Hans Abendroth was the eldest of three children born to an upper-middle class family in Frankfurt in 1909. Against the wishes of his parents, who hoped he would go into law, he studied classical philology at the University of Freiburg. There he was among the students of Martin Heidegger, a famous cohort that included Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Löwith, and Hans Jonas. Written under Heidegger’s supervision, Abendroth’s “Habilitation Thesis,” which analyzed the developing conception of the psyche in the literature and philosophy of classical and Hellenistic Greece, is regarded as a seminal document in the field. In 1935, Abendroth moved to Berlin, where, as a member of a research group at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, he was responsible for translating and preparing a German edition of the Akhmim Codex, a recently discovered Gnostic manuscript dating to the fifth century A.D. Until his early retirement in 1949, he taught courses on Greek philosophy, early Christian theology, and Hellenistic literature at the University of Berlin.
After his retirement, Abendroth began work on The Zero and the One (Null und Eins), the only book he would publish in his lifetime. An unsystematic collection of aphorisms in the style of Nietzsche, Cioran, and the later Wittgenstein, Null und Eins contains reflections on a diverse number of subjects, from the philosophy of mathematics to the ethics of suicide. Obviously marked by Abendroth’s study of Gnosticism, The Zero and the One was critical of religion, but also of secular attempts to replace God with nature; it was particularly hostile to all forms of morality, politics, and economics that justified themselves in terms of materialist accounts of the human. Abendroth’s was a truly “tragic sense of life”: to him, the problems of morality and politics were intractable. The preservation of human freedom did not depend on solving these problems but to escape them entirely by fleeing into thought. This stance put him at odds with nearly every current of postwar German philosophy—including that of his former teacher Heidegger—and when The Zero and the One came out with Nothungs Verlag in 1953, he was criticized for quietism and irrationalism. The book received a warmer reception in France, however, thanks mostly to Pierre Klossowski, its translator, and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, for whom it was a touchstone for his work in the midfifties.
An English edition appeared in 1972. By that time, stung by the reception of The Zero and the One, or engaged upon the escape from the intractable problems of life he had described in it, Abendroth had become a recluse, living off a state pension in a quiet quarter of Charlottenburg, Berlin. He died, in 2001, of lung cancer, almost entirely forgotten. But according to the obituary written for Die Zeit by his publisher and executor Wilhelm von Nothung, Abendroth had continued his philosophical work in the decades of his absence from public life. In fact, he had left behind a sizeable Nachlaß, including what appeared at first glance to be the notes for a several-hundred page metaphysical treatise. Unfortunately, von Nothung himself died shortly thereafter; the existence of the treatise he alluded to cannot be confirmed because the whereabouts of Abendroth’s papers remains unknown. —Ryan Ruby
From The Zero and the One (Null und Eins)
REPETITION.— If something happens once, it may as well have never happened at all. Unfortunately, nothing ever happens only once. Everything is repeated, even nothing.
UNIVERSAL HOMELESSNESS.— Thought exiles man from being, being exiles him from his self, his self exiles him from the external world, the external world exiles him from time, and his tomorrow will exile him from his today just as surely as his today exiled him from his yesterday. Never and nowhere is man truly at home. In order to experience this all he needs to do is to return, after even a short absence, to the city of his birth.
IN THE BELLY OF THE HOURGLASS.— Beneath each of us shifts the sand of a desert vaster than the Sahara, the desert of our past, over whose dry dunes memory can only skim, blowing temporary patterns of recollection and reinterpretation across the surface of a noumenal landscape wherein the ever-changing is indistinguishable from the eternally-the-same.
SYMPTOMS OF THE DISEASE PHILOSOPHY.— Philosophy does not begin in wonder. It begins in anxiety, with the disquieting suspicion that things are not how they should be and are not what they seem.
WE DO NOT EXPERIENCE OUR OWN DEATH.— This is well known, well remarked upon. We only experience the Other’s death; from this we infer that our death will only be experienced by the Other. Death is not so much a fact as it is a recognitive status. Immortality requires the aspirant to convince the Other that, all appearances to the contrary, he is not really dead. Immortality is thus an audacious conjurer’s trick performed in plain view of the Other which annihilates this very inference through dramatic projects of total misrecognition, the most obvious of which is Death itself.
THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES.— My father once threatened to disown me for questioning the existence of God, whilst my former colleagues at the university, knowing the subject of my research, accused me of indulging in metaphysics. I was insufficiently materialist for the taste of the communists I once knew, though liberals suspected me of being a fellow traveller. Amongst republicans I would argue for aristocratic values, just as amongst monarchists I would praise the general will. I have been called a fascist by an aesthete and a degenerate by a fascist. Where politics is concerned, to everyone I am something else and to no one am I anything in particular. Not that this at all troubles me. Only insects are easily pinned down.
WORD MADE FLESH.— The relationship between thought and language is the relationship between a wound and its scar.
IDOLATRY.— Idolatry is above all a matter of space: the idolatrous object is the one that is both infinitely close and infinitely far away.
SAILING OFF THE EDGE OF THE EARTH.— The fantastical etchings of galleons sailing off the edge of the flat earth and toppling headlong into the void are more accurate representations of our lived experience than the spherical empirical truth in which we happen to live. Columbus’s discovery of the Americas is surely a watershed moment in the History of the Forgetting of Being.
ET IN ARCADIA EGO.— It’s a terrible thing, at any age, to be able to point to some period of your past and say, Those were the best days of my life. For it means that when you divide what is to come by what has already been, the remainder will be the same decimal repeating repeating repeating to infinity. Happiness, when ill timed, can maim a life just as thoroughly as sorrow.
THE ORIGINS OF CLOTHING.— The origins of clothing should be sought in man’s desire to forget that his skin is already a kind of uniform. Masks, disguises, costumes—these are worn above all to conceal something from the wearer, who wishes to appear as someone or something else, in order to convince himself that his body is not what it really is: a mask, a disguise, a costume worn by Nature. Just so, we are never more deceived than when we speak of the nakedness of truth. Truth is something tailored, something we have sewn together, stitched up, embroidered, women, hemmed, and cut. It is something that has to be put on—one leg at a time.
THE MEANING OF LIFE.— Anyone for whom “the meaning of life” is a meaningful problem should be considered an extremely dangerous person. Either because he believes he knows the solution to the problem or because he believes that there isn’t one.
THE MORAL AND THE TRAGIC.— In practice, everyday morality rarely ever rises to the level of the tragic. Most moral decisions are as simple as basic arithmetic; just so, failures are not matters of knowledge but of social training. Where genuine moral problems are encountered—that is, what are called tragic dilemmas—it is the nature of the dilemma that none of the possible responses ultimately suffices. Any decision, therefore, made in response to a tragic dilemma, will still be, to some more or less pardonable extent, immoral, and any moral agent, when faced with such a dilemma, no matter how much he deliberates, according to whichever ethical system he favors, will not fail to be responsible for this immorality. Nor, if he is truly a man of conscience, will he fail to be permanently damaged by the outcome of his response, whatever it may be.
A WARNING TO THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN, EARTH, AND MOON.— Nothingness added to Being is not oneness, but duality. But as nothingness is chronologically prior to Being, Being has never been the One. Only nothingness is oneness, wholeness, harmony, and totality. Being is the name for the operation that irreparably divides the Zero in Two. Our desire to recover our lost wholeness is the desire for death.
ON VIOLENCE.— Moderns regard violence as something internal to human beings: they often speak of the violence that originates in mankind, as if violence were a series of actions a man might perform, or—were he less ignorant, irrational, or superstitious—might as well not perform. That is why moderns are always surprised by sudden outbreaks of violence; it is why they ultimately cannot understand the phenomenon, even as their scientific and technological achievements multiply it exponentially. The ancients, however, knew better. Violence does not exist in man; man exists in violence. Man is merely a vessel for violence, the site where it occurs, the name given by violence itself to the instrument that enacts it. When the man in man is stripped away, he returns to his source and becomes his God.
TWO LETTERS.— The grave of every person who does not die by his own hand should bear the following epitaph: RETURNED TO SENDER. But the suicide’s grave should read: ARRIVED AT DESTINATION. One’s mother may address the envelope and one’s father may purchase the stamp, but that is hardly a reason to let them dictate the contents of the letter or to determine its conclusion.
KIRILLOV’S MIRACLE.— In Dostoyevsky’s novel The Possessed, Kirillov isn’t entirely mistaken about the outcome of his suicide. When he kills himself, he will indeed kill God, as he believes. Suicide violates the most fundamental of Christian moral principles precisely because it permanently disrupts the very stability of identity God’s existence is supposed to guarantee. In killing himself, Kirillov does not kill God, he becomes God, that is, something that does not exist. Thinking is a war against death; reality is the battleground. The Divine was invented by the primitive imagination as a weapon against death, but when this fact is forgotten, the weapon is turned back against its inventor. When the Death of God is finally announced, those who have killed him do not realize that something will inevitably take His place. Nor do they suspect the obvious usurper: Nature: that which remains when the superfluous hypothesis disappears. Rather than vanishing along with God, the problem of suicide actually intensifies. It goes from being a mortal sin to an unnatural act. Thus, in order for Kirillov to be truly successful, he would have to perform a miracle: he would have to kill himself twice.
PRIDE AND VANITY.— Just as self-hatred is the purest form of pride, the desire to be someone else is the purest form of vanity.
SELF-CONJUGATION.— Living for today, living in the moment: the wisdom of fools. A man must at every moment be able to conjugate himself in every tense—past, present, and future, but also subjunctive and conditional. There is only one moment when it is appropriate to live entirely in the present tense.
NOSTALGIA FOR THE FUTURE.— There will come a time when we will be nostalgic for the future, that is, for how we used to think the future would look.
A WARNING TO THE CRITICS OF HUMANISM.— The two ideas that will survive the dissolution of the concept of the human are races and robots.
METAPHYSICAL CONFLICT.— It is in the metaphysical interests of the young not to identify with one’s actions but to remain protean, able to ceaselessly revise oneself, without worrying overmuch about the frequency of one’s revisions, nor of any consistency between them, to think of oneself in terms of what one has not yet done and could yet do rather than what one has already done and can never undo. At some point, however, the young realize that should it continue too long, this indetermination will leave them, when they come to die, undefined, with nothing to call their own, nothing to call themselves. So they come to identify with what they have done, they begin to say, This is who I am instead of This is who I will be. With each such identification they carve a wrinkle into the undifferentiated smoothness of their brows. They become old. And it is in the metaphysical interests of the old, who are, after all, closer to the moment of defining dissolution, to protect themselves—and their selves—against the youthful siege of ceaseless revision by drawing continuities between one’s revisions, which still occur, if at a slower rate and more laboriously than before, and insisting that all revisions are vetted by the logic of consistency. The old are not wiser than the young because they have experienced both youth and age; wisdom is merely the name given to the sense of self that is required to defend the interests of age. As with all metaphysical battles, all are defeated when either party wins.
TRAGEDIANS AND MORALISTS.— Of all literary genres, tragedy alone remains free from the pretensions to arithmetic that, until history caught up with them, were still indulged in by German philosophers and English novelists, who compensated for their thematic anxieties as an ostrich might—by limiting their scope to the trifling situations of everyday morality. Such moralists are nothing more, in the final analysis, than the authors of etiquette manuals, dressed up in logic and argument, on the one hand, and narrative and dialogue, on the other. In their books, they were content to waltz and quadrille over the depths where tragedy is written because a century of improvements in shoe manufacture enabled them to forget that, in history, there is no floor.
REMAINDERS.— God proved easy to dispose of. Religion may one day disappear. But human beings cannot live without theology.
THE ART OF JUGGLING CORPSES.— Power concerns the organization, arrangement, and distribution of material objects in physical space. Whatever ideas and ideals are brought to bear on this process are necessarily corrupted and weighed down by their contact with decaying matter. Politics, in other words, is the art of juggling corpses and anyone whose highest value is power stinks of the grave.
Translated from the German in 1972 by Bettina Müller.
Ryan Ruby is the author of The Zero and the One.
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