Archive Fervor: Some Thoughts on Blumenberg’s Nachlass

Though Hans Blumenberg is far from being a familiar name even in Germany’s educated households, one cannot fault the “quality” press. Newspapers such as Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit and Frankfurter Rundschau discussed his major publications and continue to review the books edited from the Nachlass. Particularly consistent has been the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which also published many original pieces by Blumenberg, especially in the 1980s. My distinguished hometown newspaper is also notable for its weekly humanities page. Though recently cut from two pages, the section entitled  “Geisteswissenschaften” is still required reading for Blumenberg watchers, since it can be relied upon not only to report on congresses and academic articles of note, but also occasionally to publish gems from the archive.

A recent example, however, left me with somewhat mixed feelings.[1] It gives an account of the philosopher’s supposedly last letter, which he addressed to the writer and theologian Uwe Wolff, and which has now been published in Communio, a reputable Catholic journal. As a document, the letter is undoubtedly of great interest. Not only does Blumenberg display his customary erudition – this time, in the form of learned comments on theological questions concerning Mariology and exorcism –, but the letter also contains some poignant personal remarks. Blumenberg was born to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother who converted to her husband’s faith. As a “Mischling”, in Nazi parlance, he was barred from higher education. Only two theological colleges could offer him shelter until they, too, bowed to the regime’s pressure. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that Blumenberg should have retained an affection for the Church untouched by his own subsequent loss of faith. Nor is surprising that Blumenberg, as the article claims, should have felt less than fully at home in reconstructed Germany – although, as I tried to demonstrate in my dissertation, he was also at pains tell others, including the exile Hans Jonas, that Germany had become safe. Later in life, he was troubled by the student movement, in whose excesses he seems to have felt echoes of the mob mentality he had witnessed in his formative years.[2]

Blumenberg’s astonishingly profound knowledge of Christian theology is evident throughout his work. His book St. Matthew Passion (Matthäuspassion, 1988) is no doubt the most concentrated display of this learning. Yet it is also a book that is both sorrowful and uncompromising in its interpretation of Bach’s oratorio as revealing God’s powerlessness and futility. But Blumenberg was far from being a fervent anti-clericalist. This point is proved by the absence of the usual polemical tropes (“priestly guile” etc.) as well as by the letter to Wolff, in which Blumenberg writes of his “love” for the Church and his continued identification with it as his spiritual home. The letter, apparently written a few weeks before Blumenberg’s death in March 1996, should not be read as indicative of some kind of death-bed conversion, either. In fact, Blumenberg’s declaration of love for the Church reprises similar statements made in an earlier letter to an old friend, Alfons Neukirchen, which I quote at length in my dissertation. In this letter, Blumenberg rejects his friend’s anti-clericalism, expressing his admiration for Pope John Paul II and his respect for tradition. While making it clear that he himself no longer believed a word of the Church’s teachings, Blumenberg restates his gratitude for its early support.[3]

My irritation at the FAZ piece thus had less to do with its supposed revelations than with some of the comments accompanying them. I am sure that Jürgen Kaube, the article’s author, has it on good evidence that Blumenberg “died surrounded by Bibles and a Catholic cathechism”, though I am disturbed by the death-bed scene from a baroque painting that presents itself to my mind’s eye. More vexing still is Kaube’s suggestion that the letter might serve to correct the image of a philosopher “who to some may have appeared only as a proponent of an enlightenment critical of religion and a defender of modernity against its detractors”. Obviously, I have no reason to suppose Kaube means me personally or even knows of my work, but that is how I portrayed and continue to view Blumenberg, at least in his writings up to and including Work on Myth. (The later work, which, with the exception of Lebenszeit und Weltzeit and Matthäuspassion, my dissertation only skims, is perhaps another matter or places different emphases.) Lest I still be suspected of pique, I certainly agree that any discussion of Blumenberg’s work to ignore such ambiguities woukd be flawed. Yet I would also maintain that what is of interest here is not the presence or absence of statements more or less explicitly critical of religion in Blumenberg’s work – in any case, that would hardly have been his style – but the fundamentally atheological nature of a philosophy that was concerned with keeping the absolute (in whatever guise it might present itself) at bay.

What troubled me most about the article (and of course, from a philosophical standpoint, my irritation is of no consequence anyway) was how it seemed to echo, however unintentionally, the ending of Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s yet more irritating novel, Blumenberg. At that book’s conclusion, which seems to play on that of Goethe’s Faust II, Blumenberg experiences a kind of apotheosis, raised to “another world” by the lion who has accompanied the philosopher throughout. I have already discussed this novel in a previous post and quoted some lines from Birgit Recki’s magisterial review: “The altogether unquestioning acceptance with which the ‘Blumenberg’ of the novel accepts the lion as a message from the absolute, this acquiescence to fate, […] 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’.”[4] Although this statement may require qualification with regard to the consistency of Blumenberg’s heresy, at least as far as his personal feelings are concerned, scrutiny of his work will indeed give no support to anyone seeking the comforts of faith or the redemption suggested by Sibylle Lewitscharoff.

* * * * *

In its connection with Blumenberg, the FAZ is rivaled (if that is the word) only by its Swiss counterpart, the venerable Neue Zürcher Zeitung. The NZZ’s long-standing feuilleton editor, Martin Meyer, was personally acquainted with Blumenberg. A few months ago, the paper published one of the most exciting pieces from the Nachlass to have emerged in recent years: a relatively short essay in which Blumenberg discusses Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Commentary is provided by Blumenberg’s former assistant, Ahlrich Meyer, who is apparently working on a book to contain the essay’s still unpublished full version. In this, Blumenberg compares Eichmann in Jerusalem to Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism – two books whose power to cause offense, in Blumenberg’s view, was due to their authors’ not altogether disinterested devotion to the “truth”, as they saw it. It is a striking piece, both measured and passionate, and altogether original. But I don’t want to give away too much: I have translated the text into English for New German Critique, where it will be published next year. Update, May 2015: The good news is that the essay, “Moses der Ägypter”, has now appeared with supplementary material in an edition entitled Rigorismus der Wahrheit. The bad news (for me) is that copyright in the text has now migrated from the Blumenberg estate, in the person of Blumenberg’s daughter, Bettina, to Suhrkamp Verlag, who are looking to sell translation rights to the whole book. I wish them success; it’s not an easy market, but surely this text will interest even readers who are so far unfamiliar with Blumenberg.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, books edited from Blumenberg’s Nachlass continue to appear at the rate of about one a year. 2013 saw the long-awaited (well, by me and two or three others) publication of the correspondence with Jacob Taubes, in a format similar to that of the earlier volume of letters to and from Carl Schmitt. Other books have presented “lost” works in various states of completion: Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit picks up the project inaugurated in Shipwreck with SpectatorTheorie der Lebenswelt reprises themes from Lebenszeit und Weltzeit; Quellen, Ströme, Eisberge seems to be a by-product of Blumenberg’s cataloging of metaphors. There has been a major work on philosophical anthropology, Beschreibung des Menschen, and one of phenomenology, Zu den Sachen und Zurück. Most recently, Präfiguration has revealed a chapter apparently cut from Work on Myth. There have been several other volumes. Given the commitment of his publisher, Suhrkamp, to expanding his available œuvre and the excellent work done at the Marbach archives to bring more of it to light, it may seem churlish to complain.

Nonetheless, some of the choices made by the editors seem a little puzzling. There is no reason deducible from the work itself why a relatively minor piece such as the somewhat grandly named Geistesgeschichte der Technik should have already been published as a standalone volume while we still wait for the publication of Blumenberg’s Habilitationsschrift, Die ontologische Distanz (1950), which is fundamental to his subsequent intellectual development. I can only guess at possible reasons. Whilst the Nachlass is curated by a dedicated and highly knowledgeable archivist, there is no committee to decide on an editorial policy. Given the nature of Blumenberg’s vast body of letters, fragments and notes, a systematic Gesamtausgabe may well be unfeasible. Nor can we assume that Suhrkamp exercise any significant guidance over the process. Individual editions seem to depend on the initiative of the editors, who are dependent on grants – often form third parties – for their research. This, in turn, leads to a need not just to unearth completely unknown texts, but to provide extensive commentary. This is often extremely valuable, as in the case of Präfiguration, edited by Angus Nicholls and Felix Heidenreich.

But one may also see certain problems in presenting texts alongside commentary which, by sheer dint of its being appended to the primary text, is likely to be perceived as definitive. It also stands to reason that the emphasis placed on commentary and apparatus makes producing each volume costly and labor-intensive. A different path might be to gather more texts into larger volumes and to leave the labor of commentary to anyone who feels inspired to take it on. There may be too little to be gained for potential editors in producing such a volume as a fully-fledged research project, which is probably why it doesn’t happen: the job would be demanding while offering comparatively little by way of résumé-building glamour. A further problem with the manner in which archival texts are currently released is that they do not always help to complete or even to contribute our understanding of Blumenberg’s intellectual development. This is partly a function of the preponderance of later texts among the publications, which may in turn simply be the result of the growth of Blumenberg’s productivity.

It is certainly not the task of scholars editing archival texts to confirm pre-existing ideas about their author. But there is something at least potentially wearying about the release of texts which stand in no clear relation to one another or to those that Blumenberg chose to publish in his lifetime. The danger is not only of the blurring of the contours of that life’s work, but also of a certain fatigue produced by the proliferation of material with no clear systematic intention or, for that matter, quality control.

As I said, I am being churlish, for ultimately, it is for readers and scholars to decide what they deem worth their attention. Those doing specialized work on Blumenberg will, in any case, wish to consult the archives themselves, though the immensity of Blumenberg’s Nachlass is such that they may end up kicking themselves for all they did not come across (OK, I’m talking about myself again).

My sense of the gaps in the published corpus is, admittedly, determined in part by my own interests and priorities, but is is not entirely arbitrary. I would argue in favor of a return to the writings of Blumenberg’s earlier period, which show his early discussions of phenomenology, the assimilation of philosophical anthropology, his rejection of Kulturkritik, his growing interest in the late-medieval époché. All these developments lead up to the publication of his first major work, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Although this book has already received much attention, its place in the context of Blumenberg’s overall development and that development itself remain underappreciated. Returning to Blumenberg’s earlier writing would also help situate him again in the context of the philosophical and intellectual history of the times, complementing the work currently being done on “Poetik und Hermeneutik”, the influential research group of which Blumenberg was a member. Reappraising Blumenberg as a philosopher involved in the debates of his day would also provide a counterweight to the image of the recluse of the later years, who appeared to cultivate, as Ahlrich Meyer put it, “eine eher literarische Form des Philosophierens”, an emphasis which he sees reinforced by recent editorial decisions.[5]

So, to redress the balance, I would like to see the following texts given priority for publication. Not all of them are (strictly speaking) unpublished, but most are hard to find:

  1. Die ontologische Distanz
  2. Reviews, essays, and journalism, c. 1950-1965
  3. Correspondence with Gadamer, Jonas, Löwith, and Scholem (to name but four)

That’s quite a wish list already, and I’m sure there are many more relevant texts I don’t even know about. Let’s see what the next few Suhrkamp catalogs hold in store.


[1] Jürgen Kaube, “Meine Dämonen hatten schwarze Uniformen. Der letzte Brief des großen Philosophen Hans Blumenberg”. In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, June 18, 2014, p. N3.

[2] Joe Paul Kroll, A Human End to History? Hans Blumenberg, Karl Löwith and Carl Schmitt on Secularization and Modernity, PhD dissertation, Princeton 2010, Ch. I.10.

[3] Ibid, p. 284. The letter is dated November 3, 1987.

[4] Birgit Recki, “‘Blumenberg’ oder Die Chance der Literatur”. In: Merkur 66:4 (2012), pp. 322-328, p. 328.

[5] Ahlrich Meyer, “Hans Blumenberg oder: Die Kunst, sich herauszuhalten”. In: Thomas Jung and Stefan Müller-Doohm (eds.), Fliegende Fische. Eine Soziologie des Intellektuellen in 20 Porträts (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2009), pp. 337-362, p. 358.

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3 Responses to Archive Fervor: Some Thoughts on Blumenberg’s Nachlass

  1. Uwe Wolff says:

    Ihre Ausführungen zu Hans Blumenberg finde ich sehr interessant.
    Halten Sie mich auf dem Laufenden.
    Uwe Wolff

  2. José García says:

    You mention Blumenberg’s “loss of faith”. Where can I read about his personal beliefs?

    • Joe says:

      The question comes up in the two major biographies recently published in German (by Rüdiger Zill and Jürgen Goldstein) as well as in a little book by Uwe Wolff (“Der Schreibtisch des Philosophen”), which I would recommend in spite of my earlier misgivings. But there is no substitute for reading Blumenberg himself on the matter, and his “St. Matthew Passion” is now at last available in English from Cornell University Press.

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