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Heller; High Water.

My reacquaintance with Erich Heller, my undergraduate mentor (not that he knew he was), via a memoir by his niece Caroline (who after several email exchanges I now consider a friend), took place over weeks of summer storms. Every hot afternoon burst out at around four with torrents that ran down Rokeby Avenue and made a real river of it. Branches and hydrangea blossoms from the town’s gardens rode the rapids, and Garrett Parkers knew they’d spend the evening, once the water receded, picking among plant matter for pieces liable to trip up bicycles.

I watched the river while re-reading Heller on Hamlet, with particular attention – because of her rivery death – to his evocation of Ophelia:

In Hamlet it so happens that a rose is taken from the fair forehead of an innocent love and a blister put in its place; that sexual love is sickened by the germ of corruption that, waiting for its occasion, always dwells in it; and that the thought of the marriage bed becomes unendurable to a prince of the mind because it is the couch of the mésalliance between the inner truth and the outer act…

Dead Ophelia drifted down Rokeby while I ruminated on temperament and metaphysics, on Heller himself as a prince of the mind for whom the thought of the marriage bed was unendurable.

I flashed too, gazing at the high water, on a scene in Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook, where her main character, Anna, overhears her homosexual tenants talking about women:

She heard: ‘Fat buttocky cows…’ That was Ivor’s voice, and he added an obscene noise. Then Ronnie’s voice: ‘Sagging sweaty breasts…’

I thought of that scene because I was aware, even as a clueless nineteen year old Northwestern University undergraduate, of Erich Heller’s disesteem for women. As I understood more about his life, I grasped that its pinnacle was his participation in Cantab tutorials attended largely, I guess, by closeted savants. And I began to grasp – vaguely – that Heller’s revulsion at the physical world was metaphysical, that “neither the premeditated act of love nor the premeditated act of murder [we’re back at his Hamlet essay] can in its poor simple-mindedness express the complexities of the inner spirit… [Hamlet narrates] a noble insurrection of the purest inner spirit against all the crudities, awkwardnesses, and futilities of the material medium.”


Now, wee UD had infinite respect for this mésalliance business; she thrilled each time Heller quoted Nietzsche’s version of it:

Modern man … drags a huge crowd of indigestible rocks of knowledge around inside him, which then occasionally audibly bang around in his body, as it says in fairy tales. Through this noise the most characteristic property of this modern man reveals itself: the remarkable conflict on the inside, to which nothing on the outside corresponds, and an outside to which nothing inside corresponds, a conflict of which ancient peoples were ignorant. Knowledge, taken up to excess without hunger, even in opposition to any need, now works no longer as something which reorganizes, a motivation driving outwards. It stays hidden in a certain chaotic inner world, which that modern man describes with a strange pride as an “Inwardness” peculiar to him.

Hence Heller’s high esteem for poets like Rilke, who traced the dissolution of the outer world, and the cultivation – for the poetic few – of a rich, non-rocky, inner world. “Nowhere, beloved, will world be, but within,” wrote Rilke, and Heller in class quoted this too, all the time, and it was clear that the embodied world – not merely in its most embodied, female, form – was disgusting (indeed, in Heller’s traumatic personal history, external social reality was little more than recurrent scenes of atrocities), and that in any case the business of being modern – which is to say secular, lacking the shared spiritual community that, as Nietzsche says, “ancient peoples” took for granted – landed one hopelessly in Hamlet’s bitter paralytic conflict between a rich inner life and an outer world that utterly failed to jibe with it.

Another way of thinking about the mismatch would be to say that, although secular, we remain religious souls, fitted for, designed to believe innately in, a world of transcendent meanings and the “preconceived objectivities” (temples, monuments) that express them. We even retain religious guilt – but with no clear object prompting or giving meaning to it. This is the great Franz Kafka theme (Heller was a great scholar of Kafka), most dramatically embodied in poor Georg Bendemann in the short story “The Judgment.”

The only route out of this corrosive disappointment amounting at times to terror lies in Rilkean aestheticism, in the working out of a “pure spirit, taking within [it] into [its] disembodied condition ‘all torment, trouble, wonder, and amazement’ that inhabit ‘this fearful country’ of the senses.” (His quotations are from The Tempest.) It’s a modern version of Keep your mind in hell and do not despair – have the courage and clarity to acknowledge just how hideous modern? fallen? take your pick – life is. Internalize that vileness and still fail to despair – fail to be Hamlet. Find within your personal faith, your personal metaphysics, your personal aesthetics, a way not to be drowned in this monstrous torrent.


And yet, and yet, and yet (Heller loved this formulation and began lots of his comments with it) we are free to fail to recognize ourselves in this radically individuated, crisis-ridden picture. Temperament, metaphysics… How much of Heller’s take on, preference for, obsession with, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Kafka (rather than with, say, deleriously down and dirty Henry Miller, or unproblematically socially engaged Bernard Shaw) reflects his native aloofness (which seems to have transmuted over the course of his life to loneliness, attested to by his solitary suicide) and introspection?

If you want to be non-negotiably disgusted by the world, the world will always oblige, after all. Out here, never rains but it pours.

Margaret Soltan, August 17, 2020 10:15AM
Posted in: snapshots from home

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One Response to “Heller; High Water.”

  1. University Diaries » “[He] opposed all malicious gossip, stopping all such gossipers with a trademark Tommy line — ‘forgive me, but it’s hard to be a human.’” Says:

    […] me. Consider one such that I wrote about not long ago – my Northwestern University professor, Erich Heller. I gather, from reading about it, that Heller’s life sort of tapered to an end and he just got […]

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