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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Philistine of Berlin

By Heinrich Heine (1797–1856)

From ‘Italy’: Translation of Charles Godfrey Leland

I AM the politest man in the world. I am happy in the reflection that I have never been rude in this life, where there are so many intolerable scamps who take you by the button and draw out their grievances, or even declaim their poems—yes, with true Christian patience have I ever listened to their misereres without betraying by a glance the intensity of ennui and of boredom into which my soul was plunged. Like unto a penitential martyr of a Brahmin, who offers up his body to devouring vermin, so that the creatures (also created by God) may satiate their appetites, so have I for a whole day taken my stand and calmly listened as I grinned and bore the chattering of the rabble, and my internal sighs were only heard by Him who rewards virtue.

But the wisdom of daily life enjoins politeness, and forbids a vexed silence or a vexatious reply, even when some chuckle-headed “commercial councilor” or barren-brained cheesemonger makes a set at us, beginning a conversation common to all Europe with the words, “Fine weather to-day.” No one knows but that we may meet that same Philistine again, when he may wreak bitter vengeance on us for not politely replying, “It is very fine weather.” Nay, it may even happen, dear reader, that thou mayest, some fine day, come to sit by the Philistine aforesaid in the inn at Cassel, and at the table d’hôte, even by his left side, when he is exactly the very man who has the dish with a jolly brown carp in it, which he is merrily dividing among the many. If he now chance to have some ancient grudge against thee, he pushes away the dish to the right, so that thou gettest not the smallest bit of tail, and therewith canst not carp at all. For, alas! thou art just the thirteenth at table, which is always an unlucky thing when thou sittest at the left hand of the carver and the dish goes around to the right. And to get no carp is a great evil—perhaps, next to the loss of the national cockade, the greatest of all. The Philistine who has prepared this evil now mocks thee with a heavy grin, offering thee the laurel leaves which lie in the brown sauce. Alas! what avail laurels, if you have no carp with them; and the Philistine twinkles his eyes and snickers, and whispers, “Fine weather to-day!”

Ah! dear soul, it may even happen to thee that thou wilt at last come to lie in some church-yard next to that same Philistine, and when on the Day of Judgment thou hearest the trumpet sound, and sayest to thy neighbor, “Good friend, be so kind as to reach me your hand, if you please, and help me to stand up; my left leg is asleep with this damned long lying still!”—then thou wilt suddenly remember the well-known Philistine laugh, and wilt hear the mocking tones of “Fine weather to-day!”

“Foine wey-ther to-day!”

O reader, if you could only have heard the tone—the incomparable treble-base—in which these words were uttered, and could have seen the speaker himself,—the arch-prosaic, widow’s-savings-bank countenance, the stupid-cute eyelets, the cocked-up, cunning, investigating nose,—you would at once have said, “This flower grew on no common sand, and these tones are in the dialect of Charlottenburg, where the tongue of Berlin is spoken even better than in Berlin itself.”

I am the politest man in the world. I love to eat brown carps, and I believe in the resurrection. Therefore I replied, “In fact, the weather is very fine.”

When the son of the Spree heard that, he grappled boldly on me, and I could not escape from his endless questions, to which he himself answered; nor, above all, from his comparisons between Berlin and Munich, which latter city he would not admit had a single good hair growing on it.

I, however, took the modern Athens under my protection, being always accustomed to praise the place where I am. Friend reader, if I did this at the expense of Berlin, you will forgive me when I quietly confess that it was done out of pure policy, for I am fully aware that if I should ever begin to praise my good Berliners, my renown would be forever at an end among them; for they would begin at once to shrug their shoulders, and whisper to one another, “The man must be uncommonly green: he even praises us!” No town in the world has so little local patriotism as Berlin. A thousand miserable poets have, it is true, long since celebrated Berlin both in prose and in rhyme, yet no cock in Berlin crowed their praise and no hen was cooked for them, and “under the Lindens” they were esteemed miserable poets as before….

But after all, between you and me, reader, when it comes to calling the whole town “a new Athens,” the designation is a little absurd; and it costs me not a little trouble to represent it in this light. This went home to my very heart in the dialogue with the Berlin Philister, who, though he had conversed for some time with me, was unpolite enough to find an utter want of the first grain of Attic salt in the new Athens.

“That,” he cried tolerably loudly, “is only to be found in Berlin. There, and there only, is wit and irony. Here they have good white beer, but no irony.”

“No, we haven’t got irony,” cried Nannerl, the pretty, well-formed waiting-maid, who at this instant sprang past us; “but you can have any other sort of beer.”

It grieved me to the heart that Nannerl should take irony to be any sort of beer, were it even the best brew of Stettin; and to prevent her from falling in future into such errors, I began to teach her after the following wise:—“Pretty Nannerl, irony is not beer, but an invention of the Berlin people,—the wisest folks in the world,—who were awfully vexed because they came too late into the world to invent gunpowder, and therefore undertook to find out something which should answer as well. Once upon a time, my dear, when a man had said or done something stupid, how could the matter be helped? That which was done could not be undone, and people said that the man was an ass. That was disagreeable. In Berlin, where the people are shrewdest, and where the most stupid things happen, the people soon found out the inconvenience. The government took hold of the matter vigorously: only the greater blunders were allowed to be printed, the lesser were simply suffered in conversation; only professors and high officials could say stupid things in public, lesser people could only make asses of themselves in private: but all of these regulations were of no avail; suppressed stupidities availed themselves of extraordinary opportunities to come to light, those below were protected by those above, and the emergency was terrible, until some one discovered a reactionary means whereby every piece of stupidity could change its nature, and even be metamorphosed into wisdom. The process is altogether plain and easy, and consists simply in a man’s declaring that the stupid word or deed of which he has been guilty was meant ironically. So, my dear girl, all things get along in this world: stupidity becomes irony, toadyism which has missed its aim becomes satire, natural coarseness is changed to artistic raillery, real madness is humor, ignorance real wit, and thou thyself art finally the Aspasia of the modern Athens.”

I would have said more, but pretty Nannerl, whom I had up to this point held fast by the apron-string, broke away loose by main force, as the entire band of assembled guests began to roar for “A beer! a beer!” in stormy chorus. But the Berliner himself looked like irony incarnate as he remarked the enthusiasm with which the foaming glasses were welcomed, and after pointing to a group of beer-drinkers who toasted their hop nectar and disputed as to its excellence, he said smiling, “Those are your Athenians!”