Interview with Vivian Liska

I interview Vivian Liska about her book "German-Jewish Thought and its Afterlife"

Interview with Vivian Liska

German-Jewish Thought and its Afterlife

German-Jewish Identities
The Modernist Style
What Place for the Torah?
A Deep Investment in the World

Martino: We're here with Vivian Liska. We are interviewing you from Los Libros del Tábano, because we are about to publish the Spanish translation of your book, German Jewish Thought and its Afterlife, a Tenuous Legacy. It's going to be out in a few months. I prepared a few questions for you. And so, if you're ready, we can proceed with the first question.

1. First, a question about identities. It seems clear that a recurrent theme throughout the book is the problematic question of German-Jewishness. The difficulty of this hyphenated identity, somewhat counterintuitively, seems to predate the rise of the Nazi regime, I’m thinking here e.g. about Kafka’s “maybe that’s just a joke” letter. How did the very notion of German-Jewishness change with the experience of the catastrophe? Is there a sense in which the whole idea of a hyphenated identity lost its meaning in Auschwitz?

Vivian: Thank you, first of all, for having this interview. I'm delighted to be able to talk about this book that captures a lot of my research and thinking in these years. As to your question, maybe I should clarify a bit the letter that you're referring to. “Maybe that's just a joke”. This is a quote from a part in my book that points to the strange paradox that the German Jewish thinkers I'm discussing took their Jewish identity totally for granted, for self-evident. And yet, in their writings, there is such a complexity in the way they deal with their Judaism. So the maybe “that's just a joke” quote comes from an epistolary exchange of Kafka, where his non-Jewish friend, translator and lover Milena asks him about his Jewishness and her replies: You’re asking me if I’m a Jew, maybe this is only a joke. This suggests that there is total self-evidence. I point out a similar sentence for each one of these German Jewish thinkers. For some, they actually use the word selbsverständlich, which means self-evident. People like Hannah Arendt, whose relationship to Judaism is so complicated. Or Kafka, or Benjamin. They all have a similar sentencesaying that their Jewishness is self-evident, not even worth going into. And yet, as I said, their work is so complex, where it comes to discussing this relationship to Judaism, to Jewishness, to the Jewish tradition. And part of this is what I explore in my book. Now, more specifically to your question, you ask about German Jewishness as an identity. And particularly whether one can talk about such a hyphenated identity after Auschwitz. In the Kafka quote, he doesn't talk about German-Jewishness, but there is a quote in a letter where he says, you know, this one has said that my work is utterly German. And that one has said that it is radically Jewish. What do you think?” But German Jewishness with this hyphen indeed suggests something else. So I think that one has to distinguish between German Jewishness as an identity in terms of Jews originating from Germany, just being German Jews, living in, being socialized in Germany. And that is one thing that has also been discussed very widely, how Jews lived in Germany before and after World War II. But the way I use it in my book really refers to something that has become a field of research, a field of thinking. Something that Derrida calls the “German Jewish phenomenon”. And there I think it is about the concept of German Jewish thought, literature, culture that designates a Jewish intellectual production in the German language. And that has indeed recently become a flourishing field. You are absolutely right to point out the difficulty of German Jewishness as a hyphenated identity. And particularly after the Holocaust. The starkest example is Gershom Scholem, who believed that after Auschwitz, not only has it come to an end, but this definitively proved the illusion that there ever was such a thing as a symbiosis between the two, the way one has often talked about it. But in any case, this is over. There are many voices who would contest that, whether retrospectively or even today. That is a separate discussion. For me and in my book, I'm mainly concentrating on this early 20th century phenomenon and on these thinkers who have contributed in such immense ways to thinking about modernity way beyond Judaism. I'm interested in the way in which the Jewish tradition in their thought has played a role in thinking about modernity. I'm thinking of Benjamin and Kafka and Adorno and Arendt, who have become not only major thinkers of modernity, but have actually shaped our ideas about it. And when I say our, I really mean this in the widest possible sense. As to the hyphen itself, a hyphen, you know, there have been important writings and reflections about the hyphen like Jean-Francois Lyotard, who talks about the hyphen itself. A hyphen both unites and separates and can do so much more than a union. So if you question the union of Jews and Germans after Auschwitz or what has been revealed in Auschwitz, it's not just the negation of union. It can be regarded as a conversation, a polemical, hostile or inspiring dialogue. It can be discussed in terms of the contribution or the impact of the one element in this hyphenated term on the other, or even as a clash of incompatibles valued precisely because of its impossible merging or even impossible genuine encounter.

M. We have an amazing word in Spanish that I try over and over again to translate in English. And sometimes I just go ahead and just sort of make it into an English word. And my girlfriend is always kind of reproaching this to me. We say desencuentro, which literally means.... desencounter.

V. Desencontre! (Fr.)

M. Yes, exactly. And this is a word that I often miss in English because it has exactly to do with a, well, exactly, it's a desencounter. It's like a failed encounter that didn't happen, but in a way should have or could have.

V. Here I think it's a desencounter in a different way. It's not that it's an encounter that didn't happen. It's an encounter that proved to be enormously fruitful way beyond the protagonists that I implied in this term. But that never merged. And it is the non-merging that has produced this incredibly inspiring way of viewing the modern world. So it's not quite, a desencounter because - not the encounter, but encounters, multiple encounters have taken place between the German philosophical, literary, artistic tradition and the Jewish one. Especially where Germany has been regarded as the heir of Greece.

M. So that whole post-Winkelmann tradition.

V. all the way to the Nietzsche and the Heidegger desencounter. So there have been different Greeces, of course, and different ways of inheriting Greece in Germany. But it has generated what one calls the Jerusalem-Athens discussion. And that in some ways is still with us today. I am currently editing a special issue on Heidegger and Jewish thought. These discussions are still in full bloom. So I think that the hyphen in the notion of the German-Jewish encounter continues to be extremely fruitful, precisely where it both unites and separates. I think I want to keep the “separates” second because, for me, in a way it does get the last word. And prevents that this constellation merges into oneness that would probably also be the end of this debate.

2. M. Amazing. Let's move on to the second question. So this is a different, very different kind of question: one of the things that the reader who approaches your characters for the first time will necessarily notice is a certain degree of inscrutability of their texts. Although for different reasons, they are, simply put, very hard to read. From the sense of weirdness, in the Old English meaning of the word, that goes along with Kafka’s stories, to the overall bafflement that one experiences upon encountering virtually any of Benjamin’s writings for the first time, it seems to me that there is a common thread that I would hesitate to define as “stylistic”, but that nonetheless moves along those lines. Although I find it hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that they have “stylistically” (I still think this is the wrong word) in common, would you say that their Jewishness plays a part in shaping a certain air of mystery that hovers in their texts? Or is it maybe just a stylistic Zeitgeist (after all Heidegger was just as enigmatic), a sort of shared language that everybody simply assumed to be the right one for the job?

V. So it is true that the texts I'm dealing with in my book are difficult and can even seem hermetic at times. This is certainly the case for Kafka, Benjamin, and maybe most of all for Paul Celan. The most general explanation is indeed what you call “stylistic zeitgeist”. That, I would say, is related to the fact that these authors were modernists who aimed at shaking up accepted categories. And in Nietzsche's words, I'm paraphrasing again, one needs new instruments for new songs. And in this case, the instrument is language and has to be reshaped in order to break what Paul Celan calls the Sprachgitter, the language grid, which has created accepted categories. And it is through a verfremdet and a strange use of language that you can break or at least shake these categories. Nietzsche was certainly one of the precursors of these modernist thinkers. You're absolutely right that this aspect is not exclusive to Jewish thinkers, though it is interesting to reflect on the disproportionate number of Jews among German and Austrian modernists and avant-garde writers. Look, I have a book here called Jewish Aspects in Avant-Garde. It's one of the books in the series that I'm directing at the De Gruyter. And that deals with the various reasons why there was such a disproportionate number of modernist and avant-garde authors in the German language (as one would have to say, rather than German. Because many of them were Austrian.) So that's mainly a question: what in their culture, in the Jewish tradition created the special affinity of jewish authors and thinkers with this difficult modernist language? Maybe one has to focus on what it is that makes modernist texts difficult. Modernist writers and philosophers experimented with form and language in order to challenge traditional structures and conventions. They also, and maybe because Jews were on the margins of society and had to continuously contend with, in German, the Leitkultur, you know, the majority culture. And that they also brought different linguistic traditions to it. So in that confrontation, language could never be taken for granted because of these different linguistic traditions, but yet had to be in a way translated, yet couldn't completely be translated from one culture into the other. And that makes that language gains a certain sense of “matter”, you become aware of the materiality of language. You can't just consider it as a kind of window through which you speak or a tool for communication or a tool for representation. So I think that that is one of the origins. Probably also Kafka and Celan and Benjamin used language - even the word “using” language is already problematic here. So their language has a subversive effect on established power relations, political situations, those dictated by authority, and therefore also by a kind of consensual idea of the world. And I think that what one would call in German, Arbeit an der Sprache, a work on language, is the way they will go to question these established views.

M. There's a great example that I often think about when we talk about these topics with F. Caja, the editor, which is the difference between Adorno’s Vorlesungen and the Aesthetische Theorie. It's more or less the same stuff, but the Aesthetic Theory is utterly unreadable, it's absolutely obscure. Then you move on to the Vorlesungen and it's like, “so you were able to do it in a much more comprehensible way!”. So the only thing that I have to gather from this is that it's a deliberate effect of language. Because it's not like “this is just the way you think and this is just the way you write”. Because then when you go and teach the same stuff, then it's crystal clear. And so it's again, on the backdrop of what you were saying, it's clear that it's deliberate effect of language and deliberate kind of use – precisely the Arbeit an der Sprache. One can see how language, even the grammar, is somewhat sort of twisted and forced into weird schemes, a weird order of words. Even for the German language it's at timesvery hard. It's almost like stretching the language until it sounds almost very awkward and almost innatural.

V. So Adorno was known to speak Druckreif – ready for print - already in his Vorlesungen, and then he still did some work indeed on the language. Also out of an incredible Hochachtung, a kind of awe for what language can do, but also a real trust that language and the intellectual endeavour altogether as captured in the written word can actually intervene in the world. And that it can have an actual impact. You know, in all these debates about Adorno in the context of the student revolts, this relevance of his “obscure” writings was questioned as elitist. But, you know, when you look at what remains and can still be used, these very difficult writings, maybe because they are so difficult and have to be deciphered – contain an appell to the reader to actually bring himself to these texts and figure them out each time anew, which is what also keeps them alive. This is certainly true for me. I am attracted to these writings, and that is the reason why these difficult texts are featured in my book so predominantly: I feel that they leave room and address the reader in a way that calls for an input.

M. And laboratories, there are laboratories in which something new gets tried out to just see what happens. I don't remember where, I believe it was one of Kafka's editors, I think it was an Italian that said, something like “when he works out, it's amazing”. You have Kafka at his best, but when he doesn't, it's almost a bit lame because he's trying out new things and experimenting.

V. You mean Kafka himself or readers of Kafka?

M. Kafka's ways of expressing things. When it works, it's amazing. It's absolutely amazing. But when it doesn't, since he's so out of the boundaries of what should be, what is sort of regarded as the way you should write a text or a novel or a short story, since you're so far away from the boundaries, when it doesn't work, it just collapses onto itself. And it's terrible. I don’t remember exactly who said it, it must have been some Italian editors.

V. I would disagree. I taught this week in my course here in Jerusalem text a that is generally considered just a little preliminary exercise of Kafka. It’s one part, the central part of what is considered his first story. Normally, Kafka himself describes how when he wrote “The Judgment” (Das Urteil), he actually was born as an author, as he writes in his diaries. The text I was teaching was written way before that, and has generally been largely dismissed. I tried to show to the students how the whole of Kafka, and maybe even the whole of modernism is already contained in this part of the text called Conversation with the Praying Man. So, for me, to a large extent, there is an invitation to the reader there to look again and make something even of texts that sometimes are looked at as minor or even mediocre or “failed” piece of writing. I wouldn't generalize this altogether, but it certainly has been my experience. While my book is dealing largely with very well-known authors, so let's say the canonical authors of one version of the German Jewish canon of the early 20th century, the texts that I'm dealing with are often less known. Not always, but I also discuss some more marginal writings of these authors.

3. M. Let's move on to the third question. Now a question about the relationship with tradition. You write about Kafka’s relation to the Book of Job and its reading by Susman, or about Scholem’s essay on Jonah. It’s obvious that the Torah plays a crucial role for these characters, but I get the sense that it is a relationship with the textual material that somewhat defies and deviates from the classic interpretation that comes from biblical studies. In Kafka’s reworking of the Abrahamic figure that you mention, I would go so far as to talk about an ironic Midrash: an Abraham that keeps putting off God’s command because he has other matters to attend to. Could you expand on the relationship between these thinkers and the biblical text? Is there an attempt to expand our understanding of the meaning of the Torah, or, on the contrary, are we dealing with an instrumental use of the OT material to make greater points that go beyond the Torah itself?

V. Your question goes straight to the heart of my core interests. As I told you, I'm teaching a course on the Bible in German-Jewish literature. And I am fascinated by a comment Benjamin made in a letter to Scholem in 1934 that really reflects on this “either or” that you talk about in your question. Benjamin writes to Scholem in relation to Kafka, especially in relation to this terrifying world that we often find in Kafka's writings. He writes, “The work of the Torah, if we abide by Kafka's account, has been thwarted” [Carta a Scholem del 11 de Agosto 1934: »Das Werk der Torah nämlich ist – wenn wir uns an Kafkas Darstellung halten – vereitelt worden(GB, 478)]. It's as if, you know, it is because the Torah has done a certain work, a work of establishing justice, of establishing a certain order in the world, that that has been, yeah, done away with and belied. And then he adds in pencil included in a footnote in the correspondence between Scholem and Benjamin that Scholem preserved: “And everything that Moses accomplished long ago would have to be reaccomplished in our world's age”. So the problem we are left with here is that he leaves it open whether this recovery of Moses' accomplishments can and should revive the Hebrew Bible in its traditional form, or whether it ought to be adapted or maybe even reinvented for his and by extension, our own times. You see how if you look closely at the language, it leaves both possibilities open. The same in German. I realized that in my book, I am taking both these possibilities into consideration. And each time I'm dealing with a biblical reference, I am re-figuring this anew. Because it is not definitive, you know, there is no unified way of referring to the Bible in these authors. The example that you chose is a perfect example. Because Kafka imagines an Abraham who refuses to go to the mount to sacrifice his son. As I'm showing in my book, Kafka’s Abraham negotiates with God. He says, I'd love to be your faithful servant. I just have too much to do here, building the world. But then this has been called a heretic Midrash. I don't agree because something in the Bible, especially retrospectively, also objects to Human sacrifice – so one should not go up to that mountain. And so it should show that there was, indeed, obedience in Abraham. But unlike Kierkegaard, who also retrospectively still celebrates Abraham's submissiveness to God, Kafka actually rejects this but thereby confirms something in the Bible. And there are two aspects to this that is inherent in the Bible: You should not make human sacrifices, number one. And second, Abraham and many other figures in the Hebrew Bible, negotiate with God. Again and again and again. So there is this possibility in the Jewish tradition. And this is what Kafka's Abraham does. That's why I wouldn't call this heretical at all. It is indeed dealing with the Bible, but going through certain visions that we would have today, like, you know, to build the world is definitely a priority over any kind of sacrificial gesture. So yes, there is something in the Bible that explains its ongoing actuality that already includes these possibilities.

M. This is what Taubes has pointed out in the seminar on Paul about Moses, the Yom Kippur and the whole debating and arguing, not just forcing, but making God change his mind somehow, which is like what is happening here. There is the sense in which it's not as top down as it might seem. But by any means, there's definitely also a sort of bottom-up direction. You also quote the example of the destruction of Sodom.

4. M. My next question is about the engagement with the world. I know this is a topic dear to you, as it has shown up in our conversations just as much as in your writings. I found especially interesting the relationship between the deferral of the decision and the urgency of a care for the world. You exemplify this dialectic by quoting the Mishnah Sanhedrin 5 where it says that, in a trial, whenever the accused is found guilty, the judges should delay their final decision for one night because «one who yesterday taught a reason to deem him liable may then teach a reason to acquit, but one who yesterday taught a reason to acquit may not then teach a reason to deem him liable». In other words, deferment of action serves the cause of a deep engagement with justice. What part do you think the care for the world plays for the German-Jewish identities that you present in your book?

V. This is probably the most important, sometimes not completely explicit motif and motivation in my book that I do carry with me into my current work. I realized that this is probably what is closest to my heart for many reasons: it supports the most strongly the importance that this German-Jewish legacy can have on the world. And relates it to current world affairs and our daily lives. And it comes also from a sense that this is one of the most valuable aspects of the Jewish tradition that for me is most specific where it considers this focus on the engagement with the world. You know, in Judaism, the topics that in other religions are identified with spirituality often imply an abnegation of the world, a turning away from the world, the sacrificing of worldly matters. In Judaism, there is room for this engagement with the world. A turning away from the world is certainly found in some context of Kabbalistic spirituality. And there's this figure called the Nazir, who is the one who separates himself from the community and devotes himself entirely to the spiritual world abnegating the world. Now, there are the conditions under which somebody can become a Nazir. But in the Jewish tradition, particularly the Talmud this is rather discouraged, one discourages people to become a Nazir. The Talmud can be seen as a huge cultural document that deals with organizing the world, organizing the relationship between people, dealing with questions of justice, of power. So what has fascinated me in the book, and I'm dealing with this at some point, is the way in which in the Talmud, you can find rules and commandments that are right next to stories and narratives and the interaction between these two. Because these stories and narratives are taken from the world, very often from everyday experiences. And the encounter between Jewish Law and these narratives dismantles the idea of an abstract regulation. In any case, that combination very much is an “investment in the world.” And that, to me at least, is a more specific characteristic of the Jewish tradition. There is a deep humanity that enters these commandments of how to deal with the world that belies the Christian idea of Jewish legality as pure casuistics and an abstract legality.

M. I know that you disagree with Taubes, how would you call it, aphorism: I have no spiritual investment in the world as it is. I know you disagree with that. I think what he's saying there it sounds much more like a Gnostic statement than a Jewish one. That would be your assessment, right?

V. Absolutely. Now, you know, there is for many, a Jewish version of Gnosticism. In such a wide and varied corpus as the Jewish textual tradition of course, you can find these, what you call trends and they can be found from antiquity till Kafka. Many read Kafka in Gnostic terms. Many read him in heretic terms, in antinomian terms. And this is what interests Taubes. He is, you mentioned this, a very enigmatic figure. If you read his text, Streitfrage zwischen Judentum und Christentum, you would see another, almost orthodox Taubes. “Streitfrage” has somewhat strangely been translated in Englishas the issue. The issue?? Streitfrage is not an issue! Streitfrage is a dispute. The translator wanted to calm things down.

M. This is just like when they translate the Palaia diaphora, what Plato has with artists, at least in Spanish, I think they translated with the question, which is like a terrible translation: if they could, they would, you know, they would bludgeon each other to death. But they translated it as the question, the issue.

V. Issue is even weaker than question. In German it's the Streitfrage! And there he has, toward the end of the text, a fascinating defense of Jewish law as opposed to Christian love. Showing how love is arbitrary and there cannot be justice without the Law. Now, this is a huge question, but it is very surprising that this same Taubes then has these antinomian impulses that will also lead him to Paul and that are then taken up by thinkers like Giorgio Agamben, who refers back to Taubes for his Imprimatur to read figures like Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka in these Pauline terms. And as you know, this is another dimension of the book that we don't have to give away as a spoiler, but it is one of the important dimensions of my book, a critique of this Pauline reading of figures like Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka.

M. Let's move on to the final question. I couldn’t help but notice the fact that the title itself refers to German-Jewish thought, (Denken). Not philosophy but thought. Eventually there are many characters in your book who are not philosophers at all, and yet it seems like they play a crucial role for philosophy as such. Now my question would be: what makes German-Jewish philosophy so receptive towards outside stimuli, towards inputs like Kafka’s literature or Celan’s poetry? Although maybe the ultimate example would be Walter Benjamin, whose micrologic attitude allowed him to make philosophy out of everything, from high-brow theology to variety show tickets. In other words, how come liminal figures end up playing a major role in the philosophical debate, so much so that the frontiers between philosophy and literature seem to blur?

V. There's a major debate whether one can talk about Jewish philosophy. Some argue that philosophy is by definition Greek or German as the heir of Greek philosophy, or that Jewish philosophy implies necessarily a kind of apologetic response to the existing Greek philosophy. In any case, that Jewish philosophy is in some ways secondary and derived from external origins, if you talk about Jewish philosophy. I don't necessarily share these views, but I nevertheless prefer to go to the notion of Jewish thought. It's a broader category that encompasses not only philosophical ideas, but also theological and cultural concepts that have been developed within the Jewish tradition. So this is one reason. Thought includes not only the ideas of philosophers, but also those of rabbis, mystics, poets, and other thinkers. The focus is then on understanding the wider intellectual and cultural context in which these ideas emerged and how they have influenced Jewish culture and existence over time. For the purposes of my book, speaking of “thought” also indeed allows me to cross the lines between literature and philosophy, which I do all the time. Why is this specific, or why would there be a tendency in German Jewish thought to blur these lines? And maybe together with this, your question, an implied question, how come that authors like Kafka and Celan have become the philosophers' darlings? And I'm thinking here of Deleuze, Derrida and the like. I think that it is because they are on the crossroads between the secular and the religious, between cultures, between generations, even between Judaism and Christianity. I now have read an important thesis by one of my students at Yale on Christology - she's from the Divinity School at Yale - on the Christology of Paul Celan's poetry. And where this cross, this crossroad (in German, Kreuzweg) referring to the passion of Christ, is itself a very Christian. Also, there is a strong sense in these German Jewish thinkers of the importance of the past, of the dangers and possibilities, both of rupture, a strong sense of enmeshment of universalism and particularism. I think that they were really thinkers in the wider sense of the word than philosophy. The inclusion of literature or literary modes of writing in Jewish Thought have made it possible to expand concepts, in order to deal with the complexities that arise from this border position between all these movements, tendencies and instances that have shaped modernity. It captures the very fact that in these German Jewish thinkers, there is a very strong old textual tradition. And that these German Jews bring to the philosophical texts that they have read. One of the importance of these thinkers is what they create out of this encounter. And here we are back with the beginning of our interview. In any case Jewish Thought as I understand it resists the idea of supersession, both Christianity superseding Judaism and making it irrelevant, but then also modernity superseding the tradition and making it irrelevant. So there is an affinity with that kind of thinking that keeps alive the wealth of the intellectual tradition as a whole in all its colours and varieties and recreates these old thoughts anew.

M. A bit like Benjamin's idea that there's no superseding of the past, but rather constellations that come back at key moments in the history and then the past can resound with the present in a very specific way.

V. He opposes the idea of Aufhebung to a term that suggests much more of a palimpsestic structure, layers, but that all make up for the whole that he calls schöpferische Indifferenz. It's a “creative indifference” here more in the sense of diversity. So of bringing together of an enmeshed diversity.

M. It's like Freud's typewriter that has layers. There's not really a superseding somehow, but there's still a lower layer that creeps up every once in a while.

V. Absolutely.

M. That was an absolute tour de force. Thank you very much. If you have anything else that you would like to add or that we didn’t touch upon.

V. Thanks for asking these questions in such a succinct and interesting way. It made me think further into my own endeavour. And I hope that our conversation has captured some of that and that it will inspire those who are interested in these matters to read the book.