On das Ende des alten Geistes

“Yesterday evening Heinle and I found ourselves together on the way to Bellevue station. We spoke only of meaningless things. Then all at once he said: “Actually, I should really have a great deal to say to you.” Whereupon I invited him to go right ahead that it was high time. And since he really did want to tell me something, I was eager to hear it and at his urging went with him to his room.

I received a graphic novel, two science anthologies, an empty Pyrex dish, a stick of cucumber and mint deodorant, two sundresses, two pairs of underwear, a half-used pouch of facial wipes, a bag of coconut flour, a jar of xantham gum, two black pantyhose, two pairs of white ankle socks, a toothbrush with a cover, and a zippered pouch containing an orange hairband, a Midol, an aspirin, and two menstrual pads, along with a baby-blue paperback copy of Walter Benjamin’s Sonnets.

“At first we went over and over what had happened, trying to explain, and so forth. But soon we felt what it was about, and said as much: That it was very hard for the two of us to separate from each other. And I realized one thing that was the important aspect of this discussion, namely, that he knew perfectly well what he had done, or rather, it was no longer for him a matter of “knowing,” so definite and necessary did he really view our opposition to each other, just as I had expected he would. He placed himself over and against me in the name of Love, and I countered with the Symbol. You understand the simplicity and the richness of the friendship for us, how for us it contains both these things. The moment came when we confessed that we were up against fate: we said to each other that each could be in the other’s place.

I took out the Sonnets and offered it back.

“This is not mine.”

“With this discussion, which I am scarcely able to relay to you in this letter, we each withstood the sweetest temptation. He withstood the temptation of enmity, and offered me friendship, or at least brotherliness, from then on. I withstood by rejecting — you do see — what I could not accept.

To which I was met with resistance, and told, “It’s a gift.”

An hour later, alone, I opened the Sonnets. The 73 poems are Walter Benjamin’s mourning for his greatest (unknown) early companion, a man two years younger than himself named Christoph Friedrich “Fritz” Heinle, just 20 years old when he took his own life after the start of World War I. Walter spent three years writing the sonnets, never to publish them, and decades remembering Fritz, never to reconcile with his unfulfilled friendship.

Inside the Sonnets are three place-markers, cards that I had written myself months ago, selections from a set of offerings, given away, now tucked into certain poems having been returned to me.

The first card reads accompany —

No longer do the years resemble waves
When they draw down or lift an ocean vessel
I am steersman on the placid life
A trick the flock of sails did play on me

Which I took in upon that day
A goodly wind was filling them
Calm past naming went the broad face of the sea
To ponder things past under me

The mirror would in its pale hues
Did give itself to transformation without joy
Stooping to the water-bloom

I searched its dripping sheaves
For memories which soon found ruin
Inside the wave-ring of deceiving August.
(XV.)

The next card, be summoned —

When I begin a song
It ceases
And should I then perceive thee
Tis a phantom

So Love’s courting wished thee
Slight and small
That I should win thee for myself
With mere being alone

Thus thou didst escape me
Til I saw that
Nature heeds

But flawless pleas
And only shows to steps away from earth
The blessed trace.
(LVIII.)

The last card, will always —

If nights thou shouldst send me a song of thyself
So would in waking
I wish for it words among those
Which we spoke

When in twilight we plucked our sweet speech
Like ripe fruit from the tree
And wine woke in our glances
A hesitant laughter

Such fruit shall no more to us bend
And I only master
An endless unwearying woe

Which like a cistern
Reflecting the Idea
Grasps fruit and stars.
(LX.)

“The sonnets are about love and grief. As for the cards, I wish I had cashed them in sooner.”

“Sometimes I have thought that we two, Heinle and I, understand each other the best among all the people we know. But this is not quite right. Rather: Even though we are each other, each must of necessity stay true to his own spirit.”

Walter writing about Fritz, 1913

“I know too.”

“What you say about his [Brecht’s] influence over me causes me to recall an important and ever recurring constellation in my life. Such an influence did C.F. Heinle exert over me, in the view of my friends… In the economy of my being, a very few relationships which could easily be counted up play a role that lets me take possession of a pole opposed to the one which is mine by nature. These relationships have always provoked more or less vehement protest in those persons closest to me… In such a case I can do little more than entreat my friends to have faith that such ties, whose perilousness is plain to see, will show themselves to be fruitful.”

Walter remembering Fritz, 1934