From dialectical materialism to neoliberalism, any politics that lays claims to the truth is both illusory and dangerous. But does this mean that democracy is simply rule by opinion, without recourse to facts? And does the rejection of absolute relativism mean abandoning the postmodernist critique of truth and power?
Icons beyond their borders
The German-Jewish intellectual legacy at the beginning of the twenty-first century
Romantic valorization only partly explains the iconic status of German-Jewish intellectuals. Their resistance to ideological classification and tactics of critical displacement have attracted them to the post-modernists, whose impact they will probably outlast, writes Steven E. Aschheim.
We should begin by examining the notion of “legacy”, for what, after all, is a legacy if it is not based upon memories of the past and visions of the future? Strictly speaking, of course, the idea of a legacy is neutral with regard to value. It refers to an inheritance which can be either negative or positive, a bequest from the past that perseveres into the present and contains a certain didactic value; and which, presumably, suggests meaningful guideposts to the future, whether these be of an admonitory or inspirational kind. Of course, we construct our suitable “legacies” in extremely selective and often ideologically motivated ways. For some, the German-Jewish legacy is an intrinsically negative one, an object lesson for how not to behave as Jews, a story of a deluded, undignified and spectacularly unsuccessful assimilation. My emphasis is, of course, a quite different one. It is about a cultural and intellectual legacy which I believe we should examine critically but which is nevertheless unique and admirable, and – in an appropriately modified way – worthy too of emulation.
To be sure, there is nothing particularly new in this positive version. For over a half-century now, fascinated scholars have been chronicling, mapping and variously explaining – often in a highly sophisticated manner – the creative cultural and intellectual achievements of German Jewry. It would be no exaggeration to state that the study of German Jewish culture and intellect has become something of an academic industry, a kind of counter-history to the, perhaps equally persistent, derogatory narrative of German Jewry as demoralized, deluded, disfigured.
There is, no doubt, a degree of (quite understandable) post-Holocaust idealization in these portraits. George Mosse’s appreciation of the cultural and intellectual achievements of German Jews – as the product of a peculiar Jewish appropriation of the distinctive German notion of Bildung that became built into the creative core of their newly acquired identities – is as much personal credo as historical analysis, transmuted into a goal, an “inspiration for many men and women searching to humanize their society and lives.”1 George Steiner repeatedly trumpets the prodigal creative genius of post-Enlightenment German-speaking Jewish intellectuals and creative artists steeped in the emancipated, secular, critical, humanism of Central Europe – and equates this with his own idealized conception of a quintessentially diasporic Judaism.2 And in Amos Elon’s recent best-selling The Pity of it All, German Jewry is incarnated in its ongoing, even if ultimately tragically unsuccessful, attempt to tame nationalism and civilize other such exclusivisms.3 Eric Hobsbawm presented a similar case in his – strikingly uncharacteristic – role of lecturer at the Baeck’s London fiftieth anniversary. In all these versions, German Jewish intellectuality serves as a metaphor for the critical yet always humanizing and autonomous mind.
These, however, are all very generalized declarations, familiar statements, the stuff of barmitzvah books in which giants such as Freud and Einstein remain emblematic. What I want to analyse here is a far more specific, perhaps less recognized, and rather astonishing phenomenon, one which links (whatever we mean by) the German-Jewish legacy to a broader context. I am referring to the fact that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, certain Weimar German-Jewish thinkers – specifically, Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), Gershom Scholem (1898-1982) and Leo Strauss (1899-1973) – stand as central, virtually iconic, figures of Anglo-American, indeed, much of western, intellectual and academic culture. All have been recognized as being, in some way or another, “Jewish” thinkers, but their thought, writings and reception have far transcended those borders. Celebrated or castigated, canonized and critiqued, appropriated and interpreted in manifold ways, dissected in minute (and often contested) detail, they have all achieved remarkable prominence, well beyond the borders of their birth. With the passing of time, if anything, their resonance – their “actuality” – has increased rather than diminished.
I assume that there is no need to elaborate upon the works and biographies of these distinguished thinkers. Here I want to focus on their current reception, eminence and visibility. Some of this is truly remarkable. Thus, Leo Strauss, who by all contemporary accounts was an exceedingly shy and unworldly refugee figure,4 is presently being celebrated5 or reviled as perhaps the most positively or perniciously influential political thinker of our time. Especially during the Bush years there was a lively, widespread (and often ridiculous) discussion underway, in fringe, popular and more highbrow organs alike, as to whether or not Strauss – via his followers, many of whom currently occupy positions in power in Washington – constituted the hidden power behind the present Bush throne, even the force behind the Iraq War.6 Of course, neither his devotees nor his many critics and adversaries would find any specific policy recommendations or endorsement of “a Judeo-Christian crusade against Islam”, or an advocacy of a militant democratization of the world, anywhere in his writings.7 On the contrary, throughout his life Strauss, the putative father of neo-conservatism, remained an elitist and severe critic of liberal democracy (a theme to which I shall return).
Hannah Arendt, too, has been appropriated by any number of politically and internationally diverse circles.8 In Germany there is an express train named after her that runs from Karlsruhe to Hannover and the postal services issued a stamp in her name. Her “actuality” is constantly invoked as are attempts to creatively apply her thought and categories to contemporary crises of politics and civilization.9 In the post 1989 climate she has been, among other things, re-invented as the “political thinker of hope” and free civil society, an inspirer of the eastern European “Velvet Revolution”.10 Like our other thinkers, Arendt’s politics cut through conventional left-right distinctions. Her refusal to be simply classified, no doubt, encouraged such diverse readings. “You know”, she told Hans Morgenthau, “the left think I am conservative, and the conservatives sometimes think I am left or a maverick or God knows what. And I must say I couldn’t care less. I don’t think the real questions of this century get any kind of illumination from this kind of thing.”11
The public and political influence of Arendt and Strauss (who, ironically, could not abide each other) is most conspicuous, but a widespread cultural and intellectual mystique also adheres to all our other figures, around whom entire academic industries have been created. It would be a mammoth task to register and analyse this in systematic fashion; indeed, it would be rather futile, to render and grade their popularities in statistical or hierarchical manner. But a glance at the continuing attention – qualitative and quantitative – showered on all these thinkers (in the form of books, articles, novels, dramas and even apparel) makes their appeal patently obvious. To be sure, a cursory search of Google gives Walter Benjamin a remarkably sizeable numerical advantage.12 He is cited over an astonishing range of topics, disciplines and issues; manifold ideological and political currents regard him as authoritative and his fame has moved beyond highbrow circles (where we would expect to find him) and percolated into surprisingly diverse areas of popular culture.13 He is the only one of these intellectuals for whom a monument has been built – by the Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan – at Port Bou, the place of his suicide, which has become a site of pilgrimage.
In loose and complicated ways, Benjamin was affiliated with the Frankfurt School, especially Theodor Adorno, one of the makers of “Critical Theory”. Perhaps only a little less densely than Benjamin himself, Adorno has achieved similar fame. “Should we Adore Adorno?” Charles Rosen has recently asked?14 Despite dissenting voices, for many the answer has been a resoundingly positive one. Edward Said has valorized him as a “forbidding but endlessly fascinating man… the dominating intellectual conscience of the middle twentieth century…”15
Rosenzweig and Scholem, it is true, are best known to Jewish audiences but their presence within more general intellectual culture continues apace. “In terms of his depth, his originality, his immense learning, the power of his mind, and the compassion of his vision (not to mention his wide influence on non-Jewish as well as Jewish thinkers)”, Hilary Putnam comments, Franz Rosenzweig ranks “…as one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.”16 Scholem has been compared to Freud;17 he has been invoked by such varied figures as Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Celan and Harold Bloom.18 Upon his death, Hans Jonas may well have been speaking for countless leading Jewish, German, European and American intellectuals when he wrote that Scholem “was the focal point. Wherever, he was, you found the centre, the active force, a generator which constantly charged itself; he was what Goethe called an Urphänomen.”19
How are we to account for this rather extraordinary phenomenon, the centrality of these figures within so much of western intellectual culture? To some extent, no doubt it can be attributed to an ongoing post-Holocaust commemoration and a rather romantic valorization of German-Jewish intellectuals and their legacy in general. This, is in part, also related to a general attraction to “European” thinkers and what Anglo-Americans often impute to them: passionate intellectuality, critical engagement, and formidable depth (for some readers, the very difficulty of their thought, the obscurity and occasional impenetrability of style, renders them more attractive, provides evidence of a certain intellectual magic, of secrets available only to initiates). But if German-Jewish intellectuals are regarded as firmly embedded within the European intellectual tradition, they are also portrayed, as “a special type, distinctive and separate in character”,20 as people for whom, as Walter Benjamin put it, “Jewishness is not in any sense an end in itself but the noble bearer and representative of the intellect.”21
Moreover, there is in particular a mystique around the Weimar Republic. The thinkers in question all spent their formative years in the Republic and their oeuvres stubbornly bear the creative and often problematic imprint of its culture, politics and sensibility. Indeed, the fact that they were quintessentially Weimar thinkers constitutes an integral part of their charisma and canonization beyond the border. The myth of that Republic, to be sure, is double-edged. For it is half danger and warning, of failed democracy, social and moral breakdown, the rise of Fascism, and so on. But it also an idealized version of the daring experimental spirit, the dissenting temperament, the revolutionary burst of intellectual innovation and artistic creativity that characterized those years (in many accounts of the Republic’s history, the two halves are portrayed as integrally interconnected). Moreover, unlike other leading intellectuals of that period, such as Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, as Jews our figures remain unblemished, victims not supporters of the Nazi regime. (The fact that they were Jews rendered them relatively immune to the political temptations that so seduced people like Heiedgger and Schmitt. This also makes their ongoing critiques of liberalism and bourgeois modernity more acceptable, palatable, salonfähig to Western audiences.) The German-Jewish intellectuals could thus easily become representatives of the positive sides of the Weimar experience, makers and exemplars of a fascinating past.
The successful migration of the thought of these Weimar-Jewish intellectuals, the fact that they became icons beyond their borders, may also be related to the fact that while they began their careers in Weimar Germany, most also physically left their first homeland and, in various ways and places, pursued their productive lives elsewhere and, in various ways, sought to make sense of the Nazi trauma. Franz Rosenzweig, of course, was the exception. His tragic 1929 death in Germany (and his heroic comportment before that) from a painful and progressive paralysis, has become an integral part of his legend.22 All the others traversed the German border. Walter Benjamin and his1940 suicide on the French-Spanish border has become emblematic of the Jewish intellectual who crossed, questioned and was robbed of recognized borders “the dialectical Jew at a standstill,” as Terry Eagleton dubbed him, “declaring the small hoarse sound of the Torah in the customs shed.”23 Scholem was the first to leave Germany in 1923 for Palestine where he went on to found the academic study of mysticism, all the while subverting the conventional ideological borders of liberalism, Zionism and normative Judaism alike. Arendt and Strauss went on to highly successful careers in the United States. Adorno, lived there – a little less happily – from 1938 to 1953 after which he returned to his native Germany. In America, these refugee thinkers remained recognizably foreign – Walter Laqueur has written that they had a very narrow of American society because few of them could drive a car. At any rate, for many searching and critical students and intellectuals these Weimar figures represented a kind of exotic Other, foreign yet close enough to encourage identification – particularly given their own marginal status as Jews or victims or outsiders.
But, again, this very generalized account only takes us so far. It does not really tell us why these particular Weimar German-Jewish intellectuals rather than others currently seem to embody that legacy, why they rather than other figures of their time have travelled so well. Why, for instance, do Scholem and Rosenzweig presently attract more respectful attention than, say, Martin Buber? Why is it that Arendt and Strauss are so much more audible than Hermann Cohen and Ernst Cassirer? Why, for that matter, do we hear far more today of Adorno and Benjamin than Ernst Bloch and even Herbert Marcuse? Of course, intellectual reputation always contains a degree of indeterminacy: there are heterogeneous audiences, the various parts of a writer’s project may receive different ratings from different categories of reader; it is almost impossible to maintain a clear distinction between questions of merit and celebrity, fashion and utility; and at any given moment judgment will be affected by hearsay, selective recall, and the predilections of editors.24 Clearly no single account will suffice. For all that, reception and popularity possesses some political, intellectual and contextual grounding.
Thus Buber, who was feted especially during the 1950s, now appears (however unfairly) too pious and pontificatory, too prophetic and “Christian”, insufficiently “textual” (indeed, his reputation was sullied in no small measure by Scholem himself, and to some degree as well by Benjamin). Both Hermann Cohen (who died in 1918 and thus can hardly be considered a Weimar thinker) and Ernst Cassirer, though by no means entirely neglected, are too classically “liberal”, too conventionally “bourgeois” to excite broader interest. Marcuse and Bloch were unabashedly “political”, prophets of clear and activist “hope”. Their heyday occurred in the optimistic, heady 1960s. In our own greyer, more ambiguous times, the more shaded, indeterminate ruminations of Adorno and Benjamin seem congenial. Walter Benjamin’s vaunted messianism is celebrated precisely because it is a densely complex, qualified one. “I came into the world under the sign of Saturn”, he wrote, “the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays…”25 Benjamin’s project, his attempt to salvage doomed or forgotten pasts and defeated, oppressed communities necessarily came mixed with memories and intimations of catastrophe.
I think that it is true to say that the iconicity of our thinkers, their present appeal, derives from a number of shared characteristics. To be sure, there were great differences amongst them, yet in many ways they constituted a kind of community of affinity. They chose different objects of reflection and distinct modes of self-definition and political hope – indeed they insisted upon these markers of separateness – but the issues and dilemmas that plagued them, the categories in which they thought were of one cloth. They were all heterodox thinkers. Orthodoxy, of almost any kind, was not an option (even the apparent return to traditional Judaism of Rosenzweig was performed on the basis of a radical and immanent re-conceptualization of its classical precepts). Their diverse projects are not easily pigeonholed: they all resisted simple ideological classification and were moved by radical impulses. Indeed, they were driven to go beyond the borders in both literal and metaphorical ways. They naturally gravitated to tactics of conceptual and critical displacement and sought to first subvert and then remap accepted cognitive frontiers. These qualities, I believe, account for much of their ongoing attractiveness.
All engaged in essentially Weimarian post-liberal ruminations, posited on the ruins, and a disbelief in, the old political and conceptual order. They all advocated a kind of “root” re-thinking that variously explored novel ways in which to comprehend the disarray of post-world War I (and later post-World War II) European civilization – and to provide radical solutions for its predicament.
Thus, Adorno and Benjamin are usually regarded within the prism of a culturally and theologically inflected “negative metaphysics” of critique and, for many, with a highly revisionist, humanistically reconceived “Western” Marxism.26 Hannah Arendt is renowned not only as the analyst of totalitarianism but for her thinking through of its implications for the Western philosophical tradition as a whole, and her formulation of a post-metaphysical pluralist politics as the sphere of autonomous and spontaneous action.27 Franz Rosenzweig is known for his interrogation and dismissal of idealist metaphysics and his re-aligning of traditional “religious” and transcendental categories such as creation, revelation and redemption within a temporal frame. His was a new “existential” understanding of immanent Jewish life which by its nature was bound to operate beyond conventional physical and political borders: Jewish existence was ontologically separate from its surroundings.
28 Gershom Scholem, that “primordial” but entirely unconventional Zionist, was animated by an antinomian theologico-metaphysical dream of the regeneration of Judaism, fuelled by his single-handed embrace of the study of Kabbalah. He integrated into his radical philosophy of history, sects and movements previously regarded as too obscure and obscurantist for serious consideration and decipherment and bestowed upon them a vitalizing function at the very heart of the Jewish historical project.29 Leo Strauss – in very idiosyncratic fashion – re-read classical politico-philosophical texts against the modern (and liberal) grain, privileged pre-modern rationalism and sort to delineate the separate functions of (everyday, cynical) politics – he approved of Plato’s “noble lies” – from (truthful though dangerous) philosophy. Not always fully convinced, he reasserted the claims of faith over Enlightenment reason but was able neither to surrender loyalty to his ancestral community nor to the claims of a transcendent philosophical tradition (perhaps, in the end, through his interpretation of the esoteric meaning of Plato, he conflated the two and Athens and Jerusalem became, as it were, one.)30
There is another important commonality. In the turbulent and hostile circumstances of their time all our thinkers were explicitly confronted with – and attempted to provide creative solutions to – what Leo Strauss has called the Jewish “theologico-predicament”.31 This entailed dealing, in one way or another, with the subtle tensions and ambiguities of their own Jewish and culturally hybrid identity. There is nothing new or surprising in this. But, given the later canonic status of these thinkers it is rather startling to note that (with the exception of Adorno) these figures were all either profoundly involved in or, at least, in dialogue with or intimately aware of, the world of Weimar German Zionism. This is surprising because German Zionism was, after all, a rather fringe phenomenon.32 The Zionist engagement of so many German-Jewish intellectuals who were later to achieve international fame, the creative energies it inspired, is rather astonishing and a tale that awaits its historian (our own figures, apart, names like Hans Kohn, Martin Buber, Erich Fromm, Leo Löwenthal, Hans Jonas and Norbert Elias by no means exhaust the list).33
Perhaps its very fringe, marginal nature constitutes part of the explanation. It would be an exaggeration – but not a great one – to say that the alternatives for sensitive, dissenting, anti-bourgeois, post-liberal youthful Jewish intellectuals of the Weimar Republic consisted of the choice between Zionism and Marxism (and sometimes a combination of the two – even if its proponents later moved beyond or refined both these positions. Rosenzweig was entirely exceptional for his devising a viewpoint that bypassed – and challenged – both.)
Zionism, like Marxism, was a boundary phenomenon, a form of personal and
intellectual displacement – and re-placement. At the time, it appeared as a genuine regenerative option: its appeal and attractiveness derived in no small part from its perception and critique of bourgeois Jewish hypocrisy. In a sense joining the Zionist movement was both a déclassé and anti-patriotic statement. Anyone who has read the diaries of Gershom Scholem or Kafka’s Letter to his Father will be familiar with this. The case of Gershom Scholem’s Zionism is familiar as is Arendt’s complicated and changing attitude to that movement; Leo Strauss’s early and late writings are replete with both sympathetic and critical discussions of the movement; through Scholem, Benjamin was intimately apprised of the Zionist issues of the day and – like Kafka – constantly flirted with the idea of studying Hebrew and moving to Palestine (without, of course, ever seriously considering it.) Rosenzweig’s anti, or at least non, Zionism is well-known, yet his post-liberal search for radical alternatives and the need for “a new thinking”, and above all his configuration of the Jews as a living, separate (indeed organic) entity, made him an obvious Gesprächspartner, the relevant and most serious point of contestation for the Zionists with whose leading intellectuals he was close friends and in constant touch.
Weimar Jewish intellectuals in general were often linked by a dense network of relationships.34 One wonders whether or not those who have internationally canonized our particular set of thinkers have any idea of the intellectually engaged and often charged personal relations that pertained between them. To be sure, at no time did they form an organized or institutional “group”. Still, their interconnections went deep and encompassed the whole spectrum of relationships ranging from close friendship through serious enmity. In fact, to the end, these figures were each other’s real interlocutors, the relevant others – even, perhaps especially, when they were engaged in intense intellectual, personal and ideological combat.
But the fact that these Jewish (and often Zionist) thinkers were acquainted with each other’s works and person does not, of its own, explain their present canonic status. The romance of personal exile, a certain marginality and even victim status does, of course, play a role in their iconicity as does, in connected fashion, their drive to radically reshape contemporary modes of understanding. The lives and thought of the figures considered here were conducted both literally and conceptually beyond their inherited geographical and normative borders. Their confrontations with Jewishness (and Zionism), their personal plights, indeed their projects themselves revolved around issues of displacement and replacement.35 If they left old borders behind, they also sought to recast the boundaries. Even Scholem, the ardent Zionist, was surprisingly aware and affirmative of this exilic dimension of intellectual creativity. Freud, Kafka and Benjamin, he wrote, “did not fool themselves. They knew that they were German writers – but not Germans. They never cut loose from that experience and the clear awareness of being aliens, even exiles. […] I do not know whether these men would have been at home in the land of Israel. I doubt it very much. They truly came from foreign parts and knew it.”36
Suffering and victimization do, of course, figure in the intellectual iconicity of the twentieth century and in this respect some of our thinkers have become exemplary. The pain, courage and piety of Rosenzweig, the driven desperation and suicide of Benjamin have become integral to their reception, their personal, martyred fates often indistinguishable from the ideas themselves (this may encourage commemoration but is not always conducive to an equally necessary critique.37) But displacement also entered the modalities and marrow of their thought: for Rosenzweig exile was not antithetical to redemption but a condition for it; the later Strauss believed that the liquidation of exile, would spell the end of genuine Jewish existence – exile was an essential binding force; Scholem dwelled endlessly on the dialectic transformations Jewish mystics wrought on the notion of exile as a necessary component of creative Jewish political and spiritual economy. Benjamin’s attempt to read and write “against the grain”, his search for the lost, oppressed voices of history surely belongs to this category. It has even been suggested that partly because Adorno was of mixed German-Jewish descent, his Negative Dialectics developed a critique of all essentialist forms of identity (including the Jewish one).
But important as this marginal Jewish condition may have been this does not sufficiently account for a fame and canonicity that clearly also transcends Jewish and ethnic boundaries. Very often in the reception of many of these thinkers, Jewishness is not even mentioned; it is irrelevant. This is perhaps because, as Hannah Arendt noted (in a clearly autobiographical remark) the most clear-sighted intellectuals “were led by their personal [Jewish] conflicts to a much more general and radical problem, namely to questioning the relevance of the western tradition as a whole”.38
Little wonder, then, that Franz Kafka was seminal for most of our figures.39 His depiction of writing as “an assault against the frontiers”40 perfectly matches their endeavours. This was true even for those thinkers who remained more strictly within the Judaic orbit. Rosenzweig envisioned a Judaism of national belonging and redemption that essentially nullified place. Scholem’s insistence upon the animating, dialectical role of the mystical impulse in Jewish life crucially entailed displacing the purported exclusive hegemony of Jewish normative law and was animated by an acute consciousness of “the fine line between religion and nihilism”.41 Indeed, in his youth Scholem defined Zionism as a life lived without illusions – at the boundary.42 The oeuvres and methods of all these figures resist classification and clear demarcation: they derive their energy from functioning “on the border of several areas”.43 “But really”, Scholem asked Benjamin” where could your work be placed?” 44
If this liminality, inhabiting the threshold, reflected their inherited historical situation, it also energized their creative vitality – and is an important ground for own intrigued responses to them.45 Their heterodox projects were simultaneously engaged, critical, paradoxical, despairing and (perhaps with the exception of Strauss) salvationary. Thus, in 1931, Benjamin justified his communism by likening himself to “a castaway who drifts on a wreck by climbing to the top of an already crumbling mast. But, from here he has a chance to give a signal for his rescue.”46
Acutely sensitive to the overall crisis of tradition and authority, contemptuous of the bourgeois present, wary of easy liberal duplicity, they were aware as Arendt put it, that there was no possibility of an unmediated “return” to either the German or European or Jewish tradition.47 They all thus sought novel and unexpected ways and sources for reconfiguring such traditions and finding renewed modes of relating to them, at a time when both their message and authority had come into question. They all rejected historicism and despised positivism. They abjured social science48 for its false “value-neutrality” and for a relativism that diminished both the actual and potential human condition. They dismissed traditional idealism and approached their materials in anti-totalizing, anti-Hegelian ways;49 many searched for cracks and fissures and the significances that could be ascribed to them; most were attracted by the fragmentary, the esoteric (Strauss even revived this as a guiding interpretive method). They were fascinated by the subterranean and the antinomian (“by its very nature” Scholem declared, “mysticism involves the danger of an uncontrolled deviation from traditional authority”50). In one way or another, all were propelled, or at least fascinated by what one observer has called “the heretical imperative”.51 No wonder that Scholem defined the Frankfurt School (with which Benjamin was – albeit uneasily – associated) as a kind of Jewish heresy (a comment members of the Frankfurt School did not particularly welcome).
Given all these characteristics, it is not surprising that one important force behind the lionization of these thinkers is associated with what, for lack of a better word, we call “post-modernism”. Our icons are, after all, masters of interpretation and textuality – both of which post-modernism privileges. Their own dense, paradoxical, oracular and often esoteric mode of writing demands complex decipherment and creative exegesis, perfect grist for the endless deconstructionist mill. Precisely because their projects were multi-faceted and protean in nature, because they assaulted given frontiers and accentuated rupture, because they critiqued positivist and historicist reason, they have been depicted as amongst the forerunners of post-modernism, prefiguring or mirroring its concerns, or, at least, interpreted in terms of its guiding tenets. There is some truth to these perceptions. Nevertheless, the differences may be more important than the similarities and may account for the fact that these thinkers will probably outlast the deconstructionist moment. While post-modernists seem to play with and ironically celebrate the absence of transcendent purpose, of meaning and coherence in the world, our figures dwell mournfully on the loss of tradition and, in way or another, long for ultimacy.
In complex, convoluted, paradoxical (and often highly problematic) ways, they were in constant search for, and offered possible avenues of, evacuation and rescue from this condition of fractured modernity. To be sure, no neat Hegelian progression is in sight, the tablets have been shattered; but in one way or another, they present us with considered and committed reconfigurations of the fragments,52 signals and directions for reconstituted meanings (whether of the pre-modern, dialectical, political or messianic variety). Like the post-moderns, their sense of displacement, of being “beyond the border” is constitutive. Yet their continuing iconicity consists perhaps in their attempt to go beyond that state. In one way or another they redefined the frontiers and provided us with new moral and intellectual maps which the post-moderns, almost by definition, will not or cannot do. These maps, to be sure, are provisional and problematic. They are not definitive “Guides to the Perplexed” (although Rosenzweig’s work may have been intended as such) but rather, as Benjamin put it in another context, “the jagged edges which offer a foothold to someone who wants to go beyond that work”.53
All, each in their own way, were riveted by the question of “origins” and the recovery of lost meanings, on truth as hidden, part of a greater structure waiting to be revealed, and the possibility of redemptive moments. Some were obsessed with the messianic dimension, and all recovered the – politically loaded – theological impulse (even Arendt, perhaps the least, theologically-minded has been interpreted this way). This passion for and return to – or, at least, intense engagement with – theology, certainly did not involve a return to religion as traditionally conceived. The theological was now addressed in respectively idiosyncratic ways – transformed into a kind of metaphysics of the profane. Strauss turned to pre-modern rationalist esoteric readings and recoveries, Benjamin to a qualified and oblique messianism, Scholem to its apocalyptic and antinomian possibilities and dangers, Rosenzweig to a conception of the transcendent that emerged from the temporally finite and Adorno to a theologically-laced negative dialectics. This is a very dense and complicated theme in which each thinker deserves separate treatment. Time and space prevents us from doing this so let Adorno’s comment serve as exemplary of this tendency:
The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it with its rifts and crevices as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.54
I stated at the beginning that these thinkers stubbornly bore the creative and often problematic imprint of its Weimar provenance. The creative nature and content of these projects should, by now, be evident. But in what sense are they problematic? In one way or another all these thinkers consistently critiqued, and at times, indeed, directly attacked liberalism and mass modernity. This is especially (but not exclusively) true of their earlier thought and often most clearly expressed in their private comments. To mention only the most extreme, in a 1933 letter from his Roman exile, Leo Strauss wrote to Karl Löwith: “From the fact that Germany, which has turned to the right, has expelled us, it simply does not follow that the principles of the right are therefore to be rejected. To the contrary, only on the basis of principles of the right – fascist, authoritarian, imperial – is it possible, in a dignified manner, without the ridiculous and pitiful appeal to the rights of Man to protest against the mean [Nazi] non-entity… There is no reason to crawl to the cross, even to the cross of liberalism, as long as anywhere in the world a spark glimmers of Roman thinking. And, moreover, better than any cross the ghetto.”
None of our other thinkers, of course, ever went as far as this, but the critique of liberal-bourgeois instrumentality and mass modernity invariably informed the nature of their projects and the political positions they adopted – conservative, Zionist, Marxist, or religious. These sentiments were very much in the mould of Weimar intellectuals.55 When they were not hostile, they were certainly quite indifferent to the workings of constitutional democracy, to questions of parliamentary representation, to the various individual “bourgeois freedoms”, to the messy everyday “bread and butter” politics of barter and negotiation (as Zwi Bacharach has shown, so persuasively).56 To be sure, there are a number of mitigating factors here. With the obvious exception of Rosenzweig, all these critics of liberalism in one way or another later became – even more famously – analysts and fierce opponents of Nazism and totalitarianism. Their experiences and status as Jewish victims, as exiles and refugees also somehow softened their critiques of liberalism or at least rendered them more palatable. And for all their overt rejections, their various projects conserved a certain openness and humanizing core that was at the base of the Bildungs legacy that, willy nilly, they inherited as German Jews.
All this leads to a final, interesting question. Why do we elevate as icons thinkers that seem so critical of – or at best, indifferent to – liberalism in an intellectual and academic milieu that conceives itself to be essentially a liberal one? Perhaps we can best answer this by shifting our perspective somewhat. At the beginning of this lecture I asked why it was these specific thinkers rather than others who have undergone present canonization. Now, I want to compare them to another intellectual who has achieved that status and who presently occupies a remarkably iconic position precisely because he is a liberal. I am referring, of course, to Isaiah Berlin.
Berlin is canonic because in his person and writings he most quintessentially incarnates an updated liberalism’s positions and values. It is he who most compellingly articulates – and reflects – our cultures’ idealized individualist, liberal (and pluralist) self-image. Berlin certainly did not regard himself as having much in common with our counter-icons (although, strikingly, he too expressed both a passionate interest in, and support of, Zionism.) In a private letter (to Jean Floud) he expressed his real opinion and feelings about many of these Weimar-bred exiled intellectuals and the milieu that had produced them: “the terrible twisted Mitteleuropa in which nothing is straight, simple, truthful, all human relations and all political attitudes are twisted into ghastly shapes by these awful casualties who, because they are crippled, recognize nothing pure and firm in the world.”57 Damaged people, Berlin argued, produced damaged ideas.
If our intellectuals were restless, crossing real and conceptual borders, Berlin – that Riga-born Jewish refugee from the Bolshevik Revolution – was in both literal and cognitive ways deeply at home. Ensconced and revered in his cosy, beloved Oxford, he would have found Adorno’s dictum, “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home” both incomprehensible and distasteful. Berlin’s liberalism and pluralism are decent and comforting; decisions are left to the individual and, indeed, part of his appeal consists in his critique of the dangers of an over-arching conception of a single common good, an all encompassing civic virtue. Our German-Jewish icons, on the other hand, refused to let this quest go. Unlike, Berlin they did not feel conceptually at home. Rather, they lived and thrived on the jagged edges, all the while struggling to reach a new landscape, to reach a conception of a greater good.
Apparently, our culture needs both these visions. They are, so to speak, necessary mirror-opposites. They give voice to the two poles of an ongoing, creative tension: between, on the one hand, the affirmation of a decent, humane liberalism soberly aware of the limits of social and political action and the dangers of the Utopian temptation and, on the other, the radical impulse that expresses a continuing critique of the compromised modalities and inequities of modern life and the search for (usually profane) splinters of transcendence. We want both to stay at home and wander abroad, torn between the desire to step out of our own frontiers and experiment with alternative and perhaps better worlds – and at the same to cherish the familiar, to carefully chart our boundaries and feel safe within them. We iconize both, we need both and should be glad that we are not always forced to choose between them.
The figures we have considered here constitute only a part of the German-Jewish intellectual adventure and that at its end point, rife with both crises and challenges. They certainly should not be romanticized. There was much in their ruminations that, no doubt, was overheated and obscure, wrong-headed and infuriating. Their strengths, as well as weaknesses, reflect their Weimar origins and its subsequent fate. Intellectuals are occupationally impelled to test assumptions and limits, to go “beyond the borders”; but the circumstances of our figures rendered their quest particularly intense and animated their diverse, volatile attempts at novel modes of prescriptive understanding. Their thought remains resonant because in sophisticated ways they respectively identified and diagnosed still current predicaments and provided guidelines toward possible personal and collective alternatives. To paraphrase Jürgen Habermas, it is a part of a German-Jewish sensibility which, had it not existed, “we would have to discover […] for our own sakes.”58 In an increasingly conformist civilization it is a legacy we should take care not to lose.
George L.Mosse, German Jews Beyond Judaism (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1985), p.ix. In his autobiography, Confronting History: A Memoir (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000) Mosse writes that this "is certainly my most personal book, almost a confession of faith." (p.184).
See, for example, "A Kind of Survivor" in Steiner's Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman (New York, 1977) as well as his autobiographical comments in Errata: An Examined Life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997).
Amos Elon, The Pity of it All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002). Another example of this genre would be Friedrick V. Grunfeld, Prophets Without Honor: A Background to Freud, Kafka, Einstein and their World (New York: Mc-Grwar-Hill, 1979).
For a revealing contemporary portrait of Strauss's personal religious-philosophical conflicts, his shyness and his early support for Mussolini (in the latter's pre-anti-Semitic phase), see Hans Jonas, Erinnerungen, ed. Christian Wiese (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 2003), pp.94ff and especially pp.261ff.
The sectarian, cult-like atmosphere promoted by his followers is legendary. For an admittedly tendentious view, see Shadia B.Drury, Leo Strauss and the American Right (New York: St.Martin's Press, 1997). Drury puts it thus (p.xi): "...the political ideas of this very influential man are shrouded in mystery, partly because he was preoccupied with secrecy and esotericism, and partly because his students treat his work as sacred texts rather than as objects of critical analysis and debate." Michael Platt, one of Strauss's students, does not alter this designation: "And when one follows the manly path of his sentences, his steady ascents, his sudden dashes to a peak, or his equally sudden descents to some depth, when a single remark goes to the very heart of a matter that has long puzzled one, or when he makes something simple remarkable as well, when reading Strauss makes one get up and walk about the room, when all cares vanish in the bliss of thinking, and one is attached only to detachment, then one is inclined only to ask the Questions and forget the quarrels, remember Man and forget all cities, men, and meals." See his essay "Leo Strauss: Three Quarrels, Three Questions, One Life" in The Crisis of Liberal Democracy (details in lower footnote), p.24.
See, for instance, William Pfaff, "The long reach of Leo Strauss", International Herald Tribune (May 15, 2003); Nicolas Xenos, "Leo Strauss and the Rhetoric of the War on Terror", Logos (Spring 2004); Jeffrey Steinberg, "Profile: Leo Strauss, Fascist Godfather of the Neo-Cons", Executive Intelligence Review (March 21, 2003). Jenny Strauss Clay, Strauss's daughter, a professor of classics at the University of Virginia, sought to stem this tide in an Op-Ed page of the New York Times (June 2, 2003) where she wrote: "My father was a teacher, not a right-wing guru. [...] Recent news articles have portrayed my father, Leo Strauss, as the mastermind behind the neoconservative ideologues who control United States foreign policy. He reaches out from his 30-year old grave, we are told, to direct a 'cabal' (a word with distinct anti-Semitic overtones) of Bush administration figures hoping to subject the American people to rule by a ruthless elite. I do not recognize the Leo Strauss presented in these articles." [And, as Mark Lilla has noted: "Journalists who had never read him trawled his dense commentaries on ancient, medieval, and modern political thought looking for incriminating evidence. Finding none, they then suggested that his secret anti-democratic doctrines were passed on to adepts who subsequently infiltrated government." See "Leo Strauss: The European", The New York Review of Books (October 21, 2004), pp.58-60. The quote appears on p.55. For some excellent examples of the distortions and partisan uses made by interested American commentators, see Lilla's follow-up article, "The Closing of the Straussian Mind", The New York Review of Books (November 4, 2004), pp.55-59.]
See Anne Norton, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004). See also Kenneth L.Deutsch and John A. Murley, eds., Leo Strauss, the Straussians and the Study of the American Regime (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999).
For sources and references see my "Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem" in In Times of Crisis: Essays on European Culture, Germans, and Jews (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001).
See for instance Waltraud Meints, Katherine Klinger, eds., Politik und Verantwortung. Zur Aktualität von Hannah Arendt (Hannover: Offizin Verlag, 2004). For an example of one such creative attempt to apply her thought to current crises see in that volume, Nancy Fraser, "Hannah Arendt im 21.Jahrhundert", pp.73-86.
See Richard J. Bernstein, Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1996), p.2.
Quoted in Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1882), p.451.
To be sure, such searches are notoriously unreliable. With a name like "Walter Benjamin" he is bound to be confused with numerous other figures with a combination of these names. Still, under Benjamin (on February 20, 2005) there were an astonishing 3,280,000 entries way outstripping the others! The other entries roughly follow the political and then intellectual order as I have listed them here: Strauss, 451,000; Arendt, 326,000; Adorno, 223,000; Rosenzweig, 57,400; Scholem, 43,9000.
The examples of this popular percolation are numerous. A full study of Benjamin's Rezeptionsgeschichte would be valuable. A beginning has been made in Udi Greenberg's excellent Hebrew MA thesis on the subject. Thus, Julia Eisenberg's 2001 pop record "Trilectic", based, of all things, upon Benjamin's diary entries of his 1927 trip to Moscow, and his love affair with Asja Lacis sold hundreds of thousands of copies, not through any massive publicity by the mass media but rather through word of mouth and the internet. See Greenberg's unpublished paper "'A Hero of Our Time'? -- Walter Benjamin and Historical Research", p.1.
Charles Rosen, "Should We Adore Adorno?", The New York Review of Books, October 24, 2002, pp.59-66.
Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual (London: Vintage, 1994), pp.40-43.
Hilary Putnam, "Introduction to Franz Rosenzweig", Understanding of the Sick and the Healthy: A View of World, Man, and God, edited with an introduction by Nahum Glatzer (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), p.1. For a comprehensive survey of the remarkable volume of writings on that thinker and the modes and problems of Rosenzweig's reception see Peter Eli Gordon, "Rosenzweig Redux: The Reception of German-Jewish Thought", Jewish Social Studies, 8, 1 (Fall 2001), pp.1-57.
See Cynthia Ozick "The Mystic Explorer", The New York Times Book Review (September 21, 1980), p.1. I have provided a far larger list of this kind of adulation in "The Metaphysical Psychologist: On the Life and Letters of Gershom Scholem", Journal of Modern History Vol.76 (Number 4, December 2004), pp.903-933.
See Henry Pachter, "Gershom Scholem: Towards a Mastermyth", Salmagundi (no.40, Winter 1978). See too Susan Handelman, Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem and Levinas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).
See Jonas's Letter of February 24 in Gershom Scholem, A Life in Letters1914-1982, ed. and trans. Anthony David Skinner (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), pp.494-495.
Peter Eli Gordon, Rosenzweig and Heidegger, op.cit., p.8.
Benjamin to Ludwig Strauss, November 21, 1912, Gesammelte Schriften 2.3., ed. Rolf Tiedmann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1977), p.839.
For a critical discussion of this connection see both works by Peter Eli Gordon, op. cit.
See his "Homage to Benjamin" in his Walter Benjamin; or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London & New York: Verso, 1981), p.183.
Stefan Collini, "Moralist at Work: E. P. Thompson reappraised", Times Literary Supplement (February 18, 2005), pp.13-15.
"Under the Sign of Saturn", op.cit., p.111.
For a superb and nuanced exposition see Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); for more impatient and critical views see Merquior and Kolakowski, op.cit.
There are any number of references here. For the most insightful see Dana Villa, Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) and Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, 2003.
See Gordon, Rosenzweig and Heidegger, op. cit.
For an excellent exposition of Scholem's project see David Biale, Seyla Benhabib Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979).
Werner J. Dannhauser writes: "I have become convinced of what in a previous study I could not, that Leo Strauss was of the party of Athens and not of the party of Jerusalem. [The philosopher] knows by the power of his own thought that divine revelation is impossible. Evidently this is the final position of Leo Strauss; at least the book on Plato's Laws is his final book. If [he] chose Athens over Jerusalem, and I think he did, one must add at once that this choice did not lead to the 'unstringing of the bow'. Perhaps he would have argued that philosophy has its own built-in 'magnificent tension of the spirit'." See his "Athens and Jerusalem or Jerusalem and Athens?" in Novak, ed., Leo Strauss and Judaism, op. cit., pp.155-171. The quote appears on pp.168-169. David Biale comments: "If I am correct, then the secrets of the Torah that constitute the truth of the Jewish tradition are for Strauss none other than the truths of Greek philosophy, quite possibly the esoteric meaning of Plato: From an esoteric point of view, Athens and Jerusalem are one and the same." See "Leo Strauss: The Philosopher as Weimar Jew", op. cit., p37.
See his complex and difficult 1962 Preface to the English Translation of his (1930) Spinoza's Critique of Religion, op.cit., pp.1-21. Scholem saw just how difficult this would be for readers beyond the border and how much it betrayed its Weimar origins. He told Strauss that "those pages would be virtually impenetrable to an American reader." See Scholem Letter 57, 13.12. 1962, Vo.II, pp.86-87. See too Letters 18, 2 June 1952; Letter, 137, 21.10.1968. See too Strauss's important Philosophy and Law: Contributions to the Understanding of Maimonides and his Predecessors, translated by Eve Adler (Albany: State University of New York, 1995). The work was originally published in German in 1935. His preoccupation with Jewish and Zionist subjects during the Weimar period is apparent in the useful translations and editing of Michael Zank, Leo Strauss: The early writings (1921-1932) (Albany: State University of New York, 2002). For an excellent study of Strauss in his earlier Weimar period see the dissertation by Eugene Sheppard, Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile (University of California, Los Angeles, 2001).
"While the Jewish population of Germany hovered around 500,000 persons, at its peak Zionist membership totaled about 9,000 members before World War I and just over 33,000 for the period between the war and 1933. (After 1933, for obvious reasons, membership rose dramatically). Even these figures may be inflated since they simply represent those who had paid the token Zionist membership fee, the shekel..." Moreover, a "very important segment of the Zionist movement were the so-called Ostjuden, Jews from Eastern Europe...." See Stephen M.Poppel, Zionism in Germany 1897-1933: The Making of a Jewish Identity (Philadelphia: JPS, 1977), pp.33, 38 and Chapter 3.
The cases of Fromm, Löwenthal and Buber are well-known. Jonas, exceptionally, even spent a year in a Zionist agricultural training farm in Germany in 1923 before proceeding with his studies and later, for a time, lived in Palestine/Israel. See his Erinnerungen, ed. by Christian Wiese (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 2003), p.475. Unlike Jonas, Elias later tried to obscure his Zionist years. See Jörg Hackeschmidt, "Norbert Elias as a Young Zionist", Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook XLIX (2004), pp.59-74.
See, for instance, Leo Lowenthal's vivid description of such networks: "About a year after my first meeting with [Siegfried] Kracauer [around the end of World War I], he introduced me to Adorno, who was then eighteen years old. I introduced him to my friend Ernst Simon, who like myself, was studying history, Germanistik, and philosophy, and who won me over to a very messianic Zionism. Through Ernst Simon, Kraceuer met Rabbi Nobel, then a revered figure in our Jewish circle, to whose Festschrift, on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, Kracauer contributed. Through Nobel, Kracauer first met Martin Buber and later Franz Rosenzweig. In the spring of 1922, I introduced him to Ernst Bloch, and he in turn introduced me to Horkheimer, who was already a good friend of Adorno's." See Lowenthal's "As I Remember Friedel", New German Critique (no.54, Fall 1991), p.6. Those very close friends, Scholem and Benjamin, were also friendly or at least in contact with most of these figures.
I thank John Landau for guiding me in some of these formulations.
See Scholem's essay, "Walter Benjamin" in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis, op.cit,, p.191.
See Gordon, Rosenzweig and Heidegger, op.cit., p.8 and his "Rosenzweig Redux", op. cit., especially pp.1-5.
See Arendt's piece on "Walter Benjamin 1892-1940" in Men in Dark Times, op. cit., p.190.
The dense reflections on Kafka by Adorno, Arendt, Benjamin and Scholem are too well known to be documented here. Rosenzweig wrote less on the author, yet at least one of his wry statements makes the point powerfully enough. 0n May 25, 1927 he wrote (to Gertrud Oppenheim): "The people who wrote the Bible seem to have thought of God much the way Kafka did. I have never read a book that reminded me so much of the Bible as his novel The Castle, and that is why reading it certainly cannot be called a pleasure." See Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1961), p.160. As far as I can ascertain (although my search has not been comprehensive) Strauss is an exception to this pattern; Kafka does not appear to have figured much in his intellectual musings.
See The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1914-1923, edited by Max Brod (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), pp.202-203. Entry for January 16, 1922. The quotation continues: "if Zionism had not intervened, it might easily have developed into a new secret doctrine, a Kabbalah. There are intimations of this. Though of course it would require a genius of an unimaginable kind to strike root again in the old centuries, or create the old centuries anew and not spend itself withal, but only then begin to flower forth."
See Scholem's aphoristic letter written to Zalman Schocken on the occasion of the latter's sixtieth birthday in 1937, "A Candid Word about the True Motives of My Kabbalistic Studies": "Three years, 1916-1918, which were decisive for my entire life, lay behind me: many exciting thoughts had led me as much to the most rationalistic skepticism about my fields of study as to intuitive affirmation of mystical theses which walked the fine line between religion and nihilism" Scholem added immediately that it was in Kafka that he found "the most perfect and unsurpassed expression of this fine line." See the translation of this letter in Biale, Gershom Scholem, op. cit, pp.74-76. The quote appears on p.75. The original German letter is reproduced on pp.215-216.
See Scholem's "Die zionistische Verzweiflung", 19.6.1920 in Tagebücher 1917-1923, op. cit., p.638.
See Susan A. Handelman, Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought and Literary Theory In Benjamin, Scholem and Levinas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), p.xix. Handelman intended these comments to apply to her subjects but they apply equally well to all the figures under consideration here.
Scholem to Benjamin, Letter 44, early February 1934, Correspondence, op. cit., p.98.
These thoughts were prompted by a conversation with John Landau in Jerusalem, on 18 August 2004.
Quoted by Rabinbach in his "Introduction", to the Benjamin-Scholem Correspondence, op.cit., xxv.
Arendt put it thus: "And Benjamin's choice, baroque in a double sense, has an exact counterpart in Scholem's strange decision to approach Judaism via the Cabala, that is, that part of Hebrew literature which is untransmitted and untransmissible in terms of Jewish tradition, in which it has always had the odor of something downright disreputable. Nothing showed more clearly -- so one is inclined to say today -- that there was no such thing as a 'return' either to the German or the European or the Jewish tradition than the choice of these fields of study. It was an implicit admission that the past spoke directly only through things that had not been handed down, whose seeming closeness to the present was thus due precisely to their exotic character, which ruled out all claims to a binding authority." See her essay on "Walter Benjamin", in Men in Dark Times, op. cit., p.195.
See "Against Social Science: Jewish Intellectuals, the Critique of Liberal-Bourgeois Modernity, and the (Ambigious) Legacy of Radical Weimar Theory" in my In Times of Crisis, op. cit., pp.24-43 (notes pp.205-218).
As Peter Gordon demonstrates, Rosenzweig's notions are very similar to Heidegger's. For him, the sheer fact of mortality, the non-relational and non-transferable experience of possible death, is the conceptual instrument for exposing the falsity of idealist totalization. There is no redemption beyond death: "eternity" occurs within finitude. See Rosenzweig and Heidegger, op.cit., pp.112-113.
See Scholem's essay, "Religious Authority and Mysticism" (first published in 1960) in his On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York, 1965 [paper 1969]), pp.1-31. The quote appears on pp.17-18.
Christoph Schmidt, Der häretische Imperative: Überlegungen zur theologischen Dialektik der Kulturwissenschaft in Deutschland (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2000).
See Handelman, Fragments of Redemption, op. cit., p.341.
[Ibid. p.15. The quote comes from GS I/2, p.681. Wohlfarth piece.]
Quoted as the motto to Handelman, Fragments of Redemption, op. cit.
See Peter Gay, Weimar Culture, op. cit. and Zvi Bacharach, The Challenge: Democracy in the Eyes of German Professors and Jewish Intellectuals in the Weimar Republic (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2000).
This is the general thesis of Richard Wolin's Heideggers Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Loewith, Hans Jonas and Herbert Marcuse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). For my agreement and dissent see the review in Journal of Modern History 75 (Number 4, December 2003), pp.933-935.
"The German Idealism of the Jewish Philosophers (1961)" in Jürgen Habermas, Philosophical-Political Profiles, translated by Frederick G. Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1985), pp.21-43. The quote appears on p.42.
Published 26 January 2011
Original in English
First published by Mittelweg 36 6/2010 (German version)
Contributed by Mittelweg 36 © Steven E. Aschheim / Mittelweg 36 / EurozinePDF/PRINT
Postmodernism was conceived largely by the Left as a safeguard against totalizing ideologies. Yet today, it has been appropriated on behalf of an encroaching neo-totalitarianism of the Right. Is French literary theory to blame? And can a philosophy of dissent developed in communist eastern Europe offer an antidote?