Leonidas Donskis died yesterday from an apparent heart attack. He was 54. The Lithuanian Jewish philosopher and public intellectual – he was a political theorist, historian of ideas, social analyst, political commentator, and professor –was little known in the West, but is a major figure in Eastern European thought. He was also a member of the European Parliament from 2009 to 2014.
One of Europe’s leading poets, Tomas Venclova (his correspondence with Donskis was published last year), wrote to the Book Haven: “Leonidas Donskis was the only one Lithuanian philosopher (mainly historian of ideas) who merited the title. I would say he was on a par with, say, Konrad, Krastev, or even Havel. His sudden and untimely death is a terrible loss.” Tomas Venclova and Donskis were both born in Klaipėda, and both attended the University of Vilnius.
Donskis recently coauthored a book with a man he considered of the greatest thinkers of our times, Zygmunt Bauman. The book Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, 2013) was “a high point of my life,” Donskis had said. “Such an opportunity can occur only once in a lifetime.”
At a discussion at the Central European Form in Bratislava last November, he spoke on the role of the intellectual in today’s world: “The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman said that if you want to be a star in your society you need to invent yourself either as celebrity or as victim. But I think there is also a third way out for the intellectuals, who way too often become fear-mongers. This is in my opinion their sin against societies. At the same time, we still have many sober voices resisting this temptation. The principle of intellectual or journalistic work is not to scare or paralyze people. The best thing to do now is to encourage audiences to live their lives without fear, in dignity.”
“The great paradox of modernity is that everything is very close to its polarity, to its own antidote. For instance, in terms of political existence, I am afraid Europe will become even more securitized and surveilled. But the crucial thing is to defend the humanistic legacy of Europe. First and foremost, our task is not to become paranoid or fear-ridden. The challenge for the 21st century is to protect democratic Europe with respect to our humanistic sensibilities, and respect to human rights and civic liberties. This will be quite difficult, but we must stand together for it, especially given the rise of violent political extremism.”
A few words on Donskis from some important voices on my Facebook feed:
Marci Shore, author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe and Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968: I’m writing from Belgrade, in shock at the news of the death of our friend Leonidas Donskis. I had just seen Leonidas in Krasnogruda, at Fundacja Pogranicze on the Polish-Lithuanian border, at our seminar “Second reading: Tony Judt on Arendt, Camus, Miłosz, Kołakowski.” In Krasnogruda, he spoke about Bulgakov‘s Master and Margarita as a novel about the devil as superfluous in modern politics: we are in the age of do-it-yourself. He spoke about the death of the Left in Lithuania and about “ontological junk food” – quick, ready-made theories for easy consumption here and now. “I’m afraid there is just a void,” Leonidas said. But he never stopped trying to fill the void with a passionate insistence on truth and ethics. We were meant to meet in Vienna two weeks from now at this year’s Leszek Kołakowski symposium devoted to the topic “Paradises Lost: Entzauberung, Utopia, and their Afterlives.” I never imagined “afterlives” taking on this additional meaning. Now of all times our world could not afford to lose Leonidas.
Timothy Snyder, author of Black Earth:The Holocaust as History and Warning and Bloodlands: Between Hitler and Stalin: Erudite, ambitious, and prolific as an ethicist; liberal in his politics, generosity and individuality; trilingual in Lithuanian, Russian, and English. A rapid wanderer in our best traditions, a loyal companion with expansive ideas of friendship; a European link to much of what was admirable his Soviet generation and the ones that came before; an eager interlocutor who wanted to bring out the best in those he admired (such as Zygmunt Bauman and Tomas Venclova with whom he wrote books); a patient teacher whom I last saw among grateful students, filling my notebook with the connections I never would have seen without him.
Mikhail Iossel, author of Every Hunter Wants to Know: A Leningrad Life and contributor to The New Yorker: I am absolutely devastated. I loved him dearly. He was one of the most brilliant, altogether remarkable people I have ever met, one of Europe’s leading public intellectuals, one of world’s most interesting philosophers and social thinkers, an enormously erudite and prolific scholar and a passionate patriot of his country, son of Holocaust survivors and member of the European Parliament – and also one of the kindest, gentlest, and most decent and honest people I’ve ever known. In point of fact, I have never known anyone quite like him, in all of my long life: he was absolutely unique, unrepeatable and, to my mind, a perfect human being. I cherished each and every one of our conversations: in Lithuania, in New York, and, most frequently, online – about politics, Europe, Lithuania, Jewish history, Russia, art… It is impossible to believe he is gone. The world was so much better with him in it. There are no words….
Postscript on 9/23: We received this message from Beatriz Miranda in Mexico City, and thought we’d share it (it’s also in the combox below): “With great sadness we have received the news about the death of our beloved friend, Leonidas. I met him in Amsterdam. The University of Amsterdam asked me to invite Prof. Bauman to present their book Moral Blindness in Amsterdam. The invitation was accepted by Prof. Bauman with a condition: to bring Leonidas too. It was the beginning of real friendship. Later on, he came to Mexico invited by the 17, Institute of Critical Studies and helped us to think critically about the role of universities and academics. I will never forget the way he conducted himself, with humility and sweetness. He even travelled with me around Mexico City by metro. He ate at the Coyoacan Market and enjoyed visiting the pyramids of Teotihuacan. During that visit and taken by his passion for jazz he proposed to the Institute to give the doctorate Honoris Causa to the great jazz musician Vyacheslav Ganelin. We did it last January but unfortunately, Leonidas could not come. We will keep his words alive in our Institute. This is important especially in this violent time. Leonida’s call for peace and understanding will be missed but kept immortal through his work and publications. 17, Institute will keep the promise to translate some of his work into Spanish. Gracias querido, Amigo Leonidas! You will be missed.”
Postscript on 9/26: Read a few of his reflections and aphorisms here.