Hans Blumenberg: What is Absent about the Lion

The posthumous collection Löwen was published in 2001 according, it would seem, to Blumenberg’s own intentions. In this slim volume are gathered 32 short pieces, almost never longer than a handful of paragraphs, each devoted to unlocking the significance of a leonine reference in literature, iconography or speech. The lion is an eloquent and ubiquitous symbol, but it seems to figure in Blumenberg’s reflections, broadly speaking, as representing the power of the absolute and its limitations.

After being out of print for a few years, Löwen has recently received renewed attention following the publication of Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s novel Blumenberg (2011). The novel (which I have reviewed here [in German]), is set in the early 1980s, towards the end of an academic career which he was finding increasingly onerous, and is loaded with references to Blumenberg’s work, down to obscure early essays and phrases taken from his correspondence. It begins with the barely fictionalized philosopher being visited at night, in his study, by a rather scruffy but undeniably real lion. The situation recalls that of St. Jerome in his hermitage, except that, whereas legend had the church father earn the lion’s gratitude and companionship by drawing a thorn from its foot, Blumenberg cannot be certain of how the lion got into his house. The king of beasts thus represents the irruption of the absolute into Blumenberg’s ordered scholarly existence. A scar on the lion’s flank makes it clear to Blumenberg, the Doubting Thomas, as well as to the reader, just what this absolute is. For good measure, Ms Lewitscharoff adds allusions to the Schmittian categories of sovereignty and the miraculous.

This theological take on Blumenberg – which culminates in an apotheosis parodying the end of Faust II – is problematic, as Birgit Recki has explained in her brilliant review in Merkur (66:4 [2012]):

The altogether unquestioning acceptance with which the ‘Blumenberg’ of the novel accepts the lion as a message from the absolute, this acquiescence to fate, which goes so far as to include an acceptance of the colleagues Habermas and Taubes, previously regarded with jealousy and irritation, lacks any systematic support in the philosopher’s thought. Perhaps it accords with the author’s theologically and religiously altogether differently grounded desire to see the most principled heretic in twentieth-century philosophy tamed by means of a ‘mascot’.

I’m too sympathetic to that characterization of Blumenberg to argue with it here. But this is not the place to go too far into this interesting if flawed novel. What is striking about the lions around which Blumenberg spins his webs of association is that they are often portrayed as falling short of the position ascribed to them by the symbolic order: they are down on their luck, closer to the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz than to Aslan in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia tales.

Blumenberg was too subtle to stoop to crude punning: he left it to Carl Schmitt to draw a connection between the Löwe and their common sparring partner, Karl Löwith (see Reinhard Mehring, Carl Schmitt. Aufstieg und Fall. Munich: Beck 2009, p. 662). But that is a mere aside. The following excerpt from Löwen takes us straight to the center of the action:

* * * * *

Hans Blumenberg

What is Absent about the Lion: St. Jerome in his Study with an Hourglass

The church father Jerome, whose remains are supposedly interred at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, was involved in all dogmatic disputes raging at the beginning of the fifth century. Although he had studies rhetoric, his ascetic fervor again and again impelled him to withdraw to the desert for prolonged silence. He would, however, as regularly return with large quantities of writings. This peculiarity of his ascetic strictness is rendered visible in the configuration of ‘St. Jerome in his Study’: the hermit writing, with his pet, the desert lion, infected with piety. The viewer finds himself annoyed at the harmlessness of the lion on panels and woodcuts, for they withhold the knowledge of how such a symbiosis may have come about.

The Schnütgen Collection in Cologne contains a wooden sculpture from the early 16th century, in which the lion is still wild and dangerous, indeed seems poised to leap at the saint, who deters him by his stance composed of rhetoric and prayer. The story may have continued in the lion, as thanks for having been restrained from murdering the saint, taking over the guard over the hermitage, to keep the theologian from being disturbed my marauding predators.

This view owes its persuasiveness to rhetoric, which can bend even the wildest, but also to the scholar’s desire to keep ‘reality’ close at hand, if only in moderation. This lion, as the great biblical scholar well knows, is still that of the psalmist, which roams about roaring, looking for victims to devour; but the very word that represents the enemy of man in this image is that which, dressed in rhetoric, has the lion eating out of his hand.

Rhetoric and reality: The confrontation, transformed into a configuration, makes ‘St. Jerome in his Study’ imperishable, returning in ever new casts.* In his Sanduhrbuch [“Hourglass Book”], Ernst Jünger introduces the opposition between the abstract, mechanical time subject to the rigor of mechanical clocks and the natural, elemental time in the measure of the hourglass. A variant of the romantic alternatives to all ‘driving forces’ of mechanisms, leading to the gate of the timeless gardens where never a bell tolls. That is so tempting that we would almost like to believe it again and again – as in the hermit and his lion. In the case of Jünger, too, who has Dürer’s 1514 engraving with the hourglass between the galero and the skull in mind, grand rhetoric is at play, poised to ask questions to which no answers are expected: Who would not wish to share in this silence, in the midst of the warm wooden paneling, whilst in the corner, the sand trickles through the hourglass and, before the desk, there dreams a lion, for which one may also substitute a cat? The conclusion is sobering and telling: If the stage was to be set for a Hieronymian icon, then the lion could not be replaced by a homely felid, although Dürer placed alongside the sleeping lion an equally sleeping pet dog: a bourgeois idyll. But would the power of the word to emerge from such a hermitage withstand the test of its power if it had not yet conquered crude reality in its kingly representative? Metaphors that take such turns should not be trusted.

Original title: “Das Abwesende am Löwen: Hieronymus im Gehäus mit Sanduhr”. In Hans Blumenberg, Löwen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001, pp. 91-93. Translated by Joe Paul Kroll.

* Besetzungen. I would normally use (as Robert M. Wallace does) the term ‘(re)occupation’ for Blumenberg’s (Um)Besetzung (certainy not the cathexis of Freud’s translators), but the theatrical sense of Besetzung as ‘cast’ is worth preserving here. – J.P.K.

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One Response to Hans Blumenberg: What is Absent about the Lion

  1. Pingback: Archive fervor: some thoughts on Blumenberg’s Nachlass | Chakira

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