Jeff Love, The Black Circle: a life of Alexandre Kojeve, Columbia University Press, 2018 See the recent article about Kojève here in the FAZ This spring, the rightwing French journal, Commentaire, published a story about the philosopher, Alexandre Kojève, by Raymond Nart, a former officer with the DST, French Counter-intelligence. Commentaire, in the past, had published articles in praise of Kojève and even articles by Kojève. Kojève, after WWII, declared himself a “Sunday philosopher”, and had proceeded to devote most of his time to reconstructing France’s economy as an subminister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In this post, Kojève became one of the great behind-the-scenes architects of France’s thirty glorious years, that experiment in dirigiste capitalism under the Bretton Woods system which finally came a header in the period of rampant inflation and the Oil crisis of the seventies. Notably, he helping to lay the foundation of the Common Market. Nart’s article was entitled, ominously, Alexandre Kojevnikov dit Kojève. Scholars of the great Cold War Communist hunts will be delighted to learn that the old rhetorical maneuver of tearing away the legal name to reveal the old, Russian name spying behind it still lives. Nart has nothing new to say about Kojève’s famous Introduction to Reading Hegel, a series of lectures that he gave between 1933-1939 which were edited and published by Raymond Queneau in 1947. Nart’s attention, instead, is all on the Kojève who was giving the Soviets microfilm and
packages of documents. What was in those documents, Nart regrets, we can only guess. But they must have been of value! Nart relies for his story on other documents, files that come from now defunct Eastern European and Soviet espionage agencies. Nart has used these sources before, in the 1990s, to claim that Charles Hernu, Mitterand’s first war minister, spied for the Soviets in the fifties. Nart is of the walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, must be a duck school of thought. His conclusion is that the philosopher was a spy. To the broader mind, though, one that has a knowledge of both ducks and other creatures with bills, like platypuses, Nart’s proof is far from convincing. As Kojève was helping build the framework for the Common Market, he would have every reason to establish a backchannel to the Soviets. Stepping back from the narrow image of Kojève Nart presents, we might consider the mores of French ministries that enacted long term policies that were often indifferent to the political figures heading the governments, a sort of background hum of the machinery keeping it all going. Constantine Melnik, a counter-intelligence expert who has worked at Rand, has already pointed out before in the matter of Nart’s Hernu accusations that there is a difference between having a backchannel relationship with the Soviets and spying. Using Nart’s method, one could as well say that Henry Kissinger, the emblematic back-channel man, was a Soviet spy. Yet Nart’s story is not the first time Kojève’s loyalties have been suspected. This is the White Russian who proclaimed that Stalin was the philosopher-king, the end of history, in the Paris of the Popular Front of the 30s. He was a man who had a talent for both entrancing and mystifying, and an audience that went out and changed French intellectual culture in the 50s and 60s. He was, as it were, a back-channel philosopher. It would be nice to have an English language biography of Kojève. I thought I’d found one this summer when I picked up Jeff Love’s The
Black Circle: a Life of Alexandre Kojève (Columbia University Press, 2018), but it turned out that the sub-title belonged to a book in some other parallel universe, for this book is as little like a life of Kojève as a donut is like a spare tire. Love, a professor of German and Russian literature at Clemson, is after the life of the mind, not the intrigue of the exile. Love has given us a reading of Kojève that is now fascinating, now plodding, now insightful – especially about the last sections of Kojève’s lectures on Hegel, which have mostly not been translated into English – and too often lengthy paraphrase. An American might not be tempted to read the book at all. In France, at least, Kojève is a second level intellectual celebrity: but in the United States, it has been his fate to owe his fame, what there is of it, to the Straussians, who are ideologically his opposites. One of them, Francis Fukuyama, referenced him directly in his bestselling The End of History and the Last Man (1992). This prompted the NYT reviewer of Fukuyama’s book, the historian William H. McNeill, to confess that the name was utterly unknown to him. But Americans who are concerned with the broader intellectual culture of the 20th century should really know their Kojève, and in more than a Jeopardy way (for two hundred, Alex, who was the philosopher who spied for the Soviets while creating the European Union?). Alexandre Kojève was born in Russia, to a wealthy family of bankers and merchants. His cousin was the painter Kandinsky. When the Revolution came, much of that wealth disappeared. Kojève, who was merely a teen in 1918, got into the trouble with the Bolsheviks for operating on the black market in 1920. He was released from prison due to pull – that handy cousin of his, Kandinsky, was working with the Soviets at the time – and fled to Germany in 1921. There he studied philosophy and wrote a dissertation on the Russian philosopher and mystic, Soloviev. He met fellow exile Alexandre Koyre through a circumstance that usually would produce lifelong enmity: Kojève seduced Koyre’s sister-in-law, and Koyre went to talk him out of continuing the affair. In a story that adds lustre to the Kojève legend, Koyre was bowled over by the brilliance of the scoundrel he had made an appointment to meet. It was Koyre who helped Kojève get the gig giving lectures about Hegel at the École pratique des hautes études, then located in apparently cavernous quarters at the Sorbonne. Among Kojève’s colleagues were Marcel Mauss, the great anthropologist, and Emile Beneviste, the great linguist. Kojève was only 31 years old. But of the lectures that were given in 1933, it was Kojève’s that made him a star – although admittedly an underground star, a secret sharer of French intellectual culture.
Hegel was not a well known figure in France at this time. Rather, he was considered to be most important for influencing the French positivist philosopher Victor Cousins. His chief works – the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Logic – had not even been completely translated into French. It was Kojève who brought Hegel to France. His lectures were attended by Georges Bataille, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Lacan, Pierre Klossowski, and Raymond Aron, among others. Mimeographs of them were read by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. None of these people, it seems, had read Hegel in German (save perhaps Aron). Kojève claimed, later, that he did not prepare his lectures in advance, but that he would typically come in, translate a passage of Hegel, and see where the passage led him. We will come back later to the soundness or lack thereof of this method. In 1979, Vincent Descombes, in his survey of contemporary French philosophy, wrote that Hegel became a touchstone both for the existentialist generation (who were for) and for the structuralist and post-structuralist generation (who were against). In both cases, Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel and his philosophical anthropology had a long lasting and major effect. Not that Descombes is praising the man: writing during the time when France was taking a neo-liberal and anti-Marxist term, Descombes claimed that Kojève had a “terrorist conception of history”. There is some truth to this: after all, in the Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, it is clear that Kojève finds a bond of blood between the Hegel who heard the cannons roaring at the battle of Jena and the Napoleon who won that battle. Making serious history, in Kojève’s opinion, was a matter of bloodshed, and the philosopher king would not be afraid of spilling buckets of the stuff. This is where the Straussians come in, for they, too, have ideas about history and its closure. Kojève translated a book of Leo Strauss’s on tyranny, and wrote an essay about it, to which Strauss replied. Strauss’s disciple, Allan Bloom, wrote the introduction to the partial English translation of Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, in which he claimed that Kojève’s book was one of the few great philosophy texts of the twentieth century. The Straussians substitute a knowledgeable elite for the tyrant. It is all about soft power and esoteric writing, and small seminars about the Great Books. Love’s book probably requires some knowledge of this background, if only to appreciate the novelty of his approach.
Love is concerned with three things: first, to bring out more clearly the Russian background of Kojève’s philosophy.Second, to give a closer reading of the notorious theme of the “end of history”, bringing into play the rather enigmatic sections of the Introduction devoted to the Sage and the Book; and finally, to ask about the status of finality today – or, more generally, why does our current cultural moment lack a “sense of an ending”? Love’s knowledge of the Russian intellectual climate that impinged on Kojève in his formative years is helpful. Following in the footsteps of Boris Groys, he brings to the fore Vladimir Soloviev, the Russian mystic, who hypothesized an end of history that would be a compact of universal love among divinized humans, Godmen. But he also brings into focus another Russian thinker Nicolai Fedorov, who proposed that humanity’s purpose was, literally, resurrection, or the overcoming of death; and finally Dostoevsky, who through the Underground Man makes a strong and emblematic claim for the partial against the whole, the toothache against the Eureka moment, the man against the godman; and who displays, in the ideas and fate of Kirillov in The Possessed, the logical outcome of making the apocalypse one’s personal destiny – Kirillov has proven by argument that he,as the superior man, must commit suicide. These varieties of self-annihilation put Kojève’s own case, via Hegel, for the death of man in context. Love wrestles with how much we should consider Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel a real commentary on Hegel and how much we should take it as Kojève projecting on Hegel his own philosophical conclusions. In the latter case, all of the Russian writers Love deals with are of paramount important. Still, it is curious that the strong 19th century tradition of Hegel commentary is left to the side. In particular, I wondered whether Kojève should not be juxtaposed with Herzen, who of all the Russian thinkers seems to be the one who learned the most from Hegel, while ultimately rejecting any schema that inserted logical necessity into history. I would have liked to have seen Love take up Herzen’s challenge “from the other shore” to Kojève, because surely there is some intertextuality going on here. Reading the Introduction, one sometimes feels that Hegel is being victimized as much as he is being explained. Like John Slade, the American poet in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, whose autobiographical poem is absorbed in his commentor’s own manic autobiographic obsessions, Hegel is read in a way that wrenches out from certain of his 1806 concepts – for instance, the concept of Science, or Wissenschaft – products of Kojève’s own 1936 theories – most importantly, his emblematic figure of the Sage, the self-annihilating last man, and the Book, the zombie-like totality that comes after man, the final register of absolute knowledge. Love’s comparison of Kojève and Heidegger is a good one: both were creators of a new genre of reading, founded on the notion of a sort of readerly violence. The text, here, is much like a musical score, which a musician of genius makes her own by a subtle and systematic recasting of its cues, its tone, its emphases, its essential rhythm. Kojève set the example for the reading practices of Deleuze and Derrida – in fact, Derrida’s famous defense of this kind of reading in his essay on Nietzsche, where Derrida asks about the force and origin of a certain decorum in interpretation that distributes certain texts for interpretation under certain genres, is very pertinent to, even inspired by, the way Kojève, before an audience that was generally ignorant of the Phenomenology, would shore up his interpretations by, as it were, scanning Hegel’s corpus for favoring pointers. And yet, it is fair to note that Hegel, like Kojève, was notoriously quick with the ‘off’ button – as for instance Hegel’s idea, expressed in his lectures on Aesthetics, that art was now “over”. That whole areas of intellectual practice can be pronounced “over” creates a certain competition among mandarins that we have witnessed in our own day, where the ‘off’ button is insistently clicked on everything from history to sit-coms. That the off button doesn’t, in the end, turn these things off, leads of course to another channel changer, where everything is “post”. It is an oddly provincial way of doing history, perhaps more forgivable in a figure who actually witnessed the collapse of a whole social order than in thinkers who, witnessing the radical expansion of our intellectual horizons as Eurocentrism loses its grip, mistake the end of colonialism for the end of the world. Love’s most interesting chapters, to me, were about Kojève’s less studied latter lectures, in which the dialectic between the Sage and the Book leads to the the end of “man”. I’d recommend Love’s chapter 6, “the book of the dead”, and chapter 9, which takes up the decline in the prestige of teleological explanations, as particularly nice specimens of interpretation and philosophical co-rapping. Kojève’s notion that the Book would replace man seems, perhaps, less curious now, when we discuss the same event in terms of the book’s successor, Artificial Intelligence, than they might have seemed in 1933. However, Kojève’s claim that meaning requires finality is a more puzzling feature of his work than, I think, Love makes it out to be. Kojève was well acquainted with the physics and mathematics of his time. He surely knew of, at least, Gödel’s work. The incompleteness theorem was published in 1931, two years before the start of the lectures. Surely in Love’s discussion of the decline of a “sense of ending” in contemporary thought, the incompleteness theory deserves a place, since it seems to aim at the heart of making a Book into a set in which it is itself a member. It would seem, via Gödel, that Kojève’s entire project was doomed to failure. We know how Wittgenstein resisted Gödel, even as, posthumously, Wittgenstein’s writings have been drawn into the circle of pragmatism that accepts incompleteness as the (non)final word. It is perhaps one of the costs of Love’s concentration on the eschatological project and its Russian roots casts some light on the self-annihilation of man, but it casts into the shade a very important part of Kojève’s thought as it explored the intersection of philosophy and science, a field that was dominated by his colleague Koyre. Love starts his book with an observation that seems at least arguable:
Kojève’s insistence on finality and repetition is untimely. It reveals the way in which Kojève’s thought is deeply hostile to the governing dogma of our time, a dogma anticipated trenchantly by Dostoevsky’s underground man: that freedom is continuous striving without limits; that, in a pregnant phrase, error is freedom. The praise of error or errancy is everywhere in evidence; it is virtually the rallying cry of modern emancipatory French philosophy, with several notable exceptions, largely from the Marxist camp.14 The truth as truth has become tyrannical, terrifying. One seeks “infinite play,” polysemy, différance, the free creation of concepts, or various kinds of transgression that satisfy our demand for freedom from hegemonic narratives.15 Finality is to be rejected in favor of lasting openness, nonfinality, a horizon of possibility that beckons, seduces us to what might be rather than what must be.I see a different ideological dominant than Love does: a period in which the neo-liberal dictum, “there is no alternative”, continues to restrain our politics and our imagination. It has been a long time since the graffiti that lit up the walls of the 1968 Paris revolt had a hold on the public imagination – or the philosophical one. The end of hegemonic narratives, proclaimed in Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, responded to the end of one hegemonic narrative: the orthodox Marxist version of history. One could argue that what Kojève called “history” was identical with the long Cold War that pitted the left against the right in Europe, beginning in the French Revolution, and that reached a certain point of exhaustion in the 80s. However, the ordinary economic realities on the ground, the structures of exploitation and profit, are still basically of the same form. Until capitalism goes, the balance between the sides in the battle of Jena is still uncertain.