CONVERSATIONS WITH LEV SHESTOV
by Benjamin Fondane
I first met Shestov in the spring of 1924 at Jules de Gaultier's home. Two years earlier I published, in Romanian, six chronicles dealing with his latest work translated into Romanian - "Revelations of Death". I had no idea whether he was dead or alive, whether he was from this century or the past century. I never imagined him in any context, except maybe in Russia. And now suddenly I had in front of me this lanky old man, tall, wiry, in that old-fashioned drawing room at de Gaultier's.
I was truly moved and expressed as much, I think.
I let de Gaultier and Shestov talk and all I remember is that de Gaultier had trouble understanding Shestov's French pronunciation (which he later improved) and that Shestov had difficulty understanding de Gaultier's metaphysics. I had no problem with either and so I translated for de Gaultier what Shestov was saying, and explained to Shestov what de Gaultier was trying to convey.
I think Shestov was impressed with my sharpness and also with that spark of enthusiasm and combative spirit that I brought to the discussion. And so we left together.
For he first time in my life I felt intimidated. His daughter Tatiana took down my address and it was decided that I will be invited at the first opportunity.
But it was only in 1926 that a serious contact was established between the two of us. He presented me with a copy of the French translation of his "Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: philosophy of tragedy" that had just been published by La Pleiade. I wrote him a thank-you letter where I said more or less how difficult it was to follow him, for to really penetrate his thought, as he himself said, one must have lived through some personal disaster... And I added: what man would want such disasters upon himself out of love for Truth? Who, of his own will, would want to become his disciple?
A few days later I received an invitation from his daughter Tatiana and that night, at rue de l'Abbé Grégoire, Shestov took me apart among the guests:
- I am so used to receive letters where I am told how talented I am, how deeply I understand Dostoevsky, how my style is so etc, and now, for the first time maybe, I meet someone who understands the question itself.
He showed my letter to all the others and praised it profusely.
At this time I had not yet conceived the idea to take notes of our conversations. I was even very far from this thought for I've always detested private diaries. And so our early encounters, which became more and more frequent throughout the years, are lost to memory.
It was only in 1934 that a deep and shattering realization dawned on me - that nobody really understood Shestov's thought, that his books were little read or not read at all, that he lived in a horrible and total isolation, that I was the only one who was allowed into his presence to listen and understand, and that if I did not decide to write down our conversations nobody else would. It was then that, despite my misgivings, I first tried to put down some of the most striking ideas he had introduced during our encounter that day. But it was so unpleasant to actually fix down a living thing (which, in any case, I was certain I would not forget) that my notes quickly became too short and too rare...
At this time already Shestov decided to orient me towards a serious study of philosophy. He often talked about Husserl and suggested I wrote a short article about him in the "Europe" magazine, taking for material the large passages from the German philosopher he cited in his essay on Husserl. Meantime Husserl himself came to Paris to give a talk at the Sorbonne. This visit coincides with the postcard I received from Shestov:
1,rue de l'Alboni, no date (1929)
Dear friend, Sunday March 3, at 4 o'clock, Husserl is coming to visit. You are also invited. You must see him in person.
And so I went. Husserl talked and I asked questions. Shestov was a perfect host and did not interfere in the conversation. He was rather embarrassed when Mme Rachel Bespaloff, taking Husserl up in a brilliant and vivid attack, decided to produce Shestov as her ally. Fortunately she referred to Shestov as Lev Issakovich (his name and patronymic, as is customary between Russians) and so Husserl never had an inkling that this other detractor constantly referred to by Mme Bespaloff was no other than his friend Shestov.
- Nietzsche was in the same situation as Kierkegaard. But at times he burst into songs. Kierkegaard never sang.
About Martin Buber:
- He says that Hasidism is the best Jewish response to Spinoza. But he cites and subscribes to a Hasidic legend that has Baal Shem, the originator of Hasidism, escape Adam's plight, that is original sin. I think that Spinoza would have been entirely satisfied with such an explanation: he too wanted to escape from the original sin. On the other hand, the Hasidim - according to Buber - say that prayer is not simply a communion with God etc, but that *prayer is God*. But that is pure Spinoza. I am different from Buber in that he would like to avoid original, hereditary sin etc. I am as aware as he is how absurd this idea of original, hereditary sin really is - it is shocking, incredible. And I told him so. He answered that for him original sin did not start at the tree of knowledge but at Cain's crime. To me this makes no sense. Sin is Knowledge. I would even say that it wasn't Dostoevsky who wrote the first "Critique of Pure Reason" - it was God himself, when he said: "if you have knowledge, you will die." I know that I will be answered that this is no critique etc. When man first ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, he gained Understanding and lost Freedom. Man has no need of knowing. Asking, formulating questions, demanding proofs, answers, all this means that one is not free. To know is to know necessity. Knowledge and Freedom are at odds. And Berdyaev tells me - "why do you want to deprive me of the "freedom of knowing"!
We speak of his book on Kierkegaard. It was refused by N.R.F. [Nouvelle Revue Française] and now Grasset too doesn't want it: it is not for the masses. Schloezer, who takes care of these matters, has been told that the book is certainly very good but that it is about Shestov, not about Kierkegaard.
- You see, when Wahl writes about Kierkegaard, it is sure to be about Kierkegaard. Gallimard bought the rights to Charles Andler's book on Nietzsche because it is about Nietzsche, not Andler. Personally I think that to truly speak about Kierkegaard and Nietzsche one should not even speak about them, but rather about oneself.
July 16, 1935
The other day Boris de Schloezer and Mme Bespaloff were at Gabriel Marcel's. They remarked to him that in Marcel's last book ("The broken world") one noticed obvious shestovian motives. G.Marcel acknowledged his debt:
- This book was written a long time ago. I was then very taken with Shestov's ideas. But at the right moment I saw that he was knocking at the wrong door. And later I realized that where he is knocking there is no door at all.
- Marcel's formula is subtle indeed. But if he wanted to see, he would have noticed that this very discovery is proposed in my own writings. All I ever did was to repeat endlessly that, precisely, there is no door - but that one must knock on that door which does not exist. "Knock and it will be open for you" says the Gospels. It doesn't say: knock here, at this particular place. It is obvious that if a door was *given*, if we could *see* that door, we would knock - it wouldn't matter then whether the door would open or not, or if even one were thrown out altogether! There would be a door one could knock at. But here's the problem: it is demanded of us that we should knock without knowing where to knock - this is the important thing to understand. If I chose to struggle against somebody or something, Marcel's argument would stand. But I chose to wage war against the self-evident, against the all-powerful might of the impossible.
- Take a look at this book by Rudolph Otto. I must confess to you that I've known about this author for a long time but never read him. He published a popular book called "Das Heilige" [sanctity]. You understand - "DAS"! So, either through lack of time, or because I disliked the title so much, I never read him. But the other day I saw a book by Otto at Mme de M.., about Western and Oriental mystics. Of course I never let down my philosophical dignity in front of her as I do in front of you, and so I didn't tell her that I've never read Otto - I think I even suggested that I've read "Das Heilige". Well, I took that other book and I read it in one shot. Remarkable! Of course there I found everything I dreaded to find. He is talking about Sanctity instead of the Saint. For instance, he compares Sankara (whose thought, as you know, is considered decadent compared to the Vedas) to Master Eckhart. He finds innumerable similarities and points of contact. He also admits that there are certain differences. But he never talks about these differences. All he says about these is that Eckhart's thought is based in the biblical ground while Sankara's sources are rooted in India's soil... I must add that in this big book the Bible is mentioned at best three or four times. I should also add that Master Eckhart's thought, though remarkable, avoids just as much to touch on the biblical ground. In both cases one is talking about divinity rather than God. Divinity admits speculation. In the presence of God all speculation ceases. Kierkegaard says: "God is your mortal enemy". What speculation could there be in the presence of such a God? Also, the prophets and the Psalmist talk about "clamare" - they "cry out" to God, they do not speculate. One may speculate about divinity because it is immutable, it does not move, it does not answer, it lets one do. But God, if he is (were he even mean, capricious, unpredictable, still he *is*), today he may not hear you, but tomorrow maybe he will. If there were a divinity, there would be a door... With a capricious God, when you cry out to him and knock - there is no door.
- Dostoevsky was in his forties when he met Vladimir Solovyov and he appointed Solovyov his master. Dostoevsky was an ignorant man, he too thought that Solovyov, who had learning, would be able to prove what Dostoevsky himself was only vaguely perceiving and guessing at. I was more fortunate than Dostoevsky because I met Husserl, who is my second master after Dostoevsky, my real master. There was no way I could have been mistaken about Husserl like Dostoevsky was about Solovyov. I understood that not only Husserl would not want or be able to prove what I was feeling but that proof itself was a constraint and was to be avoided at all costs.
- It is interesting that no one understands such a simple thing. Otto, like many others, talks about Hindus' contempt for Western logic. But without logic one can't make one step, not make a single affirmation! If I say: "this ashtray exists", I am required to accept all the consequences implied by the existence of this ashtray. Of course at this particular moment this ashtray serves to collect ash falling off from the cigarettes we smoke, you and I, it is useful to us. And so I am willing to admit that it should exist. But what if this ashtray were transformed, what if it became a Hitler or the plague - now I am forced to admit existence to a Hitler and to plague. At the same time I think that ashtray-Hitler was put here for a purpose, just as much as plague. They may linger on for a moment longer or disappear on the spot: nothing authorizes or forces me to think that plague *is*. And yet - there is nothing to be done to make it not be: it is, therefore it has been, and it shall be. Speculation requires that it be so. But if Master Eckhart had any basis in the biblical ground, he would have known that I can change to another method: I can renounce speculation that forces me to accept plague, I can resort to crying out, and that alone allows me to refuse plague. There is no "fact". There is only logic that poses "fact", sanctifies it and makes it eternal. Dostoevsky, even in his last book "Brothers Karamazov", kept expressing ideas that had nothing to do with Solovyov's - he lost Solovyov along the way. He knew as I know myself that "fact" is all-powerful precisely because it is posed by logic. If it were not all-powerful there would be an abundance of doors. But this limitless power [of logic] makes it impossible for me to find doors. And so I can only cry out, knock where there are no doors.
- Husserl was the only one who understood the distinction I make between these two facts, both all-powerful and eternal, I mean: Socrates is dead, a mad dog is dead. To the eyes of speculation these two truths are identical. However, I am willing to admit that a mad dog is dead and that this should be an eternal fact. But I cannot *accept* that be eternal the fact of Socrates' death. When I struggle so it is not against something out there, it is against myself that I must struggle, it is inside myself that I must kill the truth of "fact". I keep knocking even though I do not know *where* God is.
- I was thirty years old when I met Berdyaev. He must have been twenty-four then. We celebrated the New Year 1900 together. In those days when I have drunk I'd become a bit silly and I'd go around mocking people. My friends knew about it and always managed to get me drunk. That night Berdyaev was sitting next to me. And so I mocked him horribly. I made everybody laugh. But after I've sobered up I thought that Berdyaev must have felt offended. And so I asked him to forgive me and to drink to friendship. I also told him that he could visit me the next day, if he wanted to show that he has forgiven me. He did. That's how our friendship started. We never understood each other. We quarrel all the time, we yell at each other...He accuses me all the time of making all the writers I talk about into my own image: he says that neither Dostoevsky, nor Tolstoy, nor Kierkegaard ever said what I make them say. I answer every time that he honors me too much, that if I really invented everything I say all by myself, I should probably explode with vanity. That's also why he became a model my wife holds me up to all the time: "do as Berdyaev does, Berdyaev wouldn't do that, Berdyaev says you can eat, drink this and not that, etc." Had Berdyaev said that coffee is metaphysical and I agreed with him, my wife would allow me coffee.
Mme Shestov who is present at this conversation laughs goodheartedly. I tell her:
- Between us, I prefer Shestov's philosophy to Berdyaev's.
- I do too, she says.
Now it's Shestov laughing, while Mme Shestov adds:
- Every time Berdyaev visits there are horrible debates. They both get all red in the face. And it's been like that for the last 30 years...
I tell Shestov that de Schloezer had a talk with Levy-Bruhl about an article Shestov wrote on Bruhl. Bruhl said: "Sure, sure, but Shestov pulls the blanket to his side." Shestov's reaction:
- So: I've written all the texts of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, even Kierkegaard, and now I am also appointed Levy-Bruhl's editor.
- Speaking of which. One day Berdyaev was telling me about originality of thought, that one should not hide etc. I went home and for the first time in my life I asked myself: am I original? As I analyzed myself I kept thinking: "this you took from Dostoevsky, this from Shakespeare (a lot), this comes from the Old Testament, etc. All I say has been said by others before - therefore I am not original." But the question of originality itself has always seemed to me, not secondary, but without importance. What matters is to say what must be said, to search what one must search for. Little does it matter whether it has been done and said before. And then I am accused of discovering what I did not discover - Dostoevsky's ideas, Shakespeare's and even the Bible's!"
When Shestov met with Husserl in Amsterdam during festivities in Husserl's honor, they spent all night talking and continued into the next day without pause. Husserl's wife used to say: "they're like two lovers - inseparable."
Husserl to Shestov:
- Why did you attack me [in "Potestas Clavium"]? You know all too well that when I took up professorship I felt I had nothing to go by, nothing to teach, nothing to cling to - and I had to rediscover philosophy bit by bit... What price I had to pay for my first evidences!..
Shestov to Husserl:
- I do know! I too, I would never have taken up the struggle against those evidences if your manner of posing them had not provoked me, forced me to even... It is your autonomous evidences, outside reason and outside man, true even if man did not exist, that forced me into opposition... Also, if ever, in the other world, I am accused of having opposed the self-evident, I would make you responsible for it! It is you who will burn in my stead!
Shestov about Husserl:
- It is the one man in the whole world whom I thought incapable of understanding my questions. And it is one of the few who understood. Even more - who was able to *hear* these questions...
December 21, 1935
Shestov with Husserl, in Freiburg. Husserl is always on his feet and Shestov, despite fatigue, does not sit down. This is out of reverence for old age, says Shestov (although Shestov himself is 63 and Husserl is about 73), and for one's Master. Though Husserl's ideas were very nearly the opposite of Shestov's, he recognized to Husserl the immense merit of having had the courage to *think through* the demands of Reason - which ultimately created for Shestov a wall of resistance to push against and devise the fundamentals of his opposition. Without Husserl's universal evidences, without his angels, monsters, gods and beasts, there would be no "struggle against the self-evident".
Shestov on his visit with Husserl in Freiburg:
- Some American philosophers came to see him. Husserl says to them: "Let me introduce Mr.Shestov. This is the man who dared to write the most violent critique ever made against me - and that's the reason for our friendship."
- I don't like to be called a mystic and even less "great". This means: understand what you will and in any case there is not much to understand at all. Mystic - it explains everything for it means nothing... "Mystic" means that one's questions are outside philosophy and there is no need to strain oneself to understand them... You remember, Renan used to say that, compared to the Prophets, we are only pygmies. At the same time, in Renan's eyes the prophets were ignorant, vulgar men without any access to truth, while he, Renan, was a learned man, a real scholar... Then why would he, Renan, be a pygmy compared to these obscure and ignorant men? What did they have, those vulgar folks, that made them different and so superior - superior to Renan himself? Renan could not admit that discovery of truth, granted only to the learned, could be revealed to such men and this put him into an untenable position - the only way out would have been to call them mystics! It explains everything since it explains nothing. But if truth is only given to the learned, while mystics only know God knows what, why is it exactly that we, the scholars, should be like pygmies near them?
One night we were discussing Freud whom I accused of being too scientific in philosophy, too optimistic, like a Haeckel, a Buchner, a Darwin. Shestov's sister, Mme Lowtzky, herself a psychoanalyst and a pupil of Freud, protested against my remarks and Shestov told us that once, at the instigation of his sister, he sent to Freud his book "Potestas Clavium". Freud took up the book, looked through at random and chanced on a passage where Shestov spoke of Darwin in an irreverent manner. Whereupon Freud threw the book away in indignation and never looked at it again. At the same time he had read "Gethsemani Night" [Shestov's essay on Pascal] cover to cover and without any displeasure.
- Plotinus has always hidden under the cover of platonic and even aristotelian tradition. He passed under this label everything he had to say which was not always as orthodox as we are led to believe. He was afraid to be branded a "misologos" [hater of reason]. And so he always knew when to use those irrefutable arguments of his - one "must", and "necessity". Look at the naïveté of de Corte, such an able and experienced commentator, who nevertheless writes that while philosophy cannot know the *living* experience of a mystic, it can still *describe* it, and that such a description will be valid given the "sincerity" of a Plotinus or a John of the Cross. But if he understands sincerity (and he does) as equivalence between inner experience and its explicit confession, then what candor on his part!
- How is it possible to be sincere in such a manner? It was impossible for Plotinus to express his thought directly without being branded a "misologos" - and to be called a "misologos" was a grave matter in his time, much more so than today. He thus tried to pose his questions as if they were orthodox, the way Aristotle would have posed them. But didn't he say that philosophy was the most important thing in the world? Didn't he talk about the "ultimate struggle" [ultimate struggle awaits the soul]? He also said that in the presence of One all understanding comes to an end, that rising above understanding is the goal to strive for. Yes, he explained the world as an emanation from One, that One was overflowing with its own fullness and had to originate the world which is thus only a downward flow... But how could he know that One had overflown out of its own fullness? that it was obliged to engender anything? Doesn't this idea come from empirical facts?...
- Plotinus' "sincerity" went beyond his own writings and look what happened! Just as Socrates did, Plotinus' disciples went to consult the Delphic oracle. And what were they told there? Look here [Shestov takes the first volume of the "Enneads" in French translation]. It talks about love, not about necessity, and yet nobody took notice of these profound words of the oracle.
- I know that Plotinus' biographers, including Porphyry, say that he was "ashamed of his body". Do you know that towards the end of his life Plotinus became ill, his body was covered with ulcers, and as he was fond of embracing his friends, the stench from his ulcers and from his stomach (he had gastric problems) bothered them and drove them away, so he was left all alone and retired from the world into his country home. It was not a sense of shame that he felt towards his body - it was a sense of powerlessness! He was powerless, just as Kierkegaard with his sexual impotence, and I with my... Not to be able to do anything when one is burdened with hardships and wounds - of necessity! Then of course one is moved to "rise above" these things, one "dominates" necessity saying that one is ashamed of one's body, one's sex. That's how "greatness" is reached, the sublime...
- I too reached for the sublime in my first book ("Shakespeare and his critic Brandes")... I was dealing with exactly the same problems as today but I solved them philosophically: I explained King Lear through Brutus, and when speaking of Job I sided with Job's friends. Later I abandoned "the sublime". After the publication of my "Good in the teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche", "Philosophy of Tragedy" and "Apotheosis of Groundlessness", a Russian professor told me with a certain bewilderment that he would understand if I had moved from these writings towards the "sublime" of my first book on Shakespeare, but not the other way around!
- It's true that I am usually forgiven a lot of things on account of my "honesty" (that's not very far from de Corte's "sincerity"). Indeed, I've always said that "the wall" remains, it is the head that hits against it that gets broken... and since it's only the head that gets broken, nothing is lost. The wall remains - that's the important thing...
- One talks about "description". But what's a description? Each person sees in it what imports to her. For instance, in this room what is important to me is a portrait of Tolstoy over there. But this portrait is smaller than the other portraits around it, it is so small it is barely noticeable among the others. On the other hand, this room contains (he looks around and counts) one, two, three - four chairs. One could discuss these chairs, infer conclusions about my "taste" etc. But these chairs do not matter to me one bit! While that small, insignificant portrait of Tolstoy, or Chekhov's maybe too, these are the things that really matter to me...
- Strange! Just like Kierkegaard, but without knowing him, I wrote that the gods of Olympus must be laughing at Hegel. I had no knowledge of Kierkegaard. At my lecture in Frankfurt everybody was talking about Kierkegaard. There was no way this name could be avoided. So I admitted that I haven't read him since this author was unknown in Russia. And I added: "Even Berdyaev who reads everything has not heard of him." Then, when I met Heidegger at Husserl's, I cited to Heidegger a few of his own passages which, according to my understanding, actually undermine his system. I was deeply convinced of this. I had no idea then that these passages in Heidegger were due to Kierkegaard's influence and that all Heidegger had done was to try and fit these ideas into a husserlian context. After Heidegger had left, Husserl approached me and made me promise that I would read Kierkegaard. I couldn't understand why he was so insistent about it - Kierkegaard has nothing to do with Husserl's concerns, Husserl could not appreciate him. Today I think that he probably wanted me to read Kierkegaard so I may better understand Heidegger.
- To understand Kierkegaard, let me tell you of a passage in Deussen's "History of Philosophy" where Deussen says that in Christian prayer there are seven requests and that it is a great honor for this prayer that only one request out of seven deals with lowly, material matters: "give us our daily bread". The rest is thoroughly concerned with the purely ideal - the sublime. But Kierkegaard was not fond of finding so much sublimity in prayers, even with the mystics. He regretted the lack of lowly prayers. Philosophy has always thought that lowly things do not depend on God, that God has no say in base matters. If you want bread, get to work or steal it etc. It's not through prayers that you are going to get it. If we pray, God will give us eternity, infinity, beatitude, love etc. But not bread - God can't give you bread.
- I've been a revolutionary ever since my eighth year, my father didn't know what to do with me. I ceased to be a revolutionary much later, when "scientific" socialism, marxism, became popular.
I tell Shestov that I've been asked to write a long article on Julien Benda for the "Cahiers du Sud" magazine. I would have written it with delight were it not for the need to read and re-read Benda's boring books. Shestov replied:
- I'll tell you a joke my father liked to tell, a Jewish joke of course:
"One day an omnibus was going up a steep hill and in the omnibus there was a famous rebbe [rabbi]. All the passengers alighted for the length of the climb and the rebbe did too. "Why didn't you stay in?", the others asked. "We are just common people, it's normal that we should disembark, we have nothing better to do. But you! You really should not tire yourself so." "I have an answer for you", says the rebbe. "I am afraid that the day of judgment in heaven the horse might complain against me...". "But then you will only need to say that you were meditating on great and holy things during the ride. Surely that will exonerate you." "Maybe", says the rebbe, "but I much prefer to walk now than argue with a horse later."
Concerning a correspondence between Shestov and Jean Wahl regarding Shestov's book "Kierkegaard and the existential philosophy":
- You see, Wahl talks incessantly about immutability, the immanent, he avoids talking about Kierkegaard's impotence. I do mention it though. I even talk about a visit Kierkegaard made to his doctor... That's the difficult thing to understand. Had Kierkegaard's doctor been intelligent, he would have said: "there is nothing wrong with you" (for Kierkegaard was not *really* impotent) and probably, certainly even, all would have developed quite differently - Kierkegaard would have married Regina, he would have discovered that Regina was like all other women, his love for her would not have developed into that great love etc, and he would not have thought all those things he writes about. You remember what Schopenhauer says about John and Mary. Kierkegaard, had he married Regina, would have probably seen that Regina was stupid, a perfectly ordinary woman in short. Well, she was certainly charming but, had you met her, you would not have understood "why" Kierkegaard loved her so. In any case you could not have understood how one could throw away all the fundamentals for such a woman. But who can tell which of the two possible Kierkegaards is in the right? Who is to say that John is not more in the right when he sees Mary's beauty through his love for her, than when he sees her stupidity and ugliness when he loves her no more?
- He is in awe of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. And yet he says that they are empty. If I were convinced that Nietzsche and Kierkegaard have nothing much to say I would not be in awe of them. And in any case one is not to be in awe of anyone else. I know that these were men who searched and did not find. Jasper is willing to grant that Kierkegaard had faith. How nice! It's like beheading a man and then telling him - and now go on and live! Faith is possibility, powerless faith is worse than death for Kierkegaard. His hands are empty but he has faith. Thank you very much. Jaspers probably thinks that Nietzsche and Kierkegaard should be killed. But he doesn't want to do it himself... He will only say that they have nothing to offer. That's why I called my article about Jaspers "Sine effusione sanguinis" [without bloodshed]. He kills in spirit only and leaves the rest to others.
- I was young, I was searching, I did not have the daring yet. And then I found that text by Tertullian (et mortuus est Dei filius: non pudet quia pudendum est. Et sepultus resurrexit: certum est quia impossibile). You know where I found it? In a big book by Harnack, in the footnote, at the bottom of the page. Harnack cites it as some sort of oddity - good enough for the basement, not good enough to insert in the main text.
- I was talking with Schloezer about Mme Bespaloff the other day. "I must tell you, he says, she is *resistant*, just as I am myself. But you, you resist and you know you do. That's fine. With her, she resists and yet tries all she can to ignore her own resistance. She says that even without Knowing there would be a fracture in being." But isn't it Knowing that makes her believe that? You remember the citation from Leibniz that I discuss in "Athens and Jerusalem": truth wants not only to constrain but also to persuade us. This is a fundamental problem. As long as truth wants to constrain it succeeds. And if it wants to make me declare, through constraint, that I am persuaded, it succeeds in that too. But to really persuade, to persuade *me*, no, it can't do that: I can always refuse, I can show it the tongue just like Dostoevsky did. How come nobody notices that this is a crucial argument - a perfectly philosophical argument? I can be constrained to admit that existence is fractured. But I cannot be persuaded. That's where ethics intervene, ethics know that this is an argument to contend with, that if we refuse to be persuaded there is something wrong here. And so duty and obligation are introduced.
- I was despondent the other day. Schloezer told me and even insisted that my "In the Bull of Phalaris" was inferior, completely botched, compared to the first chapter, "Parmenides in Chains" [Shestov's book "Athens and Jerusalem"]. It means that I was not able to express what I wanted to convey. It really threw me off because that's where I first discuss Kierkegaard. And now that Schloezer read through the proofs, he tells me that he's changed his mind... I am relieved.
November 16, 1937
- As the years go by it becomes harder and harder for me to keep believing that the wall can be broken down, that one can defeat impossibility. I did not grow used to this struggle, it does not pacify me, on the contrary every day it becomes harder, more laborious, painful to carry on. But as long as I have the least shred of hope I will refuse to "sanctify" necessity (as Schelling does)... and I shall refuse even when there is no more hope left...
- Berdyaev calls himself an existentialist. But he always goes back to the same questions: "Did Kierkegaard regain Regina Olsen? Did Job recover his dead children? Has there ever been a single Christian who actually moved mountains? You know as well as I do that none of these came to be." And I answer him: "Don't you think that Kierkegaard was fully aware of that? But that's precisely the starting point of his philosophy - he sets out on a war against what he knows only too well. That's what makes him into an existentialist. But you can't follow him there, that's the very thing that makes you turn back - so how come you call yourself and existentialist?"
- As the time goes by I incline more and more to believe that all these mysteries have one single explanation: sin.
Mme Bespaloff sent Shestov a draft of her essay about him, "Shestov before Nietzsche". Shestov found it utterly disappointing. From what I understand Shestov has always had a sincere sympathy for her and expected to be better understood, if not followed.
- If only she had said: I can't go beyond necessity and understand Shestov psychologically (that is - I can carry 50 kg, but not 60), that would be natural. But she says it differently. She says: I can't understand because it cannot be understood, there is nothing there to understand. Read this paragraph: she says here that, while a man is struggling for his life in the water, Shestov stands on the bank and orders - "do not drown: you can do it!" I've never been so badly misunderstood! I, standing on the bank! watching idly! while somebody drowns! giving orders! and saying on top of that - "you can do it"! But this is precisely where the problem is! I cannot, everybody knows that I cannot, I myself know only too well that I cannot! And yet - maybe I can after all? Maybe I've been deceived about it, maybe - if I *tried*...? But to try already means to suspend ethics, reason, it's already a tragedy... If only she had said that I came running as soon as I heard of a man drowning, that I tried to help the poor chap instead of consoling him saying: there is nothing to be done against necessity! A Russian joke tells of a man drowning and from the bank somebody cries out to him: "spare your health - drown already!" Meaning: spare your energy, quit fighting uselessly.
January 21, 1938
I was twenty-eight years old when I first read Nietzsche. I started with "Beyond Good and Evil" but I didn't really understand well, maybe because of the aphoristic style... It took me a while to grasp what it was about. Then it was "Genealogy of Morals". I started reading at 8 o'clock in the evening. I finished the book at 2 o'clock in the morning. It shook me terribly, I couldn't sleep, I was looking for a way to resist this terrifying, cruel thinking... Yes, nature is harsh, indifferent. It kills calmly, implacably... But thought is not nature - there is no reason why it should kill the weak, write them off: why would one want to help nature in its ruthless task? It made me mad. At that time I knew nothing of Nietzsche, I had no idea what his life had been. Then one day I read a biographical notice on Nietzsche, I think it was in the Brockhaus dictionary. He too was one of those whom nature has been cruel with, implacable: it found him weak, wrote him off. That day I understood.
- I am immersed in Hindu writings. I can't read much because I get tired quickly. But I re-read all the time Saint John of the Cross, Master Eckhart and Thomas de Kempis - to compare. In essence it's the same thing. For instance John of the Cross wants to rid the mind of all images, visions... Of course there are differences but those are secondary. Think about it: Sankara and Ramanuja disagree over Prakrit, Ramanuja accuses Sankara of material ties... He replaces them with spiritual ties... But ties are ties. Leibniz had an issue with the Greeks who claimed that matter was the source of evil, that matter put limits to the will of gods. Leibniz says that evil is contained in the eternal truths which insinuated themselves into the mind of God, against his will... In both cases God is limited, by material ties in one case, by spiritual ties in the other. How is it worse that those ties should be material! After all, Jesus' prayer says: give us our daily bread... Deussen found this revolting. Everybody finds this revolting. [Jacques] Maritain says that I want only "tangibles"! Berdyaev gets mad every time we discuss Kierkegaard: he is deprived of grace, he says of Kierkegaard...
- The thought of Jerusalem is totally different. You remember Apocalypses. The Beast, the plagues, the calamities... Then comes the prophet and wipes away all tears. This idea is unknown to Greeks, to Hindus. It's only in the Bible.
March 28, 1938
I tell Shestov about a conversation I had with Jean Wahl and about an article by Derycke. Both say that Kierkegaard did not have faith.
- I know, they all say that. Kierkegaard himself says that if he had faith, he would have regained Regina. But he never did regain Regina. And so all is lost. But for Kierkegaard life does not end at death. The other world is still life, continuation...
- They talk about faith but already in my "Revelations of death" I say that truth begins at death. Faith is only a preparation for death, that is to say - to truth, of which Socrates spoke. It is only at death that the domain of constraint ends for good, only then begins the reign of freedom. Socrates knew very well that in his trial against Anytos, Meletos and the Athenians power was against him. And how could he defeat such power? He had to submit! But with his preparation for death he learned that at death all this will change. And indeed - Socrates died, and Anytos and Meletos died almost at the same time, not to say at the very same moment. To us today it's all the same. With Anytos and Meletos also died the constraint that served them against Socrates. And now, what is the relation of power between Socrates and Anytos-Meletos, is it the same relation? That's what Socrates probably thought about alone, at night. But during the day, when he was with his disciples, he had to transform his thoughts into teachings, he had to console them.... One always has to console people. And what a strange thing! The more a consolation is manifestly false, the better it works!
- You see, I am still preoccupied with the Hindus. The deeper I get into them, the more I am driven to read on. People only have eyes for their "metaphysics" - but the Hindus themselves only want to find a solution, a way out! What thirst for freedom! Even in the Upanishad and the Vedas there are texts written by men who were searching with lamentation [as Pascal says] - and some of the other texts written by amateurs, who preferred to look on while their peers suffered and searched. A Sankara does his best to make our natural light into a source of truth, but when he comments on the Upanishads where Brahma is given as the only source of ultimate truth, he has to desist. He even goes further, he doesn't want this truth of the Brahma to be proved, imposed by force. At the stage of Brahma, he says, one is free to choose whether one wants to acquire a body or not. One is even free to ask for what Deussen calls "gross materialism": a good meal, a beautiful woman. Our western commentators of the Hindus, be it Deussen, Grousset or Guénon, they all avoid these questions: it's not "scientific" enough for them. And so they reduce the Hindus to the Greeks. But the Hindus, they go much farther than Athens..."
- How is one to reconcile christianism and greek philosophy? You see, Heraclites says that war is the father and the lord of all things (Shestov cites Heraclites in Greek), while the New Testament says clearly that the first commandment of God is: "you shall love your God", and the second: "you shall love your neighbor". But you see, even the mystics, Eckhart and Tauler, or Ruysbroek the Admirable, they only talk about the first commandment - that's what is called a theocentric doctrine. They sacrifice the second commandment to the first. The "neighbor" is contingent, perishable, he doesn't really exist. Berdyaev tells me: "you always talk about actual people, but Buddha has proved a long time ago that people do not exist. And having proved that, Buddha rescued not only men but also God". But what do I need Buddha? Spinoza says the same thing. God is substance, men are only attributes of that substance. Spinoza fought such a war inside himself between substance and attribute that eventually he overcame the attribute in himself and became substance. It is true that once we remove the "neighbor", it becomes possible, with a number of difficulties of course, to reconcile things: we still haven't found truth, but we will find it one day, we are looking etc. But if the "neighbor" really exists, then it's not a question of truth anymore, one has to come to his rescue, one *has to save him*! But this is impossible and the problem becomes insoluble. And yet Jeremiah lamented.
- In the "City of God" St.Augustine tells the story of the siege of Sagonte by Hannibal (after Titus Livius). They were allied with the Romans. Hannibal demanded that they betray the Romans, but they were honest and refused. So he put their city under siege which lasted a year. They ate dead bodies, each other, etc. Finally they asked for peace. Hannibal demanded unconditional surrender. They accepted. Their city was plundered, there were rapes and citizens were murdered freely. St.Augustine wonders: how come their God did not come to their rescue? It doesn't occur to St. Augustine to ask - why is it that *our* God did not help them? They were innocent, it was before the Revelation. St.Augustine doesn't want to admit that our God does not help us either. Nietzsche knew that though, he saw that nature was cruel but it was not enough for him to see that - he wanted to glorify cruelty. But why should one glorify it? Jeremiah too knew that our God does not help us out. The Jews had a long history to learn about it - the Maccabees etc. Jeremiah said: "be damned the day of my birth!" But despite all that evidence, he laments towards God, he asks to be rescued, he believes that *God can*... I too, I could not resolve this difficulty, I could only struggle.
- I am afraid that my writings will be misunderstood against the goal I set for myself. The dilemma - Knowledge or Faith - will be accepted perhaps: that knowledge is cruelty. But this understanding will not move one to take refuge in Faith. One will rather accept cruel knowledge, even if it kills. People will say: why talk about all this since one has to live somehow? "Yes, you are right, it's all true, but better not talk about it!"
- Do you know that the Dutchman who wrote an essay about me [Dr.J.Suys, "Leo Sjestow's protest tegen de Rode", Amsterdam, 1931] has already changed his mind? He says in his letter that he fears one would waste too much energy struggling against the self-evident while this energy is needed to struggle against the empirical. But he did not notice this: to start on a war against the self-evident one must first have lost the war against the empirical. Until then, of course, one has to do as one can.
October 24, 1938
Shestov is still studying the Hindus.
- I recently wrote that article about Husserl ["To the memory of a great philosopher, Edmund Husserl"], but it made me realize that if I went beyond half-an-hour of writing per day, I'd be dead before I could finish. And so I had most of the day free and I read the Hindus. I can see from that experience with the Husserl article that I will never be able to write about the Hindus. Well, somebody else will write, you will maybe... It doesn't matter so much what one might write about them - it's the questions themselves that are important...
- For instance, the case of Buddha is truly remarkable. For the most part we do not know the real authors of the Vedantas. But with Buddha we can be fairly certain that he was a real person, not some mythical author of holy books. You know that there was a debate about whether Buddha actually originated a whole religion, whether a religion without God can be called a "religion", just like in the case of psychology without the soul. Well, some say that it is not God that is the basis of a religion but "das Heilige" - sanctity. I quoted a text from Heiler to you the other day where he says that humanity has never produced greater genius than Buddha and Jesus. Of course, Jesus is somewhat and even much greater, but a "genius"... Today the Pope fights against the Germans, Russians and Italians because they are a threat to christianity. Empirically speaking that is true: persecutions, tortures, concentrations camps... But such a way to conceive of christianity is a much greater threat...
- It is said of Buddha, and he himself says it, that he had defeated death. But look how death proceeds. It starts by taking from us our health, makes us lose taste for the things of life, accustoms us to indifference etc. And what does Buddha do? The same thing exactly. He introduces death into us, before its appointed time. He works for death. But look what a genius he was! He actually persuaded people that he had defeated death while all he did was serve it. Plato himself wrote that philosophy is a preparation for death, but instead of taking up this problem he busied himself with the Laws, the Republic etc... I wonder what he is thinking about it *now*.
November 3, 1938
I send Shestov a copy of my "False Treaty of Esthetics" with a simple inscription: "To Leon Chestov, to whom I owe everything..."
November 5, 1938
The first letter I receive about my book is from Shestov. He writes:
"My dear friend, I just got your "Faux Traité". Thank you and congratulations - how lucky to be able to publish a book! Unfortunately I will not be able to read it right now. I do not feel well, I am very weak and tired, stay in bed all day long - that's the price of my article on Husserl. But I am taking my measures, maybe I'll feel better soon and have enough strength to read at least. Best wishes and hope to see you again soon..."
November 10, 1938
I wait a few days and then write to say that I was afraid I might tire him if I visited too soon, but will come to see him Thursday.
November 14, 1938
I receive a letter from his daughter, Natasha Baranov: "Dear friend, our father is ill, he will have to spend some time at the Boileau Clinic, to get treatment. Do not come to Boulogne. Give a call to Tatiana one of these days, she will tell you whether you can visit him at the clinic."
November 16, 1938
I call Tatiana. The doctors forbid all visitors. He is given shots of salycil. He is doing a bit better. He was very upset about having to leave home for the clinic. But what else can one do?
November 18, 1938
Tatiana calls me to tell that Shestov was very happy to learn that I inquired about his health. He still cannot receive visitors but feels a bit better. I do not dare to ask Tatiana to call me immediately in case he starts to feel worse - I am afraid this might frighten her. But she tells me she will send a telegram if there are changes, or when he is able to see me.
November 20, 1938
I receive a telegram: "Call Tatiana" (Rageot). Shestov passed away on November 20, 1938. He had tuberculosis of old age. In the afternoon we all go to the Boileau Clinic. He lies on the bed, calm, pacified, his face is relaxed, beautiful. Mme Shestov tells me that yesterday night he still felt fairly well. And this morning, before she arrived, the nurse went in to take his temperature. She turned him over - he was dead. The heart gave up. "He loved you so!" she says and starts sobbing. Then she shows me on the little table next to the bed two books. A Russian bible, open, and "Das System der Vedanta" (Brahma-Sutra) translated by Deussen. The book is open at the chapter "Brahma als Freude" where Shestov has just underlined (or maybe re-read) the following passage:
Nicht trübe Askese kennzeichnet den Brahmanwisser, sondern das freudig hoffnungsvolle Bewusstsein der Einheit mit Gott. [It is not somber asceticism that marks a sage but a confident and joyous awareness of unity with God]
We go down the stairs, wait for Tatiana in the hall. She says that there was no hope, the tests showed that Shestov has had tuberculosis of old age for at least a year. The funeral will take place Tuesday, at the new Boulogne-Baillancourt cemetery, at 9 o'clock in the morning.
Our conversation of October 24 was our last. The letter I received from him on November 5 was the last he ever wrote.