Posts Tagged ‘Leonidas Donskis’

The aphorisms of Leonidas Donskis (1962-2016): a few words that go a long way

Monday, September 26th, 2016

From silence and pauses…

Friends at World Literature Today pointed me to one of the smaller and lesser-known works of philosopher and political theorist Leonidas Donskis, one of Europe’s leading intellectuals, who died unexpectedly last week at 54: his short, 114-page A Small Map of Experience: Reflections and Aphorisms (Guernica Editions, 2013; translated from the Lithuanian by Karla Gruodis). I bought a copy tout de suite and got it in the mail over the weekend.

“Aphorisms cannot be conceived theoretically, and one cannot learn how to write them from a manual,” he writes in his foreword. “They rise up out of authentic experience—from silence and pauses, from stopping oneself so that a thought is not drowned by the flood of words and pretentious expressions.” But they’re not complete, in a sense, until they have a reader: “An aphorism is also a space for dialogue: it is an open and unfinished thought, which always requires that we, as readers, go back and attempt to develop the ellipses and silences which the author has left for us like an invitation.”

The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, Donskis’s co-author for Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, 2013), noted, “A successful aphorism, true to its mission, allows a small step to go a long, perhaps an infinitely long, way.” He thinks A Small Map fits the bill: “a perfect match to the vertiginous pace of our life, and bringing that art up to the gravity and grandiosity of the challenge we confront.”

My love of aphorisms is known to Book Haven readers (see here and here), so this was just the ticket. I quickly found with my very unsystematic reading that the book was littered with my little book was littered with sticky flags.

A sampling from the pages:

donskisbook2“Academics are paid for what they say. Politicians and diplomats – for what they do not say.”

“Provincialism is the lack of language and criteria for evaluating yourself and your environment. It is an inability to assess your own worth – a desperate plea for others to identify and assess you.”

“Great art dissolves our illusions about the importance and truth of the present.”

“Two solitudes do not beget a wholeness.”

“Love is the refusal to see oneself as the only reality, and the transcendence of fear and hatred.”

“Hatred is an unbearable dichotomy in which we imagine another’s demise while secretly hoping that he or she will survive to deliver us from meaninglessness.”

“Conscience is an intuition – that wherever two meet, a third is always present.”

There’s a reason his title includes “reflections” in addition to “aphorisms.” Aphorisms are defined by their brevity, but some push the envelope. A few of his reflections, then:

  • “According to the logic of the twentieth century, wars were historically won by those who were left standing. The wars of the future will be different. No one will really win them or have the goal of winning them. They will be needed primarily to test and improve the military industrial machine, to undermine rising foreign economies, and to shape public opinion. War will become a vehicle for maintaining the balance of economic and political forces; the boundaries between it and peace will likely be erased.”
  • “The twentieth century media universe profoundly transformed the public figure. In the eighteenth century, public intellectuals lived their societies’ concerns, raising them to the level of philosophical and political discourse. But, while they saw private problems in public terms and engaged private persons with public concerns and interests, they themselves avoided the social noice of public life. It was once considered a sign of good taste and correct attitude to avoid the press. A Victorian Englishwoman was expected to appear in it only three times in her life: on the very special occasions of birth, marriage, and death. In our era, to appear in the media a mere three times would be the equivalent to not having existed at all.”
  • “Non-Jews usually don’t possess the sensitivity or language to speak about Jews, just as most men can’t legitimately speak about women. This leads to extremes: either Jews are so admired that they are barely considered a normal people (one that includes the wise as well as the villainous), or they are blamed for the lack of security in the Western world and for all of the sins of humanity. Is this thesis valid if we substitute Gentiles and Jews with men and women? In a sense. Seeking rights and recognition, women had to gain access to a world of culture and politics created by men, just as Jews had to find niches in a world dominated by Gentiles. In both cases only one side conformed and adapted – hence the asymmetry of sensibilities.”

And here’s one for Donskis himself: “We love only those things whose fragile and temporary nature we are acutely aware of.” Au revoir, sir. From the overwhelming number of hits on my modest obituary attracted a few days ago, it’s evident you are already much missed.

Farewell to one of Europe’s leading thinkers, Leonidas Donskis (1962-2016)

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

“Erudite, ambitious, and prolific as an ethicist.”

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.”

"Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

Correspondent Venclova

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-shoreMarci 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.

TimSnyderTimothy 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.

iosselMikhail 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.