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 tall lanky old man, 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. 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.
From 1924 to 1929 I could locate only one note from Shestov among my papers.
7, rue Sarasate, Mai 3, 1924
Tomorrow, May 4, at 4pm we are holding a small party for our French and Russian friends. We will be delighted to have you among us. Cordially."
Most of the time invitations were written by Tatiana Shestov who summoned me first to rue Sarasate, then to rue de l'Abbé-Grégoire, rue d'Alboni, rue Letellier. I remember little of those visits. At Shestovs I was considered a friend of Tatiana. Shestov himself rarely talked philosophy with me, I hardly ever saw him one-on-one, almost never in fact. He showed a certain sympathy towards me but without much hope. Especially after a certain conversation we had (on the Passy bridge, I think) when he asked me directly what philosopher I liked most. I felt intimidated - I was too aware of my lack of philosophical background. At that time the only philosopher I really knew was Jules de Gaultier and it is through him that I discovered Nietzsche of the "Birth of Tragedy" period. But I did not want to mention de Gaultier, as it was apparent to me that Shestov did not rank him very high, as a philosopher that is.
I answered that up til then I had learned my philosophy from writers, poets even, and I mentioned Remy de Gourmont whose name was unknown to Shestov. I was afraid to tell him that it was Shestov himself that I knew best as a philosopher: my deep sympathy for him was bridled by the feeling I had that he would not appreciate my choosing him. Shestov was disappointed, I blushed. This blunder pursued me for a long time, became a self-punishment.
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.
And he proceeded to show my letter around.
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.
[ Fondane's letter to Shestov ] [ Annex I ]
January 17, 1927
Dear Friend and Master,
I just finished reading "Dostoevsky and Nietzsche" - the book lost in the mail was replaced by Schloezer, though of course it lacks your inscription on the title page.
I cannot express the passionate curiosity that moves me to follow your thought, all of it. But I am not a professional reader and I must ask you to forgive me this. Copeau, the founder of the "Vieux Colombier" [famous theater in Paris], made it a principle to only employ people who knew nothing of the drama techniques and have never acted on stage. Perhaps you have the same view of the philosopher (for I am not one, as you know only too well) and will allow me not to understand a thing and still read you.
Do you remember how one day, on the Passy bridge, you asked who made the deepest impression on me up til now? I still wince at the answers I gave you. But what could I say? I walk barefoot across the moral crisis of this century, I struggle against the suicidal tendencies of an artistic movement I am closest to, I try to give Art an importance that is being refused to it more and more - and for this I need to strengthen my thought and attack, and sometimes I have to let go of all my weapons and run. I've adopted and tried many an idea that seemed invigorating, I wanted to hold on to the old idols of logic which promise little yet keep their promise, but I've always recoiled in dread when faced with the arbitrary - and yet it is all around me and it has for me a strange attraction. Who will win me over? Which of my beloved masters will spawn revelation, who will become an enemy? I should have mentioned Nietzsche but, thanks to you, I have understood since that I read him badly, that it was his style I loved, his profession of orgiastic logic, I loved the artist in him - but not what he called the tragic artist, as you have so ably revealed.
Yet it was not only Nietzsche and Tolstoy that you made me understand, but also writers you haven't thought about - Rimbaud, Baudelaire. For a brief moment I even imagined to give you a few texts to read, to interest you in Rimbaud for instance - it seems to me that your ideas could really contribute to illuminate some ancient mysteries here.
I've spent my youth being in awe of skeptics. Even in Pascal I chose only one passage which I misunderstood so as to believe that he was mocking the relativity of all things while it was reason itself he was mocking. Today I understand that skeptics are in fact believers who go down on their knees in front of Reason and experience. I used to think this was the noblest posture of all, today I want none of it anymore. Yet I'd like to finally discover what it is I really want. I find you alone on this path and I am delighted I found you but I am also scared. With you I can define the question but I cannot go through with it. I am still reluctant to follow you but my fear is full of delight. Do not smile at me. I wish all this were nothing but amateur talk. You yourself say that one needs to have gone through a disaster to overcome the obstacle and I do not dare to wish a disaster on myself. Would I ever get there on my own?
Asking you to forgive so much talk of himself and wishing the best to you and your family for the new year,
At the same time, his conversation, or better to say, his monologue (for I rarely ever interrupted him, just enough to revive the flow) was so full of Greek and Latin quotations and involved so many technicalities concerning the history of philosophy, that, no matter how closely I listened, I invariably had the hardest time remembering exactly what he had said. Had I tried to reproduce his words exactly I was certain to commit the most obvious blunders. Even later, when I was less of a novice in these matters, I found it difficult to follow him. At the same time, I was loath to make him repeat what he was saying or ask him to spell out names out of fear that he might discover my intentions. It was paramount that he should know nothing about my notes. I didn't want to disturb the natural flow of his lectures (oftentimes it was real lecturing) or to make him self-conscious in case he imagined that in my notes I distorted and massacred his ideas.
I kept a hundred and twenty letters he wrote to me between 1929 and 1938, while only one remains from the period between 1924 and 1929 - I just quoted it above. I must say that none of these letters are of special interest. Long developments were unnecessary given my frequent visits, not to mention that Shestov detested writing and finished most of his letters with a "come to see me and we will talk about it". Another reason is that I was one of the rare correspondents to whom he was obliged to write in French. This he found tiresome as he was aware that he handled French badly. Therefore he tried to keep letter-writing to a minimum - as for example during my two trips to Buenos Aires, or during his yearly vacations at Châtel-Guyon in the Puy-de-Dome region.
Half of these letters are invitations, reminders or notes on small services that he asked of me and such. I decided not to include them here. Others deal with subjects that I did not record in my notes and which today recall some forgotten conversations we had. Since I started my diary only in 1934, I thought it opportune to include excerpts from the letters I received from him between 1929 and 1934. Their interest is relative since they mostly deal with my affairs and my writings, but they should serve as pathmarks for that period void of other memories. I hope the reader will forgive me this long preface in the anticipation of the real feast that, I trust, he will find in these conversations. Nevermind that these conversations are presented mostly as monologues for I judged superfluous to record my own contributions - something I regret today.
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 long passages from the German philosopher he cited in his essay on Husserl ["Memento Mori"]. 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 [February 27]
Dear friend, Sunday March 3, at 4 o'clock, Husserl is coming to visit. You are also invited. You must take a look at his person.
And so I went. Husserl talked and was 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 Isaakovich (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.
I can't remember anything else. Shortly after "Europe" magazine published my article on Husserl ["Edmund Husserl et l'oeuf de Colomb du reel", no.XX, 1929] (I reworked this article for my "Conscience Malheureuse" and this time based it on the recently published French translation of Husserl's "Cartesian Meditations"). I remember that Shestov was astonished that I was able to manage so well in such a "technical" field where he counted me a green novice. He congratulated me with real warmth.
3, rue Letellier [June 28, 1929]
"No news from you, my dear friend, where are you. I expected to see you at de Gaultier's last Monday. You were not there. I hoped you would come to see me, but you didn't. I have plenty and pleasant things to tell you about your two articles, the one from "Cahiers" [Cahiers de l'Etoile, "Léon Chestov, témoin à charge", may-july 1929]
and the one from "Europe" ["Un philosophe tragique: Léon Chestov", no.XIX, jan.15, 1929]
. The latter is really excellent, even though the former is also good. Do come by so we may discuss it. Make sure to send a card first so I would wait for you."
I must note here, for memory's sake, that I wrote the article for "Europe" of my own accord. It was different with the one for "Cahiers de l'Etoile". Mme de Manziarly asked Shestov to suggest somebody who might write about him; he spoke of me. I remember that he had already recommended me for the same task to another magazine that was to be called "La Pensée Française". I wrote the article but it was never published. I seem to remember that though he liked it, he found some fault with it. I was reluctant to change anything and Shestov let me send it as is.
In July 1929 I left for Buenos Aires to present a series of lectures, on Victoria Ocampo's invitation. I met her at Shestov's where she accompanied Ortega y Gasset whom Count Keyserling specifically directed to visit Shestov and Berdyaev when in Paris. I was talking with her in a corner of the large drawing room at rue de l'Alboni (Shestov lived then at his sister's, Mme Balachowski) when Shestov came by and said to her:
- "Beware of this assassin - he likes to make heads roll."
This made her laugh quite a bit.
[Adolfo Bioy Casares on Victoria Ocampo and Review SUR: "Victoria Ocampo was an impossible woman. Very overbearing. She had no friends, only vassals. All those around her had to accept her orders. But she played quite an important role at the helm of the Review SUR. The Review survived for many long years. I did not belong to Victoria's group because my tastes in literature were different from hers." - my note - A.K.
][French original of this comment
I stayed in Argentine only a month and a half which goes to explain why I can find nothing in my correspondence related to that period. While my lectures in Buenos Aires concerned abstract films, I used the occasion to present a lecture at the Faculty of Arts entitled "Lev Shestov and the struggle against self-evidences" [September 12, 1929]. The text was never published. I sent Shestov a copy of the program for the conference where the name of my lecture appeared. As soon as I returned to Paris, I received a postcard from him:
3, rue Letellier, Sunday, [Oct 14] 1929
"Finally, Dear Friend, you are back. We are very eager to see you and hear the story of your extraordinary, even supernatural journey. Do come two days from now (Tuesday) so we may spend the evening in your company..."
Upon my return from Buenos Aires I wrote, almost back to back, a book of poems, "Ulysses" (which I didn't show to Shestov) and also the first draft of "Rimbaud le Voyou" which I pretty much abandoned later on. I gave Shestov the manuscript of the draft.
3, rue Letellier, March 13, 1930
"Dear Friend, this is only a brief note. I hope we will meet at Jules de Gaultier's two days from now. I would like to congratulate you - in my opinion your book is excellent. I already read it all through and I found there something I appreciate most - a real energy and great intellectual intensity. When we meet at J. de G. we will fix a date on which we can see each other and talk about your book. See you soon then. Transmit my salutations to your Sister."
In spring 1930 I found work as an assistant-director at the Paramount Studios where I later became a scriptwriter. We worked by day and by night, sometimes 12 hours in a row, sometimes on Sundays and on holidays - I had no time left to see Shestov very often and no time at all for my own writing. In the summer that year he left for Châtel-Guyon (Mme Shestov worked there year round [Anna Shestov's diploma was not recognized in France and she had to re-train as a medical massage technician]) and it was there that I sent him a letter which was probably full of desperation, judging from the reply that followed:
Châtel-Guyon (Puy-de-Dome), August 22, 1930
"Finally a word from you, my dear friend! But what a sad word! Always the same story - lose your life to earn your living! And not a word on your book about Rimbaud - bad sign ! Or am I mistaken? You didn't receive a definitive reply yet? I am impatient for the news about your negotiations with la Nouvelle Revue Française. If you receive any news, do not forget to appraise me too. A postcard cannot take too long to write.
Regarding my article for the Revue Philosophique ["Parmenides in Chains", july-august 1930]
, Tatiana wrote that they sent us one copy of the issue, only one... I received a letter from Leipzig with the news that the issue of Forum Philosophicum which contains my article is out ("To look behind and to struggle", no.1, july 1930). I will ask them to send you a copy so you may review it in the "Cahiers de l'Etoile". Agreed?
No other news here. Presently it is my wife who earns our bread and I do nothing. I go for walks and watch movies! Do not envy me: this winter I will go to Krakow to earn my living too."
[Shestov read a lecture at the "Internationaler Verband fur Kulturelle Zusammenarbeit" congress in Krakow, Oct 23-25, 1930]
19, rue Alfred-Laurent, Boulogne-sur-Seine, November 12, 1930
"I am back in Paris, my Dear Friend. When will I see you? Are you still as busy as you were before my departure? In any event, do your best to come and see me - I am eager to hear your news. Make sure to warn me by letter so I may wait for you."
September 22, 1930, Boulogne
"Eight days ago I sent you a postcard, Dear Fondane, to let you know that I am back in Paris and inviting you to come and visit as soon as possible. Not only you didn't come - you didn't even reply. Have you received the postcard at all? Do answer! Or come when you are free... To get here, you need to take bus no.25 at Saint-Sulpice. It will bring you to blvd Jean-Jaures (Boulogne) - walk further in the same direction. The second street on your left will be Alfred-Laurent, no.19 is the building I live in."
There are no more letters throughout that year. Then summer came.
Châtel-Guyon, August 8, 1931
"My Dear Friend, a few days ago we received the postcard where you announce the good news of your marriage. I am answering only now because I was not sure whether you were still at the Hotel Bellevue in St-Jean-D'Arve, which is shown on the postcard. Now that your eight vacation days are over, I can write to your Paris address to congratulate you on my own behalf and that of my wife and to wish you and your wife all the happiness one can have on earth. I hope that on our return we will see you at our place and congratulate you in person rather than by letter...
Not many news here. I follow my treatment - it is quite annoying. In a week it will be over - which is already more pleasant. My wife is working, as always. At the end of next week my daughter Nathalie is due to arrive with her husband with whom I hope to study the quantum theory a little bit. He's a good physicist and has the kind of education that is necessary to master this theory. When you and I meet, I will hopefully be less ignorant about it [...] If you can find a moment to write to me, I will be very pleased..."
[Marriage took place on July 28, 1931. On the official document of the 5th District of Paris City Hall marked January 14 (1931) Lev Shestov and Constantin Brancusi are inscribed as witnesses. This document was reprinted in no.2-3 of the review "Non Lieu" dedicated to Benjamin Fondane.]
September 1931, Boulogne
"My Dear Friend, I was just writing to say that I am back in Paris when your letter arrived. Do come by as soon as possible...Bring your article on Heidegger - I am very eager to read it. Til soon then, tomorrow I hope..."
November 1, 1931, Boulogne
"My Dear Friend, I am unclear about your reasons for disliking that article so much ["Une Heure avec Léon Chestov", by Fr.Lefevre, Les Nouvelles litteraires, 24 oct. 1931]
. Also, I do not quite understand what you are trying to say about your own article. But since you promised that you will come to visit me soon, I am not going to ask any more questions. At the very least try to honor your promise and come as soon as you can. Til soon then."
November 6, 1931, Boulogne
"Your silence, my dear friend, is beginning to worry me. Is everything alright? Everybody is in good health? Do write if only a few words, so I know what is going on with you - or better still, come to see me when you have a free moment."
December 5, 1931, Boulogne
"My Dear Friend, as you can imagine I was not pleased to read in your letter that Gallimard has refused to publish your book - but, to be honest, it was to be expected. Business is bad everywhere, everybody only thinks about saving money, and of course, since one can't possibly afford not to go to cafes or to the dancing club, so naturally one has to do without buying books! I am somewhat comforted by what you write about the "Cahiers du Sud". If your article is published there ["Sur la route de Dostoievski: Martin Heidegger", no.141, june 1932]
, maybe they will find some space for your future articles too. Maybe you will even be able to publish a few chapters from your book there... I expect to see you this Sunday or the Sunday after."
February 15, 1932, Boulogne
"Only a few lines, my dear friend, to let you know that the "Cahiers du Sud" have announced your article - as proof (sometimes proofs are useful and even pleasant) I am sending you a cutting from the review. I have also something else to offer you - a flat! In the building where my sister, Mme Mandelberg, lives, 15 avenue Reille...
That's all! Finally, I would like to add that in my opinion enough time has already gone by since our last encounter, so that you might start thinking about our next meeting..."
I do not remember on what occasion I gave him to read the manuscript of my dramatic poem "Le Festin de Balthazar", which I first drafted in 1922 and have then completely rewritten. He read it and probably suggested some changes, which is why I sent him the manuscript a second time. As the following letter testifies:
April 23, 1932
"Forgive me, my dear friend, for delaying my reply. I've re-read your play as soon as I received it. But these days I get tired quickly - it is very annoying and prevents me from making even such small effort as writing a letter. I hope to get better after my summer vacation - but for now there is nothing else I can do but resign myself.
I think you did well to change the ending of your play. Except that there is one word that I find not so well chosen. It's the word "miracle". In my opinion it would have been better not to emphasize too much Balthazar's deepest thought. Instead of saying: "There is no miracle! No miracle!", wouldn't it have been better to just let Daniel remember? and omit entirely the preceding explanation: "the king has just discovered..." I am not sure that I will be able to explain myself fully in this letter, but in any case, I believe it would have been better to show that for Balthazar his victory was in fact a defeat and that, in the innermost of his soul and unbeknownst to himself, he would have preferred to let Daniel win. We shall discuss this in detail when we meet.
I thank you also for the issue of Nouvelles Litteraires, the article by Brunschvicg there is very telling. Especially the conclusion where he makes Bergson say: "I've always taught that it is spirit that should rule over body". But who on earth has not taught this same great truth? Was it really worth it to write a book [Henri Bergson,"On two sources of morals and religion" (1932)]
so as to repeat again what has been said and re-said a thousand times over already throughout the centuries? It seems to me that Brunschvicg is making fun of Bergson, while he's obviously only been trying to praise him!
How are you doing these days? Transmit my salutations to the ladies. Yours..."
[Unfortunately I could not recall the conversion that followed. The draft of my "Balthazar" that I have to this day ends as previously with the words: "there is no miracle". But today Shestov's critique seems to me better justified than it did then. And since the manuscript remains unpublished... I remember that after the first reading, Shestov didn't like one of the four symbolic characters that surround Balthazar (Reason, Madness, Pride, Death) - that of Pride. "I know, he said, that you took it from the Bible but there it had a meaning that it does not have today; the thing which makes a Nietzsche or a Tolstoy refuse God cannot be fully expressed by the word "prideful". I pondered Shestov's remark and renamed my character "Spirit", changing some of his dialogue. And still it's not precisely what I was trying to convey - it's not the Spirit but the "concupiscentia irresistibilis" of Spirit, its desire to be God... (N.A.)]
May 12, 1932, Boulogne
"If you come to see me, my dear friend, it will please me greatly, as always, but not if we talk about my health. At my age to be somewhat ailing is nothing much at all. One might say that it would be outright indecent to always remain in good health. Your case is quite different: a young man has all the rights and is practically obliged to be in good health, which is why I found what you wrote about your own health so worrying. Not to mention that, from what I could gather, you have always neglected your health - and are not taking better care of it now. So do come to visit as soon as you can: my wife will reprimand you according to desert and will also give you good advice that will make you feel better - not because you deserve it but to save her own soul as do all virtuous and reasonable human beings.
I am very curious to see what changes you made to the ending of your "Balthazar". I will be home this Sunday after 5 o'clock. You may come then ... if you feel well enough. Til soon then".
June 15, 1932
"A few words, my dear friend, to tell you that, firstly, I am not leaving Paris before 3 or 4 weeks, so that we may count on one or two more encounters before then and, secondly, that five or six pages to talk about Kierkegaard's Despair is not much - even though one can, with a certain determination, say something even in five or six pages. Sometimes it can even be useful, as an exercise in style. But as soon as you are in Paris, make sure to come and see me (do not forget to send a warning) so we may talk it over. Until then..."
June 28, 1932
"I haste to respond to your letter, my dear friend, to tell you that you should by all means come to see me next Sunday for I will be leaving for Châtel at the end of the week. It would be too sad to go without having seen you. I was very happy to read what you wrote concerning the "Cahiers du Sud". It is quite important that they were so welcoming towards you and that they have agreed to publish excerpts from you book on Rimbaud. As to your chronicle - it is interesting (you did what was "possible", which is not what Kierkegaard meant by it - there was simply not enough space for such an article) - but I have a few remarks to make. We will talk it over next Sunday. My best wishes to the ladies and 'til Sunday, I hope."
July 11, 1932, Châtel-Guyon
"Here's a very interesting article on Heidegger by Louis Lavelle ["L'angoisse et le néant", le Temps, 3 july 1932]
- I am sending it along with this letter, my dear friend. According to Berdyaev (he is also here at Châtel) Louis Lavelle, whose name is absolutely unknown to me, has written a number of important works on philosophy. You will see yourself, having read this article, that its author is not one of those who write for the sake of writing. I believe that you will find it especially interesting, now that your own article is going to be published. I also think that you should send your "Heidegger" to this man - before all others - as soon as you receive your own copies.
Also, I would like to ask you to send Lavelle's article over to Schloezer, once you've read it. I will be very curious to hear your impressions - I hope you will forgive my curiosity.
Keyserling has just sent me his book (in French), "South-American Meditations" [ed.Stock, 1932]
. I haven't read it yet, but Berdyaev has leafed through it and finds that the book is very interesting.
Anything new with you? Myself I've spent three days already at Châtel and am very happy that I am entitled to a few weeks of doing nothing at all..."
July 29, 1932, Hotel Palais-Royal, Châtel-Guyon
"You may be wondering, my dear friend, why I am emphasizing Palais-Royal. It is because you wrote "Royal Hotel" and it is lucky, very lucky, that the issue of "Cahiers du Sud" you sent to this address has found me and was not returned to you. So do not forget that I live in the Palais [Palace].
Your article - I've read it twice - looks like a total success ["Sur la route de Dostoievski"]
. You were able to put forth the problem of pure reason so subtly with those quotes from Dostoevsky! Heidegger himself shows that reason cannot critique itself and that philosophy must provide an independent counter-principle to reason. It is a shame that the quote from Dostoevsky, on page 386 (first line), should be so weakened in translation. In Dostoevsky, instead of "I dislike them", the line reads: "I loath them". Also, I would have liked it better if, instead of declaring that Heidegger is afraid of the critique of reason, you would have asked him whether he's afraid of following Dostoevsky to the end or not. After all, we cannot be sure where Heidegger's philosophy is going to go... Otherwise the article is excellent and hopefully it will be of use to those who are interested in the same questions... Have you noticed the poems by Jean Wahl in this issue? Is this the same Jean Wahl who wrote an article on Kierkegaard and Hegel in the Revue Philosophique ["Hegel and Kierkegaard", nov-dec. 1931]
? I cannot be a good judge of French verse, but it would be odd if they were written by the author of the article in question. In any case you should send him a copy of your "Heidegger" as well.
I also read Audard's note on Bergson. [Jean Audard, "Bergson: les Deux Sources de la morale et de la religion", june 1932]
It is pitiless and if Bergson gets to see it he is sure to feel bad about it. Bergson shouldn't venture into areas where he doesn't really feel at home.
As far as my treatment permits, I am reading bit by bit Keyserling's book. You must read it too and it would be nice if the "Cahiers du Sud" made some space for you to write a short notice on it. The book is really quite intriguing.
You are asking about my health. All is going well. My wife once worked for a famous physician who used to say to one of his patients, to whom he forbade everything the man liked and prescribed only the most disagreeable things: "At our age (both doctor and patient were old men) one should continue to strive for perfection". This is what I do - I strive for perfection, and I might as well tell you, without false humility, that I am on the verge of becoming a model of perfection: I shall go to bed early, I shall smoke little, I shall avoid coffee, I shall only read Keyserling etc. And since I know that you are also striving for perfection, all you have to do now is follow the lofty model soon to appear before you...
Anything new with you? Have you gotten a reply from the Commerce? [my poem "Ulysses" was to be published there]
And what about Paramount? How are you doing in general? Do not forget to answer my questions."
August 9, 1932
"Your letter, My poor dear friend, broke my heart - it is so revolting to have to spend all day doing some work that is totally foreign to you, only to earn a few cents necessary for survival ! But you really should not despair so much over it ! Everything always changes and the present conditions, hard as they are, are going to change too ! You are still you and you have a whole future in front of you. You should not say: "what an incredible impoverishment since I've been spending all my time in this horrible job !" On the contrary: I would rather say that even in these terrible circumstances you were able to find a means to follow your own way - and that's something, it's a lot even. It's a sign that you will come out a winner out of this stubborn struggle with fate's hardships. Proof - everything you've done over these years has been appreciated ! and not only by me - in case my appreciation doesn't matter all that much : you and I, we belong to the same world of ideas and my judgment might not be impartial. But look at how the editors of "Cahiers du Sud" treat you. They are absolutely foreign to what you and I do - and yet, how readily did they welcome your articles! Not only that - even Jean Wahl who is part of this milieu of university professors who, in general, do not even want to hear what is being said in our world - even Jean Wahl was moved by your article on Heidegger. And I am convinced that your article on Rimbaud will make an even greater impression. There is in your manner of writing an intensity, an inner strength which is sure to help you make your way in the world. And each year, despite being caught in such an exhausting and exterior work that would have ground to nothing someone weaker than yourself, despite all that you keep improving in every sense. Of course, you are absolutely right to curse the exterior conditions of fate, you are right to complain against it. But you are wrong, very wrong when you talk of being horribly impoverished. On the contrary, one should talk of enrichment in your case. I must tell you in all honesty that were I in your shoes I wouldn't be able to write a single line - while during all these years you managed to write articles, poems and even a book! My wife and I, we've often wondered how you were able to carry on with your literary projects under such adverse conditions - we do admire you quite a bit. And I am sure that you will emerge a triumphant victor out of this horrible struggle. This is what I wish for you from the depth of my heart, my Dear Friend. Let me embrace you amicably..."
October 12, 1932
"I thank you, my dear friend, for the copies of you article on Heidegger which have just arrived. ["Sur la Route de Dostoievski"]
I've read it once more and I can reiterate that you were able to express yourself beautifully on very difficult questions - I congratulate you. Maybe you will be free next Sunday. Come to see me and we will talk a bit..."
January 4, 1933
"For a long time already I haven't had any news from you, my dear friend. I was so sure that you would come to see me over the holidays, but Christmas and the New Year day have passed and you have not come. If you have no free time for a visit, do write at least a few lines so I may know that "all is fine" with you and your family. I wish you and the ladies a happy new year and I hope that it will be kinder to you than the last, that it brings you better health too, as it is such a necessary thing to all of us."
FIRST RECORDED CONVERSATION
Wonderful winter sunset in the Bois de Boulogne. As we walk Shestov speaks:
- Shakespeare recounts ["Troilus and Cressida"]
that every time Thersite and Ajax had a discussion, Thersite would mock him savagely; Ajax could not answer him in the same tone and would finally hit him. "Ah! Why can't I get back at him in the same way!" Thersite complained. I am often told that one can answer all my mockery and my absurdities in the same manner. And this is supposed to offend me. But not at all ! Let them mock me, good luck ! But they hit me instead ! When Dostoevsky shows his tongue to the wall, he'd be only happy if the wall did the same to him. He would kiss it out of sheer joy ! But the wall did not mock him, it did not show him the tongue, the wall could not answer in the same tone - and so it hit him... Just as Thersite, Dostoevsky wished he could be like the wall.
March 6, 1933, Boulogne
"Your silence, my dear friend, is beginning to worry me. How are you doing? And your family? If you are too busy to come, then at least write a few lines to tell me how things are with you..."
March 18, 1933
"My dear friend, would you please come (with your wife and sister) on Friday, 24 March, to spend the evening with us? Jules de Gaultier will be here too. I think you will be pleased to see him. Do not forget to offer him your new book ["Ulysses"]
, unless you've done so already. I hope he will be able to appreciate it better than I can. Unfortunately, French verse is very hard to understand for me. On the other hand, I read your chapter on Rimbaud with great interest, I find it very well done. I will tell you more on Friday."
April 13, 1933
"A few days ago, my dear friend, I received and read your article on Rimbaud [in "Cahiers du Sud", X, 1933]
and if I haven't written to you already, it is because I was hoping to see you in person. But you did not come - and so I am writing to say that your article is very well done in every respect and that all the rewriting has served it well. If the whole book ["Rimbaud le voyou", Denoël, 1933]
is like this chapter, then it's going to be excellent. We will talk it over some more when you come to see me. Enough said for now. Til soon, I hope."
[Fondane tells of another conversation with Shestov concerning the manuscript of this book that was then being considered at Gallimard: "I tell Shestov about my book on Rimbaud which Gallimard is in no hurry to publish. I tell him that I can wait, that I have all the time in the world... Shestov answers
: It is obvious that you are a true philosopher - you resign yourself so readily!"]
Conversation on April 17, 1933
- It is good to read second-rate philosophers from time to time. They're excellent: they are not as slick, as masterful, as cautious
as the greats... For example our Russian Solovyov, disciple of Hegel, makes the blunder of saying aloud what Hegel was thinking but would never have said himself. Hegel puts Socrates between two principles that clash and grind against each other... These principles are dialectically right; Socrates, however, is also right; if Socrates dies, it's nobody's fault - it could not have happened otherwise!... On the other hand, as soon as Solovyov applies this reasoning to Pushkin's death, he reveals by the same token that the poet's morals were not as lofty as his genius - if he dies, it is a just punishment for his transgressions. Hegel would never have said something like that, even though he thought exactly in the same way as Solovyov did.
Or take Epictetus. Most of the time he tries to follow Aristotle or Socrates... But sometimes he is short of arguments, becomes exasperated, and then tries to convince us by making confounding statements: let us abuse our hearing, our sense of smell, let us drink vinegar instead of wine etc.. Aristotle would never have made such an error, though he thought in the same way. He too is tempted to cut off our ears, but he resists the temptation of saying it aloud.
You can give me torture, slavery, death, said Epictetus, but none of it will affect me - I have my magic wand ! What is death after all? A whole disintegrating etc.; in the same manner as it once was made into a whole etc. Death would be nothing were it not for our opinion which sees evil in it. But our opinion is in our power
- we can change it; we can think that death is bad or nothing much at all. I have my magic wand ! But what is this magic wand worth? Epictetus did not ask this question ! Even Kierkegaard cannot bring himself to believe in miracle, when Regina Olsen is betrothed to another man; he knows
that there's nothing to be done about it; then he notices that his suffering is after all nothing else but an "opinion"... something he can control. And now he too has a magic wand ! He then decides that he did the right thing by not marrying, that he was right to leave Regina, that she was not good enough for him... etc.
It is absolutely remarkable that Kierkegaard started out believing that Abraham could have completed his sacrifice, without anything having been changed. Once Isaac has been murdered, God could have resuscitated him, not abstractly, reviving his soul etc, but his very body on earth, immediately after... Later on Kierkegaard stopped believing in this possibility - in miracles. He was content to have his magic wand.
June 10, 1933
"My Dear Friend,
Finally - you found a publisher for your book ! ["Rimbaud le voyou"]
Congratulations - I understand and share your joy. I hope that with the kind of welcome that your last book received ["Ulysses"]
, this one will find its readers too... I expect to see you one of these days so we may talk about it. In the meantime, a cordial handshake..."
August 12, 1933, Châtel-Guyon
"My Dear Friend,
You are leaving for Nice! It seems that Paris weather is not hot enough for you! If I understand correctly, your nascent fame requires high temperatures. But do not expect me to understand. My treatment has once again transformed me into a pure being and, as you know, according to the teaching of our Master Hegel, pure being is a most empty concept. Which is why I have no news to report: there are none. I exist - and no more. It is your turn to give me news. Write some about yourself - and my void shall be replenished. I am eager to see your "Rimbaud" come out - it seems you found a good editor. Best wishes from me and my wife and also from Tatiana..."
September 17, 1933, Châtel-Guyon
"You ask for "news" from Châtel-Guyon, my dear friend? But what news have there ever been in Châtel-Guyon? It is for you to give me news! You are told that as a rule there is nothing new under the sun? But you are making a film... I, and especially - and particularly - my wife, want to know whether it's your own film or somebody else's, whether there are only "girls" or maybe also tigers and lions... You must understand how important it is to know for me. So do hurry to answer these pressing questions - or else my wife shall never forgive you."
December 16, 1933
"I have just re-read your "Snake" for a second time and I have a lot to tell you about this article. ["Shestov, Kierkegaard and the Snake",
Cahiers du Sud, n.164, aug-sept.1934 / in "Conscience Malheureuse"]
But not in a letter: what can one ever say in a letter? So do come to see me any day next week...Also, I just received a letter from Mme Bespaloff. She has read your "Rimbaud" and asked me to give her your address so she might write to you: your book has made a profound impression. 'Til soon I hope..."
Friday, April 13, 1934
At Mme Lovtzki's, Shestov's sister. Reception in honor of Martin Buber. Were present Edmond Fleg, de Schloezer, a German theologian in exile, doctor Lieb etc. Wonderful visage of the old rabbi Buber - beautiful wiseman's face covers a deep inner ocean, out of which slowly words emerge - in an excellent melodious French, slightly softening the R's - words well thought out, distracted from their inner movement, carried away for a moment from their own course to be thrown into conversation. The talk centers on German and European events, on Hitler, fascism, communism.
- We are wrong to believe ourselves superior to these events, to believe that we know what is bad, that we possess the light, to talk about Spirit. We cannot be superior to Hitlerism as long as we do not know what is there to do. I have lost most of my faith in the individual and even more in the collective. We have reached a frontier. It is the end of the road. We do not know where to go next. We must find
what must be done - but nobody has found as yet. It is very different from the advent of Christianity; then John the Baptist announced that the Kingdom of God was approaching; something was on its way, something one was going to be able to touch... Today the pillar that was holding the ceiling has crumbled... Nothing is approaching. It is again the same darkness as was then but without the pillar, without a way to follow. Clearly, I am not talking about miracles, the possibility of being saved by God; I am talking about man's part in the human action and today that
part is compromised. To begin with, one should become conscious of darkness, to let sink in the idea that it's only a darkness - that alone would allow to start searching for a way out, for light.
In any case, dualistic efforts towards a solution, neatly separating spirit from work, will not save us. I am not saying that I am against work. Work is fated to us. It is the concept of work that is wrong: man is seen as an extension of the machine, this is hell. It does not matter whether one works for a year or for a day of one's life, it's still the same thing; quality of work is the issue, not duration. This concept of work is like an acid that corrodes everything, it penetrates free time too, the hours of leisure and joy. Even when a worker goes to the movies he goes to movies of hell; and his wife is an infernal wife. There will be no autonomy of the Spirit as long as there will be autonomy of the concept of work. With all that, I cannot say that I know what must be done. I can only say that we must search. Maybe we will find... It would be good to be able to decentralize, to go back to the freedom of corporations, communes. Communism started out with it and began to realize the oldest dream of humanity. Unfortunately it recentralized everything shortly after and made the dream into a caricature. Our time is a time of action, where mankind realizes its dreams; except that these realizations turn into caricatures. Still I believe that mankind could achieve happiness - to a certain extent. Earth is wide enough, its fruits are abundant, but then - how to do it? Out of despair mankind attempts the most absurd things. It is as if we wanted to attempt the murder of the biblical snake.
- And that is precisely what should be done, says Shestov. Day and night, year after year, I've been struggling against the snake. What is Hitler next to the snake of knowledge?
- But the snake is only an accident, says Buber. It was different before, even though I do not know in what way.
- Before, says Shestov, there was no you, Mr Buber, and no me either. We are only *after* the snake. Which is why one must kill it.
- I must admit that I do not really understand and I have no idea whether it would do any good to go back or even to kill the snake.
- But that is precisely my meaning. The snake is speaking through you, it prevents you from trying.
May 14, 1934, Boulogne
"Finally a word from you, my dear friend. You say your problems are "ordinary"! Thank God you've been spared the extra-ordinary ones! I would love to see you, but I cannot accept your invitation at present. I too have my "problems": I am forced to create. And though it is certain that you are going to derive some pleasure from it, I must say that my problems are not terribly difficult. Gallimard has accepted to take my Kierkegaard and I must give de Schloezer a final draft before I leave. This means I must write (create!), write and write, otherwise I won't be able to make it before the 20th of July. Could you find a free moment to drop by? We will exchange complaints about our problems - you, about the difficulty of earning your living, I about the difficulty of creating: not out of nothing but for nothing (Gallimard will not pay a cent, I think). Goodbye for now..."
June 11, 1934, Boulogne
"It has been five weeks since I last saw you. I was expecting a visit, or a letter, but nothing came - not you nor your letter. I am beginning to worry. Do write a letter at least or better still, come to see me if you are not too busy. But without delay."
July 14, 1934, Boulogne
"Dear friend, I am finally free to leave next Saturday. However, since I am still too busy to visit you and your family, I invite you to come by this Tuesday or Wednesday - I do not want to go without having seen you. Do write as soon as possible
August 9, 1934, Châtel-Guyon
"Your letter came, my dear friend, just in time. A great event occurred in my life and I was going to write to tell you all about it. Yesterday my wife went to the Casino and saw a poster announcing a film at the local movie theater - "La Châtelaine du Liban". As is customary, the poster had pictures representing nothing but desert sands and camels. "This is something that you might like", my wife told me. We went there the very same night, arriving early, like a good bourgeois couple, so as to be sure there will be enough seats available. My wife brought some candy in case I got thirsty - she doesn't want me to drink coffee. And what luck! The desert and the camels were only for the posters - the show was about high life, the very life you promised to introduce me to and never did. My wife wanted to leave on the spot but I resisted and she was forced to stay until the end of the show because she was afraid to leave me alone there. In this way I was finally initiated into that very same high life I've dreamed about all my life.
What are you doing in those mountains? You say not a word about it. Are you making a new film? [Fondane left for Switzerland to film "Rapt", adapted by Dmitri Kirsanoff from the novel "La Séparation des Races" by C.F.Ramuz]
Are you going to make some money? Do not forget to write - as you know I am extremely interested in all this. Though I am neither a communist nor a marxist, I do know that after all - "primum vivere, deinde philosophare".
You did well to write to Mme Ocampo that you have complete authority to negotiate my affairs with Mallea. I have only one thing to say: if it is about translating the English version of my book "In Job's Balances", you must insist that they do not also translate the English introduction to the book. If they are bent on some sort of "presentation", let them use your article about "Kierk. and Sh." ["Léon Chestov, Soeren Kierkegaard et le Serpent"]
instead of the English introduction, it does not do a good job of informing the reading. Accept my warmest handshake." [It was in fact about translating into Spanish a book by Shestov. It was later decided to translate "Revelations of Death": SUR, Buenos Aires, 1938, without any introduction]
September 19, 1934, Bourbon-L'Archambault
"My Dear Friend, my wife has sent over your book to Bourbon where I've been residing for 4 days now. I thank you for the effort you put up and I hope that it will all work out in the end. My English publisher is Dent - one of the better known publishers in England. But I don't have his address with me here. If you need it, write to Tatiana...
It would be of course much better in every respect to translate "In Job's Balances" rather than "Apotheosis of Groundlessness" which has been translated by Lawrence. [actually D.H. Lawrence wrote the introduction to the English translation by S.S.Koteliansky, "All things are possible", London, Martin Secker, 1920]
Even more so since, as much as I can judge, the English translation of "Apotheosis" is not a very good one. If you can, try to insist that they let you write the "presentation". Otherwise they will find some Spanish celebrity who will leaf through the book and will write badly about it.
And your own affairs are still not going well ! And I was convinced of the contrary when I read in our Russian newspaper an article by de Schloezer about the success of your latest film in England ! When will your luck finally turn ?!
I will be back in Paris in three weeks - either the 26, 27 or 28 September. I am sorry I did not see either Mme Ocampo nor Mallea. Do say hello to them on my behalf, and also to your ladies. Accept my warmest handshake."
October 6, 1934
Aquinas' "Summa Theologiae" is on the table:
- After reading Gilson's book, I took up the Summa
once again. What a thing! A true cathedral ! Every detail, each page, each piece is completed
; and yet it all makes up a whole. What art ! But unfortunately it is only art. I suggest you read it - it will make you think!... It is a good thing to read one's enemies and to admire them. When Malraux asked me about my essay on Husserl: why fight him? I saw that he understood nothing. One should not disrespect one's adversaries. And Husserl against whom I fight has been a master for me, a teacher. Without him I would never have found the courage to struggle against the self-evidences!
- An excellent work, penetrating, well-informed; he speaks of the metaphysics of Exodus but he says nothing of the metaphysics of the Fall
. He has no understanding of it. To exchange paradise for a fruit, for a nothing
! He cannot quite see that it is Knowledge that is meant. The Greeks speak through him, there are even textual
passages from Spinoza, and he thinks that he has authority from the Bible ! Once again it is Leibniz who rules the show, just as with Baruzi. After I've read his "John of the Cross", I told Baruzi: Why take Leibniz as a guide when you wanted to speak of John of the Cross? Why not do it on your own? He stopped calling after that. [Jean Baruzi: Saint John of the Cross and the problem of mystical experience, Alcam, 1924]
Talking about Jean Wahl's article on Kierkegaard:
- It is good, very good. He knows Kierkegaard through and through, and everything that has been written on him too... But he does not understand that one cannot write that way on Kierkegaard... With a man of this caliber one must take a stand: love him or kill him... He would not have written that way if Kierkegaard were alive - he would have thought him a madman. It is easy a hundred years later... It's like the book of Koyre about Jacob Boehme. If today a shoemaker wrote something like Boehme did, can you imagine a university professor writing a book about him! He would have been seen as a madman, a regular madman, or at best a poet! Kierkegaard used to rage when people wrote about him that he was a begabter Schriftsteller
... I too receive such letters all the time, to tell me how very talented I am...
It is easy to talk about Kierkegaard now that he is well accepted. I remember a professor in Kiev, the poor man gave lectures on subjects that were popular - to earn his leaving. Nietzsche was popular then, so he talked about Nietzsche. Not long before a Trubetskoy, brother of the famous Moscow professor, was reprimanded by the latter for having spoken of Nietzsche, a writer of aphorisms
. Then one day I visited the said professor. He was all pumped up. Look, he said, here is the latest book by Wundt. In his introduction there are four pages
on Nietzsche!... From then on one had the right
to talk about Nietzsche.
October 23, 1934, Boulogne
"My dear friend. Could I burden you with a small service? You often go to bookstores to pick up new books. Perhaps you could inquire whether the August 1904 issue of the "Etudes Franciscaines" is available. An article has been published there called "Hegel and Bonaventura". It might interest me and you too perhaps. If possible, buy it for me, I will be very grateful. In the meantime do write a few words, unless you are planning to visit soon..."
(I remember that I could not find the issue in the bookstores and finally went to the Catholic Institute's library. It was a short article, a few pages only, I copied it by hand - we both then found that it was of no interest.)
October 27, 1934
I direct Shestov to talk about his memories of the Russian Revolution. A year and a half after the Revolution Shestov is in Kiev and is invited to a public meeting where marxist ideas are to be discussed. He didn't really want to go but... his reputation was high in Kiev and it grew even more after the Revolution. Thanks to this reputation his flat was not taken away from him - it was returned after each expropriation.
One after another the "envoys" [of revolution] came to the stage, to say that Revolution will sweep away past philosophers and writers. They alluded to Shestov but did not call him by name. Shestov said nothing. Then the Chairman of the meeting finally showed some intelligence. He spoke of Revolution sweeping away the Aristotles, the Platos... and even the Shestovs of the world, if they refused to lend their talent to the Revolution's task. In the future they will have no need to search for what to say. They will be told what to say. Only their talent will be demanded of them. If not...
Shestov felt personally concerned and spoke up. He said that this Revolution was not the first one. There have been other revolutions which time after time swept away Aristotles and Platos even more radically. He added that Revolution thus understood was not a dictatorship of the people but a dictatorship over people.
- If a worker comes to me, it is to learn what I myself
have to say. He wants to know the outcome of my sleepless nights and not what I might say on order from authorities. On the other hand, if the said worker wants to know what these "envoys" here have to offer, he will go to them directly instead of demanding that I explain to him other people's ideas, with only my talent as a supplement. He will want our own ideas, otherwise, as you said yourself, he will sweep us away."
- I admit, Shestov continued, that I had no merit in saying this for in those days I was well shielded from attacks by the many friends I had among the revolutionaries. They all professed to be my admirers even though they understood none of it. Aristotle, Plato, Shestov - it was all the same for them!
November 18, 1934
"Do not torture yourself, my dear friend, over not having been able to keep your promise to visit. I was sorry you couldn't come, but I was still more worried about the possible cause of this failure. Otherwise it did not disturb my schedule: I rarely go out on Fridays, and so I continued to decipher the texts of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, St-Augustine, Boetius etc. I will be awaiting you - but not on Tuesday. There is a meeting at the Russian Faculty on Tuesday and I cannot miss it. See you Wednesday then."
November 21, 1934
Paulhan acknowledged Shestov's desire to write a small book on Kierkegaard and the N.R.F. promised to publish it. Shestov wrote the book, made a fair copy, gave it to de Schloezer for translation purposes, brought it to Paulhan. In the end it turned out that it all depended on Malraux who had previously manifested respect and admiration for Shestov.
[Malraux's inscription to Shestov on a copy of his "Voie Royale": I believe, Monsieur, that you have no time for novels, but this one is among the few in French that is informed by tragedy out of which your own philosophy emerges. This is why I dare to present it to you. Signed Andre Malraux.]
Malraux had reproached Shestov three years earlier for concerning himself with such characters as Bergson and Husserl who did not deserve, he said, to monopolize such a lofty mind. He told me (Fondane), that he wrote his "Voie Royale" with Shestov in mind and that this guided his conclusions. But now this same Malraux, who has just attended the Writers Congress in URSS [Moscow, 17 august-september 1st, 1934] and spoke there of writer's freedom and said that Nietzsche spoke to Napoleon as an equal - now he vetoes Shestov's book, despite Paulhan's promise to publish it.
Shestov is not indignant, only bitter:
- It is a fact that in the bourgeois society a writer is not free and even less loved. It is by a sort of luck
that he gets the opportunity to speak freely. A Schopenhauer, a Nietzsche were fortunate enough to have a little bit of money - they published their books at their own expense. Likewise I am fortunate to have a wife who has a job - I would go hungry were it not for her. I was lucky to meet Levy-Bruhl who is now publishing my writings through I do not know which misunderstanding. It is highly probable that he is not even reading my articles. But under a Hitler or a Stalin even such luck is eliminated. Neither money nor misunderstanding are possible.
I have no right to complain, even if the book never gets published. I am old, I already said almost everything I had to say. My books came out, were translated in several languages. They can be found... One book more, one less... But you, what are you going to do? Malraux used to treat me almost as if I were a Plato or an Aristotle, and hardly even "almost". But now he must obey Stalin. That is how he speaks to Napoleon as an equal...
- Nietzsche was in the same situation as Kierkegaard. But at times he burst into songs. Kierkegaard never sang.
- It is of no interest to say about Bergson's "The Two Sources of Morality and Religion" that it is a weak book. One must rather ask: why? Why is it that a good philosopher and a good writer like Bergson should have written a weak book as soon as he ventured to speak of religion and morality? He has always claimed to be an irrationalist but look what happens: when he talks of God, he is speaking from reason.
- The most underground thing about Kierkegaard, yet something one always grasps about him in the end, is his impotence. Of course he says of himself that he is a great writer. He impresses upon his readers that he shall be immortal, but he does this precisely because he feels impotent: otherwise why talk about it at all? He would like to be a great writer in the eyes of others, but for himself his writings are worthless, and he knows it. Every freedom is refused to him. It is as if something paralyzed him. Like in a nightmare where horrible faces press upon you and you cannot move a finger or even scream. You are paralyzed, impotent. He would like to explain his impotence to marry Regina by saying that their union would have resembled a million of other bourgeois marriages, or that he sacrificed Regina "of his own will", like Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac. He knows he is no Abraham, he knows that he is not saying the truth, that he sacrificed nothing at all for he had nothing to begin with. It is the same story with Nietzsche. An impotent man wrote "The will to power", an impotent man who made the whole world believe - as was his aim! - that Nietzsche was a magnificent engine full of power.
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.
When man first ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, he gained Knowledge 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"!
I only first learned of Hasidim through Buber. I heard some about them from my father, who was knowledgeable in Hebrew things, but he was indifferent to religion. He gave me the idea that among "dirty Jews" these ones were still dirtier.
December 19, 1934, Boulogne
- You are perfectly right, my dear friend: if you can't come to me, I should go to you - we must try to see each other one way or another. Thus I will come to your place after my lecture, Saturday, 22 December, most likely at about 6:45-7pm because I often stay to talk after class. Also, I presently give my lectures at the Russian Institute (rue Michelet) which is a bit farther from you than Sorbonne. See you Saturday then...
About Honegger and music from "Rapt" [film] that he did not like:
- Most of the time, when I don't like some music, I tell myself: I don't like it, therefore it must be excellent. And that is what I say. This way I am mistaken for a great connoisseur of modern music.
- One day Charles du Bos called me twice to invite me to a party. I went. There was a lot of people. Among others a famous Russian scientist, Rostovtzev, who wrote a "History of the Scythes" which is said to be very good but I never read it. He approached me and as soon as we were introduced launched an attack against my person and my ideas. This made me very uncomfortable but I tried to avoid a debate, out of respect for his personality and because I didn't want to provoke a scandal. Rostovtzev noticed my reluctance but thought that it was a sign of weakness and that I had nothing to reply. He thought he had embarrassed me. His arguments concerned the value of experiment etc, platitudes he nevertheless delivered with great conviction. Finally, I had no other choice but to retort. I did not challenge the importance of experiment and I even congratulated him on his strong convictions: how can one be a scientist if one does not believe in experiment?
Instead I told him that our
problematics started before
experience: "We had to ask ourselves: what is experience? What is theory? What is fact? A fact is nothing. I could have made a mistake, it could have been a mirage, I must isolate
something out of a multitude of material; this something is based on contradictions etc. Thus, to have a fact I could use, there must first be a theory which would decide what is and what is not to be considered a fact. Therefore fact is not the starting point of theory but the other way around etc."
But Rostovtzev, like most scientists, had no background in philosophy. He started the attack and was now the one under siege. In ten minutes he had lost all his self-assurance. He never forgave me this lesson - as if it was I who provoked it and was impolite! When I saw him seven years later he barely said hello to me!
- Every time I am attacked, people try to demonstrate to me that two by two make four. I told you once how when I was only eight years old I had to learn addition and subtraction to pass the admission exam to enter high school. But I also already knew multiplication. Then, when I was asked how much six by eight would make I answered that it made forty-eight. As you can see, I was eight and I knew already what they are now trying to teach me at sixty.
March 1935, at Mme Lovtzky, Shestov's sister
Shestov tells me that the negotiations concerning his trip to Palestine are going well. Traveling expenses will be paid. In exchange Shestov would have to give a lecture in every town and colony in Palestine. The negotiations concerned two things: 1) pounds sterling 2) what general public wants, desires, understands etc.
Shestov first thought of a theme like: Abraham and Socrates. But he was soon persuaded that the "general public" would not take the bait. Even when he talked about his students in Paris (at the Russian Institute) he would declare that they understand Russian but no a word of what he is saying. Given which... He bought a number of books by Maimonides and decided to talk about him when his anniversary was celebrated.
I wondered about his decision. Shestov protested
- No, I am simply going to recount Maimonides' biography, without adding anything personal.
- It is impossible, I said.
- But on the contrary! I must not! I really want to travel to Palestine, therefore I will restrain myself... I will do it this fall. Six months is not too long to study Maimonides, I know him about as well as you do.
- Your decision is sound, but I do not believe you will be able to make good of your promise. You will certainly happen on some text that will provoke you.
- I already did. He says that "when the Bible is in contradiction with the evidences of reason, it must be interpreted according to these evidences."
- Here is your trigger - you will end up suggesting that maybe it would have been better to renounce evidences in this case.
- No at all, it would do no good. I would have placed this text at the heart of my lecture - but since this is not possible... For once I will appear as a man of wisdom. It's not too early.
And with a charming irony, he turns towards his brother-in-law and continues:
- My brother-in-law here present often tells me: "You will never wise up. Who listens to you? Nobody. Of course there is Fondane, but he's the only one, and he's young and dumb. If he were less dumb he would have followed [Jean] Wahl or Berdyaev, who is a model of all virtues and has even been honored by the Academy - and then he would have become a wiseman himself." But my brother-in-law is wrong. You, Fondane, you are indeed young and dumb, but I... I am old and intelligent.
-You'll see, I answer, one day there will be a Shestov Gesellschaft
-Yes, with one single member: Fondane.
-On the contrary, there will be many members of all walks of life who will defend your ideas so well that Fondane will not even be admitted.
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.
- You know, I now have a radioset at home. Sometimes it's Germany, sometimes Russia. On the German channel there is nothing but "Heil Hitler!" and on the Russian "the prophetic words of comrade Stalin". Even under the old tsarist regime there has never been so much baseness and flattery. "Prophetic"! If only they had considered for an instant what this word really means - they would never have used it.
No date (miscellaneous notes, memories)
- He is one of the most intelligent men I've ever met, he sees through everything - it is impossible to hide anything from him. We were at Pontigny, his book on Dostoevsky has just been published ["Dostoevsky", 1923]. One day he asked what I thought of it. I told him it was well written etc. He understood right away and switched to another subject. He never talked to me after that...
Shestov was told that upon reading his "Dostoevsky and Tragedy" Gide confessed "that he has not been so shaken ever since he first read Nietzsche". Some time later (after the incident at Pontigny), Gide published an essay on Montaigne and sent it to Shestov with a charming inscription. But when de Schloezer asked Gide to write a short introduction to the "Selected Fragments" ["Selected Writings", Gallimard, 1931] of Shestov which was to appear in the N.R.F., Gide declined on the excuse that he was too busy. I personally think that his growing orientation towards USSR had something to do with it.
["Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, philosophy of tragedy", Paris, August 1926. We believe that at the time of this conversion, Gide could not have read this book but rather an article by Shestov called "Dostoevsky and the struggle against the self-evident", N.R.F., February 1922]
Shestov tells me of how a friend in Berlin had requested he write a pamphlet about the Soviets. The friend published it without reading, even though Shestov has warned him. He then read the printed book and... had to burn down all the copies.
We go together to Jules de Gaultier's lecture "The biological essence of art". As is well known, this philosopher first articulated the spectacular theory of
bovarism which denies both pleasure and suffering and thus all moral valuations. The lecture is followed by an open discussion between Jules de Gaultier, Basch and Lalo. Basch defends feeling: art gives us joy. Charles Lalo believes that, on the contrary, with this kind of avoidance of pleasure and suffering through drama de Gaultier has not defined the
specific nature of drama that could distinguish it from other forms of representation that are not artistic.
I leave with Shestov. He says:
- This theory is part Kant, part Schopenhauer. From Kant he took "the altruistic moment" and from Schopenhauer the avoidance of pleasure and suffering. But why has he not gone to the end of schopenhauerian thought? He keeps repeating "I hate morality" ! But in truth he hates existence and loves morality. He rejects existence because it does not please morality. He would have done better to go all the way and, in order to get rid of pleasure and suffering, to declare that the world is evil and to summon nirvana to the rescue. Morality against life: that is what Nietzsche reproached to Schopenhauer.
June 14, 1935, Boulogne
"Once again I am completely uncertain about your circumstances, my dear friend. I understand that you have no time to come to my place, but do try to find a few minutes at least to write a postcard and tell me about your health! What do the doctors say? Surely they had enough time by now to find a diagnostic! I am eager to hear it!
I have some pleasant news: Mme Bespaloff will be visiting Paris soon, I hope you will find a way to come see her..."
July 16, 1935
The other day Boris de Schloezer and Mme Bespaloff were at Gabriel Marcel's. They remarked to Marcel that in his last book ("The broken world", drama in four acts, followed by "Position and concrete approach of ontological mystery", 1933) 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 borrowed 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 ideas
, as you know, are 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 of 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.
[Das Heilige. Uber das Irrationale in der Idee du Göttlichen und sein Verhaltnis zum Rationalen, Breslau, 1922, 1st ed. 1917, Klotz, 1927]
- 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 veritable master. There was no chance I could have been mistaken about Husserl the way 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 take 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, that is: 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
- I don't like war. But if there was a war against Hitler, I would take up arms, even at my age. You know what I think of bolshevism. And yet, if Hitler were to attack the Soviets, we would have to defend them, to prevent Hitler from becoming the master of all of Europe. Between two evils I choose the lesser.
I tell him about the International Congress of Writers where Alexei Tolstoy declared that the idea of death is nothing but a bourgeois obsession.
- Alexei Tolstoy is an excellent writer who has never been intelligent or particularly inclined to think. I remember how once, in Russia, we were invited at Gershenzon's who was a celebrated historian in those days. Gershenzon and Tolstoy were sitting together at one end of the table, I was with Berdyaev and Ivanov at the other. Gershenzon should have been a professor, he liked lecturing. At one point a general silence occurred and one heard the following conversation. Gershenzon was telling Tolstoy that though he was very talented but lacked thought. "Do you believe one must think?", asked Tolstoy with an annoyed expression and brushed his forehead. I cried to him from the other end of the table: "If you want to believe me, I grant you permission to do away with thinking; write what you feel the way you feel." At that Tolstoy crossed himself and said: "So you believe I don't have to think? Thank you!" At the same time this man is quite successful, he knows how to do business better than a Cirtoën.
- Read what Mme Bespaloff writes about Malraux: she puts him on the same level as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I find this somewhat offensive. Yes, Malraux and Gide would go very well together - but not next to a Dostoevsky!!!
- Levy-Bruhl told Mme Bespaloff: "I disagree entirely with Shestov. But he is a man of talent and he has the right to express his ideas." I find this beautiful of him. This kind of attitude tends to disappear in this world.
- Gide is too intelligent, it is his intelligence that prevents him from seeing clearly.
- Do you like writing? I hate it. There are times when I quit in the middle of an unfinished phrase, out of complete disgust.
- I am happy that the "Cahiers du Sud" want to publish my lecture about Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky (which was to become the introduction to "Kierkegaard and the existential philosophy"). Certain things had to be said. One must prevent Wahl's "interpretation" from going unchallenged. I might be wrong, but this interpretation offends me.
[Lecture "Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky", given on 5 Mai 1935, published in "Cahiers du Sud", March 1936, no.181]
September 1, 1935, Bourbon-l'Archambault (Allier)
"My dear friend, you will probably be far away from Paris when this letter reaches you - I hope you left a forwarding address and my letter will follow you there. I am very happy you were able to arrange a vacation for yourself. I wish you nothing but finest weather. As you can see my own vacation at Bourbon is practically over and I should be back in Paris on the 14th or 16th. In the meantime, I am preparing a brief review of Levy-Bruhl's "Primitive Mythology" ("Myth and Truth" in Russian, for Berdyaev's magazine). The book is enormously
interesting and, if this is at all possible, I suggest you reserve a place for a short review in the "Cahiers du Sud". You will not regret it and neither will the "Cahiers du Sud". It would be a pity if somebody else reviewed it. Therefore you must write it immediately.
I just received a letter from de Schloezer: the translation of my article will arrive on the 29th. Not too late?"
[Put' 1936, under the title "Mif i Istina". French translation "Le Mythe et la Vérité" was published two years later in "Philosophie", Yougoslavia, 1938, III, 1/4 ]
No date, 1935, Boulogne
"Are you in Paris yet, my dear friend? I am about to leave for Palestine, therefore you must come to see me. Also, the translation of my article for the "Cahiers du Sud" is ready to be sent to the editor. When are you going to come? I am waiting for you."
- A friend from Czechoslovakia was in Paris and went to a lecture by Pierre Janet about mysticism. He said that Janet had mentioned me and called me a "great mystic". Meaning - a great idiot. One is allowed to - and even must - describe
mysticism, but one is not supposed to discuss its ideas.
Shestov was astonished by the ideas Levy-Bruhl had expressed in his new book "The Primitive Mythology" and was eager to see the author so as to question him: How did these ideas occur to him? How did it happen that he abandoned theory for the sake of the metaphysics of knowledge?
- Koyre arrived while I was talking with Levy-Bruhl. He seemed to say: one can do philosophy, write books, talk - but to take all this seriously
would be an exaggeration.