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Time of the Magicians: Masterclass on four giants of Germanic thought

Wolfram Eilenberger adeptly explores Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Cassirer and Benjamin

Cover design for Einbahnstraße (One-Way Street) by Walter Benjamin, 1928. Photograph: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty
Time of the Magicians: The Invention of Modern Thought, 1919-29
Time of the Magicians: The Invention of Modern Thought, 1919-29
Author: Wolfram Eilenberger, translated by Shaun Whiteside
ISBN-13: 978-0241352168
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £25

There are a handful of works so forbidding, so notorious for the demands they place on the reader, that few people outside of literature and philosophy faculties dare approach them. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) is one. Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) is another. The works of Ernst Cassirer fall into this category, as do the more abstruse writings of Walter Benjamin.

Communicating the work and significance of any of these writers to a casual reader is a daunting challenge. To simultaneously expound on the works of all four while drawing connections between their thought and providing a brisk and entertaining narrative of the lives and epoch is a Herculean task. And yet this, miraculously, is Wolfram Eilenberger’s achievement in Time of the Magicians: The Invention of Modern Thought, 1919-29.

Eilenberger’s central contention is that the philosophical works of Heidegger, Cassirer, Benjamin and Wittgenstein can all be read side by side. That the work they produced in the immediate aftermath of the first World War can be understood as part of a common project to get to grips with that cataclysm.

The massacre in the trenches and the collapse of the old order in November 1918 touched all of them. Benjamin used a mixture of caffeine and hypnosis to escape conscription and then fled to Switzerland in 1917. Cassirer was given light duties in a propaganda department due to the severity of his psoriasis. (More dangerous was his postwar career in Berlin, where he had to cycle to lectures amid machine-gun fire.) Heidegger, for all his Übermensch posturing, had a heart condition and was assigned work as a meteorologist. Wittgenstein, both an Austrian among Germans and a soldier among invalids, saw extensive frontline action and spent the last months of the war as a POW in Italy.

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All four of them struggled with the inflation, food shortages and instability that racked the German-speaking world after the war’s end.

Enlightenment crisis

In philosophical terms, the war confirmed the crisis of Enlightenment values, a crisis that emanated from the world outside their libraries. Charles Darwin had provided one such shock. Albert Einstein and his circle provided another. The uncertainty principle elucidated by Werner Heisenberg demonstrated that “it wasn’t just social life that was based on an ineradicable ambivalence and uncertainty; the physical world was, too”.

The war confirmed the frailty of all that had gone before and was a harbinger of all the chaos that would follow. By grounding his narrative in the years between the Treaty of Versailles and the ascent of Nazism (in May 1928 the National Socialists had just a 2.59 per cent share of the vote), Eilenberger can explore the life and work of these men before the disasters of the 1930s ruined them all.

Despite the upheaval there was still a world to win. There was still the hope that one of these magicians might pull a rabbit out of the hat and divert the coming catastrophe. Such a claim makes great demands of academic philosophy. But if there was one thing that Eilenberger holds faith in, it is the potential of philosophy to reshape the world. It was the faith of each of these four philosophers as well.

It was also the faith of their devotees, for whom Wittgenstein was a god, Heidegger a king and Cassirer the second coming of Kant. (Benjamin would have to wait a little while for recognition.) And each offered a different path forward. Cassirer’s was cosmopolitan pluralism, Heidegger’s primordial authenticity, Wittgenstein’s ascetic logic, and Benjamin’s freewheeling hermeneutics of the everyday. Eilenberger handily metonymises their individual approaches: Heidegger is the hut, Cassirer the hotel, Benjamin the cafe, and Wittgenstein the provincial schoolroom.

Eilenberger is grappling with some of the most complex thinkers of the 20th century and inevitably, Time of the Magicians is at times as devilish a read as the writings of its subjects. But it is also an entertaining group biography and an excellent alternative history of the 1920s.

Head and genitals

Above all, Eilenberger captures the humanness of his magicians, allowing the testament of their biographies to deflate the immensity of their reputations. Here we find Dora Benjamin commenting to a friend that her brother “now exists only as a head and genitals”. There we see Cassirer’s wife, Toni, recalling the ordeal of having to dine with the boorish and anti-Semitic Heidegger night after night at a philosophy conference.

In self-imposed exile as a schoolmaster in provincial Austria, Wittgenstein – the Tolstoyan pacifist – beats a student unconscious and then flees to Vienna. Cassirer’s chief failing is his decency, his humanism no match for Heidegger’s zeal when the two cross swords at a philosophical debate in Davos in 1929, which Eilenberger puts at the heart of his book.

At the distance of a century it can be hard to relive the intensity of the opaque philosophical disputes of the time. Eilenberger strains every muscle to reconstruct the epoch, its characters and the stakes of their philosophising. Encompassing as difficult a cast of men and ideas in a single narrative is a conjuring act of its own right and one we should be grateful to Eilenberger for even attempting, let alone succeeding.

His book is also a chastening reminder of how little the anglophone world knows of the cosmos of German literature and philosophy. Reading Time of the Magicians, one is reminded of how the basic referents of German culture – Goethe, Fichte, Novalis, to name a few – are virtually unread here.

Translator Shaun Whiteside deserves praise for applying his talents to building one more bridge between the two literary cultures. His accomplishment brings to mind Benjamin’s claim that the task of the translator was “of integrating many tongues into one true language” and in so doing allowing the readers of one language to experience the magic of another.