[Paleopsych] TLS: (Hans Jonas): Our hour, our war

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sun Apr 3 18:59:43 UTC 2005

Our hour, our war
The Times Literary Supplement, 4.7.2

    Steven E. Aschheim
    ERINNERUNGEN. By Hans Jonas. 503pp. Frankfurt am Main: Insel.
    24.90euros. 3 458 17156 8

    The philosopher Hans Jonas (1903-93) is best known in the
    English-speaking world for his pioneering studies of Gnostic Religion.
    Professional philosophers are likely to be familiar with his early
    (1969) ruminations on the ethics of experimenting on human subjects,
    but only initiates will be aware of his ongoing attempts to formulate
    a post- idealist ontology of nature able to account "for the broad
    organic basis on which the miracle of mind is perched", or his
    reflections on post-Auschwitz theology (he never recovered from the
    shock of his mother's murder there). His 1978 work The Imperative of
    Responsibility brought him great fame in Germany. But this impassioned
    plea for the creation of a collective ecological ethic which, through
    stringent governmental measures, would muster the necessary resources
    and control the runaway dangers of technology to save a threatened
    planet "for future generations", had little impact elsewhere. His
    influence on Anglo-American thought, it must be said, never
    approximated that of many of his mentors, colleagues and friends who
    figure prominently in Erinnerungen, his memoirs. Yet this does not
    detract from their interest and value. For, by the compelling way that
    Jonas recounts his life in Germany, Palestine/Israel and North
    America, this becomes an evocative portrait of an exceptionally
    productive and fascinating generation of Weimar intellectuals who made
    their way through a traumatic century and in diverse fashion helped to
    shape our understanding of it.

    In a recent work (2001), Richard Wolin portrayed Jonas as one of
    Heidegger's Children who, until 1933, "thought of themselves as
    assimilated Germans rather than as Jews" (the stark dichotomy itself
    is misleading). The degree to which Jonas's thought and person
    remained in thrall to his teacher Heidegger may be open to question,
    but not, as these memoirs graphically document, the lifelong
    centrality of his Jewishness. This well preceded the rise of Nazism.
    Jonas was raised in a home that effortlessly combined German Bildung
    with an untroubled affirmation of Jewishness. More-over, already in
    1918, in an obviously declasse act - and much to the chagrin of his
    baffled father - Jonas became a committed Zionist. Remarkably,
    although it was a tiny minority movement, in the course of his Zionist
    meanderings Jonas came upon a host of distinguished dissenters whose
    thought would later leave its mark well beyond the boundaries of
    Weimar Germany or, for that matter, Zionist or Jewish circles - among
    them Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Gershom Scholem
    and Leo Strauss. Quite exceptionally, he spent 1923 at a Hachsharah, a
    training farm for future settlement in Palestine. Indeed, unlike most
    of his other German-Jewish Zionist friends, Jonas adopted a peculiarly
    militant posture, sensitive to anti-Semitic slurs and dreaming of
    Jewish armed valour and honour.

    These predilections, no doubt, partly account for his incisive
    intuitions as to the nature of Nazism. He left Germany a few months
    after the takeover of power and settled in Palestine in 1935. There he
    composed a remarkable document: an impassioned 1939 call to Jewish men
    to take up arms ("This is our hour, this is our war"). At a time of
    great bewilderment, he presciently identified the unimaginably radical
    nature of Hitler's aims. National Socialism, he wrote, had undertaken
    this war against the Jews as "a world-principle" and against the
    "naked possibility of our existence on Earth. We are its metaphysical
    enemy, its designated victim from the first day on and no peace will
    be granted us as long as that principle or we ourselves, either the
    one or the other, still live".

    No other nation, he declared, was threatened with the negation of its
    very humanity: "We are witnessing a war of extermination that has been
    declared against our entire being and which is proceeding un-checked".
    Because the Jews were threatened with destruction as a group, they had
    to fight back as a group or a Volk. To that end, Jonas fervently
    advocated the formation of a specifically Jewish Brigade, in which he
    fought when it was finally created in 1944. Earlier, he volunteered
    for the paramilitary Haganah, and in 1948 participated in the Israel
    War of Independence.

    Of course, this image of Jonas as Muskeljude and militant fighter
    distorts the larger picture.

    It obscures his warmth and compassion (hidden in a footnote is the
    story of how in 1938 he carried a fatally wounded Arab to hospital
    through the streets of Jerusalem) and, above all, his passionately
    pursued intellectual interests and friendships.

    Indeed, it was during his period of service in the Jewish Brigade
    that, in a series of letters to his wife, Lore, he first formulated
    his post existentialist philosophy positing the relationship of the
    organic to Being, the "phenomenon of life". His years in Jerusalem
    were spent in the presence of a stimulating and playful Mannerbund of
    German-speaking scholars, dubbed by Gershom Scholem as "Pilegesh"
    (formed from the initials of its various members and meaning
    "concubine" in Hebrew), who spent much time in intense philosophical
    discussion and writing affectionately ironic poems about each other.

    The formidable Scholem - always fascinated by the mystical, the
    demonic and antinomian - encouraged and gobbled up Jonas's work on
    Gnosticism which, with its subversive implications for established
    religion, was so congenial to his own project (almost all these
    German-Jewish Weimar intellectuals probed pre-or post-liberal
    Enlightenment worlds). Despite these friendships, in 1949, Jonas left
    for Canada to seek better academic prospects than he had hitherto been
    able to secure in Israel. The relationship with Scholem and his
    friends later became severely strained though not broken - when, in
    1952, after Scholem exerted enormous efforts and successfully obtained
    for Jonas a formal position at the Hebrew University, he declined the
    offer and went on to various posts in Montreal, Ottawa and the New
    School for Social Research.

    The character sketches of Jonas's subsequently famous friends and
    acquaintances are among the joys of this volume. The contemporary lion
    of neoconservatism, Leo Strauss, emerges as an early sympathizer of
    Mussolini yet entirely unworldly and shy, guiltily torn between his
    Orthodox upbringing and the unshackled philosophical quest for truth;
    the great Marxist scholar George Lichtheim whose years in Palestine,
    and role as translator of Scholem's masterwork on Jewish mysticism,
    are now largely forgotten - as an over-bred, charming, deeply
    self-ironic personality, an "Edel-Marxist" who never set foot in a
    factory, an autodidact and eternal outsider, constitutionally unable
    to sustain relationships with women (for a while he was obsessed with
    Susan Sontag), and who in the end, tragically, committed suicide; and
    Jacob Taubes, as a mercurial, occasionally brilliant scholar of
    religion, whose serial plagiarism and charlatanism were visible to all
    except, perhaps, to himself. When Karl Lowith was asked about one of
    Taubes's works he commented that it was indeed excellent.

    "That's not surprising; one half of it is by him and the other by me."

    The Palestine years were important, but most of the abiding
    influences, relationships and disappointments in Jonas's life stemmed
    from his student and early teaching years in Weimar Germany between
    1921 and 1933. At the centre stands the defining presence of Martin
    Heidegger (his other teacher, for whom he felt a lasting respect and
    affection, was the theologian Rudolf Bultmann). Upon first hearing
    Heidegger, Jonas reports, "something happened to me". Without really
    understanding, he realized that something electric, "secret" and
    immensely significant was being said. From then on, he knew that
    philosophy was the way and proceeded to shape his own thought along
    the lines of Heideggerian existentialism. He experienced Heidegger's
    turn to Nazism as an immense shock, "a world-historical shame", a blow
    to the very soul of the philosophical enterprise. The hurt went deep.

    It was hard, he later told a group of theologians, to celebrate Man as
    the "Shepherd of Being" when he had ceased so grievously to be his
    brother's keeper.

    Unlike Hannah Arendt, Jonas did not early on renew the relationship.
    Yet the pain, combined, perhaps, with the desire to meet and confront
    him, persisted. They did so, finally, in 1969 in Zurich, where, as
    always with Heidegger, the things that most needed to be said remained

    Whether or not Jonas actually succeeded in conceptually freeing
    himself from the problematic aspects of this inheritance remains an
    open question. But as his account makes clear he explicitly attempted
    to formulate a post-Heideggerian and post-Holocaust world-view. His
    work is shot through with reflections on ethics (allegedly neglected
    by Heidegger); it is receptive to Judaeo-Christian theological
    perspectives (as opposed to what Jonas saw as Heidegger's
    neo-paganism); and his firmly grounded "organic" ontology sought to
    counter the nihilism he took to be implicit in Heidegger's work
    (Gnostic and Heideggerian thought, Jonas maintained, were mutually
    illuminating phenomena).

    Perhaps not surprisingly, the adoring circles around the radically
    innovative Heidegger, described by Jonas as a kind of Wunderrabbi,
    contained many young Jews (among them Lowith and Gunther Stern). The
    best-known of Jonas's fellow students was Hannah Arendt, with whom
    Jonas formed an admiring, lifelong, though stormy friendship (the
    turbulence was occasioned by his bitter dissent from her Eichmann book
    and her refusal to countenance any criticism of it). Both the
    philosophical and amorous aspects of the Arendt-Heidegger relationship
    have by now been thoroughly explored. But, as her closest confidant at
    the time (and perhaps as a way of subtly indicating to Jonas that he
    should desist in any thought of becoming her suitor), Arendt, swearing
    him to secrecy, made him uniquely privy to how the affair began. As
    the teacher and pupil talked during student hours and dusk descended,
    Heidegger neglected to turn on the light.

    When the interview ended and Arendt was about to leave the room, he
    suddenly fell to his knees and stretched out his arms. "I took his
    head in my hands", Arendt told Jonas, "and he kissed me, I kissed
    him." As with Jonas, the definitive verdict regarding Heidegger's
    long-term influence on Arendt's work is not yet in.

    But her early reconciliation with him, Jonas insists, was bound to the
    indissoluble tie of a first, passionate love.

    Jonas's memoirs (based on taped conversations with Rachel Salamander)
    are replete with similar observations in which the philosophical and
    the personal become thickly intertwined. They are peopled by
    personalities whose thought has become a familiar part of
    twentieth-century intellectual and cultural sensibility. Above all,
    they trace the ways in which these quintessentially Weimar
    intellectuals were formed and then, faced with crucial political and
    intellectual dilemmas, variously chose to make their lives. It is a
    testament to Hans Jonas's decency and honesty that in these matters he
    seems always to come out as a mensch.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list