Finding Metaphysics in Our Postmodern World

In the Preface to his Dostoevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears, László Földényi cites Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s comment that “the Enlightenment, while claiming to expose everything as a myth, itself towered over everything as a colossal unavoidable myth.” This remark captures the essence of Földényi’s collection of essays: the necessity and inevitability of a metaphysics that goes beyond the rationalism of the enlightenment—a metaphysics that might look a lot like myth. This inevitability derives from our awareness of human life, which, as Földényi describes it, plunges “from non-existence into existence” and eventually back again (a re-working of the Symposium’s “in-between” of mortality and immortality).

We perceive the need for metaphysics through the tensions of human life, so the essays examine “the opening to metaphysics” that emerges from certain dichotomies: “light and darkness, Hegel and Dostoevsky, Reason and monsters…Happiness and melancholy, Faust and Mephistopheles…The Whole and the Fragment.” He examines these tensions not in the hope “that one side would necessarily defeat the other,” but rather that the awareness of our fractured existence may show us the way to metaphysical investigation in our postmodern world. I will sample a few of these essays in order to carry on the reflective metaphysical conversation he invites the reader to engage in.

On Enlightenment and Rationality

In the title essay, Földényi has the exiled Dostoevsky reading Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of World History—which he considers Dostoevsky may well have done considering his friendship with the local public prosecutor who possibly had a copy. For Hegel, Africa and Siberia were too unhistorical to be considered, and Dostoevsky’s alleged tears are of frustration at the relegation of his place of exile to world-historical insignificance. This allows Földényi to critique Hegel’s philosophy as missing out on all the most important issues of human life, suffering, defeat, loss, and death.

He notes Hegel’s frequent use of the word “God,” which occurs almost as a synonym for “rationality.” But this rationality requires “the exclusion of the unverifiable, the inexplicable, the ‘irrational.’” And he quotes Dostoevsky’s reply, if not to Hegel, certainly to Földényi’s Hegel, in Notes from Underground: “There’s only one thing that can’t possibly be said about [history]—that it’s rational. You’d choke on the word.” While for Földényi, Hegel’s dialectic “is a tool for the dethronement of God,” Dostoevsky’s experience of Siberia and forced labor was one of redemption through suffering which he believed brought him closer to God while far away from anything resembling rational history. Földényi quotes Dostoevsky’s remark to Vladimir Solovyov about his Siberian exile: “People say: horror, bitterness…nonsense! I only had a happy, healthy life there, I understood myself there…I understood Christ…the Russian soul.”

This critique is continued in “The Globe-Shaped Tower: The Tower of Babel at the Turn of the Millennium.” The essay opens by quoting from a prize-winning essay by the young Rousseau, which prays to God for deliverance “from the Enlightenment and fatal arts of our fathers and give us back ignorance, innocence and poverty.” Földényi regards the essay as paradigmatic of the “critique of the prevailing civilizational conditions,” and he characterizes those conditions: “we are in the process of realizing the utopia of Babel; the tower is being constructed, but in this case in a spherical shape, for it is identified with the globe.”

As in the first essay, Földényi is of “the belief in the absolute rule of the cogito” but in a manner quite different from Descartes’ maxim. Földényi’ channels a more traditional version, which was rooted in our awareness of our embeddedness within the cosmos: “I am thought of, therefore I am.” But he notes that through modernity’s closed cultural rationalism, “The throne of God was occupied by Knowledge, and the pathos of final cognizability expelled the ultimate mystery.” We are no longer thought of, but rather, like Max Stirner’s extreme solipsism, constitute ourselves by our own thought.

Földényi has written two books on the topic of melancholy, one simply entitled Melancholy was translated into English in 2016; the other, Lob der Melancholie (“In Praise of Melancholy”) came out in German in 2019. A brief review in MDR Kultur described Lob der Melancholie’s purpose as “welcoming the imponderable and inconceivable, resistance to standardized expectations, conflict with clarity, feeling versus affirmation.” At first, this sounds like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who pits his Romantic exaltation of boundless and boundary-less freedom against the same Enlightenment rationalism Földényi is combating. Yet Dostoevsky’s genius in Notes from Underground was to supersede both alternatives with Lisa’s discovery of concrete personal responsibility and love.

Let’s see if another essay in this collection, “Happiness and Melancholy,” escapes the Romanticist versus rationalist trap. Földényi’s notion of melancholy stands for a radical awareness of our contingency. He characterizes our culture as trying to banish or normalize melancholy, but in so doing “it seeks to deprive human beings of the experience of transcendence surpassing their own lives…of the perception that humans…are anything but omnipotent beings.” And his counterpoise in this essay, happiness, is equally an experience of transcendence, no doubt of a different tonality:

In a state of happiness, a person…does not “know” about transcendence, but instead experiences, with full intensity, how transcendence sustains his or her entire being, and discovers the completion of his or her own self in that which is, strictly speaking, beyond the individual.

Early on in this essay, Földényi quotes Saint-Just’s slogan, at the height of the Terror: “Happiness is a new idea in Europe…a concept which had to be protected by mass executions.” The “happiness” of Saint-Just’s ice-cold rationality is inseparably united with the Romantic agony of his passionate hatred, showing that Enlightened rationalism and Romantic passion both lack the metaphysical ultimacy of Földényi’s happiness.

Heinrich von Kleist and the Emblematic Death

In keeping with his antipathy to being formalized, throughout these essays Földényi is certainly resistant to any easy conceptualization of where he stands on the topics being covered—perhaps his richness is his ability to force the reader to give equal weight to what are presented as opposing intellectual attitudes. He has already written a book about Heinrich von Kleist and edited a Hungarian translation of Kleist’s complete works, so perhaps his essay on Kleist’s suicide, “Kleist Dies and Dies and Dies,” opens up his own thought more than some of the other essays. He begins by referring to emblematic deaths in what he calls “European culture…Socrates, Empedocles, Jesus, Seneca. The death of Heinrich von Kleist is such a death.”

According to Földényi, Kleist’s “alloy” of classical and Romantic ideas was sustained not by fear of death but by passion for death.

He notes that “no death in the history of literature…has been so circumspectly and exhaustively documented as the double suicide of Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel…on November 21, 1811.” On the day before they died, Heinrich and Henriette described themselves as “two happy balloonists,” who have escaped normal worldly ties. Their letters written before their death, their careful deciding what was to be done with their possessions, the time of their suicide—10pm—a death naturally without clergy, all can be seen as partly modelled on Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, as well as on Lessing’s Emilia Galotti, where a father, to save his raped daughter’s honor, kills her at her own insistence.

Földényi reminds us of another “literary” suicide, the Japanese writer and film director, Yukio Mishima, who ritually killed himself, accompanied by two companions in 1970. As with Kleist’s suicide, his was “an interpreted text,” with ample precedents in Japanese literature. Such acts “present excessiveness as a norm,” since through these deaths, their authors somehow become “immortal” as literary figures.

Földényi gives the background of the Kleist double suicide, where Henriette, already married, terminally ill, but in love with Kleist, had little difficulty in persuading him to carry out the deed—he had already been thinking of a double suicide with various people he knew. Kleist declined the offer of lunch by the proprietor of the guesthouse where they were staying: “Tonight we’ll be dining on something much better than that.” In the evening, Kleist shot Henriette in the heart, reloaded his pistol and shot himself in the head, “exactly like the pair of lovers…in Kleist’s story ‘The Engagement of Santo Domingo,’ written eight months before the double suicide.”

Kleist’s early Essay on the Sure Way to Find Happiness and to Enjoy it Even in the Greatest Tribulations (1799) seemed to show him a middle path between enlightenment erudition and a personal life plan, both of which he loathes, “because a natural vehement instinct within seduces one elsewhere.” (It was this “vehement instinct” for wilful irrationality that would eventually lead to his death). Two years later, he had what has been called his “‘Kantian’ crisis—his belief in the great connections of existence collapse[d]” and he wrote to his sister, “My single, my highest goal has sunk from sight and I have no other.” For him, the one absolute certainty would be death. According to Földényi, Kleist “tried to create an alloy of the classical and the Romantic, without committing himself to either of them,” sustained not by fear of death but by passion for death. His death, then, “is a great emblem.”

Földényi rather idiosyncratically links Kleist’s death with the emblematic deaths of those mentioned before. This vanquishing of death was shown in Empedocles by a belief in self-redemption; in Socrates, by becoming a standard-bearer; in Jesus, by the certainty “that no one is ever completely identified with his own self,” and so on. And for Kleist, death can deprive us of everything but the ability to die:

Kleist helped uncover that ability in us. As with the other emblematic deaths, he sought a remedy in that in which, it would appear, one can hope the least: human frailty. He said yes to it. And perhaps this requires the greatest of strength…it is not enough for a human being to liquidate death. But it is enough to cast down the lead plummet, and—quoting one of Kleist’s farewell letters, written on the day before his death—live out one’s remaining hours “like a happy balloonist.”

Apart from the inadequate characterizations of the previous “emblematic” deaths, perhaps Földényi’s siding with Kleist is similar to Nietzsche’s solution to the similar conflict between erudition and life he diagnosed so well, for example in his On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, where erudite “history” is discarded in favour of life lived in Nietzsche’s sense. But there were other solutions, both Kierkegaard’s and Dostoevsky’s, which transcended immanent and concrete life, that I would have wished Földényi had explored more fully.

Fear and Freedom

I’ll conclude this brief reflection with a few thoughts from Földényi’s “For All but Fools Know Fear Sometimes: Fear and Freedom.” Early on in that essay, he recalls “one time when I saw my small son become afraid of a large dog, a dog that was in fact infinitely dear and decidedly friendly.” Up to then, the boy “manifested a kind of ancient trust toward the world.” But now “in his gaze was reflected a dread beyond any ability to address it.” He argues that this kind of radical fear is closely related to freedom. Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling affirms that fear, as the anxiety of existence, is “the precondition for ultimate freedom.” It was only in Abraham’s fear that “the way opened to come face to face with God.” To an extent in the world of the Greeks, and then “in Judeo-Christian culture, [fear] was where we come into contact with God, and discover our own boundaries within our own infinity.” He concludes by referring back to the tiny child’s inexpressible fear, and remarks “this is a true challenge—to put the question of a child into words, without the faintest hope that there could ever be any kind of reassuring response.”

I think Földényi’s value, particularly as I write in a time of the widespread lockdown due to the Covid-19 virus, is in exploding the usual temptation to feel self-sufficient, relying on a kind of technological omnipotence that is indeed a globe-shaped Tower of Babel. In his August 1914, Solzhenitsyn quotes Nikolai Gumilov’s prescient diagnosis in 1910 of the Soviet construction as a doomed enterprise. The poet’s vision parallels the Dostoevskian critique of self-deification and the absolutization of society which is still so common today. If Földényi has no hope of a response to his own vigorous questioning, these essays themselves are more than a signpost in the right direction.