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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Balder’s Philosophy
By Paul Heyse (1830–1914)
From ‘Children of the World’

ONE beautiful sunny day in November, Edwin had set out on his daily walk to the university, and Franzelius was preparing to read aloud from a translation of Sophocles, when Balder, who was reclining near the window in a comfortable armchair sent by Frau Valentin, suddenly laid his pale slender hand on the book and said:—“We won’t read to-day, Franzelius: I’d rather talk about all sorts of things with you. I feel so well that it’s not the least exertion to speak, and the sun is shining so brightly in the clear sky! Only to see that, is such an incomparable happiness that to enjoy it one would gladly endure all the evils of this life. Don’t you think so?”  1
  “I can’t look at it without thinking that it shines equally on the just and the unjust, and beholds much more misery than happiness,” replied the printer, looking almost defiantly toward the sky. “I wish it would die out once for all, and with it this whole motley lie which we call life.”  2
  “No, Franzel,” said Balder quietly, “you are wrong. Even if the sun knew what it was doing in creating and sustaining life, there is no cause for shame in such a work. Why do you call existence a lie, Franzel? Because its end is so abrupt? But your existence had its beginning as well, and did that beginning ever bespeak a promise of perpetuity? On the contrary, my dear fellow, there is much honesty in human life: it promises so little and yet yields us so much. Will you censure it because it can’t be all that we visionary or dissatisfied or unjust people demand?”  3
  “There’s no joy to me in living,” muttered the other gloomily, covering his eyes with his broad hands. “As soon as one need is satisfied, another takes its place; and he who ventures to differ from the opinions held by mankind in general never finds repose.”  4
  “And would life be worth the living if we were sunk in repose? Is sleeping, living? Or absorption in a dull dream of existence, such as the beetle has when it climbs up the blade of grass to reach a dew-drop,—is that leading a worthy life? My dear fellow, if you drive necessity out of the world, how unnecessary it would be to live!”  5
  “You’re playing upon words.”  6
  “No, I speak in sober earnest. A short time ago I read a stanza in Voltaire, which, like many things he says to the masses, is drawn from his deep hoard of knowledge and contains a pure gem of truth:—
  ‘Oh! who could bear the burden of his life,
The sad remembrance of the whilom strife,
  The threat’ning ills that hover round his way,
If the dear God, to ease man of his pain,
Had not so made him thoughtless, careless, vain,
  That he might be less wretched in his day?’
Don’t growl at the poor translation; it’s a hasty improvisation which I ventured upon because I know you can’t bear French. The sense is faithfully rendered, and it’s a sense admirably suited to the senseless. I know of but one way that leads to real unhappiness, and that’s when a person is vain and frivolous. And those lines contain much wisdom; for it is just those people who lack the strength to endure sorrowful recollections of the past and anxiety concerning their futures, that are so deeply indebted to Nature for the ability of thoughtlessly and unconsciously enjoying their pitiful present. This will not bring them happiness, it will only make them less miserable; for the real bliss of living they will never learn to know. He only can understand that who is capable of quiet reflection, or, if you will, who is able to grasp the meaning of both past and future at once. Perhaps, though you’re exactly the opposite of vain and frivolous, even you won’t wholly understand life for a long time as I’ve understood it. I have always been best able to enjoy life by retrospection: and whenever I wished to thoroughly enjoy existence, I have only needed to awake in myself a vivid remembrance of the various periods of my life; of my laughing frolicsome childhood, when I was in the glow of perfect health; then the first dawn of thought and feeling, the first sorrows of youth when they came to me, the perception of what a full, healthful existence must be, and yet at the same time the resignation to my fate which is usually easy only to men advanced in years. Don’t you believe that one who can experience whenever he wishes such a fullness of life in himself, to whom for this purpose everything lends its aid,—sorrow and joy, loss and gain, each showing him a new side of his own nature,—don’t you believe, my dear fellow, that such a fortunate man must consider it a mistaken conclusion, even if a philosopher gave it utterance, that it would be better not to be born? To be sure, no one can deny that there are times when sorrow stifles the desire for existence, and excites an overwhelming longing for mere unconsciousness. But oftentimes the greatest sorrow brings an increase of our life experience: how could we otherwise understand the triumphant delight which martyrs have felt under torture by fire and rack? They felt that their torment only confirmed their confidence in the strength of their own souls, pervaded as they were by an illusion or a truth that their tormentors sought to tear out or kill. The worst that could be inflicted upon them served to develop the highest enjoyment of their personality. And so all the tragedy of life which a shallow philosophy pronounces to be the misery of the world, is merely another, higher form of enjoying life, peculiar to lofty souls. When death steps in at last, it’s like the sleep that comes after a holiday, when people have been so long in an ecstasy of delight that they are weary at last and have no strength for future enjoyments.”
  He was silent a moment and wore a rapt expression. Then he suddenly said:—  8
  “If the festival is over for me, Franzel, you must hold fast to Edwin.”  9
  “What nonsense you are talking!” exclaimed the other. “You’ve never been on a fairer way toward recovery than now. Your sickness was a crisis: Marquard said so himself.”  10
  “Yes, it was a crisis,” replied the invalid, smiling. “It will decide, indeed has already decided something. Life has pronounced judgment upon this not very durable structure, and written down its defects in red ink. Do you really suppose that Marquard does not know as well as I that the drama is played out? The slightest agitation, the least imprudence—”  11
  “Balder! what are you saying! These are mere fancies, perhaps a passing weakness—”  12
  “You think so because I can speak of the end so quietly? You ought long ago to have credited me with as much strength as was needed for that. I know how few are willing to rise from the table just when the viands are most tempting. And indeed, Franzel, life never seemed to me so fair as now. How many kind friends I have gained during these last weeks, how much beautiful poetry and lofty and profound thoughts I have enjoyed! But all that’s of no avail: man must live and let live, and there are doubtless others waiting to take their turn. If you are sad, Franzel, I must wait for another time to make my last request; though I do not know how long I may have to linger. But come, be sensible. You know I love you dearly; indeed, next to Edwin you have the first place in my heart. But I do not need to take leave of my brother. My whole life during the last few years has been only one long farewell. We knew we should not always remain together,—I at least was fully aware of it,—so we have enjoyed all our happiness, as it were, on account. But when the end comes, I know how it will be: at first he’ll be unable to reconcile himself. And that’s why I want to beg you to keep near him. His needs are great, and there are not many who can fulfill them.”  13
  “And that is the first thing you ask?” cried the honest friend, with an emotion he vainly endeavored to repress. “But for heaven’s sake, Balder, what sort of talk is this? You—you really believe—I—we—” He started up and rushed desperately around the little table in the centre of the room, so that the leaves of the palms trembled.  14
  “You scarcely understand as yet all that I mean,” continued the invalid quietly. “That you’ll always remain his friend is a matter of course. But to give me any real comfort, you will have to make a sacrifice.”  15
  “A sacrifice? As if I would not—do you know me so little?”  16
  “I know you to be the most unselfish man under the sun,” said Balder, smiling. “But it is just this very habit of never thinking of yourself, that for his sake and mine you must lay aside, at least so far as you can do so without being faithless to yourself. Do you know what will happen if you go on as you have been doing? In two years, in spite of your friendship, you’ll not set foot in the tun.”  17
  “I? But tell me—”  18
  “It’s a very simple matter: because you’ll be thinking of your friends either behind prison bars or in America. Dear Franzel, must I tell you why you’re not fond of living? Because you believe that a man only truly lives when he becomes a martyr to his convictions. I have always loved you for this belief, and yet I believe it a mistaken one. Test it awhile: say to yourself that you aid many more by living than you could by your martyrdom, and you will see that a man can guard his post very bravely and self-sacrificingly, without foolhardily summoning the enemy by alarm shots. It would be an inexpressible comfort to me if you would promise for two years to let alone all ‘agitation’ and see how affairs really are. There are currents in which it’s a useless waste of strength to row, because the boat floats onward of its own accord. I know what it will cost you to do this. But it would be a great joy if this last wish—”  19
  “Say no more,” cried the other, suddenly pausing before his friend, with his tearful eyes turned toward him: “Balder, is it possible that you—that you are about to leave us? And can you believe if that should happen, that I could continue my life as if nothing had occurred? When men can no longer behold the sun—do you suppose I could—that I would—” Words failed him; he turned abruptly away, and stood motionless beside the turning-lathe.  20
  “I did not mean that I thought you could live on the same as before,” said Balder in a lower voice. “But you need a substitute for what you resign. You must learn to be glad to live, and I think I know how you would learn to do so most quickly. You must take a wife, Franzel!”  21
  “I? What can you be thinking about? How came such an idea into your head? Just at this time, too—”  22
  “Because it will soon be too late for me to earn a kuppelpelz 1 from you. True, I shall scarcely need it. I shall not feel cold where I lie. But I should like to know of your being warmly sheltered. And I know from experience—I’ve been ‘married’ to Edwin—that the world looks much brighter seen with four eyes than with two.”  23
  “You see,” he continued, as his friend still stood motionless, boring a hole in the bench with the point of a file, “Edwin will find a wife in time who will make him happy: then you would be left again with nothing but mankind to clasp to your heart; and beautiful and sublime as the idea is, it’s not all you need—and that’s why you get over-excited, and the thought of martyrdom overcomes your judgment. So I think a little wife who would know how to love and value you, would by her mere presence instruct you every day in the doctrine that Edwin has so often represented to you in vain, that you should husband your energies for the future, and not prematurely sacrifice your life without cause. There is no danger of your becoming faithless to your convictions from mere selfish pleasure in your home. And then, how can a socialist who knows nothing except from hearsay of family life, upon which basis the whole structure of society rests, who knows nothing of where the shoe pinches the father of a family, talk to married men about what they owe to themselves and others?”  24
  As he uttered these words a bewitchingly cunning expression sparkled in the sick boy’s beautiful eyes. He almost feared that Franzelius would turn, and looking in his face penetrate the secret design, the purpose of attacking him on his weakest side; so, rising, he limped to the stove and put in a few sticks of wood. While thus employed, he continued in a tone of apparent indifference:—  25
  “You mustn’t suppose I’m saying all this at random. No, my dear fellow, I’ve a very suitable match in view for you: a young girl who’s as well adapted to your needs as if I’d invented or ordered her expressly for you. Young, very pretty, with a heart as true as gold, fond of work and fond of life too, as she ought to be, if she is to wed with one who doesn’t care to live; not a princess, but a child of working people. Haven’t you guessed her name yet? Then I must help you: she writes it Reginchen.”  26
  “Balder! You’re dreaming! No, no, I beseech you, say no more about that: you’ve too long—”  27
  “I am astonished,” continued the youth, rising as he spoke and moving toward the bed, “that you didn’t understand me readily and meet me half-way. Where have your eyes been, that you’ve not seen that you have stood high in the dear girl’s favor for years? Even I have noticed it! I tell you, Franzel, the little girl is a treasure. I have known her all these years, and love her as dearly as a sister, and the man to whom I don’t begrudge her I must love like a brother. Therefore, blind dreamer, I wanted to open your eyes, that I may close mine in peace. To be sure, I’m by no means certain that you’ve not already bestowed your heart elsewhere, and my brotherly hint may be too late. At any rate, whatever you do you should do quickly, for the young girl’s sake. She seems to have taken your long absence to heart: her mother says she is by no means well yet, and eats and sleeps very little. I should like to see my little sister well and happy again before I—”  28
  He could not finish the sentence. He had been seated on the bed while speaking; and now he laid his head on the pillow and closed his eyes, as if wearied with the unusual exertion of conversing. Suddenly he felt his hands seized; Franzelius had meant to embrace him, but instead he threw himself down beside the bed, and with his head resting on Balder’s knees, he gave way to such violent and uncontrollable emotion that the youth was obliged to make every exertion to soothe him into composure.  29
  At last he rose. He tried to speak, but his voice failed. “You—you’re—oh! Heaven forgive me, forgive me! I’m not worthy!” was all he could stammer. Then he started up and rushed out of the room.  30
  Balder had sunk back on the bed and closed his eyes again. His pale face was almost transfigured; he looked like a hero resting after a victory, and for the moment did not even feel the pain in his chest. The room was perfectly still; the sunlight played amid the palm leaves; the mask of the youthful prisoner, suffused with a rosy light which came from the open door of the stove, seemed to breathe and whisper to its image on the narrow couch: “Die!—your death shall be painless!” But a sudden thought roused Balder from this anticipation of eternal repose. He rose and dragged himself to the turning-lathe, where with a trembling hand he unlocked the drawer. “It’s fortunate that I thought of it!” he murmured. “What if they had found it!”  31
  He drew out the portfolio in which he kept his collection of verses. On how many pages was the image of the child whom he secretly loved, described with all the exaggerated charms his solitary yearning had invested her with; to how much imaginary happiness these simple sheets bore witness! And yet he could now let them slide through his fingers without bitterness. Had not his feelings been sacred and consoling to him at the time? What had happened which could strip the bloom and fragrance of this spring from his heart? There would be no summer, but did that make less beautiful the season of blossoming? He read a verse here and there in an undertone, now and then altering a word that no longer satisfied him, and smiling at himself for polishing verses which no human eye had seen or ever would see. Many he had quite forgotten, and now found them beautiful and touching. When he had turned the last page, he took the pencil and wrote on a loose scrap of paper that he laid in the drawer in place of the volume of poems, the following lines, which he wrote without effort and without revision:—

  GOOD-NIGHT, thou lovely world, good-night:
  Have I not had a glorious day?
Unmurmuring, though thou leav’st my sight,
  I to my couch will go away.
Whate’er of loveliness thou hast,
  Is it not mine to revel in?
Though many a keen desire does waste
  My heart, it ne’er alone has been.
Delusion’s veil of error blind
  Fell quite away from soul and eye;
Clearer my path did upward wind
  To where life’s sunny hill-tops lie.
No idol false is there adored;
  Humanity’s eternal powers,
O’er which the light of Heaven is poured,
  Stand self-contained in passion’s hours.
High standing on the breeze-swept peak,
  Below may I with rapture see
The land whereof no man may speak
  Save him who fares there wearily.
This is the rich inheritance
  The children of the world shall own,
When crossed the wearisome expanse,
  And fate’s supreme decrees are known.
O brother, who art seeking still
  For love and joy where I have sought,
I would your path with blessings fill
  When to its end my life is brought.
Ah! brother, could we two aspire
  Together to the glorious height—
Hence, tears! some part of my desire
  Is thine. Thou lovely world, good-night!
Note 1. Reward for match-making. [back]

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