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Heine and the Battle of the Gods


Below I have posted an original translation of Heine’s poem “Die Götter Griechenlands,” taken from the North Sea cycle of the Buch der Lieder. It’s not one of Heine’s better known poems; it’s not even the best known poem bearing the title “Die Götter Griechenlands”—that distinction lies with Friedrich Schiller’s poem from 1783—with which this poem stands in a curious dialogue. But it’s an underappreciated work of genius that reveals a great deal about Heine’s attitude towards the society in which he lived, its weaknesses and failure to reach for transcendent values. This poem also contains the essence of the great critique that Nietzsche spun of Middle European culture in the nineteenth century; indeed it is strikingly like Nietzsche in approach, conceptualization and criticism—so much so, that I can’t imagine that Nietzsche didn’t know it or work under its influence. And all of that is presented in the context of musings on gazing into a bank of clouds, in a garb at once romantic and ironic.

We should start with the notion of conservatism. Heine is seen as a revolutionary, a left-leaning figure who was a model for those who rose in 1848, who sought an end to the world of petty principalities, narrow-mindedness and oppression that characterized the core of the European continent. But there is also a profoundly conservative aspect to Heine and his writing. All real conservatism begins with a sense of loss. And that is the essence of this poem: a sense of cultural dissipation, of the passing of an age—not truly a Golden Age, but an society which was in some ways superior for humankind. It is also fundamentally an anti-reactionary conservatism. That requires some drawing out.


At the core of this work is a critique of Christianity in a sense, but ultimately it’s really a critique of the efforts to wield Christianity as a reactionary political movement. In America today we have the Religious Right. On the continent in the first half of the nineteenth century a movement of political romanticism arose which sought to raise Christianity and the Christian Middle Ages as an ideal—as a great lost time. This movement was largely, though not exclusively, Roman Catholic, and committed to the preservation of a “natural social structure” in which government was led by a monarch, society was led by an aristocracy and the Church was a natural adjunct to the state. It was, in sum, a forceful abnegation of the values of the Enlightenment. We could take Chateaubriand as a representative of the artistic side of this movement in France or Novalis in Germany, and for the political manifestation perhaps DeMaistre and Kotzebue or Metternich.

Heine, as a converted (well, perhaps not so thoroughly converted) Jew, viewed this movement with justified suspicion. There were some impressive figures in the movement, but there were also a good many riffraff in the baggage train. In particular, the Romanticists also incorporated and reinforced racially-tinged nationalists, the “Deutschtümlers,” who had a habit of vilifying all groups on the periphery of society—and the Jews with particular gusto. (In the fourth book of Ludwig Börne – Eine Denkschrift, for instance, Heine divides the German-speaking world into two essential camps: the liberals who have embraced a fundamentally progressive vision built on an ideal of human freedom, and the romanticists who stand by the reactionary state structures–dark buffoons, Deutschtümler he calls them.) In this poem Heine presents the conservative challenge to the right: he offers the image of classical antiquity as an answer to their vision of medieval Christianity.

But what does Heine tells us about the Gods of Greece? It’s not coincidental that they appear in a bank of clouds. For Heine, they are not “real” in a sense, they are the inventions of fantasy. But significantly, they are inventions that reach deeply into the essence of humankind and are poised to help humanity reach a vital level of cheer and aspiration notwithstanding the essentially tragic nature of human existence. At the outset, Heine is reaching into Schiller’s portrait and poem; he recapitulates its essence. The Greek gods are given a distinctly human aspect – they reflect human failings. So Zeus is fond of boys and nymphs as well as hecatombs, which, incidentally, refers to animals offered in ritual sacrifice to a god. Hera is marked by jealousy (and here is shown as ceding her office to the Virgin Mary). Aphrodite is the goddess of the voluptuousness, sensuality and love, and so forth. As Schiller wrote, the Greeks portray their gods as nothing more than more noble humans, and they do this with an object: to propel humankind towards this essential nobility (Da die Götter menschlicher noch waren,/Waren Menschen göttlicher).

Heine carries all of this forward in his poem, but he is sharper and more daring than Schiller in the criticism of Christianity. This can be explained in several ways. First, the politically reactionary essence of at least an aspect of German Romanticism was not nearly so evident when Schiller wrote as it was forty years later when Heine was engaged with the Buch der Lieder. Schiller was actually quite skilled at keeping the Romanticists at bay, leaving them with false hopes that he had embraced their perspective (his play about Jeanne d’Arc, Die Jungfrau von Orleans quite brilliantly served that end – it was an adept Enlightenment message packaged as a Catholic folk heroine, one of Schiller’s masterworks). But Heine, as a not-quite-really-converted Jew has the unmistakable perspective of an outsider, indeed one who knows he bears the mark of “enemy.” And second there is that very issue of Heine’s Jewishness. His own culture is more ancient still, and more precious. And this is why he does not love the Gods of Greece, he merely thinks them preferable to the Christianity that the Right wants to put in its place.

The second significant element of this poem is what I will call its proto-Nietzschean perspective. If we take the bird’s eye view of Nietzsche’s intellectual progress, one of the key paths that unfolds is a criticism of Christianity drawn from a remarkably deep and subtle appreciation of the religious thinking and philosophy of Greek antiquity. And that is the same essential path taken by this poem.

For Nietzsche, the Greek gods were to be understood as a sort of anthropological typology, not really as deities in the sense in which Christians, Muslims or Jews would understand the concept of God. This vision appears at the start of his creative life with Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik. Nietzsche’s powerful juxtaposition of the Apollonian and Dionysian forces tells us that the gods exist to expose, to manifest unseen forces of the process of life–the secret forces of nature. How does one maintain and extend life? How does one draw the most benefit from it? How does humankind protect itself from the destructive and the self-destructive forces of nature?

For the Greeks the aesthetic values were key; a notion of beauty, the gift of art. For the Christians, the sensuous was condemned, notions of beauty suspect, a rigorously moral monotheism came in its place, and magic was drained from the world. And for the “modern world,” to extend the Nietzschean critique with Heidegger’s, the old god is dead and a new one arrives in the form of scientific wisdom—the old moral order is trashed, but a dangerous vacuum arrives in its place.

But there is a point along this line where Heine’s critique stops and Nietzsche’s passes on. Heine’s criticism of Christianity is different from Nietzsche’s. It’s the same on some fundamental points. For instance, Heine calls it a religion of the weak (it does not always side with the victorious, as he says, Christianity seems to have a strange preference for the weak and downtrodden), and he’s afraid of its rejection of reason. Heine’s view is not a total rejection of Christianity, for indeed, he seems taken with many aspects of his new religion and its moral vision. But he is deeply troubled by the attempts to manipulate religious sentiment as the basis for a political perspective which affirms tyrannical authority and seems remarkably remote from the Christian commitment of service to the poor and downtrodden. This he sees as a Christianity of cheap carnival tricks, not the genuine article.

And it’s worth a pause here to note that concern for justice as an abstract concept is a critical part of Heine’s vision in this poem. It appears in Pallas Athena, armed with a shield (not a sword) and her wisdom – Athena is the image of justice and of judicious reserve for the classical world. As the reaction sets in in Germany, and Heine and his progressive friends are increasingly forced to find haven where they can abroad (most frequently, in France, Britain and America), there was a sense that this new Romanticism with its elevation of a medieval notion of Church and State was rather hostile to fundamental notions of justice. (Incidentally, when Rahel Varnhagen writes of speaking Truth to power in the cause of Justice, and then drifts from God to “the gods,” as she does in her famous letter from September 1799 that I reproduced here this is exactly what she has in mind. Rahel was largely responsible for Heine’s early success as a poet and writer, and he dedicated the second edition of the Buch der Lieder to her.)

Heine’s poem breathes the air of Middle Europe in the 1820’s, but its concerns and vision have no clear limits with regards to time and space. And when I imagine America’s political and social troubles in 2007, somehow I find Heine’s thoughts scribbled 180 years ago to be very up to date. Look out your mind’s window today and tell me: are those Gods of Hellas not concerned about a society which has stumbled badly and forgotten the essential role that justice must play in our lives and in the life of any state fit to endure?

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