I spent a lovely day yesterday reading Heinrich Heine’s Self Portrait and Other Prose Writings, in a gloriously dotty 1948 edition from the good people at Citadel Press. I know nothing about Heine, and this edition, I’m pleased to report, has done little to clear things up. For a start, the chapter numberings are utterly baffling, starting at page 301 and going through to page 872, in a volume that starts, as is traditional, on page one, and doesn’t go beyond page 617. Then there’s the introduction, by the astonishingly effusive Frederic Ewen, which tells nothing of the provenance of the book at hand, but waxes elegiac about Heine in prose so declamatory and hagiographic that I could only read the first three pages before collapsing under the onslaught of exclamation points. Beaten, all I could do was dive into the book itself – an experience both exciting and challenging.
It got me thinking about how seldom it is we now approach any part of our lives – art in particular – without large amounts of background information, and how radically this affects – to get a bit Heideggerian – our ‘being towards’ the artwork. Books are read now after engaging with a phalanx of received critical opinion to the point where, for the reader, the text becomes an exercise in confirming or resisting other people’s assessments. It is seldom we allow ourselves the opportunity to read without casting about for the background of the work, the writer, the circumstances of its creation and reception. The act of reading, as a first engagement with the text, is becoming more and more rare, to a point where the ‘erotics’ of engagement, in Barthes memorable phrase, is being effaced. This ‘way of being’ is not exclusive to our reading, or viewing art of course – more and more via the internet we have our experience before we experience it. I swear I have opinions on restaurants I’ve never been to, and movies I’ve never seen. And, shamefully, on books I’ve never read.
I feel like something is being lost here. Relying on our own critical faculties is, of course, more challenging, but to live a life where we constantly run from this confrontation is – to get Heideggerian again, to become inauthentic, to wallow about in the ‘they-self’.Before reading Heine, I had the chance to read Friedrich Reck’s A Diary of a Man in Despair, and again I resisted all temptations to Google Reck or read the introduction. As with reading the Heine, I found the experience deliciously discombobulating, and the book took on a narrative thrust driven by discovery, rather than being an exercise checking off my critical scorecard.
So thank you to Frederic Ewen for his impenetrable introduction, and all at Citadel Press for their baffling packaging. A hundred pages into the book and pretty much all I’ve established is that Heine hated how complicated Latin is (‘The Romans would surely have never conquered the world if they had to learn Latin first’), and that he seems to be well on the way to becoming either a lawyer or a poet. I suspect the latter, but I’ll keep you posted.
Meanwhile, I guess what I reckon is read stuff you know nothing about. Good for the old brain box, and the whole existential box and dice.