it cannot imagine the breaking of a leg unless the leg is described to it. In Berlin, despite foul ambitions, the situation is not so grave. If a streetcar accident occurs there, the Berlin reporters describe the accident. They single out what is exceptional about this streetcar accident and spare the reader what is common to all streetcar accidents. If a streetcar mishap occurs in Vienna, the gentlemen write about the nature of streetcars, about the nature of streetcar mishaps, and about the nature of mishaps in general, with the perspective: What is man? . . . As to the number killed, which might possibly still interest us, opinions differ unless a news agency settles the question. But the mood, all of them capture the mood; and the reporter, who could make himself useful as a rubbish collector for the world of facts, always comes running with a shred of poesy that he grabbed somewhere in the crowd. This one sees green, that one sees yellow—every one of them sees color.
Ultimately, all amalgamation of the intellectual with the informational, this axiom of journalism, this pretext for its plans, this excuse for its dangers, is and was thoroughly Heinean—be it now also, thanks to the more recent Frenchmen and to the friendly agency of Herr Bahr, somewhat psychologically inclined and garnished with yet a bit more “meditativeness.” Only once was there a pause in this development—its name was Ludwig Speidel. In him, the art of language was a guest at the greasiest dives of the Mind. The press may feel that Speidel’s life was an episode that cut disruptively into the game begun by Heine. And yet he seemed to side with the incarnate spirit of language, summoning it on holidays to the filthiest entertainment places, so that it could see the goings-on. Never was a colleague more dubious than this one. They could parade the living man around all right. But how long they resisted giving the dead man the honor of a book! How they sensed that a complete edition here could bring that humiliation which they once imbibed by the spoonful as pride. When they finally decided to let the “associate” into literature, Herr Schmock had the cheek to undertake the commentary, and the hand of the editor, making things cute and topical, saved for the Viennese viewpoint as much as could be saved by a grouping of Speidelian prose around the Viennese viewpoint. An artist wrote these feuilletons, a feuilletonist compiled these works of art—the distance between Mind and press becomes doubly appreciable thereby. The journalists were right to hesitate so long. They weren’t idle in the meantime. People yearned for Speidel’s books—the journalists invoked his modesty and gave us their own books. For it is the evil mark of this crisis: journalism, which drives great minds into its stable, is meanwhile overrunning their pasture. It has plundered literature—it’s generous and gives its own literature to literature. There appear feuilleton collections about which there’s nothing so remarkable as that the work hasn’t fallen apart in the bookbinder’s hands. Bread is being made out of bread crumbs. What is it that continues to give them hope? The continuing interest in the subjects they select. If one of them chatters about eternity, shouldn’t he be heard for as long as eternity lasts? Journalism lives on this fallacy. It always has the grandest themes, and in its hands eternity can become timely; but it gets old just as easily. The artist gives form to the day, the hour, the minute. No matter how limited and conditional in time and location his inspiration may have been, his work grows the more limitlessly and freely the further it’s removed from its inspiration. It goes confidently out of date in a heartbeat: it grows fresh again over decades. What lives on material dies before it does. What lives in language lives on with it. How easy it was to read the chitchat every Sunday, and now that we can check it out of the library we can barely get through it. How hard it was to read the sentences in Die Fackel, even when we were helped by the incident they referred to. No, because we were helped by it! The further we’re removed from the incident, the better we understand what was said about it. How does this happen? The incident was close and the perspective was broad. It was all forewritten. It was veiled so that the inquisitive day couldn’t get at it. Now the veils are rising . . .
But Heinrich Heine—even the aesthetes who are rescuing his immortality in an island publishing house (these gloriously impractical minds whose cerebral wrinkles trail away into ornament) have nothing more impressive to say about him than that his reports from Paris “have become the still-vital masterwork of modern journalism”; and these Robinsons of literary seclusion take Heine’s artistic word for it that his articles “would be very useful in developing a style for popular themes.” Here again you can sense the kinship of those who reside equally far from the Mind: those who live in form and those who live in content; who think in the line and who think in the surface; the aesthetes and the journalists. In the problem of Heine they collide. They live on off him and he in them. So it’s by no means urgent to talk about his work. What is increasingly urgent is to talk about his influence, and about the fact that his work isn’t capable of bearing up under an influence that German intellectual life will little by little cast off as unbearable. This is the way it will play out: each follower of Heine takes one tile from the mosaic of his work, until no more remain. The original fades because the repellent glare of the copy opens our eyes. Here’s an original that loses what it lends to others. And can you even call something an original when its imitators are better? Naturally, to appreciate an invention that has since perfected itself into a modern machine, you have to apply historical justice. But in making an absolute judgment, don’t you have to concede that Heinrich Heine’s prose has now been surpassed by the observationally inclined technicians, the style boys, and the swindlers of charm? That this prose, which signifies wit without perspective and perspectives without wit, was quite certainly surpassed by those feuilletonists who not only read Heine but took extra pains to go to the source of sources—to Paris? And that there have since appeared imitators of his poetry who manage the feelings and the newsman’s wrinkle of disdain no less glibly, and who in particular are no less deft in making the little joke of the little melancholy, which the hurdy-gurdy verse helps so nimbly to its feet. Because, after all, nothing is easier to outfit with every modern convenience than a lyrical arrangement. It’s true that nobody would dare compare himself to Heine in the extent of his output and the scope of his intellectual interests. But today every Itzak Wisecrack can probably outdo him when it comes to making an aesthetic anesthetic and using rhyme and rhythm to turn candied husks of thought into cherry bombs.
Heinrich Heine the poet lives only as a canned youthful sweetheart. None is in greater need of reassessment than this one. Youth soaks up everything, and it’s cruel to take many things away from it later. How easily the soul of youth is impregnated, how easily things that are easy and slack attach themselves to it: how worthless a thing has to be for its memory not to be made precious by the time and circumstances of its acquisition! You’re not critical, you’re pious when you love Heine. You’re not critical, you’re blasphemous when you try to talk somebody who grew up with Heine out of his Heine. An assault on Heine is an invasion of everyman’s private life. It injures reverence for youth, respect for boyhood, veneration of childhood. To presume to judge first-born impressions according to their merit is worse than presumptuous. And Heine had a talent for being embraced by young souls and thus associated with young experiences. Like rating the melody of a hurdy-gurdy, to which I was unstoppably drawn, above Beethoven’s Ninth, due to a subjective urge. This is why grown-ups don’t have to put up with anyone who wants to dispute their belief that Heine is a greater poet than Goethe. Yes, it’s on the luck of association that Heinrich Heine lives. Am I so relentlessly objective as to say to someone, Go, look, the peach tree in the garden of your childhood is quite a bit smaller than it used to be. He had the measles, he had Heine, and he gets hot in recollecting every fever of youth. Criticism should stay quiet here. No author needs reassessment as badly as Heine, no one bears up under it so poorly, no one is so protected from it by every fond illusion. But I have the courage to recommend it only because I’m hardly in need of it myself, because I failed to experience Heine at a time when I would have had to overrate him. There comes a day where it’s no concern of mine that a gentleman who has long since become a banker once crept to his beloved under the strains of “You have diamonds and pearls.” And where you become rude at the sight of old brains still being affected by the charm with which this tearful materiality once captivated young hearts, and the syrup of sentimental moods adheres to literary judgments. When you get right down to it, the hankerings of youth could have been satisfied even by Herr Hugo Salus. I don’t fancy myself guiltless of giving a bit of culture the benefit of the situation in which I experienced it, or of confusing it with the attendant mood. I retain a warm glow from Heine’s Berlin letters, for example, because the melody “We wind for you a bridal wreath,” which Heine makes fun of there, is congenial to me. But only in my nerves. In my judgment, I am mature and willing to distinguish merits. The memory of how the garden smelled when your first love walked through it is of general concern to the culture only if you’re a poet. You’re free to overvalue the occasion if you’re capable of making a poem out of it. When, once, in a booth at the Prater, I saw a lady in tights floating in the air (which I now know was done with mirrors), and a hurdy-gurdy was accompanying her with “Last Rose,” my eyes were opened to beauty and my ears to music, and I would have ripped to shreds the man who told me that the lady was waltzing around on a plank and the tune was by Flotow. In criticism, though, unless you’re speaking to children, you have to be allowed to call Heine by his true name.
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What does the lonely tear want? What does a humor want which smiles through tears because both the strength to cry and the strength to laugh are lacking? But the “brilliance of language” isn’t lacking, and it runs in the family. And it’s uncanny how few people notice that it comes from chopped liver, and how many have spread it all over their household bread. Their noses are stuffed, their eyes are blind, but their ears are wide open to every hit song. And so, thanks to Heine, the feuilleton has evolved to the highest level of perfection. There’s nothing to be done with an original, but copies can always be improved. When the imitators of Heine began to fear that somebody would expose them, all they had to do was become forgers of Heine, and they could go into mass production under his name. They take up a lot of space in the literature of Heine. But the experts who succeeded in exposing the fraud aren’t expert enough to realize that to expose the thief is to have exposed the owner. He himself broke into the house with a skeleton key, leaving the door open behind him. He set a bad example for his successors. He taught them the trick. And the farther the trick spread, the more delicious it became. Thus the pieties of journalism demand that every editorial masthead today include at least a bedbug from Heine’s “mattress grave.” Every Sunday, it creeps flatly through the columns and stinks the art out of our noses! But to be tricked out of a real life in this way is entertaining to us. In times that had time, art gave us one to resolve. In times that have the Times, form and content are split apart for faster understanding. Because we have no time, writers are obliged to say in many words what could have been succinctly put. So Heine really is the forerunner of modern nervous systems, praised by artists who fail to notice that the philistines have tolerated him a lot better than he tolerated philistines. For the philistines relent in their hatred of Heine when they take his poetry into account, while the artists take Heine’s hatred of philistines into account in order to rescue his personality. And so, by means of a misunderstanding that never gets old, he vindicates the pretty coinage “cosmopolite,” in which the cosmos reconciled itself to politics. Detlev von Liliencron had a merely provincial outlook. But it seems to me that he was more cosmic in Schleswig-Holstein than Heine was in the cosmos. In the end, the people who never came out of their province will go farther than the people who never came into one.