Juno at the core
The conference on Henriette Herz ended today in the Mendelssohn-Remise, a location situated opposite the Academy of Sciences and only two houses away from the place where Rahel Levin received her friends.
The city center of Berlin is full of historical places, especially around the Gendarmenmarkt, which is unanimously praised in guidebooks as “the most beautiful plazza in Berlin”. But even there, it is seldom given to walk in the footsteps of one’s research objects like we literally did over the days of this conference.
The conference was dedicated to Henriette Herz and allowed to address a series of interesting questions from a wide range of points of view. Henriette de Lemos married in the early 1780s Marcus Herz (I have no idea why Wikipedia writes the name with a k (Markus) – it is Marcus with a c), a famous physician over twice her age, thus following her father’s will. Marcus Herz would give lectures and set up experiments in his home, which students attended. His wife would assist him in organizing the experiments. Her amazing beauty soon would attract the students to the Herz’ house for different reasons than the experiments and lectures would. She was a woman of culture, too: she could read and speak several languages, she was fond of literature. And so the legend of the “Doppelsalon” (double salon) was born: while he would engage in a rational, scientific exchange, she, in the next room, would allow imagination and art to rule. This apparent antithesis between husband and wife, old and young, science and literature, was tempered several times during the conference: in fact, the two groups were much more permeable than legend had it. And also: Marcus Herz gave his young wife an amazing freedom in her salon – and in her life. After his death, she remained a widow and refused two marriage offers. Her freedom was obviously worth a lot to her.
The first session of the conference was dedicated to the importance of the Haskalah, its principles and its community, for Henriette Herz’ destiny. Although the major actors of this movement are well documented, although their writings are known and their principles the object of extensive research, it turned out to be difficult to determine the extent to which these affected women’s lives, especially those that were the daughters of the main initiators of the movement. These daughters received an excellent education, it seems, but one that did not extend to scholarship (the difference between Bildung and Gelehrsamkeit was used to draw the line).
The second session of the conference turned to Henriette Herz’ activities as a Salonière. She made friends there with young gentlemen who later became extremely influential. Two brothers, for instance, regularly came to the city and met her, so happy to be rid of life at the boring castle in today’s Berlin suburbs, then countryside where they grew up. Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt were their names. Among Henriette Herz’ women friends, Brendel Mendelssohn was a major one: daughter to Moses Mendelssohn, she broke with her family, with her jewish roots, converted to catholicism, married Friedrich Schlegel. Another good friend of Henriette Herz’ was Rahel Levin – she too converted, as did Henriette Herz. Conversion was a main topic in the third session of the conference. In the case of Henriette Herz, conversion was not just a ritual that aimed at gaining social acceptance, it was a fundamental gesture in her spiritual evolution.
A fourth section was dedicated to her relationships with different actors of the intellectual scenery. These contributions helped situate her better in the overall cosmos and the political tensions of the time. This was also an occasion to get into more depth into the way here Memoirs were composed, a highly problematic text that, despite its lack of authenticity and solidity, has impacted dramatically her image, and still does. The reception of Henriette Herz was the dedicated topic of the last session – the one that took place at the Mendelssohn-Remise.
Some papers were delivered by researchers who have been writing about Henriette Herz for years, have investigated her papers, her relationships, the discourse about her and her attitude towards Judaism. I know too little about all of that to question what they said, even if, in the vivid discussions that followed the presentations, they did not always seem to agree with one another and seemed to suggest there was room for dissension. I felt like there was a culture of contradiction prevailing, but could not really determine if it was more coming from Feminist Studies or from Jewish Studies, although I suspect it was rather typical for Feminist Studies.
So I will not pretend to bring an in-depth analysis of those questions, which I am approaching from a different angle. But seen from this angle of mine, I would like to emphasize three aspects that I think are worth being noted:
1) The status of the Salonière: a Salonière can legitimately be considered as an intellectual actor, even if she is not a writer. Henriette Herz burnt her letters, hardly wrote for publication (even if that might need precision/revision), did not see herself as a writer. But still, she was a public persona, an intellectual actor. Ergo: you don’t have to be a writer to be an intellectual.
2) This is not a reason to have a reputation based solely on cuteness. A striking passage of the last session emphasized how, in her time, Henriette Herz was mostly compared to a Greek goddess, a Juno, thus embracing classical esthetical ideals. But this image was to be turned, at a later point in the reception, into the topos of the “beautiful Jewish woman” which, combined with the role of the Salonière, located her in these regions where women have a decorative function (strongly connoted by moral-political values).
3) When you have only few sources, use surrogates and think bigger. All of the analyses were impressing in that they went into the depth of the textual material. Still. There is awfully little left. She burnt almost everything, there are only a very few original letters left. Its is impossible to reconstruct her intellectual activity on the sole basis of her own writings. In that sense, it would be necessary, in order to allocate her a position in intellectual history that corresponds to what we know of it today (and not to new myths built on the ruins of old myths), to extend the sources to fragile domains like third-party evocations in ego-documents by others. Of course, there will be things we won’t be sure of. Of course, it will not give an answer to every questions. But digital methods, I think, could help: in defining the shape of networks, their quality of relationships, their evolution over time, and the position that this amazing woman could conquer.