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Started reading Derrida, the biography by Benoît Peeters. Hesitantly at first, for I thought I would not need info on the life of the man whose work always challenges me. But won over when reading, on the first page that Derrida himself had said: ‘you must […] put philosophers’ biographies back in the picture, and the commitments, particularly political commitments, that they sign in their own names […].’ And on the second: ‘In his view, autobiographical writing was the genre, the one which had first given him a hankering to write, and never ceased to haunt him. Ever since his teens, he had been dreaming of a sort of immense journal of his life and thought, of an uninterrupted, polymorphous text […]’

So why, would I, a lover of (auto)biography, had hesitated to read his? I suppose out of some fear that when I would discover the ‘secrets’ behind his philosophical texts, they would become less cryptical and challenging. Like I always feared to write or even speak about the happiest childhood years I spent in a village along the banks of the river Maas. In both cases we deal with a source. A source of happiness, a source of thinking, a source of selfhood. It should not be dammed in, boxed in, written upon, for that might make it flow less freely. Recently, and now again, I discovered the self-deception in this line of thought. Good texts are porous, and leave the stream unhindered, only attract attention to it, like a beautiful bridge to a river.

There is more in the connection of Derrida and (auto)biography. When I read the words by his commentator Bennington, cited by Peeters on page 6, a chord of recognition was struck. Bennington wondered how to write on the life of the deconstructionist: ‘Is it possible to conceive of a multiple, layered but not hierarchised, fractal biography which would escape the totalising and teleological commitments which inhabit the genre from the start?’. Now I have to become autobiographical. It was in 2002 or 2003 that I first started reading the Vita by Victor Klemperer, about whom and which I have written before. What fascinated me was that Klemperer somehow did that – he kept to the traditional form of the autobiography, its chronology, its tropes, like trying to understand one’s parents to understand oneself – but all the same interrupting the totalizing narrator that he embodied, and sometimes interrupting the interruptor. He probably got the idea for this from the plays of Bertolt Brecht that he watched in the early German Democratic Republic. Thus he found the philosopher’s stone for writing a post-modern (auto)biography.

When reading Klemperer I knew: this is it! This is what I want to do when I am old. I am not so sure anymore now, but the idea of a ‘multiple, layered, not hierarchised, fractal’ biography has fascinated me from that time. Klemperer’s novelties were the deconstruction/verfremdung concerning the narrator’s voice, and at the same time the deconstruction/verfremdung concerning chronology. What I was trying to figure out was, how one could write separate lines of a life, going back and forth trough time, that related to different themes and important relations of the subject. For, like, telling the story of a person from the point of his work would be very different from telling it with a focus on his religious development, or his relation to his mother, his longtime friend, etcetera. A person can only be approached through the many faces (s)he shows. And these again change face through the process of interpretation – as the point of view of the narrator shifts according to the events and moods in the narrator’s life.

I never managed to solve the puzzle up till now, perhaps someone else has done it, or is doing it right now, and I don’t know of it. The writer of Derrida obviously abstained from it – for a reason that I like: not wanting to mimic a Derridian style, which ‘does not seem the best way of serving him today’. This is not only true for serving Derrida, but for holding on to something which was important to him, I think, as a lover of Nietzsche: that everyone should become her/his own. Doing just that, is the only way to understand the ‘posthumous friend’ (Peeters calls Derrida thus) a true thinker might become to me. As Nietzsche said in these famous verses:

Leg ich mich aus, so leg ich mich hinein:
Ich kann nicht selbst mein Interprete sein.
Doch wer nur steigt auf seiner eignen Bahn,
Trägt auch mein Bild zu hellerm Licht hinan.

Translated freely, this reads:

Interpreting myself, I project myself.That’s why I can’t interpret myself. But who climbs his own path, will also carry my image towards a brighter light.

Do these verses hold the secret to a post-totalizing (auto)biography? Pointing towards the inter-subjective and perspectivated character of understanding, they underline what first was understood falsely as the ‘death of the subject’ in postmodernity. The subject is not dead. It is not its own possession. It has no clear place it inhabits. It is an intersubject. In my 2005 book Return of Nature I explored the idea of the intersubject. An (auto)biography would also be a great place for such an exploration. While the impossibility of delineating and organizing a lived life in a final system of meaning shows how it (every individual life) overflows constantly in the lives of others, human and animal, in interaction with an inanimate environment too – and how the lives of these ‘externalia’ overflow at the same time in the life of the subject. The hero of a life’s story is also the one who suffers, from events and actions (s)he did not choose. The ‘deeds and works’ of ‘a great man’, as it used to be called, are only the chance instances where (s)he succeeded in reconstructing and redecorating fate to get a unique tasty personal flavor. A ‘Derrida’ flavor, or a ‘Klemperer’ flavor. Without such flavor, Derrida would admit to this, I think, we do not have general truth and universal history – we have nothing.

Citations are from Derrida by Benoît Peeters, first published in 2010, in English in 2013 by Polity Press.

In all these past months, since the summer holidays, the diaries of French literature professor Victor Klemperer (1881-1960) have been my evening reading matter. I have followed him observing life in Germany under nazi rule from 1933 on and am presently witnessing his witnessing, in 1957, his own growing confusion on political life in the DDR, communist eastern Germany. From all his notes one thought of his is central to me: that we can never understand history. As he says it: we cannot understand it when we are living it, because then the distance to interpret what is happening fails us; and we cannot understand it from a distance, because then the actual observations fail us. His one goal in life seems to have been, besides all his other ambitions in work and in his personal relations, to overcome this paradox, as he was always dreaming to rework his diaries in encompassing memoirs, which should combine the distance of looking back and be fed from the proximity of his notes. He only completed his memoirs untill 1918 – but from hindsight his diaries, thanks to his younger second wife, who made it possible to have them published more than 30 years after his death, seem even more important for us, who live with the heritage of those days.

His was a real paradox, as the impossibility to understand history is only that for one man or woman, but when we understand knowledge as a common possession of human beings, it is possible to make something from the (near) real-time observations of a good chroniqueur and the interpretive power of us, who come after and look back. Still this does not mean that history can be an objective science. The hermeneutic aspect can never be overcome, not only because it is impossible to reach the objective understanding that Klemperer was striving for, but also because history itself is always a force in the political life as it unfolds uncessingly. Here we should acknowledge the importance of the revolutionary view Nietzsche put forward in his 1874 study On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. According to him, history has three functions for life: a monumental one, an antiquarian, and a critical one, of which the last-mentioned is of course the most interesting. We need it, because, in order to be able to live, human beings need the to be able to drag history before the court, torture it, and judge it. This is not just a destructive process – Nietzsche keeps his eye on the possibility of the arrival of a ‘true civilization’ – which is not a eschatological necessity, but something humans need to believe in, I think. As a preparation for this arrival, again, we need (in Nietzsche’s words) an ‘increase in honesty’ – an honesty which will bring down hardened cultural constructions which do not serve life anymore.

The great deconstructive/destructive process in understanding history in our times seems to me to deal with the double helix of modern western belief in rational and technological progress and it’s accompanying oppression of every culture (and the people who live in a culture considered as such) which it deemed non-rational and technologically backward. An indispensable read in this respect forms the work of Sandra Harding – who has aimed to understand ‘modern science’ from the colonialist and masculinist frameworks which were at work in them: ‘It turned out that these two great processes marking “modernity” – the emergence of modern sciences in Europe and European expansion – provided crucial cognitive resources for each other as well as economic and political ones’.

In the end, however, criticism was not the final goal for Nietzsche, and history will have to move beyond the criticism of colonialism and imperialism – for the benefit of life. A thorough and creative attempt to do so can be found in an even more recent work, which inspired the title of this post, The Politics of History in Contemporary Africa, by Michael Onyebuchi Eze. The trail he leaves in this work, as he moves through such questions as postcolonialist politics, the problematic of the ‘Invention of Africa’ and of finding a perspective beyond that of the ‘other’ of eurocentric thought, proves his work to be a worthy recreation of this Nietzschean dream: to try to press for more honesty in search of a truer civilization, while searching to ‘[…] “relocate” African historiography in a manner that would open spaces for fresh air, fresh perspectives.’ This search is not only of interest for those who ‘have an interest in Africa’, but for all those who have an interest in history as such, not ignoring the political forces that are at work in it, but critically examining them and taking responsibility for the collective task to create more civilized political goals in dialogue with the past.

Nietzsche’s work On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Lifeoriginally published in 1874, can be accessed online: https://archive.org/details/Nietzsche-AdvantageDisadvantageOfHistoryForLife

Michael Onyebuchi Eze’s Study The Politics of History in Contemporary Africa was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2010

Victor Klemperer’s Diaries and Memoirs I read in their original German version. They are also partly available in English

Sandra Harding wrote Is Science Multicultural? Postcolonialisms, feminisms, and epistemologies, Indiana University Press, 1998

We can not return to nature – I once read words to that effect in Nietzsche’s works, which struck me. In the Seventies (when I grew up) ‘return to nature’ was a popular slogan in hippie circles. It tried to call a halt to the rapid invasion of technology in every aspect of human life. It turned against leading lives in concrete buildings, doing administrative jobs in airconditioned atmospheres, eating tasteless food which was grown in glasshouses. Although I was sympathetic to the search for a good life, and saw the flaws of much of modern life, I mistrusted the belief of many hippies that they could leave them behind. I sought to critically examine the whole matter first, and a first call to do so came from Nietzsche’s words.

Nietzsche’s thought has been controversial ever since German fascism tried to provide itself with philosophical ornament by twisting it’s words to sustain it’s ‘Blut und Boden’ ideology. Nietzsche’s texts do not defend any ideology, however. When one has learned to undergo their tactics of throwing you in different directions whenever you thought you found ‘truth’, it might dawn that his method is like that of the Buddhist master: learning to distrust any truth as possibly being dressed-up ideology. So, we can not return to nature – this was Nietzsche’s reaction to Rousseau’s naive (and dangerous) idea of the original good man, which he unmasked to be ideological. The importance of this reaction lies in the discovery that one should not naively turn against any so-called unnatural life style without investigating the political forces at work in it’s criticism.

I have returned to the theme of nature (and humanity’s relationship to it) over and over – somehow intuiting that it touches on the greatest questions/problems of our present world. An author who challenged me to probe further however was not a professional philosopher, but one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century: Victor Klemperer. A writer who reflected deeply on his times, as he survived in the lion’s den (being a critical professor and a jew in nazi Germany), writing down it’s inner developments day by day. Some fifteen years ago, when reading his Curriculum Vitae (the autobiography he wrote when teaching and doing research was interdicted to him), I got stuck on a passage which was the most beautiful and horrific that I had ever read. When describing his first trip to the country in his teenage years, he lets the chroniqueur be interrupted by the professor in him, who voices his distrust of images of nature in literature for their superficiality – and then the victim of nazism in him interrupts the professor by reminding him of the misuse of ‘nature’ in the present time, to be finally interrupted once more by the writer of the text himself. In my translation it’s conclusion reads: ‘And at the profoundest level I am so suspicious, since every emphasis of experiencing nature almost inevitably turns into emphasizing the connectedness to nature. In the name of this connectedness however, and the ‘return to nature’, all the bestiality has been unchained, that – but I am writing ahead of my Curriculum for many chapters now, only to escape the poisonous gases of the present times.’

This passage has troubled me for years and years, for it leaves the question behind how one could (should) describe the enjoyment of nature, which Klemperer obviously has experienced deeply and often, in such a way that it does not fall into the political/ideological trap of nazism and other cruel movements. Only recently I found some clues, while reading Klemperer’s diaries (1933-1945). First he notes down, on the 19th of July 1937 why ‘return to nature is the greatest unnaturalness’, when it refers to the farmer as leading the natural life: ‘No human activity as such is closer or more distant to nature as any other.’ On the 19th of February 1938 he then writes down his unbelief in the evolutionary direction of ‘vegetative unconsciousness, instinctive life, conscious life’. He rather sees a circle: ‘unconscious, conscious and again unconscious, for the highest aspect of the spiritual is inspiration, which is just as unconscious as the growing of one’s hair. Which doesn’t say anything against reason. […] Without the unconscious, feeling, inspiration, naturalness, etc. etc. art turns into babbling and unart, life into arbitrariness, destruction, guillotine.’ And finally he concludes on the 10th of January 1939: ‘the return to nature proves itself a thousand times as going against nature, because development is according to nature and its repression against it.’

It is not easy to make sense of these remarks, not because they are inconsistent, but because of the deep sense of humanity they transfer, a sense still uncommon in discourse on this subject. Klemperer warns against the ideological newspeak of his days which disguises it’s murderous intentions behind images of a mythological, natural past. A true understanding of nature should not feed on the opposition of reason and feeling. Nature is not hate against certain people, groups, ‘races’, but the enjoyment and development of the richness of life. One should almost say (but that is a rare word in Klemperer’s cautious language): It is love.

Victor Klemperer lived from 1881-1960. He was a professor of French literature, who survived the genocidal politics of nazi Germany protected by his marriage to his ‘Aryan’ wife Eva. Only in the mid-nineties of the twentieth century his autobiography as well as his diaries were published and became a literary hit.

My translations are from the German editions of his Curriculum Vitae (Aufbau Taschenbuch Verlag 1996) and his Diaries 1933-1945 (Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten, Aufbau Taschenbuch Verlag 1995 – revised edition 1999). In 2005 I published a philosophy of nature in my Terugkeer van de natuur (see ‘All books’ in the sidebar) – it’s title (as is the title of this post) is an expression of my mistrust in the idea of the return to nature.