EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE: The Philosophy of Lev Shestov and Benjamin Fondane, by Ricardo Nirenberg. 
On the night of November 4, moist eyed like many others, I listened to the phrase, “In America everything is possible.” The man who was saying this is the son of a dark-skinned African father, and the fact that he had just been elected president of the United States was certainly something new and surprising, something not long ago considered an impossibility. But the phrase itself, “Everything is possible,” has a long history, possibly as long as the history of faith, therefore plausibly as long as the history of humankind. Because of the short time available, I shall limit myself to the last hundred years, and even within the century, to a few cases which hold a special interest for me. Actually, my intention is to talk about my present take on Lev Shestov and his disciple the poet Benjamin Fondane: their battle cry, “Everything is possible!” was, not unlike Obama’s, directed mostly against those who are inclined to shrug their shoulders and affirm, “Shit happens, and nothing can be done about it.” On the night of November 4, as we listened to “Everything is possible in America,” as an ostinato bass sounding in the background of my mind, and, I am sure, in the minds of many others, was the “Shit happens,” uttered as self-justification by those who were in charge of the American invasion of Iraq, when they were pressed about civilian casualties, the pillaging of ruins and museums, and the torture of prisoners by the U.S. armed forces.
* * *
Yehuda Leib Schwarzmann was born in 1866, in a well-to-do Jewish family: his father was a Hebrew-educated textile merchant in Kiev. Leib Isaakovitch took up the nom de plume Lev Shestov in 1898, when he published in St. Petersburg the book Shakespeare and his Critic Brandes. The adoption of this shortened name, plus his marriage to a goyishe girl, kept secret from his family, marked the break between Lev and his father in a real as well as a symbolic way. For in Russian torgashestvo means mercantilism, and by chopping off torga, which means market, i.e. the father’s textile business, we are left with shestvo, a Russian nominal suffix, and that’s how we finally get Shestov. As for Benjamin Fondane, Shestov’s one and only disciple, he was born Benjamin Wechsler, in 1898, in Iaşi (pronounced Yash, roughly, with an i-sounding whisper at the end), the main city in Moldavia. The Schwarzfelds, the mother’s side, were Hebrew scholars, and for young Benjamin, the gods to imitate. His father, Isaak Wechsler, was a small businessman whose own father had been the administrator of a country estate in the Hertza region, formerly a part of Romania, but since World War II a part of the Ukraine. Benjamin came upon his literary pseudonym very early: he styled himself Fundoianu, after Fundoia, the name of the country estate associated with his paternal grandfather. Fundoia derives from the Romanian word fund, which, like Latin fundus, means ground, bottom, and a tract of land: Benjamin Fundoianu kept this name until he moved to France in 1923, where he changed it to the more Gallic form, Fondane.
As we see, there was much in common between these two men, master and disciple, even before they met in Paris in the mid-twenties. Both Eastern European Jews, both sons of businessmen named Isaac, one half a Schwarzmann, the other half a Schwarzfeld, and both born in the first generation of Eastern European Jews to be secularly educated. Both married Christian women. Most remarkably, they shared the anti-market, anti-business feelings common among young, emancipated, intellectual Jews of that place and time: they loathed, or were ashamed of, their father’s occupation. Shestov lopped off torga, the market, to get himself a pseudonym, and Fondane changed his name from Wechsler, i.e. money-changer, to another with a rural ring to it. Not that Benjamin Fondane, the man, the future denizen of the Quartier Latin, was fond of country life; he wasn’t, and as a poet he did not ever revert to the Horatian “O rus, quando ego te aspiciam.” But what was at play here, both in Shestov’s and in Fondane’s choice of pseudonyms, was nothing less than the old Christian, feudal polarity, namely the evils of money, business, markets, filthy lucre and sinful usury, over against the crushing moral and spiritual superiority of landed, rooted property.
“All Things Are Possible” is the English title of an early book of Shestov, a collection of philosophic aphorisms, published in Russia in 1905 as Apofeoz Bespochvennosti (The Apotheosis of Groundlessness). The English translation, All Things Are Possible, appeared in London and New York in 1920, with an introduction by D.H. Lawrence, who may have suggested the English title too. Fondane never published anything, as far as I know, under that heading; Fondane’s collection of philosophical essays appeared in Paris, under the ironically Hegelian title, La Conscience malheureuse, in 1936. It was the year of the Front National, a year of fervent political hopes and desperations, when one of the most prominent politicians in the French government, Marceau Pivert, published a pamphlet announcing, Tout est possible ! By which he meant, among other things, that France could become a communistic society free from banks, money and strife. Tout est possible—everything is possible, the good miracle as well as the evil one, and we all know what horrors became actual by the end of that low, dishonest decade.
To explain the philosophy of Lev Shestov and Benjamin Fondane it may be best to begin with an old problem which may be considered theological rather than philosophical: Exactly how powerful is God? Judging from the Torah and the Book of Job, his purposes and actions are absolutely arbitrary and impervious to our rational scrutiny. True, God can limit himself and make promises or enter into covenants, but those are actions out of his mysterious and utterly free will. Rationalistic men like Maimonides, Spinoza and Einstein, however, have taken a different position: God’s power is great indeed, yet limited by the rules of logic and the good order of the universe, so that he should be unable, for example, to contradict himself. Then, at the opposite end, there are those who believe that far from being omnipotent, God is powerless without human cooperation: this conclusion was reached by Hans Jonas in his old age, in view of the Shoah and the catastrophes which occurred during his life. An omnipotent God could not have let those happen, Jonas believed.
In the Western Christian churches, too, the opinions about God’s power are sharply divided. Petrus Damiani (1007-1072), Doctor of the Church since 1823, maintained that God has the power to alter the past. Thomas Aquinas, however, states that “God can take all corruption, mental and physical, from a woman who has lost her integrity, but he cannot remove the fact that once she did lose it.” Luther, on the other hand, explicitly affirms the independence of God’s actions from any logical limitation—“In vain does one fashion a logic of faith,” and, “No syllogistic form is valid when applied to divine forms.” This is one reason why Shestov held Luther in the highest regard.
Shestov died in Paris in 1938, and his disciple Fondane died in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944; both believed that God is able to do absolutely anything: contradict himself, make time run backwards and even return to Job the children he had taken away as a test—the same ones, not just the same number. That is one of the basic elements of Shestov’s and Fondane’s philosophy. It may be called the omnipotence element.
A second basic element in the philosophy of Shestov and Fondane is nominalism, a philosophic position regarding the medieval problem of universals, that is, the problem of the ontological status of general words such as “mankind.” For the so-called realists, “mankind” refers to something which has full existence—even more: superexistence—in a realm of ideas, Plato’s heaven of eternal forms. On the opposite side, the nominalists were anti-Platonic; according to them the word “mankind” is nothing more than a wind from the mouth, a flatus voci, and the only things which can be said to exist truly are particulars: this piece of quartz, that rose, you, me. The 14th-century philosopher William of Okham (he of the razor) seems to have been the first fully fledged proponent of the nominalist doctrine. His teacher, Duns Scotus, was the first medieval philosopher to uphold human free will even when it causes problems with God’s foreknowledge of all contingencies. Both Scotus and Ockham were British, and their positive valuation of sense experience plus their antipathy to Plato’s heaven of forms, runs, like the red thread in Royal Navy’s ropes, through most subsequent British thought.
Now, those two elements, absolute omnipotence and nominalism, are favorably related. Not that one logically entails the other, far from it, but getting rid of Plato’s heaven of ideas, that crystalline regulative realm where all is eternal, intelligible and necessary, makes it easier to believe in an arbitrary, omnipotent, jealous and capricious god, and reciprocally, faith in a god not bound by logic tends to dim the brilliance of any heaven of ideas.
The next notable development in the nominalist element had to wait until after Newton’s discoveries, which raised man’s trust on human reason to heights thereto unknown. Yet, according to Newton’s Third Law, there is no action without reaction, no force without another force directly opposed. And so it happened that the greatest triumph of reason elicited, in time, the sharpest skepticism. Bishop Berkeley assaulted the consistency of infinitesimal calculus, and, more decisively, David Hume, the champion of contingency, maintained that all connections or relations between our perceptions, including that of cause and effect, are only habits of our mind. That means that the natural sciences, and even geometry, have, in Hume’s view, the same epistemic status as, say, ethnography.
Let me disgress for half-a-minute. A curious fact: in the mid-1730s Hume wrote his Treatise of Human Nature in the small Anjou town of La Flèche. Why, of all places, did the very young Hume choose La Flèche, where more than a century earlier Descartes had attended the Jesuits’ school? Was it because he was aware that what he was trying to do was nothing less than demolish the rationalistic constructions of Plato, Aristotle and Descartes? Nobody seems to know.
After Hume, the influence of the nominalist element extended from the British isles to the Baltic coast, more precisely to Königsberg. I am not referring to the famous Kant, but to his contemporary and compatriot Johann Georg Hamann. During a business trip to London in 1757, twenty-seven-year-old Hamann had an epiphany, after which he dedicated his life to combat the rationalistic spirit of the Enlightenment. Did he meet Hume or Hume’s ideas during that trip to London? Again, nobody seems to know. In any case, here is what Isaiah Berlin writes in his book about Hamann, The Magus of the North:
“Descartes believed that it was possible to acquire knowledge of reality from a priori sources, by deductive reasoning. This, according to Hamann, is the first appalling fallacy of modern thought. The only true subverter of this false doctrine was Hume, whom Hamann read with enthusiastic agreement. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the Bible and Hume are the two oddly interwoven roots of his ideas.”
So here, in this brilliant and enigmatic figure, the son of Protestant pietists, whose writings are as difficult to interpret as alchemical or cabbalistic texts, we find the two elements, absolute omnipotence and nominalism, come together. Hamann, a.k.a. The Magus of the North, had a direct and strong influence on Herder, on Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, and on Kierkegaard, who considered him an “enormous genius.” Through these and surely other conduits, Hamann had a strong if indirect influence, too, on Shestov and Fondane, even though neither, in all probability, had ever heard of him. Isaiah Berlin’s writes:
“Hamann’s great enemy is necessity—metaphysical or scientific. Here he suspects that a specific human vision—a moment of illumination or ordinary understanding, in which a man grasped his situation and knew how to act, in order to achieve his spontaneously conceived ends—was turned into a pseudo-objective source of authority—a formula, a law, an institution, something outside men, conceived as eternal, unalterable, universal; a world of necessary truths, mathematics, theology, politics, physics, which man did not make and cannot alter, crystalline, pure, an object of divine worship for atheists. He rejects this absolutely. No bridge is needed between necessary and contingent truths because the laws of the world in which man lives are as contingent as the ‘facts’ in it. All that exists could have been otherwise if God had so chosen, and can be so still. God’s creative powers are unlimited, man’s are limited; nothing is eternally fixed, at least nothing in the human world—outside it we know nothing, at any rate in this life. The ‘necessary’ is relatively stable, the ‘contingent’ is relatively changing, but this is a matter of degree, not kind.”
This could be equally applied, verbatim, to Lev Shestov and to Benjamin Fondane. They, like Hume, Hamann, Jacobi and Kierkegaard, set faith high above and before abstract reason. They also took the Genesis story of the Fall, of Eve’s and Adam’s disobedience—and all for the sake of knowledge!—as literally descriptive of the human condition.
This brings us to the third element in Shestov’s and Fondane’s philosophy, which I will call the tragic element. I have already briefly brushed upon the contradiction involved in holding together a nostalgia for rootedness, and the impulse to unrootedness and a total absence of ground. A more fundamental contradiction in the thought of Shestov and Fondane is found at the center of the question of faith. On the one hand, faith in the divine omnipotence is essential for achieving the absolute freedom signified by the words, “Everything is possible.” And yet Shestov writes:
“We should doubt so that doubt becomes a continuous creative force, inspiring the very essence of our life. For established knowledge argues in us a condition of imperfect receptivity.”
Thus we should hold to an almost impossible faith and, at the same time, hold on to an equally impossible doubt. Such holding on to two contradictory states of mind, without the benefit of a future higher conciliation, is a first tragic element that I wish to point out. Confronted with the problem of exactly how powerful the gods are, Euripides too holds on to two opposite and irreconcilable thoughts. Almost at the end of Iphigenia in Tauris, the goddess Athena tells us (line 1486): “tó gàr khreòn soû te kaì theôn krateî”—Necessity governs even the gods. Yet in other tragedies by Euripides—Alcestis, Andromache, Helena, Bacchantes, Medea—the last few lines in each case affirm the power of god to bring about what seemed up to that point an utter impossibility: “kaì tà dokethént’ ouk etelésthe, / tôn d’adokéton póron eûre theós”— God does not bring about what is expected, but finds some unexpected way .
Tò khreón, hateful necessity, Shestov and Fondane agreed, rules over our everyday dealings with the world. Here we must recall, briefly and parenthetically, that Shestov and Fondane’s idea of necessity was Aristotelian logic and early 19th-century strict determinism, unmitigated by statistical or quantum mechanics, unsoftened by American Pragmatism or chaos theory. It is the sort of determinism—two plus two equals four and that’s it, baby—against which Dostoevsky’s character, the Underground Man, railed and stuck out his tongue. But now, here’s the second tragic element which I must point out in the thought of Shestov and Fondane: there are situations in life when the rule of necessity stops, when tò khreón loses its force, and these are the dire, extreme situations when we are confronted with the abyss. Daniel in the lions’ den. Dostoevsky in Siberia before the firing squad. In such situations, if we have a strong enough faith in the omnipotence of God, we can suddenly awake from our nightmare to find ourselves in a different world, a realm of unfettered freedom, where necessity and causality have no hold. But both conditions, absolute faith in the omnipotence of God and being confronted by the abyss, are, paradoxically perhaps, necessary for the awakening, necessary for freedom from necessity.
D.H. Lawrence, in his 1920 introduction to All Things Are Possible, wrote that Shestov was expressing a Russian, non-Western element in his writings. All the elements I have distinguished, however—omnipotence, nominalism and the tragic—have old and distinguished Western filiations. But let us not get into arguments about what is Eastern and what is Western, a hard problem and older than the split between the Osthrogoths and the Visigoths. After the death of Shestov in 1938, and as WWII approached, Fondane had the premonition that he was not to survive it, and he gave copies of his most precious posession (as he put it), the text of his Conversations with Shestov, to several people for safekeeping. During the Occupation Fondane did not leave Paris. He lived with his wife Geneviève and his sister Lina at 6 rue Rollin, in the Quartier Latin. In March 1944, Benjamin and his sister were arrested by the French police and taken to the Drancy prison camp (Geneviève was not Jewish). During the days that followed, Fondane refused to be freed, which was a possibility, unless his sister was freed too. Soon they were both deported to Auschwitz.
* * *
We honor Benjamin Fondane’s memory together with the memory of all the victims of the Shoah. Yet, if we are to honor his thought as well, we should envisage the possibility, perhaps remote, that, right when he was being led to the gas chamber, he suddenly awoke from that nightmare to a world of absolute freedom. A world to us, however, unimaginable.
Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse.
Comments? Tell us!
Back to Offcourse home page