“Why do men chase women? Because they want to live forever,” said Rose Castorini in Moonstruck. Falling in love—really falling in love as opposed to going through the motions—means finding immortality through the mediation of the beloved. No clearer example of this can be found than Dante’s love of Beatrice, the Florentine girl he claimed to have met twice. Beatrice intercedes for Dante in Heaven and guides him through Purgatory and Paradise in the Divine Comedy. Dante wrote perhaps the best poetry ever; read out loud, the rhyme and meter guide meaning and intent to their goal like lightning rods. On a recent visit to Rome, I let my traveling companion, my sixteen-year-old daughter, shop to her heart’s content, and sat over Dante and a cappuccino in the café at the mall opposite the Piazza Colonna. Whatever heaven is like, that must be the next best thing.
Yet Dante in some respects is too good a writer. So well does he sing of love and immortality that the concept almost could be called his intellectual property. But there is something unsatisfying about a love that transcends mortality with a girl whom we have met twice and is married to someone else. Dante’s verse bewitches us into taking quite seriously an eternal love that after all is only a symbol of what love should be. Beatrice convinces me as little as does Virgil, who has every possible virtue except for salvation. It was his bad luck to have lived just before Christ, and through no fault of his own he is relegated to the “Noble Pagan” circle of hell. One gets the sense that Dante doesn’t quite think it was fair for Jesus to take Abraham, King David and so forth with him to Paradise but leave behind such a worthy fellow as Virgil. Dante, of course, sees in Christian empire the perfection of what already was a splendid thing in Rome. As a Jew, the highest gratification I find in contemplating the ruins of Rome is the fact that they are in ruins.
Real girls don’t turn out quite like Beatric terza rima or no terza rima , as Heinrich Heine observed (pardon my free adaptation of “Auf meiner Herzliebsten Äugelein”):
Were she faithful to me yet
I would sing a canzonet.
Could I even still esteem her
I should write in terza rima.
And if she had a heart upon it
I’d compose a lovely sonnet.
Contrast Dante’s eternal love with Beatrice to another poet’s idealized love, in Cantos XVIII to XX of the 1847 epic comedy Atta Troll. Like Dante, Heine finds himself in a dark wood, encounters the inhabitants of Hell, and loves a dead woman. The similarity ends there.
The poet has accompanied hunters to the Pyrenees in pursuit of the escaped dancing bear Atta Troll, a caricature of the contemporary poet Ferdinand Freiligrath’s Moorish king. On the surface, Heine has written an epic send-up of Karl Marx and his friends: Atta Troll proposes to lead the animals in a revolt against human oppression. Heine’s purposes, though, are deeper and darker. In a dream sequence, Heine envisions the wilde Jagd, the wild pack of hunters of German mythology. Hunters from all ages rode behind stags and boars, with Charles X riding next to Nimrod. Goethe and the goddess Diana also put in an appearance. Due to a scribal error the biblical figure of Herodias—the mother of Salome who instigated the murder of John the Baptist—was included in some versions of the wilde Jagd. Heine observes that in life she secretly loved the Baptist who of course ignored her, and out of spite had him beheaded. Now she rises nightly from her grave carrying his head on a charger, tossing it in the air like a mad child with a rubber ball. The Judean queen, Heine recounts, had had John the Baptist beheaded in love’s madness, adding, “Love’s madness? Pleonasm! Love already is madness.”
Heine falls desperately in love with this preposterous specter, who rides next to Diana and the fairy Abunda. “Love me, too, and be my love! Lose this Dummkopf and his charger,” pleads the poet. “I know that you are not only dead, but eternally damned—but I’m not prejudiced.” He promises to ride beside her each night and help her pass the time of her nightly haunt with jokes and pranks. During the day, Heine adds, he will lie upon her grave in Jerusalem and weep, and pious pilgrims will think that he is mourning the destruction of the Temple.
Here is the relevant text, from the rather dreadful (but copyright-free) translation of Atta Troll by Herman Scheffauer:
Ah, but thou, Herodias,
Say, where art thou? Ah, I know!
Thou art dead and buried deep
By Jerusholayim’s walls!
Corpse-like is thy sleep by day
In thy marble coffin laid,
But at midnight dost thou wake
To the crack of whips! . . .
Might but I, Herodias,
Ride at night through forests dark,
I would gallop at thy side!
For of all I love thee most!
More than any goddess Grecian,
More than any northern fay,
Do I love thee, Jewess dead!
Yea, I love thee most! Tis true,
By the trembling of my soul!
Love me too and be my sweet,
Love me too and be my love!
Fling that gory blockhead far
With its trencher. Sweeter dishes
I shall give thee to enjoy. . . .
What care I
If perchance thou’rt dead and damned
Prejudices I have none!
Is my own salvation not
In a parlous state? And oft
Do I question if my life
Still be linked with human lives.
Every night beside thee, love,
With this crazy horde I’ll ride,
And well kiss and thou shalt laugh
At my quips and merry pranks.
I will help thee speed the hours
Of the night. And yet by day
All my joy shall pass; in tears
I shall sit upon thy grave.
Aye, by day will I sit down
In the dust of kingly vaults,
At the grave of my beloved
By Jerusholayim’s walls!
Then the grey Jews passing by
Will imagine that I mourn
The destruction of thy temple
And thy gates, Jerusholayim.
Even the best English translation won’t convey the nastiness and nostalgia of Heine’s verse, which—rather like Dante’s—snaps shut like a steel trap.
Heine’s infatuation with the shade of Herodias expands the boundaries of the grotesque, but with a purpose. Contrast the dream sequence with Herodias to Heine’s later unfinished poem about the twelth-century Hebrew poet and philosopher Yehudah Halevi (in the 1905 translation of Margaret Armour):
And the hero whom we sing of,
Our Jehuda ben Halevy,
Had his heart’s beloved lady.
But a strange one he had chosen.
For the lady was no Laura,
She whose eyes, sweet mortal stars,
In the minster on Good Friday
Lit the fire forever famous —
Was no chatelaine who, radiant
In the bloom of youthful beauty,
O’er the tourneying presided.
And bestowed the wreath of laurel —
Was no casuist who lectured
On the law concerning kisses,
In the college of a court of
Love, a learned doctrinaire.
She, beloved of the Rabbi,
Was most sorrowful and wretched,
Piteous spectacle of ruin,
And was called Jerusalem.
“Daughter of Jerusalem” has been a synecdoche for the Jewish people from the time of Isaiah in the eighth century b.c. But the biblical metaphor reflects the nature of love: The beloved mediates our hopes for immortality. As I wrote in a recent comment on marriage, “it is a holy estate that permits the mating pair of humans to embed their reproductive in the eschatological hopes of their faith community. The propagation of the species in its animal characteristics is united with the continuity of the people of God.” Our love for our spouse should direct our physical desire and sentimental attachment towards the fulfillment of our greatest existential need: to live forever. This we do both by producing children and fulfilling a sacred function within a holy congregation.
The destruction of Jerusalem lurks in the background of all Jewish love. The crushing of the goblet from which bride and groom have drunk to their wedding vows recalls the destruction of the Temple in a.d. 70. If falling in love links the hope of immortality to the beloved, the love of a Jewish bride and groom is sad with the memory of the destruction of Jerusalem, and sweet with the expectation of its restoration.
Jerusalem as the poet’s beloved is the archetype of which Herodias is a lampoon. On the surface, the dream sequence with Herodias is a variant of a canonical Jewish joke whose point is that the more a Jew tries to escape being Jewish, the more Jewish he appears. A simpler case is the Jew who converts to the Episcopal Church and after a decent interval applies for membership in a restricted country club. Asked his religion, he replies, “Of course, I’m a goy.” The Jewish poet observing the wilde Jagd of German myth picks out the one Jewish rider (who is there due to a misunderstanding) and falls in love with her—appalling as she is—and expresses this love in a caricature of the traditional statement of Jewish love for the destroyed Temple.
In his infatuation for the monstrous Herodias, though, Heine sets into relief what real love must be: The longing for the beloved is inseparable from longing for Jerusalem. In his later, unfinished work on Yeduda Halevi, Heine offered the image of Jerusalem as the poet’s beloved, but the completion of the lengthy poem he attempted on this theme eluded him.
“I know that you’re dead, and even damned. But I’m not prejudiced,” Heine tells Herodias. This recalls a point made by Michael Wyschogrod in The Body of Faith: Eros and agape cannot be separated. Even in the most sublime and selfless love there is some element of erotic egotism, and even in the crassest exchange of physical pleasure there is some element of kindness and generosity. The Heinrich Heine of 1841, the erstwhile radical contemplating with horror the social revolution proposed by Marx and Freiligrath, cannot mourn the loss of the Temple. But a terrible longing for the grace he has abandoned overpowers him, and he falls hopelessly in love with the shade of Herodias. It is not simply that his grotesque infatuation with Herodias, severed head, charger and all, sets in relief the normative love for Jerusalem. Even this absurd love, for which he imagines weeping through the day upon Herodias’ grave in Jerusalem, takes the poet a step closer to what he should do, namely to weep for the destroyed Temple.
The sort of love that Dante postulates in La Vita Nuova and the Commedia is hermitically sealed off from the flesh; it is sublimated into a saintly benevolence that intercedes so that Dante may take his tour of Hell and Purgatory. Whether Dante actually loved Beatrice in quite this fashion, I doubt; that no man today will love an idealized woman in this fashion, I have no doubt at all. Yet even in the most troubled and misguided love, the hope of immortality must lurk somewhere in the background. In a secular world in which the sacred lives a furtive, hidden existence, love between men and women always conceals something of the sacred. We cannot live without the sacred; mortality is too terrible for humankind to bear without the hope of immortality. That’s why people fall in love—with the wrong people, and under the wrong circumstances, and often with awful consequences. Nonetheless they love, and as long as they love, the Transcendent is somehow accessible. And that, surprisingly, is why Heine has more to say to us today than Dante.
David P. Goldman is associate editor of First Things.