ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"How Could They?", an essay by Ricardo Nirenberg

In a cozy corner of my mind, I’d like to hope that there is some connection between truth, beauty, and the good; I don’t mean absolute identity, as in Keats’ dogmatic dictum – why, I’m unable to define what is truth or what is beauty, far less the good – but some connection, however conditional, however tenuous.

Dante, however, destroys my hope.  Nothing in the Commedia, and very few lines of verse by other poets, do I find as beautiful and moving as these in Canto XV of the Inferno, 82-8, where Dante says to his dead teacher Brunetto Latini:

“‘Se fosse tutto pieno il mio dimando,’
rispuos’ io lui, ‘voi non sareste ancora
de l’umana natura posto in bando;
ché ’n la mente m’è fitta, e or m’accora,
la cara e buona immagine paterna
di voi quando nel mondo ad ora ad ora
m’insegnavate come l’uom s’etterna.”
(‘If my prayers were granted,’ / I replied, ‘you’d not be at this hour / barred from human nature; / for in my mind is set, and to my heart returns, / the dear, benevolent fatherly image / of yours when in the world, time and again, / you taught me how man makes himself eternal.’)

I am moved, until I reflect that it was Dante Alighieri, in his triple role as architect, scenarist, and visitor of hell, who placed Brunetto there, under the unceasing rain of fire.  Think of it.  To place “the dear and benevolent” father or his image in hell for eternity, the father who taught the young poet, day after day, “how man becomes himself eternal” – an Aristotelian turn meaning how to think eternal thoughts – the sciences of the quadrivium – which for the Philosopher was to say how to exercise the eternal part of one’s soul.  Brunetto, who taught him how to think eternal thoughts, the disciple repays by condemning him to eternal torment.  How could he?  And why?  Scholars are more or less agreed: Brunetto was homosexual, and that could be considered a sin against (human) nature.  Yet other homosexuals are placed by Dante in purgatory, as guilty of the lesser sin of lust – why is Brunetto heartbreakingly in hell?  There are no satisfactory answers.  There are those who advance different possibilities: Brunetto is posthumously punished by Dante for Florentine political reasons, or for writing his encyclopedia in French rather than Tuscan: both are farfetched and make the poet look even more like a monster.  I cannot escape the scandal: the beauty of those beautiful lines is crushed by the ugliness of the truth, by Dante’s Thomistic delight in resentment against his old guardian and teacher (it was Aquinas who added to the delights of heaven the contemplation of the torments in hell), and by the distilled hypocrisy of those words: “If my prayers were granted, you’d not be at this hour barred from human nature.” (“Se fosse tutto pieno il mio dimando, voi non sareste ancora de l’umana natura posto in bando.”).


T.S. Eliot thought of religion as “the still point in the turning world,” which gives some idea of his conservative bent.  In some respects, his position regarding hell eschewed the universalism of Origen and of the modern theologians like C.S. Lewis or Urs von Balthazar, and resembled St. Augustine’s: the vast majority of men are a massa damnata dwelling in hell.  But being a modern, cultivated man, Eliot tries to persuade us that hell is not located anywhere remote or hidden, as in Dante, and generally in antiquity and the Middle Ages, but here, before our noses: for Eliot, the modern man, hell is the modern colossal city, the anthill city of Baudelaire, full of dreams, where the specter in full daylight accosts or grabs the passerby:

"Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves,
Où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant !"

In a note to the words “Unreal city” in “The Waste Land,” Eliot quotes those first two lines (above) from Baudelaire’s poem “Les Sept vieillards” – with characteristic taste, he picks the best and first alexandrines, the two above –, but, discretely, doesn’t say a word about the rest.  The rest in Baudelaire’s poem is horrible.  Suddenly the poet encounters an old man.  His rags are dirty yellow – the color of usurious gold –, his bilious eyes are cold and evil, his beard long and pointed like Judas’, his spine and his legs are perpendicular, and with his walking stick he looks “like a sick quadruped or a three-legged Jew.”  The specter, you see, is the typical Jew:

« Tout à coup, un vieillard dont les guenilles jaunes
Imitaient la couleur de ce ciel pluvieux,
Et dont l’aspect aurait fait pleuvoir les aumônes,
Sans la méchanceté qui luisait dans ses yeux,

M’apparut. On eût dit sa prunelle trempée
Dans le fiel ; son regard aiguisait les frimas,
Et sa barbe à longs poils, roide comme une épée,
Se projetait, pareille à celle de Judas.

Il n’était pas voûté, mais cassé, son échine
Faisant avec sa jambe un parfait angle droit,
Si bien que son bâton, parachevant sa mine,
Lui donnait la tournure et le pas maladroit

D’un quadrupède infirme ou d’un juif à trois pattes.
Dans la neige et la boue il allait s’empêtrant,
Comme s’il écrasait des morts sous ses savates,
Hostile à l’univers plutôt qu’indifférent. »

The Jew walks, hostile rather than indifferent to the cosmos, as if crushing dead men under the mud with his old boots.  Then, at the rate of one per minute, six more old, identical Jews appear to the horrified poet, and whether they are the same or different specters is not clear: it is maybe undecidable, which tells us something about the nature of their diabolical conspiracy, their “infamous complot”:

« Son pareil le suivait : barbe, œil, dos, bâton, loques,
Nul trait ne distinguait, du même enfer venu,
Ce jumeau centenaire, et ces spectres baroques
Marchaient du même pas vers un but inconnu.

À quel complot infâme étais-je donc en butte,
Ou quel méchant hasard ainsi m’humiliait ?
Car je comptai sept fois, de minute en minute,
Ce sinistre vieillard qui se multipliait ! »

Those specters, suspected of being all members of an infamous conspiracy, are the city-hall inspectors of the city-hell, the civitas diaboli, which for Baudelaire, as for Eliot, is the modern metropolis.


Did Adolf Hitler read Baudelaire, perhaps in Stefan George’s German translation?  It’s unlikely.  It may be that both drew on older anti-Semitic sources, or else the French poet influenced the Austrian dictator indirectly.  Whatever the case, there are striking coincidences between Baudelaire’s Parisian vision in “Les Sept vieillards” and Hitler’s account in Mein Kampf of his first encounter, in Vienna, with an Eastern Jew.  Hitler’s Jew wasn’t old: he wore a black caftan and had locks of black hair.  Hitler says he wondered: Is this a Jew?  And then: Is this a German?  To this latter question his answer was obviously No.  Then, as a result of that first encounter, he started reading anti-Semitic pamphlets, inquiring into “the Jewish question,” and while doing that, Hitler experienced a multiplication of the sinister specter, just as had happened to Baudelaire in his “Les Sept vieillards” (“Ce sinistre vieillard qui se multipliait !”).  Vienna, Hitler says, appeared to him in a different light than before.  Wherever he went, he began to see Jews, and the more he saw, the more sharply they became distinguished in his eyes from the rest of humanity.  And just as Baudelaire had recognized in the old Jew the mainstay of the modern metropolis, Hitler declares:

“When I recognized the Jew as the leader of the Social Democracy, the scales dropped from my eyes. A long soul struggle had reached its conclusion.”


Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, as he wrote in 1950 in “What Dante Means to Me,” tried “to establish a relationship between the medieval inferno and modern life.”  That relationship was mediated by Baudelaire’s vision of Second Empire Paris, in particular by his poem of the seven old men, but Eliot was prudently reticent, and I am not aware that he ever expressed a particular admiration for that infamous and insidious poem.  When I look instead into Proust, and find that he admired “Les Sept vieillards” (as he wrote in “Sainte-Beuve et Baudelaire”, a chapter of Contre Sainte-Beuve), I get a tight throat and a sinking feeling in my chest – I am about to cry, “How could he?,” just as I do when I call to mind Dante’s words to Brunetto – and then I remember Albert Bloch, the repulsive Jewish character in the Recherche, and figure that it all sadly fits, and that the fitting, which is the truth, is seldom beautiful.

Walter Benjamin too expressed his admiration for “Les Sept vieillards” in Charles Baudelaire: Ein Lyriker im Zeitalter des Hochkapitalismus, and perhaps elsewhere.  I cannot help but wonder if this Jew who died by his own hands at Portbou, on the boundary between France and Spain, rather than fall into those of the Nazis in 1940, had inherited his master’s prejudiced view of the Jew as the prototypical capitalist.  Marx indeed, in Das Kapital, published only six years after Baudelaire’s “Les Sept vieillards”, characterized capitalists as “innerlich beschnitten Juden”, interiorly circumcised Jews (see David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, p. 573).  Another critic – and poet –, Benjamin Fondane, was a Jew from eastern Romania, born as Benjamin Wechsler, who moved to Paris in 1923 and was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz in 1944.  Fondane was no Marxist like Benjamin, he was rather a disciple of the Russian existential thinker Lev Shestov, nevertheless, he too adored at Baudelaire’s altar: his most ambitious work, Baudelaire et l’expérience du gouffre, written in Paris during the occupation, was published posthumously in Paris after the war .  It gives me little relief that “Les Sept vieillards” is not mentioned in that book, for the last two lines of the poem:

« Et mon âme dansait, dansait, vieille gabarre
Sans mâts, sur une mer monstrueuse et sans bords ! »

clearly belong to “l’expérience du gouffre” – a monstrous sea without bounds on which one’s soul rocks and rolls like a raft without masts is as good a definition of gouffre as we are likely to get – which leads me to suspect that Benjamin Fondane purposedly circumvented those seven old Jews as an exceptional if unfortunate lapse of his idol – Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus – just as he avoided mentioning other anti-Semitic texts of Baudelaire, most notably Fragment XLV of Mon cœur mis à nu.

How could they, Proust, Benjamin, Fondane, how could those and many other Jewish or half-Jewish keen minds be devotees of Baudelaire?  And even contemporary Jewish Frenchmen like Jacques Derrida, or Claude Vigée...  The question appears to be naïve or unanswerable, yet it is a question that begs for a wider frame.


In a 2007 essay titled “Loving Dostoevsky,” Susan Sontag writes about Leonid Tsypkin, a Russian Jew and author of the novel Summer in Baden-Baden, which overflows with the author’s love for Dostoevsky, and she comments on Tsypkin’s torments.  Both Sontag and Tsypkin were familiar with the psychic contortions required for loving an author who hates your guts.  I may add Joseph Frank, with whom I was fortunate to converse a few times, although never about Dostoevsky, and who wrote the best biography of the Russian master, in five volumes published between 1979 and 2002.  Even now I find it painful to think about that kind scholar, born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1918 to Jewish parents, who fell in love with Dostoevsky upon reading Notes from the Underground, and having reached eighty, found out to what degree of viciousness the subject of his biographical studies, the work of half his life, had been an anti-Semite.

Then I think of Yehuda Leib Shwartzman, born in Kiev in 1866: I like to fancy my great-grandfathers or grandfathers, all of whom dwelt in shtetls nearby, occasionally playing dominoes or discussing the price of new potatoes with Yehuda, unaware that he was destined to be a maître à penser for many, years later, under the pen name Lev Shestov.  He too fell under the spell of Dostoevsky upon reading Notes from the Underground – it would be a big contribution to humanity’s self-knowledge if someone more learned and a lot smarter than I studied the connections between those two masterpieces of the mid nineteenth century, Les Fleurs de mal and Notes from the Underground, and offered reasons for their historical seductiveness.  The case of Shestov is particularly disturbing, for his thoughts – or his obsessions ­– are based on two very different elephants: Genesis and the Book of Job to one side, and Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground to the other.

From Genesis Shestov took the story of the Fall, of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and took it literally – after, however, having dropped those last four words, “of Good and Evil.”  For Shestov knowledge as such is deadly opposed to life and its corresponding tree, especially scientific knowledge, based on reason.  Dostoevsky’s Man from the Underground, too, abhorred reason, the Enlightenment and its founding figures such as Rousseau and Kant: he especially disliked arithmetic.  Here’s the Man on the proposition “two plus two makes four”:

“But yet mathematical certainty is, after all, something insufferable.  Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence.  Twice two makes for is a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting.  I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.”
(Translation by Constance Garnett).

The Man disliked all the truths of the old quadrivium (which, please remember, used to make us eternal) and of the new science of the descent of man from monkeys and insisted on disregarding those truths and following instead only his caprice, cooking up his own fanciful theories, and this, mind you, long before he could have the help of our social media.  Shestov found that epistemology congenial and proclaimed that it superseded Kant’s: the real Critique of Pure Reason was the Underground Man’s, not Kant’s.  Benjamin Fondane, Shestov’s disciple, repeated that provocative phrase in a talk he gave in Buenos Aires at the Asociación Amigos del arte in 1929; as for me, it moved me to give a talk in Paris, in 2000, at a congress on Shestov and Fondane, where I showed that, pace those two and pace Dostoevsky and Kant, two times two can very well make five. "2 + 2 = 5" 

I’m afraid that just as they thought that the real First Critique was the Underground Man’s, not Kant’s, Shestov and Fondane might have had in mind the Critique of Practical Reason too; I’m afraid that they took the Underground Man’s hideous, hysterical dealing with the prostitute Liza in Part Two of Dostoevsky’s novella as the real guide to ethical behavior.  No, that’s impossible: how could they.

But to continue with Shestov’s double-dipping into the Bible and Dostoevsky.  From the Book of Job Shestov got the ideal of a man so upright, so convinced of his uprightness, and with a faith so unshakable in a just God, that having lost his children, his health and his wealth, from the depth of the catastrophe he calls to God, and He answers.  In all respects Job is the exact opposite of the Underground Man, yet Shestov doesn’t seem to mind, and calls both as witnesses for his cause, the cause against Necessity.  Since Newton’s momentous discoveries, the cause against Necessity had become more difficult to pursue: for all the Underground Man’s hysterical fits against math and scientific laws, the fact remained that Sir Isaac’s math and his inverse-distance-square gravitational force had succeeded in explaining the astronomical mysteries which had occupied humanity from time immemorial, and planetary motions had become predictable, therefore necessary. 

Despite those and other historic developments that spoke forcefully for Necessity, Shestov was not the first to argue against it: already Johann Georg Hamann, born in Königsberg in 1730, had done so , and others had followed.  Shestov, in any case, brings up the Underground Man as witness against the necessity of math truths and of scientific laws, and he brings up Job as witness that God can, if He so wishes, reverse time and nullify that which has happened.  For didn’t Job get his health back, and didn’t he get his wealth back, plus the seven sons and three daughters?  Shestov didn’t quite like this, that God didn’t return to Job the same seven sons and three daughters He had taken away, but it would have been rude to complain, so we have Job and the Underground Man testifying together – together, how could he? – that all things are possible and nothing must be as it happens to be, if only – ah, the conditions are harsh – if only your faith is unshakable all the way up to the direst moment, even if you’re being baked inside the brazen bull of Phalaris, even if you’re led before the firing squad like Dostoevsky on December 22, 1849, whereupon he received a last-minute reprieve, or even if you’re being led into the gas chamber like Fondane in October 1944, knowing you will perish along with many others.


Finally, a few words about boredom , since it is in both cases, in Les Fleurs du mal as in Notes from the Underground, the cement that holds those compositions together, both with themselves and with each other.  Boredom is the conviction (in both senses of the word) that time has brought, brings, and will ever bring nothing new, just more of the same, allied to the feeling that time drags on, pulling the rotting carcass of the present moment.  The most hideous cruelties of the Underground Man are caused by boredom: that’s, at least, what he tells us.  For Baudelaire, who calls it ennui or spleen, boredom is the essence of evil and hell.

Which raises the problem.  How is boredom related to those seven old, cosmically malignant Jews?  I suspect that Baudelaire himself, for all his creative anti-Semitism, did not see clearly into that.  Did anyone, of the many who have since reflected on “the Jewish question,” come up with a cogent answer?  As we have seen, Hitler declared in Mein Kampf that Social Democracy, i.e., liberalism, was a creation of the Jews, but I don’t remember him saying anything about boredom.  It was a few years later that the political theologian and later Nazi theoretician Carl Schmitt, in his The Concept of the Political of 1927 (expanded in 1932), declared that “liberalism is boring.”  Put two and two together and there you are: it’s the Jews who are to blame for boredom.


I have published elsewhere a critique of Fondane’s book on Baudelaire (in French): see my essay, “The Sin Against the Human Spirit,” in Offcourse #80.

On Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism, see David Goldstein, Dostoevsky and the Jews, Austin, 1981; see also Joseph Frank, Between Religion and Rationality, Princeton, 2010, Part III.

See Isaiah Berlin, The Magus of the North, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994, p. 44-5. 

On boredom, see my essay “The Sin Against the Human Spirit,” in Offcourse #80.

Ricardo Nirenberg is an editor of Offcourse.

Return to Offcourse Index.