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Reading Heinrich Heine.

Reading Heinrich Heine. By ANTHONY PHELAN. (Cambridge Studies in German) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2007. 328 pp. 55[pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-052r-86399-5.

The deceptively simple title of this monograph conceals a complex project. Heine has often been regarded as a Romantic writer, occasionally as a vaguely defined post-Romantic. Rarely, however, has he been claimed, as Anthony Phelan would have it, for modernism. One reason is simply the years in which he lived and wrote: the first half of the nineteenth century is not yet the time of European modernism, which signals its onset--typically delayed in the special case of Germany--only after 1850, reaching its high point in the initial three decades of the twentieth century. The other reason is that Heine's writings bear very little resemblance to the works we usually associate with the modernist movement. Particularly the early poetry, but also much of the prose writing well into the 1840s, appears to establish a firm, albeit frequently uneasy, relationship with styles, mood, and ideologies identified with the first post-Goethean generations.

Phelan, however, reads Heine through a somewhat different lens. His starting-point is neither Heine's texts nor Heine's own era, but rather the critique of Heine in modernity expressed most forcefully by Karl Kraus and extending at least through Kraus's disciple in modernist sensibilities, Theodor Adorno. For this reason the volume begins appropriately not with reading Heinrich Heine, but with analysing Kraus's celebrated essay 'Heine and die Folgen' from 1910. Heine, Kraus averred, was responsible for a degradation of German aesthetics, which became confounded with the demotic sphere of journalism. Indeed, Heine is accused of initiating' a process which ultimately brought lyric poetry down to the level of commerce and the press' (p. 2 1). Adorno modifies but sustains this line of argument by maintaining that Heine's verse is itself a product of reification that obliterates the essential subjectivity necessary for genuine poetic achievement. The result is that Heine, no matter how perspicacious he was in recognizing the imbrication of creative writing and the marketplace, seeks recourse to a rationality that 'delivers poetry entirely into the power of the market process' (p. 27). Heine's works therefore are tainted by inauthenticity; his method of coping with incipient modernist phenomena represents a concession rather than a resistance to their most pernicious effects.

Phelan's reading of Heine is intended to counter the Krausian-Adornian tradition in Heine criticism. Before turning to his writings, however, Phelan provides an alternative modernist view in the observations of Helmut Heissenbuttel. Heissenbuttel places Heine at the same historical moment as Kraus and Adorno, at the tipping-point, so to speak, between Romanticism and modernity, but rather than claiming that he succumbs to commodification and journalism, he portrays him as sovereign, mastering the transitional Zeitgeist and manipulating it to his own advantage. Heine becomes' a linguistic realist' (p. 40) who differs from the writer described in the essays of Kraus and Adorno by virtue of the consciousness he exhibits of his historical role and his ability to initiate a new and apposite form of writing.

Phelan's reading of Heine's works are meant to vindicate Heisserihtel's insights and to disprove Kraus's and Adorno's unsympathetic critique. Heine displays in the Buch der Lieder a recognition that there is no immediacy connected with lyrical expression, indeed, that the very assumption of congruence is a falsehood, and that writing itself, especially in its distorted forms under capitalist conditions, forever cleaves authentic subjectivity from its expression in words. Thus a collection of poems that appears to be devoted to uncovering subjectivity is in reality the recognition of the deceptive creation of self through linguistic artifice. Heine masterfully plays with the arsenal of Romantic motifs, subverting their original purposes and foregrounding their (now) contrived substance. The poems, Phelan writes, 'seem to be assembled from the linguistic odds and ends of a remembered authenticity' (p. 83), and they thereby reaffirm their ambivalent relationship to a unified subjectivity that can no longer be represented and reconstituted.

Heine's subsequent prose writings in the Reisebilder provide a further insight into his modernist proclivities. Eschewing a false immediacy of experience, he repeatedly demonstrates how modern life is mediated and subject to indirection. Frequently Heine suggests that there exists another language or level of understanding to which the reader must be attuned. Depending heavily on the urban experience, he notes, especially in connection with London, how events are stripped of their symbolic functions, and how monotony and uniformity have become pervasive. Meanings from the past are unavailable to travellers of the present, as aesthetic traditions become subservient to an omnipresent marketplace.

Phelan interrupts his readings of Heine's texts with a short chapter that reviews the poet's inclusion in anthologies by Stefan George and Rudolf Borchardt, both of whom fashion the poet as an impressionist or symbolist, while ignoring the biographical imperative of the early works. This chapter introduces us to a new Heine, one associated with the political freedom of the aesthetic and the embracing of a l'art pour l'apoetics. It thus serves as an introduction to the works of his Parisian period. Phelan then argues that Atta Troll, in a modernist gesture, is characterized by shifting perspectives that prevent the reader from settling upon a univocal meaning. The Borne Denkschrift, considered by Phelan as Heine's tour de force, substitutes style for political consistency, thereby reinforcing Borne's retrograde seriousness of purpose in comparison to Heine's lack of personal commitment. Politics is inserted not as a function of bombastic rhetoric, but as a consequence of compositional mastery. Heine's correspondence articles collected in Lutetia lay the groundwork for a critique of modernity and, contrary to the suggestions of Adorno, establish an archive every bit as revealing as Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project from the 1930s. Phelan is at his best, however, in the interpretation of Heine's late verse, showing how Heine thematizes his rupture with tradition at the same time that he invokes tradition to illustrate this rupture.

The volume closes with a short reflection on Heine's contemporary reception by poets he has influenced. Heine's modernist direction is obviously less favoured by subsequent writers than the tradition of Holderlin, the Romantics, and Rilke--that is, those writers whose confrontations with modernity attempt to preserve a consecrated poetic realm--and it is not surprising to find Heine's more direct approach evidenced in only a few writers, such as Peter Ruhmkorf, Gunter Kunert, and Wolf Biermann.

Phelan's readings are lucid and coherent throughout the monograph, and he argues his case for Heine the modernist well. Occasionally he fails to recognize the ambivalence so prevalent in Heine's lyric, for example in the last stanza of 'Sie saben and tranken am Teetisch', where it is not at all clear how Heine's beloved would have fitted in with the other participants, nor why she is absent in the first place. At other points Phelan underestimates Heine's irony, such as in the third stanza of Heimkehr III, where the idyll is surely undercut by the polysyndeton of the final two lines. For the most part, however, Phelan is judicious in his interpretations and charts a course that will surely receive the assent of Heine scholars. Indeed, most of his audience will be predisposed to reject the censure of Kraus and Adorno and to welcome claims that cast Heine as a central figure in an incipient modernism. Whether Phelan's excellent and ambitious book will counter Heine's marginalization from the discourse of a modernist movement that has relegated him to an afterthought, and assist in rehabilitating him for a new generation of critics concerned with aesthetics, politics, and history, seems improbable, however much Heine scholars may desire this outcome.


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Author:Holub, Robert C.
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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