Archive for August 17th, 2017

The dangerous ideas of Hans Abendroth

Thursday, August 17th, 2017
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Ryan Ruby: exploring dark places

A month ago, I received a package from Berlin with a note from Ryan Ruby, author of The Zero and the One. Our point of connection was the French theorist René Girard: “In a pivotal scene, one character discusses an interpretation of DostoevskyDemons in terms that were largely influenced by Girard’s reading of that book in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.” According to the book jacket, Ruby’s novel about a friendship at Oxford that takes a dark turn, and considers “the power of dangerous ideas.” From the book itself:

From the earliest days of our friendship, Zach and I sought out philosophers whose names would never have appeared on the reading lists we received before the beginning of each term. To our tutors, such thinkers did not merit serious consideration. Our tutors were training us to weigh evidence, parse logic, and refuse counter-examples; they encouraged us to but more stock in the rule than the exception and to put our trust in modest truths that could be easily verified and plainly expressed. Whereas the philosophers who interested us were the ones who would step right to the edge of the abyss – and jump to conclusions; the ones who wagered their sanity when they spun the wheel of thought; the ones, in short, who wrote in blood. In counter-intuitiveness we saw profundity and in obfuscation, poetry. With wide eyes, we plucked paperback after paperback from the shelves at Reservoir, the used bookshop opposite the entrance to Christ Church Meadow, our own personal Nag Hammadi, hunting for insights into the hermetic nature of the universe and ourselves.

I used to frequent that bookshop, though my visits were too brief to consider the place a hotbed of a “dangerous ideas.” And I’m not sure that René’s ideas can be considered “dangerous” ones – we’ll see what you think next spring when my Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is out with Michigan State University Press. But Hans Abendroth?

The Zero and the One was widely (and positively) reviewed, but one of its perhaps unexpected consequences is that Ruby has singlehandedly rescued Hans Abendroth from obscurity – at least in the English-speaking world, and if the German google is to be believed, pretty much any other. The German philosopher’s words are included as epigraphs to each chapter.

Not surprisingly, then, the foremost article on the subject (at least in Google rankings) is Paris Review piece by Ryan Ruby himself. Abendroth, born in Frankfurt in 1909, was among the students of Martin Heidegger, part of a cohort that included Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Löwith, and Hans Jonas. He moved to Berlin in 1935, participated in a research group at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, where he translated a German edition of the Akhmim Codex, a recently discovered 5th century Gnostic manuscript. He taught Greek philosophy, early Christian theology, and Hellenistic literature at the University of Berlin.

He retired early in 1949, and wrote the only book he published, The Zero and the One (Null und Eins). It was widely criticized for “quietism and irrationalism,” but found a fan in Paris, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. According to Ruby: “An unsystematic collection of aphorisms in the style of Nietzsche, Cioran, and the later WittgensteinNull und Eins contains reflections on a diverse number of subjects, from the philosophy of mathematics to the ethics of suicide. Obviously marked by Abendroth’s study of Gnosticism, The Zero and the One was critical of religion, but also of secular attempts to replace God with nature; it was particularly hostile to all forms of morality, politics, and economics that justified themselves in terms of materialist accounts of the human. Abendroth’s was a truly “tragic sense of life”: to him, the problems of morality and politics were intractable. The preservation of human freedom did not depend on solving these problems but to escape them entirely by fleeing into thought.”

Abendroth was something of a recluse in a quiet corner of Berlin, and died in 2001. Ruby writes: “according to the obituary written for Die Zeit by his publisher and executor Wilhelm von Nothung, Abendroth had continued his philosophical work in the decades of his absence from public life. In fact, he had left behind a sizeable Nachlaß, including what appeared at first glance to be the notes for a several-hundred page metaphysical treatise. Unfortunately, von Nothung himself died shortly thereafter; the existence of the treatise he alluded to cannot be confirmed because the whereabouts of Abendroth’s papers remains unknown.”

I can find no photo of him online, nor any image of his book. A few of his thoughts from the book and Paris Review piece:

WORD MADE FLESH.— The relationship between thought and language is the relationship between a wound and its scar.

FREEDOM TO, FREEDOM FROM, FREEDOM FOR.– The use people make of their freedom is the best argument against allowing them to have any.

ET IN ARCADIA EGO.— It’s a terrible thing, at any age, to be able to point to some period of your past and say, Those were the best days of my life. For it means that when you divide what is to come by what has already been, the remainder will be the same decimal repeating repeating repeating to infinity. Happiness, when ill timed, can maim a life just as thoroughly as sorrow.

SELF-CONJUGATION.— Living for today, living in the moment: the wisdom of fools. A man must at every moment be able to conjugate himself in every tense—past, present, and future, but also subjunctive and conditional. There is only one moment when it is appropriate to live entirely in the present tense.

THE CRIMINAL AND HIS AUDIENCE.–Not only is every great crime a secret confession, but the most exquisite pleasure of committing a crime ultimately lies in getting caught. Only a true ascetic would deny himself this pleasure by actually getting away with it.

MALE FRIENDSHIP.–The shortest distance between the hearts of two men is the body of a woman.

NOSTALGIA FOR THE FUTURE.— There will come a time when we will be nostalgic for the future, that is, for how we used to think the future would look.

A WARNING TO THE CRITICS OF HUMANISM.— The two ideas that will survive the dissolution of the concept of the human are races and robots.

METAPHYSICAL CONFLICT.— It is in the metaphysical interests of the young not to identify with one’s actions but to remain protean, able to ceaselessly revise oneself, without worrying overmuch about the frequency of one’s revisions, nor of any consistency between them, to think of oneself in terms of what one has not yet done and could yet do rather than what one has already done and can never undo. At some point, however, the young realize that should it continue too long, this indetermination will leave them, when they come to die, undefined, with nothing to call their own, nothing to call themselves. So they come to identify with what they have done, they begin to say, This is who I am instead of This is who I will be. With each such identification they carve a wrinkle into the undifferentiated smoothness of their brows. They become old. And it is in the metaphysical interests of the old, who are, after all, closer to the moment of defining dissolution, to protect themselves—and their selves—against the youthful siege of ceaseless revision by drawing continuities between one’s revisions, which still occur, if at a slower rate and more laboriously than before, and insisting that all revisions are vetted by the logic of consistency. The old are not wiser than the young because they have experienced both youth and age; wisdom is merely the name given to the sense of self that is required to defend the interests of age. As with all metaphysical battles, all are defeated when either party wins.