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Nathan the Wise.

A Medley

from Then and Now – Opus 1

(Illustration by Alan Dixon)

THE MIDDLE SECTION of this poem is a translation of Act III, sc. 4–7 of G.E. Lessing’s Nathan der Weise (1779).  Of this popular classic Heinrich Heine – who had the greatest respect for Lessing – wrote in On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1835) that it was not only a good comedy but also a philosophical and theological discourse in favour of deism (the belief in a divine Creator who then refrained from intervening in the world).  Be this as it may, I have used the verse-form of Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen (cf. my NOTES to ‘Words in the Dark’ 3, here) for the opening and closing sections of the ‘medley’. 

As regards this sort of writing, Walter Benjamin wrote: “Quotations in my work are like robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieve an idler of his convictions.”  This is (of course) not always the case with either Benjamin’s quotations or my own.  Nevertheless, quotations – frequently in the form of translation – and, also, adaptation of other authors’ texts, are two Modernist techniques employed here and there throughout Then and Now.  In ‘Nathan the Wise – A Medley’, my aim in the middle section was to ‘quote’ Lessing’s original as closely as seemed compatible with producing an English poem, whereas the Heinesque stanzas before and after it confine themselves to adopting and adapting one of Heine’s best-known verse-forms and its concomitant tone.

In the ‘Paralipomena’ to Nathan, Lessing admitted to disregarding historical accuracy to suit his purposes.  However, he seems to have envisaged the action of his play (whose scene is Jerusalem) as taking place, roughly speaking, during some pause in the siege of St. John of Acre (or Ptolomais) in 1189–91.

When Saladin captured Jerusalem,
Resurrecting the eternal question
Of who should rule the Holy Land –
Moslem (or Jew) or Christian? –

Though the kings and queens of Jerusalem
Had neglected their Christian duty,
And long indulged in vice and intrigue
And a predilection for booty,

Richard I and Philip of France
And a band of zealous Crusaders
Set sail to wreak their righteous wrath
On the Saracen invaders.

And Kaiser Rotbart led a host
Of the Good against this Badness:
Alas, he drowned while bathing in
The River Calycadnus!

Since when he waits with his band of knights,
In a mountain called Kyffhäuser –
“Man baute nicht Rom an einem Tag” –
To return as Germany’s Kaiser…

But the royal fleets hove to – where a siege
Was already in furious session –
At Acre, which the Moslems held:
Nine tenths of the game is possession.

The soldiers of Christ and the Prophet fought;
An uneasy truce resulted.
The French and English squabbled and bitched.
The Jews were not consulted,

So Nathan went on a business trip
To Babylon, where he made an
Outstanding profit, both in cash
And camels, fully laden.

With soldiers of fortune everywhere,
Out to pillage and forage,
This journey of several hundred miles
Took cunning as well as courage.

Back home in Jerusalem, a fire
Had almost killed his daughter:
A Templar had risked his life for hers,
Malgré the general slaughter.

Recha was eighteen years of age.
Which father would not have exchanged all
He had to save her life? She thought
Her rescuer was an angel.

The proud young Templar’s life had been spared
By Saladin, no other,
Because, as the Sultan raised his sword,
He saw his younger brother,

Assad, who twenty years before
Had inexplicably vanished.
Saladin’s scimitar sank to the ground
And the Templar fled, astonished.

When Nathan tried to thank him, he
Declared he’d have no dealings
With well-off Jews – even if he hurt
A young Jewess’s feelings.

Nathan’s wise words soon change his mind –
And so does Recha’s beauty.
They fall in love. He searches his soul:
What now is his Christian duty?

Meanwhile the Sultan too has heard
Of Nathan. Short of money,
He sends for this rich inhabitant
Of the land of milk and honey.

The scene is an audience chamber in
His palace. Servants scurry.
He complains to his sister, Sittah, that
The Jew is in no hurry.

To calm him, Sittah says, “Perhaps
They simply couldn’t find him.”

Saladin: Ah, sister, sister!

Sittah: You behave
As though a frightful battle
Were starting.

Saladin: Yes, with weapons which
I’ve never learned to handle:
Thrusting and parrying with nothing but words –
Defending my position –
Leading him on to slippery ground.
When have I ever practised
Such tactics? And for what? To fish
For money. To frighten
Money out of a Jew. Money! Am I
Reduced to petty tricks to gain
A trifle?

Sittah: Every trifle,
Brother, too lightly spurned,
Takes its revenge.

Saladin: True. All too true.
But what if now this Jew
Is the good and sensible man
They say he is?

Sittah: Then there’s no further
Problem. The snare is set
Only for miserly, anxious,
Timorous Jews: not for the good
And wise. That sort is ours
Already, without a snare. The pleasure
Of hearing him excuse himself –
With what Samsonian strength
He snaps the cord, or with what sly
Solicitude he wriggles past
Your nets – that further pleasure
Is yours as well.

Saladin: True. I look forward
To it.

Sittah: What other problem can
Embarrass you? Since if he’s one
Of the usual crowd, he’s nothing but
A Jew like any Jew – and, surely,
You needn’t be ashamed to appear
As he imagines all men are? What’s more,
Whoever tries to play a better role
Will seem in his eyes a fool, a clown.

Saladin: You mean
I’d better now act badly
So that the bad will not think badly
Of my good behaviour?

Sittah: Yes, if ‘badly’
Means acting in accordance
With how things are.

Saladin: And what
Could any woman’s mind devise
That a Jew could not gloze over?

Sittah: Gloze over!

Saladin: I fear such barbed and delicate things
Would break in my awkward hands. Such wiles
Must be performed as devised – with sharpness,
With nimbleness. In any case,
I’ll dance the way I can. And rather worse
Than better.

Sittah: Now, brother, don’t be bashful.
I’d take your place, if only you’d let me.
Men of your sort would have us women believe
That their sword and nothing but their sword
Has got them where they are. The lion
Is ashamed to hunt with the fox – but ashamed
Of foxes, not of cunning.

Saladin: And how
You women like to get us men
Down to your level! Now go. I think
I’ve conned my lesson.

Sittah: What? Am I to go?

Saladin: You wish to stay?

Sittah: Well, if not stay,
At least to be in earshot – here
In the next room.

Saladin: There? To eavesdrop? No, sister,
I insist. I hear the curtains – he’s coming.
Away with you! Don’t linger in there. I’ll look.

(Exit Sittah. Saladin seats himself as Nathan enters)

Saladin: Come closer, Jew, come closer. Closer still.
Have no fear.

Nathan: May your enemies fear you.

Saladin: Your name is Nathan?

Nathan: Yes.

Saladin: Nathan the Wise?

Nathan: No.

Saladin: No, indeed. And yet they call you “wise”.

Nathan: Perhaps. The people.

Saladin: Do not imagine
I treat what the people say with contempt.
For a long time I’ve wanted to meet the man
They call “the Wise”.

Nathan: And what if they
Call him “the Wise” from spite? Or “wise”
Means only clever? And “clever” means
He knows what’s good for him – and how
To get it?

Saladin: Truly good, you mean?

Nathan: Then, clearly, the man with most self-interest
Is cleverest. And, clearly, clever and wise
Are one.

Saladin: A position – equally clearly – which
You mean to abandon. What’s truly best
The people hardly know. But you
Know it. Or seek to know it. Or
Have thought about it. That alone
Makes a man wise.

Nathan: Which each presumes
Himself to be.

Saladin: Enough of this modesty.
Nothing but modesty where one expects
Plain common sense is nauseous. Let’s
Get down to business. But
Be honest, Jew. Be honest.

Nathan: Sultan,
I hope to serve you now so well
As to ensure your future custom.

Saladin: Serve me? How?

Nathan: The best of all
Is yours – and at the cheapest

Saladin: The best? Of what? Not, surely,
Your goods? My sister, Jew, will haggle
Over your prices. I am not
A merchant among merchants.

Nathan: Then
Doubtless you’d like to know if I
Noticed – or even met – the enemy,
Who’s on the move again, they say,
While travelling? – When out in the open, I…

Saladin: That’s also not the reason
I asked you here. I know enough
About all that. In short, …

Nathan: Sultan?

Saladin: I’d like to hear your teaching on
Other, quite different questions. Since
You possess such wisdom, tell me
Which of the faiths, which of the laws,
Has brought you most enlightenment?

Nathan: Sultan,
I am a Jew.

Saladin: And I a Moslem.
The Christian comes between us. Three
Religions. But only one of them
True. A man like yourself will hardly
Stay where the accident of birth
Threw him. Or, if he does, he stays
For reasons, choosing what’s better
With insight. Well now, tell me which reasons –
Which insights – you have, of the sort which I
Have lacked the time to meditate
Upon. Tell me which choice you’ve made,
Determined by these reasons, so
That I – in confidence, of course –
Might make it mine. You hesitate?
You weigh me with your eyes. It may
Well be that I’m the first, as Sultan,
To have such idle notions – which
Seem not entirely unworthy, though,
Of a sultan, don’t you think? Then speak,
Tell me! Or would you like a moment
To set your thoughts in order? Good! I grant it.
Think then, think quickly. In a moment
I’ll return.

(Saladin goes into the next room, after Sittah.)

Nathan: Strange, strange. Now what am I
To make of this? What does the Sultan
Want? I anticipated money. But
Truth? And truth in cash – a blank cheque – as if
The truth were coins! Well, ancient coins
Perhaps, weighed in the balance. Only
Our modern coins, made valid
By nothing but a stamp, for counting
On counters, tell no truth. Are men
To pocket truth in their minds
Like cash in sacks? Now who’s more Jew,
I or he? But wait. What if the Sultan
In truth is not demanding truth? And yet
The chance that he might make a trap
Of truth is small – too small.
Too small? For one as great as he
Nothing’s too small. Yes, yes. He blurted
It out too quickly. One chooses one’s words,
One listens, when approaching another in friendship.
I must take care. But how? To be
Utterly Jew won’t help. And to be
No Jew at all still less. Because
If not a Jew, he might well ask,
Why not a Moslem? Wait! Now that
Might save me. Stories are food for more
Than children. Here he comes. Well, let him.

(Saladin returns)

Saladin: Am I too hasty? Have you gathered
Your thoughts? Then speak. Nobody’s here
To hear us.

Nathan:May the world
Hear us!

Saladin: Is Nathan then so sure
In such a matter? Ha! That’s what I call
Wisdom! Never to conceal
The truth! To wager all
One has: life and limb, goods and blood!

Nathan: When need be, yes. And if
It helps.

Saladin: From today may I deserve
My title of Reformer of
The World and of the Law!

Nathan: A fine
Title. But, Sultan, before confiding
In you entirely, may I tell you
A little story?

Saladin: Why not? I’ve always
Been fond of little stories, well

Nathan: Alas, I’ve little talent
For telling them well.

Saladin: Again so proudly
Modest! But continue.

Nathan: Long ago
There lived in the East a man
Who had a priceless ring
From one who loved him. The stone, an opal, had
A hundred lovely colours, and
Possessed the secret power
To make whoever wore it – provided
He wore it in good faith –
Beloved of God and man.
No wonder, therefore, that this man
Wore it at all times, and took pains
To keep it in his family
For ever. How? He left it to
His favourite son, and stipulated
That he in turn should leave it to
His favourite son – which favourite son,
Without regard to birthright, was to be
Head of the house through the ring’s power

Saladin: I understand. Go on.

Nathan: And so the ring was passed from son to son
Until it reached the father of three sons
All three of whom were equally obedient,
All three of whom he loved
Equally. Or rather, at different times,
First the one, then the other, and now
The third – while each alone
Was with him, while his loving heart
Was undivided by the other two –
Seemed worthiest of the ring, which he
In innocent weakness promised
To each. Until his death
Approached, and the good old man
Wondered what he should do. It pained him
To have to disappoint at least
Two of his trusting sons. At last
He sent in secret for a skilful craftsman
From whom he ordered two
New rings, identical in appearance
To the first, and neither cost
Nor trouble would he spare
Until the rings were matched. The craftsman
Matched them. So that the father, when he saw
All three, was quite unable
To distinguish one from another. Relieved
And happy, one at a time he called
His sons and one at a time
Gave each a ring – and blessed him – and
Died. Do you hear me, Sultan?

Saladin: I hear,
I hear. But end your story soon.

Nathan: I’m at the end. What happens next
Is obvious. Their father dead, the sons
Arrive, each with his ring, and each
Claiming to be the head
Of the house. They check, they quarrel,
They wail. In vain. No one could prove
Which ring was true.

(He pauses, expecting the Sultan to reply.)

Almost as little
As anyone now can prove
Which of the faiths, which of the laws,
Is true.

Saladin: What? Is that your answer
To my question?

Nathan: A mere excuse
For not trusting myself to try
To tell those rings apart
Which the father intended no one
Should tell apart.

Saladin: The rings, the rings! Don’t trifle
With me! Surely, three such
Religions can be told apart
With ease! Down to their clothing, food
And drink.

Nathan: But not their grounds, because
Their grounds all lie in history, do they not? –
Written or handed down. And history
Is taken in good faith – on trust.
Well then, whose faith and trust
Does one doubt least? One’s own,
One’s forebears’: the faith of those whose love
Has proved itself to us from childhood on,
Who never let us down – unless
To do us good. How can I trust
My forebears less than you trust yours?
Or vice versa. How can I
Demand of you that you belie
Your forebears so as not to differ
From mine? Or vice versa. And
The same applies to Christians, am I right?

(The Sultan says nothing.)

But let’s continue our story. The sons
Eventually brought their case before
A judge. And each son swore
He’d had the ring directly from
His father – which was true –
Having been promised many times by him
That one day he’d enjoy the rights
The ring bestowed. The father,
Each son averred, could not have wanted
To trick him. Rather than suspect
So dear a parent, he
Could not but blame his brothers, who
He otherwise was happy to believe
Were excellent fellows. But
He’d be revenged on them as traitors
By bringing both to justice.

Saladin: And
The judge? What would you have the judge
Say? Speak!

Nathan: The judge said, “Bring your father
Before me here – or I’ll dismiss
The case! Am I to sit in judgement
On riddles? Or shall the true
Ring open its mouth and speak?
But wait! I hear the ring possesses
A magic power – to make one loved,
Beloved of God and man. Now that
Decides it! Clearly, the false rings won’t
Possess such power. So which of you
Is loved the most by the other two?
Speak up! What? Silence? Ah, the rings
Only work inwards, not
Outwards! Each loves himself
The most. Then all of you must be
Deceived deceivers! All three rings
Are false. The one true ring
Must have got lost. To hide
Or to replace the loss, your father
Had three rings made for the one.”

Saladin: Brilliant!

Nathan: “And so,” the judge went on, “if you
Want my advice instead of my verdict: Take
Things as they are. Each one of you
Has now received a ring from his father:
So let each one believe his ring
The true one. Perhaps your father
No longer wanted a single ring
To tyrannize his house. It’s clear
He loved you all, and loved you
Equally: two were not to suffer
For the sake of one. Well then, let each
Imitate such impartial,
Such incorruptible love! compete
To make the power of the stone in his ring
As clear as daylight; assist
This power with loving kindness, heart-felt
Peacefulness, good deeds, deep
Submission to the will of God. And when
In more than a thousand thousand years
The powers of these stones are clearly manifest
Among your children’s children’s children,
Then I invite them to come in their turn
Before this court. A wiser judge
Than I will sit here then. Now go!” So said
The modest judge.

Saladin: God! God!

Nathan: Saladin,
In case you should feel that you
Are this promised wiser man…

Saladin (rushing up to him and grasping his hand, which he continues to hold):
I? am dust. I
Am nothing. O God!

Nathan: What is it, Sultan?

Saladin: Nathan,
The thousand thousand years of your judge
Are not yet over. His seat of judgement is
Not mine. Go. Go! But be my friend.

Nathan: Has Saladin nothing further
To ask me?

Saladin: Nothing.

Nathan: Nothing?

Saladin: Nothing. Why?

Nathan: I would have welcomed the opportunity
To ask a favour.

Saladin: Favours need
No opportunity. Speak.

Nathan: Having returned
Only today from a long journey
On business, I almost have too much
Money. And times are looking
Dangerous again. Unsure
Of where to keep it safe, I thought
That you perhaps – since impending war
Always demands more money – might
Require some.

Saladin: (looking him in the eye):
Nathan, I won’t ask
With whom you’ve spoken. Nor
What caution – what suspicion –
Might otherwise have prompted
This offer…

Nathan: Suspicion?

Saladin: Which
I deserve. Forgive me! What’s the point?
I admit it. Yes, I was, as it happens,
Wondering –

Nathan: Not whether to ask
For such a loan?

Saladin: Precisely.

Nathan: Why then,
That suits us both – although I can’t yet send
You all my cash, since first
I mean to pay a handsome sum
To the young Templar, whom
You know, of course.

Saladin: A Templar? Surely
You won’t support my bitterest foe
As well?

Nathan: I mean the Templar
Whose life you spared.

Saladin: Ah, yes! Now I’d
Forgotten all about him! And you
Know him? Where is he?

Nathan: What?
Have you not heard how much of your mercy
Has flowed through him to me? Risking
His freshly granted life, he rescued
My daughter from death by fire.

Saladin: Did he
Indeed! Ha! That’s how he looked!
My brother, whom he resembles, would
Have done the same! Is he still here?
Bring him to me! I have told my sister
So much about her brother, whom
She never knew, that she
Must see his double. Go
And fetch him. Out of one good deed,
Though born of nothing but passion,
So much may grow! But go and fetch
This fire-defying Templar.
Business can wait.

(Exit Nathan)

Saladin: Well, now I wish
I’d let my sister listen.
How will I ever tell her this?
The rings! Long may they flourish! –

Also as intermarriage rings –
Simply from Man to Woman.
For surely Moslem, Christian and Jew
Have so much more in common

As human creatures now than their ways
Of doing things still differ.
My Assad would have been a man
For Richard the Lion-heart’s sister!

And Sittah, were this truce a peace,
Might marry Richard’s brother…

But soon both sides were busy again
Massacring one another.

The siege of Acre having resumed,
The Sultan replenished its garrisons.
One hundred thousand Christians died,
And God knows how many Saracens…

But not before strange things emerged
In the comedy’s happy ending,
For Nathan had an enlightened heart
Which was truly worth befriending.

Returning from another trip
Once upon a time he’d found
His entire family dead and his house
Razed to the smoking ground.

He’d howled and wept and raged and cursed
His fate and God, who smashes
Our hopes to bits. He’d lain three days
And nights in sack-cloth and ashes,

Swearing implacable hatred towards
The Christians, who had murdered
Every Jew – man, woman and child –
In Gath, until he thought he’d

Never get up again. When he did,
He found a Christian brother
Who bore in his arms a little child
Which had lost its German mother

And oriental father, whose
Last wish had been to send
His daughter to the Jew who was
His most reliable friend.

Receiving the baby, Nathan knelt
And thanked inscrutable Heaven
For already giving him one back
In return for taking seven.

This child was Recha. Before they’d returned
From her German birthplace, her parents
Had also had a son, whom they left
With his uncle, whose forbearance

Nurtured the proud young Templar who
Eventually rescued his sister
From death by fire. It was a bit
Of luck he hadn’t kissed her.

But, even stranger, their father was found
To be Saladin’s missing brother. –
And none of this was known before
They’d fallen in love with each other…

The Templar blenched and Recha blushed.
But soon they were looking jauntier:
Saladin was their uncle now,
And Sittah was their aunty. –

A happy melting pot! And yet
Give me the doubting Thomases,
With their hands in the sacred vision’s wound:
Art is too full of promises

No life can honour – any more
Than, after the end of the drama,
When Acre fell, the Christians behaved
Like knights in shining armour.

Richard was king of the castle. And so,
To show how he meant to boss it, he
Lost his temper one hot afternoon
And committed a gross atrocity.

To speed up negotiations, three
Thousand men’s heads were hacked off.
Saladin watched from a nearby hill.
Even his crack troops backed off.

Some Christian prisoners were therefore taught
What happens if you insult an
All-powerful, world- and law-reforming
Macho Egyptian sultan.

Terror was useful in a war
Chaotic and scarcely plannable;
The infidel horde was even convinced
Coeur de Lion was a cannibal.

Not only did he miss his pork,
They whispered, but certain ambassadors
Were served with boiled and bloated heads.
Now this was worse than hazardous –

And put the Moslems off their food.
Not that we need to credit it:
The rumour alone unmanned the Crescent,
Whoever may have fed it it.

But the Sultan prayed and fasted and lopped
Any who disobeyed orders.
He had a very strong right arm,
And a bodyguard of sworders.

And so the war raged back and forth
Till both of the armies were sick of it.
Saladin’s health began to fail,
And though Richard was still in the thick of it

The perfidious Philip had made his adieus
And was bearding the Lion by invading
The defenceless duchy of Normandy –
Which was what you got for crusading.

Three hundred thousand Christians had died
And God knows how many Saracens,
Before these heroes finally tired
Of slaughtering each other’s garrisons.

A three-year truce was agreed. The king
Of England departed quickly.
Saladin died at Damascus. His health
Had declined to very sickly.

The display of a shroud, not a standard, pronounced
Life wanes, death always waxes.
“The noblest monument of his fame”
(Gibbon) – the Saladine taxes –

Turned out too lucrative by far
To expire with their occasion,
And all the church’s tithes and tenths
Accrued from this foundation.

“This pecuniary emolument
Certainly must have tended
To increase the interest of the popes
In Palestine.” Thus ended

The Third Crusade. The Seventh and last
Took place a hundred years later.
The Christians lost. Their remnants retired
Into the fortress of Acre,

Where vice and business boomed for a time.
When their plundering became a nuisance
Khalil, the sultan, welcomed the chance
To demonstrate his puissance:

“After a siege of thirty-three days
The double wall was captured
By the Moslems, and the tallest tower
Surrendered to their engines;

“The Mamalukes made a general assault;
The city was stormed, and death or…

…slavery was the lot of sixty thousand Christians.  The convent, or rather fortress, of the Templars resisted three days longer; but the great master was pierced with an arrow, and, of five hundred knights only ten were left alive, less happy than the victims of the sword, if they lived to suffer on a scaffold in the unjust and cruel proscription of the whole order.  The king of Jerusalem, the patriarch, and the great master of the hospital effected their retreat to the shore; but the sea was rough, the vessels were insufficient, and great numbers of the fugitives were drowned before they could reach the isle of Cyprus…  By the command of the sultan the churches and fortifications of the Latin cities were demolished: a motive of avarice or fear still opened the holy sepulchre to some devout and defenceless pilgrims: and a mournful and solitary silence prevailed along the coast which had so long resounded with the WORLD’S DEBATE.”


Though the kings and queens of Jerusalem / Had neglected their Christian duty:  Some of the historical details in the poem – and also the quotations at the end, including the prose with which it concludes – are taken from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ch. LIX .  J.L. Borges regarded Gibbon as a classical writer with as good as no interest in or premonition of “the romantic discovery of the personality” in which “all of us are now so absorbed that the fact of denying or neglecting it is only one of many clever ways of ‘being personal’.”  Even so, parts of ch. LIX of his history, for example, are imbued with “an incredulity which is not devoid”, as Borges observed as well, “of indulgence and, perhaps, compassion.”

“Man baute nicht Rom an einem Tag”:  “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, Barbarossa’s words in Deutschland.  Ein Wintermärchen (l.1075) – appropriate in that his aim as Emperor was to re-establish German power in Italy.  The line is characteristic, too, of the well-documented German tendency (cp. Lessing’s story of the rings, which follows) to take a very long-term view of things…  Heine first of all presents Barbarossa as the hero of a Romantic Märchen, and then (typically) mocks his militarism, while implying the potential consequences for modern Germany…

To calm him, Sittah says, “Perhaps / They simply couldn’t find him”:  These two lines, which could be the first half of another quatrain, form a metrical bridge into the translation of Lessing’s play.  A competent but not particularly gifted writer of verse, Lessing (unlike Heine) is not always able to load every rift with ore.  A line-for-line translation of his ‘blank verse’ into English blank verse results almost unavoidably in adding, padding and thinness of texture, to avoid which and retain as much of the work’s poetry as possible, I have shortened Lessing’s metre for the most part to a three- or four-beat line.

Sultan, / I am a Jew:  Many eighteenth century German cities imposed severe restrictions on the residence and activities of Jews.  Lessing valued tolerance – and opposed all forms of anti-semitism vigorously.  But the role of Christianity in the Age of Enlightenment also preoccupied him.  His obvious integrity as well as his intellect and creative abilities saw to it that by the end of the following century his reputation as a German classic was established, although still controversial.  In 1922 Nathan der Weise was filmed in what later became Munich’s Bavaria Film Studios.  After an unsuccessful attempt to ban it, the NSDAP tried in October to get hold of the reels and destroy them – again unsuccessfully.  The film was then shown in January 1923 to enthusiastic audiences in Berlin.  In Munich the only cinema which dared to include it in its programme, Regina Lichtspiel, received a phonecall during the premiere informing its owner that if he tried to show it again the following evening “his flea-pit would be smashed to pieces”.  The SA was already active in Munich (the so-called Beer Hall Putsch took place in November of that year) and after the film had been attacked in the Völkischer Beobachter, the cinema withdrew it.

Lessing’s play adapts Boccaccio’s Decameron I, iii – a vaguely anti-semitic tale in which Melchizedek the Jew, a rich money-lender from Alexandria, evades the quarrel which Saladin attempts to pick with him as an excuse for confiscating his possessions.  Saladin, who has resolved “to use force disguised as fiction”, asks Melchizedek which of the three laws he considers the true one.  When he perceives that “the fellow had cleverly got round the trap he had set him” by using the story of the rings to claim that “the question of which of God’s peoples possesses the true faith remains in abeyance and has never been settled”, Saladin is impressed, treats Melchizedek with respect and they become friends.  There is no suggestion that the tale reveals a higher truth.  In fact the preceding tale tells (albeit humorously) “how [the Jew] Abraham’s soul was saved” by his becoming a Christian.  In the medieval mind, at any rate, there was no doubt as to “Which of the faiths, which of the laws, / … brought … most enlightenment.”

Well, now I wish / I’d let my sister listen:  From this point on the verse I have used for Lessing’s play modulates back into the stanza-form of Heine’s Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen, with which the poem begins…  In Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1835), Heine was mainly interested in what he saw as Lessing’s step away from (medieval and then Lutheran) religion towards the philosophy of Kant and above all Hegel, whom he had heard lecture in Berlin on history and dialectics – that is, on how history proceeds through conflict and reconciliation out of which grow further conflict and further reconciliation, and so on in successive stages towards the consciousness of freedom.  Through all these phases of what we may now prefer to think of as forms of gradual cultural change, not necessarily improvement, Heine discerned the working of a principle which is surely true of any culture – namely, that our thoughts resemble a soul (as he put it) which demands a body:  “Thought seeks to become action, the word to become flesh…  The world is the signature of the word.”

One hundred thousand Christians died:  This is Gibbon’s figure, in Decline and Fall ch. LIX, and is probably as (in)accurate as any other (estimates of how many people died in the Crusades – “this holy madness”, as Gibbon calls them – vary between 1 and 9 million).

The infidel horde was even convinced / Coeur de Lion was a cannibal:  The story of Richard I’s cannibalism is told in the fourteenth century romance, Richard Coer de Lyon – which was probably based on an earlier Norman original.  Anyone with a copy of Scott’s The Talisman will find the relevant sections of this poem translated in the introductory notes, where it reads like a piece of medieval English propaganda for scaring Saracens.

W.D. JACKSON’s five books and two pamphlets are all parts of his work-in-progress, Then and Now, on the subject of the individual’s place in history. This column is also a part of that work.  His most recent book, Opus 3 (Shoestring Press, Nov. 2018)was reviewed in The Fortnightly, and was one of Frederick Raphael’s TLS Books of the Year in 2019.  A review by Chris McCully in PN Review 253 can be read here (under Altered Distances Vol 54, Nos. 1-2, ‘Special Features’).  Shoestring has published a new pamphlet, Aesopean (with woodcuts by Alan Dixon). The Fortnightly archive for W.D. Jackson is here.

ALAN DIXON was born in Waterloo, Lancashire, and has been exhibiting his prints since the 1960s.  Shoestring Press published his 73 Woodcuts in 2011 and Wood and Ink in 2013.  An exhibition of prints at the Redfern Gallery, London, was held to coincide with the launch of his most recent collection of poems, The Wall Dancer, Shoestring Press, 2017.

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