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Bruce J. Krajewski reviews History, Metaphors, Fables

Hans BlumenbergHistory, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader, trans. Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll. New York: Cornell University Press, 2020. 609 pp.

Review by Bruce J. Krajewski

17 June 2020

The Reader is a kind of belated debutante ball for Hans Blumenberg, inviting a new audience to view Blumenberg not only at his entrance to scholarly life in the 1940s but also to key moments in his ascent of the rarefied staircase of German intellectual history, leading to rooms unintended for commoners. The summer of 2020 will be Blumenberg’s centennial.

The Blumenberg Reader is divided into four parts offering important and varied samplings on topics philosophical, technological, political, and literary, from 1946 to 1993. The editors have chosen wisely, presenting several new translations as well as key reprints from trusted translators like David Adams and one by Robert M. Wallace, who took on the Herculean task of translating three massive Blumenberg texts in the 1980s. Wallace’s contribution is “An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric” (1971), which by itself is worth the price of admission. This neglected essay demonstrates that, like Martin Heidegger, Blumenberg suffers from an adverse dependence on Friedrich Nietzsche. Like Nietzsche, Blumenberg knows how to turn an academic phrase: “[T]he rhetorical effect is not an alternative that one can choose instead of an insight that one could also have, but an alternative to a definitive evidence that one cannot have.”

In “The Concept of Reality and the Theory of the State” (1968/69), Blumenberg foresees, by looking back on the 1930s and 40s, that our political future would depend on competing notions of reality, with the state’s politicians insisting during times of emergency, like a pandemic, that theirs is a “higher reality”––“the real real,” symptomatically also the name of a luxury consignment brand. This struggle for reality plays out in everyday life, by Blumenberg’s reckoning, when we attribute to the political party worthy of our allegiance the virtue of political truth missing in any competing party.

Blumenberg’s three-ring circus of erudition travels across centuries and visits uncharted venues. He entertains with his anti-Platonism, calling Socrates a “know-it-all” in “Unknown Aesopica.” He breaks out the punctuative megaphone to draw attention to Franz Kafka’s “Letter to My Father,” declaring it as “one of the essential documents of human existence as such!” He urges us not to mistake the letter as a text limited to Franz and his father. Instead, think of the text as “the father raised to the mythical realm,” giving the letter significance “beyond literary history.” The editors phrase it well in their introduction. Blumenberg wants the reader to view the father figure “as a ‘reoccupation’ of the absent medieval God.” Finally, Blumenberg-as-Barnum teases spectators with fanciful books “that need to be written,” like How to Do Nothing with Words.

Anyone could nitpick about the thankless job of translation. Blumenberg’s prose flies usually at such a height of abstraction, often using multiple subordinate clauses and lengthy prepositional phrases, that it is miraculous any translator finds the oxygen at those altitudes to complete the task. My aim here is to review a representative sample from the editors, who also translate many essays.

In a not-to-be-missed piece about William Faulkner (1958), Blumenberg writes about the corporal in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Fable: “Die Gestalt des Korporals ist keine Kondensation des Guten, Heiligen, Humanen und Überhumanen, sie ist im Gegenteil von einer erschreckenden Armut, ohne Gesicht, ohne Seele.” The translation in the Reader: “The figure of the corporal is not a distillation of all that is good, sacred, humane, and superhumane; on the contrary, it is of startling poverty, with neither face nor soul.” “Überhumanen” should count as a nonce word, but it should not be confused with Nietzsche’s Übermenschen, and “superhumane” doesn’t seem to distance itself enough from Nietzsche’s Superman. Furthermore, “superhumane” is not quite what’s wanted in context. The context calls for something like the quality of an intensified Mensch, a person of extraordinary integrity, honor, affability. The phrase “with neither face nor soul” is correct but loses Blumenberg’s original rhythm signaled by the dual “ohne” (without). The translator could have gone with “faceless, soulless.” Blumenberg opts for “erschreckenden” before “poverty.” The adjective is rendered as “startling,” though that conveys more surprise and less horror or terror, both more common choices for erschrecken. Micro qualms for such a large and bounteous book.