Last Words or Last Laughs? Leon Shestov on Death, Philosophy, and Sarcasm


Before death, what will our last words be?  This is a timeless question which many of the greatest minds have, throughout the centuries, pondered.   Plato is often cited for his meditation on death in his dialogue entitled “The Phaedo.”  Before his impending death, Socrates tells his followers that he is not afraid because he has renounced his body in the name of his immortal soul (nous).  He comes to this renunciation by way of knowledge and suggests that his knowledge (or intimation) of eternal things (ideas) proves his point; namely, that only an eternal thing (his soul) could know eternal things (ideas).   His love for these eternal things inspires him to renounce his body, which he associates with fear.   Socrates goes so far as to liken his last words to a swan song.  His death will release from his body and it brings him joy to know he will be reunited with the source of all wisdom.

Writing on Ibsen, Turganiev, Socrates, Spinoza, and Schopenhauer’s last words on death, Shestov calls their swan songs “senilia.”  And by doing so, he suggests that their last words are warped:

Ibsen and Turgeniev serve the same God as the swans, according to the Greek belief, the bright God of songs, Apollo.  And their last songs, their senilia, were better than all that had gone before.  In them is a bottomless depth awful to the eye, but how wonderful! There all things are different from what they are with us on the surface….There is a way of escape: there is a word which will destroy the enchantment.  I have already uttered it: senilia.  (108, Chekhov and Other Essays)

In yesterday’s blog entry, I noted that Nietzsche thought of Spinoza and Kant as dishonest and misleading by virtue of the fact that they want us to believe in ideas that are antithetical to life.   Nietzsche goes so far as to call their philosophy “hocus-pocus” and argues that it is unhealthy.  Laughing at them, Nietzsche frees himself up for life.

By sarcastically calling the last words of these philosophers “senilia,” Shestov seems to be saying the same thing as Nietzsche:

Turganev wished to call his Prose Poems by this name (senilia) – manifestations of sickness, infirmity, of old age. These are terrible; one must run away from these! (108)

Adding to this, Shestov says that “all men mistrust old age.”   But then he takes a turn that Nietzsche does not: “But what if all are mistaken?  What if senilia bring us nearer to the truth?  Perhaps the soothsaying birds of Apollo grieve in unearthly anguish for another existence; perhaps their fear is not of death but of life”(109).

This possibility haunts Shestov, but it doesn’t surrender himself to it wholly.  In other words, he wishes to entertain both Nietzsche and Socrates; both senilia and its sarcastic rejection.

But this is not his last word. Taking an interesting tactic, Shestov turns to the distinction between the ordinary man and the philosopher and notes something very interesting.   Philosophers, of course, often go against the grain of society which for them, doesn’t think.  After all, philosophy – for Plato – doesn’t happen in the cave of society; it happens outside the cave, in solitude.

Nonetheless, Shestov argues that while Plato and Spinoza were consistent in aligning their lives with their philosophies, there is a more interesting case to be made for the lives of the philosophers which differ from what is in their books.  He takes Schopenhauer as a case in point: “in life, like many another clever, independent man, he was guided by the most diverse considerations”(111).  Shestov, like Nietzsche, finds he has more in common with Schopenhauer than with Plato or Spinoza.  He is more interested in “freedom than in necessity.”

But for Shestov the “principles” of a philosopher are no greater than that of a the everyday man because “the room of the world is infinite, and will not only contain all those who lived once and those who are yet to be born, but will give to each one of them all that he can desire”(112).  Since there are a “plurality of worlds” and a “plurality of men” amongst these “vast spaces of the vast universe.”   This suggests a kind of relativism.

However, Shestov can’t settle for this.  To be sure, he thinks that, when all the chips are down, he can understand why a philosopher – like Spinoza – would turn to creating the perfect philosophical system.  Shestov calls such philosophizing “art for arts sake.”  He notes that even Naploeon turned to philosophy in his last hours.   What matters is the fact that he came to “philosophy with demands and would not rest until he had received satisfaction.”   In the end, this brings together what interests Shestov most: the relationship of self-renunciation to megalomania.  Napoleon’s turn to philosophy at the end of this life brings the two together.

Even so, Shestov finds the case of Heinrich Heine to be more interesting than Napoleon.  As I noted the other day, Shestov finds great insight in the fact that the German’s misunderstood Heine’s self-deprecating humor.  To be sure, Heine’s last words were not senilia; they didn’t bow down to philosophy when the chips were down.

Shestov tells us that his words, for the Germans, didn’t have the ring of “conviction.”  As proof, he brings a line from one of his poems which, it seems, has no interest in the soul:

I seek the body, the body, the young and tender body.  The soul you may bury deep in the ground – I myself have soul enough.  (128)

Commenting on this Shestov argues that “in it, as in all Heine’s daring and provocative poems, may be heard a sharp and nervous laugh, which must be understood as the expression of the divided soul, as a mockery of himself.”(123).  Heine, Shestov argues, was different from the King David whose psalms show us a man who, “when he believed, did not doubt.”    For this reason, they couldn’t understand this new kind of Jew whose piety was tainted by doubt.

Turning to Heine on his death bed, Shestov notes that, even then, Heine was sarcastic (his words didn’t, like Spinoza or Plato’s, become senilia): “His sarcasms every day became more ruthless, more poisonous, more refined”(125).  And “his thoughts of God, his attitude to God, were so original that serious people of the outer world could only shrug their shoulders. No one every spoke thus to God, either aloud or to himself”(125).

Instead of feeling fear and admiration before the thought of death, “Heine has neither prayer nor praise.  His poems are permeated with a charming and a gracious cynicism, peculiar and proper to himself alone”(125). And, according to Shestov, Heine, because of his sarcasm, “”remains as he was in youth.”  He doesn’t want bliss or heaven; rather, he just wants “God to give him back his health.”  This is the novelty.

Shestov paraphrases Heine’s words at death which sound like the words of a stand-up comedian: “He laughs at morality, at philosophy, at existing religions.  The wise men thing so, the wise men want to live in their own way; let them think, let them live.  But who gave them the right to demand obedience from me?  Can they have the power to compel me to obedience (to necessity)?”(127)

To be sure, Shestov’s reflections on Heine can also be applied to Nietzsche’s approach to death.  They laugh at the formulations made by philosophy and religion and sarcastically face their death; they don’t renounce themselves.   But even so, Shestov still entertains the possibility that Heine is wrong:

I am tempted to think that the metaphysical theories which preach self-renunciation, are by no means empty and idle…In them lies a deep, mystical meaning: in them is  hidden a great truth.  Their only mistake is to pretend to be absolute.  For some reason or other men have decided empirical truths are many but that metaphysical truth is one.  Metaphysical truths are also many, but them does not in the least prevent them from living in harmony one with another.  (128)

Given this reading, he doesn’t think the Germans should be annoyed with Heine.  His “sarcasms will not keep them from their lofty aspirations.”  His last words are comical but that’s the point – they are his.  He – and no one else – lives with them and will die with them.

Sarcasm, in other words, is not merely a matter of entertainment; for Shestov it is an existential decision.

Conversations in the Mountains between Franz Kafka and Paul Celan – Part I


For Friedrich Nietzsche, the place to clear out one’s mind and find oneself or one’s calling (so to speak) is in the mountains.   In Thus Spake Zarathustra, the main figure, Zarathustra, goes into the mountains and has his epiphany.  In the mountains, Zarathustra takes on the serious task of becoming himself.  However, he also learns how to laugh.   And this laughter evinces a kind of superiority over all suffering.  As Nietzsche notes, “he who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.”

Franz Kafka and Paul Celan have written of monologues and conversations in the mountains which, in contrast to Nietzsche, do not evince any form of superior laughter.  On the contrary, what we find in Kafka’s “Excursion in the Mountains” (which Paul Celan translated into Romanian after the Holocaust) and in Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” (which echoes Kafka’s piece) is a comic experience that evokes a laughter that is by no means beyond “all tragedies, real or imaginary.”  To be sure, Kafka and Celan give us schlemiels in the mountains, not Nietzschean overmen.  And, unlike Nietzsche, they have a hard time being alone.  They call for or are with the other in ways that do not stand above suffering but in ways that share suffering and bear it, ever so slightly, by way of humor.

Franz Kafka’s short piece begins with the a self-deprecating voice screaming out for the other:

‘I DON’T KNOW,” I cried without being heard, “I don’t know.  If nobody comes, then nobody comes.  I’ve done nobody any harm, nobody’s done me any harm, but nobody will help me.”

After saying this, the voice utters something odd about a “pack of nobodies.”  He notes that he’d rather go on an “excursion in the mountains” with a bunch of “nobodies” (that is, a bunch of fools) than by himself (with Nobody):

A pack of nobodies. Yet that isn’t all true.  Only, that nobody helps me – a pack of nobodies would be rather fine, on the other hand, I’d love to go on an excursion – why not? – with a pack of nobodies.  Into the mountains, of course, where else? How these nobodies jostle each other, all these arms linked together, these numberless feet treading so close!

The voice wants to laugh with other nobodies.  His laughter is shared.  Kafka goes on to emphasize the comic nature of this endeavor by noting that “they are all in dress suits.”  In other words, the nobodies in the mountain are defying their context and they don’t care.  At this point, the voice of the piece decides that he is no longer separate from these nobodies.  He is one of them. He announces this by pronouncing the “we”:

We go so gaily, the wind blows through us and the gaps in our company. Our throats swell and are free in the mountains!  It’s a wonder that we don’t bust into song!

Reflecting on this, I can’t help but hear the desperation and suffering in this voice which imagines this shared excursion with fellow “nobodies.”  Nonetheless, just like any schlemiel, the voice is invisible or blind to itself.  It is the reader who can see this blind spot; nonetheless, the reader will also recognize that this absurd vision is fun.

Where it cracks the surface is with the last words; they indicate a distinction between speaking and singing.  The wind that “blows through us and the gaps in our company” is the wind of free conversation.  It’s not the tragic-comic kind of “idiot wind” that Bob Dylan makes reference to in the song of the same title.  Rather, it’s a wind that cannot elevate itself to song.

To be sure, this is an important element. Song would signify an elevation above suffering.  It would signify joy.  For the voice, it is “wonder we don’t burst into song!”  But, given the structure of the piece and given that the voice is that of a schlemiel, for the reader it should not be a wonder.

It isn’t a wonder because Kafka is sharing a joke with his readers in which the voice imagines he is together with a bunch of nobodies in the mountains who, after having free conversation blow (like wind) between them, will sing.  But we know better.

I would suggest that Kafka’s fools are Jewish fools.  And Jewish fools (more often than not) don’t sing; they talk.   The movement from conversation to song is barred from Jew insofar as that would suggest a movement beyond suffering, history, and uncertainty.

Contrary to this, Nietzsche has no problem moving from wind to song in the mountains.  In contrast to Kafka, the wind makes the song possible.  We see this at the culmination of his book, The Gay Science in a poem entitled “To the Mistral: A Dancing Song”

In Nietzsche’s poem, the poet embraces the “mistral wind”: “Mistral wind…how I love you when you roar! Were we two not generated/ in one womb, predestinated/ for one lot for evermore?”

At the end of the song, Nietzsche refers to himself and the wind as “free spirits” and exalts in their meeting: “Since I met you/ like a tempest roars my joy.”  And he wants to attest to this joy “forever.”

Kafka’s voice doesn’t do this.  Moreover, there isn’t any pathos in Kafka’s voice.  Its deflated by the solitude and his clearly framed imagining of himself and other nobodies.  Nietzsche, in contrast, can laugh but not at himself.  That would signify a kind of deplorable weakness.

To be sure, Kafka’s “Excursion in the Mountains” denotes how, in the mountains, the “winds blow” between them and the nobodies freely converse.  This is the limit or threshold that a schlemiel cannot cross.  It is a limit that Nietzsche could not understand since, as I mentioned above, Zarathustra thought that joy and laughter could lift themselves above any tragedy “real or imagined.”  The (sad) laughter of the schlemiel, however, challenges this by hitting the limit between speech and song.

In the next blog entry, I will address how this limit finds its way into Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains.”