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Time of the Magicians by Wolfram Eilenberger

This issue we travel back in time in Germany, as Leonid Bilmes uses words and symbols to consider the words and symbols of four famous ‘Weimar magicians’.

Wolfram Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians (2020) is not only a vivid portrait of the lives of four very different thinkers and an incisive analysis of their ideas, but also a kind of biographical album showing surprising correspondences between them. For readers already familiar with these twentieth-century philosophers’ lives and work, herein lies this book’s principal interest.

Time of the Magicians

The four, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Cassirer, and Martin Heidegger, had one thing in common: the belief that mistaken assumptions about language are the wellsprings of error in philosophy. For each thinker, the first task of philosophy is to refine our picture of language by questioning inherited assumptions about its uses and purpose, because to do so is the only way to address philosophy’s biggest questions. Or, as Wittgenstein and Heidegger believed, to stop asking the wrong questions and start asking the right ones.

The book’s story begins with a debate between Heidegger and Cassirer at a landmark philosophy conference held in Davos, Switzerland, in 1929. The conference was attended by some of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century, including the young Emmanuel Levinas, Norbert Elias, and Rudolf Carnap, and its subject was the transformation in thought inaugurated by Immanuel Kant. The alpine sanatorium at Davos had earlier been the setting of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), and Eilenberger makes a suggestive comparison between the opposing positions of Heidegger and Cassirer and that novel’s characters Leo Naphta (the radical) and Lodovico Settembrini (the cosmopolitan).

According to Cassirer, the leading neo-Kantian scholar of his day, discovering how we arrive at knowledge must come first in philosophy. The various ways in which we learn to express ourselves – what Cassirer calls ‘symbolic forms’ – shape our understanding of the world. Cassirer’s legendary capacity to absorb encyclopaedic quantities of information predisposed him to think syncretistically. His magnus opus, the three volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923-1929) is an attempt to collate and analyse all types of human expression, including natural language, science, religion, myth, music, and art. Cassirer believed that this kind of interdisciplinary synthesis is the surest path to enlightenment in a post-Enlightenment age. Heidegger, on the other hand, says that ontology (the study of being) is both primary and irreducible. We cannot, he argues, reduce philosophy’s biggest question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, to any system of knowledge, because it is a question that informs every such system. Human beings are for Heidegger the only species able to question the nature of being, in their own being, and it is this questioning that makes symbolic self-expression, and hence all forms of knowledge, possible.

There’s one point on which Heidegger and Cassirer agree, and that is the role of language as the medium that makes us – in every sense – who we are. Cassirer wanted to grasp language horizontally, by taking stock of every form of symbolic expression in order to discern something like a universal syntax of sense-making. (He never found it; but in the attempt Cassirer foreshadowed Noam Chomsky’s idea of generative grammar.) Heidegger instead sought to plumb language’s depths, seeking to restore to us our lost grasp of Being. To do so, Heidegger would forge a philosophical language of his own.

Despite irreconcilable philosophical positions, Heidegger and Cassirer were both seeking to invent a philosophy that would lead them and their followers towards the light. For Heidegger, this path involves apprehending the world as if for the first time, when the world is no longer seen, in Eilenberger’s phrase, ‘through the frosted glass of theory’. For Cassirer, it involves seeing more clearly the various dimensions of ‘the real’ made possible by each kind of symbolic form and ‘the specific mode of mental apprehension’ that each kind involves. Cassirer’s philosophy dissolves every kind of ‘ism’, because it shows that every ism – be it rationalism, materialism, or the more nefarious kinds – sees only its own category wherever it looks. His aim was to incorporate all the isms into one theory. Cassirer’s work, in short, is a symposium of ways of sense-making. This is a little like Eilenberger’s own approach in Time of the Magicians. What Eilenberger is after is to present his reader with a collage recounting the momentous events in the lives of his four protagonists during the nineteen-thirties. Opening in 1929 with the Davos debate, then resuming the narrative chronologically, the book is divided into seven chapters, each of which moves contrapuntally between the four men’s often tumultuous lives.

Eilenberger’s narrational counterpoint allows us to spot recurring ideas and images. As in a musical fugue, these images often reappear in inversion. For instance, Eilenberger points to a metaphor used by both Heidegger and Wittgenstein in their letters which can be said to invert René Descartes’ image of figures moving about outside his study window. In his Meditations (1641), Descartes questions both his senses and the ordinary language used to express personal experience, reflecting that to say ‘I see’ is to imply more than the impression conveyed by the eyes. Observing people walking along the street, Descartes reflects, “what do I actually see other than hats and coats, which could be covering automata? But I judge that they are people” (trans. Michael Moriarty). His point is that the rational mind is solely responsible for making the judgment. This insight would lead him to formulate possibly the most quoted Latin sentence in philosophy: Cogito ergo sum.

Both Wittgenstein and Heidegger rejected Cartesian rationalism. Wittgenstein’s eldest sister, Hermine, recalls urging her brother to give up what would prove to be a disastrous occupation as a primary school teacher, by telling him in a letter that he was trying to use ‘a precision instrument to open crates’. Ludwig responded with a typically striking metaphor: “You remind me of someone who is looking through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passerby; he doesn’t know what storm is raging outside and that this person is perhaps only with great effort keeping himself on his feet.” The image could have come straight out of Kafka’s diaries, and it demonstrates Wittgenstein’s knack for flipping our thinking upside-down. As he wrote to Bertrand Russell, “You cannot prescribe to a symbol what it may be used to express. All that a symbol can express it may express.” This insight would lead Wittgenstein to question his own ‘picture-theory’ of logical propositions, as elaborated in the only book of philosophy he published during his lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). He went on to write the (unfinished) Philosophical Investigations (1953), in which he tried to solve the puzzle gestured at in his letter to Russell.

In a letter to his wife, Heidegger evokes a similar image, but with a quite different intent. He describes himself as called to a ‘transtemporal task’, riven from the banal existence led by the herd of the unenlightened: “I am essentially different to them all – they walk past outside as if on the other side of the window.” Note the difference: in Wittgenstein’s image, he is the one caught in the midst of a storm that his sister, looking on, cannot see. In Heidegger’s image, it is others who are seen ‘as if on the other side of the window’ – suggesting that his quest is solitary and special, and insulated from everyday human concerns.

Wittgenstein once mentioned Heidegger’s work, during a session of the Vienna Circle, no less: “I can imagine what Heidegger means by being and anxiety. Man feels the urge to run up against the limits of language. Think for example of the amazement that something exists. Astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is no answer.”

Heidegger would certainly agree with the ‘amazement’ part: his philosophy begins with the acknowledgment that, astonishingly, there is something. Wittgenstein had himself expressed this astonishment when he cryptically wrote in the Tractatus: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” But, in contrast to Wittgenstein, everything Heidegger wrote wrestled with answering the question, ‘ Was gibt es?’ – roughly, ‘What is given?’. In Wittgenstein's view, the way out of the fly bottle (his metaphor for being trapped inside an unsolvable philosophical problem) is only discovered once we understand how language can lure us into asking the wrong questions, for then we realize that the fly trap does not, in fact, exist. And the only way to do that, is to open one’s eyes to how everyday language actually functions – to study language in its everyday habitat.

An even more revealing correspondence emerges out of Eilenberger’s comparison of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations with Walter Benjamin’s final book (also not completed), The Arcades Project (compiled). These two books are composed of disconnected but related paragraphs. They are both composites of what Benjamin called Denkbilder (thought-pictures).

This is how Wittgenstein describes his approach to writing in Investigations : “The philosophical remarks in this book are, as it were, a number of sketches of landscapes which were made in the course of… long and meandering journeys… The same or almost the same points were always being approached from different directions, and new sketches made … So this book is really just an album.”

In exploring the avenues, streets, and cul-de-sacs of everyday language in the Investigations, Wittgenstein, in Eilenberger’s analogy, writes the commonplace book of a flaneur – a sort of walking tour through language. The analogy fits well, not least because Wittgenstein himself compares language to an ancient city, ‘a maze of little streets and squares’ that keeps expanding, and where it’s all too easy to lose one’s way. The philosopher’s task is to map language in the clearest possible fashion and so help the lost find their way again. And the only way to do so is to have walked those streets and gotten lost oneself.

The Arcades Project, and Benjamin’s earlier One-Way Street (1928), are both constructed from a similar blueprint. For Benjamin, the spirit of modernity was exemplified by the shopping arcades that first appeared in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. Benjamin believed that the way to make sense of modern alienation amongst capitalism’s parade of commodities is to describe this parade as precisely and piercingly as possible. The present moment and its surfeit of stuff needs to be portrayed in its multifarious complexity. To do so, one must become a flaneur with an archaeologist’s eye. That’s the only way, Benjamin believed, one could ever hope to comprehend modernity’s relation to the past from which it wants to sever itself. Like Wittgenstein, Benjamin sought to represent his subject in a way he thought reflected its fragmentary, ambulatory nature: as a complex map drawn with analogies, indicating the past's fingerprints on diverse modern objects. In Eilenberger’s phrase, the method informing The Arcades Project is quite simply ‘Remembrance as knowledge’.

Parts of the story told by Time of the Magicians will perhaps be old news to some readers: Benjamin’s awkward courtship of Asja Lacis on Capri; Heidegger’s affair with a student, one Hannah Arendt; Wittgenstein’s frustrated careers as both primary school teacher and architect. (He worked with his friend, the architect Paul Engelmann, on the design of his sister Gretl’s house in Vienna. The house still stands, austere, imposing and apart, on Kundmanngasse, and is currently the home of the Cultural Department of the Bulgarian Embassy.) Nonetheless, Eilenberger has woven together a gripping narrative of echoing struggles, and, occasionally, triumphs. His characterizations are almost always on point. Consider, for instance, the following description of Wittgenstein’s difficulties with self-expression: “We can assume that he spoke with his usual slight stammer, his eyes glowing, and with an idiosyncratic intonation that sounded less like the English tongue in a foreign mouth than the speech of someone attuned to a different significance and musicality in human language.”

Readers curious to learn more about the early twentieth century’s leading philosophers will benefit from Eilenberger’s lucid exposition of their complex ideas. Heidegger is the book’s antihero (the man revealed in his personal correspondence is hard to like), while Cassirer is portrayed as the dignified professor, patiently amassing his Borgesian library. (In this, he was greatly assisted by his friend Aby Warburg, founder of The Warburg Institute.) But Eilenberger shines brightest in his accounts of Wittgenstein and Benjamin, and his book follows the blueprint of the album, so dear to them both.

Clarity of expression is always difficult, and not only for philosophers. Shaun Whiteside’s translation has done this book the kind of verbal justice so painstakingly sought by these four magicians, whose lives and ideas Eilenberger has stitched together with almost no visible seams.

© Leonid Bilmes 2021

Leonid Bilmes is Visiting Lecturer at HSE University’s School of Foreign Languages in Moscow. His writing on contemporary literature and philosophy has appeared in Textual Practice, Los Angeles Review of Books, and others. He is completing his first book, Prose Pictures: Ekphrasis, Memory and Narrative after Proust.

Time of the Magicians, by Wolfram Eilenberger, Allen Lane, 2020, £16 hb, 432 pages, ISBN: 978-0198801580

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