October 4, 1935
- Do congratulate me, Shestov says, I am not going to Palestine. The Jews could not manage a 4000 francs deposit requested by England. If it was for a Christian, a Merezhkovsky or a Bunin, they would have done the impossible. I never had any luck with the Jews. I complain about it so often that my brother-in-law is beginning to worry that I have become an antisemite.
Shestov talks philosophy without my prompting him. But I have to show a lot of skill in directing our conversation if I want to make him talk about himself, his early days, his memories.
- I arrived at my vocation as a writer and philosopher late in life. I was already 29 years old when I published my "Shakespeare and his critic Brandes" [published in 1898, Shestov was in fact 32 years old - no translation exists]
. Before that all I have written was a Ph.D. thesis in law school about the new work laws. In those days I was reading Kant, Shakespeare and the Bible. I immediately felt that I was against Kant. As to Shakespeare, he moved me so much I could hardly sleep nights. And then one day I read a translation of a few chapters from a book by Brandes about Shakespeare. It got me really angry.
Some time later I was living in Europe and I read Nietzsche. I felt that a great upheaval of the whole world happened inside this man. I can't really convey to you the impression he made on me.
Then one day I saw Brandes' book on Shakespeare in a bookseller's window. I bought it, read it and felt the same anger as the first time. In those days Brandes was an important figure. He had discovered Nietzsche, he had connections with Stuart-Mill etc. But he was a sort of a sub-Taine, a small Taine, gifted yes, but his reading was superficial, it skimmed on the surface of things. "We feel with Hamlet, we are experiencing with Shakespeare" as he liked to put it. In other words, Shakespeare did not disturb his sleep.
- And what about you? What was the point of view in your book?
- I was still speaking from a moral perspective which I abandoned shortly after. But even then, this perspective was pushed
to such limits it was fairly obvious that the frame was going to crack soon enough. You remember the verse "the time is out of joint". Well, I was then trying to put time back in its joint! Only later did I understand that it was better to leave time out of joint, to let it break to pieces! Needless to say, Brandes was not concerned with this kind of thing, he was quite far from asking such questions.
- After I wrote that first book and tried to approach Nietzsche once more, it occurred to me that with my moral questions I would never be able to understand him. Moral issues did not hold when faced with Nietzsche. This was very different from Brandes for whom Shakespearian tragedy was entertainment, an artistic distraction. Against Brandes I defended myself with an epigraph: "Ich hasse die lesende Müssiggänger" (I hate these reading idlers).
- Have you written anything else than a thesis before your first book?
- Yes, a few short stories. They were quite bad. [in 1895 Shestov also published an article on Vladimir Solovyov and an article called "Georg Brandes on Hamlet"]
- And what about your thesis?
- I was finishing law school. I must have been 24 years old. I got almost perfect marks on my exams (4.5 out of 5) and to become a doctor of law I wrote a thesis on the new work laws that have just been introduced and which have been recently reviewed by the Inspectors. I could have gotten a diploma without a thesis because "real" students (as they were called in Russia [from German]) enjoyed pretty much the same rights as the doctors of law - only "lovers of culture" and those who flunked their exams were not allowed into official positions. I defended my thesis in Kiev but to publish it I had to submit it to the Censors Council in Moscow. But the commissioner at the Censors Council decided that if ever my thesis were published it would provoke immediate revolution in all of Russia. I went to Moscow to defend my submission. A member of the Council suggested I retrieve my manuscript and redraft it in the suited style. But the commissioner declared that no corrections could make my thesis any less subversive. The manuscript was never given back to me. The only other copy belonged to the University. I could not find my drafts either. The thesis was never published... It discussed the extreme poverty of the Russian peasantry...
- Have you ever studied philosophy at university?
- Never. Never went to a single lecture. I did not think myself a philosopher. In any case, since I started with articles on Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Chekhov, I was considered a literary critic, and I think I believed I was one too.
- Self-taught all through then?
- Yes. Like Meyerson. But while Meyerson read a lot - he read everything - I studied what I read. Once I became attached to an author, be it Kant or Nietzsche, I would study at length everything related to him.
- 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 had 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 drink to friendship [Bruderschaft trinken]. I also told him that he could visit me the next day, if he wanted to show that he had 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 gives me too much credit, that if I really invented everything I say, I should bloat 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...
[The dates given by Fondane do not seem exact. Berdyaev and Shestov most likely met at the celebration of New Year's Eve 1902. Shestov was then 36 and Berdyaev 28 years old.]
- It is a pity that Berdyaev was so influenced by German philosophy. I did not study philosophy at university and this allowed me to keep my freedom of thought. I am often chastised for quoting passages that nobody ever quotes, for uncovering texts that were left ignored. It is just possible that, had I gone through a proper training in philosophy, I too would only cite "authorized" texts. By the way, that's one of the reasons why I always quote everything in Latin and Greek. So as to not let them say that I am shestovizing.
December 14, 1935
After his lectures at the Russian Institute, Shestov came to have supper with us. He had warned me the other day at Tatiana's (his daughter, Mme Rogeot) that he would come alone because that way "we talk better".
We discuss my "Heraclitus the Poor" (published in the "Cahiers du Sud") and the reviews it provoked. He congratulates me for once for remaining so calm and on my efforts to tone down my violence.
- As to the Protestants and the Kierkegaardians who call themselves Christian, you could have reminded them what Kierkegaard said about Christians killing Christianity. There is only one thing that I regret in your article: why have you reported our conversations? These are things that I can say in private, not publicly. After my death, if you are still so inclined - that would be a different story...
["Heraclite le Pauvre - ou la nécessité de Kierkegaard", Cahiers du Sud, nov.1935, no.177]
One day I found Shestov tired and worn out, he told me:
- It's nothing. It's the struggle with Kierkegaard that did this to me...
At dinner, in a humorous tone:
- You should know the great event of the day. Tonight we are celebrating Merezhkovsky's 70th birthday... [Dimitri Merezhkovsky, born in Saint-Petersburg in 1865, died in Paris 9 December 1941. His anniversary was celebrated on the 14 December 1935]
- Speaking of which: Schiffrin tells me that Merezhkovsky once wrote a very good book about Tolstoy...
- That's true. About Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. A nietzschean book, imitating even Nietzsche's faults, underlining in Russian translation even the Latin words Nietzsche italicized in the German editions simply to differentiate them from the German text. In those days I have just published my "The Good in the teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche" and was looking, unsuccessfully, for a publisher for my "Philosophy of tragedy". Then one day I receive a letter from Diaghilev who was an editor of a Russian art magazine, before moving on to ballet productions. This letter tried to reach me in a number of places as I was traveling across Europe then. It finally found me in Switzerland, I think. Diaghilev has read my essay on Tolstoy and was asking that I collaborate in his Review.
Forgive my lack of humility in speaking so much of myself. But at the time I had the manuscript of the "Philosophy of Tragedy" ready to go. I sent it to Diaghilev. He said he liked it. I asked for 50 rubles in advance payment and he obliged immediately. I was better off then than I am now but those 50 rubles certainly didn't go unnoticed. Diaghilev warned me however that because of the publication of two books by Merezhkovsky mine would not appear before January (we were in May). In the meantime he asked me to write a review of the first book by Merezhkovsky. I wrote the review, omitting the negatives and concentrating on the positives. I must tell you that Merezhkovsky had read my "Tolstoy" when he was already finishing his first book. He was impressed with my "we must seek God" and with a sort of salto mortale
he tried to make some place for God in his own essay. Berdyaev, who was a young man then (he must have been 27) told me: "Merezhkovsky's God comes from you..." Well, in his second book this idea became central. Merezhkovsky put God in every phrase, he spoke of God the way Nietzsche spoke of Antichrist - in a loud voice, with screams and anger... But Nietzsche was already half-mad when he wrote "The Antichrist". Yet even in his madness there was still something of Nietzsche. Merezhkovsky was hardly a Caruso however - he was a small tenor.
When I returned to Moscow, I went to see Diaghilev. He welcomed me in a friendly manner and immediately began to praise Merezhkovsky's second book which was going to appear in his magazine. I told him directly what I thought of it. He was somewhat shocked but asked nevertheless that I write another review for it and I did. Later on Merezhkovsky came to the Review's office and made a scandal bordering on hysteria.
[The first review was published in "Mir Iskusstva" under the title "Concerning a book by Merezhkovsky", 1901, no.8/9; the second review was called "The Power of Ideas", 1903]
- I forgot to tell you that I had previously met Merezhkovsky at a party. He asked me to visit. I did. He told me that he was going to a reception in Rozanov's honor and asked whether I would like to go with him. I agreed. We arrived at Rozanov's. Merezhkovsky introduces me to everybody but it turns out that no one has heard of me yet. Merezhkovsky got angry and exclaimed: "What is it ! Haven't you heard of the best writer on Nietzsche in all of Russia...!" That was after my review of his first book. But after the second review, he was mad at me for a long time. I told him too many truths. Besides he got on my nerves with his "God" and when he said that Tolstoy deserved a beating for having written that...[I can't remember what]. This review is in my book "Apotheosis of Groundlessness". I did not include it in the French translation. What for? After all we're just two Russian writers in exile. It might have caused him some problems, who knows.
I never visit him. The other day I saw him in the street, with his wife. "How are you etc". Then he asks me: "Have you decided to go back to Russia?" -" What do you mean? I said. Remizov could go back, he didn't choose sides as yet. But I, after all I've said on bolshevism..." - "No, no!" he tells me, "I am not talking about the Soviets; but in case the government would change..." - "You're still hoping it would?" I answer. -"But Laval's policy is pro-German; Hitler will conquer Russia and will replace the government." To which I replied that, as much as I disliked Stalin, I liked Hitler even less and that this sort of solution was not one to please me... He got angry and we parted on bad terms.
This is why I did not go to his anniversary today even though I did receive an invitation. I didn't even write him a card.
- Well, you know my politics. I don't understand capitalism and socialism. But after all I did live under capitalism and I suffered from it. Socialism has not had time to do as much evil yet and one can still put some hope in it. But unfortunately, people are being executed by both. Stalin is just as authoritarian as the Tsar...
He speaks about Remizov's extreme poverty and that of Heinemann, and he tells me a couple of interesting anecdotes about it that I did not write down.
- The doctor examined me, put me on a diet for three 8-day periods and once a week I must stay in bed 36 hours in a row, eating nothing but fruit. And in any case, what else is there to do? But my wife is not happy with this. She secretly doubts that the soul is really immortal and, consequently, if one doesn't nourish the body...
- After all, as somebody has said, philosophers made themselves responsible for all the stupidities, so we may be exempted.
- Yes, today a philosopher is a miserable being. Then Hitler comes and the philosopher becomes even more miserable. He is not even allowed to say what he thinks anymore; and he can't change his way of thinking because [voice flexing with irony] Kant is there to remind him that one should not lie
Kant once published a short study on religion at the boundaries of Reason - inside, at the boundaries, wherever you wish, but not beyond. He took Jacobi's side against Spinoza, because Spinoza, according to the prevailing opinion, is still too attached to the Old Testament. But read Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
. He talks about "tolerance" there... but inside, at the boundaries of reason - not beyond
. Thus what Kant serves us is still Spinoza, but a well hidden Spinoza - Kant hides him deeper and deeper in his pockets, at the very bottom even.
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!
- I told Levi-Bruhl years ago: you are a metaphysician. He denied it. I reminded him of this once more in my review of his latest book "Primitive Mythology" - yes, a metaphysician, but clearly not in the sense of Leibniz for whom metaphysics are an apriori; yet a metaphysician all the same, and a thousand times more so than Leibniz.
Talking about biographies, we discuss the one by Nietzsche's sister who refused to publish her brothers Diary:
- It was probably not noble enough, it did not contribute to raise his prestige. And so... All the biographers do the same; if they believe in courage, honesty etc. They falsify the writer's biography so as to save his prestige. And the writer himself, when he talks about his own life, does the same... most of the time, if not always.
- Bruhl asked Koyre to publish my article about him in Koyre's magazine [Les Recherches Philosophiques
]. Koyre, who was originally supposed to do the review himself, was likely quite happy to be relieved of this duty. He must have thought to himself: "The old fool! and here is another fool who wants to talk about his book. But the old fool is at least prudent
; the other one is not even prudent, he openly admits to his own silliness. What is Faith? A stupidity! And the Bible? Another stupidity..." Such is their idea.
- When I married my wife all was going well. But ever since she became a doctor, she treats me like one. Of course, I don't really have to obey my wife; but I am definitely obliged to obey the doctor. I should have foreseen this!
Mme Chestov, who is present, reacts:
- He always invents everything! (she seems upset)
- But it is only a joke! I tell her.
- Indeed, I let him talk, I don't get mad, do I? she says.
When Shestov met with Husserl in Amsterdam during festivities in Husserl's honor.
[Shestov met Husserl at a philosophy congress in Amsterdam, 15-23 April 1928]
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!..
[in Potestas Clavium: "Memento Mori. On Edmund Husserl's theory of knowledge." Revue Philosophique, jan.-feb. 1926, published in Russian in "Voprosy Psikhologii", sept-dec.1917]
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 of reason and outside of 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
December 21, 1935
Shestov on his visit with Husserl in Freiburg, in November 1928.
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".
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."
Some American philosophers came to see him. Husserl says to them: "Allow me to 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."
- My father had a gift for telling stories. He often told the story of a Jew who was greatly esteemed by everybody as a man knowledgeable in holy things. One day this Jew wanted to publish a book about it. It had to be approved by a Rabbi. He went to see the Rabbi, gave him the manuscript and eagerly awaited the answer. But after six months there was still no reply, despite many and pressing reminders. The Jew got angry and went to see the Rabbi. The latter admitted that he had read the manuscript long ago but, said he: "Forgive me for being so frank. Everybody considers you a very learned man. If you want to stop this, go ahead and publish your book!"
- Quite similarly, everybody waited 20 years for Bergson to publish his book about morality and religion [Les Deux Sources de la Morale et de la Religion, 1932
]. If it had not been published, everybody would be lamenting the fact that such a book has not been written, published or finished... And now it's been published and it became clear that Bergson was not a real Scholar, that he had nothing to say! Not only his ideas are common, even his erudition is spurious... He does not dare to consider the Jewish prophets, the apostles, all those uncultured people as "real" mystics - they had no philosophy. He only quotes from such late figures as Master Eckhart, Christian saints, philosophers etc - at least one can talk to such people. What a pity indeed that one cannot abolish at least the Old Testament, if not the New! Hitler could have asked for this."
- In my In the Bull of Phalaris
["Revue philosophique", jan.-feb. et march-apr. 1933, later included in "Athènes et Jérusalem"
] I wanted to speak openly about Kierkegaard's story with Regina. But too many people are keen on such stories and they would have laughed at this one. I hate people who find this kind of thing amusing! I told the story all the same but not as openly... And now I am afraid that it might not be clear enough and will be misunderstood!
No date, another time
Cassou in his book "Grandeur et Infamie de Tolstoy"  wrote thus: "the great Russian mystic, Lev Shestov".
- 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?
- I would have preferred that Cassou took all my ideas without mentioning my name. I find it offensive that he names me (together with Keyserling, Paul Valery, Kierkegaard and a bunch of others - all in the same bag!) and understands almost nothing of my ideas... What "infamie" [shame] of Tolstoy is he talking about? Where did he find this? He quotes one phrase of mine: "When philosophy is incapable of answers, when there are no more answers, no way out, then preaching begins." This does not mean, it seems to me, that then "shame" begins. On the contrary, one should see here the great compassion of Tolstoy. One resorts to preaching, to Good and Evil, only when philosophy cannot provide answers - because it is impossible to live without answers... Tolstoy's tension is immense... It is to misunderstand Tolstoy completely to talk about his "shame" and to say that Diaghilev could not have done better publicity for his Russian Ballets than Tolstoy did for his preaching...
- You have read in [Maxim] Gorky's memoirs what Tolstoy thought of my book "The Good in Tolstoy and Nietzsche". It seems to me that Tolstoy has only read the first chapters directly related to him. He had no interest in Nietzsche. Otherwise he would not have said: "Shestov is a Jew... How can a Jew manage without God?" After all my book ends with the phrase: "We must seek
[M. Gorky, "Les Trois Russes: L.N.Tolstoy, A.Tchekhov, Leonid Andreev", Gallimard, 1935]
- Goethe was a disciple of Spinoza, he stopped where Spinoza has stopped. But Spinoza knew why he had to stop where he did, he knew what was on the other side...
Curtius says of Goethe that he was a Protestant... Picture this: Goethe and Luther!
No date, another time
- The French do not really understand philosophy. Take Gilson. He is an excellent scholar of medieval philosophy. After I published my essay on Pascal ["Gethsemani Night",
Les Cahiers Verts, June 1923]
he sent me his own article on Pascal. Do read it. It demonstrates that "to stupefy" does not mean "to stupefy" but on the contrary (he finds the article and shows me the phrase): "to fix the instability of reason under the stability of the automaton, that is to submit it to the dumb animal, to stupefy it..." I wonder what he thought my answer would be? That I would agree with him? I replied that what he said was rather interesting. He was offended... His article appeared in a Protestant theology magazine... Remarkable!
- Bergson could have been an excellent philosopher with his first book ["Essays on the immediate data of consciousness", 1889]. I read it when I lived in Switzerland [probably in 1920] and it gave me great pleasure. But then he wrote "Evolution créatrice" . After that it became obvious that writing "The Two Sources"  would be absolutely unnecessary.
- They never understood Pascal, except in the way Valery understood him: where Pascal saw an abyss, Descartes saw a bridge to build etc.
- If Levi-Bruhl had understood my article "On the sources of metaphysical truths" [Parmenides in chains
] he would not have published it in the Revue Philosophique
. But he thought I was very talented... And so... It was but a folly! And I say nothing of Brunschvicg...
["Parménide enchaîné. Sur les sources de la vérité métaphysique", Revue philosophique, jul.-aug., 1930. Later included in "Athènes et Jérusalem"]
- They want to explain to me that two plus two make four after all. They think I am unaware of this... Unfortunately, I know this only too well ! All my life I struggled against that part of me which believed precisely that two plus two make four...
- One should abolish proofs in philosophy!
- Once you have wisdom, you have everything, you become God. They may burn you alive and you still have the summum bonum
, you are the happy one - and those others are the unrighteous, the miserable ones...
- The Bible attributed a historical mission to the Jews. And so Hegel thought that if the Jews had a historical mission, then the Greeks, the Germans would necessarily have one too. That's how Philosophy of History was born!
- Religions know that man has lost his freedom when he ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge... Nevertheless even the most daring theologians persist in trying to prove God through reason, through science, through the very thing that is forbidden and deprives one of freedom. All the theologians claim that they believe in God - but it is in Socrates that they really believe!!!... And, what's more - in a Socrates corrected by Aristotle !
- Kierkegaard begins by saying that Abraham was the father of Faith and he ends by calling him "the knight of Faith". Do you understand? It is already Socrates speaking!
- Nobody loved the Bible more than Kierkegaard did. But he was afraid of it. And so he always went back to Socrates. It is a strange thing but it's just so: Nietzsche had more faith in God than Kierkegaard!
January 13, 1936
- Koyre has promised to publish my article on Levy-Bruhl. And now he wants to submit the article to his editorial board.
- Maybe it's just a formality.
- No, he's concerned that the article might not be right for his magazine, that it's "tref" [impure], as the Jews say - and it is "tref".
- I look at the students who come to my lectures. They hope that I will do for them the difficult work and will give them easy answers. But as I grow old it becomes harder and harder for me to find answers, there are more and more difficulties... Once upon a time a Russian philosopher read my books and came to see me. "What am I to do after reading your books?" he asked. I almost answered: "And now, it is your turn to try and convince me of the very things I tried to convince you!"
- Kierkegaard suffered from sexual impotence. I have always suffered from a general impotence, from the feeling of being bound, of not being able to move.
- I remember John Gabriel Borkman (Ibsen). He leaves his fiancée. Later on, when he explains to her why he had left her, she says: "That's what the original sin is all about." She understood that to prefer ideas to life is what original sin is all about.
- My sister [Mme Lovtzky] was a student (in psychoanalysis) of Dr Eitingon who once hesitated between Freud and myself - he was reading me at the same time. He wrote to me about this and also wanted to translate my book on Tolstoy and Nietzsche into German. But it never happened, I can't remember why. Later he told me that Freud was obliged to think the way he did because he was of the medical profession. Nowdays Dr Eitingon is himself a good freudian; he must be thinking now that my philosophy is nothing but "Schwärmerei
", as Kant used to say of Swedenborg.
- Kant used to say that there were three things most important to man: God, immortality of the soul and free will. But how does one determine the value of these important things? Let's go see a judge on this, Reason of course. But why do I need a judge between myself and what I want? Sometimes Kant says that reason gives him a certain feeling of contentment. However in his "Why is there no theodicy?" he says that "all men who've lived a long life (he was 70 at the time, like myself now) would not want to live their life again" if they were given such an opportunity. Now, he is not talking about contentment anymore, he is talking about refusal of the will to live. Very much like Schopenhauer. Yet Nietzsche wanted to live, he wanted to live the same life, the eternal recurrence. Therefore even if there were only one Nietzsche who's lived a long life and still did not share Kant's opinion, how can one talk about "all men..."
- Heine was right to say that Kant was more of a fearsome revolutionary than Robespierre. Robespierre only cut off people's heads, Kant beheaded God Himself.
I submit to Shestov's approval my introduction to my "Conscience Malheureuse". He says of the first part, entitled "Preface for Today": it's ok.
But the second part makes him uneasy. He begins by pointing out that I contradict myself, weaken my own position when writing: "man's interests, the interests of existence are above those of knowledge; we are ready, if need be, to sacrifice knowledge, just as knowledge has decided to sacrifice existence..."
- I wouldn't have pointed this out to you if I didn't know what you say in the essays collected in this volume, what you are trying to say there. It is not about the sacrificio intellectus
. What you want is not to renounce knowledge but to overcome
it. You are not renouncing knowledge, you are asking: what is knowledge? by what right does it interfere in our questions? who
is knowledge? For us knowledge is supression of freedom. It is not a matter of improving it, perfecting it, and still less of letting it do everything by itself, while we somehow develop our existence on the side, as it were.
This reminds me that Shestov has already made the same remarks concerning a similar passage in my "Rimbaud le Voyou". I have quoted Pascal's "real eloquence mocks eloquence, real morality mocks morality; to mock philosophy is to philosophize for real" and I've concluded with real morality, real philosophy. Shestov stopped me:
- But that's exactly what they want! If there exists somewhere a real morality, a "real" philosophy, then we agree with them! As long as there is still some morality, some philosophy to salvage
I've corrected this passage to the following: "Rimbaud might mock morality, but he is no less a philosopher for that..."
Shestov also doesn't want me to write as I do that I am fairly ignorant in philosophy, that I know neither Greek nor Latin.
- But you are not ignorant in philosophy! You must not, out of modesty, let them think that if only you knew
... You did not arrive at philosophy by the usual road, that's true. But fortunately this allows you to be more daring in questioning, to question knowledge... Do not let them off the hook so easily by making them treat you as a poet, a mystic. You are a philosopher. Lazareff told me about your polemics with Wahl, how you destroyed Wahl.
[B. Fondane, "Héraclite le pauvre, ou nécessité de Kierkegaard",
Cahiers du Sud, Marseille, nov. 1935, XIII, no. 177, pp. 757-770. In this article Fondane analyzes essays on Kierkegaard published by Jean Wahl, Rachel Bespaloff and Denis de Rougemont, confronting their views with Shestov's.]
Just as William James and Kierkegaard rejected Hegel's ideas, so did Shestov find in Husserl an adversary to fight against. "Whatever you want to make of it, I am still your disciple", said Shestov to Husserl who, at age 70, could not comprehend how he could have a disciple, let alone an anti-disciple, in this old Russian philosopher who was himself nearing 60 at the time.
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 Lovtzky, 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.
- If Christ came today, for Hegel he would only be a poor Jew, a madman in need of a straight-jacket etc. But two thousand years later, with all that perspective in time, the "historical event" of it, Hegel cannot refuse Him his audience. If nothing else, He must have had genius. It is for the very same reason that official academia today feels authorized to discuss Boehme, Kierkegaard. But, were they our contemporaries...
January 18, 1936
An unforgettable evening! Shestov came to have dinner with us, directly after his lecture at the Slavic Institute. I read to him the post-scriptum to my preface for "Conscience malheureuse" and he later re-read it himself. This time it's ok, he said.
After dinner we went up to my room, just the two of us, and tackled again some old questions, about the writer's plight in particular.
- I don't like writing. I only got down to it at age 28, and by pure chance
at that. If I had to make my living as a lawyer, it's very likely that it would never have occurred to me to write. For me writing is not even work - it is torture. When, after I had long reflected on something, I have to start writing it down, I first need to repeat to myself over and over again: it's time to write, it's time to write. I have to do violence to myself, to literally nail myself to the desk - and I am always in such a hurry to be done with it. Which is why I never work on my writing. I have no notion of the joy of writing. I write from memory but the writing process itself seems to me a waste of time
. I used to imagine that my books would convey the same boredom as I suffered in writing them. And since I don't work on my style, I imagined that my style must be quite mediocre. It was such a surprise the first time, when I published my "Tolstoy and Nietzsche" and some Russian students in Bern (I stayed in a village near Bern then) told me that it was unheard of to treat of such serious matters in such a beautiful style. It left me speechless... But with me even reading is mechanical. I record, without getting too deep. Only later do I get back in memory to what I have read and then thinking kicks in.
- While I was writing my book on Kierkegaard, I took the time to re-read Kant, Schopenhauer. I've already re-read all of Leibniz for my article on Gilson, and lately Plotinus. It's absolutely remarkable! Plotinus respected the great Greek tradition, he talked quite a bit of Noûs
(intelligence) and epistheme
(knowledge), even more than some others at times. One could say he exaggerated it all on purpose. But there comes a moment in his philosophy when he wants to be rid of Noûs
, when he defies Greek thought as a whole - this is something nobody wants to see in him. Of course Aristotle did say that nobody can be happy inside a Bull of Phalaris. On the other hand, the Stoics knew better, they understood that ethics is autonomous, that one had
to be happy even inside the Bull of Phalaris. Aristotle came to the conclusion that necessity could not be opposed, one could only submit to it, and therefore philosophy had to be built on something else than virtue. But the Stoics saw that if virtue alone, duty alone, could be taken as an answer to necessity, then one had no right to give in, even inside the Bull. It might be less honest of a position, but it is certainly more consequential!
- But Plotinus tried to go beyond the Noûs
of Aristotle and the Stoics. Tradition says that he was a happy man. But this is not true. His biographers (his disciples) do say that he was ailing, his ailments tormented him... After all, Plotinus understood that as long as he is confined to the body, he has no other choice but to obey Noûs
, to do his best of his Bull of Phalaris, not because beatitude proemium virtutis est
but rather because there is nothing else to be done about it. But after, after... beyond the after Noûs
will have no more power.
Benda told Schloezer that it was a shame for the Jews to have produced a Bergson.
- Speaking of Schloezer. You see, Schloezer too tells me that what I am doing is perhaps better than philosophy, but that it's not philosophy as such.
Turkish coffee is brought to my room. My wife and her sister spend the rest of the evening with us. For half an hour and with wonderful humor, Shestov tells us a lovely story about how he was made into a grand-grand-father (when we asked how his grand-daughter was doing):
- If you want to be patient with me, I'll tell you... Well... You know that in our household Berdyaev is revered as the model of all virtues... Berdyaev here, Berdyaev there - I am always measured against his example. "You see, you've achieved nothing, you've never been wise, what have you gotten out of all this? Of course (forgive me for reporting it) there is Fondane; but he's young and somewhat dumb. And what sort of future can he hope for with you?" Do forgive me.. You are probably wondering what it is I am driving at here. But be patient...
- When I got married it all went very well at first. Four years later we already had our two children. But then my wife got her two diplomas as a doctor, one in Bern, another in Moscow. And then she started to boss me around, not as my wife but as my doctor she said. "It's no good this way, I told her, according to the Bible it's for the wife to obey!". But such was not her view. I had to comply. Are you bored yet? No? Then I'll continue.
- About eight years ago we were as usual spending the summer at Châtel-Guyon. My wife has her clients there. Fine. You probably know that there is this magazine that everybody in France seems to read - I wasn't aware of that - it's called "Les Annales". One day we are having our lunch at the hotel and a woman comes to our table with this magazine in hand: "Do you know, the Countess of Noailles is talking of Monsieur Shestov here". She left us the issue and went her way. Ten minutes later there comes another lady with the same magazine in hand. I began to worry. Finally there came a note from a third lady, a very important lady this time, who was staying at the Grand Hotel and, having read that article in the "Annales" about the husband of Mme Shestov, now desired to meet Monsieur Shestov in person - which is why she was inviting us to have dinner with her this very same night. I hesitated but my wife gave me orders... as my doctor of course, not as my wife. This woman was her client. Very well then.
- "You must go have a haircut at the best barber in town, she tells me, not the cheap 4-cent barber you usually go to." Then she looks at my tie and sees that it is not a very good tie. "I will go buy you a new tie in the meantime". Fine... Be patient with me, I will get to that grand-grand-father part eventually. Well, I must tell you that I don't like those expensive barbers. I avoid spending money on futilities. But I had no choice. Then we went to the Casino. And at the Casino there was this very important looking man strolling around.
- You see, my wife tells me, this must be some minister.
- No, I said, it is probably just a Russian Jew.
- Can't be.
- But I am telling you!
- No way.
- So he is.
A moment later in the garden we walk past the "minister" and his wife. He had an umbrella hanging from his shoulder and we overheard his wife telling him in a very yiddish Russian: "How many times do I have to tell you that an umbrella is not a rifle? You must carry it on you arm!" I turn to my wife and say: "You see, I was right! And it's not for man to obey but for his wife. I was right all through!..." My wife acted as if my words meant nothing. Then we parted ways - I had to go to the barber, and she to buy me a tie. You must never disclose this to her but I really don't like useless expenses... Why pay ten or twelve francs rather than five! All barbers are the same. And thus I went to my regular barber. On my way back who is it I see coming my way and with an umbrella still hanging from his shoulder? The "minister" of course. I couldn't resist the temptation. I went to him and said:
- "Don't you know that an umbrella is not a rifle and must be carried on the arm?" But as soon as I blurted this out I realized how very improper it was of me to act this way and I fled on the spot. I arrived at the hotel and found my wife on the couch, reading a magazine, with the new tie at her side.
I told her:
- "You see how disastrous it is to act against the Bible! I am so used to obey now that even a few minutes ago, when I met your minister, I could not bear that he would disobey his wife and I had to remind him that an umbrella is not a rifle. And now I am afraid that he might send the police after me!"
- Are you sure that's all you said to him? my wife asked. You are quite sure you didn't call him an idiot or an imbecile?
- No, I did not!
- In that case you have nothing to worry about, there will be no retaliation.
So I stopped worrying. In the evening we went to visit the lady from the Grand Hotel who told me that Countess of Noailles has spoken of me in the "Annales". This made me very happy. "You'll never be wise! my wife said to me. Perhaps only when you'll get to be a grand-father." But now I am finally a grand-father and I am not any wiser. Berdyaev is still the model of all virtues and I can't compete. Of course - do forgive me - there is Fondane... but he is young and dumb... As to his future...!
One would think it was enough of a lesson. But no, there were still hopes as to my getting wiser with age. One day the idea surfaced that were I a grand-grand-father, things would change perhaps... And everybody began trying to convince me that I was indeed a grand-grand-father. But when I presented myself as such at a social gathering, everybody mocked me.
- "You see, I said to my wife, what a bad thing it is not to follow the Bible! I obeyed you, I believed myself to be a grand-grand-father and everybody mocked me!"
- "You shall never be wise", my wife concluded.
We laugh ourselves into tears. Shestov adds:
- Don't pass this story around. Imagine what Jean Wahl would think! He is already saying that "Notes from the Underground" are nothing but kid stuff. He will surely think I am just a kid if he hears this!"
About Bergson's book, "The two sources of morality and religion":
- Schopenhauer says of love that when Nature works at her goals, generation for instance, it makes John believe that Mary is beautiful and makes Mary think of John as a hero... But us, we
know that it's all a fake, that Mary is ugly and John is a coward... In the same way we know, according to Bergson, that God is nothing less than a hero...
- It seems that human intelligence was created (by Nature, apparently) in view of action only. And then all of a sudden this intelligence found itself superior to the tasks originally prescribed to it. It started to think on its own. That's how it arrived at creating gods.
- According to Bergson, gods were thus created at the College de France [where Bergson gave his lectures], those gods at least that are called idols in the Bible. And what if men did not want of those gods created in batches at the College de France? However Bergson is reverent to gods, he lets everything pass, nothing offends him, he even demonstrates a great respect for the Bible. But after all - why preserve gods and show respect to them when our "free" opinion sees them as ugly and cowardly? And how does he know that John is a coward? Who appraised him about the designs of Providence? Who gives him the certainty that what he sees is really as he sees it? Yes - Facts! But I do not know, and I don't think Bergson knows either, what is a Fact. To have facts, one must already know what fact is, one must have already decided on what is possible and what is impossible, on the principle of contradiction etc.
- For the past two years I've been reading only Kierkegaard, Luther, Plato, Nietzsche. And when I left these giants to read Bergson I hit the ground. Why did Bergson even write this?
No date. After the Writers' Congress in USSR [Moscow, August 17 - September 1st, 1934]
On Gorky and what he said about Dostoevsky:
- He dares to say it now. He is happy to take his revenge on Dostoevsky after forty years of incomprehension. He thought the same things thirty years ago but did not dare to voice them. In those days he was easily frightened, humiliated, his ignorance embarrassed him. One day a friend asked me to send to Gorky a manuscript by a young writer who had no money. I did send it. Gorky wrote back and asked for my own books. I sent those too. He replied in a humble evasive tone, because he was afraid to let show his ignorance. I lost this letter during the war - with the rest. Gorky has a certain talent but that's all one can say about him as a writer. How can one compare him to Chekhov? He never understood Dostoevsky, and in the same way he never understood Nietzsche. He thought it was about physical power, slaps in the face... He constructed a female character in one of his novels with this very idea in mind.
- In 1919 I was teaching philosophy courses in Kiev. We were going hungry. Tatiana and Natasha worked for peasants and were paid in food. I disliked teaching but asked for additional lectures to read. The word of our situation got around. Some young communists came to see me and asked whether I had a book ready to print. Conveniently enough I had just finished my "Potestas Clavium". They offered to publish it. A month later they came back, all embarrassed, and asked whether I would mind very much to add a page at the end of the book where I would declare myself a materialist
Shestov went to Berlin to give a lecture at the Nietzsche-Gesellschaft and at the reception that evening found himself sitting next to Einstein [probably 1927]. Shestov has heard of Einstein but knew nothing of theoretical physics, and Einstein was vaguely aware of Shestov's existence, if only from the introductions that evening: a great Russian philosopher, a friend of Husserl etc.
Since they were sitting next to each other, Einstein asked Shestov to explain to him Husserl's philosophy, preferably in a few words or less.
- But I couldn't possibly do it in a few words, Shestov replied. It would take a good hour or two..
- I have time, Einstein said.
How to begin? Shestov wondered.
- If you were given to meet Newton, here now or in the other world, what would you talk about with him? About evidence, proofs, truth, or rather about the mass of light, the curvature of the earth etc.
- Yes, about these very things, Einstein agreed.
- Well, Shestov replied, if a philosopher met Newton he would rather ask about truth, the immortality of the soul, about God... But you, you assume that these things are well known and need no discussion...
- Obviously so, Einstein replied.
- Well, Shestov continued, these very things that are obvious to you are not obvious to a philosopher. He asks these questions as if they never had an answer.
After which Shestov tried to explain to Einstein what Husserl meant by his evidences, and even touched on his own struggle with these evidences as posed by the great Freiburg philosopher. But Einstein had a hard time following him. They met a second time and Einstein asked Shestov to continue with his lecture. But he could not remember a thing of what was said during their first encounter.
February 1st, 1936
Shestov came to have supper with us after his lecture. He has been appraised of the preparations surrounding the celebration of his seventieth anniversary. As I have predicted and told Tatiana, Shestov readily accepted that his book on Kierkegaard be published, but refused the idea of a reception at the "Young Russians" society.
- Why a reception? he said. Everybody will want to talk. I will be compared to Plato, Aristotle and thereafter everybody will feel satisfied. I am quite sure they will all put a lot of zeal into this and will imagine that they have understood it all. Levy-Bruhl, Jean Paulhan and Jules de Gaultier readily accepted to participate on the committee that will be publishing my book... at the expense of the subscribers, if such are found.
Shestov doesn't seem to believe there will be any.
We are talking about Max Scheler whose book "The nature of sympathy" has just been published in French translation.
[Nature et forme de la sympathie. Contribution a l‘étude des lois de la vie émotionnelle, Paris, Payot, 1928, 384 p.]
- He's a charming individual. I first met him at Pontigny [summer 1923]. I've just read his "Das Ewige im Menschen" in a German newspaper then. [Vom Ewigen im Menschen, Leipzig, 1923 Berlin, 1933, 725 p]
. A catholic and a husserlian - I found the combination bizarre and I told him so. "I'm over this", Scheler replied. He was not a catholic anymore. I was later told that he became a catholic because of his marriage and that he ceased to be one as soon as he divorced. This sounds a bit like malicious gossip. But it's also true that women played an important role in his life, he talked a lot about women. I saw him again in Frankfurt, after his visit to Paris [April 21, 1928]. He was together with some professors and he wanted to invite us all to a good dinner. He took an inordinately long time to choose a restaurant. Finally he brought us to a place called "Falstaff". The portions there were enormous and it was all way too much for me. I only tasted two choices from the menu, the others ate it all. Scheler too ate a lot, despite his heart condition which demanded a strict diet. He forgot he was a philosopher and ate like a poet. He died two weeks later.[in Frankfurt, on May 19, 1928].
- Scheler was a disciple of Husserl, but Husserl did not like him very much. His manner of thinking and writing was not rigorous enough, not serious enough for Husserl's taste. And in any case he never understood Husserl. When I told him about those worries Husserl had, he refused to admit that anything at all could worry Husserl. Why worry? He did not understand that Husserl went to the roots of things out of desperation - the roots of things did not ring a bell with Scheler. At the same time he was very talented, had sharp insights. But he just never understood these things. Husserl did understand however and Husserl also understood my own questions, even though he was neither a believer nor a catholic.
February 5, 1936
I went to see Shestov to give him a check Victoria Ocampo has sent to my address, to pay for Shestov's article published in her Review Sur.
[« Kierkegaard y Dostoievsky », SUR, Buenos Aires, nov. 1935, no. 14, pp. 7-39.]
Shestov showed me an essay by Marcel de Corte about mystical experience, published in the "Revue Carmélitaine":
- I read an article by Marcel de Corte about St John of the Cross and Plotinus. I am in general rather suspicious of John of the Cross - he is too much of a darling with the philosophers. (And he cites a text where John of the Cross reminds us that God told Moses to look at his back. John of the Cross then adds that for the mystical union to occur one has to look at God's face.) He wanted to see more than Moses did. But he forgot what God has added: "if you look at my face you will die". Marcel de Corte says of St John of the Cross and of Plotinus that they were both sincere
. I should think they were! But what a strange term to describe it! In any case there is no connection between this sincerity and "philosophical honesty".
[Marcel de Corte, "L‘expérience mystique chez Plotin et saint Jean de la Croix", Revue carmélitaine, Paris, 1932 (2), pp. 164-215.]
- It's surprising that Marcel de Corte talks phenomenology and appeals to Husserl. I even have the feeling that his quotes from Plotinus are taken from my second essay on Husserl [*], even though he doesn't mention me - I am not an academic, am I... But since I was confronting Plotinus and Husserl, it seems that this gave him the idea to demonstrate that there is no real opposition there. He certainly has enough texts to cite in defense of his thesis. 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 mystical experience as it is lived
by 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.
[« Qu‘est-ce que la vérité ? » (Shestov's reply to an article by Jean Hering about Shestov and Husserl),
Revue philosophique, jan.-feb. 1927, pp. 36-74. The Russian original was published in
Sovremenniya Zapiski, no. 30, 1927. Article later included in Shestov's book
In Job's Balances (Russian version) and
Le Pouvoir des Clefs (French edition).]
[See the English version
- 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 "The 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 could 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...
- Yes, write to Wahl. Provoke him! So that he might finally write what he thinks about me, let him define my "stature". He can do it as violently as he pleases, and with insults too! I understand that by my "stature" he means my lack of grandeur, of sublimity. But as I told you already - I too was sublime once...
[I can't recall to what refers this allusion about "stature". It was certainly in some text by Wahl, but which one?]
- When my book "The Good in the in teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche" was published, a student asked if she could read it: "Is it a difficult book?" I told her I did not really know. It was up to her to try and see. And she did. Some time later I met her again and she said: "But your book is very easy to read. I was even wondering whether a philosopher is allowed to write in such a simplistic manner." The very same day I met a Russian philosopher who said to me:
- Your book is really very good! But I have a remark to make: why don't you give some slack to the reader? Your book is too tightly packed, too concise. One gets lost in it.
On the other hand, some other reader told me once:
- How strange: your books are so easy to read, everything seems obvious and then, when the reading is done, one hasn't understood anything.
- 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. During my visit to Frankfurt everybody was talking about Kierkegaard [after the philosophy congress in Amsterdam (see conversation on December 21, 1935), Shestov went to Frankfurt at the end of April 1928.]
. 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 [in Freiburg, November 1928], I cited to Heidegger a few of his own passages which, according to my understanding, had the potential to collapse 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, I don't think Husserl even liked him. Today I think that he probably wanted me to read Kierkegaard so I may better understand Heidegger.
[In another conversation Shestov specifies:
-I don't know if Heidegger's lecture "What is metaphysics?" is a follow-up to our encounter but in any case it does seem that something has collapsed. I am still waiting for it...]
February 28, 1936
"My dear friend, your letter brought me a great joy. Having had no news from you for so long I was about to lose all hope. But you already have the proofs - which means that your book ["Conscience malheureuse"] is going to be published soon and I congratulate you from the depth of my heart. What a struck of luck it is to have such a loyal editor! As to your doubts, those are only normal and unavoidable. It's the eternal law: no matter how much others might praise you and show their appreciation, you will always be dissatisfied with yourself and blame your own faults. Such is the destiny of a writer and more so of a philosopher. But you chose this destiny for yourself, nobody forced you. Everyone of us can say to himself: 'Tis your own fault, George Dandin!' I am also sending you..."
March 6, 1936
[Wrong date. Shestov and Fondane visited Maritain on Saturday, March 6, 1937. Shestov's letter to Fondane from March 2, 1937.]
Mme Maritain wrote to invite me to their home in Meudon on Sunday. She said there will also be a young Hinduist, Olivier Lacomb, who expressed the desire to meet Shestov, since Masson-Oursel had asked him for some information about Ramanuja and said it was on Shestov's request. Which is why Mme Maritaine was now inquiring whether Shestov would be willing to accompany me to Meudon on Sunday.
We both went. A long conversation took place about translations and various editions of Shankara and Ramanuja.
- I certainly hope you are going to write a book on this subject, Maritain said.
- Perhaps, but in the next world, Shestov replied. It would require so much work, so much reading that I could not possibly pull it off. But I derive a great pleasure from reading the Hindus, they make me see clearer on certain points of our own thought.
After Lacomb left, Shestov elaborates on other questions:
- According to Aristotle, the world has not been created, and everything created is imperfect. But according to the Bible, God created the world and man in his own image, and after each day of creation He said: valde bonum
, all this is perfect. It is the original sin that has corrupted this perfection and not the fact that these beings were imperfect because of their having been created. I am not saying whether Aristotle or the Bible is right; I am saying that these approaches are very different.
- 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.
- To establish a sure criteria of Good and Evil, Socrates referred to the art of the cook who can either poison you or procure you healthy and sustaining food. Isn't that the philosopher's role too? The comparison seems justified. But this same Socrates has said that philosophy is a preparation for death, so one has to disregard flesh etc. In which case, the example of the cook's art is wrong since it is in poisoning us that the cook would be working towards our good and it is in flattering our appetites and insuring our health that he would be doing us harm
. What is then the value of criteria obtained in this manner?
[see Potestas Clavium, Part II, "Music and Phantoms"]
March 21, 1936
I told Shestov that I could not understand how he could be so young at seventy years of age...
- Yes, I am young in a certain sense. But not in the sense that you think. Forty years ago I was just as powerless against things, suffered the same torments as today. Nothing has changed it seems, except my hair going white. But what does it matter, those white hair, don't you think?
I give him to read the proofs of my article:
"Shestov in search of lost Judaism" [Chestov à la recherche du judaisme perdu. La Revue juive de Genève, IV, no. 37, april 1936]. Shestov sees a quote from Nietzsche which I found in the recent edition of Nietzsche's Nachlass - he is startled:
- Where did you find this text?
I tell him where.
- You see! And they keep saying that I make Nietzsche speak in my own words! But this quote - this is the whole of my book on Tolstoy and Nietzsche!
To which I reply:
- That's precisely what I am saying in my essay about you, "La Conscience malheureuse" [Unhappy Consciousness].
(Nietzsche's quote referred to here: "Refutation of God: on the whole, it is only the *moral god* that is being refuted.")
No date [March 20, 1936]
Shestov asked me to come see him before his departure for Palestine. He is finally going! I've seen him last week when the Russian Academic Union was celebrating his 70th anniversary - Milyukov, Lazareff and Levy-Bruhl gave talks. Shestov has initially refused to participate in these "festivities" but had to change his mind at last because of the presence of Levy-Bruhl. He was afraid to offend him. Levy-Bruhl has once again shown an inexplicable kindness, just as he has when he decided to open his
Revue Philosophique to Shestov's long articles. In his talk he wondered whether Shestov was or was not a philosopher and concluded that indeed he was. He even instituted Shestov as "historian of philosophy", with all the dignities implied. Of course, Shestov was a bit too original in this role, this originality rendered his "models" almost unrecognizable. But it was a
bona fide talk of support - Levy-Bruhl clearly wanted to please Shestov. He said as much in front of me to Jules de Gaultier afterwards: "I especially wanted to please him".
[Shestov's 70th anniversary (13 February 1936), celebrated at U.A.R. (Russian Academic Union) on 14 March 1936.]
To introduce his question about whether Shestov was or was not a philosopher, Levy-Bruhl alluded to a certain conversation with Meyerson. Shestov explained:
- Meyerson said something like that to me too, but it was in a mocking tone. We were talking about how philosophers didn't want to read my books. "Perhaps they don't know you are a philosopher and think of you as a fiction writer?" Meyerson is a very intelligent man and an incredibly well-read one at that. But of all his readings he's only remembered the scientific bits because that's what imports to philosophy in his view. Everything else is simply not "rigorous" enough. And who reads Meyerson today?
I said that Meyerson's critique of science remains valid.
- But he did not care about that, he was concerned with its "construction". He was convinced that his philosophy was the best, the most original. According to him Spinoza was not a scientist, because Spinoza did not take into account astronomy etc. He effectively demonstrated that science was powerless to reach at truth and yet he refused to concede the right to look for truth to anything else but reason. I told him one day that in his philosophy reason itself lost its mind. He got so mad he frightened me...
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 on 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."
I tell Shestov that I've read a small article by Remizov in "Hippocrate".
- It's an old article from 30 years ago. It appeared when my "Apotheosis of Groundlessness" was published - perhaps the only kind article amidst the rest.
- My book was a scandal. I dared to write aphorisms
, it was unusual. Plus I mocked conclusions. I said that I would leave my conclusions for later. It was not serious - assuming that I was serious up to then. Even Aikhenvald who was an excellent professor and had a lot of sympathy for me, was angered. He was a baptized Jew, this Aikhenvald, and a respectable critic, even though life could not have been all that pleasant for a Jew - baptized or not. But he had an audience, all those women... His wit had a sort of a "tickling" something that excited his listeners.
- Well, he read my book and when he saw what I wrote about Socrates and Xanthippe ("After one's philosophical exercise, one feels as if one had had slops emptied over one's head", aph.57
), he wrote ten lines in a big magazine where he stated that I was wasting my "talent" on frivolous things - not serious for a bit. Everybody loved his review.
[J. Aikhenvald, Rousskie Vedomosti, Moscow, 7 march 1905.]
- He used to be a first rate writer - oftentimes. But often enough he publishes really mediocre stories. It is also true that the mediocre stories are much easier to publish and be paid for, while a story like "Death of Abraham" for instance, which he wrote after a XIV century Bulgarian manuscript - well, as far as I know, he couldn't find a taker for it...
A few days after our last meeting Shestov left for Palestine.
Jerusalem, [April] 1936
"I am in Jerusalem at present and I've already given a talk here - in German. And now I am going to give one in Russian. But I must confess that Palestine is beyond words. Today I went to the Gethsemani Garden... I'll tell you all when I am back in Paris. Yours etc."
Shortly after his departure I myself left for Buenos Aires, to make a film there. We met again only seven months later and we didn't talk of Palestine. While I was away Shestov engaged in a long correspondence with my sister and my wife - to have news of me? He also wrote to me in Buenos Aires, first from Palestine, then from Paris.
Tel-Aviv, May 10, 1936
"My dear friend, I received your letter and your article [probably "Chestov à la recherche du judaisme perdu"]
two weeks ago already but I delayed my reply until my departure so as to tell you all I've seen in Palestine, even though it is a strange experience to write to such a far away place on the planet. Will my letter even reach that far? I am very happy that Mme Ocampo invited you a second time [*]. You say that it's not a big project but perhaps will you find something else there. In any case, I hope that this trip, like the first one, will give you a chance to rest, which is something you are probably in need of.
And now I must tell you about my "impressions of Palestine". Not an easy thing to do at all, because I've seen a lot. You probably read in the papers about the Arab riots here. Even though, contrary to what has been reported, there were no actual "fights" between Arabs and Jews, life in the last few weeks here has been quite hard. Everybody was talking about those riots and I was stuck in Tel-Aviv because it was too dangerous to travel around the country. I was lucky enough to be able to visit Jerusalem and a few neighboring villages (as far as the Red Sea), because my first lecture was scheduled in Jerusalem. But I haven't moved anywhere for three weeks now. When I arrived in Haifa the riots started. My lectures went on as scheduled but everybody was far more preoccupied with the riots than with my lectures. Right now things seem to have calmed a bit and my two lectures in Tel-Aviv gathered enough people. We are leaving in three days. Maybe when I am in Paris I will write more of my "impressions of Palestine" - but somehow I am not so sure of that. I detest writing on the whole and I especially hate letter-writing. What is there to do?
I hope I will find your book already published in Paris. I am very eager to read it and also to read what others have to say about it, if anything. And Jean Wahl? Will he write about it? Also, I await your letters with impatience. Will you actually receive mine?"
[in 1929 Fondane was invited to Buenos Aires by Mme Ocampo to read a series of lectures on cinema. In 1936 he went to South America on request from his friends the Aguilhar - to make a film where the Aguilhar Quartet was featured (note by Genevieve Fondane). The film, called "Tararira", did not make a good impression on the producer and was not distributed.]
June 2, 1936, Boulogne
"My Dear Friend, I've been in Paris for ten days now. I haven't written from here yet (I wrote two letters from Palestine: one was a postcard to your Paris address and I sent a letter from Tel-Aviv to Mme Ocampo's address. Did you receive them?) because I was waiting for your book to come out around the 10-15 of May. I finally received it two days ago, read it all already and now, to thank you for the book and for the really touching note that you sent along with it, I would like to tell you about my impressions after the reading.
On the whole, this is a success. You dared to undertake an enormous, formidable task, and you were able to deal with it honorably. Of course, with you as with all writers who attempt difficult tasks, all pages are not of equal quality. There are great passages and others that are less intense and weaker. For instance your post-scriptum to the foreword ("Nietzsche and supreme cruelty") which I consider rather as a second foreword, you managed to do it marvelously. "The unhappy consciousness" in my opinion is not strong enough, even though some of the ideas there are of great significance. "Gide after Montaigne" is also very well written. The passage from Nietzsche (page 85) and your interpretation of it are unforgettable. I think that Gide himself, even though spoiled by his enormous success (as a writer) and always rather self-assured and content, will feel something like a tinge of remorse after reading all this - and will be forced to tell himself that you were right to write a few pages earlier and with such fine irony that: "Only God knows how much fervor Gide put into letting himself be moved by Dostoevsky and Nietzsche". [*] Sure enough, he will never admit this to others - but he will never forgive you, I think, even though you tried to soften your tone in the last pages, to "sugar the pill".
The same thing can be said about the two essays that follow - "Bergson, Freud and the gods" and "Martin Heidegger". Everybody will be indignant that you dared not only to criticize but also to be ironic about men so famous around the world, so full of great merits. You made a lot of changes in your essays about Husserl and Heidegger and you were right to do so, especially since it gave you a chance to discuss in "Husserl" his "Cartesian Meditations" which were published only recently.
As to your two essays on Kierkegaard - here I must express a few reservations. In these essays too there are some excellent pages, but I think that, although you were able to touch at the very roots of Kierkegaard thought, he doesn't really deserve your reproaches of him! This is because you forgot his manner of "indirect speech", or rather because, as you admit yourself, this manner irritates you. What a strange thing! Berdyaev told me too: "Why speak indirectly? If you want to say something - say it openly." But I don't think that Berdyaev is right. There are things that can only be said indirectly. This is also true of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. It is important not only to "forgive" them this manner of speech but also to know how to appreciate it and understand the secret meaning of their writings. If you were able to do that, you would have sensed perhaps that Kierkegaard and I have much more in common than you tend to believe. And in many respects this is quite important, as you yourself remark. "Fear of nothingness" as source of original sin is the beginning of a true critique of pure reason.
Nevertheless, the second half of your book shows that the questions you discuss, you have not read about them in books, that those are your own questions, that you want and can take full responsibility for everything you say in your book. This is your greatest merit.
I don't believe that your book will have a lot of good reviews, or that it will have any reviews at all for that matter. Perhaps you will need to remember Lovtzky's words: "Fondane is young and dumb..." Best wishes to Mme Ocampo. I await your letters with impatience. Tell me of all that's been happening with you in Argentine. Have you found some success there?
PS: My book on Kierkegaard has not been published yet. It will be out in two or three weeks."
["La Conscience Malheureuse", Paris, Denoel et Steele, 1936, reed. Plasma, 1979]
June 3, 1926, Boulogne
The next day.
"My Dear Friend, your sister just gave me a rose ticket for airmail, this just after I've dispatched my letter to you, addressed to Mme Ocampo - but by regular mail. To save some time, I will tell you in a few words what you will later find in my other letter but in much more detail. Your book is written with a lot of energy and it shows that the things you are discussing there are not for you a matter of theory, or, to put it otherwise, that it is a book of existential philosophy. I think this is a great merit. Which is why I believe you will not have a good press, as they say. Your book will most likely irritate your critics. It is even more likely that you will have no press at all. With books such as yours the preferred choice is always silence. And your editor who was bold enough to publish it will be badly punished for his [illegible word].
In your letter you're talking about leaving us to make your life elsewhere. What is your meaning? Is somebody offering you to stay in Argentine? I hope that your sister will clarify these mysterious words for me. In any case, I hope you will explain this in your next letter.
Nothing new here. De Blum, strikes, you read more than enough about it in the papers. As to personal news, they are not very joyous - in a few days Schloezer will go into surgery - a very serious one. Let us hope that all goes well. Yours..."
July 3, 1936
"You were absolutely right, my dear friend, to write to me what you think of Kierkegaard. But one must be patient with thinkers who are destined to confusion so they may tell what they have to say. You remember perhaps that article by Marcel de Corte about Plotinus and Saint John of the Cross (I think you borrowed it from me). The author is well-informed but he insists too much on Plotinus' "sincerity", his ability to express his ideas adequately - and sometimes he loses his Plotinus that way. Thinkers who are bold enough to speak of their "timiôtaton" (the most important), one has to figure them out rather than study them.
Nevertheless there are many very good passages in your article on Kierkegaard. And you have your readers. Even de Schloezer and Berdyaev (and I am not even talking of Jules de Gaultier) have praised your book to me. Both told me that you have talent. With some reservations of course, but that was more about me than about you. In any case, praises from people like Berdyaev and de Schloezer are worth something - they are severe judges. And Mme Lovtzky is not happy: you offended her master [Freud]
Do you have the June issue of "Nouvelle Revue Française" where Denis de Rougement talks of you in a P.S. to his article "Kierkegaard in France"? He says that your article in the "Cahiers du Sud" [*] is violent but he adds immediately after: "I don't think this violence is out of place and neither is the injustice that accompanies it more damning to truth than a pretence at impartiality would have been; and I do not think that Fondane's question is useless - they watch Kierkegaard make his way but what about their own ways? Yes, it is an embarrassing and serious question, and this is why I return it to the author. But is it even possible to answer such a question in words? Many of the "Upbuilding Discourses" are designed to prepare for the communion, therefore I personally see no other way than to follow Kierkegaard with all of one's life."
How extremely naive! As if Kierkegaard did not thunder against all those "baptized" and "communiating" (sic) Christians etc, and all those pastors who registered those baptisms, communions etc. Going to communion is easier (more comfortable) than to glorify the Absurd, than to take Job for one's master instead of Hegel and suspend the ethical ! One goes to the priest and takes communion - and one becomes a perfect Christian, finds peace...
My book will come out next week. Yours."
[«Léon Chestov, Kierkegaard et le Serpent »,
Cahiers du Sud, Aug-Sept. 1934, no. 164. pp. 534-554.]