Wolfram Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians features a library that seems like an academic’s version of Borges’s Babel or Zafron’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books. In the Warburg Library in Hamburg, philosopher Ernst Cassirer found his ideal domain. Although the collection contained “several tens of thousands of rare studies in intellectual and scientific history,” what made the place truly magical was its arrangement: the volumes were “accordingly divided into four sections, each of which corresponded to a fundamental philosophical concept.” The taxonomic categories were “Orientation,” “Image,” “Word,” and “Action.” A scholar and contemporary of Cassirer, Aby Warburg organized his books in this idiosyncratic way during the first years of the twentieth century, basing his judgments on what Warburg called “good neighborliness.” This meant nothing was arranged alphabetically or chronologically, but rather the library had “works from a tremendous variety of disciplines and eras placed side by side in such a way as to suggest scarcely imaginable connections between them, potential similarities of approach, and lines of influence that seem inconceivable.”
The two books under review here—Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy and Claire Messud’s Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write: An Autobiography in Essays—may appear at first glance to be strange bedfellows, but when I came across Warburg’s ingenious and inventive categorization, I instantly knew that these books, while covering differing subjects with varying approaches, are without a doubt good neighbors. One focuses on a group who wrestled with the limitations of language—what can we say and what can we not say?—while the other celebrates explicitly language’s reach. Both grapple with the immense importance of communication. Each exemplifies, in its own way, the tentacular potentiality of language.
Time of the Magicians is a cultural history of German philosophy in the 1920s as told through the lives of four significant German thinkers: Ludwig Wittgenstein, a monkish loner known for his inscrutable book Tractatus logico-philosophicus; Martin Heidegger, a star academic in Weimar Germany and an eventual Nazi sympathizer; Walter Benjamin, a down-on-his-luck outsider desperate to find financial security and institutional support for his critical analyses, one most remembered for his often-anthologized essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and his massive, unfinished magnum opus The Arcades Project; and Ernst Cassirer, probably the least-known of the four today, but who in the 1920s was the most celebrated. Eilenberger, a professor of philosophy and an editor of a magazine devoted to the subject, argues that these men and their ideas revolutionized the field of philosophy and that their “journey[s] toward knowledge” and the “tension” these journeys represent were “typical of the age.” The “tension” he refers to is articulated by Benjamin, who saw many overlaps between the “art of philosophy” and the “art of living.” “Free human beings,” Eilenberger writes of Benjamin’s view, “who thirst for knowledge must with every fiber of their being ‘open themselves up to remote extremes’ and cannot ‘consider themselves successful’ in their lives until they have examined, walked, or at least tried out all extremes of possibility.” (Italics in original.)
So what are these philosophical ideas that so changed the landscape of twentieth-century thought? Wittgenstein dealt with the boundaries between the aspects of language “which are truly meaningful and thus capable of truth, and those that only seem meaningful, and because of that very illusoriness lead our thought and culture astray.” Ernst Cassirer developed a theory of “symbolic forms” that are not only humanity’s fundamental means of communication but also its defining characteristic, since “the process by which signs are placed into the world, interpreted, and augmented by others is the process of culture.” Heidegger, by contrast to Cassirer, posits that a person’s awareness of their finitude and their “ineluctable subjection to time” most aptly exemplifies our predicament, and that theories of symbolic forms, like those built by Cassirer, are mere distractions from the role philosophy ought to play: liberating people from the anxiety self-awareness causes to bring them toward “authenticity.” Benjamin’s contributions during this decade are a bit harder to summarize, as his lacked the sort of systematic cohesion of the others, but one thing does become apparent in his approach, namely his belief that “the most deviant statements, objects, and individuals, which were for that reason often ignored, contained the whole of society in microcosm.” Though these concepts are easy enough to grasp in a general sense, they are significantly less so in their particulars. Time of the Magicians suggests in its name the confounding and mysterious nature of its subjects. Magicians, after all, don’t perform actual magic, but the best ones are measured by their ability to keep the truth behind their illusions secret.
The cumulative effect of reading about these four philosophers for four hundred pages is one of marveling at language’s remarkable dexterity. For example, Benjamin’s introduction to his translation of Baudelaire, “The Task of the Translator,” argues that the project of bringing a text from one language to another is “finding the particular intention toward the target language which produces in that language an echo of the original.” Eilenberger performs the same function here, but with ideas instead of language; the translation is the act of explicating the complex ideas of philosophers whose works many people find impenetrable. That the reach comes by way of the appearance of Time of the Magicians in English, translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside, is something of a miracle: arcane concepts from a century ago translated into approachable explanations in the same language, which are then translated into another one.
Language, of course, does have its limits. A reader won’t come out of Time of the Magicians with a complete understanding of all the philosophical writings of its subjects. There are still sentences like this one, which attempts to explicate how Heidegger’s Being and Time hadn’t done a good enough job explaining the connection between the two titular constructs: “In essence, the published part of [Being and Time] had not gone beyond the descriptive exposition of being-in-the-world of the very being that could ask the question of Being: the human.” Heidegger’s Dasein, defined by Eilenberger as “a specific way in which humans have always felt meaningfully addressed and challenged by this world,” is especially difficult to trace through Heidegger’s philosophical development, in part because Heidegger uses the term elastically, and Eilenberger’s one definition of it doesn’t cover all of its nuances. Wittgenstein’s admittedly “senseless” propositions from Tractatus logico-philosophicus, such as its infamous opening line, “The world is all that is the case,” are no better elucidated.
More than half of the book’s pages are dedicated to its subjects’ philosophies, intertwined with narrative of their lives during the 1920s, which are far less dramatic. Cassirer, for instance, gets a job at Hamburg University; is offered another one at Frankfurt, which he turns down; writes a few of his most important books; remains married to his wife, Toni; has a debate with Heidegger at the Davos conference. However, an extraordinarily harrowing moment described early on characterizes the chaotic surreality of Weimar Germany. According to Toni Cassirer, in 1919 “there was a lot of shooting in the streets of Berlin, and Ernst often drove through machine-gun fire to the university to deliver his lectures.” Another time, the electricity went off and Cassirer finished his essay in the dark. Though these stories provide remarkable testament to the precarity of the era, there are only a few references to the outside world’s encroachment on the philosophers. The rise of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party are occasionally referred to, but surprisingly not often, especially considering the eventual outcomes for Cassirer and Benjamin, both Jewish. In a terse epilogue, we’re informed that “Effectively forced by Hitler’s Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service to abandon his teaching post, Ernst Cassirer, along with his wife, left Hamburg for Switzerland on May 2, 1933. The couple would never return to Germany.” Heidegger—who joined the Nazi party in 1933, publicly supported Hitler, and passively allowed for the dismissal of Edmund Husserl, who had advocated for Heidegger’s work—similarly receives a one-paragraph summation of his post-twenties activities. And as for Benjamin, whose life in the years depicted previously consisted mostly of not getting jobs and having an affair, we learn in this same three-page postscript that “On the night of September 26, 1940, fleeing in fear of deportation by the Nazis, Benjamin committed suicide with morphine in a hotel in the Pyrenean town of Portbou, only a few hundred meters from the Spanish border.” The future of their lives hangs over the book like a zeppelin blocking out the sun, yet the story concludes before it fully plunges its protagonists into complete darkness. Barely even mentioning the impending war seems an odd choice for a book whose jacket description situates the book in just this way: “But with the Second World War looming on the horizon, their fates will be very different.”
Apart from Cassirer, who is depicted as dutiful, responsible, and kind, none of these men emerge as admirable—or even likable—people. Benjamin squanders every opportunity presented to him, cheats on his wife, and takes advantage of his friendships. Wittgenstein comes across as a pretentious, self-aggrandizing megalomaniac, who, while designing and overseeing the construction of his sister’s townhouse, yells at a locksmith for asking, “does this millimeter really matter to you?” And as for Heidegger, well, he eventually becomes a Nazi and at the age of thirty-five has an affair with the teenaged Hannah Arendt, a Jewish thinker whose ideas and influence will go on to outmatch his.
Which is to say that these men aren’t being written about because they are paragons of ethical living (despite, in Heidegger and Wittgenstein’s cases, expressly taking on the role of guide in their writing) or because their lives in this period were dramatically engaging, but rather because of the stronghold their ideas have had on modern thought. And since the narrative ceases just when these figures clash with history (or, rather, when history clashes with them), the ostensible promise of Time of the Magicians—that the story of this tumultuous decade will both compel a reader’s attention and help explain the trajectory of its subjects’ ideas—is shown to be a thin thread to connect meditations on their philosophies. It isn’t, in other words, an effective tale like, say, Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café, which excellently blends the biographical, the historical, and the philosophical. This isn’t necessarily a damning criticism of Eilenberger’s work—again, the ideas under consideration require a hefty amount of space on the page, so scrutinizing and explicating them is a worthwhile endeavor. The issue is really one of audience: it’s not introductory enough for neophytes and not in-depth enough for experts. But for those readers familiar with this beguiling quartet, it’s enlightening and informative if not revelatory.
In her introduction to her essay collection Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write, the novelist Claire Messud articulates succinctly the thesis of this review. “Language makes this possible,” she writes; “language, and the written word. More astonishing an invention than the smartphone, than the internet, than computers: language, the filter that enables us to order our thoughts and experiences and to communicate them, albeit imperfectly.” And she expresses what a remarkable feat it is:
I am daily amazed by this extraordinary medium—created by our distant ancestors out of nothing, still constantly evolving. A series of sounds came, at some point, to signify. A series of squiggles on papyrus, then parchment, then paper, came to signify across time and space. The written or printed word enables the transmission of thoughts and experiences across centuries and cultures.
This is what seems lost in the ideas of Eilenberger’s magicians, who, understandably, focus on what language can’t communicate; Messud, primarily a novelist, can’t help but celebrate the unimaginable enormity of what language has already communicated. Though philosophy and fiction aim for different targets, they are, like these books, good neighbors. They live in the same community but look out at the world from different windows. And what Messud sees from her window is the magical enormity of literary expression. From a finite number of words, an infinite number of things can be said. The reach of language is boundless; Messud’s essays show what can be done when it is pointed to the minds of others and toward interiority.
The title essay sees Messud succinctly engaged in her idiosyncratic proclivities. She uses as a prompt the baffling vastness of the universe as displayed in a science documentary she watches with her children, coupled with Thomas Bernhard’s notion from his novel The Loser that “Our great philosophers, our greatest poets, shrivel down to a single successful sentence,” and even “a monumental work, for example Kant’s work . . . in time shrivels down to Kant’s little East Prussian head, and to a thoroughly amorphous world of night and fog.” She wonders: “if, in order to properly understand a paragraph of Kant, one would need to engage in a lifetime of study, what are we to make of the entire breadth of his oeuvre”? And “If Kant is just one philosopher among thousands, just one German among millions, and just one man among billions—how can we conceive of the entirety of the uncommunicated and incommunicable human experience?”
Messud has brought us back to the question at the heart of this essay, which is maybe more of a question of sensibility and perspective: which is more important, or philosophically fruitful, the limits of language, or its reach? The academic Michael N. Forster notes that although numerous thinkers and critics have argued that Kant “accords no fundamental role to language” and “divorced reasons and concepts from language and attributed to them sovereignty over it,” there is evidence that he agreed with his contemporaries that language is indivisible from thoughts and ideas. But as Forster points out, “in the Critique of Judgement, [Kant] explicitly holds that ‘aesthetic ideas,’ which ‘give rise to much thinking,’ cannot be captured in words or language.” The focus on language’s limitations isn’t, obviously, a criticism of humanity’s linguistic finitude but rather investigates what truths exist beyond the sayable. Everything that is expressible is also understandable. The unsayable, then, contains what we do not yet understand and is thus worthy of philosophical attention. Eilenberger’s magicians lived in that space outside of language, pitched tents and hoped to yield something meaningful. Messud, by contrast, is a novelist, a working practitioner of words, and sees the monumental value of what’s already here, scribbled out on paper, muttered out loud:
Even a single successful sentence can be transformative; and a single poem or novel can alter someone’s life forever. That is “hands across the ocean,” and it’s a meeting that happens if not only, then most fully, through language. With words, we can travel across nations and through time; we can inhabit lives far from our own.
Messud in this essay is describing the reach of language, but for her it is less about the complex ideas language can wrangle into articulate shape and more about the way it can rearrange a person’s understanding of life, how it can transform someone permanently, as it has transformed her. This belief in the power of language might be a bit of a cliché, one writers often sentimentalize as a bid to justify their vocations. But that doesn’t make it any less viable. For to focus strictly on what cannot be said is to never listen to anything that has been said, and to never seek ways to say things that haven’t been said yet. “If all language were already shared,” Messud writes, “then ours would be a dull and limited world.”
Messud’s fiction features three aspects worthy of mention here. The first is that she mostly deals with upper-class characters in eclectic locales—they’re scholars and critics and professors and artists (successful ones) who dwell in France and Algeria and Bali and Scotland and New England and Australia and England and Canada and Manhattan. Second, her work is steeped in literary and cultural references. And lastly, she often addresses the complex ways we transition from youth to adulthood. To read Messud’s “autobiography in essays,” then, is to discover not only the intricacies of the novelist’s life but to recognize the basis for her fictional landscapes. Messud was born in New England, but as her maternal grandmother lived in Toronto and her paternal grandparents lived in France, she spent a great deal of time in both places. In the early seventies, her family relocated to Sydney, Australia. Her mother and father were hyperliterate intellectuals (her father began, but eventually abandoned, a PhD from Harvard). Her collection is divided into three parts: Reflections; Criticism: Books; and Criticism: Images. The Reflections focus on her upbringing, her family’s histories, and the way they all influenced her adulthood; the retrospective attempt at self-understanding—a working definition of an autobiography—suffuses these essays. But just as much as this section suggests rather than qualifies as an autobiography, so too do we realize that the same could be said of her fiction. “All art is autobiographical,” Fellini once said; “the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.”
“The Road to Damascus,” in which Messud travels to Beirut to teach a writing workshop as her father lies dying in America, is worth looking at closely, as it contains many of Messud’s gifts as well as aspects of her writing that give me pause. In lieu of typical family vacations, Messud’s father—whose own childhood was even more dramatically nomadic than his daughter’s, having moved with his consular attaché father to Beirut and Istanbul, among other locales—whisked them to Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Ethiopia, and Ecuador. Messud wonders if his intent was to share in some manner his own youth in a war-torn country, which he recalls not with terror but with nostalgia, as he was—just as Messud and her sister were on their trips—sheltered from the realities of these places by a combination of youthful guile and protective parents. Messud references “dark tourism,” but only in passing (“These are journeys one could not undertake lightly today”), as her interest here isn’t the privileges inherent in her upbringing. She may not fully be aware of them, in fact. When she mentions that until they lived in Beirut, her grandparents “had been frankly poor, and only [there] did they have the luxury of a housekeeper,” Messud seems slightly tone-deaf but forgivably so, but when, later, she describes a “much darker” period of their lives, she uses as examples food scarcity, sick children, and the fact that “Housekeepers were in short supply,” it’s difficult not to wonder why anyone would think hunger and illness were on the same plane as a lack of a housekeeper. Even if such a line were meant ironically, it seems a poorly timed moment for light humor.
A writer’s language has a way of telling on itself, revealing about its speaker things they aren’t actively revealing. In the case of Messud’s class and privilege, this comes in the form of the occasional hue of anachronism in her syntax. Her father “had his wallet and passport stolen before ever he arrived at the port.” That “before ever he” sounds damn-near Victorian, and in fact you can find the phrase in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel The Sign of Four. Her vocabulary, too, is representative of her multicultural upbringing as well as her formidable erudition. In this one essay appear the French terms coup de foudre and pensionnat, the Latin phrase sub rosa, the Arabic word za’atar, and rarities like “traiteurs” and “pellucid.” There isn’t anything wrong with these words, per se, but they do come across as old-fashioned, just as in Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, when the narration employs language I can’t imagine young adults in 2000 using, like “fortnight” and “neck” as a verb for kissing.
But “The Road to Damascus” also features some of Messud’s most poignant and insightful moments. When her father died, he left behind “a scholar’s collection of books on Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians, the Turks, the Middle East more broadly.” She isn’t sure how many of these he ended up reading, meaning that left behind “substantial traces of the life unlived, of the internal life, which as we all know is both hard to discern and the only one that matters.” Following his death, she cannot help but dwell on what she recognizes as common reactions to mortality:
Everybody thinks this, I know, but I think it now with great confusion: How can it be that all that is in us dies with us? How can it be that those memories, that Beirut—which had existed seventy years in its locked corner of his mind, but not the less real or immediate for that—have now simply ceased to be? I cannot understand it. That we cannot know something unless we are told it: this seems to me the greatest weakness of any supposed divine plan, the primary reason to doubt.
She can be a bit clumsy regarding her own class and privilege, to be sure, but she’s also deeply affecting on personal-introspection-cum-philosophical-extrapolation.
Throughout the book, Messud is an energetic advocate for literature. In a piece celebrating Virago Press, the feminist British publisher, she extols the influential writers that shaped her as a reader and a writer. In “The Time for Art Is Now,” she espouses the joy (which she says “lies in immaterial superfluidity”) of “long hours spent reading a book,” which to Messud is vastly more meaningful than the pleasures found in watching films or tv. Her criticism evinces a passion for some lesser-known authors, notably Yasmine El Rashidi, whose novel Chronicle of a Last Summer Messud scrutinizes and appraises with an exacting acumen, and Magda Szabó, whose brilliant 1987 novel The Door traveled a tragic road to an English translation in 2015 (it had been published in English in the nineties by an academic press before disappearing from print) and which Messud rightly calls “a masterpiece” and “a work of stringent honesty and delicate subtlety.” In her introduction to Saul Friedländer’s 1978 Holocaust memoir When Memory Comes, she characterizes its prose as evoking “the loneliness of the stateless, the singularity of fractured experience,” which is, not unexpectedly, one of Messud’s themes as well.
This advocacy for literature, for language, emerged from her childhood home, which positively overflowed with books and magazines. “For many years,” she writes in “Mother’s Knee,” “I thought that every family subscribed to more magazines than they could possibly read . . . and stacked their books in double rows on the shelves so as to fit more in, before starting to pile them behind armchairs and under beds.” This is how language, via literature, becomes more than the measured communication between people; it becomes a legacy, an heirloom filled with sensibility, ideology, passions. Messud as a child didn’t understand the significance of what she read, that by reading her mother’s books, she “was also being shaped by her predilections, thoughts, and desires.” Language always says more than it is saying. This sentence right now only means expressly what its words strung together mean; but if someone has shown you this essay because they think you’ll enjoy it, this sentence—all these sentences—also mean that they care about you. Messud’s mother’s books were written by Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Daphne du Maurier, et al., but they carried within them her mother’s love, too. Maybe Wittgenstein is right: there are some things that cannot be expressed in language. But perhaps they do not need perfect articulation. Maybe language can carry the inexpressible with it, a raft on which other things float.
In his book Language: The Cultural Tool, linguist Daniel L. Everett argues that the “uttering of the first noun or verb, as non-momentous as that sounds, was arguably of greater importance than the stealing of fire from the gods of Olympus. Nouns and verbs are the basis of human civilization.” Messud agrees, and she too conjures the mythical: “Because naming is magic.” Language has named the world, named itself, and has even communicated the notion that there are things that language can’t articulate. Language elevated human life, hoisted it out of the primal and into the cultural. It can wrestle with the grandest ideas or re-create the most exotic creatures. It can look inward at the self and cull out an approximation of what it finds. And it can suggest, hint at, and carry with it the many things we haven’t quite figured out yet how to say. Whereof humanity cannot speak, thereof humanity will tirelessly seek.
*an essay-review of:
Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade
That Reinvented Philosophy. By Wolfram Eilenberger, translated from the German by Shaun
Whiteside. New York: Penguin Press, 2020. 432 pp. $30.00.
Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write: An Autobiography in Essays.
By Claire Messud. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2020. 306 pp. $26.95.