Sentences we read absently, almost in spite of ourselves, can clarify a dim idea that has flickered for decades, especially if your mind, like mine, is foggy and rarely pierced by illumination. That’s why people like William F. Vallicella, proprietor of Maverick Philosopher, are so helpful. Last week, Vallicella quoted a passage from a writer, Theodor Haecker, who was only a name to me. Now I’m reassured that even this late in the game, good writers, good people, remain to be discovered. Here’s how Vallicella translated Haecker’s German:
“A writing style that is at once both personal and good is a natural unity of two natures, the nature of the author and the nature of the language in which he writes. Though natural, this unity is often achieved only by great artfulness since these two natures are not identical and their unity is usually only to be achieved through mutual compromises. A butcher of the language can write in a stimulating personal style while a good schoolboy can achieve a good style without betraying anything personal. The great writer, however, is the one in whose style both natures have become one and indeed in such a way that no one is able to prise them apart again.”
Like much good sense, Haecker’s observation seems self-evident after the fact. It was intriguing enough to send me to the university library, which has 14 titles by Haecker but only two in English – Journal in the Night and Kierkegaard the Cripple. Haecker was a German writer and critic, a convert to Catholicism who translated Kierkegaard into German, and an opponent of the Nazis. He remained in Germany throughout the war.
What little I know about him I draw from the introduction to Journal in the Night, translated by Alexander Dru and published by Pantheon Books in 1950. Haecker wrote his journal at night, at his home in Munich, and smuggled it to safety with the help of a friend. He was arrested by the Gestapo, but released. His house was destroyed during the bombing of Munich early in 1944, and he moved to a village near Augsburg, where he lived alone. His daughter visited him occasionally from Munich. His oldest son was a prisoner in England, and the younger was reported missing on the Russian front. His vision began to fail. He died, alone, on April 9, 1945. Three weeks later, Hitler committed suicide. V-E Day was May 9. Haecker’s was an emblematic 20th-century life. Here are the first two entries in his Journal, from 1939:
“Joy untouched by thankfulness is always suspect.”
“Rejoinder: The most powerful means of forwarding the events of the world seems to be stupidity, the stupidity of the Führer, of the Leader, and the stupidity of the led.”
Haecker scorned Germany, not merely the Nazis. In his introduction to the Journal, speaking of Haecker’s earlier writing (1914-1920), published as Satire und Polemik, Pru writes:
“The vituperative power of these articles is considerable, and I doubt anyone but Karl Kraus, in Vienna, with whom Haecker later became friends, could have surpassed him in violence. There was nothing reserved about Haecker’s style, and though he soon after turned his back on `polemics’ for very different fields, what he wrote always had an edge.”
His conversion to Catholicism in 1920 seems to have ameliorated his “violence,” without taming his intellectual passion. Contrast that early Krausian vituperation with this Journal passage from 1940:
“Indiscriminate work is a very uncertain remedy against ennui. The one sure means of dealing with it is to care for someone else, to do something kind and good.”
I’m reminded of something a friend told me many years ago. When he found himself feeling put-upon, wallowing in a delicious bath of self-pity, he would “do a good turn and not get found out.” His example was picking up soiled paper towels others had left on the floor in a public washroom. Had my friend suggested I, too, pick up trash, I would have ignored him. Instead, he simply told me what he had done.