By Alex Langstaff
Myth, for Hans Blumenberg, fulfills a human need for significance. “It ties acute experiences and important current events into the context of long familiarity and creates prefiguration, but also a decrease in the expectation of freedom, a decrease in what is conceded to candor and ultimate self-knowledge” (Work on Myth, 95-6). Blumenberg (1920-96) rarely engaged twentieth century history or politics directly. His work Präfiguration does both. Its recent publication from his archive promises a new angle onto the work of this major thinker. It has also served as a springboard for reenergizing the study of “political myth” among philosophers, political scientists and historians. In unpacking this fascinating text here, I want to consider the broader stakes behind Blumenberg’s project by highlighting his engagement with Ernst Kantorowicz.
What is political myth? The New School philosopher Chiara Bottici defines it as “a common narrative by which members of a social group provide significance to their political experience” (14). Bottici draws on Blumenberg to argue that, by tending to pigeonhole political myth as something irrational and regressive, we have neglected its creative potential to service our present needs, missed the nuances that distinguish it from ideology, and have thereby (ironically) conjured an almost mythical vision of politics as something exclusively rational. The concept of political myth, formalized by Gaetano Mosca and later Georges Sorel, is not new. In The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923), Carl Schmitt uses Sorel and Mosca, via Mussolini, to argue that the interwar diffusion of theories of myth, not just myths themselves, was clear proof of a decline in “rational,” parliamentary politics. In fact, there is an interesting story waiting to be told about how political myth served as a key conceptual tool for projects to remake American political science after 1945. On one side, for example, Harold Lasswell developed a tripartite typology of political myth (doctrine, formula, and folklore) based upon his research in the Wartime Communications Project (1940-44), which he used to launch content analysis and the “empirical revolution” of the Chicago School. On the other, decrying exactly this sort of positivism, was the reorientation of American political theory to “problems of spiritual disintegration and regeneration, and of the community-creating political myth” by Eric Voegelin and other émigrés.
Amidst this conversation, Präfiguration considers how “great men history” is deployed through myth and in turn, how “history is made”. Blumenberg’s protagonist is Hitler. This individual scale of focus is a departure from his generic, anthropological discussion of myth elsewhere, as well as from Bottici’s definition of political myth as a “collective” experience. Präfiguration sidesteps both the extensive historiography of fascism and Nazism that treats myth as popular and symbolic, or a “sacralized” political religion, and the extensive psychohistories of pathology and neuroses. It should be read by historians of fascism, as well as those more generally interested in how the historical self-consciousness of myth delimits the agency of their subjects.
As with most of Blumenberg’s eclectic texts, there is a central point of gravity around which Präfiguration orbits: Anton Graff’s much-reproduced portrait of Frederick II. Hitler moved it to his bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery, his final artistic possession. In a scene reminiscent of the film Downfall (2004), a desperate Hitler unleashes a torrent of abuse, but not at his aides—at the painting of Frederick, “summoning the king to help him.” What to make of this scene?
One could treat this moment, recorded in Goebbels’ diary, as nothing more than psychosis. But Blumenberg finds it illustrative of how political myth had functioned as a “decision-making aid” for Hitler, but could no longer support him. At first, styling himself as “prefigured” in Frederick, Hitler seemed “miraculous, not only miracle-believing.” His commands and expectations were imbued with a sense of magical power, eluding justification or charges of arbitrariness because they supposedly followed a pattern of historical repetition: the footsteps trodden by Napoleon and Frederick. Hitler’s attraction to these mythical figures and his outburst at their betrayal offers a “lesson in the exploitation of a form of thinking.” In Blumenberg’s major Work on Myth, myth is an existential salve to the primordial terror of the unknown. Here, beneath the Reich Chancellery, it frees Hitler from the “confusion, perplexity” of war, enabling terrible destruction.
For Blumenberg, Hitler’s mythical thinking is less a case of irrational dissimulation than a desperate, almost practical, belief in a magical plane of miracles foretold and history repeated. This is quite interesting. First, because it leads us to ponder how Hitler’s “choice” of prefiguration—Napoleon, until Operation Barbarossa unravels, then Frederick the Great, during the defense of Germany—shapes his actions in ways that elude the typical decision-making calculus of rational actors. In this sense, Blumenberg signals historians away from “realism” to thinking about how an “alternative world” [gegenwelt] frames choices made in the conduct of the war. Second, it suggests new methodological challenges if the historian is to access the “alternative” decision-making world of a subject who elects to act upon the myths they deploy.
Blumenberg generously left many doors open for other scholars to follow. His spotlight on the mythical “background” against which some of Hitler’s wartime actions can be understood will be fascinating for new readers. Another open door in Präfiguration is how the appeal to myth lays the seeds for a future myth that will retrospectively sanction it. Hitler, musing on Frederick from his bunker, declares, “It must be our ambition to set an example also in our time that later generations can invoke us in similar crises and burdens, just as we would today have to invoke the heroes in history with the past.” The apocalyptic fixation on posterity in the neoclassical architecture of Speer is now well studied. But Blumenberg points to how Hitler also considered his own cameo in the pages of future Carlyles. Hitler’s desire that “later generations can invoke us in similar crises and burdens” suggests that we may have considerably underestimated the role of myths, and not just monuments, that were prepared for a future after the rubble of 1945 was removed.
In 1927, Ernst Kantorowicz published his surprise bestseller Frederick II. It was a pioneering study of royal ceremony and bureaucracy. But patterned with romantic and authoritarian motifs, as well as prophetic passages like “The Frederick Myth,” it offered an appealing symbolic repertoire for Nazism and sat on the bookshelves of Goebbels, Himmler, Göring, Speer and Hitler. Ten years later, ruing its publication, Kantorowicz reflected on the unstable quality of political myth. Historiography had begun to enter onto the stage of history for the wrong reasons:
Today the historian is quite frequently aware that the rites, chants and customs of the Middle Ages he unearthed, along with medieval ideologies, are becoming a reality again and reaching over into the actual life of states. (236)
Rereading Präfiguration, Blumenberg appears conscious of this predicament: the affordance of embracing myth as more than a collection of symbols in order to study it, and the uncontrollable, potentially dangerous attraction this embrace could carry over into political life. Could this sort of tension explain why he chose not to publish Präfiguration? Kantorowicz makes no appearance in the Work on Myth but he is Blumenberg’s primary interlocutor in Präfiguration, where Blumenberg traces the practice of reception history (Wirkungsgeschichte, usually associated with Hans-Georg Gadamer), back to Stefan George’s circle and singles out the studies of Kantorowicz. Reception history, Blumenberg writes, “embraces myth precisely as something that cannot be made.” Thus, one “must already have the work of myth behind one in order to able to apply oneself to work on myth” (Work on Myth, 266). Blumenberg suggests Kantorowicz offers a model for this by pictorializing myth-bearers [Mythenträger]. Moreover, he notes that Kantorowicz and the George circle were engaged in a “renewal of the mythical mode of thinking,” much as Blumenberg was then doing, decades later.
All of this is not to suggest that we cordon off politics from myth because they are historically suspect partners. It is only to point to how others before have reflected on political myth’s capacity to overflow its historical bounds into “the actual life of states.” My favorite Blumenberg text is Paradigms for a Metaphorology (1960), his first, and in many ways clearest. If Metaphorology sounds like an instruction manual, it is actually a provisional “groundwork.” To reach the deep level of intellectual history which Blumenberg calls “non-conceptuality,” he argues we must adopt a conjectural account that is capable of arriving at a “pre-systematic” object. In one interesting passage, he reflects on the close relationship of metaphor to myth: it is evolving, transitory, and capable of inhabiting a “twilight zone” that is somewhere between mythos and logos (77-80). I think this tentative, twilight zone analogy works best for positioning the study of political myth à la Blumenberg: a place that, as in Hitler’s warped bunker mentality, lurches between the pragmatic and the irrational in ways that will continue to elide closure.
Alex Langstaff is a PhD candidate in modern European history at NYU.