Published 4.15.2017. Seagull Books: New York. (The German List.) Translated by Wieland Hoban. 224 Pages.
Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s Blumenberg, the English-language debut by an author billed by Die Welt (quoted on front flap) as the “most dazzling stylist of contemporary German literature,” is (facially) a novel set in Münster in 1982 about a German philosophy professor who suddenly sees a lion following him around everywhere–at home, on the street, at the lecture hall amidst his students—a lion only he can see, and who only a select group of his students can vaguely sense; that, anyway is the more marketable description to give of the book’s content. I would only be giving you the fair warning that the front flap doesn’t if I said that “German philosophy professor” is a far more important item in the last sentence than “lion” in terms of setting up your expectations for what the novel is about; for whereas most people’s reactions to seeing a lion following them around would be something along the lines of, “Holy moly! A feral predator has escaped from the zoo; someone should call the authorities,” or alternately, “I’m hallucinating again; time to go back on meds,” our titular philosopher (while he is also initially taken aback) very quickly regains his composure and embarks (in his own mind) on a literary/phenomenological inquiry into the nature of the lion, its character, its meaning, its allusive potential and symbolic resonances across the entire history of Western art and literature. And Blumenberg is not satisfied with just ruminating on he surface appearance of the lion, but wants answers to fundamental questions like how he knows the lion exists:
The only curious thing was that there was nothing unclear or hazy about it, nothing resembling a mixture of lion and air atoms; its outline did not tremble back and forth of Blumenberg’s swirling thoughts. . . . Neither a smell nor an absence of smell emanated from the lion; the lion smelt discreetly of lion, perhaps just enough to be identified by the nose of one who loved lions, and made an effort to recall the lion’s smell after a visit to the zoo.
He cycles through various modes of analysis with which to analyze the lion, here for example echoing Wittgenstein:
Had he been dealing with a fantastic lion, the absent lion, which was not part of what is the case, and hence never ever of the world? But, but, thought Blumenberg, this completely different, world-rejecting lion does occur in something and is thus, in a new and different way, the case. The language games of the world-namers bring the lion back into existence and life, he mumbled quietly to himself.
But while Blumenberg is fascinated by the lion, what fascinates Lewitscharoff is Blumenberg. The novel is a character study of a real person–a decidedly non-average one too–and Lewitscharoff depicts this non-average person using a (in itself not too difficult) free indirect prose which demonstrates the title character’s habits of mind, his preoccupations, his gobsmacking erudition; and generally it is the erudite who most appreciate fiction that depicts them, so the novel is not likely appeal to the broadest of audiences, people who favor action over contemplation, plot over ideas; but speaking as someone with an especial interest in style, I can say Lewitscharoff’s technique on its own terms is lively and engaging; my first impression on reading her sentences was, “Ah, a Walserian. Wonderful!” The manner of lighting easily from thought to thought is not itself unpleasant, and if the book seems dense, it is not on account of Lewitscharoff’s relaxed, capable prose.
It is merely the subject matter in Blumenberg that repels popular interest, for often the difficulty of so-called “difficult” writers is that they demand prior knowledge of their subject matter(s) to edify us within the four corners of their books. It becomes then incumbent upon other writers–like your humble reviewer–to aid the original author in conveying to readers what they need to know, and what you probably need to know to enjoy this book fully is that Lewitscharoff has chosen, in Hans Blumenberg (1920 – 1995), to take her readers spelunking into one of the knotty-er, more allusive minds of the 20th century–to wit, the father of something literally called metaphorology. His was one of those totalizing intellects that seeks to draw together ideas about the human condition that span centuries (god, this sentence already sounds like a bad blurb), synthesizing them into broad arguments about the progression of human history; all of which sounds forbidding to the layperson, but for those willing to take a walk in Blumenberg’s brain, a certain amount of context is useful for understanding Lewitscharoff’s portrayal of him.
As a young man, Blumenberg was a brilliant student on a bright academic path, but his half-Jewish ancestry caused him to be forced out of school by the Nazis, and he was only able to resume his scholarly career in 1945. Blumenberg, ambitious young philosopher that he was, is said to have loathed having these years stolen from him, and (this is what I infer from the book) turned himself into an insanely organized, super-rigorous scholarly workhorse partly to make up for lost time. His early work Paradigms for a Metaphorology apparently anticipates George Lakoff in describing how our perceptions of reality are controlled by “absolute metaphors” that tell a story about how various aspects of the world work, i.e. business as warfare, learning as light. He quibbles in Legitimacy of the Modern Age with a view of history that posits continuity between the Christian Middle Ages and the rationalism of the Enlightenment. There is also a tragic sense of human history present in his work in the idea that we need consolation to distract us from the loss of illusion that is bringing us into contact with unbearable reality, and Blumenberg is full of fascinating discussions of historical ideas such as these.
These discussions give a heft, a significance to the book that (speaking to my rubric below) makes the ideas in the book feel important. Yet as a reviewer, I wish to judge of Blumenberg not merely as a collection of fascinating ideas but as an exercise in narrative art. If Lewitscharoff deserves credit here, it is not so much for the ideas themselves (which, after all, were Blumenberg’s) but for how she uses those ideas to inform his experiences and reflections in the course of her scenic representation of him. The picture that Lewitscharoff conjures is of a heroic scholar of lionly mental strength–granted, one prone to remoteness and aloofness, as is to be expected of such beings–a man whose supersized volume of erudition and supererogatory, procedurally-rigorous thinking we cannot help but be impressed by. Lewitscharoff demonstrates the first quality in Blumenberg by continually showing all the literary and artistic connections that appear in his head. When the lion first appears, he racks his brain for literary parallels:
Agave’s false lion. The fable of the lions court. The Psalmist’s lion, roaring. The lion forever vanished from the land of Canaan. The symbolic animal of Mark the Evangelist. Mary of Egypt and her lion companion. The pious animal of Saint Jerome in his study. Who was the lion? . . . His memory should scour the Bible at high speed, for that was where the lion’s telltale fangs, attached and broken off again, were located; Blumenberg gave himself this order.
In other sections he’ll compare and contrast entire paintings with his own habitation, which shows how alive and present these works are for him:
He called to mind the famous copperplate by Dürer. Admittedly his room, Blumenberg’s, lacked the hourglass with sand running through it, it lacked the book-rest, it lacked the crown-glass windows and the skull on the windowsill, and instead of the warm wooden panelling there were bookshelves and carpets extending to the ceiling; but it was a retreat nonetheless, stupendously secluded from the rest of the house.
The book is dedicated to Blumenberg’s daughter, the writer and editor Bettina Blumenberg, and so while I feel these passages caricature the high philosophical sensibility of Bettina’s father, it seems like an appreciative, loving sort of caricature. Mostly for the better, Hans Blumenberg is represented as an elevated, haughty sort of man: he thought on a different plane than you or me. This appreciation extends to his prodigious work habits: he must conduct most of his important business at night, “those hours of radical withdrawal from the world’s busyness in which a handful of sleepless souls, at most, tossed and turned, and only very few people carried out their duties.” (I found this detail about Blumenberg hit close to home; I too am a distractible sort who is most productive in that motionless quiet.) Even the lion cannot shake his work habits: “He packed the one full cassette in an envelope”–he dictates his lectures verbally, so powerful is his memory, his command of his material–”not letting anything deter him–lion or no lion–from writing the address of the university on it clearly, albeit a little shakily, and putting a stamp on it. He reached for his coat and left through the garden gate, giving the animal an arresting look, as if he wanted to nail it to the carpet.” The lion, to Blumenberg, is yet another intellectual puzzle to solve, a vista to be charted. Blumenberg is especially distinct from the average person in the rigor of his thinking. He doesn’t just think about a subject, but rather he has a certain archetype in his mind which tells him the most noble processes by which he is supposed to think, by which he should be seen as thinking, and these procedures/habits of mind buoy his self-confidence and provide him clear direction. (He can be heard chiding himself whever he deviates from this clear, procedural mode of thinking.) He is shown admiring the medieval monks in a painting by Antonello da Messina for how they owned few books but mastered the same ones repeatedly.
If I’m being honest though, Blumenberg was not necessarily a figure I was elated by, however interesting it was to learn about him and see his personality interpreted on page. There are chapters interspersed throughout the books focusing on one or other of Blumenberg’s students, and these were more brisk and traditional in their narration; it was funny to see how their youthful ambition stand somewhat oddly matched with his grandfatherly, absentminded solicitude, and reading a non-Blumenberg chapter in Blumenberg was like coming up for fresh air after a heady though not-entirely-unpleasant experience; while it is possible I would enjoy a reread upon entering into the background matter a bit more, for now not-entirely-unpleasant is a reasonable characterization of my overall enjoyment level. I am curious to read more of this author, who manages to almost make enjoyable a rather abstruse choice of subject matter (a sign of great talent, surely.)
Rubric forthcoming. Stay tuned!