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Heinrich Heine's holy hits

A top ten list of the late great German poet's religious insights. Compiled by Georg Klein.

The Heinrich-Heine Prize is Germany's most highly-endowed literary award prize and is given to writers whose works promote human rights and social and political progress, and foster understanding and solidarity between peoples. This year it went to Austrian author Peter Handke, a decision that was subsequently vetoed by the Dusseldorf City Council. (More information here, here and here)

No. 10: Holy books

"The book that lay at my side was not the Koran, though it did contain enough nonsense."

No.9: Holy laws
"Dear reader, if you ever come to Amsterdam, be sure to have someone show you (...) the Spanish synagogue. It is a beautiful building, the roof rests on four colossal pillars, and in the middle stands the pulpit from which the anathema was pronounced over that critic of Mosaic Law, the hidalgo Don Benedict de Spinoza. On this occasion, a blast was sounded on a ram's horn that is called the shofar. There must be some terrible story behind this horn. For as I have read in the life of Salomon Maimon, the rabbi of Altona once tried to win this student of Kant back to the old faith, and when he stubbornly insisted on his philosophical heresies, the rabbi became threatening and showed him the shofar with the sinister words: ‘Do you know what this is?' And when the Kantian jovially replied, ‘It is the horn of a billy goat!' the rabbi fell over backwards onto the floor in horror."

No. 8: German holiness
"In no other language could nature have revealed her most secret words than in our dear German mother tongue. Only on the strong oak could the holy mistletoe thrive."

No. 7: God and chickens

"What is God? What is his nature? As a little child, I would ask: What is God like? What does he look like? And at that time, I could spend all day looking up into the sky, and in the evening I was disappointed that instead of God's divine countenance, all I ever saw was stupid grey cloud faces. I was confused by the news from astronomy, which at this period of enlightenment was not kept even from the smallest children, and it was a source of endless astonishment to me that all of these thousands of millions of stars were globes as large and beautiful as ours, and that over all this shining throng of worlds a single God ruled. Once in a dream, I recall, I saw God, high above in the remotest distance. He looked contentedly from his little window in the sky, a pious old man's face with a little goatee beard and he scattered out a quantity of seed which, as they fell down from the firmament, seemed to burst open in the endless space, expanding to a gigantic volume until they became so many shining, blossoming, populated worlds, each as large as our own earth. I was never able to forget this face, in many later dreams I saw the cheerful old man scattering the world seeds from his little window in the sky; once I even saw him smack his lips, like our maidservant when she threw the barley feed to the chickens."

No. 6: Hegel, God & me
"One beautiful starry evening, the two of us, Hegel and myself, were sat side by side at the window, and I, a 22-year-old young man, had just eaten well and drunk coffee and I spoke with great enthusiasm about the stars, calling them the dwellings of the blessed. But the master mumbled to himself: "The stars, hum, hum! the stars are just a shining disease on the sky!" – "For Gods' sake!" I cried, "you mean there is no happy place up there where virtue is rewarded after death?" But he, staring at me with his pale eyes, replied sharply: "You still expect divine compensation for looking after your ailing mother and for not poisoning your brother?"

No. 5: Myself as God
"I was young and proud, and my arrogance was flattered when Hegel informed me that instead of God residing in heaven, as my grandmother had told me, I myself here on earth was God. (...) But the costs incurred by a God who wishes to keep up a fine exterior, and who will spare no expense or extravagance, are astronomical; to give a respectable performance of such a role, two things in particular are indispensable: money and good health, both in abundance. Regrettably it came to pass that one day – in February 1848 – I lost these two things, to the grave detriment of my divine status. (...) Since joining the ranks of the pious, I now spend next to nothing on bringing succour to the needy; I am too modest to attempt, as I did in former times, to interfere in divine providence, I am no longer a helper of the community, no mimic of God, and with pious humility I have given my former clients to understand that I am just a wretched mortal, a sighing creature who has nothing more to do with governing the world, and that in their affliction they must now turn to God who resides in heaven and whose budget is as boundless as his goodness, whereas I, poor ex-God that I am, was often obliged, even in my godly days, to live from hand to mouth in order to satisfy my craving for good deeds.

No. 4: God's derision

"Ah, God's derision weighs down heavily upon me. The great author of the universe, the Aristophanes of heaven, wished to demonstrate strikingly to the lowly, earthly, so-called German Aristophanes how my wittiest sarcasms were nothing but miserable mockery compared with his own, and how pathetically inferior I am in terms of humour to his colossal merry-making.

Terrible indeed is the slop bucket of derision emptied over me by the master, and horrifyingly cruel his amusement. I humbly admit his superiority and bend down before him in the dust. But though I lack such supreme creative power, there is within my mind the spark of eternal reason, and I may even haul before its forum this divine derision and subject it to reverential criticism. And I would dare to suggest most subserviently that I feel this cruel joke which the master inflicts on his poor student is lasting rather too long; it has already lasted over six years, and it is becoming positively tedious. For I would also like to permit myself the humble observation that this joke is not new and that the great Aristophanes of heaven has already used it on another occasion, thus plagiarising his very self."

No. 3: God's future
"I carried aboard my ship the gods of the future."

No. 2: Seals
"Eventually, a writer becomes accustomed to his audience, as if it were a rational being. You too seem saddened that I must bid you farewell, you are touched, my dear reader, and precious pearls fall from the bags beneath your eyes. But worry not, we will meet again in a better world, where I also intend to write better books for you. I am assuming that my health will also improve there and that Swedenborg has not lied to me. For he claims with great confidence that our lives continue peacefully in the other world just as we lived them in this, that our individuality survives unaltered, and that death brings about no particular disturbance in our organic development. Swedenborg is a thoroughly upright character, and one believes his reports about the other world where he saw with his own eyes characters who had played a part on our own earth. (...) As foolish as they may sound, these reports are both significant and astute. The great Scandinavian seer understood the unity and indivisibility of our existence, in the same way that he correctly recognized and acknowledged the inalienable rights of the human individual. For him, the continuation of life after death is not a notional fancy-dress ball where we put on new jackets and a new person; in his version, the person and the costume remain unchanged. In Swedenborg's other world, even the poor Greenlanders will feel at home. When Danish missionaries came to convert them, they asked whether there were seals in the Christian heaven. Being told that there were not, they replied that in this case, the Christian heaven was not suitable for Greenlanders, who cannot exist without seals.

How the spirit struggles against the idea that our personality might cease to exist, the idea of eternal annihilation! The horror vacui that we attribute to nature is rather an innate feature of human nature. Take heart, my dear reader, life does continue after death, and in the other world, we will rediscover even our seals."

No.1: Untitiled
"The devil is a logician."


This compiliation originally appeared on the Perlentaucher site on 16 February, 2006

A selection of further English translations of Heine's work online.

Georg Klein was born in Augsburg in 1953, and lives with his family in Berlin and East Friesland. His novel "Libidissi" was celebrated as one of the best books of 1998 and widely translated. In 1999 his book of short stories "Anrufung des Blinden Fisches" was published, and he won the Brüder Grimm Prize. In 2000 he won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for an excerpt from his novel "Barbar Rosa".

Translation: Nicholas Grindell

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