Er trägt es von Schwelle zu Schwelle,
er wirft es nicht fort.
Paul Celan, "Chanson einer Dame
The overturn (die Umkehr), which will be circumscribed here, is not
a simple inversion. It is rather an extended operation on grammatical tenses.
In one of his essays, Franz Rosenzweig compared Hegel's thought with a
snake that bites its own tail. Wissenschaft der Logik, indeed, may appear
as a chain - closed in itself - of interconnected terms that are grasped
in their historically-etymological development. This perspective renders
Hegel's project as a philological one. Rosenzweig's Der Stern der Erlösung
could, perhaps, be looked upon as a philological enterprise as well. The
triangular of creation, revelation, and redemption is sustained by a tripolar
grammatical structure (1). Language is inscribed,
imprinted into the world - with grammar. In his book The Coming Community,
Giorgio Agamben assumes that the possibility of redemption for the profane
world of revelation is contained in the language itself (Agamben 82,3;
89,4). According to Rosenzweig, in redemption the world must go throw an
overturn that completes - and overwrites - the entire history of human
kind. The imperfect history is thus turned perfective. An analogous
and equally drastic turn has already occurred once at the threshold between
protoworld (die Vorwelt) and present world. In revelation, name transforms
into the illuminating verbal imperative of commandment. Overturn
has its grammar and its language. It selects from grammatical tenses and
intervenes with their twists into the flow of time.
II. Eyes of Death
Frag nicht weiter. Hier bin ich, tot,
Weiß nicht, warum ich hier bin.
Franz Kafka, "Der Jäger Gracchus"
Every single moment emerges on the surface of time to die away and
sink into vast depths of past. Life of the moment is like a human life:
short, vulnerable, fragile and - essentially finite. Time of revelation
is dependent on this finitude of the single moment: only the finite moment
possesses mutability, that is - potentiality of transformation. Finitude
can be grasped in the equality between the force of life (Rosenzweig would
say, of love) and the force of death. Indeed, life of transformation is
inseparable from death. Brother Life meets Brother Reaper in silent recognition
and acknowledgement (Rosenzweig 1964, 116). The forces of life are identical
with those of death - but only in some rare particular moments that are
charged with life's torsional momentum. Lev Shestov uses the analogy of
metamorphosis of a rather anthropomorphic caterpillar to emphasize that
life of change, of transformation is loaded with death:
A caterpillar is transformed into a chrysalis, and for a long time
lives in a warm, quiet little world. Perhaps if it had human consciousness
it would declare that that world was the best, perhaps the only
possible to live in. But there comes a time when some unknown influence
causes the little creature to begin the work of destruction. If other caterpillars
could see it how horrified they would be, revolted to the bottom of their
soul by the awful work in which the insurgent is engaged (Shestov 1920,
The change is completed with the revolting overturn (die Umkehr) that
changes the whole structure of life. The torque of this overturn is the
basic tension of the finitude. If a butterfly would be eternal, it could
not experience the metamorphosis; same for humans and their thoughts.
Metamorphoses with their radical overturns appear to be dangerous.
This feeling of danger is deeply rooted in awareness of one's finitude.
Change sublates stability and ground. Thus, one often chooses to flee from
change. "Unser Patient leidet, wie wir gesehen haben, an einer vollkommenen
Umkehrung der normalen Lebensfunktionen. Da scheint es auf der Hand zu
liegen, daß es also notwendig ist, diese Umkehr ihrerseits wieder umzukehren.
Doch eben diese willkürliche Umkehr einer geschehenen Umkehr hat ihre Gefahren"
(Rosenzweig 1964, 50). To escape this danger, one can choose the stability
of self-enclosure in the radical introversion. This is at least
a somewhat certain position (which Rosenzweig assigns to the pagan world)
- but death would necessarily break this balance. The self-enclosure, though,
as Rosenzweig describes in a passage on the sick thinker, dams up all his
senses. On the contrary, through the perception of one's finitude, the
senses open up. In the starting section of In Job's Balances, Shestov tells
a parable of a new vision which is given to man by death:
The Angel of Death who descends towards man to separate his soul from
his body is all covered with eyes. Why is this? Why does he want all those
eyes, when he can see the whole of heaven, and there is nothing on earth
worth his seeing? I think that he did not want those eyes for himself.
It happens sometimes that the Angel of Death, when he comes for a soul,
sees that he has come too soon, that the man's term of life is not yet
expired; so he does not take his soul away, does not even show himself
to it, but leaves the man one of the innumerable pairs of eyes with which
his body is covered. And then the man sees strange and new things, more
than other men and more than he himself sees with his natural eyes; and
he also sees, not as men see but as the inhabitants of other worlds see:
that things do not exist 'necessarily', but 'freely', that they are and
at the same time are not, that they appear when they disappear and disappear
when they appear (Shestov 1932, 5).
In this parable, Shestov assumes that the Angel of Death may come for
a man's soul too soon. How can it be? Is it, that the Angel comes by mistake?
Or does he come in response to a soul's cries that remind him so much of
cries of a dying man? But his senses should be as sharp as to render such
confusion impossible; after all, that is not very likely that angels make
mistakes (2). Or, perhaps, his visual ability
is over-saturated and confused with the perception through excessive eyes?
Or, maybe, such an excess of eyes, the over-saturated vision, is an unbearable
burden, even for an angel? In any case, he leaves a rather peculiar gift
to the man whom he visited - a pair of eyes - from his excess. Whether
the man wants them or not, he accepts the gift from the death, even if
he is not at all aware of this. Remarkably, too, the man does not see the
Angel of Death itself - he just borrows the new vision, which transforms
all his surroundings.
These new strange eyes function similar to overturning glasses - they
invert one's world: what was an appearance, turns over to a disappearance,
and vice versa. What was true, becomes suspect. New truths emerge. And
again: the torque of this overturn comes from death - not a curse, though,
but a gift. The overturn manifests itself in, through, and during the interruption.
It is not natural (in opposition to the comprehensive wish to remain balanced
on firm ground), quite the reverse - it is supernatural or, perhaps, paranormal.
If life is loaded with the charge of overturn to the extent that every
single moment potentially heads into death, how is it possible, then, to
think at all? If there is no reliable ground, and the cognitive way of
thinking, reasoning, and speculation lead only to disappointments and misfortunes,
if thinking inevitably incurs dangers of overturn - considering all this,
how should a thinker think?
Es ist einer, der hat meine Augen.
Er hat sie, seit Tore sich schließen.
Er trägt sie am Finger wie Ringe.
Paul Celan, "Chanson einer Dame
The philosopher, in Rosenzweig's definition, is a thinker who gets
stuck (staunt). His thought as such brings him into this disposition. The
thought stumbles against one's finitude, mortality. The thinker gets stuck
as soon as he engages his new pair of eyes that were left for him by the
Angel of Death. He sees something that he did not notice before: the threshold.
The three parts of Der Stern der Erlösung are divided through three
transitory chapters: Übergang, Schwelle, and Tor.
Übergang refers to the transition from Vorwelt to Welt
and belongs, thus, to the perfective past of the creation. The structure
of the word Übergang itself implies the absolute completion contained
in the past participle of the verb gehen (gang).Über-
(over)signifies the completed action of the overturn. Schwelle
(threshold), in its turn, belongs to the world of revelation. Every
threshold is potentially the gate (das Tor) - to the redeemed kingdom.
In the world of revelation every threshold, in its being transgressed,
reveals itself as a false gate to redemption. In this sense - as much as
in its architectonic function - threshold stands there specifically for
If threshold would be gate to redemption, it could be crossed only
in one direction. Being, as it is, a false gate, threshold can be crossed
in two ways - from inside and from outside (whatever side was arranged
to be the interior one).
Nichts Böses; hast Du die Schwelle
überschritten, ist alles gut. Eine andere Welt und Du mußt nicht reden.
Franz Kafka's diary, 19th
Threshold marks the point of transition. It can be crossed in two directions
each of which brings about a different change. The stumbling thinker considers
two perspectives in his gaze upon the threshold. This is why Rosenzweig
opens his Büchlein vom gesunden und kranken Menschenverstand with two prefaces
as well as two afterwords: they stand for two perspectives - of a reader
and of an expert, in other words, for two ways of crossing the threshold.
That such crossing actually does take place is explicitly expressed in
the "Vorwort an den Leser" where the author allocates himself
as "deinen dich also für jetzt auf der Schwelle begrüßenden
Verfasser" (italics added; Rosenzweig 1964, 27).
Through double-crossing, threshold reveals itself as a false gate to
redemption. There are two short pieces by Robert Walser, "Das Genie"
and "Welt", united under the common title of Zwei Geschichten
(3) (1902). In these stories the end of the world is approached
from two directions. Walser does not aim to describe the end of the world
- he describes the threshold, the false gate, at which the end of the world
stumbles, completes itself and fails all at the same time. In both cases
the world described is inverted. In the first story the inversion happens
after the world is brought to its end and starts over, while the second
story starts in the inverted world which is subsequently destroyed. The
inversion, which takes place in these two stories, emblematizes the false
overturn at the false gate. In "Das Genie", the overturn proves
to be false because although it does intervene into the flow of time it
fails to redeem the past. In "Welt", the inversion puts the world
simply upside down - instead of grammatically overwriting it - so that
nothing can be redeemed without destroying. These same dangers of the overturn
Rosenzweig called "die Gefahren der willkürlichen Umkehr" (Rosenzweig
1964, 50) in the case of the philosophical thinker.
Stumbling at thresholds is a dangerous enterprise even if doors stand
wide open. Kafka's man from the country does not cross the threshold to
the open doors of the law because he cannot be sure whether it has not
been already crossed from the opposite direction, whether the law has not
yet become exterior, and whether his entering would not mean the "willkürliche
Umkehr einer geschehenen Umkehr" (ibid) that brings with itself immense
dangers. In some sense, threshold is an impass, or more precisely, an aporia.
To defend Kafka against his interpreters, Giorgio Agamben puts a threshold
right before him (4) - to look upon which,
one has a choice from two perspectives: either as upon an aporia; or a
"The threshold is not [...] another thing with respect to the
limit; it is, so to speak, the experience of the limit itself, the experience
of being-within an outside. This ek-stasis is the
gift that singularity gathers from the empty hands of humanity" (Agamben
67,8). Threshold is the locus of overturn. Stumbling at threshold is equal
to wondering about it (that is why Rosenzweig attaches the word staunen
- meaning both stumbling and wondering - to the overturning thinking
of the philosopher). Readers of Robert Walser's prose inevitably experience
ineffable anxiety emerging from his texts. As if these texts would be constantly
wondering about something, as if they would constantly place an
indefinite question before readers. The structure of this unfinished question
is "What is...?" The predicate's position is inverted and the
subject is left out: this is grammatical overturn par excellence.
Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community, trans. Michael
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Rosenzweig, Franz. Der Stern der Erlösung, Frankfurt
am Main: Suhrkamp
Rosenzweig, Franz. Das Büchlein vom gesunden und kranken
Menschenverstand, ed. Nahum Glatzer, Düsseldorf: Joseph
Melzer Verlag, 1964.
Shestov, Lev. All things are possible. [Apotheosis of
trans. S.S. Kostelianski, London: Martin Secker, 1920.
Shestov, Lev. In Job's Balances, trans. C. Coventry and
Macartney, London: Dent and Sons Ltd., 1932.
1. The grammar of creation is narrative
past, of revelation - the imperative of commandment, and of redemption
- the dative case of psalms.
2. Walter Benjamin, though, describes
an angel gone astray - in result of an interruption by singing praise
to God ("Agesilaus Santander", 1933): "Die Kabbala erzählt,
daß Gott in jedem Nu eine Unzahl neuer Engel schafft, die alle nur bestimmt
sind, ehe sie in Nichts zrgehen, einen Augenblick vor seinem Thron sein
Lob zu singen. Meiner war dabei unterbrochen worden: seine Züge hatten
nichts Menschenähnliches. Im übrigen hat er es mir entgolten, bei seinem
Werk gesört zu sein."
3. Walser, Robert. Sämtliche Werke
in Einzelausgaben, Band 2, Geschichten, ed. Jochen Greven, Zürich: Suhrkamp,
4. Agamben, Giorgio. Idea of Prose,
trans. Michael Sullivan and Whitsitt, Sam, New York: State University Press,