November 12, 1936
I am back in Paris. While I was away, my "Unhappy Consciousness" has appeared and Shestov wrote to me in Buenos Aires a charming letter, mostly laudatory on the whole. He was not very fond of compliments and in the ten years that I've known him I haven't heard many from him. The only time when he really complimented me was many years ago, when the French translation of his
Philosophy of Tragedy was published.
His trip to Palestine is already a distant memory, I can't count on too many fresh impressions.
- My lectures were interrupted... Those riots I told you about. For three weeks I had absolutely nothing to do, quite literally. I have this rare capacity that few people possess of doing absolutely nothing. I remember, once - that was a long time ago, just after my Dostoevsky and Nietzsche was published - I was in Switzerland and I met Anski, the author of "Dybuk". He was a poor chap who made a lot of noise and performed incredible acrobatics - just to survive. If only he had then the money that his play brought later ! And so Anski comes to me and directly asks whether I have anything in the works
. I was so far removed from having anything in the works, I could not even conceive how it is I could have had anything in the works - I was so free, so detached from everything - it took some time before I even understood his question. For me writing is pure torture!
[Anski (pseudonym of Semen Akimovitch Rappaport):
Der Dybuk, dramatische Legende in vier Akten, Berlin-Wien, B. Harz, 1922]
We speak of Hindu metaphysics which Shestov began to study before his departure for Palestine.
- As you see, my library is growing. I've been reading books about the Hindus, now I am reading primary sources. It is absolutely remarkable! I am developing the impression that their knack for speculation is greater than in Greek philosophy. I don't think I will have enough time to do a due report on these studies, but I find all this extremely interesting...
I tell Shestov about my conversation on the boat with Jacques Maritain, on our way back from Argentine. I told Maritain that, according to Shestov, a saint is a saint because God loves him and not that God loves him because he is a saint. Maritain said that this is what Saint Thomas of Aquinas thought too.
- Very well, Shestov tells me, but why is it then that he has such a deathly distaste for the arbitrary?
Concerning a correspondence between Shestov and Jean Wahl regarding Shestov's book "Kierkegaard and the existential philosophy":
- You see, Wahl talks incessantly about immutability, the immanent, he avoids talking about Kierkegaard's impotence. I do discuss it however. I even talk about a visit Kierkegaard made to his doctor... That's the difficult thing to understand. Had Kierkegaard's doctor been intelligent, he would have said: "there is nothing wrong with you" (for Kierkegaard was not really
impotent) and probably, certainly even, all would have developed quite differently - Kierkegaard would have married Regina, he would have discovered that Regina was like all other women, his love for her would not have developed into that great love etc, and he would not have thought all those things he writes about. You remember what Schopenhauer says about John and Mary. Kierkegaard, had he married Regina, would have probably seen that Regina was stupid, a perfectly ordinary
woman in short. Well, she was certainly charming but, had you met her, you would not have understood "why" Kierkegaard loved her so. In any case you could not have understood how one could throw away all the fundamentals for such a woman. But who can tell which of the two possible Kierkegaards is in the right? Who is to say that John is not more in the right when he sees Mary's beauty through his love for her, than when he sees her stupidity and ugliness when he loves her no more?
- I've seen horrors under the Tsars but also courageous men who never gave in, who were not afraid of death itself. What is especially frightening about Stalin is not that he kills people: it is that he kills courage in them. Take Prince Mirsky, for instance. He is a brave man. He is not afraid of death. He is in prison. But worse than prison is the making of men into cowards.
About de Blum:
- He was elected. He should know how to give orders, but instead he asks and begs. Just like Kerensky used to do.
- In 1919 one could still speak in Russia. There were one or two independent newspapers. In one such paper they polled writers as to what they thought about the [new] regime. I replied in very few words: "In our revolutionary party of old we asked for two things only - freedom and bread. One thing should be remembered: where there is no freedom, there is no bread either."
- I have his short book on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard ["Vernunft und Existenz", Groningen. Verlag Wolters, 1935, 115 p
]. It took me a long time to understand his language at first. Like all German philosophers he has his own. He extols Nietzsche and Kierkegaard - they are great, they are magnificent, but... they leave us empty handed and empty hearted... Of course he makes a show of refusing self-evident truths - but without these truths, how, in the name of what, can he decide that Nietzsche and Kierkegaard leave us empty-handed? He is a pragmatist and I know that it would offend him to hear me say this. In the end, it's yet another "return to Kant".
- He is in awe of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. And yet he says that they are empty. If I were convinced that Nietzsche and Kierkegaard have nothing much to say I would not be in awe of them. And in any case one is not to be in awe of anyone else. I know that these were men who searched and did not find. Jasper is willing to grant that Kierkegaard had faith. How nice! It's like beheading a man and then telling him - and now go on and live! Faith is possibility, powerless faith is worse than death for Kierkegaard. His hands are empty but he has faith. Thank you very much!
- I have the feeling that in his big book which I did not have a chance to read (it costs something like 400 francs!), Jaspers takes me to task, without naming me - he never names anybody in any case. I've been asked to send him one of my books, I sent "In Job's Balances" (in German). He never replied.
[The book in question is probably "Nietzsche. Einführung in das Verstandnis seines Philosophierens", Berlin und Leipzig, W. de Cruyter, 1936, 437 p.]
- Jaspers probably thinks that Nietzsche and Kierkegaard should be killed. But he doesn't want to do it himself... He will only say that they have nothing to offer. That's why I called my article about Jaspers "Sine effusione sanguinis" [without bloodshed]. He kills in spirit only and leaves the rest to others.
[«Sine effusione sanguinis. Sur la probité philosophique", (an essay on Jaspers' book "Vernunft und Existenz"),
Hermés, Bruxelles, jan.1938, pp. 5-36. Russian version
in Put', Aug-Dec. 1937]
- I was young, I was searching, I did not have the daring yet. And then I found that text by Tertullian (et mortuus est Dei filius: non pudet quia pudendum est. Et sepultus resurrexit: certum est quia impossibile). You know where I found it? In a big book by Harnack, in the footnote, at the bottom of the page. Harnack cites it as some sort of oddity - good enough for the basement, not good enough to insert in the main text.
[Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), German protestant theologian who considered Christian dogmatics an hellenization of the original teaching of Christianity.]
About a young peasant, destitute writer who came to see him:
- A reader of mine... I can count them...
January 5, 1937 at Mme Lovtzky's
Shestov talks about his lectures at the Slavic Institute:
- What do you want? After all I couldn't quite talk to them about the "suspension of the ethical". They would have left me there and gone to a music-hall.
About Berdyaev and Maritain:
- They are professors. They must teach. Which is to say - they must answer that silent question from the student: "what am I to do?" How can one be free under such conditions?
- I remember once (it was a long time ago) a reader wrote to me saying that I was a "hero of thought" etc. Then some time later he wrote again. This time he was asking: "what to do?" That's exactly the question I was going to ask of him myself.
- It happened now and then that I felt my audience aloof, hostile. In such cases I would imperceptibly change to another subject - teachers too, like musicians, sometimes resort to those intermediary chords. And so, all of a sudden, instead of Kierkegaard I was talking of Solovyov. The audience would start breathing. The attendance for the next lecture would double. There would be up to 80 people in the room.
January 18, 1937, Boulogne
When he visited me a week ago Shestov asked me to read to him my article "A propos du livre de Léon Chestov : Kierkegaard et la philosophie existentielle" which I was going to publish in Revue Philosophique [Sept-Oct 1937], a magazine of catholic and thomist inspiration. Shestov found my essay badly constructed, my polemics with Maritain having overshadowed Kierkegaard. I redrafted the article. In the meantime a letter from Shestov arrived inviting me to come by.
"My dear friend, after you've read your article to me, I've been thinking about it a lot and I believe that it would be a good thing - and even a necessary thing - if we could discuss it together once more. Therefore, choose a day when you can come see me and warn me beforehand, as usual. Til then etc."
January 21, 1937
I go to see him. He reads the typescript, a pencil in hand.
- You're not quite there yet. Too many extrapolations, the important bits get lost. There are things that must be said... since nobody reads me and since everybody reads you, it's up to you to say these things. People are in too much hurry to get rid of Kierkegaard; he is dangerous, and they are trying to make him less nefarious. Which is why it is important to insist on what existential philosophy represents (he pronounces "existentianel"). One must not contemptuously abandon philosophy to them. One must attack their
philosophy but also insist that existential philosophy is a philosophy
. Their philosophy has always ignored the fact that philosophy has two dimensions; faith is the second dimension of thought - and not of mysticism.
- I've told you how in one of his lectures Janet called me not only a mystic but a great mystic. This means: "He talks nonsense but he's a mystic, he's allowed to. But we who are intelligent, we must avoid nonsense." This reminds me of a story Madame Gippius, Merezhkovsky's wife, told me once. She was an attractive woman once upon a time, Zinaida Gippius. A certain young man pursued her but she kept him at a distance. So one day this young man wrote her a letter: "If you forbid me from seeing you, I will go home, I will...(I can't remember what)... and I'll read Shestov." It was the silliest thing he could think of doing!
Shestov then tells me about Sankara's Hindu philosophy:
- Imagine! These people were as ignorant as the prophets of the Bible. They knew nothing of chemistry, physics etc, but in pure reasoning they reached a power, a finery that is truly remarkable. Elegance, precision - Sankara reminds me of Thomas of Aquinas. It's almost a system
February 17, 1937
- You remember Casseres (the American writer). I told you once that he had published a book on four or five big names: Buddha, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Jules de Gaultier. I can't remember who was the fifth there. J. de Gaultier probably sent him my "The Good in the teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche", judging from the foreword he wrote. I suppose this is how Casseres discovered my books. He just published an article about me, "Samson in the Temple of Fatality" [*]. Seeing the title, I thought he understood what it was all about. But from what I could decipher (it's in English), he begins with a discussion of my style; I immediately saw that it was not going to be good. I remember a philosopher who once wrote to me that my style is so impressive that it makes one forget all the rest.
[Benjamin De Casseres, "Chestov: Samson in the Temple of Fatality", chapter 3 of the book "Raiders of the Absolute", New York, The Blackstone Publishers, 1937, 56 p]
- That's the way Jaspers talks about Nietzsche. Because he worships Nietzsche, I tell you, he worships him. I don't think I ever worshipped Nietzsche; and neither have you, though you love him dearly. Jaspers worships him but... alas, from a dogmatic point of view he is forced to admit that in the end he is left with empty hands and an empty heart. Same thing about Kierkegaard's style. I don't remember ever discussing that in my book. It is true that Kierkegaard's style is not that of Nietzsche; but even with Nietzsche I never gave a moment thought to his style. I remember how once upon a time I read Nietzsche, in German of course. And then one day, when I was back in Russia, a read a translation of Nietzsche and the translator was calling him a German philosopher. It really hit me - I never thought of Nietzsche as a German
philosopher, even though I've been reading him in German.
- Do you know Louis Guilloux? The other day I received a notice from the Ministry of Finances demanding payment of some back taxes. Fine. Then the next day I receive another letter stamped by the Ministry of the Postal Service. I thought it was another hit on the head. But no, it was only Guilloux asking that I read five lectures on the radio, quarter of an hour each, on Dostoevsky. Copeau would read short passages, quarter of an hour each, just after. I asked him [Copeau] to come see me. He wants me to discuss some excerpts from "Notes from the underground", "The Humble", "Dream of a ridiculous man"... This made me suspect that perhaps he's read some of my books. You know that these texts are not very popular with commentators: of all that Dostoevsky wrote nobody ever cites "Notes from the Underground", not even Gide.
I tell him that Copeau has one adapted "Brothers Karamazov" in theater and has himself played Ivan.
- Yes, I thought about "Brothers Karamazov" but it's hard to choose an excerpt... The dream of the Inquisitor is way too long. Strange! Dostoevsky, who had such knack for creating powerful characters, who composed such a fine Hyppolite, the Inquisitor and so many others, when he arrives at Staretz Zosima it is as if all his powers had abandoned him. He has nothing to say. I don't know if you remember his foreword to "Brothers Karamazov". He announces that this book is only the first volume, where he describes evil, but that there will be a second volume that will put everything right. At the time of writing, Dostoevsky has already made the acquaintance of Solovyov, he was frequenting the future tsar Alexander III, and the head of the Synod... The latter remarked, after reading "Brothers Karamazov", that, no matter what, it would be impossible to repair with a second volume the harm Dostoevsky has done in writing the first book. He was right.
- What can I say in a quarter of an hour? and on the radio at that? Nothing of what I've wrote is fit for this. I'd have to re-read all of Dostoevsky. In any case, it's impossible to do anything meaningful in this format. But I have to earn my living.
[These radio-lectures were aired between April 3 and May 10, 1937 and the text was published in "Cahiers de Radio-Paris" for May 15, 1937 under the title "L'oeuvre de Dostoievski"]
- Do you know Bulgakov? Together with Plekhanov, Berdyaev and Bukharin he was among the first socialist-marxists in Russia. They opposed the social-revolutionaries who were not marxists, if not from economical point of view, at least from the metaphysical and ethical standpoint. Later on Bulgakov discovered Kant and tried to make peace between Marx and Kant, just like they once tried to reconcile Marx and Nietzsche. In the end, he and Berdyaev became Russian orthodox.
- Bulgakov is very well known here and especially in England. He gave a lecture recently on the miracles in the Gospels. Guess what! He explained those miracles in the most natural
way... What can I say. It is a known fact that to have bread one has to work, or beg, or even steal - mere praying is insufficient: "Our Father who are in Heaven, give us our daily bread".
- I was talking with Schloezer about Mme Bespaloff the other day. "I must tell you, he says, she is resistant
, just as I am myself. But you, you resist and you know you do. That's fine. With her, she resists and yet tries all she can to ignore her own resistance. She says that even without Knowing there would be a fracture in being." But isn't it Knowing that makes her believe that? You remember the citation from Leibniz that I discuss in "Athens and Jerusalem": truth wants not only to constrain but also to persuade us. This is a fundamental problem. As long as truth wants to constrain it succeeds. And if it wants to make me declare, through constraint, that I am persuaded, it succeeds in that too. But to really persuade, to persuade me
, no, it can't do that: I can always refuse, I can show it the tongue just like Dostoevsky did. How come nobody notices that this is a crucial argument - a perfectly philosophical argument? I can be constrained to admit that existence is fractured. But I cannot be persuaded. That's where ethics intervene, ethics know that this is an argument to contend with, that if we refuse to be persuaded there is something wrong here. And so duty and obligation are introduced.
June 15, 1937, Boulogne
"My dear friend, contrary to habit, I am a bit late in replying this time. But before I wrote I wanted to collect the necessary information to answer your questions - Tatiana had to call Vrin [editor] and I had to go to the Argentine consulate. At Vrin they said that the manuscript [Athens and Jerusalem] has been sent to a printer in Belgium and they are now awaiting the proofs... And at the consulate they told me: we do not understand why you need to certify the signature. But if it is absolutely necessary, they require that we bring in three other certificates - from the Police, from the Prefect, and from the Foreign Ministry, then pay 75 francs and the consulate will appose its signature. Which means that I'd have to spend a week running around and if the other places ask for as much money as the consulate, I'll end up spending the equivalent of what I am supposed to receive for the publication. And to top it all I really don't have the kind of strength to run around town that much. Which is why I am simply sending you the signed document and I pray you to write to Mme Ocampo...
I've been looking for your Chronicles of the New Order [about "Unhappy Consciousness"] in my papers and I couldn't find it, but I hope to locate it eventually. As to Mme Bespaloff, it seems that in your article about Jean Wahl you've guessed at what she was going to write about me. You can be content now. When you're back in Paris, come by and we'll talk. I am sorry I am burdening you with all this business etc."
[All this to certify Shestov's signature on the contract with the publishing house of SUR in Buenos Aires, about to publish the Spanish translation of "Revelations of Death".]
July 7, 1937, Boulogne
"I received your postcard, my dear friend - I am extremely embarrassed, I feel that I am abusing your friendship already. You correspond with Mme Ocampo for me, you read the proofs [Athens and Jerusalem], all this creates too much work for you. But how to do it differently? "Sur" [the review] contacted you directly and with my bad eyesight and my insomnia (which tires me out considerably) I am absolutely incapable of doing a lot of things that I used to do myself. I hope that this will be the last time and that in future you will not be so burdened with my business. In the meantime I thank you with all my soul for everything you've been doing for me - the only thing I still have in my power is my profound gratitude towards you.
Needless to say, I am extremely pleased that your article was found to be magnificent (by the editors of "Revue de Philosophie") and that it will appear in a catholic journal. It's not that I am hopeful that after your "presentation" anybody would make the effort to reflect on Kierkegaard's problematics - in that respect one can be certain that they will continue to look at Kierkegaard through Jaspers and Wahl. But you've put so much work into that article that I am delighted to know that even foreign judges found it magnificent. And do you think Maritain will keep his word about replying to you "with violence"? etc."
July 26, 1928
I tell Shestov about a Romanian book by A.L. Zissu "Freemasonry, Israel, Church". In a nutshell: Paul falsified texts to be able to replace levitic priesthood with spiritual priesthood (since Jesus was of the Juda tribe who could not be priests according to the Law - hence the new order of Melchidesek). Also, the suppression of the Law is not in line with the New Testament etc.
- I think that Hitler really has a lot of intuition - he hates St Paul: it's true Jewish thinking. Yes, I think that St Paul is right to say that Law came to make Sin be. Of course it would be a good thing if the Bible began with the Decalogue - in Moses' time already the story of the original sin was forgotten. It is important to remember that Moses did not only bring faith but also a whole legislation - civil and criminal. What's more, the Old Testament has always undergone interpretation, not only later but even at the time of the writing. Every scribe indulged in "interpretation". There are also a number of interpolations.
- Do you think, I said, that Paul has betrayed the spirit of the Bible when he opened to the Gentiles the privileges of the chosen people? Didn't God say: "I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated"? [Malachi 1:2,3] Which means that he made a distinction between people.
- Of course! And yet... in the beginning there was no such thing as Jews and non-Jews... God also wanted to destroy Sodom and you remember how Abraham intervened. And this too: "I revealed myself to those who did not seek me." People need to relate to a certain structure of the world, be it a Law. Nobody wants an arbitrary God.
- I received many letters from a Belgian named Gilbert. He wrote that while reading my Bull of Phalaris it occurred to him that Samson must have been the one major character in the Bible, that he represented best its significance. I answered that by a strange coincidence an American writer, Benjamin de Casseres, has published an article about me called "Samson in the temple of Fatality". Since then Gilbert has described his own philosophy to me. He was an atheist, he said, and that's why he came to believe in Christ. That's the very thing. They believe in Christ the way they believe in Socrates - a Socrates multiplied by a hundred, a thousand, it doesn't really matter. One believes in Christ to avoid believing in God. They know that Christ died for our sins but they only remember this: that he died, that he gave satisfaction to the ethical. But that he died for our sins
, somehow they always forget that. And yet this is the important part. Because in that case it is he and not David who committed adultery, it is he and not Peter who has betrayed, it was he and not Adam who ate the fruit: all this so that these men may not have sinned, so that sin was not.
- Look, it's like Berdyaev: for a long time he talked in his books about God-Man and suddenly I have the feeling that he's only talking about Man-God now. This young Gilbert is a thinking man. I only hope that he will not send me his manuscript. I am so tired, my eyes can barely see.
- Can't you cheat a little bit? Just leaf through it.
- No. I told you - this man is a real thinker...
[In 1937, Louis Gilbert published a book called "les Chants d'Odin, ou Vie et Liberté" (Gand, imprim. S.C. Les Invalides Réunis, l2, 121 p.). The introduction ends with this phrase: "...the wonderful essay by Shestov 'In the Bull of Phalaris' which proved a precious guideline for me." When a year later Gilbert wrote a short book in which a chapter was supposed to promote Shestov's ideas, the latter was profoundly disappointed with it. I did not write down the conversation that we had on that occasion.]
[Léon Chestov, « Dans le taureau de Phalaris », Revue philosophique, Paris, jan-feb.1933 / mar-apr. 1933.]
- With each book I've felt myself more and more isolated. I am lucky I can still publish here and there. But I feel the isolation.
I tell Shestov that Zissu's book is excellent but hard to translate because he does not manage either St Paul or the Church and speaks of them in a violent language.
- He's wrong to despise his enemy. It is because I am myself in struggle that I understand a Husserl, a Jaspers. I can see that for them honesty (die Redlichkeit) is a quality, even though for me it's not. I can see that they can't think otherwise. I do not attack this or that of their ideas - I attack this particular idea of theirs because
they defend it.
- Yes, I struggle and yet: the wall is still up and standing. So the wall is right: muro locutus, causa finita
. If I acknowledged defeat, it would be ok - everybody would be happy. But they can't understand how it is that one can start the battle anew at the very same point every day. You see, there is no age for struggle. I too used to think that with time, perhaps... But the more time goes by, the more struggle is left, the harder it gets...
- I have a lot to do but I am tired. I have to write an article on Berdyaev to whom the Russian press has done a great injustice by not publishing anything serious about him as yet. I also have to prepare a few radio-lectures on Kierkegaard... I am not sure that I will be able to do any of it...
[« Nikolai Berdyaev ». In Russian, "Sovremennye Zapiski", Paris, oct. 1938, no. 67. In French, "Revue philosophique", jan.-march 1948]
[On July 17, 1937, Radio-Paris sent Shestov a letter asking to prepare a few talks on Kierkegaard. Published as « Soeren Kierkegaard, un philosophe religieux", Cahiers de Radio-Paris, 15 Dec. 1937. (Five lectures aired on Radio-Paris from October 21 to November 25, 1937.)]
We discuss Bergson's conversion to catholicism. Two professors from the rabbinate academy, one being Levinas, assured Shestov that Bergson has indeed converted. I express my surprise that this event found no publicity.
- He must have asked that it not be discussed before his death. He is old, he is waiting to die.
I sense that Shestov is thinking about his own death. I remind him that Levy-Bruhl or Husserl are older than he.
- Doesn't matter, these two are tough chaps. But at my age... They will continue to falsify my thought after my death too. They will make me say what I did not say. (I insist on the purity, on the lack of contradictions in his doctrine.) And yet, he replies, look what they've done to Kierkegaard.
- I was despondent the other day. Schloezer told me and even insisted that my "In the Bull of Phalaris" was inferior, completely botched, compared to the first chapter, "Parmenides in Chains" [Shestov's book "Athens and Jerusalem"]. It means that I was not able to express what I wanted to convey. It really threw me off because that's where I first discuss Kierkegaard. And now that Schloezer read through the proofs, he tells me that he's changed his mind... I am relieved.
[Revue philosophique, july-aug. 1930. Both essays were incorporated into the book "Athens and Jerusalem", of which Shestov is then reading the proofs.]
August 20, 1937, Boulogne [probably July]
"Your letter, my dear friend, has arrived in time this once! It's been a while since I had news of you and I was beginning to worry. As to your reproaches, perhaps they are justified indeed! Because of my own general state of feebleness and my weak eyes, I imagined that the work you're doing for me was so enormous that it made me believe I was abusing your friendship... I await your arrival with impatience, you can come any day and at any hour: if only you can come, I will be waiting for you.
Tatiana left for the holidays. The proofs will be sent to her in Villeneuve... and from Villeneuve she will send them over to Schloezer. There has been a small interruption but now the printer is sending them out regularly once again. I hope to be able to leave for Châtel in two weeks, I will not even wait for the Congress to end - from what I could gather it is nothing very interesting. Until soon then..."
[The international philosophy congress, about Descartes, I believe.]
September 6, 1937, Châtel-Guyon
"Well, my dear friend, this is my last letter from Châtel-Guyon. Next Sunday we are returning to Boulogne. To tell you the truth I think it would be better to discuss this question about "refusal" face-to-face, when we get to see each other. So I will only say that to me this "refusal" seems rather natural now. When you are told that the truth "Socrates was poisoned" is not as indisputable as the truth "a dog was poisoned", ordinary mind is shocked and indignant (among the philosophers Husserl was the only exception), and it is even less tolerable that we should be able to say that Socrates has never been poisoned. That's where the cause of this "refusal" ["to understand me, to follow me"] you're talking about in your last letter should be looked for, I think. We'll talk about it in Boulogne.
The payment (from "Sur") is long overdue... As to the proofs, I am not sure you've got all of them; the forth part (The Second Dimension of Thought) is missing, as well as the foreword. In any case, unless something comes up, the book [Athens and Jerusalem] should be out this fall. Yours etc."
September 23, 1937
- You cannot understand why it is that the question is not heard
even when it is clearly explained. And yet, that's very possible. When I reminded Wahl of what Kierkegaard wrote - that whoever has not understood his suspension of the ethical, understands nothing of his thought - Wahl confessed that he could not remember this passage. And yet he certainly knows his Kierkegaard inside out! But just like Berdyaev, Wahl cannot stop at texts like this one, where the private thinker Job is pitted against Hegel. They skip over these passages, they close their eyes, they try to ignore the fact that their author could have said such nonsense: inwardly, they are ashamed for him
- Kierkegaard had ten thousand books in his library. There was everything there: philosophy, sciences. He's read it all. He knew perfectly well what it is that all those others pretended to teach him. For me it's hard - I know that two by two makes four, I know it only too well. Only at times and through a tremendous effort am I able to overcome this. I think that people who are aware of these things can see that.
October 4, 1937, Boulogne
"My dear friend, thank you for your letter. I've written to "Sur", as you've advised me to do - perhaps they will even answer! Thank you also for your articles. You were able to show, with such elegance, how Levy-Bruhl is both a philosopher and a metaphysician, that he himself will be finally persuaded of it, after reading your article. Have you sent it to him yet? You must, absolutely. And if you attach a letter addressed to the "Dear Master", I am pretty sure he will answer in no time - and the answer might be very interesting!
As to the other article, about Luther, it is also well written, but I have the feeling that the first part is not sufficiently developed. Your ideas are so foreign to the general public that you should have prepared the reader a bit better for the second part (which is magnificent) - better than you have. But on the whole, perhaps your series of articles will awaken some readers, even Belgians - you should write more often in this newspaper. Of course, it is sad that your articles should appear in a daily instead of some magazine, specifically a philosophy revue. But what is there to do? One must always resign oneself...
I shake your hand cordially..."
November 16, 1937
- As the years go by it becomes harder and harder for me to keep believing that the wall can be broken down, that one can defeat impossibility. I did not grow used to this struggle, it does not pacify me, on the contrary every day it becomes harder, more laborious, painful to carry on. But as long as I have the least shred of hope I will refuse to "sanctify" necessity (as Schelling does)... and I shall refuse even when there is no more hope left...
- Berdyaev calls himself an existentialist. But he always goes back to the same questions: "Did Kierkegaard regain Regina Olsen? Did Job recover his dead children? Has there ever been a single Christian who actually moved mountains? You know as well as I do that none of these came to be." And I answer him: "Don't you think that Kierkegaard was fully aware of that? But that's precisely the starting point of his philosophy - he sets out on a war against what he knows only too well. That's what makes him into an existentialist. But you can't follow him there, that's the very thing that makes you turn back - so how come you call yourself and existentialist?"
- As the time goes by I incline more and more to believe that all these mysteries have one single explanation: sin.
- Keyserling once asked me to write an article for his Revue (he was publishing one in those days) but he ordered the theme and almost the contents too. I answered that if he wanted an article from me, I would be happy to write one, but I would write what I was intending to write. He got angry. Later on he sent me his book and attached a letter where he warned that it was there his "revelation". I've replied with some praises but I added that his revelation was still of the "natural" order. He put me through a letter of ten pages of which he made a number of copies. One went to Berdyaev.
[Shestov met Hermann Keyserling in May 1926. Keyserling asked him to come to Darmstadt and read a lecture at the Schule der Weisheit (School of Wisdom
) which he headed, but there was a disagreement as to the contents of the lecture which never took place for that reason (Letter from Shestov to Herman Lovtzky).]
- Nobody wrote about my book on Kierkegaard, except you (I don't count articles like the one in N.R.F. where Wahl's thought is discussed rather than my own). How can it be that there is still more talk about your book, that you are welcomed everywhere, despite the fact that you have compromised yourself by exposing your friendship for me?"
[Jean Grenier, « Kierkegaard et la philosophie existentielle », la Nouvelle Revue française, Paris, nov. 1936.]
- Schloezer told me, after your "Unhappy Consciousness" appeared and was welcomed in the catholic philosophy circles: "I think that your philosophy has a better chance of entering the world through Fondane than through your own books."
- Some catholic journal asked Schloezer to write an article about my book on Kierkegaard. But since his conversion to catholicism, he became hesitant - he doesn't dare to anymore.
- Your article is remarkably well done (my review of Shestov's "Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy")[Revue de philosophie, Paris, sept./oct. 1937.]. This time the question is put right and expressed very concisely. You see, I've underlined the better passages. You say that you have not followed me to the end, but at least you did not refuse to hear
(I reassure him that it is not a matter of "refusal" in my case, and even less of having reservations, but rather something like Kierkegaard's "I don't have the courage of faith".)
- I know full well that Necessity reigns now, that it has existed a thousand and two thousand years ago. But who can prove to me that it has always
been? that it was not something else before? or that there will not be something else afterwards? It's up to men to side with Necessity, perhaps... But a philosopher must search for Sources - beyond Necessity, beyond Good and Evil...
Shestov often quotes Heine's verses:
"Oh weh! Oh weh!
Philosophie ist ein schlechtes Metier."
"Résigne-toi, mon coeur ! Dors ton sommeil de brute!"
"Dis, connais-tu l'irrémissible?"
"Enfin je m'en vais de ce monde,
Où il faut que le coeur se brise ou se bronze."
[these last lines added by Shestov's wife]
December 4, 1937
I read to Shestov a letter Jean Wahl wrote to me about my article in the "Revue de Philosophie": "To which book of the Bible does Shestov refer?" asks Wahl.
[« A propos du livre de Léon Chestov Kierkegaard et la philosophie existentielle », Revue de philosophie, Paris, sept./oct. 1937.]
- Your essay shows that you understood and that Wahl did not. For me the Bible is not an "authority". I've read the Bible like I read Plato; and I saw that it was answering questions that philosophy not only did not ask but actually forbids to ask.
- Schloezer tells me that your essay is the best introduction to existential philosophy that has ever been written up til now.
Mme Bespaloff sent Shestov a draft of her essay about him, "Shestov before Nietzsche". Shestov found it utterly disappointing. From what I understand Shestov has always had a sincere sympathy for her and expected to be better understood, if not followed.
- If only she had said: I can't go beyond necessity and understand Shestov psychologically
(that is - I can carry 50 kg, but not 60), that would be natural. But she says it differently. She says: I can't understand because it cannot be understood, there is nothing there to understand. Read this paragraph: she says here that, while a man is struggling for his life in the water, Shestov stands on the bank and orders - "do not drown: you can do it!" I've never been so badly misunderstood! I, standing on the bank! watching idly!
*= while somebody drowns! giving orders
! and saying on top of that - "you can do it"! But this is precisely where the problem is! I cannot, everybody knows that I cannot, I myself know only too well that I cannot! And yet - maybe
I can after all? Maybe I've been deceived about it, maybe - if I tried
...? But to try already means to suspend ethics, reason, it's already a tragedy... If only she had said that I came running as soon as I heard of a man drowning, that I tried to help
the poor chap instead of consoling him saying: there is nothing to be done against necessity! A Russian joke tells of a man drowning and from the bank somebody cries out to him: "spare your health - drown already!" Meaning: spare your energy, quit fighting uselessly.
- At the end of her essay she writes: "perhaps I am wrong." And she adds: "Shestov is but a witness to his own truth." Then why is she saying "perhaps I am wrong"? when she knows full well that she is not wrong - she knows well enough that I am witness to no possible truth? And yet she is sincere, she likes me. Why not write then what she thinks! But why is she sending me her book? And how can I tell her now: "you have understood, that's exactly it"?
January 5, 1937
Shestov is again bedridden, after two weeks of illness. I tell him that his great wish has been realized. On his request, I've asked Levy-Bruhl if he would like to publish in his Revue Philosophique my essay about Shestov's upcoming book "Athens and Jerusalem". Levy-Bruhl welcomed my offer and I went to see him. He allotted 40 pages for my essay which was a lot more than I hoped for. Shestov is delighted and continuously points out the importance of this event for him and for me: it is a de facto admission of me to the rank of a philosopher by the first philosophical journal of France! And Shestov insists:
- You'll have to write tightly, a purely philosophical article. It will be hard - no fancy style. You'll need to grab eloquence and break its neck, you know. [Verlaine's famous line: "Prends l'eloquence et tord lui le cou."]
I try to tease him:
- Allow me at least a tiny little bit of fancy!
- No, none of this... Have you thought about the plan for your article? If so, do tell!
I tell him.
- Excellent, you've got it! I myself wrote down the most important points that I would like you to emphasize. And first of all, the title: "The sources of metaphysical truth".
- No, really, this is too pretentious for me, too bold. If you really want it this way, I suggest we call it "Shestov and the sources"... it limits the subject and gives the frame.
- I also want you to put two epigraphs to the article: Spinoza's "non ridere" and a phrase from the foreword to my "Kierkegaard": "Job's wails are more than mere wails, i.e. meaningless, useless, tiresome cries." [see Foreword, sect.II
] By the way, it would be good to add a sub-title, something like: Zur Kritik des Reinen Vernunft
- But this can never pass in French!
- Well, in that case: The problem of knowledge [Le savoir en tant que problème]
I rebel again. Madame Shestov is there too. Yes, I'd like to please him but I can only write what I feel, like I feel it. I ask him not to demand of me that I gloss over my insufficiencies, that I plug up the holes of my ignorance. I can't cite Greek and Latin texts, only some phrases, the strictly necessary. I don't want to give myself an appearance of erudition which is not mine. He smiles, debates, insists, then finally accepts my arguments.
- However, he says, if I ask you to quote Greek, it is only because you will not be believed otherwise: it would be so easy to accuse you of inventing things!
He then pulls out his paper with notes in Russian which he translates for me. On his request, I copy them down. I've thought of most of these myself. But there is way too much there for an article of 40 pages.
- I've written these down, he says, because nobody ever says these things. Even Bespaloff doesn't want to discuss these questions. But while I was relating all this to you, it occurred to me that you've heard these questions, that you know them by heart. Which means that it will not be as hard for you as I've thought at first. The only difficulty will be to collect all this into a whole and to write it out.
[B. Fondane, « Léon Chestov et la lutte contre les évidences », Revue philosophique, july/aug. 1938, pp. 13-49.]
- Do you know how I started writing for Levy-Bruhl? When I came to France, Russians were received everywhere (the communists were not in fashion yet), we were in vogue. So once I was at a Boyer's evening, I was introduced to a host of people and here comes Levy-Bruhl. And from the go: I've read your two books translated into French, he says [*]. There is no way to convey what you had to say otherwise than you have expressed it. And immediately after: But don't you imagine that you were able to convince me! And then: What it's the use of all this? In reply to which I raised my right hand and pointed to heaven.
["Revelations of Death" and "Gethsemani Night", published in Paris in 1923 and later included in the book "In Job's Balances".]
- I thought that after this display he would not want of me as a collaborator. However later on, when I helped Koyré to become a teacher at the Russian department [Sorbonne], I asked him to mention my name to Levy-Bruhl when he saw him. He did nothing. Then, when Jules de Gaultier was going to see Levy-Bruhl, I asked him the same thing. Contrary to Koyré, Jules de Gaultier was not afraid to speak up. And the very next day Levy-Bruhl invited me to come by. When I told him what my article about Husserl was about, he got a bit scared. But he was reassured when I told him that this article has been published in a Russian philosophy journal sponsored by the University of Moscow.
[« Memento Mori. A propos de la théorie de la connaissance d‘Edmund Husserl", Revue philosophique. Paris, jan./feb. 1926. This article was first published in Russian in "Voprosy filosofii i psikhologii", Moscow, sept./dec. 1917.]
- You know that Koyré did not publish my article about Levy-Bruhl [« Myth and Truth »] in his "Recherches Philosophiques". Some pious Jews there do not want to publish anything that is not kosher enough for their taste. But it so happens that to them only speculative philosophy is considered kosher. So...
- I got a letter from Mme Bespaloff, in response to mine, about her essay. She can't understand my disappointment - even though I tried to conceal it as best I could. "But I compare you to Nietzsche, this is how much I admire you", she says. Yes, that's true, she was comparing me to Nietzsche but I didn't even notice it. As if that was the point!
- My first master was Shakespeare. When I read the line "The time is out of joints", I began to understand.
January 17, 1938
- The conflict between Descartes and Leibniz concerning created and uncreated truths is of such primary importance that it actually deserves the oblivion
which was reserved to it in the History of Philosophy.
January 21, 1938
- I was twenty-eight years old when I first read Nietzsche. I started with "Beyond Good and Evil" but I didn't really understand well, maybe because of the aphoristic style... It took me a while to grasp what it was about. Then it was "Genealogy of Morals". I started reading at 8 o'clock in the evening. I finished the book at 2 o'clock in the morning. It shook me terribly, I couldn't sleep, I was looking for a way to resist this terrifying, cruel thinking... Yes, nature is harsh, indifferent. It kills calmly, implacably... But thought is not nature - there is no reason why it should kill the weak, write them off: why would one want to help nature in its ruthless task? It made me mad. At that time I knew nothing of Nietzsche, I had no idea what his life had been. Then one day I read a biographical notice on Nietzsche, I think it was in the Brockhaus dictionary. He too was one of those whom nature has been cruel with, implacable: it found him weak, wrote him off. That day I understood.
- Nietzsche was so weak, so ill, so miserable... But he believed he had to right to talk about all this - so he spoke of the Superman...
February 15, 1938
Shestov shows me a text by Maritain about him, that Lazareff read and copied for him... It was an article published in the book "The Jews": "It is a Faith that violates the whole order of things so as to give me today and tangibly
(underlined by Shestov) the substance I expect from it, that accomplishes the desire God put inside me and which thus makes me reacquire everything - that is the kind of faith (that of Judaism) he ardently wishes to have and at the same time doubts that he has it - for if he knew he had it, he could have anything. Shestov's philosophy is an unmatched witness of this idea of faith, so profoundly Jewish at heart."
- Sure, Shestov says, "unmatched witness" etc. What is clear to me is that Maritain never read any of my books - this is so obvious. Otherwise he would have understood that it is the structures, the truths, the certitudes of which reason is so avid that are those tangible
things, and that it is there and not in Job that concupiscentia irresistibilis
is to be found.
[J. Maritain, « L'impossible antisémitisme » in "Les Juifs". Paris, Librairie Pion, 1937, p. 53.]
Then he talks to me about my article (the one to be published in Revue Philosophique) which he has just read a second time and among other things he points out a quote from Maritain that I give there.
- Talk about him in some other article, I have no problem with that; but if you want to please me, take out that quote from this article - I think it is out of place here. However, when you talk of Jaspers, of his inexpressible satisfactions, of the "full hands" that he demands of philosophy, place the word "tangible" there somewhere to signify the riches of reason - and underline
February 26, 1938
Shestov has re-read my article for a third time and he is finally pleased with it. He's been constantly asking that I emphasize, that I go deeper into the questions I am tackling - the moment of struggle, Socrates poisoned - and he made me take out a few words I wrote: "honest Jaspers! daring Jaspers! etc..."
- This is not good. When you choose an opponent, it is because you respect him, that you don't consider him a negligible quantity. So you must show respect. And also... the type of thinking you're fighting against is also mine and yours too. Don't flatter yourself that you were able to overcome it... It is still inside us...
- I am still immersed in Hindu thought. Remarkable. Europeans always explain it away the way they explained away the Bible: put aside everything embarrassing, keep the rest. At the same time, if the exoteric
part of their thinking corresponds to the Greek thought, the esoteric part certainly does not. They were able to see the difficulties, there is a great intensity in them, a great will for freedom. In the Rig-Veda and the Upanishads one senses a totally different kind of thinking, nobody talks about it, even your Guénon, although he never tires of saying that the Europeans can never understand anything of it. And even in Sankara... Yes, they don't always stop at the impossible - they want to go further. Alas, I do not think I will have the strength to write about this. I am not as physically resilient as Levy-Bruhl. But I am extremely interested. Yes, I am immersed in it. But unfortunately I am always so tired and there is so much to read still.
- Yes, your article says what has to be said. Nothing of this showed up in Mme Bespaloff's essay, none of these questions. She still writes to tell me that I am great, the she admires me, but... I think that she might be simply missing on some philosophical preparation: she never read Leibniz, Aristotle...
I protest and cite my own case in example. Have I not written a number of articles about him, even before I met him, when I was still in Romania 16 years ago? My philosophical education in those days was almost nil. And yet I was already able to see the question even if I resisted it. I rebelled against his struggle against the self-evident, but I immediately understood that it was there his central idea. "Shestov and the struggle against the self-evident" was the title of my lecture which I delivered in 1929, in Buenos Aires.
- You made me understand what History of Philosophy was all about, how much tension, cheating, powerlessness was concealed behind the mortal boredom that it exulted for me in those days.
Shestov does not debate boredom. He tells me about a Russian philosopher who told everybody how much pleasure he derived from reading Kant.
- I've always doubted that he's actually read him... One can be interested in Kant, one can learn from Kant, one can feel this and that, but there is no way one can actually enjoy Kant.
- Mme Bespaloff is about to publish her book [Cheminement et Carrefour
, Paris, Vrin, 1938]. I will be in there - together with Gabriel Marcel, Malraux and Julien Green! Right... (in a bitter, resigned tone, with a sigh)
Shestov insists again that I quote Aristotle's texts in Greek:
- Otherwise you will not be believed. You must quote in Greek and give the precise reference.
March 9, 1938, Boulogne
"My dear friend, thank you for your letter: we can of course send the French translations to "Sur", if they want my articles. I just got a letter from Levy-Bruhl where there are a few lines about you: "I have Mister Fondane's article [« Léon Chestov et la lutte contre les évidences»] and at first glance I can say that it's very good, just as I expected, and that you will be happy with it." That's all one could ask for!
Have you seen the last issue of "Hermes"? [Hermès, Bruxelles, jan. 1938.]
Among other things there is also a short review of my "Kierkegaard" which looks very interesting, and also something about your latest articles in the "Cahiers". I also received a small book by Gaston Derycke ("Le Rouge et le Noir") where there is talk of you and me, a small book that is well worth reading! When you come to see me, and I hope this will be soon, I will show you all this. Until then etc."
[Gaston Derycke, "Puissance du mensonge. Contribution à l'étude des mythes", Bruxelles, "Le Rouge et le Noir", 1938, 51 p.]
March 26, 1938
Shestov is tired, haggard, his voice is weak. The latest political events - Hitler taking over Austria, persecution of the Jews, Moscow trials - made a deep impression. As always, the brutal intrusion of reality strikes at the very heart of his philosophical struggle.
- Hitler entered Austria [March 11, 1938.]: I am forced
to admit that this did happen, that it is. But I am not persuaded.
- There is a great difference between Stalin and the Tsarist regime, to the latter's advantage. Of course there was censorship then - it was known that certain things could not be said, but they would never have dreamed of forcing people to write this or that, to think
in such and such way. At least we had the "freedom" not to say what we didn't want to say.
- My book was ready to be printed in Austria: translated, proofs corrected, the translator has been paid in full, I was given half of my due. And now - silence. I wanted this book to come out [Athens and Jerusalem], because it seems to me that I was able to really define the problem in it. But what does it matter after all? And even if it has never been published, not even in French... What's important is that the problem has been defined: what is all this - is it the self-evident or is it nothing but a nightmare?
- This is why I insisted
so much, as you've almost reproached me for doing, that you stay on track in your essay and keep to what is essential. I know that your original plan was to allow a better understanding, to make it all more accessible. But if I insisted that you skip on some accessories, certain trails of thought, it is because I am not concerned about the reader only. The most important is not the reader, the most important is to be able to define the problem, for yourself... and for me. That's all that counts.
- You say I insist? Well, yes - I insist! Why use other words? Socrates was poisoned, it is a fact of experience. But that he has been poisoned in all eternity
, that there is no way he could not have been poisoned, that nobody can ever change this truth become eternal - where from do we derive this evidence? Is it at the source of truth that we have found it? Is this truth ontological in nature?
- I am immersed in Hindu writings. I can't read much because I get tired quickly. But I re-read all the time Saint John of the Cross, Master Eckhart and Thomas de Kempis - to compare. In essence it's the same thing. For instance John of the Cross wants to rid the mind of all images, visions... Of course there are differences but those are secondary. Think about it: Sankara and Ramanuja disagree over Prakrit, Ramanuja accuses Sankara of material ties... He replaces them with spiritual ties... But ties are ties. Leibniz had an issue with the Greeks who claimed that matter was the source of evil, that matter put limits to the will of gods. Leibniz says that evil is contained in the eternal truths which insinuated themselves into the mind of God, against his will... In both cases God is limited, by material ties in one case, by spiritual ties in the other. How is it worse that those ties should be material! After all, Jesus' prayer says: give us our daily bread... Deussen found this revolting. Everybody finds this revolting. [Jacques] Maritain says that I want only tangibles
! Berdyaev gets mad every time we discuss Kierkegaard: he is deprived of grace, he says of Kierkegaard...
- The thought of Jerusalem is totally different. You remember Apocalypses. The Beast, the plagues, the calamities... Then comes the prophet and wipes away all tears
. This idea is unknown to Greeks, to Hindus. It's only in the Bible.
- What did I do for forty years? They will tell you: nothing. And yet in all those years every event, every thought of my life was an occasion of struggle, this constant struggle: all those things we hold to be true, do we actually derive these from *the source of truth*? I've been asking this question for a long time. Then I thought of the original sin. Oh! It's very hard to think this... to keep to it... which is why it is important to go back to it all the time, for oneself... Don't be so sure that you were able to defeat this difficulty. You too think like all the others. But at the very least the problem must be defined: that after all the self-evident is nothing but a nightmare!
- Plato thought of it. Why then, after having said that philosophy is a preparation for death, hasn't he developed this idea? Instead he began organizing life, the republic!
About Gaston Derycke's essay "The power of lies":
- He read Kierkegaard. He read my books. He even calls us titans of thought... But what does he do with these titans? He has not even an inkling..."
May 18, 1938
We talk about Vienna, Nazi persecution of Freud, Neumann.
- And Husserl, I ask, where is he right now?
- In heaven, Shestov replies.
He says it without humor, without irony, but also without any sort of exaltation. I do not understand. Shestov explains:
- So it hasn't been announced in French papers? A Russian paper did mention it though. He died eight days ago, in Freiburg. A few years back, at his 70th anniversary, there was a big celebration in Freiburg. People were getting drunk all over town. American delegations... And today he's nothing but a dirty Jew.
- Our encounter was extraordinary and yet we happened to be on either side of the barricade. I thought that if knowledge could decide of everything, have the last word, then everything was lost. And Husserl thought that if knowledge was not the ultimate thing, then he would lose all ground, he would be lost... Sure enough he had gained fame. But he is still largely misunderstood. He will not be understood until the day when they will grasp in his work what he had confessed to me once: "When I began to teach, I felt my hands were empty... there was nothing real, nothing certain... the ground was shaking under my feet..."
Despite Hitler's takeover of Austria, Shestov's book "Athens and Jerusalem" which was being printed there and which we thought lost, has finally been published.
- They sent it out to everybody, to the libraries... Even if it is confiscated now, the most important has been salvaged... You see, it's still possible in Hitler's Germany that such a book as this be published
. And yet they could very well have opened our letters. In Russia, this book could not have appeared.
- These days Hitler only imitates Stalin. But before Stalin it was almost the same thing. And even under the mensheviks. Under the Tsar we protested for things much less important... But they say that you can't make a revolution with gloves on. So...
And we talk again about bolshevik Russia of 1919, in Kiev.
- What is going on in Austria now, it was already happening then..., and under Lenin. The old Jews, the rabbis, were jailed. If somebody was suspected of having money, they went for him directly. Myself I was fortunately a persona grata
. Some of the leaders of the [bolshevik] movement were among my readers... They thought that, since I was a revolutionary in philosophy and they were revolutionaries in politics, we were in the same boat. They have not lost hope that I would convert one day. But the horrors I saw there... I avoided crossing the streets. I still had to go read my lectures at the University, but I chose quiet streets to get there.
- And how were you able to leave Russian? They just let you go?
- Oh no! But the Whites came. I knew a priest who used to be a socialist leftist and then became a white. He gave me a document which stated that I was on a mission for them. If I had shown my passport where it was written that I was of Jewish religion, it would have been over. But with this document I was able to go through. First Crimea, then Constantinople...
- Berdyaev told me that he spoke with Gilson about my essay on Medieval Philosophy. But Gilson said nothing about the ideas I expressed there... I showed there that catholic philosophy was under Aristotle's judgment: "poets lie a lot". It did not bother him. "On the other hand, he said, I have only this reproach to make: why didn't he talk about the nominalists and the realists?"
["A propos du livre de E. Gilson, l'Esprit de la philosophie médiévale", Revue philosophique, nov./dec. 1936. This essay is included in Shestov's book "Athens and Jerusalem" (chap. 3, « On the Philosophy of the Middle Ages»).]
I opened a French translation of Heidegger on his table and chanced on the essay about Holderlin and the essence of poetry:
- He talks about language. But language is nothing, less than nothing...
May 28, 1938
I tell Shestov about a conversation I had with Jean Wahl and about an article by Derycke. Both say that Kierkegaard did not have faith.
- I know, they all say that. Kierkegaard himself says that if he had faith, he would have regained Regina. But he never did regain Regina. And so all is lost. But for Kierkegaard life does not end at death. The other world is still life, continuation...
- They talk about faith but already in my "Revelations of death" I say that truth begins at death. Faith is only a preparation for death, that is to say - to truth, of which Socrates spoke. It is only at death that the domain of constraint ends for good, only then begins the reign of freedom. Socrates knew very well that in his trial against Anytos, Meletos and the Athenians power was against him. And how could he defeat such power? He had to submit! But with his preparation for death he learned that at death all this will change. And indeed - Socrates died, and Anytos and Meletos died almost at the same time, not to say at the very same moment. To us today it's all the same. With Anytos and Meletos also died the constraint that served them against Socrates. And now, what is the relation of power between Socrates and Anytos-Meletos, is it the same relation? That's what Socrates probably thought about alone, at night. But during the day, when he was with his disciples, he had to transform his thoughts into teachings, he had to console them.... One always has to console people. And what a strange thing! The more a consolation is manifestly false, the better it works!
- You see, I am still preoccupied with the Hindus. The deeper I get into them, the more I am driven to read on. People only have eyes for their "metaphysics" - but the Hindus themselves only want to find a solution, a way out! What thirst for freedom! Even in the Upanishads and the Vedas there are texts written by men who were searching with lamentation [as Pascal says] - and some of the other texts written by amateurs, who preferred to look on while their peers suffered and searched. A Sankara does his best to make our natural light into a source of truth, but when he comments on the Upanishads where Brahma is given as the only source of ultimate truth, he has to desist. He even goes further, he doesn't want this truth of the Brahma to be proved, imposed by force. At the stage of Brahma, he says, one is free to choose whether one wants to acquire a body or not. One is even free to ask for what Deussen calls "gross materialism": a good meal, a beautiful woman. Our western commentators of the Hindus, be it Deussen, Grousset or Guénon, they all avoid these questions: it's not "scientific" enough for them. And so they reduce the Hindus to the Greeks. But the Hindus, they go much farther than Athens...
- You remember in my book "In Job's Balances" there is this parable about the queen of England and her ladies-in-waiting. In the theater box the queen sits down without looking to check if there is a chair waiting for her, and there is one. The ladies-in-waiting look round to make sure there is a chair waiting... Such are the two sources of truth: according to one, there is a chair because I want
to sit down, and according to the other, I can only sit down if there is a chair
[Part II, aph.18 "Quasi una Fantasia"]
June 6, 1938, Boulogne
"My dear friend, you probably left already, but I do not know your address at La Varenne. I write from Paris to congratulate you on the great success that Masson-Oursel has announced to you. It is obvious that Levy-Bruhl liked your article since he is allocating space for it in the next issue of the Revue Philosophique: from now on you belong to the high society of "learned" philosophers!
As to myself, things are going so-so, the usual. I will stay in Boulogne until July 16 - and on Saturday 16 I should be leaving for Châtel, presumably. I hope that we will meet one more time before that - you are coming to Paris after all ! Goodbye for now and my salutation to the ladies.
And your book, when is it coming out? [Faux Traité d‘esthétique]
July 10, 1938
Saturday Shestov is leaving for Châtel-Guyon, he is very tired. I came from La Varenne where I am spending my vacations, to see him before he left. We talk about political events. These days almost all our conversations center around the tragedy unfolding daily in Europe. We chat on about the horrible matters newspapers are stuffed with. I've recorded almost nothing of these talks.
- How is one to reconcile Christianity and Greek philosophy? You see, Heraclitus says that war is the father and the lord of all things (Shestov cites Heraclitus in Greek), while the New Testament says clearly that the first commandment of God is: "you shall love your God", and the second: "you shall love your neighbor". But you see, even the mystics, Eckhart and Tauler, or Ruysbroeck the Admirable, they only talk about the first commandment - that's what is called a theocentric doctrine. They sacrifice the second commandment to the first. The "neighbor" is contingent, perishable, he doesn't really exist. Berdyaev tells me: "you always talk about actual people, but Buddha has proved a long time ago that people do not exist. And having proved that, Buddha rescued not only men but also God". But what do I need Buddha? Spinoza says the same thing. God is substance, men are only *attributes* of that substance. Spinoza fought such a war inside himself between substance and attribute that eventually he overcame the attribute in himself and became substance. It is true that once we remove the "neighbor", it becomes possible, with a number of difficulties of course, to reconcile things: we still haven't found truth, but we will find it one day, we are looking etc. But if the "neighbor" really exists, then it's not a question of truth anymore, one has to come to his rescue, one has to save him
! But this is impossible and the problem becomes insoluble. And yet Jeremiah lamented.
- In the "City of God" St. Augustine tells the story of the siege of Sagont by Hannibal (after Titus Livius). They were allied with the Romans. Hannibal demanded that they betray the Romans, but they were honest and refused. So he put their city under siege which lasted a year. They ate dead bodies, each other, etc. Finally they asked for peace. Hannibal demanded unconditional surrender. They accepted. Their city was plundered, there were rapes and citizens were murdered freely. St. Augustine wonders: how come their
God did not come to their rescue? It doesn't occur to St. Augustine to ask - why is it that our
God did not help them? They were innocent, it was before the Revelation
. St. Augustine doesn't want to admit that our God does not help us either. Nietzsche knew that though, he saw that nature was cruel but it was not enough for him to see that - he wanted to glorify cruelty. But why should one glorify it? Jeremiah too knew that our God does not help us out. The Jews had a long history to learn about it - the Maccabees etc. Jeremiah said: "be damned the day of my birth!" But despite all that evidence
, he laments towards God, he asks to be rescued, he believes that God can
... I too, I could not resolve this difficulty, I could only struggle.
- I am afraid that my writings will be misunderstood against the goal I set for myself. The dilemma - Knowledge or Faith
- will be accepted perhaps: that knowledge is cruelty. But this understanding will not move one to take refuge in Faith. One will rather accept cruel knowledge, even if it kills. People will say: why talk about all this since one has to live somehow? "Yes, you are right, it's all true, but better not talk about it!"
- Do you know that the Dutchman who wrote an essay about me has already changed his mind? He says in his letter that he fears one would waste too much energy struggling against the self- evident while this energy is needed to struggle against the empirical. But he did not notice this: *to start on a war against the self-evident one must first have lost the war against the empirical*. Until then, of course, one has to do as one can.
[Dr.J.Suys, "Leo Sjestow's protest tegen de Rode", Amsterdam, N. v. Seyffardt's boek, 1931, 232p.]
- To study Lequier, Lazareff engaged in a serious study of Renouvier, and he told me this story. Renouvier died in an advanced age, he was almost 90 years old. And just before his death he told one of his disciples (who recorded these words): "Being a philosopher, I know that all these things, like death for instance, are supposed to be indifferent to me, that they are without any significance. And yet, I would give everything in the world only to be able to go down into my garden once again."
- Mme Bespaloff's book has come out: about Malraux, Green, Gabriel Marcel, Kierkegaard and myself. She even wrote a preface where we are all aligned in the same perspective: Malraux says... Kierkegaard says... etc. And this book is dedicated to me. I can't understand why. Gabriel Marcel, on the other hand, was delighted with the essay she wrote about him. She should have dedicated the book to him instead. I don't understand why I am in that book at all. I suppose that when she wrote that preface, she must have been very tired, annoyed - otherwise she would have understood that it made absolutely no sense.
[Rachel Bespaloff, "Cheminement et Carrefour", Vrin, Paris, (june) 1938.]
July 10, 1938
Shestov is very tired. Last night he's only slept an hour and the night before even less than an hour. He took no medicine against insomnia. Because Mme Shestov is away, Tatiana will accompany him almost to Châtel-Guyon.
He gives me a kiss on both cheeks, as he does before each departure and after each return. I do not dare to do what I want to do - to clasp him in my arms with all my strength - I am afraid he might notice my apprehension.
End of July, 1938
The issue of Revue Philosophique (July-August 1938) has come out with my article in it: "Léon Chestov et la lutte contre les évidences". I send a copy to Shestov in Châtel-Guyon. In the same issue there is a review by Brehier of Shestov's "Kierkegaard". In Brehier's opinion, Kierkegaard is engaged in intimate confessions, it has nothing to do with philosophy. After this it is easy to understand what he thinks of Shestov who mistook these intimate confessions for genuine philosophy. I write to Shestov. He responds.
July 31, 1938, Châtel-Guyon
"On the contrary, me dear friend, your essay has only gained from your decision to bridle in, as you say, your penchant for fancy writing. I will use this occasion to remind you once more of my literary testament: take eloquence and break its neck [prends l'éloquence et tord-lui le cou]. Perhaps the general public would have preferred to keep the eloquence. But is the general public an impeccable judge? Your article is a great success - and this is not just my personal impression! This view is shared by my sister and Mister Lovtzky. Mme Lovtzky is so delighted with your article she is absolutely set on writing you a letter!
As to Brehier and Mme Bespaloff, what can you expect? The most beautiful girl in the world can only give what she's got to give. They are both truly and very sincere. But neither of them can tolerate that the supreme rights of reason should be questioned. It's education, tradition, perhaps even the nature of their spirit - and there is nothing to be done about it! Wahl too has finally sent me a copy of his "Etudes kierkegaardiennes", with an inscription where he says that he is neither from Athens nor from Jerusalem. And he too is sincere!
I am following my treatment - it's half done already and there is hope that it will provide some relief. Let us hope so! The weather is wonderful. My wife works. Tatiana is in Bourbon-l'Archambault. That's all my news.
And what about you? How are you doing and your folks? Do write a few lines now and then, so I know what's happening with you. I shake your hand cordially. Say hello to the ladies. Yours faithfully, Léon Chestov
[Jean Wahl, Études kierkegaardiennes, Paris, Aubier, 1938, 2nd ed. Paris, Vrin, 1949, 745 p. with an afterword by Victoria Ocampo.]
August 31, 1938
"Your silence, my dear friend, was beginning to worry me and I started writing a letter when yours arrived. You read too many newspapers and this is draining your strength - what for? You should do like I do - read only one newspaper and in a hurry too! There is no way to know with newspapers where "politics" end and truth begins!
Nothing new with me. In two weeks, around September 15, I will leave here and, once in Boulogne, I'll see if the change of air has made a difference - that is, if I can work again.
My wife - she too - has finally finished your article and she is happy with it, as much as my sister and my brother-in-law. She says you have an extraordinary gift for presenting clearly the most complex ideas and that this proves that you make those ideas your own. I was once again very much impressed to hear, coming from her, that there is no fancy writing in your article and that this shows how philosophy for you is not an entertainment but something that is necessary for your soul ! A very keen insight! When I told her about that letter you received from an unknown girl, she saw in it a confirmation of her impression. And she's right.
When are you returning to Paris? Also towards mid-September probably? I suppose we will see each other soon. So for now I say goodbye. Until then, say hello to the ladies. My wife would like to say hello to you and your ladies, and also to thank you for your article. I shake your hand cordially."
Friday, September 1938
"Rain and cold weather have chased me out of Châtel-Guyon, my dear friend, and I am now back in Boulogne - as I would like to let you know as soon as possible. And I have a small request: if you still have some copies of your article about my "Kierkegaard", would you please send one to Mme Babachowsky [Shestov's sister], Paris, 1 rue d'Alboni. It may prove useful. I shake your hand - and say hello to the ladies. Yours faithfully."
September 23, 1938
I leave La Varenne St-Hilaire where I spent the summer and where I still am (waiting for the Sudete conflict to end), and I go see Shestov in Paris - he is just as weak and haggard as before his departure. We kiss each other on both cheeks. And we restart the conversation on the spot.
- You remember that I first offered my article on Jaspers (Sine effusione sanguinis: on philosophical honesty) to Levy-Bruhl, but it appeared in the January 1938 issue of "Hermes". He already had an article on the same subject and his Revue avoids speaking twice of the same thing... Nevertheless, I decided I would write to Levy-Bruhl about Husserl. I told him that Husserl deserved that two writers of the Revue spoke about him, and that I wanted to be that second writer, since there surely was somebody else who took the initiative already. I said I would like to recount my memories of Husserl, speak about our meetings, I can't really take up again my previous study of him ["Memento Mori"]. Levy-Bruhl agreed.
- Unfortunately, I am so tired I can barely write half a page each day. It's not much. But I am still happy to do it.
- The thing is: people still do not understand Husserl, and even less the point of my struggle against him. Look at this short book by a Portuguese writer, it's in French, he speaks well of me in it. You see, in the footnote, he says that I was the first to give "the right answer to a somewhat philistine thinker". But you know very well that this is not it at all. I am so sorry people understand me so badly. People who claim to have read my books, and perhaps to even like me...
[Vieira de Almeida, Opuscula Philosophica, Lisboa, III, 1936.]
- The Christians talk about Jesus the way they talk about Buddha. Of course they say that Jesus is greater, a hundred times greater, that his thought is deeper, more humane... But as to giving us our daily bread, Jesus can't do it, just as Buddha can't. Take a look at these passages by Heiler - and this in a book that is called "Das Gebet" [Prayer] - it's a very good book otherwise...
Mme Shestov comes in and our talk takes a different turn. She asks me whether I feel any inclination towards becoming a teacher. "No. Why?" Shestov explains:
- My wife really liked your article about me. She says that you are skilled in presenting things so clearly, so perfectly, that my thought is understood better in your writings than in my own books.
I seize the occasion to tell Shestov that he is responsible both for my virtues and my philosophical vices. I've become a philosopher almost despite myself, simply because he wanted me to. It was only in order to please him, because I liked him so much, that I embarked on my study of Husserl, Heidegger - I wrote my first essays because he thought that these exercises would be useful to me, while I was of a completely opposite view. I thought I was only a poet, a critic, and I wrote those philosophical essays as a compromise, because I felt that he would be happier to have a disciple who was a philosopher, not a poet. Therefore, if I became a "philosopher", it was thanks to him, I had no merit in it.
Shestov is very moved. But he was aware of this before I told him.
October 24, 1938
Shestov is still studying the Hindus.
- I recently wrote that article about Husserl ["To the memory of a great philosopher, Edmund Husserl"], but it made me realize that if I went beyond half-an-hour of writing per day, I'd be dead before I could finish. And so I had most of the day free and I read the Hindus. I can see from that experience with the Husserl article that I will never be able to write about the Hindus. Well, somebody else will write, you will maybe... It doesn't matter so much what one might write about them - it's the questions themselves that are important...
[« In memory of a great philosopher: Edmund Husserl. » In Russian: Russkie Zapiski, XII (dec. 1938) and XIII (jan. 1939). In French : Revue philosophique, jan. to june 1940, pp. 5-32. This article was later included in "Speculation et Revelation".]
- For instance, the case of Buddha is truly remarkable. For the most part we do not know the real authors of the Vedantas. But with Buddha we can be fairly certain that he was a real person, not some mythical author of holy books. You know that there was a debate about whether Buddha actually originated a whole religion, whether a religion without God can be called a "religion", just like in the case of psychology without the soul. Well, some say that it is not God that is the basis of a religion but "das Heilige" - sanctity. I quoted a text from Heiler to you the other day where he says that humanity has never produced greater genius than Buddha and Jesus. Of course, Jesus is somewhat and even much greater, but a "genius"... Today the Pope fights against the Germans, Russians and Italians because they are a threat to christianity. Empirically speaking that is true: persecutions, tortures, concentrations camps... But such a way to conceive of christianity is a much greater threat...
- It is said of Buddha, and he himself says it, that he had defeated death. But look how death proceeds. It starts by taking from us our health, makes us lose taste for the things of life, accustoms us to indifference etc. And what does Buddha do? The same thing exactly. He introduces death into us, before its appointed time. He works for death. But look what a genius he was! He actually persuaded people that he had defeated death while all he did was serve it. Plato himself wrote that philosophy is a preparation for death, but instead of taking up this problem he busied himself with the Laws, the Republic etc... I wonder what he is thinking about it now
- Lazareff's article on Lequier is excellent. He wanted to talk about me but I did all I could to discourage him. I asked that he not even mention my name. To compare Lequier to Kierkegaard, who is well known even in France, that's fine... Those who know my ideas would understand anyway. The important thing is to define the problem!
[A. Lazareff, « L'entreprise philosophique de J. Lequier. » In Russian : Put', aug/oct. 1938, pp. 29-.47. In French : Revue philosophique, sept./oct. 1938. The article was later included in the "Vie et Connaissance", Paris, Vrin, 1948. This book also contains an essay on Shestov.]
- You haven't read the account of my "Athens and Jerusalem" by Jules de Gaultier published in the Revue Philosophique? His article is fairly good but he ends it pretty much in the same way as Jean Wahl ended his inscription to me: that he is neither from Athens nor from Jerusalem. I am not surprised to hear Jules de Gaultier say such a thing, but I am still surprised at Wahl: he is very well educated, he knows the Greeks, the Germans... To even say such a thing, he needs some sort of criterion. Where does he take it from? I know well enough that he could claim to be a skeptic. But skepticism itself is Greek... What nonsense has been said about me, even by Mme Bespaloff, who claims that I would say to a drowning man - you can, you must, save yourself! As if it was not I who has written forty years ago, in my first book about Nietzsche, that with him atheism was not a result of a duty forsaken but of a right lost
[Revue philosophique, no. 9-10, sept/oct. 1938, pp. 242-243.]
We talk about war, persecutions etc. Shestov muses:
- But perhaps there is more to this world than just killing.
November 3, 1938
I send Shestov a copy of my "False Treaty of Esthetics" with a simple inscription: "To Léon Chestov, to whom I owe everything..."
[B. Fondane, Faux Traité d'esthétique, Paris, Denoël, 1938, reed. Paris, Plasma, 1980.]
November 5, 1938
The first letter I receive about my book is from Shestov. He writes:
"My dear friend, I just got your "Faux Traité". Thank you and congratulations - how lucky to be able to publish a book! Unfortunately I will not be able to read it right now. I do not feel well, I am very weak and tired, stay in bed all day long - that's the price of my article on Husserl. But I am taking my measures, maybe I'll feel better soon and have enough strength to read at least. Best wishes and hope to see you again soon..."
November 10, 1938
I wait a few days and then write to say that I was afraid I might tire him if I visited too soon, but will come to see him Thursday.
November 14, 1938
I receive a letter from his daughter, Natasha Baranov:
"Dear friend, our father is ill, he will have to spend some time at the Boileau Clinic, to get treatment. Do not come to Boulogne. Give a call to Tatiana one of these days, she will tell you whether you can visit him at the clinic."
November 16, 1938
I call Tatiana. The doctors forbid all visitors. He is given shots of salycil. He is doing a bit better. He was very upset about having to leave home for the clinic. But what is there to do?
November 18, 1938
Tatiana calls me and says that Shestov was very happy to learn that I inquired about his health. He still cannot receive visitors but feels a bit better. I do not dare to ask Tatiana to call me immediately in case he gets worse - I am afraid this might frighten her. But she tells me she will send a telegram if there are changes, or when he asks to see me.
November 19, 1938
November 20, 1938
I receive a telegram: "Call Tatiana (Rageot)". Shestov died.
In the afternoon we all go to the Boileau Clinic. He lies on the bed, calm, pacified, his face is relaxed, beautiful. Mme Shestov tells me that yesterday night he still felt fairly well. And this morning, before she arrived, the nurse went in to take his temperature. He turned over - and died. The heart gave up. "He loved you so!" she says and starts sobbing. Then she shows me on the small table next to the bed two books. A Russian bible, open, and "Das System der Vedanta" (Brahma-Sutra) translated by Deussen. The book is open at the chapter "Brahma als Freude" where Shestov has just underlined (or maybe re-read) the following passage:
Nicht trübe Askese kennzeichnet den Brahmanwisser, sondern das freudig hoffnungsvolle Bewusstsein der Einheit mit Gott. [It is not somber asceticism that marks a sage but a confident and joyous awareness of unity with God]
We go down the stairs, wait for Tatiana in the hall. She says that there was no hope, the tests showed that Shestov has had tuberculosis of old age for at least a year. The funeral will take place Tuesday, at the new Boulogne-Baillancourt cemetery, at 9 o'clock in the morning.
Our conversation of October 24 was our last. The letter I received from him on November 5 was the last he ever wrote.
[Paul Deussen, Das System des Vedânta, Vierte Auflage, Leipzig, F.A. Brockhaus, 1923, 540 p.]
November 21, 1938
I didn't write yesterday about that peace, that radiance on his face. I entered the room with some sort of revulsion (my old fear of carrying away the vision of death from the face of those I loved), I sobbed when I saw him so rigid, and after a moment I was almost ashamed of my sobs. I was screaming inside myself while I cried, but it was only a silent dialogue of the soul with itself: "Where are you? Do you
I am torn between a desire to go see him again and my revulsion against it. [In another version, Fondane wrote: ..."and the shameful feeling of being attached to something that is going to rot away".]
I call Tatian who tells me that the coffin will be open for display at a quarter to 7 in the evening. I go there. It turns out I misheard the time. It has taken place at a quarter to 8 in the morning. I am let inside a small room. The coffin is on the table, closed, covered up, a bouquet of flowers on top.
November 22, 1938
The funeral takes place at the New Cemetery of Boulogne Billancourt, the South-East corner, in the mausoleum where his mother and brother already repose. Since only Russian papers announced the event, no French writers are present, except for Jules de Gaultier. There is a crowd about a hundred strong. To my surprise a rabbi reads the Kadish. Unfortunately he switches from Hebrew to French and reads away in a melodious voice, without any conviction (aren't these people trained to be good actors at the very least?). He quotes Job: God gave, God took away... and he has no inkling of all the thinking Shestov put into it. But I am very moved that Shestov wanted to keep this
visible link to Israel. I ask Mister Lovtzky if this was done on Shestov's formal request. Lovtzky explains: last year, when Shestov's brother was buried, a rabbi read the Kadish, and then some prayers in French that moved Shestov and which he found "beautiful". And so...
The rabbi reads a last prayer for the one whose name was Leiba Yitzchok Schwarzmann (the family omitted to tell him that it was the philosopher Shestov, to avoid a sermon) and then everybody throws a bit of earth into the grave, and it's now my turn...