January 8, 2011

HEINE: THE PRISON OF FREEDOM

"Oder soll ich nach Amerika, nach diesem ungeheuren Freiheitsgefängnis, wo die unsichtbaren Ketten mich noch schmerzlicher drücken würden als zu Hause die sichtbaren und wo der widerwärtigste aller Tyrannen, der Pöbel, seine rohe Herrschaft ausübt! Du weißt, wie ich über dieses gottverfluchte Land denke, das ich einst liebte, als ich es nicht kannte...

Und doch muß ich es öffentlich loben und preisen, aus Metierpflicht... Ihr lieben deutschen Bauern! geht nach Amerika! dort gibt es weder Fürsten noch Adel, alle Menschen sind dort gleich, gleiche Flegel... mit Ausnahme freilich einiger Millionen, die eine schwarze oder braune Haut haben und wie die Hunde behandelt werden! Die eigentliche Sklaverei, die in den meisten nordamerikanischen Provinzen abgeschafft, empört mich nicht so sehr wie die Brutalität, womit dort die freien Schwarzen und die Mulatten behandelt werden.

Wer auch nur im entferntesten Grade von einem Neger stammt und wenn auch nicht mehr in der Farbe, sondern nur in der Gesichtsbildung eine solche Abstammung verrät, muß die größten Kränkungen erdulden, Kränkungen, die uns in Europa fabelhaft dünken.

Dabei machen diese Amerikaner großes Wesen von ihrem Christentum und sind die eifrigsten Kirchengänger. Solche Heuchelei haben sie von den Engländern gelernt, die ihnen übrigens ihre schlechtesten Eigenschaften zurückließen.

Der weltliche Nutzen ist ihre eigentliche Religion, und das Geld ist ihr Gott, ihr einziger, allmächtiger Gott. Freilich, manches edle Herz mag dort im stillen die allgemeine Selbstsucht und Ungerechtigkeit bejammern. Will es aber gar dagegen ankämpfen, so harret seiner ein Märtyrtum, das alle europäische Begriffe übersteigt."
I have not found the relevant translation of this quote into English, so I shall do my best here, with apologies to one of the greatest poets and thinkers Germany has ever had, and despite the fact that this was written, oh, so very long ago, a lot of it is still relevant today. And while the dream of Heinrich Heine is certainly rooted in a distate of the "unwashed masses", and one must call him out on that, for if these masses had the knowledge, had the education, they surely would not be so "unwashed", it must be said that Heine - as all of us - was a product of his time and his standing.

Also, yes, Heine was a hyprocrite as well in other areas of his life, converting to from Judaism to Protestantism as Prussia became more and more discriminatory against those of Jewish faith, and him wanting to have a university career. Well, he would later make that up with some other fabulous quotes.

Oh, and yes, before my American readers go bonkers about the apparent Anti-Americanism in Heine's writing, you should read what Heine had to say about the French, the Italians and the Germans themselves. The man had a rapier wit, and he was not really a happy fellow.

Or read what Heine had to say about the second (or was that the third?) French revolution, hell, the French revolted so often in the 18th and 19th century that it is hard to keep track of them.
Or should I go to America, to this monstrous prison of freedom, where the invisible chains would pain me even more than the visible ones at home, and where the most disgusting of all tyrants, the mob, rules with raw force! You know what I think about this godforsaken country that I once loved when I had not yet known it. Und yet I have to publicly praise it, for it is expected of me.

You German farmers! Go to America! There are no aristocrats there, and everyone is both equal and equally rude.

Unless, of course, you belong to those few millions who come with black or brown skin, and are therefore treated like dogs! Proper slavery, abolished in most Northern states, does not even make me protest as much as the brutality, with which the free Blacks and Mulattos are treated. If one is only in the slightest related to a negro and even if there is no longer a skin to show it, even if there is only a facial mark, then one has to submit to the greatest humiliation that we in Europe would not believe.

And yet, it is these Americans who worship Christ the most and attend churches in the greatest numbers. Such hyprocrisy they must have learned from the English, who left their worst national traits behind.

Material wealth is their true religion, money is their god, their only, almighty god.

Surely one is allowed there to complain but silently about such selfishness and injustice, but if one wishes to fight against it, one wouldbe martyred in ways that Europeans couldn't fathom.

Like I said, some of it (the somewhat irrational hatred of the English, the yearning for an order) are typical of the German mindset of the 19th century, especially the early 19th century, but some other things? We haven't changed that much, as a society. As a species. Or have we?

No, not really.