Born to a Jewish family in Düsseldorf in 1797, Heinrich Heine attended university, became part of a scholarly circle that founded the academic discipline of Jewish studies, converted to Lutheranism (obtaining, in his own words, a “passport to European civilization”), and lived for most of his life in Paris, where he earned his reputation as one of the greatest poets in the German language. Reviewing a new biography of the poet by George Prochnik, along with a new translation of Heine’s Hebrew Melodies—a cycle of Jewish-themed poems—Neil Arditi notes that “no biography of Heine could possibly satisfy the demands of every Heine reader. Arditi writes:
Heine is a particularly challenging subject for biographical study. A satirical sharpshooter whose own coordinates shifted with the occasion, he viciously skewered others for the character flaws he shared with them. There was something fundamentally performative about his personality. . . . The mask never came off unless to make way for a new mask, a new persona.
In France, Heine had held his Jewish heritage at arm’s length, casting himself as a “Hellenist”—a follower of Dionysus—and espousing a libertinism that was either feigned or largely hidden from view. In the opposing camp—“the Nazarenes”—he conveniently lumped together Jews and Christians alike, disowning both.
Yet something changed during Heine’s last eight years, which he spent bedridden and semi-paralyzed after collapsing at the Louvre in front of the Venus de Milo.
[S]uffering, he now suggested, had stripped him down to his tragic and irreducible identity as a Jew. “I am no longer a divine biped,” he announced in the Augsburg Gazette in 1849, one year into his long-drawn-out deathbed ordeal. “All I am now is a poor Jew sick unto death, an emaciated image of wretchedness, an unhappy man.” To the astonishment and horror of his former friend Karl Marx, it soon became apparent that Heine had also embraced the idea of a personal God, more or less modeled on the God of his fathers.
Was Heine’s “return to God” sincere? The question is impossibly vexed by his genius for irony, which never abandoned him. Even his illness is presented as a joke orchestrated by the Divine Comedian—a creator made in his own image. Heine dubbed him “the Great Aristophanes of Heaven.” If His joke made Heine wince, he could at least admire its superior wit. “Alas, God’s mockery weighs heavily upon me,” he wrote near the end of his Confessions. “How miserably I trail behind Him when it comes to humor, to jesting, on a colossal scale!”
Read more on Jewish Review of Books: https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/jewish-history/11059/dionysus-and-the-schlemiel/