Saturday, June 16, 2018

Esotericism and Criticism: A Platonic Response to Arthur Versluis


The establishment of Western esotericism as a field of academic research since the 1990s has been accompanied by a good deal of theoretical and methodological debate. However, because scholars are understandably passionate about their work, such discussions always run the risk of degenerating into negative polemics and personal invectives, and our young field has certainly had its share of those. It is a fact of human psychology that if opinions that we personally cherish are being criticized by others, nothing is easier than to experience such criticism as a personal attack. Once this happens, most of us find it hard to keep listening accurately to what our opponents are trying to say – it is all too easy to begin imagining them as “enemies” rather than as colleagues whose opinions and commitments just happen to be different from our own and who might have something to say that we do not yet see. On the following pages I will be discussing a strong example which seems representative of an unfortunate rift that has appeared in the community of esotericism scholars. This case concerns an attack on my own work that is just a bit too extreme to be ignored, but I hope to avoid falling into the retaliatory trap of tit-for-tat. Rather, I want to do my best to re-open an important discussion in the study of esotericism that has clearly turned sour and negative. The occasion for making this attempt is a chapter in Arthur Versluis’s recent volume Platonic Mysticism: Contemplative Science, Philosophy, Literature, and Art (State University of New York Press: Albany 2017).

To understand what is happening in this chapter, a bit of context and background is needed. Arthur and I have known each other since the early 1990s, when he visited the Netherlands, and we saw quite a lot of each other in the years that followed. He spent time at my place in Utrecht, and I came to visit him for days at his amazing house in the midst of the Michigan cornfields. Since we were both passionate about the project of promoting the study of Western esotericism, we engaged on a course of fruitful and friendly collaboration, as can be seen from a whole series of articles that we contributed to one another’s publication projects. It was pretty clear from the beginning that we came from very different academic traditions and our approaches to “esotericism” were quite different as well, but for a long time this did not cause serious problems. Of course we had our moments of disagreement or mutual puzzlement about one another’s positions, but the basic situation was one of mutual respect, friendship, and appreciation.
That all changed in 2013, when I published a large review article “Textbooks and Introductions to Western Esotericism,” including a section titled “Esoteric Religionism” about Arthur’s Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism (Lanham 2007). Here I introduced him as “the most prominent American representative, in his generation, of a pure religionist approach to esotericism in the tradition of Eliade, Corbin or the younger Faivre” (186). My discussion focused on what I saw as a lack of textual organization and careful editing, on some questionable choices concerning what to include and exclude, and most importantly, on what struck me as a “lack of real interest in confronting the problems and dilemmas of modern historical scholarship” (187). I personally considered it a critical but fair review, and this remains my honest opinion as I re-read it today. Arthur, however, responded with great anger. He clearly experienced the review as a personal attack, and our contact came virtually to an end. This was a sad experience for me, as I’m sure it must have been for him, but I had no other choice than to accept it.
            Although my review article is never mentioned, Arthur’s chapter “The Externalist Fallacy” (Platonic Mysticism, 71-84) is clearly his response to it. My critiques of his 2007 book are passed over in silence, but what appears to have incensed him is being described as a “religionist” (worse: a “pure” one!). This is because he believes – incorrectly, as I will try to explain – that I use “religionism” as a pejorative label for approaches I dislike; or in other words, he seems to think I was accusing him of being that most despicable thing – a religionist. Starting from this incorrect assumption, Arthur embarks on a whole series of allegations, some of them very much ad hominem. The final result is a picture of my work and its “malign” (72) intentions that, as I hope to show, bears almost no resemblance to my actual perspective. If I were to return the compliment and suspect Arthur of “malign” intentions towards me, there would be no point in responding. However, the fact is that I do not doubt his honesty – I readily assume he believes sincerely in the accuracy of his interpretation. This gives me some hope that I might perhaps be able to correct the picture. As far as I can see, it can be broken down into six interrelated claims about me and my ideas. I will discuss them one by one.

Wouter hates religionism

Arthur quotes my technical definition of “religionism” – a term, by the way, which I did not invent but that was current at least as early as the 1990s – as “the project of exploring historical sources in search of what is eternal and universal” (75, referring to Esotericism and the Academy, 296). Therefore he knows what I mean by it. Nevertheless, elsewhere he claims that critics like me dismiss as a religionist “anyone who takes seriously the philosophical and religious perspectives that he or she is studying” (27). Now this is something else entirely: presumably I believe that scholars of esotericism should not take those whom they are studying seriously! To be honest, this claim makes my head spin. How, I wonder, could anybody who has read my work draw such a conclusion? I am all about trying to do justice to esoteric traditions, thinkers, and ideas that have been unjustly marginalized for a long period but deserve to be taken seriously. I’m not sure how it happened, but somewhere along the way, Arthur seems to have gotten me confused with a certain type of debunking skeptic, a hyper-rationalist of the old school who considers it the sacred duty of academics to expose esotericism as “irrational rubbish.” In fact all my work is directed against such attitudes.

Religionists: Gilbert Durand, Henry Corbin, and Antoine Faivre at Eranos (1970s)
How to explain such a monumental misperception? As far as I can see, two things are going wrong in the chapter. First, Arthur seems to think that “taking esoteric beliefs seriously” means affirming that they are true. If an esoteric Platonist professes belief in the eternal ideas, then I am not taking him seriously unless I say “yes, you are right, the eternal ideas exist!” Second, Arthur seems to assume that one cannot have respect or appreciation for any perspective with which one does not personally agree. Therefore if I disagree with religionist methodologies for technical reasons, this must mean that I have no respect or appreciation for them or their representatives.
Both assumptions are wide of the mark. In fact I take any belief seriously if I can see that it is being held with sincerity and conviction – but obviously that does not mean that I necessarily share it. Only by taking someone seriously can I empathize with him or her, and it is my duty as a scholar (a very pleasant one, I might add) to do what I can to imaginatively “enter” the world of those I study, so as to understand as well as possible what they are saying and doing, or why. I am not saying that the task of the scholar ends there. Once having immersed oneself deeply in a text or a tradition, there comes the point where one has to step back and create sufficient distance to see the topic from a wider and more independent perspective. The ability to do both, and do it well, I see as a boundary condition for quality in scholarship. As for the second point: it is certainly true that I have serious objections to religionist theories and their methodological implications, but this has absolutely nothing to do with respect or appreciation. Perhaps the best example is my longstanding friendship with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the most sophisticated “neo”religionist scholar of religion known to me (he himself accepts the label as “not inappropriate,” see page 129 here). I have reviewed his work critically, and he has returned the favour (see pp. 125-132 here), but our discussions have always been grounded in mutual respect and, indeed, admiration. I wouldn’t teach his approach to my students, but I do make them read his work and tell them they have to consider it seriously. If they end up following Jeff's course, they have my blessing.
       The simple truth is that I do not hate religionism at all. On the contrary, I see it as an inherently problematic but very important intellectual tradition. Religionist scholarship has always been an endlessly fascinating phenomenon for me, and I have the greatest respect for its famous representatives (plus some of its less famous ones). So what do I find so “problematic”? Simply the fact that you cannot write the history of something that transcends history. Still, the very impossibility of resolving this paradox, which I believe lies at the heart of religionism, has led to brilliantly creative and profound attempts at resolving it nevertheless. That is where the fascination lies, at least for me. In this regard – and here Arthur and I find ourselves in agreement – the religionism of Eranos is somewhat similar to the great tradition of Platonism, which I admire even more, and which lives from the deep contradiction between Being (the eternal forms or ideas) and Becoming (our world of impermanence and change). Being able to hold two contradictory notions in one’s mind at the same time is not a sign of intellectual weakness: on the contrary, all the great metaphysical thinkers in the Platonic tradition (think for instance of Cusanus or Bruno) have known that, once you go beyond first appearances in exploring reality, you encounter logical paradoxes all the way down – or rather, into infinity.
So no, Arthur, believe me: I don’t hate religionism. I don’t despise it. I don’t try to exclude it. Sure: I do not share its approach to the study of religion, and I do advocate different methodologies in esotericism research. But I do so openly, explicitly, with respect, and with arguments. If there is anything that has disappointed me about this debate since the 1990s, it is that so few scholars on the “religionist” side (Jeff Kripal being a notable exception) have been interested in listening to critics and engaging their arguments in a constructive manner. Instead, what almost always happens is that critics are simply dismissed out of hand, and perceived as “inquisitors” with “malign” intentions who try to “exclude” or even “excommunicate” those with whom they disagree. This brings me to the second point.

Wouter is a Protestant heresiophobe
who wants to dump esotericism into the dustbin

From my discussion of the Protestant “anti-apologetic” tradition and its battle against Hellenistic paganism in the early modern period (Esotericism and the Academy, ch. 2), Arthur appears to have concluded that I am on the side of the heresy-hunters and applaud their ideas! They were sworn enemies of esotericism, and so am I (75ff). This misinterpretation is so bizarre that, frankly, I had trouble believing my eyes when I first read it. But I had to believe them, for one page later it got even worse:

It is perhaps worth noting … that Wouter Hanegraaff’s father was a Protestant minister and theologian and that one of the most prominent American evangelical authors is in fact Hanegraaff’s relative, Hank Hanegraaff, who has produced antiesoteric, antioccult resources online, derived from a combination of, yes, biblical Protestantism (he is known as the “Bible Answer Man”) and opposition to what he perceives as irrational or demonically inspired superstition (76).

Is this supposed to be the smoking gun? It is certainly correct that my father was a Protestant minister. His brother Hans – also a minister – emigrated to the United States, and Hank Hanegraaff is one of his sons, so we are cousins. We met just once in our lives, when Hank was visiting the Netherlands. We had one friendly chat in my mother’s garden, and everybody was careful not to mention religion. Anyone who is remotely familiar with my work knows how strongly I feel about the study of religion as a secular discipline incompatible with doctrinal theology of any kind. As for Hank, with all due respect, his ideas about cults and the occult as demonic threats could not be further removed from mine, as anybody will see who just cares to compare our writings. So what is the point of Arthur bringing this up? Does he want his readers to think of me as some kind of sinister double agent, a Christian fundamentalist in disguise who is out to destroy esotericism under the pretense of studying it?
Johann Jacob Brucker
My actual argument, of course, is the very opposite. Protestant heresiophobes (Arthur's term: see p. 81) like Jacob Thomasius and Ehregott Daniel Colberg created the intellectual foundations for an “anti-apologetic” tradition (a systematic attack on the Platonizing patristic theology of the so-called “Christian apologists”) that made it possible for Jacob Brucker – whose work came to dominate the field of history of philosophy during the 18th and early 19th centuries – to expurgate everything we now see as “esotericism” from the history of legitimate academic philosophy and dump it into the “wastebasket” of history. Like his predecessor Christoph August Heumann, he would like to see it all vanish “into the sea of oblivion,” to be forgotten forever. In a nutshell, this is how and why esotericism came to be excluded or “exorcized” from academic research since the period of the Enlightenment and throughout the 19th century. Obviously I do not consider that a good thing, as Arthur seems to believe. On the contrary, it was an intellectual disaster that has distorted our very understanding of Western culture up to the very present; and the entire rest of my book describes the difficult process of restoring esotericism to the academy from the 20th century on. In short, the modern study of esotericism is all about undoing the damage done by those Protestant heresiophobes and their agendas. Nevertheless, Arthur seems to have made up his mind that I am on their side and secretly applaud their anti-Platonist and anti-esoteric alarmism. On page 75, he triumphantly quotes me for endorsing their polemics as “exactly the right combination.” In fact, if you read those words in context you will see that I was saying something different:

[T]he anti-apologetic historiography pioneered by Jacob Thomasius, Colberg, and Brucker … was characterized by a methodology of historical criticism combined with a theoretical focus on the manifold effects of the encounter between Hellenistic paganism and biblical traditions. This, I suggest, was exactly the right combination. If this basic agenda had been continued and further developed after the Enlightenment (presumably shedding its normative theological assumptions in the process), the study of “Western esotericism” might well have established itself on secure historical foundations already in the nineteenth century. As it happened, this line of inquiry was cut short … leading to a scholarly “Waste Land” instead.

There is no cure for sloppy reading. What I am advocating here is not some heresiophobic agenda congenial to Protestant fundamentalists such as Colberg or my cousin Hank. Instead, I am making two points. First, to understand what “esotericism” is all about, from a historical and theoretical point of view, the history of the encounter between Hellenistic paganism and biblical traditions is absolutely central. Second,  I advocate the methods of historical criticism as crucial to studying this field. Of course, one might agree or disagree with that agenda. Other scholars may well propose different ways of conceptualizing and studying the field, and that is perfectly fine. What is not fine is to distort an argument beyond recognition and then score points against the caricature.

Wouter “orientalizes” Platonism


The general point of Arthur’s book is that Platonism should be restored to its original position as the central tradition of what has come to be called “mysticism.” In his second and third chapters, he shows how the rise of cross-cultural comparativism during the 20th century resulted in an eclipse of the original understanding of mysticism as Platonic. This is a strong argument with which I agree completely. It is all the more regrettable that Arthur completely misses the point of my concept of “Platonic Orientalism” and thinks it is inspired by some kind of Protestant anti-Platonic agenda.
         Nothing could be farther from the truth. Arthur notes correctly that the term “Platonic Orientalism” was coined by John Walbridge, but mistakenly claims that “much of [Walbridge’s] work is dedicated to critique of the French scholar of esoteric Islam, Henry Corbin” (79). In truth, Walbridge’s books are deep and sensitive studies of the key Islamic thinker Suhrawardi; but the mere fact that he dares to disagree with Corbin’s reading of Suhrawardi seems enough for Arthur to see him as yet another enemy out to attack Corbin. As for my own understanding of “Platonic Orientalism,” once again Arthur creates a caricature by either ignoring or misrepresenting everything I have written about it. In fact the term refers, quite simply, to a very influential tradition that saw Platonism not as a rational philosophy created by Plato but as a spiritual wisdom tradition rooted in pre-Platonic sources such as Pythagoras, Moses, Zoroaster, or Hermes. Ironically, this should be quite congenial to Arthur’s own understanding of Platonism as a spiritual tradition. What seems to have provoked his ire, however, is the term “Orientalism,” which he thinks is “of course, a pejorative” (79). Never mind that both Walbridge and myself are explicit in pointing out that the terminology should not be confused with Edward Said’s famous notion but is wholly independent of it. Arthur simply ignores these statements, or refuses to believe them. He goes so far as to claim, without providing any evidence, that I use the term “not despite but because of the pejorative implications of ‘orientalism’” (79, emphasis in original) because it provides me with an excuse for not having to take Platonism and Platonic mysticism seriously “on their own terms” (ibid.).
Again, this is completely wrong. Nothing in my work (or Walbridge’s, for that matter) suggests a pejorative understanding of “Platonic Orientalism” – quite the contrary. Far from wanting to “dismiss” it, I want to restore it to academic agendas. Moreover, I happen to agree with Arthur that what he calls the “mystical” dimension of Platonism must be taken very seriously indeed (not just in Plotinus or Dionysius, but also in Plato himself). Again, my true agenda is to expose the long-term negative effects of the Protestant heresiological imagination and its Enlightenment continuations, so that it may be possible for Platonism to be seen in its true light. How is it possible that Arthur got it so wrong? The only explanation I can think of is that, having already decided that I am a Protestant heresiophobe with malign intentions, just reading the term “Orientalism” caused his irritation to rise to such heights that he stopped reading and began jumping to conclusions all of his own.

Wouter embodies 
the externalist fallacy

In passing, I should mention that the other scholar of religion singled out in Arthur’s chapter as exemplifying “the eternalist fallacy” is Daniel Dubuisson. Because we are both critical of “religionism,” readers could get the impression that Dubuisson’s perspective must be similar to my own. Certainly Arthur thinks that this is the case, but in fact it is not. While Dubuisson’s ideas would require a separate discussion, I do not at all share his extreme ideological viewpoint according to which fascism and antisemitism are structurally encoded in the type of (“religionist”) scholarship represented by Eliade (for this point, see Esotericism and the Academy, 302-3 nt 169, with special reference to the cogent refutation of such arguments by Elaine Fisher). Arthur does not mention this political dimension, but it might help explain the “withering scorn” (72) with which Dubuisson writes about Eliade. This is not my attitude at all, but Arthur suggests a connection by describing us both as guilty of the “externalist fallacy”:

What authors like Dubuisson and Hanegraaff assert is a radical externalism. Hanegraaff claims that the “experiential dimension that transcends history … will always remain inaccessible to scholarly research by definition” (78).

It is very strange that Arthur objects so much to this, for if you read the quotation closely and think it over, you will see that it describes exactly his own point of view!  And more than that, it is a view with which I wholly agree. I know that this statement is likely to make his head spin, so let me explain.
The externalist fallacy, as Arthur puts it, is “that one can do justice to esoteric religion from an exoteric perspective” (82), or “that what is most meaningful can be understood only through external discursive analysis” (82-83). Against this externalist fallacy, he quotes Peter Kingsley as saying that “there is no entrance to the esoteric from the outside” (82). Arthur might be amazed to hear it, but that is exactly what I am saying as well. Just compare those two statements by Kingsley and myself, and you will find they reach the same conclusion: if there is an “esoteric” dimension that transcends history, then obviously it will not be accessible by scholarly methods. I could not agree more. The externalist fallacy does not apply to me, so let me try to put the record straight once and for all. I do not at all believe “that one can do justice to esoteric religion [here understood in Arthur’s sense of the word, as an absolute reality that transcends history] from an exoteric perspective.” Nor do I believe “that what is most meaningful can be understood through external discursive analysis, as if one sought to realize the beauty of a magnificent Hudson River School landscape painting through analysis of its chemical content” (82-83). How could I possibly mean something so ridiculous? Again Arthur has gotten me confused with some old-fashioned reductionist of the crudest and stupidest variety.
In fact I stated as early as 1995 – and have kept repeating ever since – that what I advocate is an empirical/historical methodology grounded in methodological agnosticism. Sometimes I wonder how often I’ll need to explain what that means and what it doesn’t. Here is one of my latest attempts:

[T]he academy has no instruments for gaining direct access to the true and absolute nature of reality that is claimed to exist according to [the religionist] model, and it has no methodologies for either verifying or falsifying the claim that such a reality exists in the first place. The Absolute or the Divine is simply not a possible object of research: all that scholars can do is study the beliefs, convictions or theories that have been formulated about it, but as scholars they are not qualified to assess their truth or falsity. … [I]t is simply a matter of recognizing the limitations of what scholarly research can and cannot do. Some academics claim that since science and scholarship cannot discover the divine or the absolute, it therefore does not exist. However, it is logically more consistent to admit that we simply do not know – and cannot know. This position, which neither affirms nor denies that it might be possible to discover the true nature of reality by other means than science and scholarship (such as spiritual techniques or mystical contemplation), is technically known as “methodological agnosticism.” (Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed, 11-12)

How much clearer could I put it? What this means is that science and scholarship are modest and limited instruments that cannot claim to provide access to the “esoteric” realm of the transcendent or the absolute; and therefore scholars, as scholars, are not in any position to either affirm or deny its existence. Ironically, this is in perfect accord with the very heart of Platonic mysticism as understood by Arthur himself. In this same passage, I even take care to reject the reductionist interpretation that he imputes to me (the argument that “since science and scholarship cannot discover the divine or the absolute, it therefore does not exist”), pointing out that we should better admit that we simply do not know. To put the record even straighter, this also means that I respectfully disagree with the position of methodological naturalism, which “sees any non-natural explanations that we may encounter on the emic level as irrelevant” and argues that “any explanation that is not in accord with our best present knowledge of how the world works …, or which lacks any plausible support by such knowledge, is … automatically disqualified from the accounting of things” (Egil Asprem, Problem of Disenchantment, 85 nt 118).

Wouter wants to exclude 
the study of consciousness

The problem with Arthur’s chapter is that he reads my work selectively on the basis of what appear to be preconceived notions. As a result, he misses most of what I say. When I write (in the quotation just given) that as scholars we can neither verify nor falsify the reality of the transcendent, this implies that there might be other (non-scholarly) means of doing it, and I explicitly mention “spiritual techniques or mystical contemplation.” Arthur, for his part, states (more reductively than he might intend) that “[u]ltimately, the study of esoteric religion is the study of different levels or kinds of consciousness” (83), and advocates practices of mystical contemplation. From that perspective, he writes, “the externalist fallacy is to believe that one can accurately convey or depict esoteric religion from outside, without respecting the fact that esoteric religious traditions allude to changes in consciousness” (83-84). As already explained above, this externalist fallacy is nowhere to be found in my work: all I ever do is insist that we should not confuse scholarly methods with mystical contemplation or other spiritual techniques. Both are equally valuable on their own terms, as far as I am concerned, but they are not good for the same things. A spoon is helpful for eating soup and a hammer for hitting nails into the wall, but you won’t get far hitting nails with a spoon or eating soup with a hammer. It is really as simple as that: scholarship is not mysticism, and mysticism is not scholarship.
            As for the study of consciousness, it so happens that my true perspective is very close to the “radical empiricism” and philosophical pragmatism associated with William James. The relevant quotation is so famous that I hesitate to give it once again, but it simply cannot be said any better than James said it, so here we go:

[O]ur normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite discarded. How to regard them is the question, – for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness (James, Varieties).


For quite a long while now, in many publications, I have been calling attention to the role of “alterations of consciousness” in Western esotericism (including, of course, the Platonic tradition, or more precisely – sorry Arthur! – Platonic Orientalism). If you look closely at the relevant texts and traditions, again and again you will find practioners experimenting with how to apply the “requisite stimuli” for influencing or altering human consciousness, resulting in visions, voices, mystical experiences, and so on. I have come to consider this absolutely central to the study of esotericism (it's been at my suggestion that the 2019 ESSWE conference, in Amsterdam, will be devoted to this topic), so how could I reasonably be suspected of attempting to exclude consciousness from the field? Nevertheless, Arthur takes me for an “externalist” who wants to censor experiential dimensions and prohibit scholars from even mentioning them. He thinks I blame him for discussing such dimensions in one of his books about Christian Theosophy: “Were I to remove [the experiential accounts of esoteric practitioners],” he protests, “it would no longer give the reader a sense of the theosophical tradition from the perspective of the theosophers, but rather would only give names, dates, and data.” Quite so! How could I possibly disagree? Just look at how much attention I give to such experiential accounts in my own publications, which are by no means restricted to just names, dates, and data. In short, again Arthur has gotten me confused with some other guy.
            The only real difference that I see between Arthur’s perspective and mine – but it is a very important one – is that I believe scholarly method should not be confused with mystical contemplation or other spiritual techniques. I see no reason why these two could not learn to co-exist in friendship and mutual respect, but trouble will arise if we require carpenters to use spoons or expect soup to be eaten with hammers. This means that in my capacity as a scholar (a carpenter) I will be using the tools of my trade: hammers, not spoons. Of course those tools will not allow me to have direct experiences of the transcendent: that is simply not what they are designed to do. But they can do many other things that I consider extremely valuable and important, which is why I am a scholar. When my working day as a carpenter is over, perhaps I will decide to take a cup of soup! That is a personal choice for which I’ll definitely need a spoon, and I’ll be happy to use it. But it will not be of much help to me during working hours.

Wouter is a self-appointed inquisitor

We finally come to what might be the core of the conflict. Judging from the book as a whole – and this is what I already suggested in 2013 – it seems that Arthur has rather little interest in secular methods as tools to be used on their own terms and valuable for their own purposes. Such approaches he seems to perceive as either inherently meaningless “nihilistic” pursuits (86) or as destructive instruments for expelling esotericism, mysticism, or Platonism  from the academy (see for instance his discussions of various secular approaches on pp. 62-64, 125-18). This argument might seem surprising at first sight: after all, esotericism found itself excluded from the academy to begin with, and only thanks to the application of standard secular methods did it finally get included as an academic field. But in fact this is exactly what seems to be the problem, the real source of the pain: “in the name of ‘academic respectability,’ exactly what is esoteric about esoteric religion is excluded, making the field into a kind of ironically empty exercise” (82). In other words, Arthur thinks that the field has sold its soul in exchange for “academic respectability.” As one of the chief culprits responsible for this development, I am being framed throughout the chapter as a “self-appointed inquisitor” (83) who wants to “exclude” (72, 79, 82), “excise” (8), or “excommunicate” (72, 84) dissenting approaches from the academy.

Giordano Bruno before the Holy Inquisition

This is a very serious allegation, but the truth of the matter is rather different, and in fact very simple. I am trying to advance what I see as proper scholarly methods, and this involves not getting them confused with non-scholarly pursuits such as mystical contemplation or spiritual techniques (no matter how valuable I may – and in fact do – find those in and for themselves). For reasons already explained above, I believe that scholarly methods are simply incapable of gaining direct access to whatever transcendent reality might exist out there. They can only approach it indirectly and at second hand, and therefore they cannot give scientific proof of its truth and real existence. All they can do is report what practitioners are saying about it, and then try to analyze or interpret (by whatever methods, from hermeneutics to neurobiology) what might be going on in such transcendental experiences. Is it possible then to scientifically disprove the truth and real existence of transcendent realities? Here opinions differ. I would personally argue that it is not possible, which makes me an advocate of methodological agnosticism; others, along the lines of methodological naturalism (see above), seem to assume that it is possible. In this debate, the jury is still out. In any case, we are not dealing here with some conspiracy of academic “externalists” against Platonism or esotericism, but with a serious and legitimate debate about the limits of scientific method.
            I do not see anything “inquisitorial” about my concern with the boundaries of proper scholarly method. A better analogy is that of a professional teacher of music (a former occupation of mine). If a student fails her conservatory exam in classical guitar because she cannot play her scales and keeps hitting the wrong chords, nobody will accuse the teacher of “excluding” or “excommunicating” her from the profession. Nor will anybody be surprised to see her rejected if she does not take her guitar to the exam but insists on performing a dance instead (no matter how skillful!). Scholarship is scholarship; it has methods and standards. Mysticism is mysticism; it has other methods and other standards. The teacher of mysticism will send me home if I insist on sending him a research paper instead of practicing my meditation. And he will be right: he is not being inquisitorial, he is just doing his job.
           Finally: has the study of esotericism been selling its soul in exchange for academic respectability? I do not think that such a thing is possible. The soul of our field is embodied in the texts and traditions and practices that we study: it cannot be destroyed by whatever we may be saying about them as scholars. As for the tradition of critical scholarship: it has a soul of its own, which thrives on honest dedication to the pursuit of knowledge.

The practice of criticism

Let me sum it all up. I do not hate religionism; I am not a Protestant heresiophobe; I do not want to dump esotericism into the dustbin; I do not want to dismiss Platonism as “Orientalist”: I do not embody the externalist fallacy; I do not want to exclude the study of consciousness; and I am not inspired by any inquisitorial motives. Arthur’s list of accusations is so long and so seriously mistaken that, coming as it does from a well-known and prominent figure in the field, it just couldn’t be left unanswered. That I have chosen to respond on a public blog is for two reasons: firstly, I do not want this debate to be hidden behind the paywall of some closed-access academic journal, and secondly, the blog format makes it possible for readers to respond. I would welcome further discussion, for my rejoinder is not just addressed to Arthur personally but to the wider field of academics in the study of esotericism, where some might be getting the wrong ideas about what I advocate or represent. As I wrote at the very beginning, an unfortunate rift seems to have appeared in the community of esotericism scholars, and this is my attempt at reaching out to the other side.
        Therefore I would like to end on a positive note. One thing that Arthur and I have in common is that we share a deep love and admiration for the Platonic tradition. We both see it as absolutely central to the intellectual and spiritual culture of Europe, and we agree that Western esotericism would be inconceivable without it. But perhaps the choices we make within that tradition are slightly different. Arthur highlights the magnificent metaphysical architecture of Plotinus and Dionysius the Areopagite, with its splendid multi-leveled hierarchy ranging from the multiplicity of material realities to the ineffable One above Being itself. This perspective is admirable, beautiful, and profound – no question about it. As for me, my ultimate allegiance is not to these later Platonists, or even to Plato himself, but to Socrates. It is in Socrates that I find my model for the “methodologically” agnostic scholar, who is in search of knowledge because he knows he does not have it but cares about the truth.
In the Symposium we read how he became a philosopher: it was because the seeress-priestess Diotima initiated him into the mysteries of Love and taught him to seek Wisdom (Symp. 201d-212a). Ever since, Socrates has known that he does not have wisdom – only the love for it. He is not up there in the world of eternal ideas but down here in the world of impermanence and change, together with his pupils, ignorant of the truth but filled with desire to find it. Sometimes he gives speeches while in a state of divine inspiration (as in the Phaedrus), but far more often he engages in dialogue: critical dialogue, sharp and precise, with the knife on the table, argument against argument, no quarter given! Socrates does not place himself above his pupils, proclaiming the Truth and expecting them to just accept it or raise themselves up to his superior level. On the contrary, he takes his position next to them, as their equal: he is just another human being like themselves, ignorant of the truth but searching for clarity. I am very well aware of how far the modern Academy has drifted away from its original Socratic model, but this is still what I think it should be: not an arena for power play and ego gratification, not a school where professors tell their students what they should do or believe, but a community of the ignorant devoted to the search for knowledge. In such a context, the practice of criticism has nothing to do with one person attacking another, for it is not a game with winners and losers, but a method for learning in which everybody wins. It is in this spirit that I have tried to respond to Arthur’s chapter, and I hope it will be understood as such.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Imaginary Homelands: Stefan Zweig, Gershom Scholem, and George Prochnik


George Prochnik

Two great Jewish writers and intellectuals of the twentieth century, Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) and Gershom Scholem (1897-1982): on one side we have the cosmopolitan advocate of humanistic tolerance, mutual understanding, and peaceful European integration who was forced out of Europe and died in isolation far from home in Brazil, while on the other side we have the Zionist and pioneering scholar of kabbalah whose search for the deep historical and existential roots of his Jewish identity led him to leave Europe behind of his own volition to build a new home in Palestine. The American author George Prochnik has published an impressive biographical diptych about these two famous personalities and their very different experiences and perspectives: The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World was published in 2014, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem came out in 2016. I found these two books to be full of valuable insights that carry deep relevance for the political and cultural conflicts we are currently experiencing. Just like about a century ago, once again we find the Humanistic and Enlightenment ideals of “cosmopolitanism and secular liberalism” pitted against the Counter-Enlightenment forces of “nationalism, religion, and identity politics.” What can we learn from comparing Zweig and Scholem?

Stefan Zweig in 1917

“I love the Diaspora,” Zweig wrote to Martin Buber in 1917. He went on to explain that he had “never wanted the Jews to become a nation again and thus to lower itself [sic] to taking part with the others in the rivalry of reality” (Exile, 134). When Buber responded by restating his Zionist convictions, Zweig insisted: “the more the dream threatens to become a reality, the dangerous dream of a Jewish state with cannons, flags, medals, the [sic] more than ever am I resolved to love the painful idea of the Diaspora” (135). Zweig felt perfectly at home in his native Austrian culture because he considered himself a citizen of Europe and the international republic of letters. Frankly, he could afford it. Born in 1881 in a very affluent Jewish family in Vienna, he seems to have been absolutely fine with both the ideals and the realities of cultural and ethnic assimilation that had worked out so beautifully for him. Almost to his own surprise – he never had a particularly high opinion about himself as a writer – all doors to fame and success seemed to open almost by themselves and he enjoyed a dream career as a writer. The world was his oyster. 

Gershom Scholem at twenty-seven
What a difference with Scholem! Born in 1897 as the son of a printer living in Berlin, he was sixteen years younger than Zweig and rebelled violently against his bourgeois father with his strong assimilationist views. If Zweig felt he belonged to the German people (meaning the German-speaking peoples of Europe), Scholem would later dismiss such feelings of belonging as “a lurid and tragic illusion” for Jews, even on the level of culture alone (147; Stranger, 9). While Zweig was a typical representative of Liberal Humanism in the tradition of his hero Erasmus, Scholem’s deep concern was with his Jewish identity and he became a vocal activist on behalf of the Zionist cause. For Zweig, leaving Europe meant exile. For Scholem it meant liberation.

The Cosmopolitan Idealist

Reading Zweig’s autobiography Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday) in tandem with Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile about Zweig’s final years means receiving an introduction to the original meaning of Liberalism as an ethical and humanitarian ideal with deep roots in European history. Zweig had no sympathy for the American culture of capitalist consumerism that – especially in the form of its radical “Neoliberal” upgrade since the 1980s – is so often confused with Liberalism today. On the contrary, he felt that “global dance crazes, mass fashion, popular cinema, et cetera were leveling the cosmos of human expression ‘into a uniform cultural schema’,” and feared that “[t]he United States had inaugurated a ‘rush into servitude’ of the masses, clearing the way psychologically for dictatorships of every variety to seize power. If the Great War marked the first phase of Europe’s destruction, he concluded, ‘Americanization is the second’” (Exile, 235-236). Of course such words sound uncannily prescient today. In fact, reading Prochnik’s description of how the refugee Viennese psychoanalyst Ernst Kris discussed Hitler, I could not help noticing that he might as well have been talking about Donald Trump. The principles of demagoguery seem universal:

[Hitler] once said the masses were so dumb and so feminine, they would take anything you told them, so long as it was expressed in the manner of advertising catchphrases. “Truth is of no avail, but there must be an ideology behind it, something to inspire the imagination,” Kris explained (152).

As an alternative to the degenerate culture of American consumer capitalism, Zweig did not advocate a return to nationalism or a revival of populist Blut und Boden sentiments but quite their opposite: a Pan-European humanism grounded in tolerance and mutual understanding as guiding ideals that should be passed on from one generation to the next by means of responsible education, or Bildung. His confidence in this approach seemed boundless:

Reverence for Bildung, that magically potent idea of holistic, rigorously intellectual character development, predicated on fluency in the canon of Western knowledge, had made it impossible for educated Germans to take Hitler seriously, Zweig wrote. It was simply inconceivable that this “beer-hall agitator” who had not even finished high school, let alone college, “should ever make a pass toward a position once held by a Bismark, a Baron von Stein, a Prince Bülow.” In consequence, Zweig said, even after 1933 the vast majority still believed Hitler was only a kind of stopgap, and that the Nazis would prove a transient phenomenon.
What Zweig did not make explicit in his memoir was that he’d made this mistake himself. No one placed a greater trust in the redemptive power of cultural education than did Zweig, who expressed his faith, even after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, that the Third Reich would prove only a brief hiccup en route to the unification of Europe – the coming “world Switzerland,” as he labeled it. It took years for Zweig to really absorb the notion that the masses’ indifference to intellectual and cultural achievements might be a lasting condition. … The best response to Hitler’s popularity was not to demonize his supporters, Zweig believed, but to communicate to them the value of the rich German cultural legacy that was being jeopardized by Nazi politics (62-63).

Today, of course, it is very easy for us to dismiss such statements as tragically naïve – much easier, in any case, than it is to explain how and why an attitude of dismissive cynicism about such highminded ideals should be any more likely to succeed! As Prochnik puts it – and I agree –, “Illusions are not to be eliminated but encouraged, since only the powers of imagination can summon a vision of a more humane future” (255). Zweig did believe deeply in the value of building bridges, by cultivating generosity and empathy (137) instead of hatred and suspicion. Seeking out alternatives to the privileged milieu of his own upbringing, during his younger years he spent much of his time “at motley bars and cafés squeezed between ‘heaving drinkers, homosexuals and morphine addicts’,” for (as he commented) “the worse someone’s reputation was the more I wanted to know him personally” (90). This fascination with the so-called “losers” and social outcasts who populated the seedy underbelly of bourgeois society was linked to an acute ethical awareness that “between power and morality there was rarely a bond but rather an unbridgeable gap” (358). The power that came with his own position as a famous writer never seems to have blinded him to the moral arbitrariness of the privileges he enjoyed. In other words, he never thought that his talent and success made him “better” than others. Having been accepted as a refugee by several countries in succession, these are his words to one of his benefactors in the last of them, Brazil:

You have been kind enough to honor me, to welcome me among you. I should feel proud and happy. But I must confess to you that at a time like this I am not able to feel happy and still less to feel proud. On the contrary, I feel heavy at heart that you should show me such friendship while countless people, our own and others, are suffering. We as human beings, and especially as Jews, have no right in these days to be happy. … We must not imagine that we are the few just people who have been saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because of our special merits. We are not better, and we are not more worthy than all the others who are being hunted and driven over there in Europe (208).

The inevitable counterpart to Zweig’s humanitarian idealism was the deep despair he felt about the collapse of European culture and civilization caused by the Nazi takeover: as Prochnik puts it, towards the end of his life he seems to have lost all hope because he had “ceased to believe his works were part of any larger edifice” (259). He was haunted by premonitions of catastrophe, years before they became reality: “my nose for political disaster tortures me like an inflamed nerve” he told Joseph Roth in 1936 (130, cf. 218, 285). Just days before the Anschluss he was watching in helpless horror as his fellow-Austrians were blissfully doing their Christmas shopping and going about their daily affairs: “Don’t you understand? All this will be gone in a few months’ time. Your homes will be plundered. Your clothes will be changed for prison garb” (176).

             
Prochnik gives much attention to the international refugee crisis that followed the Nazi takeover: “The trickle. The stream. The flood. And then people surging all over the globe, falling from the skies, splashed up by the seas, hurled helter-skelter by the wildly spinning red-and-black wheel” (204). In an analysis that should sound bitterly familiar to us today, he points out that even though the numbers of refugees that actually made it to America were astonishingly small, intentional propaganda and general paranoia caused many Americans to believe that their country was overrun with “millions of refugees,” “swamped with exiles to the point where millions of jobs and democracy itself were at risk” (205). Where have we heard such things before? For Zweig personally, exile brought the bizarre realization that while his “intellectual fatherland” no longer considered him to be German, the British did classify him as “German,” that is to say, as an “enemy alien” (164-165). In short, he found himself rejected by both Germans and non-Germans.
What then about his Jewish identity? It didn’t help either. In a highly illuminating passage, Prochnik points out that for Zweig, the defining experience of exile turned out to be that of “being forced to identify with people who bore no relation to him” (164). He wrote that most Jews in Western Europe had no clue about why they were being thrown together for persecution (163):

[they were] no longer a community and had not been one for a long time. They had no law. They did not want to speak Hebrew together. Only exile swept them all together, like dirt in the street. … If Shylock’s famous question – “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” – was intended to show that the Jews share a common humanity with all mankind, Zweig approached the injustice of anti-Semitism by revealing the total absence of common ground between the Jews themselves (164).

And that brings us to one of the most harrowing passages in the book, at least to this reader. Prochnik begins by discussing the famous passage in the 2nd chapter of Mein Kampf where Hitler describes how he became an anti-semite. On the streets of Vienna he saw an orthodox Jew in a long caftan with black curls, and found himself wondering “Is that a German?” His conclusion was that only the German language made it possible for Jews to pass as real members of the Volk: in fact they were cosmopolitans who could “speak a thousand languages,” and “if they ever got into power they would force everyone to speak an international language such as Esperanto” (155). From there, Prochnik cuts straight to a scene shortly after Zweig went into exile. He spent an evening in a Yiddish theater in London together with Otto Zarek, where they watched a performance about Jewish ghetto life in Russia:

… after the show Zarek was struck by Zweig’s state of acute nervous agitation. He could not contain his inner excitement. “These old Jews,” Zweig said, “in their grotesque dresses, their beards unshorn, their eyes flaming, these adherents to Chassidism … they are our brethren.” It was only the measures toward assimilation taken by their great-grandparents that had kept them from looking just like those Jews did, Zweig told Zarek. Had it not been for their near forebears, the two of them would have ended up “believing in what they believe,” considering “our life in the midst of the Western world as just a transitory period – we, too, would harbour in our very hearts, the dreams of our eventual ‘return to the land of our forefathers’.” Zweig comes within a hair of saying, “There but for the grace of God.” But Zarek said that Zweig’s voice took on a note of despair and resignation, as he registered that he hadn’t, after all, quite dodged the bullet (156).  

Prochnik hardly needs to spell it out. To his enormous distress, Zweig was experiencing the very same kind of instinctive prejudice that had made Hitler an antisemite, and of course he was far too sensitive and intelligent not to realize it. In his own life he had always sought to emulate the spirit of Schiller: “I write as a citizen of the world. Early did I exchange my fatherland for mankind” (156). But now Hitler had deprived him of the community of language that constituted his true spiritual fatherland, and - not unlike what happens to the rich kid in Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” - those outcasts and “others” with whom he felt no spontaneous kinship had suddenly become his closest brethren whose company he could not avoid: “go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse…”
            Once upon a time Zweig had told Buber that he loved the diaspora, but now he had become a refugee himself and there was nothing he loved about it. He was longing not for the land of Israel (it struck me that he never seems to have considered seeking refuge in Palestine), nor for the Austria in which he had grown up. He missed Europe: his invisible community of the spirit, his universal republic of humanitarian brotherhood, his true cosmopolitan fatherland that represented inner freedom and unlimited possibilities, a land without borders that would welcome all comers. This was his true home, and it had come crashing down all around him. In the long run, the loss proved unbearable. On 22 February 1942, Stefan Zweig was found dead in his Brazilian home. He and his young wife Lotte had committed suicide together.

Stefan and Lotte Zweig on their deathbed

Quite like his model of Enlightened Liberal Humanism Erasmus (whom he painted in sharp contrast to Luther as the archetypal “fanatic” with evident traits of Hitler), Zweig had never been a fighter. “I can only write positive things; I can’t attack” (65, cf. 290). Irmgard Keun once described this natural-born pacifist as “one of those noble Jewish types who, thin-skinned and open to harm, lives in an immaculate glass world of the spirit and lacks the capacity themselves to do harm” (246).

The Dialectical Zionist

In this regard his disposition could not have been more different from that of Scholem. While Zweig was ultimately powerless to defend himself against the forces that destroyed his glass world of the spirit, Scholem seems to have been born a rebel and a firebrand, a fighter by nature. It would seem that throughout his life, the only way he could conceive of anything whatsoever was in terms of dialectical struggle ruled by the paradoxical logic of coincidentia oppositorum. For Zweig, losing all hope could only mean that no hope was left – obviously. But Scholem’s logic worked differently: “In his final years he was very hopeless. He said that now the only thing that remained was hope,” his widow recalled (426). The paradoxicality of such a remark has Scholem written all over it.
            This profoundly dialectical mentality ruled Scholem’s life and career. I consider it the key not only to understanding his concepts of Zionism and of Jewish mysticism, but ultimately to understanding everything he ever did or thought. Consider the following list of conflicts and oppositions, which makes no claim to completeness:


Scholem emigrated “from Berlin to Jerusalem” in spite of (or rather, I suspect, because of!) his core conviction that Zion was a messianic dream that could not and in fact should not be realized in this world. As a scholar searching for the roots of authentic Judaism, he explored the broader world of Hellenistic “paganism” and its legacy: I think he was driven by an intuition that the secret of Jewish life could be found precisely in the culture of the idolaters. As a model “historian’s historian,” he insisted on strict philology and textual criticism but applied these methods precisely to the “non-historical” world of mythical symbolism that appeals to the imagination rather than to strict literalism. While Jerusalem was in a state of siege, and extreme violence was rampant, he sat down to write a famous essay (analyzed at length by Prochnik) exploring the notion of “redemption through sin.” Scholem’s life-long search was for the authentic secret at the heart of Jewish tradition, as an alternative to the Germany he rejected, and yet the hermeneutics that allowed him to discover Jewish secrets was grounded in German scholarship, German Idealism, German Romantic speculation. He never ceased emphasizing that der Liebe Gott lebt im Detail, so that only by focusing on the particular and the unique could one gain lasting insights and discover general or even universal truths - and yet, he knew that without such general perspectives and a search for the universal, one would never succeed in opening the closed shell of the particular in the first place, and would fail to discover its hidden contents. Scholem could be described as a Jewish representative of the interwar “conservative revolution” who tried to impact the future of Judaism not by rejecting past traditions but by preserving and reviving them. In short, Scholem was a modernist struggling (like all modernists) with modernity itself. He was a rationalist driven by the energy of the non-rational: “my secularism is not secular” (58-59).

Whereas Zweig’s despair ended up killing him, Scholem’s dialectical mindset seems to have enabled him to use it as a creative force, as he wrote in a letter to Hugo Berman in 1947: “I live in despair, and only from the position of despair can I be active” (Briefe I, 331). In an earlier discussion of Scholem, I concluded that, for him

… the fact that eternity cannot appear in time mean[t] that the hope that sustains Jewish identity through history can only be called an “aspiration to the impossible.” Under these conditions, the historian must have the courage to “descend into the abyss” of history, knowing that he might encounter nothing but himself, and guided by nothing but a desperate hope for the impossible: that against all human logic, the transcendent might inexplicably “break through into history” one day, like “a light that shines into it from altogether elsewhere” (Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy, 297).

Prochnik reads Scholem’s story as a mirror of his own. His book consists of two interwoven narratives, one of which traces the first four decades of his subject’s life (from his adolescent years of Sturm und Drang in Berlin to his reaching maturity as a scholar in Jerusalem during the 1930s), and one that describes his own deeply personal search for an authentic Jewish identity that led him and his wife Anne to emigrate from New York to Jerusalem in the mid-1980s. Scholem’s beginnings were very different from Prochnik’s though. He depicts himself and his wife as a couple of young starry-eyed idealists driven to Jerusalem on the wings of “a dream of compassion” (87). By contrast, the young Scholem was an angry extremist who “went into overdrive” (109) around the age of seventeen:

Thinking about the collapse of Europe led him to picture the Land of Israel as a kind of womb, streaming with the ages, awaiting insemination. … Scholem took solitary walks … during which he would scream out speeches that he ordinarily whispered. People stared at him, and he blushed. … He imagined a novella about his own suicide … “I would shoot myself after concluding that there was no solving the gaping paradox in the life of a committed Zionist.”
Paradoxes, rages, fears, and desires were flying off the fabric of his being like burst buttons and seams. Raving on the street in some paroxysm of humiliation and fury, he might have hurled himself in front of a train or off a bridge. He might also have leaped on his father with any weapon at hand. He seems to come within a razor’s breadth of some irrevocable act of destruction. Scholem’s whole story might have ended before he ever reached Jerusalem. He craved too desperately for an impossible purity (110).

Reading such passages, I could not ignore the contemporary parallels, uncomfortable as they might be. Prochnik describes a youthful Zionist hothead, in full rebellion against his father’s demand that he sacrifice his Jewish identity by “assimilating” and becoming an obedient member of German bourgeois society. Today we have the phenomenon of youthful Jihadist radicals born in the West, who likewise refuse the dictates of cultural “integration” and declare total war on Liberal society in the name of Islamic purity. Scholem’s brand of Jewish identity politics seems an extreme counterpart to the Liberal universalism represented by intellectuals such as Zweig, and often enough he would find himself brandishing “the torch of ethnic-historical particularity against the ambient moral glow of universal ideals” (105).
Still it is important to emphasize that, for all his violent feelings of revolt, Scholem’s Zionism was predicated on the ideal of a peaceful settlement between Jews and Arabs. Having arrived in Jerusalem, he became a core member of the Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace) movement that would later be described by one of its founders, Hugo Bergmann, as “the last flicker of the humanist nationalist flame, at a historical moment when nationalism became among all the nations an anti-humanist movement” (304). Sympathetic as its ideals might be, Prochnik does not spare his critique: Brit Shalom’s slogan “Neither to dominate nor be dominated” sounds somewhat less commendable if one realizes that its “commitment to absolute political equality with the Arabs was presumptuous at a time when Jews were still less than 20 percent of Palestine’s overall population” (305). Likewise, Scholem’s commitment seems to have been inspired more by “his aspirations for the ideal manifestation of Zionism” (307) than by any deep sense of fellowship with his Arab neighbors.
Prochnik does not try to conceal the similarity of such attitudes to those of Anne and himself during their years in Jerusalem. Like Scholem, they desperately wanted to believe in the Zion of their dreams, but they had trouble seeing what was actually going on all around them in the state of Israel. Wondering what it must have been like for Scholem to enter Jerusalem for the first time, in late September 1923, Prochnik expresses doubt about whether the actual land of his forefathers had any reality for him at all:

Did Scholem in fact see where he was once he arrived here – really notice it? In the hundreds upon hundreds of pages he wrote from Jerusalem, he barely makes mention of the natural surroundings. He might be writing from space, from a black box theater, or – most plausibly – from between old manuscript pages” (243).


Prochnik’s own descriptions of Israel are far more attuned to the natural environment, but he admits with brutal honesty that he and Anne – for all their idealism and excellent good intentions – had been utterly oblivious to the social and political realities of the state of Israel, until Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination on 4 November 1995 finally opened their eyes: “Anne and I hardly realized…,” “we gathered…,” “we had no clue…,” “we didn’t comprehend…,” “we had no notion…,” “without ever grasping…,” “we didn’t follow…,” “we could not fathom…,” “we could not begin to comprehend…,” “Anne and I could not understand…,” “knowing as little as we did…” (all on pp. 380-383). In terms of the ethical contrasts that underpin Prochnik’s two books – humanism versus fanaticism, like Erasmus versus Luther, liberalism versus authoritarianism, like Zweig versus Hitler – it was only after having returned to the US that Prochnik recognized the adversary who had been at work all along without him paying attention: Benjamin Netanyahu. “Only long after Rabin was dead did I realize how Netanyahu had always been there, placing himself at exactly the right spot relative to the firestorm to whip up the flames without getting singed, always preserving plausible deniability for the worst excesses committed by the followers he goaded” (356-357). Netanyahu had been whipping up his right-wing supporters against the peace process from the beginning (355), and it is chilling to reach Prochnik’s description of those rallies:

A chorus of support arose from amid the crowd: “In blood and fire we will do away with Rabin!” Torches were hurled at the police monitoring the demonstration. Chants of “Bibi! Bibi!” alternated with choruses of “Nazi! Nazi!” as images of Rabin with his head at the center of a bull’s-eye framed with the word “Traitor!” in Hebrew and English were brandished aloft (356).

In this violent context of populist hate-mongering, it appears that some enemies of the peace process resorted to kabbalah, in a particularly cruel refutation of Scholem’s attempts (rightly criticized by Prochnik, with reference to the scholarship of Jonatan Meir, 252-258) to deny it any relevance to modern and contemporary society:

Leaflet "Song of Peace" with Rabin's blood on it
On the evening of Yom Kippur, right in front of Rabin’s official residence a few blocks from our apartment, a group of men stood in a circle draped in prayer shawls chanting softly. … [I]t later emerged that these men were uttering what they understood to be a kabbalistic curse, the Pulsa da-Nura, Lashes of Fire. At its climax, the leader raised his gaze to the prime minister’s residence and chanted, “I deliver to you, the angels of wrath and fire, Yitzhak, the son of Rosa Rabin, that you may smother him and the specter of him. … May you be damned, damned, damned!” The medieval legend surrounding this curse declares that its recipient will die within thirty days. And to the group’s satisfaction and awe, exactly thirty days later, Rabin was murdered.
Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, performed mystical rites just before pulling the trigger. As Rabin stood above him on the stage singing “Song of Peace,” Amir waited in the darkness, practicing the esoteric art of Gematria … Concentrating on lines from Genesis … a passage that includes the line “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces” – Amir found that by sliding forward one letter from each word to join the following word, the words “a flaming torch passed between” transformed into “fire, fire, there is evil in Rabin.” And then Amir knew his bullet would strike home (357-358).

Rabin’s assassination killed the dream: “Our sense of magical solidarity with the Land and the people dissipated like smoke after an explosion” (378). George and Anne Prochnik packed their things, took their children, and fled the scene: “Clutching the children. Clutching each other, we were blown into the air forty thousand feet above the earth and cast through the sky to America” (409). Back home they discovered that the end of their dream of compassion meant the end of their marriage as well.

... and all that remains is hope

Prochnik’s two books have at least one obvious thing in common: they are all about broken dreams. Zweig’s Humanist dream of Europe was destroyed by Hitler – so cruelly and so completely that he saw no future and decided to kill himself, taking his wife with him. Scholem’s Zionist dream suffered shipwreck on the hard rocks of nationalist Realpolitik; the German culture that had nourished his very understanding of Judaism was reduced to smoking ruins; and his people were murdered on an industrial scale and with a maniacal determination that defies imagining. As for Prochnik’s mystical and messianic dream of Jewish community - grounded as much in his understanding of Scholem’s antinomian dialectics of kabbalah and modernity as in the liberal and humanitarian idealism represented by Zweig -, it was blown to pieces by Yigal Amir and transformed into a cruel nationalist Blut und Boden caricature by orthodox fanatics and right-wing politicians.

Stories of failure and the loss of illusions. So what is the point? Why bother reading about dreams that do not come true - while nightmares do? Are we to conclude simply that all these highminded ideals about a better world and all these aspirations towards a better future are bound to end in disappointment and despair, leaving the final word to violent hatred, bloodshed, fanaticism, cynism, nihilism, power, and domination? Was it all in vain? Of course Prochnik asks himself the same questions, and he ends by quoting a wonderful legend about the Baal Shem that was told by Scholem at the end of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Scholem in turn had heard it from the novelist S.J. Agnon, who might have found it in a Hasidic collection published in 1906. Its point is that even when all seems lost and gone forever – “when the sacred fire can no longer be lighted, the prayers can no longer be spoken, and the sacred place is no longer known” – in the end it is sufficient that the story can still be told. Perhaps this might explain why even stories that end badly, like those told by Prochnik, have the power - paradoxically - to inspire their readers rather than leaving them crushed and defeated. It is of vital importance that such tales be told, for they are all about hope, and hope remains alive as long as its memory remains alive - after all, whatever can be remembered in our personal or collective imagination can be imagined as real, and whatever can be imagined as real has not lost its potential of being realized. Sometime. Somewhere. Somehow.