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Heinrich Heine

George Prochnik—

What’s life without glory, blazing love affairs, and apple tarts?

That’s to say, what is life without song and true liberation for all?

Heinrich Heine at thirteen, diminutive and dashing with wavy chestnut hair and a passion for play, charged into the crowd beneath the linden trees of Düsseldorf’s palace garden. Napoleon and his cortege were riding down the avenue. The emperor’s triumphs drummed through his imagination as he struggled for a view: fiery battles in which the general raised aloft the flag adorned with Jupiter’s eagles; proclamations bestowing equality on all the world’s peoples. Now Napoleon’s revolutionary vision would ignite Düsseldorf. The torpid, pretty riverside hamlet of sixteen thousand souls, where Heine and his sister once hid under hay in a chicken coop, clucking and crowing to confuse the passersby, was receiving the greatest man in the world. On a contemporary map, the town is just a fortified blister attached to the lumpy blue hose of the Rhine, surrounded by fields and loose woody patches. Wreathed in pipe and chimney smoke, with irregular streets, brick houses, errant dogs, a picture gallery, and a handful of silk, glass, vinegar, and sugar manufactories, it was a pleasant place from which to dream of waking.

When Heine wrote about that day in November 1811, he switched the scene to spring and made it a tragicomic stage show of Christ’s entry to Jerusalem. “Hosannah! The Emperor!” Trees bowed as the general rode by. Light rays trembled with nervous curiosity. Napoleon’s “hand of sunny marble” held the reins, Heine noted, while his countenance resembled an antique bust. “I have loved only the dead and statues,” he remarked elsewhere.

Heine never lost his allegiance to Napoleon, that ghost colossus, even when he saw through his pretenses and took the measure of his ego. He would not relinquish the idea that without our heroes and our gods we wither. Or we deify money. Or we crown the mob. Even after we’ve seen through the dazzle to the little man in dress-up clothes, we can’t afford to shed all our starry-eyed enthusiasms. They’re too tangled with the sheer love of being alive. “Red life is boiling in my veins, the earth is quivering under my feet, I clasp trees and marble statues with ardent love, and they come to life in my embrace,” Heine vowed. He disdained the priest’s promise of a second life. There was plenty to experience here—including the eternity of the past, which he could conquer by living backward through his predecessors. 

In Napoleon, Heine found the personification of the French Revolution, which was itself the overture to “world revolution,” a term Heine coined to represent “the gigantic battle of the disinherited and the inheritors of fortune.” In that struggle there would be “no question of nationality or religion, for there will be . . . but one religion, that of happiness in this life.” Such was Heine’s contention, from youth on through his final, devastating illness: there is no real justice or freedom without joy. And what did joy consist in? Erotic delight. Plenty of money. Beauty. Coruscating wit. Artistic jags. Fair laws. No idiotic censorship. High-spirited fun and shameless comedy. It wasn’t all that complicated.

From Heinrich Heine by George Prochnik. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.


George Prochnik is the author of Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem. His previous book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, received the 2014 National Jewish Book Award for Biography/Memoir.


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