Heinrich Heine 1855

Letter to Dumas on the Smell of a Fifty Franc Note

Source: Correspondance Inédite de Henri Heine. Paris, Calmann Lévy, 1877;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor; Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2011.

This letter from Heine was published by Dumas père in “Le Mousquetaire” of February 14, 1855. The collection Dumas was taking up was in support of the poor during a difficult winter.

February 8, 1855

My Dear Dumas;

Several of your issues were read to me and, with your inexhaustible goodness of heart, you are taking up a new collection in support of your great clientele, the unfortunate. I hasten to reply to this appeal by sending you a fifty franc bank note drawn on the Bank of Zurich, which I received from a compatriot living in Switzerland and who claims to have borrowed fifty francs from me twenty years ago. I would like to rid myself of this bill as quickly as possible, and here’s why: it smells bad. It gives off an odor of donkey that makes me nauseous. The donkey is the animal which is the most antipathetic to me, an idiosyncrasy that dates to my childhood. I was frightened whenever I heard a donkey bray and fled as fast as I could.

I was never able to vanquish this aversion that I share with so many others: the roar of a lion or tiger doesn’t make me tremble; the hungry wolves that sometimes pursued me at night in the forest didn’t frighten me with their howling. The mewing of cats is even more painful to me, but doesn’t inspire terror in me like that felt by my illustrious compatriot Meyerbeer, who blanches at the mere sight of a cat. A disciple of Pythagoras who believes in metempsychosis would say that the great maestro was a poor little mouse during a previous life and that inside his current body can be found the fearful heart of a mouse who is afraid of the least cat. The grunts of a pig don’t amuse me either, and when someone kills a pig I prefer the music of that same great maestro Meyerbeer to the melodies it makes.

It was only after long practice that I was able to get used to the barking of dogs of all kinds, from the bulldog to the lapdog, and I am now able to ignore the combined efforts of an entire pack of dogs that wants to trouble my sleep. But as I said, the animal I fear is the donkey, and what I find unbearable is the braying of a donkey angered by scoundrels who have put a handful of pepper in its behind. The cries of the irritated animal, which would like to bite but can only bray, grip with me fear, and unlike my friends I am unable to laugh at the terrible and tireless hee-haw, hee-haw, at this hiccough that is as horrible as it is baroque and scurrilous, at all these unspeakable and almost sublime accents of stupidity emitted by an enraged donkey in his impotent rage. The monster, no less atrocious than he is ridiculous, is so exasperated that he no longer spares anything, either the ears of men or of gods, and he tears them without mercy, being unable to tear anything else. It is true that the original fault is that of men, who placed powder where I already said, but the tortured donkey is no less a horrible beast, for his desperate cries reveal all there is of arrogance, envy, impertinence, ignoble rancor, bad faith and even trickery profoundly hidden in the entrails of the absurd animal, who was ordinarily so humble, who supported blows with a stick with a touching modesty, who possessed that grave vulgarity that we believe is always allied to a certain honesty, who was too stupid, too insipid, too silly for us not to take him for honest; who seemed to be saying: “I am an imbecile, thus I am honest,” and who, in fact, managed to be honest...

Hang on, my dear Dumas, I was about to commit a grave fault by giving a name to this so-called honest donkey. I'll hold myself back and don’t dare name it Martin, though I have for me the popular saw “More than one donkey is called Martin,” for fear that somewhere there is some obscure Martin who might grasp the resemblance and sue me. I know that kind, people who grab with greed at the least thing said by a pen of renown in order to exploit it for the benefit of his foolish vanity, and who asks for nothing more than to bray in the newspapers and write to the editor: “Sir, the donkey it is a question of in a letter by M. Henri Heine is me, hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw!”

No, I don’t want to present the occasion for a lawsuit to a donkey who wants at whatever price to make his asininity obvious. So I will now leave behind this subject that I nevertheless had to discuss with you so you could understand why I want to shed myself of a bank note that smells like a donkey set in a rage by seasoning it with too strong a dose of pepper. It is also important to me that beneficence has nothing to do with my sending of this money, which I request you dispose of as you deem appropriate to the profit of your clientele.

I would have many other things to say to you, but cramps in my throat and chest, which threaten to suffocate me at any moment, don’t allow me to prolong this dictation any longer. My doctor even ordered me not to speak at all. These are the result of a bothersome accident that happened to me two months ago and which I am just beginning to recover from. Imagine what a state I must be in. Any distraction through work was impossible to me; even speech was forbidden me. Like a dog I was garroted and muzzled.

But why don’t you come and see me? I have learned that you live on the same rue d'Amsterdam I fled from a while ago to move to 3, avenue Matignon where you will always find me. It’s not far from your house and your cabriolet can get you here in five minutes. You should be ashamed that while a young man like you delays in coming an old man of seventy-five who lives in the Marais and who insists on doing all his shopping on foot, our illustrious elder Béranger, came to see me the other day despite the bad weather. I hadn’t seen Béranger for twenty-four years and I found him as alert as a gamin of Paris. A lady, whose name you will guess and who was present during Béranger’s visit, was amazed by his healthy appearance, and when he told us he was seventy-five she refused to believe him and insisted that he couldn’t be older than sixty. The songsmith’s answer brightened my day, for with his sad and wicked tone, with the feigned bonhomie under which is hidden the most derisive subtlety, he said, gently dragging out his words: “You are wrong, Madame, and if you would allow me to prove it to you I would prove that you are wrong and that I am truly seventy-five.”

The woman I just mentioned and who, incidentally, will henceforth avoid complimenting the elderly on their age, some time ago charged me with giving you her sincerest thanks for the pleasant surprise you gave us in sending her the manuscript you expressly traced for her with the same hand that gave the world 33 1/3 masterpieces. I say 33 1/3 for I presume and hope you have a good two thirds of the “Mohicans of Paris” in reserve for your public who awaits it with extended beaks.

But I must end my dictation — I am suffocating.

Sincerely yours — your friend.