Inspired by the Past

Mount Moriah, painted by JMW Turner.

Snippets 159. Christian Johann Heinrich Heine was a German lyric poet, whose words were set to music by composers including Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann. In his memoirs, published posthumously in 1884, he mentions his uncle, who was a source of inspiration to Heine due to his love of books. The first quote is a quick and amusing description of his uncle Simon von Geldern (or Simon de Geldern in the 1884 translation):

He was always dressed in an old-fashioned manner, wore short breeches, white silk stockings, buckles on his shoes, and according to the old custom a pigtail of considerable length, which, when the little man was tripping through the streets, flew from one shoulder to the other, cut all kinds of capers, and seemed to mock his master behind his back.

Often, when my good uncle was sitting absorbed in thought or reading his paper, the wicked desire seized me to take hold of his little pigtail and to pull it as if it were a bell-rope. This exasperated my uncle very much, and he began wringing his hands over the young generation, which had no longer respect for anything, which could be kept in bounds neither by divine nor human authority, and which would finally lay its hands even upon the holiest.

But although, the exterior of the man was not made to command respect, his interior, his heart, was the more estimable, and it was the most honest and the most noble heart that I have met with on this earth.

While Heine was still a child, his uncle gave him “the most beautiful and most precious books”, and also allowed him to read books from his own collection. The book that fascinated him the most was a notebook written by Heine’s great uncle, an adventurous traveller known to his family as the “Chevalier” or the “Oriental”, and also named Simon von Geldern. Heine relates something of the man’s adventures:

He made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and upon Mount Moriah he had a vision during an ecstasy of prayer. What did he see? He never revealed it.

An independent tribe of Bedouins, that did not profess Islamism but a kind of Mosaism, and which had their resting place, so to say, in one of the unknown oases of the north African desert, chose him for their leader or sheik. This warlike little nation lived in continual feuds with all the neighboring tribes, and was the terror of the caravans. To speak in plain terms, my deceased great uncle, the pious visionary of the holy Mount Moriah, became the captain of a band of robbers in Africa. In that beautiful country he also acquired his knowledge of horse-breeding, and those equestrian accomplishments on account of which, after his return to Europe, he was so much admired.

At the different courts, where he stopped for a long period, he was conspicuous by his personal beauty and imposing appearance, and also by the splendor of his oriental dress, which, especially upon the women, exercised a magic influence. Perhaps the greatest impression was that which he made with his pretended secret knowledge, and nobody dared to depreciate the mighty necromancer to his high patrons. The spirits of intrigue were afraid of the spirits of the Cabala.

Naught but his own recklessness was able to ruin him, and my old aunts used to shake their little gray heads in a peculiarly mysterious manner, when they were speaking in whispers about the gallant relations which the “Oriental” held with a very high-born lady, and the discovery of which forced him to leave in great haste the court and the country. Only by taking to flight and leaving behind him all his possessions, was he able to avoid certain death, and to his tried horsemanship he owed his safety…

From the note-book of my great-uncle I could not obtain much reliable information; it was mostly written, perhaps out of precaution, in Arabic, Syriac and Coptic characters, intermingled curiously enough with French quotations…

An enigma difficult to comprehend was this great-uncle of mine. He led one of those odd existences which were only possible at the commencement and during the middle of the eighteenth century. He was on the one side somewhat of a dreamer, who made a propaganda for cosmopolitan and Utopian ideas for the benefit of the world; and, on the other side, one of those adventurers who, confiding in their individual superiority, either break down the rotten boundaries of a rotten society or else disregard them. At any rate, he was a genuine man…

However that may be, my great-uncle occupied the imagination of the boy to an extraordinary degree. All that was told about him made an ineffaceable impression upon my young mind, and I entered so deeply into his wanderings and fortunes, that often, in clear daylight, an uncomfortable feeling seized me, and it seemed to me as if I were myself the deceased great-uncle who had died long ago, and that my life was only the continuation of his.

During the night it was reproduced retrospectively in my dreams…

In these dreams I identified myself entirely with my great-uncle, and at the same time it horrified me that I was, so to say, somebody else, and belonged to another period. There were localities which I had never seen before; there were situations of which hitherto I had had no idea, and nevertheless I moved in them not only without hesitation but with ease.

There I met persons clad in brightly-colored and singular costumes, with peculiarly wild physiognomies, whose hands, nevertheless, I pressed like those of old acquaintances; I not only understood their strange language, which I had never heard before, but I answered them even in the same language, gesticulating at the same time with a vivacity to which I was unaccustomed, and, still more, saying things which disagreeably jarred with my ordinary manner of thinking.

Was this just inspiration, or something more? Who knows.

Mount Moriah, painted by JMW Turner.

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Autobiographies, Books, History, Inspiration, Memoirs, People, Snippets, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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