Reason & the well-bred girl

It is very difficult to discuss intellectual history, & therefore ideas, owing to a sublimated version of the idea of progress. While superfically even the crassest enthusiasts for progress as “an inevitable & irresistible perpetual improvement of the human condition” — or shall we say, naïve optimists — have surrendered or died, their ghosts continue to hold tenure in all our universities. These ghosts cannot think, therefore cannot teach, anything on its own merits. They only know how to teach “this leads to that.”

Progress may not make everything better any more; indeed the spokesmen for progress can become quite jaded. They say something closer to, “It makes some things better & some things worse; live with it!” But whether for better or worse, one thing leads inexorably to another, & we remain bits in some sort of Hegel Machine. Should it turn out that we have anything resembling free will (& the possibility is frankly doubted), we must orient all our actions as bit-players to the elimination of all the bad, “regressive” tendencies from the past; & to their replacement with good “progressive” tendencies — the words in quotes having taken on a fanatically moral connotation.

In other words, we are back where we started, with the idea of progress in its most fatuous form, as something irresistible. Except, this time, the progressives will make it irresistible, & make those who wander off the progressive script very very sorry that they did so.

I was about to mention the name, Johann Georg Hamann. In order to inoculate myself against the charge of being stale-dated, I did a quick Internet sweep, for recent “books about” him — with no intention whatever of reading them, only to see what is there, & get the gist from publishers’ blurbs & excerpts.

What I found was precisely what I expected: Hamann, considered as leading to this, & leading to that. This is the Hamann that “everybody knows” — though I should think most readers had never heard of him, including 99 percent of the post-graduates in North America’s drive-in universities. Never you mind. For even had he been your best buddy, you wouldn’t recognize him in an honours course. He is made into a donkey on which any number of tails may be pinned: romanticism, pluralism, diversity, identity politics, deconstructionism, terrorism, totalitarianism, &c. None of which have anything fondly to do with him.

While the reader’s familiarity is casually assumed, it is equally assumed that Hamann could have nothing to say to the present, directly. (He died in 1788 after all.) All this secondary literature on where he was coming from, & where he led. Shelves of it. The only thing you will not easily find, even in a big university library, is the works of J.G. Hamann. Or any which set out to explicate them, directly. Perhaps I am exaggerating.

He was a friend of Herder & Kant, & almost every other figure of the German Enlightenment, but — & this is an important “but” — he was opposed to them in every conceivable way. He is therefore presented as an opponent of “Reason,” & proponent of what Isaiah Berlin liked to call the “Counter-Enlightenment” — with all Berlin’s charm, & bag-load of donkey tails. (I wasted a lot of time once, reading Berlin when I could have been reading his sources.)

Hamann is presented as “leading to Kierkegaard” — & thus to Existentialism & all that — but it would be sufficient to say that Kierkegaard read him with great attention, & it shows. The rest is all bosh. Given a small coracle, a long journey, & a choice between these two oarsmen, you may bet I would choose Hamann. (I’d go nuts with Kierkegaard, in a small coracle.)

Perhaps even my gentle reader has never heard of J.G. Hamann. I wouldn’t blame him in the least. He is taken to be less important, thus more forgettable than, say, Herder or Kant, because he is pointed in the wrong direction, & is against what every emancipated progressive person is supposed to be for. The later German Romanticism with which he is associated has long been in rather poor taste (largely for what it is taken to have led to). But having declined to punish Marx for the Marxists, Darwin for the Darwinoids, or even Freud for all the frauds, I will not saddle Hamann with the Sturm und Drang. He is anyway totally innocent of that sensibility.

He is mystically Christian — albeit in a mildly Lutherish, pietistic way — “born again” through an unconcealed encounter with Jesus Christ, in London of all places. (Even at the time, good children were expected to be born only once, at most, & Hamann’s conversion cost him a fiancée, for starters.)

Books have been filled with what we mean by “mystical,” & most of them remain to be written, but for the purposes of this present writing let me define it as the conversation at the heart of prayer, & what emerges from that into life. Or, as it were: the essence of creativity, stripped of consciously imposed effects. In the contemporary popular mind, there is something quite vague about mysticism. In reality, however, it is quite the opposite, & genuine mystics are among the clearest writers.

Hamann is witty & pointed & crisp of speech, even when speaking in riddles. And he is usually speaking in riddles. Kant, who would never have consciously spoken in riddles, is almost incomprehensible in the service of “pure reason,” & much more attractive to the professorial mind, in which the primordial cliché is constantly emerging from the primordial mudswamp. By contrast, as my quote for the day, let me supply what is perhaps Hamann’s most famous saying:

“I look upon logical proofs the way a well-bred girl looks upon a love letter.”

I know very little of Hamann myself, but just enough to love him. And that is saying a lot, for the man was a Prussian, just like Frederick II; & from Königsberg, just like Kant; & if I haven’t stated my prejudice against Prussianism thus far in this website, trust me, I’ll get around to it.

But truth to tell, one needs German, & my bootgrip on German peaked around age sixteen (there was a German girl I was trying to impress …) & has since been sliding. I can’t even read a German newspaper any more without lexicographical crutches, & yet I have come to appreciate the failure of translation. For few translators have minds on par with the authors they are translating, & more is lost than wordplay & a few allusions. The tensions themselves are lost: the hard fibre of sanity itself.

Now, Hamann is a very elegant writer, whose Aesthetica in Nuce (“Aesthetics in a Nutshell”) has a lot to say in a couple of dozen pages. And if gentle reader were to think he could get more from it at a single pass, than a strong flavour, then I’m sorry to say, gentle reader must be one of those naïve optimists. But ditto if he is hoping for another deadly Teutonic pedagogue. If anyone ever thought Germans can’t do irony, they should read Hamann. He does it symphonically. Yet every sentence parses easily, & we don’t have any Kantian oilspill of subsidiary clauses.

He also does voices & accents, like a pro. When he takes up an argument against an opponent, he takes up the opponent’s style & substance in rich & often comic layers of parody & mimesis. He breathes life, or at least the danse macabre, into the most desiccated academic skeletons. And let us say he “anticipated” the Internet, too, for he signs off his essays with a little galaxy of pseudonyms — Aristobolus, Adelgunde, The Sybil, &c — each one pregnant with some particular intent. Hegel, in one of his lighter moments, quoted the French when they say “the style is the man himself” — then made an exception for Hamann, in whose case, “the man is style itself.”

He (Hamann, not Hegel; O Lord, not Hegel) certainly anticipated the linguistic philosophy of the 20th century, & remains well ahead of it. I think he may actually have invented Wittgenstein, which I admit shows a kind of influence — a “this,” in a sense, leading to a “that.” But again, in the round, he never “led to” anything. Rather, he understood that the origin of language is both human & divine, something Wittgenstein only suspected.

He was an oracular writer — there are very few of those. But for our weakness he at least kept his writings mercifully short. This was not so simple a thing as compression, however: the oracular style conveys matter that by its nature neither is, nor can be, compressed. But it is not simply poetic, either, for although rhythmic & allusive, the intention is philosophical. Hamann, a master lutenist, condemned his good friend Herder for being “poetic.” When Hamann wanted to be poetic, he played upon his lute.

Moreover, prophecy requires prophets. Hamann is “prosopopoeic” to the core: a nice long word that means, he personifies. The very ideas he presents are clothed, & walk across the stage playing parts in the pageant, as allegories in Mediaeval morality plays. (Once the reader gets this, he’ll find Hamann easier to follow.) Thanks perhaps to his influence, nay inspiration, Kant almost acquired this habit, while writing his Critique of Aesthetic Judgement. (See James Creed Meredith’s translation & notes from 1911, which explain everything. The argument develops dramatically, like a play; though it accelerates more like a train. The ideas inside it are presented like players, with their exits & their entrances; though unfortunately for them, while the train is moving. The whole book seems to be aspiring to dialogue.)

One of Hamann’s collections was Biblische Betrachtungen (“Bible Reflections”), & in these it seems to me that he expounds oracular expressions in Scripture by means of oracular expressions of his own that pair with them, in the way a second eye gives us depth perception. It might be taken as a demonstration of what he called not just the “reconciliation” but, the “union” of opposites. (And quite the opposite of Manichaeism.) One might wrongly think he takes his Bible lightly when in fact he is taking it more seriously, on its own terms, than any “Bible thumper” could take it through earnest literalism. In his response to nuance in the Old Testament, he is Mishnah & Hasid all rolled up in one: the reason, I suppose, Martin Buber loved him.

Was he a philosopher or a theologian or a man of letters? It doesn’t matter.

Towards the end of his life Hamann produced, in response to Kant, what he called a “Metacritique of the Purism of Reason,” in which he suggested language without imagery is meaningless & sterile, & that on the contrary to being “pure,” the a priori reason is merely untenable. For from the moment God is dismissed from the dialogue, we hear the monologue of one lonely human soul. If not the shrieking of a madman.

But that is not to say that Hamann dismissed Reason. To say that would be taking him at his word, in the moment when he is being most ironical. He was instead a sybil of the Impure Reason — of a kind of thinking which embraced intuition, rather than sending it into exile. Perfect (in the sense of, “complete”) Reason requires the full tripod of the transcendentals (the Platonic goodness, beauty, & truth) short any leg of which it will fall over — as flat as Enlightenment Reason. It was because of this that Goethe called Hamann the brightest light of his age — that very Goethe who may be taken himself as the protean exponent of “holism.”

Can this stuff be Catholicized? I would think so. All that is good, beautiful, & true, can be Catholicized. Saint Paul explains this. (Philippians 4:8, et seq.)

Professor Immanuel Kant, who like the rest of us had to earn money sometimes (his dayjob at the Albertus-Universität didn’t pay well), once wangled a commission to write a physics textbook for children. He offered Hamann the co-authorship, knowing him to be a savant in this realm. Hamann promptly declined, but kindly supplied some hints to his friend on how to go about it:

“To win oneself praise out of the mouths of babes & sucklings! … One must begin by divesting oneself of all superiority in age & wisdom of one’s own free will, & renouncing all vanity. A philosophical book for children must therefore appear as simple, foolish, & unrefined as a book written by God for men. … The method for teaching children consists in condescending to their weakness. However, no one can understand this principle, nor put it into practice unless, to use a vulgar expression, he is crazy about children & loves them without really knowing why.”

I smile as I imagine this profound theological observation passing, with a nice clean whistle, right over Kant’s head; indeed right over Königsberg, & then impacting somewhere in the Urals with the power of a mighty meteorite.