by Reiner Schürmann

Reviewed by Yeshua Tolle


Published by diaphanes, 2016   |   272 pages

“My first reaction, as always, is to run. But the crowd hems me in.” Here in the final pages of Reiner Schürmann’s Origins, our narrator is stopped in his tracks. He’s seen something which belongs to the past. To his own, personal past—and that of his homeland, Germany. He has stumbled upon a neo-Nazi rally in Washington, D.C. He is dumbfounded, and he watches, with mounting anger and anxiety, as American fascists shout and swirl around a podium they claim Hitler once spoke from. “A forced confrontation with my past. Thirty-three years of imaginary pursuit turned into a red-varnished object. Hate. I hate this podium. To break it, blow it up, set it on fire, hit it with my bare hands, throw stones at it. Has anyone ever seen a man stone his own past?” As the book concludes, the reader will witness just that, a man stoning his own past. But not yet. Stunned by what he sees, the narrator turns on his heel and runs.

This is not a scene from a recent novel. Origins was published in French in 1976. It was not written as a commentary on the public resurgence of fascist sympathies we have witnessed over the past few years. Yet in light of recent events, and not only of August’s deadly fascist rally in Charlottesville, VA, it comes to us today strikingly au courant. Appearing here in an English translation on which the author collaborated before his death, Origins is a roman à clef based on philosopher Reiner Schürmann’s own coming-of-age, and lifelong attempt to grapple with the trauma of history. Schürmann, like Origins’ narrator, was born in the Netherlands in 1941 to German parents displaced by the war. In his early twenties he lived on an Israeli kibbutz, returning to Germany to complete his studies at university. A decade later he was living and teaching philosophy and theology in France, as a professor and Dominican monk at Le Saulchoir Benedictine seminary. It was likely there that he began composing Origins, though he had been in the States for a number of years before it appeared in France. Shortly after taking up his position at The New School in 1975, he left the priesthood. Schürmann remained in New York until his death due to complications from AIDS in 1993 at the age of 52.

Alternating between litany and telegraphic, descriptive prose, and interspersed with excerpts from newspaper articles and letters, Origins is narrated by a young unnamed German, who recounts his travels at home and abroad. Beginning with the narrator’s postwar youth in Germany and his brief sojourn on the kibbutz Kfar Ezra and in Tel Aviv, then following his wanderings through Europe and the United States, it bears witness to the guilt that drives him in his attempt to outrun the past—guilt for his nation’s perpetration of the Holocaust, its wartime brutalities—and his nagging sense that he too is complicit in the crimes of his forebears. Schürmann’s limpid style, guilelessly shifting between internal states and external appearances, placidness and excitation, carries the whole effortlessly along.

In Israel our narrator thinks he’s found a socialist utopia outside of time, only to discover that his German origins make him unwanted in the ideal kibbutz. In the Soviet Union he imagines that a charismatic communist holds the secret to forgetting the past, but soon realizes his idol is caught like him in the grip of history. As he stumbles through disillusion after disillusion, attempting to release himself of guilt, he crosses paths with lovers and friends—a kibbutznik, a painter, a Holocaust survivor—whose kindness and love sustain him. Yet they, too, in the end, are powerless to protect him from the confrontation—with Germany’s past, and his sense of his own complicity in it—toward which Origins hurtles.

Despite its autobiographical elements, Origins should not be read as an exclusively personal confession, or “exorcism,” as the author himself once described it. It is this, to be sure, but it’s also an artfully composed meditation on more metaphysical philosophical problems. Indeed, Schürmann as author here is, if anything, more a philosopher than a memoirist. Without ever descending into overt didacticism, the book nevertheless attains (in its own, unpronounced way) the status of a meditation on the question and nature of origins: what would it, and does it, mean to have a beginning? Schürmann here, as in his very last book, Broken Hegemonies, diagnoses the threat posed by a general desire to name the “ultimate,” to bring existence under the aegis of a single term. For Broken Hegemonies, written many years later, the scene of this debate is the scene of philosophy. The culprits there are those who built systems on the basis of the exclusive, defining term, whether that term was Being, nature, or Geist, to name a few. This imperative, Schürmann felt—to find the single term, a single origin for existence—lay at the root of the last century’s defining crimes. Inevitably, it tends to the expulsion of what doesn’t fit or can’t be fitted. If Origins was an exorcism, then, it also laid out the stakes and trajectory of a life’s work. And the stakes, to be sure, were the highest possible.

But the magnitude of these stakes, as the old dialectical saw has it, changes their quality, and hence, for our purposes, Reiner Schürmann’s response. Origins, of course, takes as its narrative spur the last century’s representative trauma, the Holocaust. Broken Hegemonies, then, was a follow-up in a decidedly different key, taking, as it did, philosophy for its starting-point. There, “the past” would be just another naming of the ultimate. In 1976, by contrast, the past and its guilt could not be treated as philosophical terms, which, for all their potential for violence, must be labeled distractions—things to be got beyond. Here, they had, instead, to be abolished. One of the book’s first, and most startling, scenes transpires when the narrator, as a child, discovers the corpses of forced laborers in his father’s factory. How young he is at the time of this discovery the narrator doesn’t say. It’s clear, however, that he is already too old not to know what had preceded him there in Germany. And indeed, what, except abolition, could contend with such a moment of origin?

For a book which reads at times like a series of personal essays, the final chapter gives Origins a novelistic narrative coherence. The book’s denouement begins with our narrator’s encounter with the neo-Nazi rally in D.C. with which this review opens. This scene, for our narrator, becomes the more than symbolic site of his confrontation with the past. There the book’s relaxed narrative, its somewhat leisurely play of memory, satire, and romance, takes on heart-stopping seriousness. After shunning the scene—unable to believe his past has followed him across the Atlantic, has seeped into the American imagination—he gathers himself as he travels, staggering, through D.C. and its environs, where, at one point, a trailer-park homesteader levels a gun at him from his doorway. Then, riding the bus, he waxes eloquent on the Black Power movement, represented for him by the defiantly natural hair of a black passenger. And here Schürmann’s awkwardly patronizing remarks document the limits of a European report on the America scene. He seems incapable, for example, of recognizing the neo-Nazi rally as a manifestation of homegrown, antiblack racism in the US, rather than a solely European importation. At length, however, he returns. He returns to the rally to face the origin that has loomed over him his entire life. Rushing down into the crowd, tackling the red-varnished podium, he destroys the symbol of his own death-dealing history. Recounting the scene, our narrator says: “I ran through my life in reverse. I am arriving dazed and beaten, but I saw. I have destroyed the past, I have nothing left to name. Now, let life live me.”

Writing fifteen years after Origins’ publication, Schürmann remarked of his present, “Nothing indeed has changed. Ghosts, it has appeared to me, are more tenaciously alive than the living. They impose laws on us that hold longer than those made by states or ideologies.” In this book-length meditation on the ghosts that endure in the wake of the violence of states and ideologies, we find lessons of startling relevance for own political and historical moment. “History,” as one refugee from Nazism, Erich Auerbach, remarked, “includes the present.” For Schürmann in his role as a philosopher, strictly speaking, the essential thing is not to deny the past, nor to overcome it, but to refuse to let “the past” be the only name for the ultimate, for existence. At stake is the moral, and philosophically grounded, refusal to pin down origins. But for us today, right now, and for Reiner Schürmann in 1976, is there not a moral dignity, too, in this nameless narrator’s hurling himself against the relics of destruction, and crushing them? Maybe he had to write his exorcism first. Maybe this is a time for novels, and not philosophy.

Yeshua Tolle lives in Ann Arbor.

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