In a nation of great thinkers who preferred the clean air of ivory towers to the hubbub of the streets, Theodor Lessing distinguished himself by digging his fingers into the dust.
The great brawler of early 20th-century German philosophy fought with those he saw as ‘self-hating’ Jewish intellectuals, challenged the towering man of letters Thomas Mann to a duel and skewered the sacred cows of the Nazis, who brutally assassinated him shortly after taking power in 1933.
After falling into obscurity for nearly a century, a recently published annotated edition of his early writings introduces a witty and often waspish new generation of Lessing, including the target of his deepest reproach. obsessive: urban din.
As the founder of Germany’s first anti-noise society, the Jewish-German philosopher and avowed socialist campaigned against organ grinders, coachmen cracking their whips and housewives beating their rugs, exposing his favorite hatred in a monthly pamphlet entitled “Der Anti-Rüpel” (“The Anti-Lout”).
The noise of the city, Lessing wrote with characteristic acidity, was “the revenge of those who worked with their hands on those businessmen who made their laws”: a kind of auditory narcotic that dulled the mind like alcohol. or drugs and prevented the city dwellers from sharp enlightened thought.
Published on Tuesday on the eve of Lessing’s 150th birthday, with an afterword by editor Rainer Marwedel, the two-volume, 1,920-page anthology Culture and Nerves also reminds readers that the Hanover-born malcontent was not just the a “philosopher of noise” his detractors loved to mock, but a sharp wit who managed to see through the fog of history with a clarity few of his contemporaries could match.
“Lessing wrote philosophically on a wide range of issues,” said Marwedel, who spent the last 40 years of his life researching Lessing’s biography and annotated edition of his work. “He was writing an essay one day on Kantian ethics, the next a column on the psychology of stage kissing: he was quite French that way, and not your typical German philosopher from the ivory tower.”
Two threads run through Lessing’s various reflections: a deep philosophical pessimism inherited from his idol Arthur Schopenhauer, and a satirical style reminiscent of Heinrich Heine, in the continuity of a Judeo-German literary tradition radically shaken by the Second World War.
“For Lessing, insight was achieved through suffering, and knowledge was pain,” Marwedel told The Guardian. Such a combative view of life could make him a thorny intellectual adversary: his book on the “Jewish self-hatred” of his contemporaries helped the term become widespread.
In 1910 he wrote a satirical screed that poked fun at Jewish literary critic Samuel Lublinski using common anti-Semitic tropes, leading novelist Thomas Mann to denounce Lessing as a “saucy dwarf” in one of his own essays.
Lessing responded with a telegram in which he asked, perhaps more jokingly than seriously, if Mann would follow up his remarks with an armed duel, but the author of Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain declined the offer.
However, Lessing’s irritability might also make him immune to the illusions about German cultural superiority exhibited by other thinkers of his age.
“I became skeptical of the beauty and greatness of the German spirit,” says Lessing in an essay on the English drama, written at a time of growing resentment between the two nations, and reprinted in Culture and Nerves. “In England it’s different. The average person there is more eccentric and unique than us.
Europe’s supposedly enlightened cultural tradition, he wrote, did little to protect the continent’s biodiversity: like a “cruel and ruthless machine”, it drove bears, wolves, moose and other species to extinction.
In another essay, also written in 1930, the trained doctor warned of the consequences of rainforest destruction and climate change: “Something is changing on our globe,” Lessing wrote. “There will be a change in climate that will change the lifestyles of many people, their professions and their work.”
In the ultimate tour de force of his mocking eloquence and piercing foresight, Lessing portrayed German President Paul von Hindenburg as a puppet of the rising National Socialist movement.
Hindenburg, he wrote in an article for the German-language newspaper Prager Abendblatt in 1925, was “a representative symbol, a question mark, a zero. One could say: better a zero than a Nero. Unfortunately history shows that behind a zero always hides a future Nero.
The article was as prophetic as it was outrageous: “For German anti-democrats, Hindenburg was effectively a substitute for the Kaiser, so to mock him, however gently, amounted to lèse-majesté,” Marwedel said.
The scandal led to the boycott of Lessing’s lectures, his dismissal from teaching at the Technical University of Hanover, and ultimately his death in exile: on August 30, 1933, a team of three Sudeten assassins supporting the Nazis shot on the philosopher through the window of his study. in Marienburg, making him the first known victim of the Nazi regime in the Czech Republic.
“If there is anything more shocking than the murder of Professor Lessing at Marienbad, it is the indecent joy with which the German press receives the news,” the Manchester Guardian commented on Lessing’s death at the ‘era.
“The misguided thugs who shot him were tools of something bigger than themselves – the Nazi belief that glorifies the murder of political opponents.”
Lessing’s spikes and hair mean the grumpy German visionary has been largely overlooked by academia since his death. An open letter published shortly after the assassination, calling for donations to establish an institute in Lessing’s name and produce a comprehensive edition of his writings, was signed by figures such as Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, but no failed to raise sufficient funds.
Marwedel said he funded the research for the later volumes largely out of his own pocket. He is currently seeking funding to complete an edition of Lessing’s entire oeuvre, amounting to at least nine volumes and 3,600 pages.