by Carl Pierer
A young man with a strong urge and deep conviction that he is destined to be of importance keeps a diary, which he calls “Diary of a Philosopher”. In fact, it is less of a diary than a notebook. He mentions and discusses ideas, arguments and impressions he had, articles he came across, and books he studied. An unbelievable self-assuredness, even pretentiousness permeates these pages of what one critic derides as thoughts ubiquitous with the youth of his time and social standing interspersed with bad poetry.[i] This man is so sure of his genius that it is hard to tell whether he is serious or ironic. Even more so, as his later life justifies this youthful impetus. In the diary, Kojève seems to explore precisely this ambiguity between genius and ridiculousness, the constant tension between aspiration and self-awareness.
Born in 1902 in Moscow, Alexander Koshevnikov (better known as Alexandre Kojève) is a truly iridescent character of French intellectual life in the first half of the 20th century. Aged 15, he determines himself to be a philosopher and starts keeping a diary. Coming from a well-to-do bourgeois family – his uncle is none less than Wasilly Kandinsky – the young man leaves revolutionary Russia for Germany in 1920. There, he studies philosophy in Heidelberg and Berlin, whilst acquiring Sanskrit and Mandarin, and publishes his dissertation about Russian religious mystic Vladimir Solovyov under Karl Jaspers.
In the mid-1920ies, he moves to France, where his family wealth allows him to live a comfortable life. When he loses most of it during the crash of 1929, he has to turn to work again. In the 30ies, he achieves what has been described as a “philosophical miracle”: the resurrection of Hegel in French intellectual life. Taking over from his friend Alexandre Koyré, he holds a series of lectures from 1933-1939 on Hegel. His contentious, eclectic Marxist interpretation of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit will have a strong influence on many of the post-war French intellectuals. These lectures are attended by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jacques Lacan, and Georges Bataille, among others.
With the outbreak of the 2nd World War, he disappears from the philosophical scene, turning his back on academic philosophy. He is naturalised as a French citizen and enlisted in the army in 1939. Yet, France loses the war too quickly for him to see any action. After the war, thanks to the help of one of his former students, he gets a position in the French ministry of economy, where he will work until the end of his life in 1968. He is chief adviser to the head of the French delegation to GATT and substantially shapes the EEA. At the same time, the rumour persists that he is spying for the KGB. When he is invited by the Socialist German Student Union in 1967 to hold a lecture in Berlin, he advises them to study Ancient Greek. He calls himself a “Sunday philosopher”, for he is still following his philosophical pursuits in his spare time.
More recently, some of his thought received renewed attention. Amongst current European developments, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben pointed towards an idea developed by Kojève just after the 2nd World War: a “Latin empire” to counterbalance the political and economic weight of Germany within the European Union.[ii]
The diary is a curious collection of thoughts, poems and impressions. Since he does not write about his experiences or the tumultuous political times through which he lives, one must not expect a historic document. Instead, it serves him as a notebook for ideas he wishes to use in his later work. In brief essays, he develops some ideas or criticises something he has read. Most of it is rather premature and underdeveloped, yet the reader gets an impression of what is on this young man's mind.
It consist of three parts, spanning the time from 1 January 1917 – 3 October 1924. The earliest notes (1 January 1917 – 10 September 1920) have been lost, when young Kojève's suitcase was stolen while he was travelling westwards. Their loss, he is convinced, is irreparable. Nonetheless, he attempts a reconstruction of 3 years' worth of thought.
Looking through these ideas wrests a smiling admiration from the reader, for it truly requires determination and conviction on Kojève's part not to be discouraged by the utter preposterousness of this undertaking. And yet, it is impossible for the reader to imagine that a person of such sensitivity as Kojève would not be aware of how ridiculous he sounds when writing: “I don't know if I manage or if it is worth my while to translate my thoughts into mathematical formula. If not, inevitably, a different thinker will do it after me.”[iii]
But it is not merely his astounding self-confidence that makes for an entertaining read. Albeit that many of his thoughts do not strike the reader nearly as original and precious as they seem to have been to him, others, for instance his reflections on art and sexuality, are more fascinating.
Concerning art, it is one essay that deserves particular attention. In it, he compares Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Madonna, and he demonstrate a subtlety of thinking and a clarity in writing that is missing in his more metaphysical reflections. Although the ideas he puts forward are unfinished and skeletal, they point towards an interesting thought.
One dominating feature of Mona Lisa's portrait are her eyes. He sees her dull, unintelligent eyes as empty, lacking the depth of human eyes. While they express everything, they are beyond the expressible. Because of this pure barrier, they are for him the eyes of God, the eyes of eternity.[iv] The other feature are her lips. Her smile is the smile of remembrance, of past lust and happiness. The human contrast of mortality to the divine, eternal gaze of her eyes. Together, they underwrite her distanced, knowing look. Kojève writes: “The face of the Gioconda is the face that symbolises the cold lust of a human who has lived and experienced everything, for whom nothing matters; the face of a half-woman, half-goddess, the face of a former medieval devil.”[v]
In contrast, Da Vinci's Madonna cannot be reached by the viewer. She is beyond human pain and pleasure. Her eyes are averted as she is looking at the child in her arms. Her whole complexion is devotion, which consumes her personality. She disappears in motherhood, out of love for he son. Her faint smiles gives to understand that she too has suffered and has loved; it is this knowing, dying smile that gives us to understand that she has lived and forgiven everything. “The eyes of the Gioconda are the eyes of non-being, but the smile of the living; for Madonna, the smile is only a mirror of a long forgotten life.”[vi]
His great, unashamed honesty allows him to write masterfully even about very intimate episodes and thoughts. The way in which he approaches these topics shall prove truly influential in later French philosophy, notably in the work of Georges Bataille. The translator writes in the introduction: “Both the clearly discernible erotization of the philosophical discourse and a certain reflexive neutralisation of the primary, natural desire will become, through the coming decades, the central topics of the entire French post-war philosophy.”[vii] One entry, called “Dialogue about Love” from 3 June 1917 (hence reconstructed) illustrates these two tendencies particularly well. There he describes a philosophical exchange with an unnamed woman. On the one hand, the erotic aesthetic of philosophy is made apparent by the situation itself: the two are in a room that is getting darker as the sun is setting but still warm from the summer day. The woman is reclining naked on the bed, while he is sitting in a chair. On the other hand, they talk with a distance and sobriety about “passion, tenderness and love”, which stands in stark contrast to the sensual situation. In Kojève's telling, there is a constant interplay between the two levels, which makes this episode the perhaps strongest entry in the whole diary. Indeed, it is again the form and frame he gives his thoughts that make them worth reading, more so than the content.
The main theme of the diary, the border between artist and charlatan, the golden mean between over- and understatement, is not resolved. But Kojève's Diary of a Philosopher, by approaching this thin line from both sides and crossing it multiple times, helps to locate it. Tracing the boundary across philosophy, religion, poetry and art, the diary gives not only an impression of how intriguing a philosopher Kojève was, but also of how delicate a thinker.
Kojève, A.: Tagebuch eines Philosophen. Aus dem Russischen und Italienischen von Simon Missal. Nachwort von Marco Filoni. Matthes & Seitz, Berlin 2015, ISBN 978-3-88221-395-9.
[iii] „Ich weiß nicht, ob es mir gelingen wird und ob es sich für mich lohnen würde, meine Gedanken in mathematische Formeln zu übertragen. Wenn nicht, dann wird es unvermeidlich ein anderer Denker nach mir tun.” (p. 99)
[iv] „Mit ihrer kristallinen Reinheit, ihrer nicht vorhandenen Tiefe, mehr noch mit der Abwesenheit eines dahinter verborgenen Grunds menschlicher Psyche, mit ihrem alles Ausdrückenden, alles Einschließenden, der alles Sprechenden oder – was dasselbe ist- mit ihrer Außer-Ausdrücklichkeit, mit der Widerspieglung des Außerformellen und mit ihrem absoluten Schweigen sind diese Augen nicht die Augen eines Menschen, sondern Gottes, die Augen der Ewigkeit, der Blick des Nichtexistierenden, kalt wie die Idee des Seins selbst.” (p. 102)
[v] „Das Gesicht der Gioconda is das Gesicht, das die kalte Lust eines Menschen symbolisiert, der durch alles hindurchgegangen ist und alles erfahren hat und dem schon alles gleichgültig ist, das Gesicht einer Halb-Frau, einer Halb-Göttin, das Gesicht einer einstigen mittelalterlichen Teuflin.” (ibid.)
[vi] „Die Gioconda hat die Augen des Nichtseins, aber das Lächeln der Lebenden, bei Madonna ist das Lächeln nur der Spiegel eines vergangenen, längst vergessenen Lebens.” (p. 103)
[vii] “Sowohl die deutlich erkennbare Erotisierung des philosophischen Diskurses als auch eine gewisse reflexive Neutralisierung des primären, natürlichen Begehrens werden im Verlauf der nächsten Jahrzehnte zu den zentralen Themen der gesamten französischen Philosophie der Nachkriegszeit.” (p. 8)