“Enlightenment as Exodus: Jewish Ulysses” – Agata BIELIK-ROBSON

University of Bucharest Review. Literary and Cultural Studies Series, nr. 2, 2006, p. 25-29. [PDF]

Summary/Abstract: In Dialectic of Enlightenment, the leading achievement and the intellectual highlight of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, the famous authorial duo, claim that the main civilisational force which created modern culture is escape from mystery. Only by setting himself free from myth, the traditional site of everything mysterious, can man make an exit from the world of nature. To turn away from mystery and live without her hereafter: such is the ideal, or rather, the regulative idea which, according to Horkheimer and Adorno constitutes, if not an essence, than at least a still valid project of humanity. In their specific “Greek-Jewish” idiom, the modern Enlightenment is the continuation of the Biblical project of Exodus as the exit from the domination of Egypt-nature, as well as a transposition of the journey of Ulysses-Odysseus, the first Greek hero who tried to challenge natural elements and was punished for this hubris by the “nomadic curse”. The Frankfurt Ulysses is thus both Greek and Jewish – just like another famous 20th century Ulysses, Leopold Bloom of Joyce’s novel. The aim of the essay is to compare these two versions of Odysseus myth which served both the Frankfurters and Joyce, as a canvas for their respective critiques of modern condition. In both cases, the mythical failures of Ulysses reflect in a paradigmatic way the dangers and pitfalls of the Western Enlightenment.

Keywords: Western Enlightenment; critiques of modern condition

Yes, there is plenty of hope – but not for us…

Franz Kafka, in conversation with Max Brod

We must paint images of what lies ahead and insinuate ourselves into what may lie ahead.

Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia

[…] schlief ich nachmittags und träumte: ich war in Süddeutschland […] Es war eine warme Nacht – viel wärmer als je eine deutsche Sommernacht. Sie war von dem tiefen Grünblau, das der Himmel nur in Theaterdekorationen aufweist. Er enthielt zahllose kleine, leuchtende aber ganz regelmäßig angeordnete und miteinander identische Sterne […] Zu meiner größten Freude entdeckte ich, dass eine Gruppe von Sternen – ein Sternbild – aus dem Muster sich herauslöste, die aus größeren und leuchtenderen Sternen bestand […] Das Ganze kann nur eine Sekunde gedauert haben. Der Traum äußerst glückvoll; bunt.

Theodor W. Adorno, “Los Angeles, 31st March 1945”

Jewish Messianism thinks in terms of Etz Hayim, the starry Tree of Life, which never bears bitter fruit, but is life augmented and intensified, light and life itself. This heavenly tree constitutes the esoteric manifestation of Yahweh who, as Elohim hayim, is the very essence of vitality: it is a ceaseless joy without sorrow and eternal Sabbath without effort.

Such thinking is admittedly difficult, for it relies wholly on elusive images, vague anticipations, omens, and hunches. It is indeed a science of what is not, not-yet, which can be studied only on the shaky grounds of our psychotheological presentiments which can never form a clear picture, merely a ‘spectral’ one. This spectral image is the projection of the most hidden and most precious desires of life which, so far trapped in the Egypt of nature, perhaps venturing out only tentatively into the desert, dreams them half-consciously and unsurely. To be ‘otherwise than being’ which rolls in the monotonous rhythm of becoming and perishing; to be antinomically, against the nomos of this Earth which dictates its seemingly inexorable rule of death; to get a starry glimpse of the bliss of the eternal Shabbath that knows no suffering and hardship – these dreams come from the very centre of the living which gradually reaches self-awareness thanks to them. And this self-awareness cannot be detached from the ‘promise of happiness’ – une promesse de bonheur – which Adorno, following Stendhal, ascribes to all genuine images of art… [+]