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Intellectual history

Bhakti Beyond Borders: Sufi Serenades in Love’s Laboratory

By Ankur Barua


Today, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are often presented as three rigidly self-enclosed worldviews in political rhetoric and historical reconstructions of the last two millennia in South Asia. This think piece reveals a different picture by navigating theological exchanges across the social spaces of Hindus and Muslims, focusing on the idioms and the affectivities of devotional love (taṣawwuf, bhakti). We begin with an outline of the religious history of South Asia, highlighting how the arrival of a non-Indic religion – namely, Islam – led to various political upheavals and the development of interfaces of mutual intelligibility. The Hindu scriptural text, Bhāgavata-purāṇa (c.1000 CE), became the generative matrix of certain Indo-Islamic styles of devotional poetry which writers cultivated from both Hindu and Muslim backgrounds. The central motif — Kṛṣṇa (Krishna), the God of enchanting beauty, and the gopīs, the cowherd women who are the prototypical devotees – would be reworked multiple times across the precolonial centuries and in contexts of colonial modernity.

During the first century CE, two spiritual visions – today clustered under the rubrics of “Hinduism” and “Buddhism” – gradually developed their conceptual contours, occasionally in dialectical competition with each other’s idioms. They spoke in the common Sanskrit-rooted vocabulary of ātman (self), saṃsāra (cycle of rebirths), karma (action), avidyā (ignorance), and jñāna (knowledge), even if they occasionally disagreed sharply on how these crucial terms should be understood. Hindu and Buddhist (“Indic”) philosophers were developing sophisticated analyses of a range of motifs: the nature of reality, the structure of cognition, the shape of the ideal polity, and soteriological discipline, to name a few. The knowledge these philosophers cultivated often depended on the patronage of local kings and powerful landlords. For instance, brahmin priests were not averse to ritually consecrating a ruler through singing Vedic chants in return for tax-free lands on which to build temples and found monasteries. These sites would become the Hindu homes for propounding – and sheltering – the dharma.

The polyvalent word dharma – like the Greek word logos and the Arabic word dīn – defies translation. From a cosmic perspective, dharma is the cement of the universe: the  sky is not falling on my head right now because the sky has a specific dharma-grained structure. From a socio-moral perspective, dharma is the existential engine animating everything related to what I think, where I live, and how I act. Around the turn of the first millennium, the motif of dharma was codified by Sanskrit-speaking brahmins who prescribed specific duties for women (strī-dharma) and for individuals belonging to specific groupings (varṇa) with their distinct occupations. These socio-ritual classifications are encompassed in the dharma-sāśtra literature (200–700 CE), which was subsequently reworked by the different Vedantic traditions. Crucially, the dharma-sāśtra codifications pointed to the lands of the “outsiders” (mlechha, yavana) where the cosmos-regenerating dharma could not be practiced.

A few centuries later, Islam irrupted into Indic lands. In one sense, this generalization is as misleading as the claim “Hinduism landed at Heathrow in 1972”. People move, and they move along with their ideas housed in their sociocultural systems. Likewise, we should speak of a diverse spectrum of intellectuals, traders, and settlers who began to stream eastward from lands as far away as Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan. These movements were initiated by a series of devastating raids on lands and Hindu temples – hence, the image of an irruption – carried out by Muslim figures such as Mahmud of Ghazni (971–1030) on the north-western terrains of India. In 1206, a Sultanate was established at Delhi by a Persianate dynasty; much of the landmass of South Asia was controlled by Indo-Turkic and Indo-Afghan kings before Mughal paramountcy was founded in 1526.

Picture Delhi in 1622. The “inter-faith” landscape does not look particularly promising. To many of the Hindus we meet in the local temple, Islam is stamped with alienness – the (Persian and Mongol) rulers and courtiers are ethnically distinct, they speak weird languages, and their stand-offish mleccha-lifestyle does not conform to the dictates of dharma. First impressions often matter more than any high-minded idea you throw at others – the apocalyptic nightmare of ruthless hordes raining down hell on infidels structure the “imaginaire” of these Hindus. But perceptive (ethnographic) eyes would discern something more, especially in the vast hinterlands beyond the contact zones ravaged by military mobilization: Islam is becoming indigenized in music, painting, medicine, and dress. Urdu appears at the intersections of Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit linguistic streams; Muslims are translating Hindu scriptural texts such as the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyaṇa, and the Yogavaśiṣṭha into Persian; and certain styles of architecture combine Islamic and Indic forms.

One such “inter-faith” pioneer was the Mughal prince Dārā Shukōh (1615–1659), who was born at Ajmer, the city with the tomb (dargāh) of the Sufi master Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. Heeding a call from the minaret, Shukōh felt inspired to boldly declare that explanations of the Qur’ān could be found in the Sanskrit Upaniṣads. A recurring Islamic critique of Hindu religious life-worlds was founded upon the latter’s polytheism; however, while Dārā was plumbing the depths of Islamic unicity (tawḥīd), he discovered Indic pearls such as this declaration from the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (6.2.1–6.2.3): “In the beginning, this was simply what is existent–one only (ekam eva), without a second”. A generation before Dārā, Ras Khān (Syed Ibrahim Khān: 1548–1628) had walked down another pathway that would become a vitally osmotic site of synthetic borrowings across Hindu-Sanskritic and Muslim-Perso-Arabic milieus – the language of self-effacing love (prem, bhakti, ‘ishq, maḥabba). While little is known about his life, it is clear from his couplets (doha) that he was immersed in Hindu theological universes, and especially fluent in speaking the idioms of ecstatic love of Kṛṣṇa as expressed in the Bhāgavata-purāṇa by the exemplary cowherd women.

In a cosmic narrative that would be engraved into multiple styles of painting, poetry, architecture – and later Bollywood music – the Hindu God Kṛṣṇa plays on his world-enchanting flute whose mesmerising call is heard by his ideal devotees, the cowherd women (gopī). Leaving aside their strī-dharma in response to this call of the spirit, the gopīs rush to meet Kṛṣṇa. The scriptural narrative now unfolds through a series of dialectical twists and turns – the gopīs become inflated with pride and think that they possess Kṛṣṇa, suddenly Kṛṣṇa disappears, they are riven with an unbearable pain of separation, and finally, Kṛṣṇa re-appears and dances with them in a circular formation. Reflecting on the pathos experienced by them in separation from Kṛṣṇa, Ras Khān writes that when a gopī hears the melodious call of the cuckoo in the springtime, she feels excruciating pain.

An entire army of Hindu exegetes began to work on this (historical-mythic) narrative. How did they explicate it? The Kṛṣṇa-gopī dance represents the spiraling oscillation between the non-finite divine self and the finite human self. God wishes to draw us ever more tightly into the divine matrix, but we are not yet ready for God–marred as we are with our worldly imperfections. So, God entangles us with the lure of love (bhakti) and keeps on – time and again – turning us away from our worldliness till our hearts become perfectly Godward. In loving this world – God’s world – we must inhabit it by unswervingly turning our heart’s compass towards God. At the spiritual summit, a Hindu devotee would declare: “God: everything I do – including submitting this confession to you – is an expression of my bhakti for you”. In short, love is (not just a candlelit dinner but also) a fiery crucible that burns away our existential dross so that we become increasingly worthy of the God who would (deign to) dance with us. Love hurts, and in that agony is salvation.

All these themes are encoded in līlā – a Sanskrit word whose semantic range cannot be encompassed by one English word. Distracted by the demands of the next publication, I routinely fail to discern any divine presence in the dusty shelves of libraries. Then, God shocks me out of my existential complacency, and fills me with unbearable pain as I experience God’s absence. Paradoxically, when I feel, with my gopī-self, that God has deserted me, I become wholeheartedly re-oriented to God. So, God freely chooses to draw me outwards on a journey of deepening love of God as part of God’s līlā.

Depending on your academic affiliations (and existential dispositions), all this may be too much “theologizing” for you. However, no theological system can survive for too long if it is completely disconnected from the heat and dust of everyday life – and indeed, quotidian analogues of these cosmological claims can be found. That you experience presence in absence is a platitude to which the wisdom of Bollywood repeatedly points you (such as this song: “Why does it happen in life – when you have left, it is just then that I suddenly remember all these little things about you?”), and every divorce lawyer will caution you that taking your spouse for granted is a recipe for existential disaster.

Figures such as Ras Khān recognized that this bhakti­-shaped vision was more than malleable for Sufi (in Islamic terms, taṣawwuf) hermeneutic recalibration. The Sufi motifs of the painful surgery (fanāʾ) of the world-immersed self, the (symbolic) exile (hijrat) from the divine who is our true home, and the practice of constantly re-calling (ḏhikr) the (ninety-nine) names of our gracious host were housed across the hinterlands of Hindustan by reimagining Hindu hymns. The utterly destitute (Arabic: faqīr; Sanskrit: akiñcan) devotee still abides in (and because of) the divine plenitude. Again, in the Sufi cosmologies of Mir Sayyid Manjhan’s Madhumālatī (1545), love (Sanskrit: prema) is presented as the cosmic glue through which the tissues of the “unity of being” (waḥdat al-wujūd) are threaded together. The narrative is set as a circle of love within which Manohar meets the heroine Madhumālatī at night, gets separated, and painfully works his way back to her through various halting places. Manohar and Madhumālatī become the relishers of the sentiment (Sanskrit: rasa) of prema, such that the wayfarer (sālik) is the lover (‘āshiq) who sees in their love for the human beloved (‘ishq-i majāzī) a reflection of their love for the divine beloved (‘ishq-i ḥaqīqī). Around this time, Mīr Abdul Wāhid Bilgrāmī (d.1569) suggested, in his Haqā’iq-i Hindī, allegorical readings of Kṛṣṇa as the reality of a human being, the cowherd women (gopīs) as angels, and the flute of Kṛṣṇa as the appearance of being out of non-being.

In short, both these worldviews, of taṣawwuf and bhakti, are shaped by the allegory of love – what applies to the human beloved is a this-worldly instantiation of what is paradigmatically exemplified by the divine beloved. So, statements about a human lover are translatable – with some disanalogies – into statements about the divine lover. Thus, propelled by the call to return to God, the Sufi wayfarer wanders about, bewildered and yet assiduously, on the paths of love – paths that lead through the battlefields of Karbala, the rose gardens of Shiraz, and the hermitages and the marketplaces of India.

These syntheses of bhakti and taṣawwuf spread across Indic terrains, and by the eighteenth century, many Muslim poets were singing of Kṛṣṇa. In a middle Bengali reworking of the narrative Majnūn Laylā, Daulat Uzir Bahrām Khān (c.1600 CE) infuses the Perso-Arabic idioms of “veiling”, confusion, and selfless love (maḥabba) with the vernacular valences of painful separation (biraha).

[Lāylī says:]

The fire in my mind burns without respite

Strength, intellect, happiness, purity – all have I lost

In solitariness do I stay enclosed in biraha.

In this way the grieving woman-in-separation (birahiṇī) suffers always As she lies close to death.

My translation from A. Sharif, Lāylī-Majnu (Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1984), p. 129.

Sometime before the eighteenth century, we hear the lament of another Muslim poet as he sings of Kṛṣṇa (not named but hinted at with stock allusions).

Without my friend –

I waste away day and night

I cannot restrain myself.

Tell me, my girl-friend, what do I do now?

Without my friend my life has no companion,

I keep on waiting every day for my friend.

In that waiting I go about floating on sorrow,

If I were to find my friend, I would hold on to his feet.

Irfān says –

“My friend is the flute player, By playing on that enchanting flute he stole my heart away.”

My translation from J. M. Bhattacharya, Bāṅgālār Baiṣṇab-Bhābāpanna Musalmān Kabi (“Bengal’s Muslim Poets Infused With Vaiṣṇava Sentiments”) (Calcutta: Calcutta University, 1945), p. 48.

In such premodern songs, it is only in the line where the author signs their name that the author is revealed as an individual from a Muslim milieu who is lamenting their sorrow in separation – or exile – from their friend who is the divine beloved. This stream of sonic theology – Hindu and Indo-Islamic – continues to flow through the lands of Bengal (in India and Bangladesh). Here is a fragment of such a song from one of Bengal’s finest poets, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941).

The night that is passing, how do I bring it back?

Why do my eyes shed tears in vain?

Take this dress, my girl-friend, this garland has become a burden—

Waiting in desolation on my bed, a night such as this has passed.

My translation from R. Tagore, Gītabitān (Calcutta: Visvabharati, 1938), p. 370.

Such allegorical reworkings of the narratives of Kṛṣṇa and the cowherd women appear also in the poems of Hason Raja (1854–1922). Born in Sylhet (present-day Bangladesh), he invokes various Hindu tropes in presenting himself as a girl whose heart has been captivated by Kṛṣṇa. Thus, (s)he pines away, by “annihilating” (fanā) her worldly self in her love for the divine beloved.

I shall let the national poet of Bangladesh, the inimitable Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899–1976), have the last word. He inherited some of the theological idioms configured by figures such as Ras Khān, and his socioreligious visions do not allow any straightforwardly modular characterisation as either “Hindu” or “Muslim”. For instance, he composed songs about both the Prophet Muhammad and the Hindu goddess (debī). Married to a Hindu woman, fired by a cosmic vision of Islam as the gospel of egalitarianism unto the wretched of the earth, and tragically reviled – both by Muslims and by Hindus – precisely because of his hybrid socioreligious locations, Nazrul skilfully interweaves the threads of bhakti into the tapestry of taṣawwuf.

O girl-friend, in your youth dress up as a yogi

Go looking for Kṛṣṇa in forest after forest

Hearing his flute, abandon all concerns about family honour

Keep searching for him along the pathways

Kalyani Kazi (ed.), K̭āzī Nazruler Gān (Calcutta: Sahitya Bharati Publications, 2005), p.602.

The “de-familiarization” that bhakti points to – this world is our home and yet it is not quite our true habitat – would become the generative motor of the migration of Hindu devotionalism (for instance, ISKCON, a Hindu organisation founded in 1966 in New York by Swami Prabhupāda and the Neasden Temple in London) across national borderlines. In the reverse direction, the motif of bhakti provided the conceptual currency to Muslims in their multiple quests to modulate the Meccan message to Indic idioms, as they went looking for rejuvenating oases for Islam across the heartless deserts of the world. 


Ankur Barua is a senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge. His primary research interests are Vedantic Hindu philosophical theology and Indo-Islamic styles of sociality. He researches the conceptual constellations and the social structures of the Hindu traditions, both in premodern contexts in South Asia and in colonial milieus where multiple ideas of Hindu identity were configured along transnational circuits between India, Britain, France, Germany, and USA.

Edited by Luke Wilkinson

Featured Image: Krishna with Gopis (Creative Commons).

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Conference Report Intellectual history

Walter Benjamin in the East: Networks, Conflicts, and Reception

By Caroline Adler and Sophia Buck


From July 7-9 2022, the international conference Walter Benjamin in the East – Networks, Conflicts and Reception [1] took place at Berlin’s Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL). It examined readings, receptions, and appropriations of the work of German Jewish philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin in Central and Eastern Europe, during and after state socialism. The title of the conference, Walter Benjamin in the East, refers first of all to a Western European orientation towards the East in the 1920s. Benjamin himself traveled to the ‘margins’ of Europe (as they were then seen from a Western perspective) during his trip to Moscow in the winter of 1926/27. 

Benjamin’s preoccupation with the young Soviet Union – poignantly laid out in his essay Moscow for the journal Die Kreatur and numerous essays on cultural politics in Die Literarische Welt – is an outstanding example of his ability to think “off-modern” and to “detour into the unexplored potentials of the modern project”. Indeed, Benjamin observed the USSR in its formative years with an eye toward what Svetlana Boym called the clash of two ‘eccentric’ modernities, evident in the tensions between a utopian, revolutionary potential and the restorative, soon-to-be totalitarian tendencies of the late 1920s. This preoccupation, in turn, remains a marginal aspect in Benjamin studies, at least when considering most scholarship conducted at and circulating in ‘Western’ academic circles.

The clash of these two contingent – temporally and spatially ‘out of sync’ – modernities is said to have ended with the collapse of the so-called Eastern Bloc between 1989 and 1991. A subsequent hope was that largely separate communities of scholars were to create a newly interwoven intellectual landscape in Europe. First, by creating and fostering intellectual networks and mutual academic exchange. Second, by retrospectively acknowledging the intricate and mutual cross-connections during a long 20th-century divide between Western and Eastern versions of modernity, as embodied in Walter Benjamin’s tumultuous reception.

Taking up this undertaking, scholars, translators, and editors came together in Berlin to present and discuss different case studies on the reception and productive appropriation of Walter Benjamin’s work: in 1920s Moscow, the GDR, the Socialist Republic of Romania, the Hungarian People’s Republic, the CSSR, as well as contemporary Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Russia, and Slovakia.

“European and Soviet Art.” Vecherniaia Moskva, 14 January 1927.

The conference started with the chronological ‘origin’ of Benjamin in the East – his travel to the young Soviet Union in 1926/27, alongside his reception of and work on Soviet aesthetics and literary practice. Pavel Arsenev (University of Geneva) introduced Benjamin’s preoccupation with the works of the Soviet literary avant-garde – namely Sergei Tretiakov – as a form of ‘reverse thinking’, interpreting Benjamin as an intermediary of the Soviet avant-garde in Western Europe, especially Paris. While these contacts between ‘the East’ and ‘the West’ were mainly reduced to issues of technology and production, Arsenev highlighted contact points to the social sciences, in particular ethnology and anthropology. 

Moments of contact and synergies ‘against the grain’ were also of interest to Iacopo Chiaravalli (University of Pisa), who presented an exciting archival find: the issue of the Moscow newspaper Vecherniaia Moskva that includes an interview on “European and Soviet Art” that Benjamin gave in 1927. This interview, in Chiaravalli’s interpretation, served Benjamin as the starting point for his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), tracing back Benjamin’s thoughts on the aestheticization of politics to discussions with Bernhard Reich and Asja Lacis in Moscow. While Benjamin remarked signs of a growing orthodoxy and dogmatism of Russian cultural production, he did not revert to bourgeois aesthetics but radicalized his concepts of technology and the materiality of social production. 

Our conversation on ‘re’-constructing the 1920s continued with Sergei Romashko’s (Moscow) keynote “Walter Benjamin/Moskau – Zwei Flächen eines Kristalls” [Two planes of a crystal]. Romashko – himself the Russian translator of Benjamin’s Moscow Diary – focused on some speculative possibilities of encounters between Benjamin and figures such as Iakov Slashchov, Michail Bulgakov, Lev Kuleshov and Viktor Shklovski. Through reading Benjamin’s Diary as a historical, yet unfinished sourcebook, Romashko offered a timely understanding of Benjamin as a ‘conversation partner’ in reconstructing a history buried by the ruptures of fascism and Stalinist repression.

A joint visit to the Walter Benjamin Archive rounded up the first day, guided by the archive’s research associate Ursula Marx. In addition to the rare opportunity to marvel at Benjamin’s original manuscript of the micrological Moscow Diary, there was a lively discussion about practices of archiving and cataloguing non-German editions and translations. While the opening and accessibility of the archive, on the one hand, promotes the study of Benjamin, on the other, it makes ‘quality management’ more difficult, as keeping track of new translations, editions or appropriations of his work is a task on its own.

Book cover of the first, somewhat corrupted Hungarian edition of Benjamin’s work, Kommentár és prófécia, edited by Dénes Zoltai, Budapest 1969.

On the second day, the section on Theoretical Reception until the 1990s targeted productive appropriations [‘Entwendungen’] of Benjamin’s work in the GDR, the Hungarian People’s Republic, and the CSSR. Martin Küpper (FU Berlin) discussed how Benjamin’s reflections on operative aesthetics and reproduction techniques were incorporated into the philosophical canon of the GDR after 1968. Of central importance were figures like Lothar Kühne, whose reception of ‘aura’ and concepts of ornament and ‘Behutsamkeit’ [gentleness; caution] considerably touched on functional aesthetics as an approximation of situation and space. Adapting and reworking Benjamin’s notion of ‘aura’, Kühne challenged the schism between utility and handicraft while criticizing commodity fetishism. 

Konstantin Baehrens (University of Potsdam) focused on an important mediator of Walter Benjamin’s work in the socialist context: György Lukács. Lukács stimulated a reading of Benjamin not only among members of the Budapest School but also in the environment of the Yugoslav Praxis Group and Marxist philosophers in the GDR – a redirected interest in modernist tendencies of the 1920s, at a time when Lukács himself was ostracized from official cultural politics. Both Baehrens and Küpper amplified the role that reception plays in legitimizing ideological standpoints. Thereby, the papers provided striking examples of the practical use of Benjamin’s theoretical legacy beyond a philological ‘Benjamin-School’. 

Gábor Gángo (University of Erfurt) further expanded the engagement with the Budapest School. For him, too, the reception and appropriation of Benjamin’s work, especially through Hungarian writer Sándor Radnóti, can be understood as a kind of ‘mediation’ or reconciliation between Eastern and Western versions of modernity and its respective strains of Marxism. Following the reading of Benjamin through Lukács, Anna Zséller and Károly Tóth (ELTE) presented excerpts of extensive interviews they had conducted with editors and translators of Benjamin’s work in Hungary. These conversations with figures such as Radnóti, Mihály Vajda, or János Weiss gave striking insights into a ‘Marxist Renaissance’ in Hungary up until the 1970s and its sudden halt after the so-called ‘Philosopher’s Trial’ in 1973. These circumstances produced a unique ‘belatedness’ in the publication of Benjamin’s work in Hungary and a reception marked by fragmentation and generational conflict. 

Book cover of Walter Benjamin, Dílo a jeho zdroj, translated by Růžena Grebeníčková, Prague 1979.

Concluding the section, Anna Förster (University of Erfurt) focused on the intellectual climate and conditions for a Benjamin reception in the CSSR after 1968. Her contribution centered on the 1979 Czech edition Walter Benjamin: Dílo a jeho zdroj and how – unlike other Western philosopher’s works – it was possible to get it past the multiple censorship laws, despite Benjamin being considered a ‘horkým bramborem’ [touchy subject]. Förster examined the tactics of editors and translators to escape censorship not through anonymity or pseudonymity but through allonymity: a practice whereby authors and translators ‘lent their names’ to colleagues who could not publish officially.

The section Artistic Responses until the 1990s engaged with artists’ responses to Benjamin’s work in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Due to its split with Stalin after 1948, Yugoslavia went a quite distinct path, resulting in its transitioning towards market-based socialism and relatively liberal cultural politics. Isabel Jacobs (Queen Mary University of London) focused on the underground art practice of Goran Đorđević, his disappearance and subsequent resurrection as ‘Walter Benjamin’ in a 1986 performance lecture in Ljubljana. Jacobs proposed to consider Đorđević’s artistic strategies of copying and un-originality less an ‘influence’ of Walter Benjamin than a reversed intervention that questions claims of cultural originality.

Deirdre Smith (University of Pittsburgh) took a closer look at artists of the New Art Practice Movement in 1970s Yugoslavia, particularly the work of Sanja Iveković. Smith pointed out that Iveković’s artistic strategy of montage and image-constellation can be traced back to a specifically feminist reading of Benjamin’s work in the edition Eseji, published in Belgrade in 1974. Both contributions referred to the productive possibilities of a non-academic, but rather interventionist appropriation of Walter Benjamin’s work in a relatively liberal socialist context.

Sanja Iveković, Dvostruki život / Double Life (1975).

The section Artistic Responses since the 1990s targeted cultural, theatrical, and cinematic as well as film-theoretical engagement with Benjamin’s work in contemporary Russia and Romania. In her keynote “Translating Benjamin from Theory to Practice – Russian Edition”, Oxana Timofeeva (St. Petersburg) evoked some of Benjamin’s concepts – such as the angel of history, divine violence, and the tradition of the oppressed – and their harnessing within political struggles in today’s Russia.

Timofeeva recalled the artists collective Chto Delat‘s 2014 performance “Who burned a paper soldier,” in which the collective transformed the vandalization of an installation in public space into an investigation of monumentality in collective memory culture. In doing so, the self-incrimination of the Angel of History aimed at exploring emancipatory strategies for addressing and overcoming entangled complicities in the past. The urgent task of demystifying Benjamin, Timofeeva suggested, begins with exposing him as a dislodged reference material or ‘cultural asset’. Instead, a militant reception in the art world would allow to grasp an ‘untimely’ moment in his philosophy through our own experiences and struggles. 

In a similar vein, Bogdan Popa (Transilvania University Romania) explored how the reception of Benjamin transited from branding him as a historical materialist thinker to a reference for ‘cultural studies’ within Romanian film theory. The influence of Benjamin on Romanian film theory and aesthetics are surely productive. However, Popa argues, Benjamin’s thought needs to be decisively situated in a Marxist tradition of thinking; also to be able to reconceptualize Romania’s own history of socialism. Here, the works of Benjamin are seen not through the lens of appropriation but through the possibility of theoretical self-understanding.

In contrast, Anna Migliorini (University of Florence and Pisa) examined the productive appropriation of Benjamin in the aesthetic realist school of Romanian New Wave cinema, in particular the movies of Radu Jude. In her analysis of Radu’s work, Migliorini pointed out two purposes of such an appropriation: on the one hand, as a thematic reference and, on the other, as a methodological model.

Still from Radu Jude’s I do not care if we go down in history as barbarians (2018).

The last section on Day 3 dealt with theoretical landscapes and Reception since the 1990s, specifically Romania and Slovakia. Markus Bauer (Berlin) traced the political, linguistic, and social-theoretical preconditions of Benjamin’s reception in Romania from 1972. He outlined various theoretical influences of Benjamin’s work that conditioned the respective reception waves in Romania, as enacted through, for example, Valeriu Marcu, René Fülöp-Miller, or Panait Istrati. At the center of the subsequent discussion was the concept of ‘Europe’, both in Benjamin’s writing, but also in the self-understanding of the Romanian reception marked by the discovery of Benjamin’s works in French translation. 

Adam Bžoch (University of Bratislava) brought together areas of artistic engagement and theoretical reception in Slovakia as ‘traces of an apparition’ assembled in a 2006 conference ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Media Challenges’ in Bratislava and an accompanying exhibition in 2008. The 1990s saw a shift toward Benjamin’s art and media theory. For example, the translation Iluminácie (1999) – only coinciding with the German edition by chance – was curated along the lines of media-theoretical considerations rather than literary reflections.

Following from the ‘Velvet Divorce’ (or dissolution) of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Slovak intellectuals also increasingly tended to foreground biographical aspects of Benjamin’s exile as a starting point to rework a perceived disconnection from Slovakia’s own history. Both Bauer and Bžoch highlighted the importance to address social and political contexts of particular receptions, as new editions and translations also constellate novel proximities of thought that can change supposedly ‘neutral’ readings radically.

The final roundtable discussion Translating (in) the East took up these questions once again and expanded the spectrum towards the possibility to intervene through translations and editions. Three translators and editors reflected on their practice, considering circulation, institutional infrastructures, publication requirements, discursive tendencies, and readership. Kateryna Mishchenko (Berlin) started to work on translations of Benjamin’s writings on dreams in 2014 to introduce them “as an alternative form of political reflection”.

More translations into Ukrainian gradually appeared after the turn of the century, with a focus on political aspects and echoes in artistic circles. In light of the war in Ukraine, Mishchenko advocates further Ukrainian translations not as an alternative to existing Russian ones but to open a linguistic zone for pondering ambivalences, tensions, and mutual illuminations. Whilst translations culturally transform Benjamin’s thought, they are also a means for a translator to construct a future for transcultural and political community building. 

Book cover of Walter Benjamin, Iluminácie, translated by Adam Bžoch, Bratislava 1999.

Christian Ferencz-Flatz (Alexandru Dragomir Institute for Philosophy Bucharest) – currently working on translating Benjamin’s Arcades-Project into Romanian – outlined the recent translation history within the Romanian intellectual landscape. First comprehensively translated after the fall of the socialist regime, Benjamin would become part and parcel of ‘culture wars’. Iluminări (2000), translated by Catrinel Pleșu, favored a depoliticized, theological selection that supported an anticommunist stance. Nonetheless, Benjamin’s writings soon turned into a key piece of ammunition in constituting a New Left shortly before Romania’s integration into the EU. Ferencz-Flatz inscribed Benjamin’s work into a consistent streak of new translations since, accompanied by a more thorough academic engagement with Benjamin’s writings. 

Adam Lipszyc (Polish Academy of Sciences Warsaw) situated his own Polish translation against the horizon of historically longer trends and re-translations in Polish academia. Broadly, the reception of Benjamin passed from aesthetics and literary theory (1970s) through cultural studies (1980/90s) and post-secular readings down to a political philosophy across the political spectrum. Similar to Ferentz-Flatz’ observation for some Romanian translations, more politically ‘conservative’ or ‘leftist’ presentations of Benjamin would take shape through curating his Œuvre selectively according to ‘theological’ or ‘Marxist’ underpinnings. Lipszyc’s translation, in his view, aimed at reinstating the philosophical value of Benjamin’s work as opposed to a restricted view of him as either a theologian or a media theorist.

Book table at the ZfL in Berlin, with translations and editions that were discussed during the conference.

The conference brought together perspectives from the European ‘East’ in a fascinating and fruitful constellation. Thereby, it opened outlooks for future collective work on the entangled aspects of Western, Central and Eastern European intellectual histories through the lens of Benjamin’s legacy. Understanding the afterlife of his thought as it traverses ideological and geographical boundaries also means accounting for the specificity of local contexts. Individual case studies from this conference highlighted previously neglected similarities as well as differences within the European context.

Going beyond essentializing a ‘Polish’ or ‘Romanian’ or ‘Hungarian’ version of Benjamin, the contributions shed light on how reception and translation may enable scholars to reinterpret and expand Benjamin studies across linguistic contact zones. With this outlook, real and imaginary constructions of the ‘East’ and ‘West’, for instance when speaking about divides within Marxism, were critically addressed. Thus, the conference unveiled how a focus on the various receptions and appropriations of Walter Benjamin’s work across Europe may open up a new, transnational home for a supposedly ‘over-researched’ thinker.

[1] The event was supported by the ZfL Berlin, the Oxford/Berlin Research Partnership, and the Research Training Group GRK 1956 “Transfer of Culture and Cultural Identity” in Freiburg.


Caroline Adler is a scholar of Cultural History and Theory. Her research focuses on representation, method, and literarization in Walter Benjamin’s work, epistemologies of the aesthetic, and theory and critique of scientific exhibition practice. She is a PhD Student in the Research Training Group The Literary and Epistemic History of Small Forms at Humboldt-University Berlin, where she works on Benjamin’s “Moscow” essay between vividness and literary construction. She is an active member and treasurer of the collective diffrakt – centre for theoretical periphery in Berlin-Schöneberg.

Sophia Buck is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford in German Studies and an associate of the Research Training Group Transfer of Culture and “Cultural Identity”. German-Russian Contacts in the European Context in Freiburg. Her research concerns literary criticism and theory, European cultural thought, intercultural optics, knowledge transfer, and the history of the discipline. She currently writes a doctoral thesis with the working title “Moscow – Berlin – Paris: Walter Benjamin’s Transnational Spaces of Comparison”. In 2021, she was a visiting researcher at the École normale supérieure Paris, and until summer 2022 a visiting researcher at the Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung Berlin.

Edited by Isa Jacobs

Featured Image: Book Cover of Walter Benjamin’s Moskovskii dnevnik [Moskauer Tagebuch], Moscow 1997. Credits: Ad Marginem.

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In Theory: The JHI Podcast

Intellectual History of Racialized Emotions: Kristin Engelhardt interviews Dannelle Gutarra Cordero

In this latest episode of In Theory, Kristin Engelhardt interviews Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, Professor in African American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University and Faculty Adviser at Forbes College, about her book, “She is Weeping: An Intellectual History of Racialized Slavery and Emotions in the Atlantic World” (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Her book examines the intellectual history of scientific racism and furnishes examples for the construction of an “Emotional Other” in intellectual discourses from its origins in the ancient world through the 18, 19 and 20th century to our present. Professor Gutarra Cordero also uncovers the dominating features of “White Storytelling” in history books and current media production and reveals the ambivalence within antislavery thought and Abolitionist movement that has entrenched the racialization of emotions within a biased white storytelling, rather than a true revision of a still persisting racialized emotional economy.

Of particular note is the addition of creative writing pieces that frame the different chapters. This book emerges as a harrowing study that questions the extent to which intellectual history can be held accountable for giving an unilateral perspective. By denouncing that, Gutarra Cordero stresses the importance of contextualizing, revising, and opening up broader perspectives on the intellectual history of emotions. The work ultimately argues that this shift can open up a space for emotional justice, within which black emotionality can attain its fullest expression.


Kristin Engelhardt, born in Hamburg, completed her BA studies in German and Italian Literature at the Universities of Hamburg and Geneva. As part of a double degree program, she received her Master’s degree in French and Francophone Studies from Humboldt University in Berlin and the University Ca’ Foscari in Venice. Her thesis explores the reception of French Surrealism in the GDR and, in particular, the anthology Surrealismus in Paris. 1919-1939 by Karl-Heinz Barck, published by Reclam in 1986. Her general research interests include avant-gardes of the 20th century with a special focus on Surrealism, Menippean satire, authors of the early modern period, and Fashion Theory. She is currently working as an editor at rethink GmbH in Berlin.

Edited by: Kristin Engelhardt

Featured Image: “Esclava de Puerto Rico” (1777-78) by Luis Paret y Alcázar.

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Conference Report

Citizen/Stateless Person/Cosmopolitan:  Refugee Selfhood in Global Intellectual and Legal History

By Shuvatri Dasgupta

The workshop “Citizen/Stateless Person/Cosmopolitan: Refugee Selfhood in Global Intellectual and Legal History” was held at the University of St Andrews on 9 September 2022. It addressed the dearth of academic engagement with the question of global refugee selfhood in the long 1940s, intersecting perspectives of global intellectual history and legal history. It was co-organised by Kerstin von Lingen (Vienna) and Milinda Banerjee (St Andrews). The workshop received generous financial support from the University of Vienna. It received additional financial and logistical support from Caroline Humfress (St Andrews) and the Institute of Legal and Constitutional Research, University of St Andrews.  The workshop drew part of its inspiration from the journal Itinerario’s special issue “Forced Migration and Refugee Resettlement in the Long 1940s” (Vol. 46, August 2022) co-edited by Banerjee and von Lingen. In its introduction, they argue that the long 1940s witnessed a “global refugee resettlement regime”. The emergence of a global refugee subjectivity was one of the major outcomes of the political conflicts of the mid-twentieth century. Nation states and international organizations debated questions of citizenship, displacement, resettlement, and statehood. However, within global histories of the twentieth century, the figure of the refugee continues to remain marginalised. In fact, the lens of transnational and global history has only recently been applied to the study of twentieth century partitions. Given the specificities of area studies research, historians have also not traced the connected nature of these histories. The papers in this workshop all addressed this crucial research vacuum in modern global history.

How did refugees conceptualise their displacement? Were the grammars of citizenship and political belonging within a nation state important to them? Which categories and ideas do they implement in shaping their global selfhood? These are some of the questions which Dina Gusejnova (LSE) and Milinda Banerjee (St Andrews) addressed in their papers on refugee political thought. Gusejnova cast an eye towards the Baltic German nobility seeking refuge from the violence of the Russian Civil War in the early twentieth century. Her paper analysed the works of international lawyer Mikhail von Taube, a member of the Baltic German aristocracy, who left Russia in 1917 and settled in Paris. As a member of a “community of imperial internationalists” Taube had a “cosmopolitan yet uprooted” subjectivity as a refugee. In shaping this consciousness, Antigone became his spokesperson. Gusejnova located this choice within a broader context of Antigone’s revival in mid-twentieth century Europe, especially in the works of Alexandre Kojève, who was influenced by Hegel. For Hegel, Antigone embodied a moment of unhappy consciousness in the dialectic between the family and the state. For Taube, she did just the same. Antigone became a suitable mouthpiece for Taube’s unhappy consciousness as a refugee in Paris, alienated from his lineage and kin and marginalised by the Bolshevik Russian state.

In Banerjee’s paper, this unhappy consciousness of the global refugee found resolution through critiques of capitalism. He considered Bengali Hindu refugees migrating from east Bengal/Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to the Indian state of West Bengal in India, following the Partition of 1947. Banerjee drew on state archives, refugee memoirs, novels, poems, short stories, and movies, demonstrating that refugee political consciousness was resolutely transnational. In the context of the Cold War, Communist-influenced refugees employed Marxian categories of political economy, such as money, property, value, and wage, to critique the bourgeois state and capitalist landlordism. High-caste refugees often fashioned themselves as “new Jews”, comparing their plight with Jewish experiences of displacement. Lower-caste/Dalit refugee thinkers drew on Hegel, Marx, and Black radical theory to critique caste/class-inflected proletarianization of refugees. Banerjee argued that these Bengali actors produced new models of refugee republicanism and created new practices of refugee democracy that led to the consolidation of Left governance in the region. Ultimately, both Gusejnova and Banerjee centered refugees as political thinkers, and placed them at the heart of global intellectual history.

Shaira Vadasaria’s (Edinburgh) paper addressed the refugee question in the context of Palestine, deploying the lens of racial politics and settler colonialism. She scrutinised the Balfour Declaration of 1917 as paving the way for settler colonialism in the twentieth century. She traced the ways in which British Mandate powers denied Palestinian subjects their nationhood and showed how Zionist leaders cast Palestinians as “subjects of racial difference”. She illustrated how humanitarian aid was prioritised over land repatriation by the United Nations. This move condemned Palestinian refugees to a state of eternal waiting, relegating them to “a life of return amidst extraterritoriality”. Khaled Hosseini in his novel “A Thousand Splendid Suns” wrote, “Of all the hardships a person had to face, none was more punishing than the simple act of waiting”. For him, the act of waiting defined the state of being a refugee: waiting for loved ones to return, for migration related paperwork to come through, and for an elusive opportunity to return home. Vadasaria mapped the poetics of this affective ontology of waiting onto the Palestinian refugee selfhood after the Nakba.

For only some Viennese Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, waiting came to end after the Second World War with their return to Vienna. However, it was not the same home that they had left behind. Kerstin von Lingen’s (Vienna) paper narrated one such story of loss and return, contextualised within “the complex practices of resettlement” in post-war Europe. The Nazi state revoked German citizenship for Jews and confiscated their properties, following the Nuremberg racial laws in 1935. This marked the beginning of their “expropriation and pauperization” by the state. As the situation worsened, Jews prepared to leave Germany. Since they were emigrating, they shifted these moveable properties to Italian port town, Trieste. However, Nazi legislation stated that Jews were not entitled to move goods after being denaturalized as citizens, and thus the property got stuck in Trieste. As a result, the port authorities complained to the Nazi government. In response, still during the war, these boxes were shipped to Klagenfurt in South Austria, and put to re-use by the known auction company “Dorotheum”. Subsequently, German citizens incurred massive losses during the Allied bombings. Now, the Nazi government sorted and redistributed these things. Therefore, the goods changed hands from Jewish refugees to German citizens. After the Second World War, British troops came to Klagenfurt and found 8000 moving boxes containing more than 2000 household goods. After the refugees returned to Austria, they claimed their citizenship and property, but to no avail. Since the famous legal battle about the famous painting ‘The Golden Girl’ by Klimt, there is growing awareness in Austria to remedy these wrongs. However, majority of the goods remain lost. Von Lingen concluded that we must center Viennese Jewish refugees within wider transnational histories of loss of citizenship and property.

Whilst some Jewish refugees returned to Austria, others sought to resettle elsewhere and build new lives. Philipp Strobl, in his paper, studied one such instance of Jewish refugees migrating from Nazi Germany and settling in Australia. How did they carve out a space of their own in a new land? What challenges did they encounter? How were migration regimes negotiated? How did post-war politics shape their selfhood? During the late 1930s, Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi Germany arrived on the shores of Australia. Their growing numbers became a concern for Australian policy makers. The political climate in the country remained unfavorable in general to the “mass immigration of any class of aliens.” The National Security Act of 1939 legalized ongoing practices of discrimination against the Jewish refugees. They were labelled as “enemy aliens” and subjected to regular police surveillance. Their movement was limited by harsh travel restrictions. They were also not allowed to become naturalized citizens in Australia. When evidence of Nazi genocide of the Jews came to light in 1942, the situation gradually changed. They formed the “Association for Jewish Refugees” in 1942 and bargained for a better status in Australia. Their individual and organizational efforts bore fruits. The 1939 Act was amended in 1943. They were no longer viewed as enemies and were recognised as “refugee aliens”. Due to these improvements, German Jewish refugees managed to sustain themselves financially in Australia. Soon enough, they were also given the right to become naturalized citizens in Australia. Thus, Strobl’s paper argued that the subjectivity of the Jewish refugee in Australia transformed from “enemy” to “friend” between 1937-1943. This transition in Australia was facilitated by a global recognition of Jewish plight in the face of Nazi atrocities in Germany.

In 1938, Virginia Woolf provocatively proclaimed “as a woman, I have no country”. Written at a time when the world’s population was suffering from increasing statelessness and violent displacement, Woolf sought to draw attention to the gendered nature of the ongoing political crisis. The papers by Anjali Bhardwaj Datta (Cambridge) and Rosalind Parr (Wolverhampton) attempted to do the same for the refugee crisis in mid-twentieth century India. Their papers centered the role of women within global refugee histories by investigating the Partition of India in 1947. They asked, how was refugee selfhood gendered?

Rosalind Parr’s paper illustrated that transnational discourses on universal rights were implemented by women activists and politicians in India, to shape variegated policies on refugee rehabilitation. She engaged with the debates leading up to the Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act of 1949 in India. She evaluated the involvement of elite women, in the Indian government and in women’s organizations, in formulating refugee rehabilitation policies. Sucheta Kripalani organised the Central Relief Committee for refugee resettlement before any other attempts were made by the Indian state. Purnima Banerjee secularized the category of “citizenship” by advocating for the rights of Muslim women refugees from Pakistan to remain in India. Rameshwari Nehru, Hansa Mehta, and Mridula Sarabhai too played a decisive role in shaping women’s belonging in the nascent Indian nation state. Tying together these threads, she argued, that elite women from diverse political backgrounds participated in refugee rehabilitation and played an important role in “shaping gendered meanings of citizenship” in postcolonial India.

Datta’s paper picked up where Parr left off. She asked, how did policies of refugee rehabilitation mold the female refugee in postcolonial North India? The figure of the female refugee became fragmented along lines of class, caste, religion, and age. Rural women largely could not access any rehabilitation facilities in Delhi, due to bureaucratic and gendered limitations. Older women of lower class-caste backgrounds faced the same hurdles. However, the marital status of refugee women played a crucial role in determining their access to rehabilitation. Widowed women were rehabilitated out of concern that they might take to sex-work. The Government of India ran marriage bureaus which aimed to get single refugee women married so that they could find their place within the household. Moreover, the support provided by the Indian state to the refugees for economic empowerment remained gendered. Whilst male refugees were trained in engineering works, female refugees were encouraged to practice crafts and nourish India’s fledgling cottage industries from their homes. The female refugee was circumscribed within the space of the household by the postcolonial Indian nation state. Thus, Datta acknowledged the struggles of the refugee woman in acquiring “a room of her own” in postcolonial India. 

From Syria to Myanmar, from Ukraine to Afghanistan, from India to China, the figure of the refugee continues to haunt our present times. Atrocities of state and capital displace more and more people with every passing day. Some become classified as political refugees, others as climate refugees. This condition of homelessness is pervasive in the modern age. State and capital transform all beings into “unbeings”. In this context, the enquiries of the workshop remain timely and relevant. Historical explorations of global refugee selfhood indicate that international organisations of the Global North as well as nation states failed to address the refugee crisis in the twentieth century. It required global solutions which could not be provided adequately due to conflicting national interests. This remains the central tragedy even today. For our present refugee crisis, we urgently require subalternist as well as non-anthropocentric policies which are informed by caring interdependence, rather than by exploitative extractivism – which place refugees at the heart of a politics of care, across racial, class, gender, and even species borders. How can we make our world habitable for all, once again? In this I hope we shall learn from the nonhuman, such as from the geese. As migratory birds, they do not pay heed to national borders. They do not take into account any anthropocentric notions of private property. They live and travel without paperwork. The earth becomes their own. Someday, I hope, it will be the same with humans. 


Shuvatri Dasgupta is Lecturer in School of History, University of St Andrews. She is also a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge and an editor for the Journal of History of Ideas blog.

Featured Image: Balata refugee Camp. Circa 1950, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Interview

How Nietzsche Came In From the Cold: An Interview with Philipp Felsch (Part II)

By Isabel Jacobs

Philipp Felsch is Professor for Cultural History at Humboldt University of Berlin. He is interested in intellectual history and the history of science in the 19th and 20th centuries. His book The Summer of Theory. History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990 was published in 2021. An English edition of Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam is forthcoming with Polity.

Isabel Jacobs is a primary editor at the JHIBlog. She spoke with Philipp Felsch about his latest book Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam, which tells the story of two Italian anti-fascist philologists who, in the 1960s, discovered Friedrich Nietzsche’s manuscripts in GDR archives. Following the first part of their conversation, Part II focuses on Nietzsche’s revival in 1960s France.

***

Isabel Jacobs: Let’s talk about the French revival of Nietzsche which opens your book. One of the key events you recall is the Nietzsche congress in Royaumont in July 1964, which marked the emergence of both a “Nietzsche Renaissance” and French postmodernism. One of the issues a young Deleuze and Foucault discussed in Royaumont was how to read Nietzsche’s texts. Can you tell us a bit more about the French reception?

Philipp Felsch: Let me expand on that. We can basically say there are two major Nietzsche waves or fashions in the 20th century. There’s an early one, up to the 30s, which is mainly German, or German-inspired. One problem with Nietzsche has always been that he was not a classical or academic philosopher. Nietzsche had renounced his professorship of philology in early years. He was a Weltanschauung writer, so his status is very unclear. And you can see that many of the early interpretations of Nietzsche, also Heidegger’s, are concerned with legitimizing Nietzsche as a proper philosopher by projecting a systematic, central thought or idea of principle into Nietzsche’s vast body of writing: be it the eternal recurrence, or the will to power, or the superhuman.

In the 70s and 80s, there’s a second wave of Nietzsche revival that had its epicenter in France. There’s a long history of reading Nietzsche in France which goes back to the late 19th century. Nietzsche himself was a Francophile. He was anti-German in many ways, at least in later years. So he made it very easy for French readers to like him, even though they didn’t like Germany. Despite this long tradition, a “French Nietzsche” really only emerged in the 60s and the 70s. And this French Nietzsche was in many ways the opposite of the older Nietzsche. All previous attempts had tried to qualify Nietzsche as a proper philosopher with one central topic. 

Max Klinger’s Nietzsche bust at the Nietzsche archive. Creative Commons.

The new French philosophers, people like Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, they do the opposite. They’re interested in Nietzsche because in their eyes he basically destroyed or exploded philosophical discourse from within. For them, Nietzsche’s work is, among other things, an event in the history of language. Along with the literary modernists, Nietzsche was the first to set free the sign as a material object on paper. Liberating the signifier also meant to free the “text” from a certain definite, fixed, or ultimate meaning. And of course the French post-structuralists were exactly interested in these things.

Now the Italian edition comes into play. It’s published in parallel in an Italian, German, and French version. The first volume of the French edition came out in 67 which is also a very significant year for post-structuralist theory. The novelty about this edition was that Colli and Montinari, for the first time, tried to decipher Nietzsche’s notebooks exactly as they were. Up to then, Nietzsche’s late, unpublished writings had mainly been read in the form of a book, The Will to Power, which his sister had edited. It’s a strongly edited book which tries to systematize a vast body of notes, scribbles, and jottings from his notebooks. Colli and Montinari, on the other hand, tried to merely transcribe these notes into printed letters. Half of their edition is just this collection of short fragments of texts: the unpublished writings of Nietzsche. 

These notes moved into the center of a new Nietzsche cult. Because they show that Nietzsche was not a systematic philosopher, that he was not writing books in a classical form but that he was just producing a vast, autonomous body of text which had its own logic and followed its own laws. Nietzsche’s texts didn’t even have an author in the classical sense, because you have a chaotic mixture in these notebooks of philosophical aphorisms and excerpts from the stuff he was reading, but also everyday notations, like what to buy in the grocery store, things like that. And the French philosophers, namely Foucault, made a point out of that by saying that Nietzsche was not really an author in the way we traditionally perceived authorship. In Nietzsche’s case, the author is then rather an effect of posthumous editing.

How did the French philosophers know that? Of course because they had the Italian edition! Foucault was even a collaborator of Montinari and Colli; he was the guest editor of the French version of their edition, so he had access to these notebooks very early on. Today, the notebooks are all online, but back then nobody had ever seen them because they were in the archives in East Germany. Therefore, I argue in my book, the death of the author and many other of the post-structuralists’ core ideas emerged from the knowledge of and acquaintance with the unpublished writings of Nietzsche. That’s the legacy of the Italian edition. 

At the same time, that’s really not what the Italian philologists intended. They were looking for Nietzsche’s original text without any posthumous distortions. Stemming from the same edition, on the one hand, you have this idea of ultimate textual truth, on the other, in French hands, it turns into the idea of free floating signifiers which are not connected to any definite meaning or truth. And that’s why the Italians felt mistreated, even betrayed by their French readers who were privileged by getting this very early access to this new material, but very openly denounced Colli and Montinari’s philological project as being ultra-traditional and belonging into the 19th century.

Volume from the Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Credits: De Gruyter, 1992.

IJ: This leads me to my question why reading is so important for your story. The reader, it seemed to me, is the main protagonist of your book—as important as the author or even more. Intellectual history is told from a different point of view. This shift in perspective that you already employed in your last book is very productive. One of your inspirations is Michel Foucault’s genre of “reportage d’idées,” this whole idea of focusing on the places and events that give birth to new ideas. Can you expand a little on your approach?

PF: That’s exactly what I’m interested in. Of course there are many different angles if you try to do that but the basic idea is always the same. There’s a book by the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg called The Laughter of the Thracian Woman: A Protohistory of Theory which goes back to the early history of Greek philosophy. One of the Pre-socratic philosophers fell into a well because he was thinking so hard and didn’t watch where he was going. When his maid saw him, she had to laugh. Accordingly, in his book, Blumenberg was interested in philosophy as “exotic behavior” or, in other words, in the exterior, visible side of theory. In my book, and in the last one, I have also tried to describe theory insofar as you can see it. 

I’m interested in the exterior, material, behavioral aspect of supposedly interior ideas and theories. That includes scriptures, books, journals, or paperbacks, the gestures, the whole behavior and comportment of philosophers. What does it even mean to be a philosopher or theorist? And of course, if you’re interested in the exterior, then also the “practice of theory,” as they called in the 60s, comes into focus, but not the practice of theory in the sense of changing the world through practicing theory.

It’s more about the question: what do we do when we do theory? One of the answers is: we read. Reading seems to be a focal point where theory becomes visible and turns into a lifestyle for postwar generations. That connects Colli and Montinari with the protagonists of my former book. When Montinari first saw one of Nietzsche’s handwritings in Weimar in 1961, he was completely allured. He devoted his whole life to a never-ending reading exercise.

IJ: Is there a new project that follows from the Nietzsche book?

PF: Not directly. What I’m doing now is co-organizing an international conference on the comparative history of close reading which arcs from literary studies all the way into philology and philosophy. The idea that you have to delve deeply into texts is something very significant in the twentieth-century history of ideas. Of course, it has a long history rooted in biblical philology. But it seems to be very typical of the last century. Besides, I am writing a short book on the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, looking back at the decades of postwar German intellectual history that he represented like nobody else and that seems to finally come to an end.

***

Featured Image: Mazzino Montinari working at his desk. Credits: Aline Montinari.

Categories
Interview

How Nietzsche Came In From the Cold: An Interview with Philipp Felsch (Part I)

By Isabel Jacobs

Philipp Felsch is Professor for Cultural History at Humboldt University of Berlin. He is interested in intellectual history and the history of science in the 19th and 20th centuries. His book The Summer of Theory. History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990 was published in 2021. An English edition of Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam is forthcoming with Polity.

Isabel Jacobs is a primary editor at the JHIBlog. She spoke with Philipp Felsch about his latest book Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam, which tells the story of two Italian anti-fascist philologists who, in the 1960s, discovered Friedrich Nietzsche’s manuscripts in GDR archives. As Felsch retraces in his book, their critical edition of Nietzsche’s handwritings would pave the way for French post-structuralism. Felsch also sheds new light on European cultural politics during the Cold War, traveling with his protagonists from Florence to Weimar and Royaumont.

***

Isabel Jacobs: First off, can you tell us how you became interested in the story of your new book? What did the research process look like?

Philipp Felsch: The book started with an image in my mind. I either heard or read about the story, I don’t remember. I imagined one of my two protagonists, the Italian communist scholar Mazzino Montinari (1928-1986), who at the time was, I guess, around 30. He had just moved to East Germany in the early fall or late summer of 1961—a few weeks before the Berlin Wall was built. That was of course a highly significant date. Montinari moved to the GDR, to Weimar, the capital of German classicism and high culture.

Next to Goethe and Schiller’s archives happened to also be the papers of Nietzsche. Montinari came precisely to Weimar to reedit Nietzsche who, which adds to the whole irony of the situation as I perceived it, was of course considered a fascist thinker in the GDR. Therefore Nietzsche’s writings were stored, let’s say, in the Giftschrank [a collection of forbidden books] of Weimar’s archives. And that’s where Montinari goes—apparently undisturbed by the fact that the GDR was building this wall.

At the time, Montinari was already deeply immersed in philology. He moved to the GDR, temporarily at first, going back and forth between Weimar and Florence, where he was mainly staying at the time. But then, after a few years, he permanently settled in Weimar and married a local. He even acquired a certain fame and became part of the “high society” there. A couple of years later, he was interviewed by East German television on the occasion of Goethe’s 215th anniversary. Shortly after, Montinari had already four kids with his wife which led to a telegram with congratulations from Walter Ulbricht himself. So this Italian cigar smoking communist who moved to the GDR in 1961 to decipher Nietzsche—that was just an image so loaded with different cultural, theoretical, and historical symbolism that I became interested in the story.

Philipp Felsch’s Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam. Credits: C.H. Beck, 2022.

IJ: And then you started delving deeper into this figure? 

PF: Yes, somehow the story had an appeal to me, because my previous book, The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990, was about the theory obsession of postwar intellectuals, mainly in West Germany, and their departure into abstract theoretical thinking. And in a way my new book does the opposite. While The Summer of Theory was mainly set in West Berlin, Paris, and Frankfurt, the story around Montinari and his companion Colli was situated between Florence and Weimar; it follows a completely different axis in the intellectual geography of the Cold War.

It didn’t have to do with theory, but in a way with its opposite, namely philology. In fact, it’s a dialectical relationship. So the extremely diligent, classical philology of these two Italians led to a renaissance of Nietzsche in France. But first of all, their philology was not about moving into ever higher levels of abstraction. Although Montinari and Colli were leftists and communists, they had to deal with the shock of 1956, when the New Left was born in Western Europe.

But they did not take off into theory; instead, they moved from communism into philology as the quest for an original text. You can see the biblical association here: the idea to discover an ultimate truth that was the opposite of the theoretical movement of the time. So I thought I could tell here a story that was also situated in the postmodern context, a very symptomatic story about the history of intellectuals at the time.

At the same time the research process moved into a completely different direction. That was also, of course, somehow appealing for me. Because, first of all, it became clear that I had to deal with the history of the GDR, which in my previous research hardly featured at all, although the book was located mainly in West Berlin. On the one hand, I began researching the historical context of the GDR; on the other, I had the chance to spend significant time in Italian archives. I studied in Italy in the 90s and speak Italian, and I like to spend some time there every year. So now I had a very nice excuse to spend a large amount of time in Italy which was fantastic! During the pandemic, it was basically empty, there was almost nobody in the archives except for me.

IJ: I find it interesting how you described Montinari’s philological research as a kind of spiritual quest. Let’s speak a bit more about that illustrious figure. While Nietzsche had escaped Germany to Turin, Montinari traveled the other way round, from Florence to Weimar, praising Germany’s healthy air. How did the Italian anti-fascist end up spending decades in Nietzsche’s archives, many of these years depressed and lonely. And what did his work in the GDR look like in practice? We also haven’t spoken yet about his paedagogo, Giorgio Colli (1917-1979).

PF: Yes, it’s important to remember that this is not a story about one figure but about two. It’s a story about a lifelong friendship, which at the same time has certain, let’s say, erotic undertones in a Grecophile, Georgean vein [referring to the literary circle around German poet Stefan George]. It’s a friendship, it’s a master-disciple relationship, and a work relation. And it starts in the 1940s, in 1943, when Giorgio Colli, in his mid 20s, 12 years older than Montinari, moves to Lucca in Tuscany to teach philosophy. At the time, we are of course in the midst of Italian Fascism. Montinari was a pupil in Colli’s class. Colli comes from a liberal bourgeois family in Northern Italy, in Turin; his father was a high-profile journalist who had lost his job under Mussolini. Colli was devoted to anti-fascism.

Giorgio Colli (1917-1979). Public Domain.

Not in an overtly political sense—he was against fascism as he was against politics in general, you know, in a very German way actually. Within the Italian history of ideas in the 19th and 20th century, we can observe a tendency that Italian thinkers had to find their intellectual home somewhere outside of Italy. Many chose France, others, like the literary modernists in the early 20th century around the Einaudi publishing house, Cesare Pavese and others, chose American literature, Melville, Faulkner, people like that.

Many others chose Germany, and Colli was someone who was very versed both in German and Greek philosophy; these two very often go together because many German thinkers were so fond of Greek culture—among them, of course, Nietzsche. So, part of Colli’s anti-fascism was a Nietzsche reading group in the early 40s. And in this context, Nietzsche was understood as an anti-fascist author, as somebody who was against the state and devoted to extreme individualism and freedom. I mean, we can find all that in Nietzsche. At the same time, we’re in the summer of 43, Mussolini turned 60, and Hitler gave him the 30-volume collected works of Nietzsche, bound in blue leather, because they shared, at least officially, a certain fondness of this thinker.

This reading group was the beginning of Colli and Montinari’s collaboration. Since Colli often went to his family in Turin, already in the 40s they were not at the same place. Therefore, there are letters which start at this young age. A 14-year-old Montinari basically wrote love letters to his teacher and colleague. And these letters go on until the 70s, when Colli died, so you have 30 years of intense correspondence. That’s the original scene, this anti-fascist reading group.

Then many things happened in between: Montinari became devoted to communism. Colli was, as always, the Grecophile philosopher who basically deplored politics as something dirty, so they moved apart. And then, in the late 50s, they met again, for many reasons, one of them being the fact that after 56, with the Hungarian uprising, Montinari became skeptical and moved away from the official party line of Italian communism. He meets his old teacher again. And at the same time, a debate starts in West Germany about the legacy of Nietzsche.

When looking at this debate, we have to keep two things apart which are important for the story. After 1945, Nietzsche, on the one hand, was regarded a fascist philosopher, especially within the Western Left, but also in Eastern Europe. In East Germany, in the 50s, it’s György Lukács who called him Hitler’s precursor and the mastermind of fascism. But also within Italian communism Nietzsche was a persona non grata. That was basically the consensus when it comes to Nietzsche. The fact that Hitler gave Mussolini this birthday present was a visible proof of Nietzsche’s allegiance to fascism.

Nietzsche’s Der Wille zur Macht, edited by Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. Public Domain.

On the other hand, and now we’re in the late 50s, there’s another line of discourse, namely, the question, whether the Nietzsche who was considered the mastermind of fascism was the real Nietzsche. Did the fascists even have the original writings of Nietzsche or was that merely a Nietzsche distorted by the editorial policies of his infamous sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche? That’s a whole story in itself, which I won’t recall here, it’s well-known that Nietzsche lost his mind in 1890. And then the last 10 years of his life, he was in custody of his sister and she began to witness the international fame of her brother. She published many books, among them the infamous Will to Power which Nietzsche himself never wrote in this form.

If we go back to the story, in the late 50s in Germany suddenly erupts a big debate about this question. Do we maybe need a completely new edition of Nietzsche? Of course, this was also driven by the attempt to denazify him. Because if you say it’s not Nietzsche himself but his sister who basically distorted his writing and even forged some of his writings, which in fact she did, then maybe we can save him and rediscover his work.

And that’s the point where the two Italian protagonists enter. They developed the idea to reedit Nietzsche. That’s why Montinari went to the DDR in 1961. You asked me about the existential undertones of Montinari’s philology. That was also for me one of the most interesting things. It’s, first of all, a question of character. Montinari wanted to become a monk in his youth, so the quest for truth was a constant in his life. 

Then he meets his Grecophile teacher, who moves him away from Christianity. Thus, Montinari becomes a devoted reader of Nietzsche and an admirer of the Ancient Greeks. And then he turned into a communist in the post-war years. The Italian Communist Party, as is well-known, was the most glamorous, so to say, and intellectually most interesting of the Communist parties in Western Europe after 1945. So you can imagine that it was a very appealing choice to become a communist in the late 40s in Italy! Communism was very avant-garde, it was not yet trapped in the trenches of the Cold War, but provided a very rich cultural environment.

In Weimar, Montinari discovered philology through his interest in Nietzsche. As we can see from his letters to Colli and also his diaries, the idea of philological truth and the search for the Urtext, the original text, is deeply Protestant in nature. In that way, Montinari was a model Protestant. His diaries of the time almost read like a Protestant Erbauungsbuch [Christian devotional book]. It’s a genre from the early modern period in which authors describe their quest for religion, for truth, for finding themselves. And we can observe all of that in Montinari’s writings. The search for his own personal truth is intimately connected to his search for the truth of Nietzsche’s texts. 

Nietzsche archive in Weimar, located at the Villa Silberblick, the late Nietzsche’s residence. Creative Commons.

Montinari pursued that search for many years, while going to the archive in Weimar every day—a very lonely existence during his first years in Germany. Nietzsche’s handwriting was hardly decipherable. Sometimes it took half a day to decipher two lines of Nietzsche. It was a monstrous task. And Montinari basically devoted the rest of his life to this task. That his work was driven by this very existential quest for personal truth reveals his philological undertaking as something of a deeply Protestant spirituality—which is maybe historically symptomatic for philology as such.

IJ: And despite all that effort, at first, Montinari’s critical Nietzsche edition, the Kritische Gesamtausgabe, was not even very well received. Besides reflecting on philology, your book also explores cultural politics in the Cold War period. Through the lens of Nietzsche philology, you analyze the ties between the GDR, West Germany, and Italy. Could you tell a bit more about your treatment of the Cold War? And why was Montinari and Colli’s edition so explosive?

PF: Yes, exactly. First of all, we’re at the height of the Cold War in the 60s. And the Nietzsche edition is deeply tainted by that context. Already as a student I wondered: why has the definite edition of Nietzsche been edited by two Italians? It has to do with the fact that Nietzsche’s legacy was drawn into the frontlines of the Cold War. The majority of philosophers and publishers in post-war Germany considered Nietzsche a fascist philosopher. On the other hand, there were also the Nietzscheans, people like Martin Heidegger, Karl Löwith or, Karl Schlechta—all of them fierce anti-communists. But Nietzsche’s papers were, and that’s the irony of history, in communist hands in Weimar. 

Thus, for a character like Heidegger it was very natural to denounce the unpublished writings of Nietzsche as being irrelevant. To denounce the Weimar archive, Heidegger even claimed that the communists had basically secluded Nietzsche’s heritage and that it wasn’t even possible to get access, which was basically not true. But Heidegger was only one among many others who made such claims. As a matter of fact, Heidegger himself wouldn’t have been welcomed in the GDR for sure—unlike these two Italian communists.

From his time in the Italian Communist Party, Montinari maintained intense connections to the GDR’s cultural bureaucracy. He had been in the GDR many times before, also during the 1953 uprising. These contacts made his work in the GDR possible. From the start, there was a feeling of fighting against the West German “Nietzsche establishment.” That’s the one thing, the other is the reception of their edition in France. And that opens up a completely different chapter.

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Featured Image: Private photograph of Giorgio Colli (left) and Mazzino Montinari. Credits: Margherita Montinari.