Heine's Critical Secularism
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boundary 2 31.2 (2004) 149-171



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Heine's Critical Secularism

Heinrich Heine's secularism is of a particular kind. Occupying a prominent, if not dominant, place in his writing, the secularist impulse plays a central role in his poetry and prose. But rather than taking secularization as a universal yardstick to measure success or failure of the project of Enlightenment and historical progress, his poetic project reflects the problem of secularism in a critical fashion. Heine resists the temptation of unreservedly subscribing to the imperatives of secularization, as if they would not warrant careful examination of their hidden assumptions and implications. Rather, and more critically, he inscribes and rewrites secularization in a manner that offers a self-consciously creative reinscription of the past and present. As a consequence, Heine's critical secularism presents an alternative approach that prompts us to take a fresh look at current discussions on secularism.

In resolutely critical response to the exigencies of his time, Heine engages in the cause of secularization with a different sense of urgency than his contemporaries. Yet, in doing so, he never loses sight of the profound ambivalence of the implications of secularization for the meaning of modernity. Heine's writing addresses secularization as the formidable problem and [End Page 149] challenge of modernity rather than simply as the solution. Liberating, yet, at the same time, profoundly challenging, secularism is for Heine a constitutive moment in the experience of modernity. As a result, modernity emerges in Heine's work as a project deeply steeped in the problems of secularization.

But Heine's project sets itself apart from other discourses of secularism. Against the impasse of the alternative of either forsaking all religious intentions for a modern atheism or invoking some religious authenticity that would acknowledge secularization simply as validation of its own deeper truth, he takes a different approach. Born and raised as a member of the generation of the grandchildren of Moses Mendelssohn, the great champion of German Jewish emancipation, Heine responds to the predicament of the precarious legal, social, political, and cultural status of German Jews with a keen sense of the problem of secularization in modern society. From the point of view of Heine and his Jewish contemporaries, secularization never would nor could present an unproblematic final answer to theology's long anachronistic hold. In their eyes, even the most advanced forms of secularism at hand betrayed too much of a Christian particularism to justify any claim to universalism. In a way, their Jewish particularity served as a critical test case for gauging exactly how nineteenth-century variants of European secularisms would work out.

For Heine, who once quipped that the entry ticket to European culture came in the form of baptism,1 secularism presented a project that called for a critical grasp of the problem of religion. After all, he soon was to learn that instead of gaining acceptance and respectability, his baptism stamped him once more as a stereotypical Jew, only this time without the possibility to wash off his Jewishness by holy water.2 Reducing religion to either universal theological truth or socially acceptable form of superstition was no longer a viable option for him.

As early nineteenth-century forms of European secularism showed their theological underpinnings, it became increasingly clear that no gesture of radically cutting off the theological and religious roots would ever lead to complete secularization that would no longer privilege one form of religion [End Page 150] over others. Rather, it became increasingly clear that secularization meant an ongoing process whose success would depend on the continuing recognition and critique of its theological and religious underpinnings.

Heine's signal contribution to the genealogy of a critical notion of secularism consists in the creative recovery and working through of this problematic. While other critics posit the process of secularization as narrative following a simple, straightforward trajectory from religion to its disenchantment, demise, and dissolution, Heine presents a theory and practice of secularization that engages religious difference as a critical force that highlights secularization in both its enabling and disabling aspects. Whimsically, but with a critical...