art saves

Jackson Pollock, Circle, c. 1938-41


Chronicle about the poet Heinrich Heine.

“The German language is a homeland even for those to whom folly and malice deny a homeland” (Heinrich Heine).

Allow me, reader, to write about a totally different topic – poetry, yes, poetry! Actually, about a certain poet. Is weird? Maybe it is, but I don't think so. There is a phrase by Nietzsche that deserves to be remembered: “Wir haben die Kunst, damit wir an der Wahrheit nicht zugrunde gehen”. (Art exists so that the truth does not destroy us.) We need it today more than ever. And realistic art, by the way, is a mistake from beginning to end.

But it wasn't about Nietzsche, who was also a poet, that I wanted to write today, but about another German poet – Heinrich Heine. In fact, a German Jew, from the first half of the 19th century, from the first generation of emancipated Jews, still very much persecuted, still very discriminated against. And in the next century, as we know, all this would get unbelievably worse.

Nietzsche certainly had Heine in mind when he wrote, tongue in cheek, to provoke the anti-Semites of his time, that the best possible mixture was between Germans and Jews. There are other notable examples – Marx, Freud, Einstein, Kafka (a Czech Jew, but who wrote in German and was part of the German cultural space), Rosa Luxemburgo, Hannah Arendt, Stefan Zweig, Otto Maria Carpeaux, Roberto Schwartz, among many. I am not here making a difference between German and Austrian Jews, for obvious reasons. I try to use “Jew” and “German” in a cultural rather than an ethnic-racial sense. Especially because, over the centuries, the Jews intermingled a lot with the different European peoples. And the Germans, in turn, including the Austrians, also mixed a lot with Celts and Latins, on the one hand, and Slavs and Hungarians, on the other. To find the celebrated “Aryan” purity, you have to look further north, to Scandinavia. There we found purer Germanic peoples, who bequeathed us, however, much less than the mixed Germans. But I close this parenthesis and return to Heine.

The day I met Heine never left my memory. Since the age of 17 I was a voracious reader of Nietzsche. I didn't understand much, but I loved it anyway. (I keep talking about Nietzsche, but come to Heine next.) Well then, Nietzsche held Heine in very high regard, even writing in his intellectual autobiography, Ecce Homo: “The highest concept of a poet was Heine who offered it to me. I search in vain in all the reigns of millennia for a song so sweet and passionate. He had that divine cruelty without which I cannot conceive of perfection. And how he handled the German! ”. These torn compliments piqued my curiosity.

In 1977, at the age of 22, I was studying in London and walking around the bookshops on Tottenham Court Road one day. (I can't believe I was 22 years old one day, a third of the age I am today!). I chanced upon a small book of poems by Heine (which I still have) and, opening it at random, found the following poem (which I know by heart to this day). I recite, first, the original because, as someone has already observed, poetry is by definition what escapes translation:

Herz, mein Herz, sei nicht beklommen,/Und ertrage dein Geschick./Neuer Frühling gibt zurück,/Was der Winter dir genommen.
Und wieviel ist dir geblieben!/Und wie schön ist noch die Welt!/Und, mein Herz, was dir gefällt,/Alles, alles darfst du lieben!

I translate like this:

Heart, my heart, do not be afflicted, / And bear your destiny / New spring will return / What winter has taken from you.
And how much you still have left!/And how beautiful the world is still!/And, my heart, whatever pleases you,/Everything, everything you can love!

It was love at first sight. I then became a voracious reader of Heine as well.

I open another small parenthesis. Before the reader thinks that I am making an exhibition of culture here, I want to frankly confess that my culture is very limited, but very much so. So, for example, I barely read Shakespeare (only the sonnets), almost nothing of Proust, only parts of the Divine Comedy, of Flaubert only Madame Bovary, of Zola only the open letter in defense of Dreyfus, almost nothing of Goethe and Schiller, nothing Vitor Hugo, no Saramago, no Castro Alves, no Drummond, no Guimarães Rosa. I can only dedicate myself to authors who arouse my affection and enthusiasm. Heine is among them.

Notice, reader, at the end of the poem transcribed above. When I first read it, standing up, in the Tottenham Court Road bookshop, the verse unconsciously led me to expect the verb “to have” at the close. Beautiful that the verb “to love” appeared instead, isn't it? I can't forget the emotion that closure produced in me 44 years ago!

Much of Heine's poetry is more suffering, hopeless. As the great literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki (another extraordinary Polish-born German Jew) noted, Heine "stylized his pain in order to bear it." Reich-Ranicki's observation, which I reread recently, was that he made me want to write this chronicle.

Heine stylised his pain in sparkling fashion. He ended a poem like this: Gut ist der Schlaf, der Tod ist besser – freilich/Das beste wäre, nie geboren sein. (Sleep is good, death is better – of course / It would be better never to be born.)

Another verse: Zwecklos ist mein Lied. Ja, zwecklos/Wie die Liebe, wie das Leben,/Wie der Schöpfer samt der Schöpfung! (Meaningless is my song. Yes, meaningless/Like love, like life/Like the creator and all his creation!)

Heine was a romantic, but a romantic defroqué, excommunicated, as noted by a French critic at the time. He distanced himself from the exaggerations and ridicule of romanticism. He was a fierce critic of the German Romantic school, in a controversial but justly celebrated book. An ambivalent romantic, and therefore more interesting.

In another poem, he uses the mythological figure of Atlas to write: Ich unglückselger Atlas, eine Welt, /Die ganze Welt der Schmerzen, muss ich tragen,/Ich trage Unerträglilches, und brechen/Will mir das Herz im Leibe.

Du stolzes Herz! du hast es ja gewollt!/Du wolltest glücklich sein, unendlich glücklich/Oder unendlich elend, stolzes Herz,/Und jetzo so bist du elend.

(I, unhappy Atlas, carry a world / the whole world of pain, I must bear / I endure the unbearable / and the heart wants to break inside my chest.

Proud heart! that's what you wanted! /Want to be happy, infinitely happy/Or infinitely unhappy, proud heart, /And now you are unhappy.)

I apologize, reader. I did my best to give an idea of ​​what Heine was all about for those who don't read German. But my best, as a matter of fact, is a bomb. I could only give a faint idea of ​​the beauty of his work. There must be much better translations out there than the ones I've improvised here. Maybe not for Portuguese, but for French or Spanish.

I was lucky in life to be able to learn German in Germany as a teenager. And how worth knowing the beautiful German language! If only to read Heine in the original. I also wanted to know Russian so I could read Alexander Pushkin and Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky in the original. But that's asking too much.

*Paulo Nogueira Batista Jr. he was vice-president of the New Development Bank, established by the BRICS in Shanghai, and executive director at the IMF for Brazil and ten other countries. Author, among other books, of Brazil doesn't fit in anyone's backyard: backstage of the life of a Brazilian economist in the IMF and the BRICS and other texts on nationalism and our mongrel complex (LeYa.)

Extended version of article published in the journal Capital letter, on April 16, 2021.


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