Heinrich Zimmer: Coming into His Own

Heinrich Zimmer: Coming into His Own

by Margaret H. Case

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Heinrich Zimmer (1890-1943) is best known in the English-speaking world for the four posthumous books edited by Joseph Campbell and published in the Bollingen Series: Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Philosophies of India, The Art of Indian Asia, and The King and the Corpse. These works have inspired several generations of students of Indian religion


Heinrich Zimmer (1890-1943) is best known in the English-speaking world for the four posthumous books edited by Joseph Campbell and published in the Bollingen Series: Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Philosophies of India, The Art of Indian Asia, and The King and the Corpse. These works have inspired several generations of students of Indian religion and culture.

All the papers in this volume testify to Zimmer's originality and to his rightful place in that small group of great scholars who were part of the first generation to confront the end of European empires in India and the rest of Asia. In her introduction, Margaret Case contrasts Zimmer's approach to India with that of Jung. There follow two recollections of Zimmer, one by his daughter Maya Rauch, the other by a close friend and supporter in Germany, Herbert Nette. Then William McGuire describes Zimmer's connections with Mary and Paul Mellon and with the Jungian circles in Switzerland and New York. A brief talk by Zimmer, previously unpublished, describes his admiration for Jung. Wendy Doniger picks up the question of Zimmer's intellectual legacy, especially in the light of Campbell's editorial work on his English publications. Gerald Chapple raises another question about how his influence was felt: the division between what is known of his work in the German-and the English-speaking worlds. Kenneth Zysk then summarizes and analyzes his contribution to Western knowledge of Hindu medicine; Matthew Kapstein evaluates his place in the West's appreciation of Indian philosophy; and Mary Linda discusses his contributions to the study of Indian art in the light of A.K. Coomaraswamy's work and more recent research.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Heinrich Zimmer (1890-1943) was a German Indologist and comparative mythologist whose enthusiasm for his subject helped Westerners see Indian thought not as something exotic but as another expression of the universal aspirations of the human spirit.... These essays make it easier to go beyond the popular level and see why Zimmer stressed what he did."Asian Folklore Studies

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Princeton University Press
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Heinrich Zimmer

Coming Into His Own

By Margaret H. Case


Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03337-2



Maya Ranch

I LAST SAW my father when I was fourteen years old, in 1939. He had to leave Germany with his wife and three sons, and I had to stay with my mother and two brothers. I was part of his "other family," which I should explain, since it sheds light on his life and work.

In 1923 Heinrich Zimmer met and fell in love with Mila Esslinger-Rauch (1886–1972). He considered the relationship the beginning of his "coming into his own," and he regarded his first book, Kunstform und Yoga im indischen Kultbild (1926), as a fruit of the love they shared. Mila was an Austrian, married to Eugen Esslinger (1870–1944), a German Jew sixteen years older than her. He had discovered her talent as a painter and had allowed her to study art in Paris and the Netherlands before the First World War. He was a bit like a father to her and accepted her relationship with Zimmer, never wanting a divorce. Esslinger gave Mila's three children by Zimmer (Maya, b. 1925; Ernst Michael, 1926–1945; Lukas, b. 1932) his own name. Zimmer, on his part, had a very small salary as Privatdozent at Heidelberg University and did not feel able to marry Mila.

Esslinger had inherited enough money to live comfortably until the inflation around 1925, when he lost his entire fortune. In 1927 he went with Mila and her first two children to America, where he had obtained a job as a librarian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Meanwhile, Zimmer and Christiane von Hofmannsthal decided to marry. In the spring of 1928 he told Christiane that there was another woman he loved, who was in America with their two children and with whom he would never break up his relationship. Christiane was willing to go along with the relationship—America was at that time rather far away.

But Mila Esslinger was very unhappy in her exile and came back to Germany in the fall of 1928; Eugen Esslinger returned some time later. Until his emigration in 1939, Heinrich Zimmer shared his life between the two women he loved. Christiane and Mila never met, but they accepted each other; there was no quarrel between them.

Heinrich Zimmer had to leave Germany in 1939, with his half-Jewish wife, Christiane. Before he left, he declared himself the father of Mila's children and told the German authorities that he wanted them to have his name. In 1941 the children received a "proof of Aryan descent" from the government and the maiden name of their mother, Rauch.

Looking at my father now—being myself older than he ever became—I am again and again impressed by his productivity and his capacity for work. Apart from his duties at Heidelberg University, he would lecture at other places, such as the C. G. Jung Club in Zurich and in Basel or the Eranos meetings in Ascona. In addition to his main publications, such as Kunstform und Yoga and Maya, he contributed to magazines and newspapers and wrote reviews, as well as translating with his wife Christiane the almost endless History of India by Sir George Dunbar. Moreover, in 1929, after the sudden death of his father-in-law, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, he became responsible for the posthumous edition of the latter's works, although he refused to be named the editor. With the help of Christiane, who had at times been her father's secretary, he took charge of the literary estate of Hofmannsthal, producing two volumes of shorter texts, one of poems, and the novel Andreas, for which, as in many other cases, he had to fit unconnected fragments together.

He also started a collection of Hofmannsthal's letters, editing two volumes in the period from 1935 to 1937, and sending a third to the publisher in the spring of 1940, when he was in Oxford. A wide-ranging correspondence documents his struggles to gather the texts and to get his mother-in-law's permission to publish them. In the beginning she was afraid that her late husband might not have wanted them published. He had to convince her and some of her advisors, old friends of Hofmannsthal; in the case of the poems he also had to convince the publisher, who for other reasons did not want to see the entire collection appear. This was the toughest battle—and on two fronts—he ever had to fight, writing letters speaking "the language of man and even of angels" until he was able to have all but two of the poems published. He had no secretary to type his manuscripts and letters or to read the proofs, except on rare occasions—as in the case of the Hofmannsthal publications—when others such as Dr. Herbert Steiner helped him.

From 1933 on, the terrible circumstances in Germany caused by the Third Reich made the lives of many of his friends and of his own family difficult, even unbearable. In the winter of 1937-1938 he was dismissed from the University of Heidelberg and lost his professorial title. Finding no adequate position, and having hardly any income, he had to leave the country. When he emigrated in 1939, first to England and then in 1940 to America, he was dependent on the generous help of others. Even his lectures in the first years at Columbia University were paid for by members of the C. J. Jung Club, his "Mahatmas from Manhattan," until he was finally taken onto the payroll of the university in the winter of 1942–1943, some months before his sudden death.

But as I remember him from a child's perspective, he was always in good spirits, always seemed to have time, never complained about life or about having too much work. In Heidelberg he would come to the family breakfast having already returned from the post office, where he had mailed the letters he had written earlier in the morning—for he liked to get up early—and he rejoiced in having gotten on with his own work; he was often enthusiastic about some new idea that had just struck him. He could be impatient when we interrupted him while he was working or speaking to other people, or when we were too noisy or behaved in a silly way, but the rest of the time he was good humored, took part in our activities, encouraged us in things we were doing, such as drawing pictures based on stories we had read.

When he was away on journeys, he sent us postcards of works of art he had seen, always with a short comment on the back: "This is Christ appearing to Maria Magdalena as a gardener after his resurrection" (by Fra Angelico of S. Marco in Florence), or "This, to say the least, is what hell looks like!" (So sieht die Holle aus, mindestens)—writing about the picture of hell in Campo Santo at Pisa. When later in life I visited an art gallery, it was always like coming home, meeting the familiar paintings that I had once collected.

He went out with us on long walks, taking us by our hands—his hands I remember always being warm—and speaking with us about things that were important to us at the time, telling us stories of his own youth, or others like "Abu Kasem's Slippers" or "The King and the Corpse." At home he would read us fairy tales and myths he was dealing with, and when some inspiration had come to him while he was reading, he would write a note on a scrap of paper, as he always had some paper in his pocket. He also read Shakespeare—I remember Macbeth; novels—mostly of German romanticism; poetry, especially ballads; and of course he read the Bible to us.

I remember my father reading about the conquest of Jericho from a children's Bible with pictures when I was about five. Later, when I was eight or nine years old, he would read to us from the voluminous Luther Bible—at least all the narrative parts of it. I still hear Abraham bargaining with the Lord about the number of innocent people necessary to spare Sodom, starting with fifty and gradually getting down to ten. He read the passage with real delight, adopting the manner of an old Eastern Jew. He was fond of the Jewish world. When we read Exodus, I was impressed by the help the Israelites received from the Lord in escaping from Egypt, how they were guided by the pillar of cloud, which was fire at night, how they were led through the Red Sea while the pursuers were destroyed, and how they went on through the desert, the Lord giving them all they needed: water, manna, and quail. And yet the Israelites, His Chosen People, again and again complained to Moses, wishing to be back in Egypt in slavery, and recalling the abundance of food there. Then, just when Miriam was punished for her disobedience and the rebellious Korah and his followers were swallowed by the earth, I said to my father, "I can't understand why they are so disobedient and not very grateful, when the Lord is caring for them so especially." And he answered, "Well, you must realize what it meant for them to plod through the desert, stop whenever the pillar of cloud halted above the Ark of the Covenant, unpack their belongings, put up their tents—and when they had just settled down, the pillar of cloud would move on, and they had to get up and pack their things together and move on ... and you know, even manna becomes tedious in time."

My father looked on mythology and religious tradition with deep awe and realism at the same time. I believe that one reason for his productivity was that life and learning for him were never separated. All his work was part of his life and his life part of his work. The answers he found in dealing with religion were valid for himself, as some of his letters show. And he shared this attitude with us children, treating us as equal partners in the discussion. I was about nine years old when, as I came home from school, he asked me what we were learning just then. It was "the cyclical process of water." I had to explain to him how it worked: the rain comes down from the clouds, is absorbed by the earth, then appears again in a well, becomes a stream, and turns into a river flowing into the sea, where the water evaporates and become clouds again; and the cycle can begin anew. And he added, "Well, all nature is part of this cycle, all plants, all creatures, and you yourself, your blood, your sweat is part of it." While he spoke he raised his arm, and I remember some sweat on it—it was summer. The cyclical process had just acquired another dimension for me, and I gained a feeling of being part of creation in quite a realistic way.

He felt at home in nature. You must remember that nature at that time did not yet seem in danger; air, water, and earth were not polluted, and the lovely landscape around Heidelberg still looked as it had looked for centuries. There was a railway, but neither modern industries nor modern highways had altered the land. Destruction began only in the late thirties, when Hitler began to build the Autobahn and modern traffic developed, together with industrialization. My father was fond of walking through the country or riding his bicycle. He loved swimming in the Neckar River, which was in its upper parts still free of weirs and was rather wild, and he enjoyed going out in the garden in a summer thunderstorm, when rain and hail were pouring down. He would go out just in shorts, feeling the rain on his bare skin. Meals often were like a feast in his company. He liked to drink wine, especially in the evening. He was fond of life, and perhaps it was for this very reason that he never clung to it. He was also fully aware of all the misery and hardship creatures have to go through. There was some melancholy deep in him, especially in his later years, which could be felt at moments. But he never complained. As Christiane wrote after his death, "He could accept so much."

My father was a true and valuable friend, and he enjoyed the presence of his many friends, encouraging and helping them when he was able to. But here also his realism was at work: he saw their shortcomings and miseries, and as he liked to find appropriate expressions for everything, he would find witty words for these, too. His sense of humor and fun was almost always present; his letters are delightful to read. And he took the same attitude toward himself.

His friends in Heidelberg sometimes asked one another, "Who is able to stop Zimmer talking?" Very few could. When he was asked about or told something he was interested in, he would start a flowing monologue on the subject, forgetting that others might also like to say something. In fact, he was speaking until the very last moment of his life. When he was in the hospital dying of pneumonia, suffering from a high fever, he continued to speak about the books he was going to write, quoting Latin and Greek authors, naming historical persons. The nearer he came to death, though, the more he fell into pathos. Speaking was for my father a vehicle to gain knowledge. A good listener was a source of inspiration. Most of his thoughts he developed through speaking—"Ich errede mir alles." But he was well aware of his volubility and could joke about it.

And then there was his grief about failing to get to India. Ever since he had started reading Sanskrit, he had longed to go there, and this lifelong wish was never fulfilled. He tried three times, as far as I know. In those days it was much more expensive to get there than it is now, and he never had much money to spend in his life. The first time he tried was in the twenties; the company with which he had booked his journey and which he had paid for his ticket went bankrupt. He made a second attempt in 1935, when he was to lead a group of interested people through India. The plan failed because the German government considered him unsuitable for the task because he had a half-Jewish wife and refused him permission to go.

The last time he planned the trip was in 1939, when he was in England. But then the Second World War broke out. This time he had already bought the equipment—especially a sun helmet, which he carried to America. He later had a photograph made of himself wearing it on Cape Cod. He sent it to my mother, writing, "You see, the helmet is quite useful to me in the sun here at the Atlantic coast, and like Tartarin of Tarascon [the French bourgeois who boasted of lion-hunting in Algeria before he had ever been there] I can say, 'the helmet was with me in the jungles of India when I stood on one leg, my arms stretched to heaven and saying nothing, nothing, nothing' [und schweig und schweig und schweig]."

In order to appreciate this joke fully, one should remember that my father never tried the practice of yoga himself, and he was dubious about the Buddhist communities and monasteries that came into fashion in Germany during his time. He did not consider it sensible for us in the West to take over the forms of Indian religion, for we have such different traditions. At the same time, all his life was devoted to understanding other religions, with the attitude contained in the message given to the rabbi from Cracow by the officer on the bridge in Prague: that the treasure he had traveled such a long way to find was actually hidden in his own house. But the officer, who had dreamt of the same treasure as the rabbi, was not fully aware of what he was saying.




Herbert Nette

(Translated by James B Lawson and Gerald Chapple)

Let me begin my reminiscences of Heinrich Zimmer and his works with a few biographical notes. He was born on December 6, 1890, in Greifswald, the son of the scholar of Indian studies who bore the same name and to whom we are indebted for a definitive portrayal of Vedic culture. The younger Zimmer studied German and comparative philology in Berlin, presenting himself for Habilitation at the university in Greifswald soon after the end of World War I. From 1924 to 1938 he held the chair of Indian philology in Heidelberg, but lost his post there because he was married to Christiane von Hofmannsthal. They emigrated with their children, first to Oxford, where he had been invited by the English government to give a series of lectures, and then, during the second year of the war, to America. It was in the United States that he died, on March 18,1943, after a brief illness.

In light of these few facts one might think it more appropriate that a professional philologist write an evaluation of a colleague's works. But such an assumption would fail to take into account the breadth and significance of the contributions of a scholar who refused to confine himself within a narrow discipline. The territory he carved out as his creative, intellectual home was a triangle whose sides were the fields of art, science, and philosophy. That triangle became his home ground. I shall attempt to portray what brought him to make that choice and to show how profoundly Europe has benefited, and is still benefiting, from the riches he brought us from the treasure trove of the mythic age of India.


Excerpted from Heinrich Zimmer by Margaret H. Case. Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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