Something went wrong: Enmity, friendship, and historical memory.


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I think it is a disaster that my students grow up in sheer ignorance of the Bible…  I should have devoted myself to this, but by vanity and fate I became a philosopher. I thought it wasn’t my calling. Today I see that a Bible lesson is more important than a lesson on Hegel. A little late.

– Jacob Taubes The Political Theology of Paul 

Works Reviewed: Jacob Taubes To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

As I was attempting to find an image of the cover of this book online I received the following message; “Something went wrong.” Indeed. Something went wrong, so utterly an horribly wrong that we can identify a German jurist – who avowed his sympathies with the Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor and aligned himself with National Socialism – as one of the most significant political thinkers of the last century. The claim made on the back jacket of the book is frightful in its banality:

“Carl Schmitt is among the most important political thinkers of the century. His work has proven proven influential on the right and, more recently, on the left. His interchange with Jacob Taubes in this volume, another interesting thinker, is remarkably clear and provides a window into their relationship and a framework for broader discussion.”

There is something altogether sadistic about the reduction of the terrifying enmity and physical and psychological violence which Jacob Taubes, a Jewish scholar, suffered in his exchange with the Nazi jurist into “interesting” fodder for the pastimes of the intellect. Naively one might assume that this “window into their relationship” might offer interesting and pleasurable insights, rather than the painful wrestling with history and hatred that is in fact the substance of the letters. It is, nevertheless, a book that is worth reading not in order to ascertain Schmitt’s influence in the regions of “left” and “right” political abstractions, but because -against the purified positions of either ideological position – we are confronted in Schmitt with someone who recognized the dangers of a pure theory and yet was drawn into its vortex. His friendship with Jacob Taubes justifies nothing, redeems nothing and remains only as a vague intimation of the humanity that had been buried in the excesses of ideological visions – whether fascist, communist, or liberal. The fact that liberalism itself could not offer a space for these two men to meet – that they met rather on grounds of opposition and hatred – is a testament to the weakness of the liberal position. The detente of liberalism promotes the economic uniformity of capitalism and the cultural uniformity promoted by an ever-increasing technological immediacy. It is in their rejection of this vision of one world. Mike Grimshaw, in his introduction to the book writes,

“We may not necessarily like either Taubes or Schmitt, but in the face of claims of pure apocalypse from economic and technological reason we must continually statee our desire, our need, our willingness, and our necessity to remain impure, a claim that in a world increasingly governed by the instruments of pure apocalypse remains “a very rare thing.”

The rarity of their relationship, indeed, is the remarkable thing, and to categorize it as impure is fitting. By all accounts they were enemies, and in reading it there is a sense that the friendship they share is illicit and morally wrong. It is impossible to like Schmitt, and it is even difficult to like Taubes, whose very engagement with Schmitt almost seems opposed to any innate sense of justice. Early on, in a preface to the Letters, written by Taubes himself, he relates the experience of drawing on Schmitt’s work in a seminar on Religion and Politics in the Nineteenth Century” only to be told that Carl Schmitt was an “evil man” and the argument that Taubes had been making left in shambles on the basis of his professor’s authoritative statement on Schmitt’s character. This experience left Taubes disillusioned with the state of the university in which the visceral response to a particularly recent figure was enough to shut down intellectual debate and attempts to understand the movement of history.

History, and the motivation to think historically is at the heart of Taubes’ letter to Carl Schmitt and the letters of both Taubes and Schmitt to Armin Mohler that are collected in this volume. Even more fundamentally, however, at the heart of Taubes’ challenge to Schmitt is his reading of the Apostle Paul and the Epistle to the Romans. This is important, because it allows Taubes’ a reference that is decidedly Christian (as opposed to liberal) and nevertheless articulates a precise though provisional separation of powers: “‘That Jesus is the Christ’ is no cliché but a recurring statement, And that is also why the machinery of state is no perpetuam mobile, a Thousand-Year Reich, without end, but mortal, a fragile equilibrium both within and without, always capable of failure. It was not the ‘first liberal Jew’ who discovered this point of rupture, but the Apostle Paul, to whom I turn in transitional times – he had distinguished inside from outside even for the political.Without such a distinction we  are at the mercy of throne and powers that, in a ‘monistic cosmos’ have no sense of a hereafter. One can argue over the boundary between the spiritual and the worldly, and this boundary will constantly be redrawn, but if this distinction is neglected we breathe our last.(29-30)

Several themes are present in that highly charged passage. I would like to pick out two, related ones, that will give rise to a third. In the first place is the challenge of the historicism that would put an end to the possibility of failure. This, in Taubes’ estimation, is to read against the view of history presented by Paul. The second theme implicit and made explicit elsewhere is the problem of fascination, particularly fascination with the trappings of power, particularly Schmitt’s own fascination with the Nazi regime and the cult of the Fuhrer. This was incomprehensible to Taubes, who, as a Jew had no possibility of making that choice. “(I)n all the unspeakable horror we were spared one thing. We had no choice: Hitler made us into absolute enemies. And there was no choice in this, nor any judgement, certainly not about others.”(26) It was from this position, of being made into an absolute enemy, that Taubes was drawn to the Apostle Paul and to the pairing of enmity with love. This, says Taubes, is a most promising starting-point and it allows for the possibility of friendship and enmity, and friendship within a situation of enmity, to be practicable. (The wounds of a friend can be trusted).

Naturally, this is a difficult lesson. It is far easier and, in a sense, more rational, to abdicate the tremendous difficulty – both moral and psychological – demanded in the paradoxical coupling of friend and enemy. The portmanteau frenemy, with characteristic liberal disdain, mocks even the possibility of such a relationship. Far easier, and more responsible, to fall into the lines where the enemy can be regarded strictly as an evil and criminal element. This, in fact, is at the heart of contemporary theories about warfare in which the other side is not simply an enemy in the traditional sense but an absolute and criminal monstrosity. One of the real dangers, not only of Carl Schmitt but of the entire global atmosphere prior to the Second World War, was its combination of “rational incisiveness” with “fevered, apocalyptic” elements. This is how Taubes describes Schmitt’s style, and it is a style that he finds inescapable even though he must draw different conclusions. Always, there is the element of fascination or, we might say, of interest. In a certain sense the entire discourse is entirely too intellectual, except that the intellectual intensity masks a real trauma, one which cannot be overcome merely on the basis of liberal or democratic rhetoric.

There is more to be said about this short book, which, in many ways is altogether unsatisfying. Its treatment of the problems of liberal democracy is altogether too brief, though it may perhaps be successful in its claims to offer a ‘transformative hermeneutic event,’ in the sense that it allows the reader to see the plane upon which Schmitt and Taubes were able to engage at the same time as it reveals the tension and even revulsion present in such an encounter. It is precisely this, which I must stress does not appear to be a really redemptive encounter, that makes this book a valuable work in our own times. Our own times, which are seeing once again the wide-spread failures of global integration and reaping the harvest of perpetual economic and military intervention. That this unlikely friendship existed is something, though not something that resolves into an image, nor does it provide a clear window into anything. At best we might say that something went wrong, but nevertheless that something has to be remembered as truly and as carefully as possible.