At a gravestone in Frankfurt
By Dana Pulver | 20/01/2011
What happened to the eldest daughter of Moshe and Fromet Mendelssohn? When she died, she was buried neither next to her father in the old Jewish cemetery in Berlin, nor alongside her mother in the old Jewish cemetery in Hamburg, but rather in a Catholic cemetery in Frankfurt? Illustration: Zeev Engelmaier
Dana Pulver takes a journey in the footsteps of Brendel Dorothea Mendelssohn
When she was born in 1764, she was named Brendel, which means “liberated” or “armed.” Perhaps her parents were hinting at the name Baruch, and indeed, throughout her childhood she was often scolded for being a tomboy. And even after she grew up and wed (at the age of 19) and had four sons, she would occasionally surprise the philosophers and writers that frequented her home each week by appearing dressed in men's clothing. Schiller called her” Mephistopheles in a skirt” because of her lack of compassion at the pathos in his works.
It is said that she was large of build and given to mood swings. It is said that she was striking in her intellect, wit and refined taste. A contemporary of hers said, “There was nothing in Dorothea that could tempt with sensuality. There was nothing about her that was beautiful except her eyes, through which – and indeed is was so – shone a light and illuminated her love-filled spirit and brilliant intellect. Indeed, other than this exception, there was nothing alluring about her face or body, or even her arms or legs, which are often beautifully shaped even in unattractive women.”
To her two surviving sons, she was a devoted mother, but she was unhappy in her relationship with her first husband, Simon Veit. The high points in her life were her encounters with intellectuals, poets and dreamers – twice a week at about five o'clock in the afternoon in her salon or that of one of her friends, Henrietta Herz or Rahel Levin. She had everything she needed there: readings of beloved texts, plays, poetry, music, heart-to-heart talks, works read in their original language – Voltaire in French, Dante in Italian.
These were the salons of brilliant, highly educated Jewish women. Philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher described the visitors to the salons in a letter he wrote to his sister in 1798: “Aristocrats and young scientists and socialites gladly visit the great Jewish homes. Anyone who wants to mix in good company without any special restrictions desires to be introduced into these homes, where the gifted and talented are warmly welcomed.”
A letter written to Schiller in 1797 said: “Everyone is waiting with great anticipation for the publication of the New Muses Almanac. In the intellectual Jewish circles of Berlin – the only ones that really talk about literature on its own – they assure that you and Goethe appear in the almanac with a completely new genre of poetry.”
The modest and chaste Jewish girls went forth and gazed: Home was home, but outside were The Sorrows of Young Werther and The Blue Flower and many other heart-stirring romanticists. In their lives, literary salons and reading circles were a temporary substitute for reality. Jewish women were the life and soul of these circles, with their spouses providing the wherewithal that enabled them to exist.
At some stage, perhaps in her childhood, or adulthood, certainly when she converted to Christianity, Brendel began to despise the name Brendel, and adopted the name Dorothea, which means gift of God. When Moses Mendelssohn – in his important work Jerusalem or On Religious Power and Judaism, which was published the same year that Brendel married Simon Veit – called upon the Jews of Germany to integrate into German culture while maintaining their Jewishness, could he have imagined how far his Jerusalem would take his own daughter after his death?
Berlin's intellectual life
Berlin's intriguing and revitalized intellectual life converged in the salon of Dorothea and Simon Veit, and from among the select visitors who frequented it, an even more select group was formed: the “alliance” they called it and also “Tugendbund” or “League of Virtue,” with the sun as its symbol. Dorothea Veit and Henrietta Herz were the driving force behind it (and after all, the group itself had declared that women's intuition was closer to the infinite and divine, and that consequently, eternal femininity was the spirit of the universe). Goethe, the great idol worshipper from Weimar, was its god; Friedrich Schlegel – its high priest; and all the others – the brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, August Schlegel, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Johann Fichte and many, many others – were all true believers.
At first they were taken by the beauty of Japheth – They chose ancient Greece as the epitome of perfection and beauty and tried to recreate some of its customs – adoration of beauty, freedom of passion, boundless sensuality and all those other things that Friedrich Schlegel called “the poetry of poetry” – romanticism.
They were occupied with revolution; Germany's philosophical cultural revolution occurred at the same time as the social revolution in France. Enlightenment, Sturm und Drang, classic romanticism, mystical romanticism – the offerings in Berlin of the late 18th century were very rich indeed. Within a few short decades, the entire perception of morality had changed. Jean Paul Richter, the German writer who visited during these years in Berlin wrote, “Everything here is revolutionary (in the family and society), and the role of the wife has lost its meaning. A revolution more important and more intellectual but no less overwhelming than the Parisian one is beating in our hearts.” As one might expect with all revolutionary alliances, the “League of Virtue” also had a secret code. During a certain period, its members corresponded with one another using the Hebrew alphabet, after Henrietta Herz taught it to Wilhelm von Humboldt, who was in love with her.
Romanticism and poverty
And then came the necessity and logic of romanticism: Dorothea became fed up with her quiet and modest husband Simon Veit and their sumptuous home (Simon, after all, was a banker) and fell into the arms of the much younger Friedrich Schlegel – an attractive, impressive but penniless young man who compensated for this drawback with his grand ideas. Schlegel, then 25, was already known in the literary circles as a blazer of new poetic trails. Their romanticism had produced a love affair and Dorothea, who was already 32 years old) left her home – without even bothering to hide her betrayal of Simon – and moved in with Friedrich Schlegel even before the divorce was finalized.
Dorothea and Schlegel moved from theoretical romanticism to actual romanticism (which, incidentally, turned out to be much less romantic when poverty and social marginalization became facts of life for many years to come). In a letter from 1799 to the wife of his brother, Friedrich writes about Dorothea: “She is very simple and is attracted to nothing in the world other than love, music, wit and philosophy. In her arms, I have once again found my youth…” Paradoxically enough, the young Friedrich needed an older more experienced woman, a mother and wife, in order to recapture his youth. But even when they grew older, Dorothea remained the one responsible for the spirit of youth in their family, as noted by their friend, the playwright Franz Grillparzer: “The couple are a complete contrast: As much as Dorothea is filled with light and sun, the fat Friedrich is gloomy and sullen.”
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In Athenaeum, the daring and innovative literary journal that the brothers August and Friedrich Schlegel published, Friedrich repeatedly expressed his adoration of his wife in excerpts from letters addressed to her: “You hold all prejudice in contempt, as you do all vulgarities, so much so as you consider them worthy of scorn. You are indifferent to the conventional haste of the masses, and only rarely do you recall this indifference. It is not your business – to care for the world… I am stunned to discover now that it is you who has revealed what philosophy is to me.”
In Athenaeum specifically, as in romanticism in general, the boundaries between the private and the public were blurred and Friedrich used the journal to heighten and glorify his love. In that same journal, Dorothea published her first literary critiques, although not under her own name; despite all the new openness, a woman writing literary reviews was not yet an accepted phenomenon. Her articles appeared alternately under Schlegel's name, anonymously or signed only with the letter “D.”
A new novel by Schlegel appeared on the Berlin literary scene of those years, Lucinde. And once again – it contained a detailed and revealing description of his relations with Dorothea (she is Lucinde). The public at large rejected the novel as a display of wanton eroticism. Even German society at the turn of the 18th century was not quite ready for a discourse on “the high sense of art in the field of lovemaking that is a gift of nature, and how it can be improved by means of education.” Only Schleiermacher came out in defense of the novel (and he too wrote anonymously): “How can one say that poetry is lacking here when there is so much love?! It is thanks to love that this work is not only lyrical, but also religious and moral.”
Perhaps Lucinde, which was clearly modeled after her, encouraged Dorothea, who by that time had already officially divorced Simon, to join Friedrich in Jena. They were not married – that ceremony was intended for the weak of character who bowed to the artificial dictates of society. They lived together for a few years in great poverty. Dorothea wrote and translated articles. In Jena too, the university town located not far from Germany's cultural capital of that time, Weimar, they were at the focus of cultural events – in the Jena circle in which the knights of German romanticism gathered. They would meet for festive symposia and continue to write and develop the new literature and philosophy. At the center of this circle was Caroline Schlegel, August's wife. Fortune had smiled on them: August had received a university position and the lovely Caroline became an object of adoration for the artists who frequented their home.
Dorothea never quite felt at home In Jena. Caroline had no desire to share the limelight with her. Perhaps it was no more than women's rivalry and perhaps Caroline feared Dorothea, who had the stronger personality, and perhaps Caroline agreed with her father, Prof. Johann Michaelis of the University of Göttingen, who in a debate with Lessing (he would debate Mendelssohn himself too) cast doubt on the possibility of a Jew being a decent human being.
But this may have contributed to Dorothea's work; she wrote a great deal during this period. Here in Jena, after nine months of writing, she produced another son, and following a brief reflection, during which the names Arthur and Lorenzo were considered, she decided to call it Florentin. And if her flesh-and-blood sons followed their mother in their decisions, Florentin did not. He did not repeat his mother's life, but rather chose his own path, one that never becomes entirely clear to the reader even by the end. Dorothea's romantic novel gives the reader the freedom – and consequently also the responsibility – to interpret, imagine and continue on one's own.
Like every serious writer, and like every experienced mother, she gives Florentin a paradise, only to dispossess him of it later on. The paradise appears in the form of the family estate of a noble German family named Schwartzberg. Perhaps she created this paradise for herself, for what could be better suited to the dark-haired Brendel than a “black mountain?” In any case, Florentin arrives there with no burden of family or even national heritage. The revelation is adapted to the place – it occurs by means of an esthetic-religious experience when Florentin is exposed to the portraits of his ancestors and to the order and harmony in their lives over many generations. In this special place, Florentin meets his blue-eyed, fair-haired love. After all, Dorothea's mother also had this coloring, except that Dorothea herself was destined for a different fate, whereas a fragile, small frame like that of her mother was destined for the literary utopias of her daughter.
Florentin and Lucinde were a wonderful pair – similar and different at the same time. Similar – because both were romantic works dealing with true love and the inner world of their protagonists; different – because Florentin was more refined and esthetic, almost approaching the divine revelation of Goethe in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, because it earned considerable praise (including from Schiller) and was considered by its contemporaries as the most important piece of romantic prose of the time. But Florentin, like the articles Dorothea wrote, did not carry her name; it carried rather that of its editor, Schlegel. That is why it earned so much praise from those who were unaware that a great woman was behind it. So great was the blurring of Dorthea's identity that some gossips attributed the sloppy and vulgar Lucinde to her too. In fact, she was more daring in her life than in her writing. Her protagonists did not dare to follow in her footsteps: Although Juliana and the lowborn Florentin were in love, they gave up that love: Juliana married the noble chosen for her by her parents, and Floretin left and carried on with his life.
In Jena too, they sought God, an infinite God that could contain the infinite human soul. Friedrich Schlegel wrote to the author Novalis: “I want to found a new religion, or rather to help it to appear. Because without me, it will not come and will not triumph.” The new gospel, which the romantics – the new prophets – sought to “help be revealed” would include a sense of acceptance and love for all living things and place responsibility on everyone to hasten the coming of the kingdom of heaven. In one of her letters, Dorothea notes with a touch of irony: “Now the whole church is together.”
The Parisian period
Romanticism struck a blow against its prophets in Jena too: Caroline Schlegel fell in love with the young philosopher Friedrich Schelling and left August. The temple, only just founded, started to suffer from serious structural cracks, and Friedrich and Dorothea moved to Paris. The fact that the young Schlegel did not succeed in Jena – he was unable to get a university position – appears to have contributed to their decision, or perhaps they left because Germany still imposed restrictions on the freedom and activity of Jews. And after all, they were both now a little Jewish.
In 1802, they arrived in Paris, the capital of European religious freedom. However, paradoxically enough, it was in Paris that Dorothea decided to convert from Judaism and marry Friedrich. Perhaps it was the indirect influence of Simon Veit, who throughout the affair behaved like a complete gentleman: He let Dorothea go, agreed that their children (who when their parents separated were not yet ten years old) would live with her, and when he learned of the dire straits that Dorothea and Friedrich were in (Friedrich was unable to get a university position in Paris either), gave his sons Johannes and Philipp a monthly stipend, thereby indirectly supporting Dorothea. Did Simon absorb something of the romantic atmosphere that filled his salon, and was now putting it into practice by taking on the role of the noble and forgiving benefactor? Or perhaps he recalled the teachings of his youth, “Turn not away from your own flesh and blood” (Isaiah 58:7). When Heinrich Heine learned of this, he would say of Friedrich, “He seduced his friend's wife in his home, and then lived many years off the generosity of the cuckolded husband.” In any case, at first Simon Veit stated that Dorothea could continue to educate their children on the condition that she did not convert, but later asked her to make her relationship with Friedrich official.
In Paris, the Schlegel's publish Europa – a moderate and predictable journal – most unlike the defiant and provocative Athenaeum. Dorothea wrote articles for the journal, including literary reviews of the works of Germaine de Staël and Schlegel taught literature to a small circle of students. He also began a large and important project – the publication of all Lessing's writings. Dorothea, who as a child had met Lessing in her father's home, joined in the project. She also published a book of lyrical poems – once again anonymously. In Paris, Schlegel studied Sanskrit, became convinced of its proximity to European languages and coined the concept of Aryans – the honorable people – to denote the ancestors of the Western civilization who had moved from northern India to Europe.
Rome of Germany
However, the time again came and – like the proverbial wandering Jew, the Aryan tribes, or some strange hybrid of the two – they left Paris and moved to Cologne, the “Rome of Germany.” There were no Jews there, and even Lutherans (as Dorothea and Friedrich were) were few and far between. Her sons returned to Berlin and Dorothea became quite lonely. She was familiar with that feeling from a previous time, when she had been married to Veit. Now, however, she had no close friends nearby as she had always had in the past, no matter where she lived. At this stage, she found herself completely bereft – of friends, a literary life, money, family and even her lover. He had found a new love – Medieval art. He immersed himself in the Gothic style, and occasionally went on hikes in the cities along the Rein, in Belgium and Holland.
In her loneliness, Dorothea wrote incessantly. Her best translations and works were born in Cologne. She translated medieval poetry, and Calderón and Cervantes, and continued working on Florentin.
The Viennese period
In 1808, Friedrich and Dorothea got ready to move to Vienna. Finally, they had good news: Friedrich was appointed imperial court secretary at the headquarters of the Archduke Charles. And once again a paradox: Just when her four years of loneliness in Cologne were about to end and the world of culture was once again smiling at her, promising her numerous delights and pleasures, Dorothea converted to Catholicism. Some say that she did so following Friedrich's conversion. He had discovered strict Catholicism while studying the European literature of the Middle Ages, ancient architecture and art. The Catholic Church had been looking over his shoulder for some years now, demanding his loyalty, until he finally acceded to its demands.
And Dorothea did not lag far behind him in her enthusiasm. She even convinced her two sons to convert to Catholicism thus severing the few ties she had maintained with her previous life: Schlegel's relatives (who were more surprised by his conversion to Catholicism than by his marriage to a Jewish woman), her friends from Berlin and Jena (all of whom were either Jews or Protestants), her own family (who had already become somewhat used to her conversion to Protestantism, but viewed her embrace of Catholicism as going too far) all distanced themselves from Dorothea and her husband. And she herself disassociated herself from the “great idol worshipper,” he who had been a demigod to her – Goethe and his writings. With her conversion to Catholicism, her name Dorothea took on a new meaning – because a hundred years earlier, there had been another Dorothea von Schlegel, who had composed religious poetry for the Catholic Church.
Dorothea rarely left Vienna. She met there with Madame de Staël, her acquaintance from Paris, and translated her novel Corinne. For a number of years, she lived with her close friend Rahel Levin, and her partner. In 1818, Dorothea traveled to see her sons, who were studying and painting in Rome. They were part of a circle of German Christian painters called “the Nazarenes.” After some time, they would be taught by Moritz Oppenheim, a German Jew, who would remain Jewish and become famous for his Jewish paintings, such as The Bar Mitzvah Speech and Sabbath Eve at Home.
Johannes and Philipp occupied themselves with subjects quite similar to those that their mother concerned herself with in her literary writing: They tried, by means of religious or national-idyllic archetypes, to create a paradise of perfect creatures. Here, in Rome, an illusion of a family reunion was created, and when she received a letter from Simon Veit, it appeared – for a moment – that nothing had happened: There she was in the company of her sons and Simon was asking how they were. However, this was a letter he had written on his deathbed. The dying Veit – still a romantic – asked for her forgiveness and took the responsibility for their failed marriage upon himself. Do the words that Dorothea wrote back to him: “I was very deeply moved by your words. But be assured that the blame is not yours! [...] I alone am responsible for our separation and everything else. May God forgive me as you have!” hint at the most subtle of regret? Did Dorothea try for a moment to imagine what might have happened if she had remained Brendel Veit in her Berlin home?
In early 1829, Friedrich died of a stroke. In the same year, the German Jewish communities marked one hundred years since the birth of Moses Mendelssohn. Dorothea moved in with her younger son Philipp, who was the director of the art collections of the Frankfurt art museum. Some say that she no longer wrote at this stage, but rather sewed instead. “There are too many books in the world, but I've never heard that there are too many shirts,” she declared, expressing her position on the state of affairs in her time.
In Philipp's home, with her four granddaughters attending to her, Dorthea corresponded with Henrietta Herz and wondered in her letters whether we resemble flowers, whose only role is to bloom, bring joy and disappear, or whether the poetry of life is still contained in each and every moment of our lives, even when it appears that all the beauty and strength have dissipated and are gone? She preferred to believe in the latter option, and this is how she encouraged her last remaining friend: “Always remember that this imperfect life was given to you not as your property, not for transient indulgences, not to pass the time pleasantly. Every day is a miracle of grace, it is a gift we receive, but to discard or bury it is impossible.”
In my imagination, I stand facing your gravestone in a Frankfurt Catholic cemetery and ask myself: Isn't this a mistake? What are you doing in this place? Is there a single word on your gravestone that is really you? “Dorothea von Schlegel” – that is your name according to the headstone. Brendel Mendelssohn, the name you were given when you were born, as the eldest daughter of the Jewish Socrates, did not follow you: Your works obscured your name, as if to say “May no person see me.” Your sons bear your husband's name – Johannes and Philipp Veit – and Florentin the name of Freidrich Schlegel.
And even the year of your birth on your gravestone – 1763 – is not accurate. That is the year that your sister Sarah, who was born a year before you and died before she was a year old, was born; Sarah, who became a ghost, and you, a year later, took her place. Now you had to be Sarah – the mother of many nations, the first strength of your father, his hope for continuation. But you chose not to perpetuate your father, but rather to live your life according to the great inner spirit that guided you.
May I be amazed at you? How can I not? The powerful current of your life leaves me breathless. The daring, courage of your life, your broad soul in a broad body… But let not my accolades crash through the measured sadness. I must be circumspect in my admiration. After all, the torrent of your life distanced you from your people. And because of you, your sons, who were also the sons of Simon Veit, abandoned their religion for another too. And who knows, perhaps you led astray other Jews too, those who viewed you as a paragon, an ideal. And in my imagination, you grow distant and disappear beyond the hundreds of years that separate us, leaving me with my questions, and with my own schisms and decisions.
Dear Dorothea, did you finally find your Land of Oz? Did you, together with Florentin, reach the perfect magical garden in which beauty is a guarantee of an acceptable social order that need not be rebelled against, and for which one does not need to be punished with loneliness for rebelling? And did you, my Dorothea, have those special magic shoes so that you could always turn back and go home when you wanted to? Such shoes, so it seems, exist only in romantic legends.
Dana Pulver teaches Judaism at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem
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