Heinrich Heine’s Critique of the Present: Poetry, Revolution, and the “Rights of Life”

Published date01 April 2021
Date01 April 2021
Subject MatterPoetry & Politics
/tmp/tmp-18swQMw8NgfZ6a/input 956595PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720956595Political TheoryLevine
Poetry & Politics
Political Theory
2021, Vol. 49(2) 314 –338
Heinrich Heine’s Critique
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
of the Present: Poetry,
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720956595
Revolution, and the
“Rights of Life”
William Levine1
Although the poet, journalist, and critic Heinrich Heine has not received
much attention among recent political theorists, his revolutionary poetry
and criticism were foundational for many German thinkers who have
become canonical and comprise a powerful theoretical and historical project
in their own right. This essay revisits Heine’s Zur Geschichte der Religion und
Philosophie in Deutschland
, situating it within the broader arc of his poetry
and prose works, to examine the unique mode of criticism he developed
in response to a sense of political impasse and paralysis in his moment. For
Heine, this paralysis stemmed from the persistence of outmoded institutions
in a revolutionary age, and the act of exposing it was the first step toward
rebelling against and overcoming it. Heine thus developed a revolutionary
notion of criticism that sought to lay bare and get beyond his moment.
Heinrich Heine, revolution, critique, pantheism, emancipation
Although the poet Heinrich Heine has not received very much attention
among recent political theorists, many of the German thinkers who have
1Lichtenberg-Kolleg, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Göttingen, Niedersachsen,
Corresponding Author:
William Levine, Lichtenberg-Kolleg, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Geismar Landstr.
11, Göttingen, Niedersachsen 37073, Germany.
Email: willslevine@gmail.com

become canonical for political theory have felt the need to address his works.1
Engels credited him for his insight into the revolutionary implications of
German philosophy and Marx, with whom Heine was briefly friends, took
some of his best lines from him.2 Lukács devoted an extended essay to his
work, Arendt cast him as an archetype of modern Jewish-pariahdom, Adorno
saw his poetry as reflective of our alienated woundedness under capitalism,
and Habermas saw in him an exemplar of the modern German public intel-
lectual.3 Indeed, Heine has held unique significance for the German philo-
sophical and literary tradition as a whole.4 His radical poetry, wishfully
imagining a revolution in Germany, and his intellectual biography, including
his time as a student of Hegel in Berlin and as a friend of Marx in Paris, make
him a tantalizing figure for radical theorists indeed. But they also lay a trap
that has led many of his readers to see him as either a mere mouthpiece of
Hegel or prelude to Marx and thus to miss the complexity of Heine’s critical
intellectual history of German philosophy and its vitality.5
This essay turns to Heine’s intellectual historical project in Zur Geschichte
der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland to situate it within the broader
arc of his poetry and prose works and the unique critical and intellectual proj-
ect they comprise. A major theme in Heine’s writing is the effort to respond
to a deep sense of political paralysis in Germany stemming from the persis-
tence of outmoded political institutions in an age otherwise defined by revo-
lution and radical transformation.6 As a range of scholars have argued, this
led Heine to turn away from lyric poetry in his Vormärz writings and toward
the critique of the present. For Heine, reigning poetic forms still had their
roots in the old world, reflecting its tendencies and beliefs, and so had grown
outmoded and reactionary to the same degree. The dawning of a new time
called out for the dawning of a new aesthetics. But for Heine, as the forces of
the old world clung to power and sought to obstruct the emergence of the
new, the aesthetic task of the poet became to stage the critical force of the
new ideas in their encounter with the old order of things. The poet had to
capture this moment of impasse and, in so doing, reveal the need for the new
to overtake the old.
The first section of this essay turns to Heine’s Vormärz writings, espe-
cially those of the early 1830s, to elaborate the view of aesthetics he devel-
ops in this period. As a number of scholars have noted, Heine’s writings
from this time reflect a turn away from lyric poetry and toward reportage,
criticism, feuilletonism, and travel writing. Although this mode of writing
has been subject to acerbic criticism, most famously from twentieth-cen-
tury critics like Theodor Adorno and Karl Kraus—although also in his own
day, too—Heine theorized it as the appropriate aesthetic response to a
moment of impasse.7 From the Reisebilder onwards, Heine argued that his

Political Theory 49(2)
moment was fractured and torn, a condition he captured with the German
word Zerrissenheit.8 His period was caught in a conflict between the forces
of Enlightenment and revolution, on the one hand, and a decrepit old world
that stubbornly clung to power, on the other. To appeal to the poetic forms
of the old order was thus, for Heine, to support the forces of reaction against
the forces of revolution. The poet needed instead to turn to the critique of
the present, to capture the clash between the old world and the new ideas in
the hope that the latter would displace the former. The creative activity of
the poet in this period led not to the creation of new and beautiful works,
but in the effort to fashion a new world.
In the second section, I turn to Heine’s complex critique of German phi-
losophy in Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland to
elaborate his notion of emancipation, centered around a conception of pan-
theism.9 For Heine, pantheism comes to describe a worldview that arises as
the belief in Christian notions of transcendence, especially in a heavenly
afterlife and a transcendent God, begins to wane. He argues that pantheism
represents the view that God and world are identical, which means that
humans have a “divine right” to material plenitude and enjoyment, and that
they need not suffer the pains of this world as the price of entrance into
heaven. As the people lose their faith in a transcendent heaven, they will
come to see that their concerns are immanent and seek emancipation in this
world. Zur Geschichte traces these ideas through subterranean currents in
German intellectual history that ultimately lead to the revival of pantheism
in German philosophy’s appropriation of Spinoza. But Heine suggests that
the philosophers have, as yet, failed to recognize their own teaching, keep-
ing it a “school-secret” and failing to propagate it amongst the people.
Heine’s text intends to “blurt it out” and deliver the people their revolution-
ary inheritance.10
For Heine, the tears and fractures of the present ultimately place demands
upon the poet that require the lines between poetry, criticism, and philosophy
to blur; the fractures of the moment call for the poet, philosopher, and critic
to use their abilities to help fashion a new world. The critique of the present
offers a means of doing this, as it seeks to produce changes in thought that
presage political action. “The world is the word’s signature,” he writes in Zur
.11 Indeed, Heine’s work of the Vormärz period develops a radical
focus on everything present and immanent. As the old Christian notions of
transcendence are no longer credible, Heine calls for everyone to participate
in constructing a heaven on earth in the here-and-now. This, indeed, is per-
haps the essence of Heine’s notion of pantheism: it suggests that the collec-
tivity is able to participate in the forms of creative self-fashioning once
ascribed to a transcendent divine.

As thinkers across disciplines endeavor to rethink notions of futurity,
emancipation, and critique to adapt them to a new political present with its
own horizons of possibility, Heine’s writings and their illuminating relation-
ship with the post-Kantian tradition and its long-hegemonic views on this
subject offer important resources. For Heine, the effort to imagine an alterna-
tive future does not involve displacing our visions of the good or emanci-
pated society into a utopian or idealized image of it, but to engage in the
imaginative, critical practice of seeking what alternatives are already embed-
ded within the current society. This means refusing progress (and cyclical
time) as the temporality of emancipation and seeing emancipation rather as
the attempt to assert “the rights of life.”12 And yet more fundamentally, eman-
cipation, for Heine, means the effort to fashion a new future out of the world
currently given, while acknowledging that such efforts may succeed as much
as fail, but remain necessary precisely because of what is intolerable in the
present—and what could be emancipatory.
I. Revolutionary Critique and the Aesthetics of the
Heine’s search for a new aesthetics took different forms over his career: from
the ironic deployment of Romantic tropes and the use of techniques like
Stimmungsbrechung [mood-breaking] in Buch der Lieder; to the ostensibly
free associative, but in fact quite calculated, prose of the Reisebilder; to the
complex and shifting reportage of Französische Zustände and Lutezia; to the
semifictional, politically engaged literary criticism...

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