Every so often it happens that the people, places, or times one dwells on – or circles about – in the recurrent privacy of thought, get overwritten by those which enter there unbidden on account of world events; the inner continuum of one’s imagination might be shaken up as a consequence of new associations of ideas that could emerge from the intrusion, with it being lent a feeling of greater weight or a stronger sense of depth in the process: and its reconfiguration would then be at once thoroughly idiosyncratic and yet comprehensible in principle (assuming, that is, that one would care to elucidate it in words to other people at all).
For my part, to speak plainly, lately two different cities, Paris and Düsseldorf, were preoccupying my imagination – each for reasons which, though it’d be out of place to specify them here, had little to do with the others – when, prompted by a recent turn of events, I began to think again of that Dichter und Denker who was born in the one and led much of his life in the other, Heinrich Heine: a poet in whose lyrical works the light-hearted and the serious blend wonderfully together (this goes a way towards explaining why they have not dated) – into a mixture by virtue of which they have been eminently suited to interest several composers and, once set to music, to become full-fledged Lieder.
Now, it seems to me that in the eyes – and, even more, in the ears – of lyric poets, however dedicated to thinking they may also be, the ways of the imagination will manifest themselves in a manner other than the form in which they appear in the experience of those whose mode of thinking is devoted to theoria above all and which has thus been defined essentially by that end. (It may be mainly during that “theoretical” pursuit alone that the metaphysical postulate formulated in a brief aside by Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics (bk. III, chap. 7, 1115b22), namely: all things are defined by their ends, “ὁρίζεται γὰρ ἕκαστον τῷ τέλει,” acquires its great plausibility and even shines forth as a self-evident proposition.) And so it’s with particular reference to this latter mode of thinking that some of Hannah Arendt’s trenchant remarks may seem to be most valid, rather than that they would aptly characterize all thinking tout court: in The Life of the Mind (vol. 1, pt. II, chap. 10) she suggests that the activity of thinking “inverts all ordinary relationships” such that while we are engaged in it “what is near and appears directly to our senses is now far away and what is distant is actually present” – which would mean, in other words, that as long as it lasts it “annihilates temporal as well as spatial distances,” and as a result, for the reason that “time and space in ordinary experience cannot even be thought of without a continuum that stretches from the nearby into the distant,” one could claim “that not only distances but also time and space themselves are abolished in the thinking process.”
A transcendence of that kind might well appear to signal to a thinker immersed in theoria, but these propositions begin to sound implausible at best if what is at issue is a mode of thinking that attends first and foremost to the melos there is in words, in the mind, and in the world; such a mode of thinking while it endures could not possibly bring about either the annihilation or the abolition (if these terms are not for their part stripped entirely of their usual meanings) of distances or even of time and space altogether: for from out of the latter it would seek to elicit the music within them, and then, as Heine did, to transpose it into a poetic form – or in Heine’s practice a twofold transposition was often involved, whenever it happens that the distances of which on first hearing one believed he sang, soon begin to resonate as though for him they actually had stood in for others, of which he refrained from speaking directly but by which his heart was exercised even more through such reticence. (To designate reserve of this kind, the German language has a lovely word: Herzenstakt.)
Long before Heine treated the public to his “Hebräische Melodien,” those melodies and the distinctive cares which punctuated them could already be heard in his lyric verses, lending even them an immemorial intensity of yearning for something that always beckons from afar, being set in a perdurant “next year.”
On this point, too, the mode of thought of a poet, especially a lyric poet like Heine, would evidently diverge from the thinking that devotes itself to theoria. The “tonalities,” as Arendt elsewhere in her book (vol. 2, pt. I, chap. 5) terms the states of the soul characteristic of the life of the mind, however moderato they may have been in Heine’s case, could not here be called “serene,” at least if by that term one means to designate a mood filled by “the mere enjoyment of an activity that never has to overcome the resistance of matter” (and accordingly serenity would be typical of the activity of “theoretical” thinking) – if only for the reason that were matter not there at some point to offer a coefficient of resistance, no acoustic reverberation could take place to begin with and there would simply be no sound at all in general. Hence – not to mention other substantive reasons one might well introduce – the lyric poet’s mode of thinking would be neither inclined nor even able to raise itself above matter, and in fact as long as the activity lasts it would remain closely attached and attuned to this very material condition of its possibility.
So, if not serenity in that particular definition of the term, what might have been the tonality of the soul in the case of this lyric poet, in some of his moods at least? To discern some melancholic disposition would not be so very difficult – Arendt suggests that insofar as the activity of thinking “is closely connected with remembrance, its mood inclines to melancholy” – but it seems to me that here something else was decisive; it would get closer to the heart of the matter to say (to speak telegraphically) that the nearness of the past effected by memory was in Heine’s thinking sustained by a somber expectation of the impending, and vice versa, and this reciprocal support was established in the context of an overarching awareness of a past and of a future extending in both directions and each encompassing similar episodes in a single story which “wir noch grade ertragen” (in the apt turn of phrase of a later poet), in such a way that neither his reminiscence nor his anticipation could be said to have simply preceded or originated the other: and then one tonality resulting from all this would likely have been not a philosophical tinge of melancholy but a quite considerable feeling of sorrow, however reticent he may have been in its poetic expression.
Ich hab’ im Traum’ geweinet,
Mir träumte du lägest im Grab’.
Ich wachte auf und die Thräne
Floß noch von der Wange herab.
Ich hab’ im Traum’ geweinet,
Mir träumt’ du verließest mich.
Ich wachte auf, und ich weinte
Noch lange bitterlich.
Ich hab’ im Traum’ geweinet,
Mir träumte du wärst mir noch gut.
Ich wachte auf, und noch immer
Strömt meine Thränenflut.
The distance or distances of which this poem speaks, sound at first as though they are intimate only, but listening closely one might well think that, behind what would be a poetic personification, something other than a person was so plaintively being addressed. Thus, if the poem is read in this or a similar manner, it would seem to give expression to some variation of the Pathos der Distanz, an outlook correlate to his musical mode of thinking which might then be discerned at other points throughout Heine’s works as well.
This particular poem, of course, was set to music by Schumann in his Dichterliebe, and in this form it was interpreted much later, in the middle of the 1930s, by the tenor Richard Tauber, with great feeling and a very acute ear for what it may well actually have been about.
In both one hears – and this I imagine would have brought a sad smile to the lips of the itinerant poet – the sound of solicitude and perhaps also even the crackling of the fire that consumes fire.