A Philosopher of Small Things
A new book on ‘antiphilosophy’ revives interest in Lev Shestov, a seminal but largely forgotten thinker
It is thus one of the strangest features of Shestov’s work that it is so unfamiliar to contemporary students of philosophy, literature, and religion. Why this has been the case is ultimately mysterious. (As Daniel Rynhold, professor of Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, told me: “Who gets picked up in academia and not is often a result of contingencies and serendipity, rather than the value of the person’s work.”) The work being done by Fotiade (she is currently editing a new French edition of Shestov’s work, Le Bruit du Temps) and her colleagues at the Lev Shestov Society aims to increase knowledge and interest, and Groys’ chapter on Shestov in Introduction to Antiphilosophy might mark a turning point in reviving Shestov’s reputation.
Antiphilosophy was not an available term in Shestov’s day—its use in this context is Groys’ invention—but it is a label that Shestov, in my opinion, would have liked. The term antiphilosophy is intended to echo anti-art, an early 20th-century movement that argued that art has less to do with the framed things one finds in a museum or gallery than with the attitude one brings to those particular objects. The best example of anti-art, Groys writes, is Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “Readymade Fountain.” Duchamp signed (under the name R. Mutt) and dated a store-bought, mass-made, porcelain urinal and then exhibited it. Is the urinal art? Does it do what art is supposed to do? Once it’s been moved into a gallery space, Duchamp suggests, the answer is decisively yes. And what is art supposed to do, anyway? If a viewer gives the urinal—or fountain, rather—the same kind of concentrated attention one gives a work by Monet, is it any less of an aesthetic experience? Duchamp seems to be saying that the creativity and craftsmanship one sees in excellent works of fine art can be found lining the walls of public restrooms, if only one is able to look at those urinals in a certain way. Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder, anti-art points out, but is invented in the eye of the beholder.
Anti-art’s aim is not to rob art of its purpose but to democratize it, to make it clear that the bathroom has as much aesthetic interest as the gallery if only one is able to change one’s mindset. Shestov’s work aims to do something similar, to achieve a comparable shift in attitude. Shestov’s philosophy seeks to escape the potentially paralyzing strictures of the rational mind and return man to a state of awe. To accomplish this, Shestov did the philosophical equivalent of bringing a urinal into a gallery: His work is not systematic, it does not advance traditional arguments, and it does not hope to speak of a truth that is objectively verifiable. Instead, it is personal, spontaneous, and ironic. It invites readers to think along with him, to understand that using philosophy is not always the best way to be philosophical and that there is much to be learned by means other than the reasoning mind. These qualities and interests would become increasingly popular over the remainder of the 20th century, and it is thus fair to say that Shestov is one of the founding fathers, along with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, of what can now be dubbed antiphilosophy.
As Shestov wrote: “A belch interrupts the loftiest meditation. You may draw a conclusion if you like; if you don’t like, you needn’t.” Shestov’s work has a similar effect; those who think it strange, or even silly, will find plenty of reasons to write it off—admittedly fair ones. Those to whom it speaks, however, will find wonders.
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