“Lev Shestov: philosopher of the sleepless night” – Matthew BEAUMONT

Staying woke and staying awake

Stay woke!

What does it mean, politically speaking, to resist the temptation to sleep? To be awake? And to remain awake? The word ‘woke’, used in its colloquial sense as an adjective to signify ‘alert to racial or social discrimination’, was first included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017. The OED explains that, in this sense, the origin of ‘woke’, which it identifies as ‘US regional and nonstandard’, lies in an African-American usage from the late nineteenth century, meaning simply ‘awake; not (or no longer) asleep’. Specifically, it traces this slang term, in print, back to the white American folklorist Joel Chandler Harris, whose Uncle Remus stories were both a record of African-American oral stories, if no doubt a partial and unreliable one, and an emblem of white Americans’ unacceptable appropriation of African-American culture. In Harris’s Balaam and his Master and Other Sketches and Stories (1891), Balaam himself, a former slave, whose ideological role is to reassure white readers of the timeless loyalty and respect of African-American people in the United States, describes another oppressed black man of his acquaintance as ‘dreamin’’, and comments, ‘He ain’t woke good yet!’

The OED ascribes the more recent, figurative inflection of the word ‘woke’ to the Civil Rights movement, citing an article in the New York Times Magazine from 1962 that includes a short glossary of African-American slang. The glossary contains this entry: ‘If you’re woke, you dig it… Woke…well-informed, up-to-date (“Man I’m woke”)’. The OED goes on to credit the African-American singer Erykah Badu with reinitiating this trend by including the phrase ‘I stay woke’ as a refrain in her song ‘Master Teacher’. First released in 2008, Badu’s song takes aim at the narcotic temptations, especially religious ones, which neutralize or undermine the political struggle of African- American people: ‘What if there was no niggas/ Only master teachers? / (I stay woke)’. More recently, and more pressingly, over the course of the last five or six years, the Black Lives Matter movement has revived and re-politicized this usage of the phrase. In the aftermath of the murder of Travyon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager, in Florida in February 2012, activists set up a website called StayWoke.org in order to recruit people to their campaign against racist violence. Since then, increasingly detached from this movement, the phrase has proliferated and become evermore diffuse in its application – not least in the form of the Twitter hashtag #staywoke. Today, it is arguably little more than an algebraic slogan designed to signal a vague awareness that something, something or other, is wrong with the world. As Amanda Hess commented in a delightfully scornful piece for the New York Times Magazine in 2016, ‘“stay woke” is the new “plugged in”’.

‘Man I’m woke’, then, is currently le dernier cri in liberal circles in the United Kingdom and the United States. Metropolitan hipsters, keen to indicate not simply a certain solidarity with oppressed minorities, especially black or African- American ones, but some more universal attitude that advertises the fact that they are conscious of their own comparative social privilege, have adopted it to the point where, on social media, it seems to have become a reflexive, perhaps instinctively defensive, response to the slightest hint of entitlement. This is the third in a series of appropriations by white people. The first is of course Harris’s in the early 1890s. The second, dramatized in the New York Times Magazine’s glossary from the early 1960s, is that of white beatniks. ‘If You’re Woke, You Dig It’, the article that contained the glossary, was by the young African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley. Three weeks after the opinion piece appeared in print, Kelley published his beguiling first novel, A Different Drummer (1962). Set in a fictional southern state that represents a kind of historical dead-end for African Americans, A Different Drummer describes the entire black population of one town mysteriously, wordlessly, migrating to the north. They leave behind them a white population that, used to appropriating or simply silencing black voices, is rendered speechless by this biblical exodus. ‘If You’re Woke, You Dig It’, for its part, was about white beatniks’ use of ‘today’s Negro idiom’ – another form of appropriating or silencing. ‘I asked someone what they felt about white people trying to use “hip” language,’ Kelley remarks at one point; ‘He said: “Man, they blew the gig just by being gray.”’

The third appropriation, finally, is the one that has taken place in the last few years, in the course of which the militant emphasis it acquired once it had been re-functioned by the Black Lives Matter movement has faded because white liberals have adopted it as a code word for communicating little more than a modish awareness of social issues. It is the ‘Open Sesame’ that white liberals use to gain entry to black culture. It is the sign of the cross they automatically make in order to indicate both to themselves and others that, however crass their cultural appropriations, they do not intend to sin against the collective social conscience. As the sociolinguist Nicole Holliday has noted, the word ‘woke’ appeared in MTV’s list of ‘10 words you should know in 2016’, where it was defined simply as ‘being aware – specifically in reference to current events and cultural issues’. ‘Woke has been racially sanitized for a mainstream audience’, Holliday observes; ‘Woke has been removed from its ties to black communities as well as its reference to black consciousness and political movements.’ ‘The appropriation of woke’, she concludes, ‘has lulled it into a complacent, apolitical slumber where, ironically, it simply means “awake”’.6 White liberals, in other words, blew the gig just by being grey. But the term ‘woke’ has also fallen victim to the logic of commodification and co- optation that is characteristic of counter-cultural language in capitalist society, especially in the age of social media.

This book, Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night, is not about ‘staying woke’, either in the properly militant or in the blandly triumphant inflection of the term. Nor is it about simply ‘being awake’, if this phrase necessarily entails passive connotations. It is, instead, about ‘staying awake’, in some active and even agonistic sense. And, to this extent, though it does not address questions of race, it deliberately situates the political discourse of wakefulness, the resonance of which it emphatically underlines, in a rather different, more fully philosophical context, thereby defamiliarizing and displacing it in an attempt to restore a sense of its persistent, and urgent, importance. It returns to the prophetic ‘revelations’, and the rhetoric, of the almost forgotten Jewish-Russian religious philosopher Lev Shestov (1866–1938). Between the two world wars, Shestov commandeered Judaeo-Christian, Pascalian, Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean influences in the name of an openly apocalyptic thought that pitted Faith against Reason, Anti- Necessity against Necessity. Like Plotinus, on whose ‘ecstasies’ he wrote an essay published in Paris in 1926, Shestov felt, as he put it, ‘that he must not lull to sleep the unrest and spiritual tension within him, but goad it on to the highest degree, where sleep becomes impossible’. He passionately believed in stimulating the restlessness and spiritual tension latent in other people, too, into sleeplessness; also, as I propose in this book, the restlessness and political tension within them. Lev Shestov thus argues for the sort of expanded, philosophically nuanced, but also polemically effective, form of wakefulness that its protagonist consistently sponsored in his writings from roughly a century ago. It insists, furthermore, that Shestov’s powerful prose, aphoristic and essayistic by turns, itself delivers salutary jolts of what, in a different context, Gene Ray has recently called ‘critical reflection and social and political wakefulness’.

Affirming the spiritual and political imperative of sleepless vigilance, Shestov reconstructed and extended a counter-Enlightenment tradition that ran from the Hebrew and Christian prophets, through Pascal, to the anti-philosophical thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In so doing, he sought in a dual sense to alarm the intellectual complacencies of Enlightenment rationalism in its most somnambulistic forms. The Enlightenment, according to an irony of which Shestov was acutely conscious, is itself a source of darkness. ‘Too much clarity darkens’, as Pascal is supposed once to have remarked in criticizing Descartes. Shestov was committed, according to a converse logic, to the darkness that illuminates, the night that is a source of light. In his critique of the perilously soporific influence of the Enlightenment, he consciously reclaimed the night – like one of those Counter-Reformation mystics such as St. John of the Cross – as a sacred time of eternal wakefulness and watchfulness.10 In an era of social and political emergency, the first half of the twentieth century, he consecrated the night as a site of incessant openness to the sudden irruption of some transformative spiritual drama into the continuum of history; a drama either of damnation or, as he hoped, redemption.

Shestov’s name, as Boris Groys has observed in a fine discussion of this philosopher, ‘says relatively little to the Western reader today’, in spite of his ‘significant if hidden influence on some of the best representatives’ of the period between the two world wars. Over the course of the first four decades of the twentieth century, at a time of sustained political crisis in Europe, Shestov consistently and influentially explored the implications of his fundamental claim that, in the face of the horrors of contemporary history, and in opposition to the rationalist Enlightenment thought that had fatally failed to explain it, that had indeed justified and mandated it, we should develop a state of preternatural wakefulness and watchfulness in order to ensure that the prospect of human suffering ultimately becomes absolutely unacceptable. Ramona Fotiade, the scholar who has probably done most to foster and maintain interest in Shestov’s thought in the twenty-first century, summarizes his position in these terms, ventriloquizing his voice:

We are like sleepwalkers in a world whose logic and a priori principles seem unsurpassable and prevent us from seeing the incongruities and arbitrary connections which make up the fabric of our daily lives. It takes an extraordinary effort to break the spell of self-evident truths and awaken from the nightmare of one’s powerless submission to misfortune, injustice, suffering, and death.

It takes, so Shestov claims, a sort of spiritual insomnia. The trope of sleeplessness that, for this reason, reappears throughout my book is summed up in the imperative: No Sleep ’til the End of the World! This formulation, which in one iteration or another Shestov repeats and elaborates with the persistence of a musical motif, is adapted from ‘The Mystery of Jesus’, Pascal’s fascinating, fragmentary discussion of Christ’s sleeplessness during the episode in the Gospels that unfolded on the night before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. There, Jesus confronted his tragic loneliness, and the apparent failure of his messianic project, as his closest disciples slept. ‘Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world’, Pascal wrote in what is surely his most apocalyptic sentence: ‘There must be no sleeping during that time.’

Shestov, who argued again and again, during the darkest and most benighted of times, against the somnolent effects of Enlightenment thinking, on the grounds that it fosters a fundamentally passive, quiescent relationship to the world, appropriated Pascal’s statement as a slogan of spiritual and, implicitly, political empowerment. This book revisits Shestov’s anti-rationalist philosophy, and specifically his reading of Pascal, both because of its intrinsic interest and because of its haunting insistence that, so as not to sleepwalk into a future that is even more oppressive and replete with suffering than the present, we need to remain intensely, perpetually alert to our political and spiritual responsibilities – in short, awake until the end of time. ‘Christ’s agony is not yet finished’, Shestov writes in Gethsemane Night (1923), his inspiring book-length essay on Pascal; ‘It is going on, it will last until the end of the world.’14 This ‘agony’ means, among other things, the horror of human history, which in the 1920s was of course far from finished (some five months after this essay appeared, the so- called Beer Hall Putsch, Adolf Hitler’s unsuccessful but profoundly ominous coup d’état, took place in Munich). Shestov cites his hero Pascal because of the French philosopher and scientist’s brilliant critique of the Cartesian principles of the Enlightenment. These principles, the Russian claims, have over several centuries provided an ever more unassailable rationale for accommodating oneself to a universe the superficial inevitability of which should instead be systematically challenged. In a rampantly rationalist society, as Gethsemane Night makes evident, Pascal offered Shestov a decisively significant precedent for refusing Enlightenment logic. ‘“One must not sleep,” Pascal tells us.’ So Shestov repeats, before forcefully adding: ‘No one must sleep. No one must seek security and certainty.’

In excavating this forbidding imperative from Shestov’s account of Pascal, Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night seeks, as I have already implied, to activate or re-appropriate its semi-concealed politics. In order to do so, it frequently situates Shestov’s thinking in relation to elements of the thinking of contemporaneous philosophers associated with the Frankfurt School such as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. For example, it implicitly associates Shestov’s comparatively apolitical claim that the Enlightenment tradition, which according to him comprises a set of rationalistic and scientistic assumptions that collectively constitute a kind of modern myth, not only with Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the Enlightenment but also with Benjamin’s scattered assertions that, as he clearly put it in the preparatory stages of his Arcades Project, ‘capitalism was a natural phenomenon with which a new dream-filled sleep came over Europe, and, through it, a reactivation of mythic forces’. In quite different styles and vocabularies, Benjamin and Shestov both effectively argued that, as the latter once remarked in a discussion of his hero Dostoevsky, ‘the painful convulsions of a doubtful awakening’ are better than ‘the grey, yawning torpidity of certain sleep’. If philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world, Shestov seemed to say, the point is to awake from its ‘dream-filled sleep’. For this reason, Shestov was committed to making his readers, in some literal sense, restless; permanently, almost intolerably, alert and awake.

Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night centres on Shestov’s ethics, poetics and politics of awakening. Of remaining awake. Chapter 1, ‘Athens and Jerusalem’, sets the scene for the book’s guiding arguments, sketching the elderly Jewish philosopher’s visit to Jerusalem in the mid-1930s and outlining his investment in the pivotal spiritual drama that occurred at the start of the Passion narrative – when, in the form of sleeplessness, Christ was forced to confront his solitude and spiritual desperation in Gethsemane. This chapter offers a preliminary overview of Shestov’s thought, which it explains in terms of its characteristic antinomies: Shestov sets Judaeo-Christian thought against Graeco-Roman thought, Faith against Reason, Revelation against Speculation. Chapter 2, ‘Philosophy and anti-philosophy’, reconstructs aspects of both Shestov’s biography and, more fully, his existential philosophy. It explores the iteration and development of Shestov’s ideas in his own writings, over many decades, but also illustrates them in relation to a contemporaneous Russian writer, Andrei Bely, and in particular his novel Petersburg (1913–14), which shares a comparable commitment to notions of contingency and Anti-Necessity.

This chapter claims that Shestov is most conveniently understood – here I use a term that, though it originated in the counter-Enlightenment rejection of the philosophes in France, before being revived by Jacques Lacan, has in our own time been productively promoted by commentators such as Alain Badiou and Boris Groys – as an ‘anti-philosopher’. That is, to put it simply in the first instance, he is best grasped as a thinker who privileges being over thinking, the concrete particular over the abstract universal, the singularity of experience over metaphysical truth. And who does so with a certain uncompromising militancy. ‘A true anti-philosophy’, Badiou has observed, ‘is always an apparatus of thought that is intended to tear someone away from the philosophers, to remove him from their influence’.18 Shestov, profoundly invested in this rather violent intellectual enterprise, for all his pacifism, sought precisely to tear his readers from their affiliation to the rationalist tradition; to shock them out of their unthinking adherence to its thinking. He thus pitted Pascal, whom Badiou identifies as a classical anti-philosopher, against a line of descent running from Plato to Descartes and, in his own time, Husserl.

Chapter 3, ‘Angels of history and death’, outlines Shestov’s connections to some of his more famous, largely younger contemporaries, especially those living in Paris between the wars. It outlines Shestov’s reception in Britain, briefly sketching his impact on D. H. Lawrence and Hugh MacDiarmid, but focuses in particular, first, on the influence he had on the Surrealist philosopher Georges Bataille; and, second, rather more extensively and elaborately, on the affinities between his thinking and that of Benjamin, whose Marxism, as their mutual friend Gershom Scholem insisted, was inflected by a distinctive debt to Jewish mysticism. This chapter compares Benjamin’s celebrated allegorical image of the ‘angel of history’, which it re-reads in terms of ideas of wakefulness, with Shestov’s figure of the ‘angel of death’. In Chapter 4, ‘Garden and wasteland’, I explore the crucial episode in the Gospels of the Agony in the Garden, which was of immense ethical and spiritual importance to Shestov because of its allegorical drama of wakefulness. This chapter offers an account of the mediation and representation of Christ’s night in Gethsemane in various works of art and literature from the fifteenth to the early twentieth century, from Mantegna to Rothko, and from Thomas More to T. S. Eliot, in order more fully to understand its theological and political significance (oddly, there seems to have been little attempt so far, systematically at least, to trace the iconography of Gethsemane in the histories of art and literature). In the conflicted times in which Shestov lived, when for historical reasons it acquired new force, the scene functioned, I contend, as an emblem both of despair and possible hope in the face of the horrors of mass suffering.

Chapter 5, ‘Sleep and the sleepless’, building on this account of Christ’sspiritual tragedy in Gethsemane, goes back to Shestov’s remarkable interpretation of Pascal, reading in close detail the former’s book-length essay on the latter’s fragment known as ‘The Mystery of Jesus’, so as to explore the apocalyptic potential of sleeplessness. It argues that this essay, Shestov’s Gethsemane Night, is the basis for a powerful politics of wakefulness, one that ascribes to the philosophical or anti-philosophical tradition to which he himself adhered a prophetic role in awakening people from the somnambulistic condition that consigns them to a state of impotence in the face of oppression. Finally, the Conclusion titled ‘Auschwitz and the end of the world’ examines what it meant for Shestov and some of those directly influenced by him, in particular Gilles Deleuze and the Jewish Romanian philosopher and poet Benjamin Fondane, to bear witness, in a state of wakefulness and watchfulness, to extreme forms of barbaric suffering. Through Deleuze and Fondane, but also the thought of Adorno, it excavates the strain of optimism in Shestov’s apocalypticism, identifying the ‘hope against hope’ that shapes his philosophy of tragedy. Here, I consolidate in fairly explicit terms a claim that is implicit throughout this book, namely, that Shestov’s thought contains urgent and important political lessons for the times in which we currently live.

‘Will men awake, or are they destined to a heavy slumber to the end of time?’ Shestov demands at the end of ‘Memento Mori’ (1916), his lengthy critique of Edmund Husserl. And once awake, we might add, will they remain awake? Will they be sleepless ’til the end of the world? At the present time, as in the past, it is not our political and spiritual duty simply to be ‘woke’. For this is a phrase that, in its liberal appropriations, piously implies a state of enlightened consciousness; and, moreover, creates the complacent impression that this state of enlightened consciousness, even if it cannot be dismissed as completely empty, has already been accomplished. Instead, it is our political and spiritual duty – in some active, agonistic sense – to remain constantly awake, to remain ceaselessly vigilant, both in order to catalogue the crimes taking place before us on the stage of history and, potentially, in order to redeem and even reverse those tragedies. In an article entitled ‘Standing Vigil for the Day to Come’ (1963), Michel Foucault once suggested, in a luminous image, that ‘one day we should ask ourselves what, in a culture like ours, might signify the prestige of the Vigil, of wide open eyes that admit yet ward off the night’. A generation earlier, Shestov had consciously, strategically asserted just the ‘prestige of the vigil’ invoked by Foucault; the importance of ‘wide open eyes’. He was, after all, the author of a collection of articles, still not translated into English, entitled The Great Vigils (1910). Today – as a thinker ‘in dark times’, to recall Hannah Arendt’s minatory phrase – Shestov can still teach us how to ‘admit yet ward off the night’.

What will happen to us if we fall asleep? Or remain asleep? What if we fail to ward off the night? In Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America (2004), the narrator, himself called Philip Roth, describes a fateful night in 1940 when he was only seven years old. While he and his brother slept, his mother and father listened to a live radio broadcast from the Republican National Convention. It is on this occasion, at 3:18 a.m., that the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, an admirer of Hitler who is aggressively anti-Semitic, makes a surprise appearance at the convention hall. By 4 a.m. the Republicans have officially nominated him as their presidential candidate. In The Plot Against America, as J. M. Coetzee put it in his review of the novel, ‘real history is the unpredictable’; or, in Shestovian terms, anti-Necessity. That night, at exactly the moment Lindbergh is nominated as the Republican candidate, which is the penultimate phase of his ascent to the nation’s highest office, the narrator and his brother are abruptly woken, as if by an alarm: ‘“No!” was the word that awakened us, “No!” being shouted in a man’s loud voice from every house on the block. It can’t be. No. Not for president of the United States’. Here is an instance of the sort of protest – I return to this politically suggestive concept in the Conclusion to this book – that Shestov’s brilliant disciple Fondane, faced with the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, designated ‘irresignation’.

‘No!’ is not enough, even if it emanates from every house on the block. Unless, that is, it is repeated ’til the end of the world. There must be no sleep ’til the end of the world! This is the imperative encoded in the anti-philosophy of Lev Shestov that I seek to reconstruct and (in Brechtian phrase) re-function in this book – for our times.

‘These are our nights of Gethsemane’, Albert Camus wrote with ominous solemnity in The Myth of Sisyphus, a philosophical essay influenced by Shestov, in the early 1940s. These are our nights of Gethsemane.

Stay awake!


BEAUMONT, Matthew, Shestov: the philosopher of the sleepless night. London: Bloomsbury, 2021.

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