Leo Shestov on Heinrich Heine’s Self-Mockery and Cynical Laughter

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Heinrich Heine was a daring poet. Friedrich Nietzsche adored his boldness.   But by virtue of the positions he took in his poetry, Heine, as a modern Jew, was internally divided. His humor, found in many of his poems, is cynical and biting. Not only does it take a shot at the German public (“the philistines”) it also shoots back at the speaker.

Leo Shestov takes note of Heine’s split identity and acerbic humor in an essay on German and Russian writers and thinkers entitled “Penultimate Words.”   What makes Shestov’s criticism of Heine so compelling is the fact that he looks at Heine’s poems in terms of their philosophical and personal implications.   Shestov looks into what Heine’s self-mocking humor makes possible or…impossible.

When, in one of Heine’s poems, he passionately asserts that “I seek the body, the body, the young and tender body – I myself have soul enough,” Shestov comments that one can detect (“hear”) a “sharp and nervous laugh”(123, Chekhov and Other Essays). The irony is that Heine does and doesn’t seek the body over the soul. He is divided. The poem is an “expression of the divided soul, as a mockery of himself.”

Shestov describes this laughter as “misplaced,” “indecent,” and “uselessly disconcerting.” And, as I note elsewhere, Shestov puts Heine’s “sincerity” in scare quotes.   Doing so, Shestov alerts us that Heine’s poetry trashes the possibility of sincerity and puts into question the power of affirmation.

To understand the root of this self-mockery and self-division, Shestov points out how Heine was surprised by something that ran through his soul and “split asunder the unity of his former emotions.”    In an interesting move, Shestov explains the implications of this sudden shift and the resulting self-mockery and self-division by way of King David’s Psalms.

Shestov argues that although David’s “soul was…divided,” he was “able to preserve a sequence. When he wept, he could not and did not want to rejoice; when he repented, he was far from sin; when he prayed, he did not scoff; when he believed, he did not doubt”(124). However, “the Germans” (by which he means the German Romantic writers and thinkers) in contrast to the Hebrews, “thought these things were impossible and ought never to be possible. They submitted the succession of different, and even more contradictory spiritual conditions.”   In other words, the Germans, in his view, swayed Heine (despite the fact that he challenged them) with their belief that what David went through – vis-à-vis- his sticking to sequence despite division – was impossible.

It seemed to them that everything which formerly existed as separate, had become confused, that the place of stringent harmony had been usurped by absurdity and chaos. (124)

Heine was affected by this idea; however, he turned to a cynical kind of humor to cope with it.   As Heine lay on his death bed, Shestov tells us that “his sarcasms every day became more ruthless, more poisonous, more refined”(125). Seeing this, muses Shestov, one might think that all that was left to Heine was to “acknowledge his defeat and commit himself utterly to the magnanimity of the victor”(125). But who is the victor? Death or God?

Shestov tells us that “in the weak flesh a strong spirit lived. All his thoughts were turned toward God, the power of whose right hand, like every dying man, he could not but feel upon him.”   In the past, notes Shestov, Heine “has neither prayer nor praise. His poems are permeated with a charming and gracious cynicism, peculiar and proper to himself alone.”

The question: will Heine, on his deathbed, turn into David?

According to Shestov, Heine

knew as well as any one that according to the doctrine of philosophy, ethics, and religion, repentance and humility are the condition of the soul’s salvation, the readiness even with the last breath of life to renounce sinful desires. Nevertheless, with his last breath he does not want to own the power over himself of the age-old authorities of the world. (126)

Instead of “repentance and humility,” “Heine laughs at mortality, at philosophy, at existing religions”(126). Nonetheless, there is contradiction: Heine acknowledges that “his painful and terrible illness was the direct effect of his manner of life”(127).   Heine is, to his last days, divided in his laughter. Although his crushed spirit doesn’t matter to an indifferent God, Shestov suggests – in the most optimistic sense –it should matter to us.   But, if, Shestov comically muses, there really is another world which caters to those who cynically mock all claims to truth (a kind of Neietzschean heaven): “there the stubborn and the inflexible are valued above all the others, and that the secret is hidden from the mortals lest the weak and compliant should take it into their heads to pretend to be stubborn.”

But this heaven obviously doesn’t exist.   The cynic has nothing to hope for and must, as Shestov suggests, be sarcastic and bitter to the very end. However, his laugh – just like his soul – is divided…to the very end not because he is above it all, but because the cynical Heine knows (as Shestov suggests, indirectly) that it is possible that he is wrong and David is right.

The stubbornness of cynical laughter may taunt the metaphysicians, the philosophers, and the Rabbis but – for Shestov – it finds its limit at death.   In the face of death possibility – not certainty or cynical laughter – is the master.

 

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