Jewish Tragedy and Jewish Comedy in the Scholarly Work of Siegbert Prawer


Ritchie Robertson


Siegbert Prawer, Taylor Professor of German at Oxford from 1969 to 1987, was a charismatic figure, exceptional for his presence, his range of learning, and his enthusiasm for literature. Born in Cologne in 1925, he arrived in this country in the nick of time in 1939 with little knowledge of English. A few years later he won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, and was then a research student at Christ’s before taking up his first academic post at the University of Birmingham. He was then Professor of German at Westfield College, London, before moving to Oxford, where he was a Fellow of Queen’s, a college to which he remained deeply attached throughout his life.


Siegbert published sixteen books, from 1952 to 2009, including four on Heine, three on Thackeray, and four on cinema, in addition to a further three edited volumes. This is the more remarkable since he never moved into the electronic age but always wrote on a typewriter. All Siegbert’s books resulted from his enthusiasms, and his enthusiasm is infectiously present in every line. His writing has an unfailing combination of elegance and warmth.


The astonishing width of Siegbert’s reading is apparent especially from his book Comparative Literary Studies, which made him later the ideal President of the British Comparative Literary Association. His love of poetry is evident especially from his first book, German Lyric Poetry, and from his book on Eduard Mörike, Mörike und seine Leser, the only book he wrote in German. His German style is just as elegant as his English. His enthusiasm for both German poetry and music appears from one of his edited volumes, the Penguin Book of Lieder. As for cinema, a fascination with Gothic literature, the subject of his inaugural lecture at Westfield College London, led circuitously to his book Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, which shows how Gothic fiction was transmuted into a new genre. He followed this with studies of two films, Nosferatu and The Blue Angel, published by the British Film Institute, and with a book on German and Austrian film-makers in the English-speaking world.


Siegbert’s talent for drawing helps to explain the attraction to Thackeray, for Thackeray was an accomplished draughtsman and caricaturist who in some of his writings presents a kind of alter ego named Michael Angelo Titmarsh. But I think another reason for Siegbert’s attraction to Thackeray was his fondness for the early nineteenth century as a historical period. The authors he wrote about in most detail – Heine, Mörike, Thackeray, and of course Marx – belong to that period, and it was one in which Germany and Britain had their most vital interchanges.


Siegbert was intensely loyal to his Jewish heritage. Many of the figures he wrote about were Jewish writers and intellectuals, who lived for longer or shorter periods outside their native countries. Heinrich Heine, the subject of four monographs, emigrated to Paris in 1831, partly to avoid police harassment for his radical political views. Marx in 1849 moved to London, where he spent the rest of his life (he died in 1883); Freud moved there in 1938 and died the following year in Hampstead.


          The word ‘tragedy’ may bring the Holocaust to mind, which Siegbert narrowly escaped. However, Siegbert never wrote about the Holocaust, except in an in essay ‘Jewish Contributions to German Lyric Poetry’ (1964) and two years later in an essay on Paul Celan, one of the first to be published on this poet. Celan, who died in 1970, was still alive but had not yet published his last and most enigmatic collections; he was however famous for the poem ‘Todesfuge’ (‘Death Fugue’), and the later volume focusing on the Holocaust, Die Niemandsrose (1963). Writing about ‘Death Fugue’, Siegbert talks not only about the poem’s subject-matter but also about the poem as an experience, auditory and physical. The poem evokes a dance. Siegbert talks of its furious energy. Thus, in his reading, art could be thought to celebrate a kind of triumph even over a barbaric death. The poem is about death, but it is not itself deathly: it is testimony to the power of the spirit and the imagination.


Generally, however, Siegbert writes about the Jewish tragedy of exile, which he sees rather as a tragi-comedy. Hence the two sides of his perception are expressed in the complementary titles of two major books on Heine, Heine: The Tragic Satirist and Heine’s Jewish Comedy. These, like Karl Marx and World Literature, deal with aspects of Jewish life in the Diaspora during the age of emancipation, an age which can be dated from the first, halting efforts at Jewish emancipation in Austria and Germany in the 1780s via the full enfranchisement of German Jews with the unification of Germany in 1871 to the beginnings of hate-filled antisemitic campaigns under the pressure of the First World War. Life in the age of emancipation was not always comfortable. Jews were exposed to various kinds of prejudice and hostility. The rise of modern nationalism entailed an enmity to members of out-groups who were thought to threaten the homogeneity of the modern nation-state. Hence we find disturbingly antisemitic utterances, in the forms not only of private remarks but also of pamphlets and other publications, at the time of the Prussian campaign against Napoleon. – I hope you will forgive me if I say quite a lot about Heine: I have only written one book about him, an introductory account in the series ‘Jewish Thinkers’ published by Peter Halban, but the invitation to do so is something I owe to Siegbert, who was naturally approached by the publisher first to write about Heine, but, declined to write a fifth book on him and suggested me instead – for which I should like to express my gratitude.


Heine, living in this period, felt these tensions fully. He wrote in a letter of 7 March 1824 about the pain caused him by antisemitic assertions that a Jew could not be a German. He declared: ‘I am one of the most German beasts in existence. I love everything that is German more than anything else in the world, it is a joy to me, and my breast is an archive of German feeling, just as my two books are an archive of German song.’ Heine worked off his discomfort in irony and satire. This must have made him in some ways an uncomfortable writer for Siegbert. Siegbert’s temperament was kindly. He loved humour and fun – of which there is plenty in Heine – but did not care for harsh or bitter satire. Yet Heine’s satire is often bitter, cruel and malicious, though admittedly it is often turned against himself. Marx, too, especially in his correspondence with Engels, is withering in his scornful denunciations of many other exiles. Thus Siegbert dealt with writers whom he cannot have found entirely congenial. Hence perhaps his readings of Heine tend to accentuate the positive, to stress the resolution of conflicts in poetic harmony, in a way that does credit to his own humanity, while with Marx he stresses the humane and literature side of Marx more than the bitter controversialist. But let’s look at how Siegbert treats some difficult poems where Heine reflects on the Jewish tragedy of exile. Here is the early poem, ‘To Edom!’, in the translation by Hal Draper (a Californian Marxist who devoted thirty years of his life to translating all of Heine’s poems, with remarkable success):


          For millennia now, as brothers,

          We’ve borne with each other an age;

          You bear the fact I’m still breeathing,

          And I – I bear your rage.


          But often you got in strange tempers

          In dark times since the Flood,

          And your meekly loving talons

          You dyed in my red blood.


          And now our friendship grows firmer

          And daily increases anew,

          For I too have started raging –

          I’m becoming much like you!


This poem is alluded to by Paul Celan, who quotes the line ‘In dark times since the Flood’ at the beginning of a poem in which he defends himself against attacks which he considered to be antisemitic. Siegbert comments: ‘No work of Heine’s had ever adopted the persona of a Jew more unequivocally than this bitter parody of emancipation in which we see Israel taking on not the virtues but the vices, or the raging madness, of Edom. But as yet – so the wording of the last two lines proclaims to all who have ears to hear – Israel has not gone as far as Edom down the slippery slope’ (Heine’s Jewish Comedy, p. 80).


                    Marx is a more difficult case. As Siegbert points out in his book Karl Marx and World Literature, his main statement on Judaism was the essay ‘On the Jewish Question’, in which (Siegbert notes) ‘he adopts the common prejudice of identifying the Jew with gross and unrelieved commercialism and chooses to overlook the Jewish traditions of spirituality, intellectual adventurousness, altruism, and prophetic fervour whose heir he himself unwillingly was’ (Karl Marx and World Literature, p. 61). Here Siegbert deftly turns Marx against himself, by showing that the prophetic fervour with which Marx denounces supposedly Jewish commercialism is itself an expression of the Jewish spirit.


          The book Heine, the Tragic Satirist leads up to a fine and moving account of the tragedy in Heine’s personal life. At the age of fifty, Heine was struck down by a disease which has never been identified with certainty, although recent opinions emphasize the likelihood of syphilis. He suffered for the last eight years of his life from a paralysis which affected different parts of his body. Sometimes he could only see by holding his one seeing eye open with his hand. He suffered from agonizing cramps which rolled him up into a ball. He was cared for devotedly by his wife Mathilde (as he called her; her name was Crescence-Eugénie Mirat, which Heine claimed he could not pronounce). This personal tragedy brought about in Heine a return to God. He read the Bible again. He claimed to have rediscovered religion. But what religion? Not Christianity; he continued to make unflattering remarks about Christianity. An affinity with Judaism is implied when he speaks of his ‘serious conversations with Jehovah at night’, and when writing to his brother he says ‘May the God of our fathers keep you’. But his dialogues with Jehovah were arguments,. He disputed with God as Job and Jeremiah did. Siegbert quotes the latter: ‘Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? Wherefore are they happy that deal treacherously?’ He then discusses a late poem by Heine which might be classified as cosmic satire:


          Drop those holy parables and

          Pietist hypotheses:

          Answer us these damning questions –

          No evasions, if you please.


          Why do just men stagger, bleeding,

          Crushed beneath their cross’s weight,

          While the wicked ride the high horse,

          Happy victors blest by fate?


          Who’s to blame? Is God not mighty,

          Not with power panoplied?

          Or is evil His own doing?

          Ah, that would be vile indeed.


          Thus we ask and keep on asking,

          Till a handful of cold clay

          Stops our mouths at last securely –

          But pray tell, is that an answer?


Siegbert’s comment on this poem analyses its mood with precision: ‘This is not the poetry of a repentant prodigal. There is no sense of sin, no willing submission, no sense of standing in need of divine grace. The tone is proud and peremptory; [it] even smack[s] of contempt, the contempt of the creature for its unjust maker. But neither is this poetry self-sufficiently defiant, the work of a man who feels no need of God and refuses to acknowledge His existence. It is rather the work of a poet lost in the dark night of the soul, unable to find his way back to the peace which submission to God’s will can give’ (Heine, the Tragic Satirist, p. 235).


          Siegbert was temperamentally more inclined to comedy than tragedy. Hence the immense book Heine’s Jewish Comedy: A Study of his Portraits of Jews and Judaism (1983). I will just give one example of Heine’s comedy – rather a sad comedy. Heine wrote three novels, all of them unfinished. One is called From the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski. This ends with the story of a devout Jew known as little Samson. ‘Little Samson’ is itself an oxymoron. The modern Jew is a small, puny figure, contrasted almost absurdly with the Biblical hero. But little Samson bravely persists in believing in God, although God seems to neglect him. ‘God never came to the aid of little Samson, although the latter constantly championed his cause. Despite such divine indifference and almost human ingratitude little Samson remained a constant champion of Theism, out of what I believe to have been an inborn inclination. For his ancestors belonged to God’s Chosen People, a people that God once protected with especial fondness and that has therefore retained a measure of loyalty and affection for the good Lord right up to the present hour.’ However, little Samson gets into an argument with an atheist, whom Siegbert describes as a ‘latter-day Philistine’ (Heine’s Jewish Comedy, p. 241). The atheist thinks the universe is only a huge clock. Little Samson replies: ‘At Frankfurt I once saw a watch that did not believe in the existence of a watchmaker. It was pinchbeck and went very badly.’ This remark so enrages the atheist that they fight a duel. But God leaves little Samson in the lurch. He is stabbed through the lungs, bandaged, and brought to bed, where he has the story of Samson and the Philistines read aloud to him. He keeps interrupting the reading by recalling occasions on which he was maltreated and humiliated by the modern Philistines. Then the reader comes to the part where Samson, enslaved and blinded, pulls down the pillars of the house where he is imprisoned and destroys his enemies:


          ‘At this little Samson opened his eyes uncannily wide, raised himself convulsively, grasped the two pillars at the foot of his bed and shook them,, stammering angrily: “Let my soul die with the Philistines.” But the strong pillars of his bed remained immovable; exhausted, the little man fell back on his pillows with a melancholy smile, and from his wound, whose bandage had become displaced, a red stream of blood oozed out.’


          As Siegbert observes, little Samson is ‘a symbolic creation, suggesting the physical weakness of ghetto Jews while also showing us how brave a spirit may dwell in a feeble body, how religious Jews may be more admirable than the God they serve, and how for all the valiant efforts of its champion, theism was – Heine was coming to believe – doomed in nineteenth-century Europe. Whatever the reader may forget about Schnabelewopski, he will surely carry with him for ever that final melancholy smile of the dying little Jew, who had done his best but had not found himself able to emulate, in a modern, unheroic world, the feats of his biblical namesake’ (Heine’s Jewish Comedy, p. 243).


          Let me now strike a somewhat lighter note. The superiority of the Jew as a humane and peaceable being over the loutish Philistines around him in the Diaspora is also a theme in one of Siegbert’s earliest publications, dating from 1950 - an essay published in the Cambridge Journal, a monthly publication edited by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, under the title ‘The Jew and the General’. It’s about Jewish jokes, and is also a serious reflection on the experience of Jews in the Diaspora and on how the Jewish joke has enabled them to relieve a series of tensions between membership of Jewish civilization and citizenship of their host country. A series of Jewish jokes is interspersed with commentary whose references range from the Talmud and Philo of Alexandria down to Freud and the then recent Kinsey Report. It conveys both Siegbert’s sense of fun, which we all remember, and the essential importance to him of being a Jew. To give the flavour, I’ll end by repeating the story of the Jew and the general.


          ‘In a railway carriage of Czarist Russia a general [who of course is an antisemite], sitting opposite a Jew, makes his dog perform all sorts of tricks. “Moishe (i.e. Moses)”, he calls to it, “stand on your hind legs! Moishe, fetch this newspaper! Moishe, jump over this stick!” then, turning to the Jew: “Well, Yid, how do you like my dog?” “He’s very clever,” answers his fellow-traveller; “if you hadn’t given him a Jewish name, he’d be a general by now.”’


          I want to end with a general point. In his studies of Marx, Heine, and Freud, Siegbert always aims to get beyond their local prejudices and their frequent satirical malice and treat them as ‘cultural citizens of the world’ – the title of his last book, which deal with Freud’s use of English-language literature. In the case of Marx, Siegbert draws attention to his humane use of literature to extend the imaginative force of his writings. ‘in his private life Marx constantly demonstrates the way in which literature may embellish, enliven, and heighten existence. … He reads tales an poems with his children, and invents tales of his own based on folklore or German Romantic literature. … He characterizes his acquaintances by means of literary nicknames culled from the works of Shakespeare or Dickens or George Eliot. He reads imaginative works in Greek, in Latin, in Spanish, in Russian, in French, in English, and in German for refreshment and for enlightenment. As a public figure, too, as author and as orator, Marx constantly draws on the writers of past and present whose work he admires. He adopts, for polemical purposes, the voce of Aeschylus’ Prometheus, Shakespeare’s Thersites, and Goethe’s Mephistopheles’ (Karl Marx and World Literature, pp. 415-16). In short, Siegbert presents Marx as somebody whose humane love of literature transcended his petty antagonisms. All his books are thus tributes to the power of literature to civilize and humanize.



Select Bibliography


Besides Siegbert’s books and published lectures, this list includes some articles on Jewish topics. He normally published under the name S.S. Prawer.


‘The Jew and the General’, Cambridge Journal, 3 (1950), 345‑55


German Lyric Poetry: A Critical Analysis of Selected Poems from Klopstock to Rilke (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952)


Heine: ‘Buch der Lieder’, Studies in German Literature, 1 (London: Arnold, 1960)


Mörike und seine Leser: Versuch einer Wirkungsgeschichte (Stuttgart: Klett, 1960)


Heine, the Tragic Satirist: A Study of the Later Poetry, 1827‑1856 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961)


‘Jewish contributions to German lyric poetry’, Year Book of the Leo Baeck Institute, 8 (1963), 149‑70


(Ed.) The Penguin Book of Lieder, with introduction, notes and translations (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964)


The ‘Uncanny’ in Literature: An Apology for its Investigation, an inaugural lecture delivered at Westfield College, London, 2 February 1965


‘Paul Celan’, in Brian Keith‑Smith (ed.), Essays on Contemporary German Literature (London: Wolff, 1966), pp. 161‑84


Heine’s Shakespeare: A Study in Contexts, an inaugural lecture delivered before the University of Oxford on 5 May 1970 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970)


(Ed., with introduction) The Romantic Period in Germany: Essays by Members of the London Institute of Germanic Studies (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970)


(Ed.) Seventeen Modern German Poets, with introduction and notes, Clarendon German Series (London: Oxford University Press, 1971)


Comparative Literary Studies: An Introduction (London: Duckworth, 1973)


Karl Marx and World Literature (London: Oxford University Press, 1976)


Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980)


Heine’s Jewish Comedy: A Study of his Portraits of Jews and Judaism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983)


Coal‑Smoke and Englishmen: A Study of Verbal Caricature in the Writings of Heinrich Heine, the 1983 Bithell Memorial Lecture (London: Institute of Germanic Studies, 1984)


‘The death of Sigismund Markus: the Jews of Danzig in the fiction of Günter Grass’, in Isadore Twersky (ed.), Danzig, Between East and West: Aspects of Modern Jewish History (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 93‑108


Frankenstein’s Island: England and the English in the Writings of Heinrich Heine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)


‘"Das verfluchte Gemauschel": Jiddische Dichtung im Kampf der Sprachen’, in Albrecht Schöne (ed.), Akten des VII. Internationalen Germanisten‑Kongresses Göttingen 1985, vol. 1: Ansprachen, Plenarvorträge, Berichte (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1986), pp. 97‑110


‘In honour of Professor Chone Shmeruk’ [in Yiddish], Oksforder Yidish, 1 (1990)


Israel at Vanity Fair: Jews and Judaism in the Writings of W. M. Thackeray (Leiden: Brill, 1992)


‘Moses Mendelssohn zwischen Heine und Marx. Ein Kapitel deutsch-jüdischer Wirkungsgeschichte’, Wolfenbütteler Studien zur Aufklärung, 19 (1994), 411-30


Breeches and Metaphysics: Thackeray’s German Discourse (Oxford: Legenda, 1997)


W.M. Thackeray’s European Sketchbooks (Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, 2001)


The Blue Angel (London: British Film Institute, 2002)


Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (London: British Film Institute, 2004)


Between Two Worlds: The Jewish Presence in German and Austrian Film, 1910-1933 (New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 2005)


A Cultural Citzen of the World: Sigmund Freud’s Knowledge and Use of British and America Writings (London: Legenda, 2009)


‘Childe Harold’s Jewish Pilgrimage: Byron meets Yiddish poetry in Expressionist Berlin’, Oxford German Studies, 41 (2012), 1-14