Strauss, the Author of the Life of Jesus

THOUGH posthumous, the recently published volume of Letters of David Friedrich Strauss, the author of The Life of Jesus, does not smell of dust. On the contrary, it is thoroughly alive in the vigor of its uneasy polemic spirit and fleet touch. It opens with the year 1830, when Strauss was twenty-two years old, and had just finished his career at the University of Tübingen with brilliant honors. He was serving as temporary vicar to the pastor of the parish of KleinIngersheim, and that his religious opinions were already novel and independent is shown by the letters to his friend Märklin. In reply to the latter’s scruples about a freethinker like himself ministering to an orthodox flock, Strauss maintains that the case of a liberal pastor is precisely analogous to that of a prince who is endowed with more intelligence than his subjects : let both see to it that first of all they fulfill the duties of the offices to which they have been called. He makes a distinction between a man’s individual, private life and his life as an official, — a view which is likely to be condemned by persons who are taught to regard the preaching of the gospel as a calling, but is both natural and frequent among the clergy of nations which support an established state church.

Strauss did not remain long in an ambiguous incumbency. He quitted the pulpit within a year for a professor’s chair in Maulbronn, and this chair, in the autumn of 1831, for the University of Berlin, where he sat at the feet of Hegel till Hegel’s death (in November, 1831). In the following year the theological seminary of Tübingen counted him among its tutors.

Thus at the very opening of this indirect autobiography is betrayed the need that Strauss felt of a frequent change of abode, a peculiarity that was shown throughout his life. The occasion of his removal was sometimes a definitely disagreeable experience, such as the dismissal from the Tübingen seminary on account of the publication of The Life of Jesus ; sometimes it was an indefinite and even unreasonable feeling of unrest; in only a few instances was it a real consideration ; generally he was moved by a hope of finding better companionship and means for research. An explanation which he once gave of his peevish fits of discontent takes the responsibility entirely off his own shoulders and puts it upon the broad back of heredity. His mother, he says, told him that his father, who had killed her love and the affection of all his friends and relations by his selfishness, became passionately devoted to their first-born child, so that when the boy died he went nearly mad. One day he would sink into despairing dejection ; the next he would be furious with wrath against the Almighty. " And at this period of paternal disquiet,” writes Strauss, “I was conceived and born.”

Strauss thought himself indebted to his father for the logical clearness of his style. “ But everything else in me that is good, and of any worth, I owe to my mother, — yet I do not amount to half what she was for all that,” he laments to his friend Rapp. “ She had the capacity of not being prevented by small things from keeping the greater things in mind ; she understood art, and she managed always to keep the upper hand over painful feelings and a mastery of distressing emotions by the simple method of holding herself fast to some hard piece of work. Yet how unworldly was her spirit in spite of all this show of the practical ! ” he adds. “ She despised sentimentality and cant in religion with all her heart. She could feel so sure, for instance, that labor might be a real kind of divine service, under certain circumstances, that occasionally she would take up something to do on Sunday, and the reproachful looks of her church-going relatives she would charm away by the tranquil and joking remarks which she let fall. But it was ever for others she worked, never for herself ; generally it was for her children.”

In truth, if fortitude eau be an inheritance, then it was from his maternal parent that Strauss derived his. He needed a goodly portion to weather the storm that burst upon his head on the occasion of the publication of The Life of Jesus; anti fortunately for his health and wellbeing he possessed it. The book came out in Tübingen, in the spring of 1835, when he had just attained his twenty-eighth year. It represented, it seems, only one part of a vast general design that included the whole sum and substance of the world’s dogmatic history. The Tubingen university cast him out; his name was stricken off its list of tutors, and his literary work was reduced to the production of replies to adversaries. His mind and strength were diverted from his great work then and there, for good and all.

In Ludwigsburg, whither he retired after the loss of his position in Tübingen, he revised a second edition of the Life, and wrote unfruitful polemical pamphlets. His courage was unbroken, but all too soon he became ill at ease again. The truth is, his native town was hardly the right place for him at this time. He had many good friends, to be sure, but his family was a source of disquiet to him. His father, who really rejoiced in secret at the blow that his son had struck in the simpleton face of Piety, as he expressed it, professed to disapprove of him in public. Strauss was forced, on the other hand, to see his mother wearing an air of hardest indifference to the world while she was smarting inwardly. Once she said to him, “ There is one thing in me, Fritz, that is immortal, I am sure, and will continue to live in me on the other side. That is my love.” This was uttered in a gay and tender tone, but Strauss knew what heavy grief could lie close in his mother’s soul behind the light messengers of banter that she sent forth. Who wonders that he grew sick of life ? He wrote to Rapp that the subject of religion palled on him. Science lost its interest for him, too. He wished to go away from Ludwigsburg.

Now Rapp was a clergyman in full and regular orders, and as such he could not see that there was any scientific need of The Life of Jesus. Yet he remained devoted to Strauss at this time, like the rest of Strauss’s intimates, the most of whom were theologians ; and he answered the disheartened letter by recommending occupation, and the acceptance of the chair of theology in Zurich which had been offered him. Strauss had hoped for a more distinguished call, but he thought that the best thing to do for the present was to accept the Swiss offer. A little later, however, he and his friends learned that the country round about Zurich was stirred up against the nomination of the author of The Life of Jesus to a chair in the new university. Then came the news that a mob of peasants, headed by priests, had marched into Zurich and threatened the magistrates with harm if they persisted in their appointment, and had emphasized their threat by burning Strauss in effigy. Soon afterward he received a letter from the embarrassed authorities of the university, offering him a pension of a thousand francs a year. But he had already penned a dignified note of resignation. He relinquished not only the chair of theology in Zurich, but every hope of a career as professor. It is safe to say, indeed, that this blow was felt more keenly by Strauss than the public contumely which succeeded the publication of the Life. It drove the fact into his soul that there is a power in religious feelings that a man cannot stand against alone. He had not before been able to believe it, but now he had the proof.

He was then residing in Stuttgart. A letter from his elder brother, William, brought him back for a while to Ludwigsburg. His mother seemed uncommonly weak. Strauss was frightened, and watched over her and nursed her most devotedly, but in vain. “Just at this time, Fritz,” she says deprecatingly to her son on her deathbed, “ it’s too bad. People will say it is grief over your Zurich trouble that carries me off.”

There were excellent galleries of pictures and a good opera troupe in Stuttgart, and he devoted himself to art and music. His interpreter of music was the beautiful prima donna, Fräulein Christina Schebest. But an artist does not always make a good housewife; and Strauss wrote to Rapp, asking if he and his wife would not look about a little for a lady who would suit his tastes, belonging to some worthy family of the middle class. It was quite useless, he said, to try to settle down to any earnest task in his present uninspired mood : he must be wrought up to a fine fury of enthusiasm in order to write, and he felt now that he must fall into the clutches of some passion, or perish. Rapp seems to have fancied that a note from the Stuttgart Royal Opera House had fallen into his old classmate’s letter, for he answered in such commonplace fashion that Strauss was offended, and dropped the correspondence for a long time. When he resumed it, he wrote one of the most delightful gruffly frank notes that I remember ever to have read, — declaring that he will never again turn to Rapp for sympathy. Yet a little further along in the volume we read, in a letter to the same friend, a confidential description of how Juno-like is the figure, how noble the carriage, of Fräulein Schebest, and how, in spite of all, she loves him! A few weeks later Strauss announces that lie and Christina are to be married, and declares that Rapp, and no other, shall unite them.

Now for a season the letters are very foolish honeymoon letters. Instead of resuming the observations on men and things which make his correspondence so uncommonly diverting, Strauss scribbles verses on Christina’s doughnuts, and describes her efforts to attain to the standard which he has set for a perfect cook. In a little while, however, his letters to all the old friends whom he had neglected for Christina become very frequent again. Before long a still further hint of impending evil is encountered, — a hint not only of domestic and sentimental satiety, but of something much worse. We are slow in coming clearly to the plain truth, for the editor evidently has suppressed a great deal of his material; but by gleanings from detached sentences, scattered in a half dozen letters, we arrive at the indubitable fact at last that the pair separate. Strauss settles for a while in Heilbronn, while Christina reëstablishes herself in Stuttgart, with their son and daughter. No reason for the separation is allowed to appear. Strauss once makes an accusation to the effect that Christina is too self-complacent, but this can hardly have been the whole reason for disagreement. Christina wrote two books subsequently, one of which was a textbook on acting. She died in Stuttgart in 1870, aged fifty-seven, but she is not mentioned again in Strauss’s letters.

It appears as a saving grace in Strauss’s character that the breaking of family ties caused a good deal of wavering. No other event of his life so shook his natural fortitude as this. He was tempted again and again to go back to his home. He longed for his children. He saw in Venice Titian’s picture of the child Mary ascending the steps of the Temple, was reminded of his own little daughter, and felt ready to weep. Nor could he go to the opera for many a year without noting the inferiority of the singers to Christina as she used to be.

With this self-willed separation from Christina, however, the climax of his emotional life passed. He experienced no more passions. Of the brief political career which followed, he writes that he had no pleasure in being a deputy, and we discern for ourselves that he possessed no political sagacity, although events have proved that he had extraordinary political foresight. His life, from the time when he quitted his seat in the Würtemberg Landtag, in 1849, till its close in 1874, was one of pure mentality. He occupied himself with the study of material for biographies and with cultivating his taste for art, to the exclusion of all practical activities. The single interruption of his domestic loneliness — the return of his two children to his care — was of short duration because they were soon placed in boarding - schools. Yet for all this solitude no stagnation ever took place in his interest in things. He shifted his residence, he made new acquaintances, he traveled to Italy, Switzerland, and Vienna, in order to learn ; and the register of “ names referred to ” in the Letters, which comprises more than seven hundred, might be balanced by a similar register of " things referred to,” quite as long and miscellaneous, so numerous are his themes. He led the traditional existence of a German scholar without falling into the German scholar’s habitual tenuity of thought. His liveliness of style is encouraged by the variety of his topics, and by a habit of referring to the dramatic side of incidents.

The fact is, Strauss was the “ artist by nature’s malevolence,” which he once in early life described himself to be. He was wanting in the higher creative talent, but his style in writing proves that he had a graphic gift of imitation. What could he neater and clearer and more full of life than the few lines on George Eliot, from Munich, in July, 1858? “ I had a charming little experience on Thursday last in meeting the English translator of my Life of Jesus, who is now the wife of Mr. Lewes, the author of the Life of Goethe. When they heard of my being here they both called on me, but I was out. When I returned the visit I found only her. I had seen her once before in Cologne as Miss Evans, when she could not speak any German at all. Now she can talk it pretty well. She is in her thirties, not beautiful, but with a transparent countenance full of expression, more from the heart than the brain. . . . As I rose to go the amiable woman said, ' When you came in I was so delighted I could not speak.’ ”

Finally be it remarked that Strauss’s vividness and virility extended to his hatreds as well as his loves. He called a spade a spade. Old and half-dead as Strauss was in January, 1874, lie still wrote the following against the Bayreuth and Viennese idols of the day: " You say in your letter that Hermann Grimm has described Dürer as being a great man, but not a great artist. I hope these are not Grimm’s own words. . . . Dürer no artist! the man who possessed imagination, the highest gift of artists, in such over - abundant measure that whole generations of painters supplied their wants from it ! Beauty, it is true, is not to be found in Iris works. Yet what artistic reserve do they display, what knowledge and conscientious mastery of technique, what profound human feeling! But then, to be sure, in the eyes of our contemporaries he had the fault of being estimable in private life, and of attaining simplicity and beauty of character. The men whom folks admire nowadays and take to be great artists, Richard Wagner and Hans Makart, are just the contrary kind of men to Dürer, are sybaritic beggars or self - idolizing blasphemers.”

Blasphemous Strauss was called ; but no man, after reading these revelations of his life, can throw at him the worse epithets of sybaritic and self-idolizing.

Countess von Krockow.