Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Pathetic Superman

Nietzsche by Edvard Munch

In the first days of January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche collapsed in the middle of the street in Turin, a city where he had been staying since April, 1888. A few days later, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Basel. Until his death on August 25, 1900, he would be without his faculty of reason.

But who is this "prophet of the 3rd millennium", this "most important philosopher since Plato", this Antichrist who promises to be the true God inaugurating a new era? And what if Friedrich Nietzsche, whose thought continues to dominate the contemporary intellectual scene, was a man destroyed by his own immoderation?

A recent book provides a fascinating analysis of the last months before Nietzsche’s breakdown. It is a work of a historian, rigorous and well-documented (more than 30 pages of bibliography and close to 400 book titles). But the originality of this work lies mainly in a confrontation between Nietzsche and the Crucified, hence the title of the book(*).

In Turin, Nietzsche stayed a few hundred meters from the cathedral chapel which shelters the Holy Shroud. Whether or not you believe in the authenticity of the Shroud as a testimony to Jesus crucified, this closeness is striking when one connects the influence that Nietzsche has on the world today and the fact that he was literally obsessed by Jesus during the last months of his lucid life.

Might these last months of sanity, then this decade of breakdown, be the sign of a spiritual struggle in the depths of the one who proclaimed God's death? It was in 1888 that he wrote the Antichrist and Ecce Homo. It was during this period that the name of Christ appears most often in his writings, but only to describe him as an "idiot". In his last letters, in 1889, his signature repeatedly reads "The Crucified". And, on January 3rd, 1889, while pointing to himself, he announced that "God is on earth."

During the same period, the "superman" worried especially about his food; he writes in Ecce Homo, "the salvation of humanity depends on the question of diet much more than on any theologian's old subtlety". He dedicates considerable time and extensive correspondence to the acquisition of a stove from the Nieske company in Dresden. He was passionate about the worldly gossip and funerals of Turinese celebrities. Finally, the man who wrote that "without music, life would be a mistake" and who, as a young man, thrilled over Bach, Palestrina and Wagner, fell to such a low point that his passion focused on La Mascotte, of Audran (whose famous aria clearly demonstrates the heart of its concern: "I like my turkey, I like my sheep, when they make their soft glug glug, when each of them makes bê bê bê..."), and music hall shows!

Anyway, the superman had become quite pathetic. His descent into hell had begun. Would he meet Christ there? Didier Rance assumes so and then proposes a striking parallel with a poem by Baudelaire, Punishment of Pride. Judge for yourself:
It is said that one day a most learned doctor
— After winning by force the indifferent hearts,
Having stirred them in the dark depths of their being;
After crossing on the way to celestial glory,
Singular and strange roads, even to him unknown,
Which only pure Spirits, perhaps, had reached, —
"Excellent description of Nietzsche’s megalomaniac pride just before the breakdown", writes Rance.
Panic-stricken, like one who has clambered too high,
He cried, carried away by a satanic pride:
"Jesus, little Jesus! I raised you very high!
But had I wished to attack you through the defect
In your armor, your shame would equal your glory,
And you would be no more than a despised fetus!"
"... To the contemptuous 'Jesus, little Jesus' (...) corresponds [Nietzsche’s] retarded Jesus, and parallel insults spring from both mouths! 'Fetus!', 'idiot!' "
After the insulting pride follows madness. The superior intelligence is broken, locked, and the key is lost...
At that very moment his reason departed.
A crape of mourning veiled the brilliance of that sun;
Complete chaos rolled in and filled that intellect,
A temple once alive, ordered and opulent,
Within whose walls so much pomp had glittered.
Silence and darkness took possession of it
Like a cellar to which the key is lost.
And the poem ends with "a description of the fallen proud became a poor lunatic, who looks very much like the crazy Nietzsche during his walks in the streets of Weimar..."
Henceforth he was like the beasts in the street,
And when he went along, seeing nothing, across
The fields, distinguishing nor summer nor winter,
Dirty, useless, ugly, like a discarded thing,
He was the laughing-stock, the joke, of the children.

It was during one of these walks, in Weimar, between 1897 and 1900, that Nietzsche met a little girl who looked at him with big, questioning eyes. He stopped, put his hand on the child's head and told his companion: "Is this not the image of innocence?" Didier Rance recalls that Daniel Halevy, after reporting this episode, says that Nietzsche, like Goethe's Faust, had surrendered himself to the devil. But he wonders where the Marguerite is who will save him by her prayer. The answer will be later suggested to him by a reader: "You ask what voice will pray for Nietzsche? Why not this girl encountered on a Weimar path?"


(1) Didier RANCE, Nietzsche et le Crucifié. Turin 1888, Ed. Ad Solem, 2015, 470 p., 27 €. Let us hope that the book will be translated into English.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A giant of charity

On this July 1st, the Roman martyrology and the Byzantine synaxariums (liturgical calendars) commemorate Abba Moses the Ethiopian. This black man, vigorous and tall, was born in Ethiopia in 332. He was a violent nature. Author of several crimes, he fled human justice and arrived in the desert of Egypt. There, he experienced a radical conversion, he dedicated himself to monastic life, and became a disciple of the Desert Fathers, among whom Macarius the Great. Conscious of the mercy with which God had filled him, he became a model of humility, kindness and charity. John Cassian did not hesitate to call him "the greatest among all the saints."

This apophthegm(*) illustrates the merciful wisdom of Abba Moses:

One day, at Skete [region of the desert of Egypt where monastic communities were established and where also lived hermits], a brother committed a fault. They held a council to which Abba Moses was invited. But he refused to go. Then the priest sent someone who said to him: "Come, because everybody is waiting for you." So he got up and left. He took a leaky basket, filled it with sand and carried it. The others, going out to meet him, said to him "What is this, father?" The old man said, "My sins are spilling out behind me and I do not see them, and here I am today coming to judge the fault of another." Hearing this, they said nothing to the brother, but forgave him.


(*) The apophthegms are short sayings, words of wisdom, pronounced by the Desert Fathers. From the 5th century, these words were gathered in collections. They knew a considerable diffusion throughout Christendom and remain astonishingly relevant. Read, for instance: The Apophthegms of the Ancients: Being an Historical Collection of the Most Celebrated, Elegant, Pithy and Prudential Sayings of All the Illustrious Personages of Antiquity, Vol 1 and Vol. 2, Ulan Press, 2012.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Thank you, Fadiey Lovsky

Fadiey Lovsky passed away this past May 23 at the age of a hundred years old. As is often the case for those who row against the current, he remains relatively unknown outside the circle of Jewish-Christian relations – and probably even less known in English-speaking countries where, as far as I know, his books have not been translated. Yet this Protestant Christian historian, both big-hearted and spiritual, is one of the most important contemporary authors in the field of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, as well as in the field of relations between the Church and the Jewish people.

Born in Paris in 1914, he awoke to the faith at the end of his adolescence. His sensitivity led him towards a pietistic form of Protestantism and to become a member of Union de Prière de Charmes. A professor of history in a high school, he was able to say at the end of his life "I was protected from the temptation of pursuing a career."

Tongue in cheek, he credited "Herr Hitler" with his interest for the Jewish people and his involvement in the Jewish-Christian dialogue. He was also close to Jules Isaac, whom he helped to find a publisher for his book Jésus et Israël (Jesus and Israel, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971) and with whom he was one of the founders of l’Amitié judéo-chrétienne de France (the Judeo-Christian Friendship of France).

Besides holding senior posts in various bodies of the Protestant Federation of France for relations with the people of Israel, he assumed, for some forty years, responsibility for the Cahiers d’Etudes juives (Review for Jewish Studies).

Finally, Lovsky had a passion for the unity of the Church. For him, the division among the various Christian denominations is but the consequence of the original split between the Church and the Synagogue.

His main works, in French, are:
1. On the mystery of Israel, anti-Semitism and the relationship between the Church and the Jews:
- Antisémitisme et mystère d’Israël, Albin Michel, 1955. A digital version is available on Pressbooks.
- L’antisémitisme chrétien, Ed. du Cerf, 1970.
- La déchirure de l’absence. Essai sur les rapports entre l’Eglise du Christ et le peuple d’Israël, Calmann-Lévy, 1971.
2. On the unity of the Church:
- Pauvrette Eglise, Mame, 1992.
- L’unité, une option non facultative, Olivetan, 1999.
3. On his life and his commitments
- an interview with the journalist Robert Masson, La Fidélité de Dieu, Parole et Silence/Cerf, 1998.

The best tribute we can pay him is by allowing him to speak for himself. Here is a page from La déchirure de l’absence (The Rupture of Absence).

“After Hitler, is forgiveness still possible? But is it not precisely when we, Jews or Christians, are reluctant to respond that Hitler in fact triumphs by having made it impossible? And if forgiveness is the key that opens all doors, who is it that must use this key? To whom is it to be offered? To whom is it to be requested? Is it time for us today to propose it to the Jews, we who do not know how to use it? Might it not be the moment for us to be the first to ask this forgiveness from the Jews? And what should we do, if they refuse, for any number of reasons to grant it to us?
We know too well how hard it is to live this grace asked for daily(*) how hard to pass it on, yet how easily, how lightly it is asked from others, as if the grace that is given to us could become a duty that we would propose to them. Still, Christians have nothing else to transmit than a forgiveness that reconciles. If they are unable to speak about it, they can live it, that is to say, as the case may be, to grant it or ask for it.
When it comes to the relationships of Christians with the people of Israel, it is only on the ground of forgiveness that the meeting can take place. Perhaps it wouldn’t be in vain to dot the i's and cross the t's: for this meeting and this dialogue, it is Christians who must first ask forgiveness from God and from the people of Israel, that is to say, from the Jews.”


(*) Allusion to the Lord’s Prayer.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Irrational anti-Semitism

Barbara Tuchman

By reading the French translation of a commentary on the Book of Exodus(1) published a few years ago by an American rabbi belonging to Reformed Judaism, I was struck by a sidebar entitled "The causes of anti-Semitism." The author quotes the American historian Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989, Pulitzer Prize 1963), who identifies three "principles" at the source of anti-Semitism:

1. "It is vain to expect logic – that is to say, a reasoned appreciation of enlightened self-interest" when it comes to anti-Semitism.
2. Appeasement is futile. "The rule of human behavior here is that yielding to an enemy’s demands does not satisfy them but, by exhibiting a position of weakness, augments them. Its does not terminate hostility but excites it."
3. ""Anti-Semitism is independent of its object. What Jews do or fail to do is not the determinant. The impetus comes out of the needs of the persecutors and a particular political climate."

These principles, if already old - they had been published in Newsweek on February 3, 1975 - seem particularly insightful and well adapted to the current context. It is a distressing statement because we experience how difficult it is to convince or to fight using ideas. It is also a warning and an invitation not to give in an inch on the principles and not to lower one’s guard...

(1) H. J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, vol. 2: Exodus and Leviticus. New York, Union for Reform Judaism, 1990.


Friday, May 1, 2015

Do you love Beethoven?

I just finished reading an exciting book: "Do you love Beethoven?"(*). It is written in French and I do not think that it is translated into English. I posted an article about it in the French version of my blog. This book overcomes many prejudices about classical music. For my part, I must say that I love it every day a little more: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Dvořàk, Richard Strauss, Mahler…

Listen to these two pieces. First a passage – the Cavatina – of one of Beethoven’s last quartets (Op. 130, n°13), played by the Quartetto Italiano, an old performance but played by outstanding musicians. Then, «Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen» (Where the Fine Trumpets Blow), from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Child’s Enchanted Horn), a work of Gustav Mahler. It is a loving dialogue on the background of war, splendidly sung by Lucia Popp, under the direction of Leonard Bernstein.


(*) Bruno ORY-LAVOLLÉE, Aimez-vous Beethoven? Éloge de la musique classique, Ed. Le Passeur, 2015, 254 p.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Thank you my God!

Beethoven puts this "thank you" into music. He entitles a passage of his 15th string quartet (opus 132): "A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity" (Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit). The entire third movement of this quartet, one of the last ones, composed one year after the creation of the Ninth Symphony, is a long meditation interrupted with moments of joy expressed by a faster tempo and a more joyful tone. The convalescent who thanks God is none other than Beethoven himself, who had been seriously ill in the months that preceded the creation of the work, in September 1825. We must listen to these brilliant fifteen minutes as a prayer. Here is the version – probably one of the best – of the Alban Berg Quartet.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Yom HaShoah 2015

By thousands, by millions, all of them were denied their humanity, were crushed by the dreadful Nazi death machine. Each of them, however, had a name, a face, had dreams; each of them loved, laughed, cried, hoped… Golda and Jacob, my paternal grandparents, Esther, Sala, Adela, David, Lajbek and Azyk, my aunts and uncles, who lived in Poland, were massacred at the end of 1942, a few months after my birth...

In April 1946, my father, who had settled in Belgium, received news from Poland by a distant cousin: “According to word-of-mouth information, all the members of our families were massacred by the Germans. In September 1942, an epidemic of typhus occurred in Losic, and Fradla, the mother of David B., my cousin Hindla M. and many other people from Blaszki died. At the end of December, the women, the children and the old people were massacred on the spot, but the young people were transferred to heavy work or death camps. And, according to the information received to this point, no one of your family nor mine asable to escape that city or save themselves in another way. All were killed like innocent sheep”.

Our memories are their graves.


Friday, April 3, 2015

Passover and Easter

Cosimo di Lorenzo Rosselli (1439-1507) - Crossing of the Red Sea
Rome, Sixtine Chapel
This year, our Jewish brothers will celebrate Passover from April 3rd in the evening until April 10th. Western Christians will celebrate Easter on Sunday April 5th and Eastern Christians on April 12th.
It is impossible to understand Easter without referring to Passover. It is so true that, in the Roman Catholic Church, during the Easter Vigil, the reading of chapter 14 of the Book of Exodus -- the crossing of the Red Sea by the sons of Israel under the leadership of Moses -- is compulsory.

Matthias Grünewald (1475-1528)
Colmar Issenheim Altarpiece

Easter, just like Passover, is a memorial. The crossing of the Red Sea is anticipated by a sign -- the blood on the lintels and doorposts (Exodus 12) -- and celebrated in a rite which makes it present: the feast of Unleavened Bread and Passover meal. Similarly, the death and resurrection of Christ is anticipated in a sign -- the institution of the Eucharist during the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples -- and celebrated in a rite that makes it present: the Easter Eucharist.

I am pleased to mark these festivities with music. Here is a beautiful page for piano and cello of Ernest Bloch from his "Jewish Life", by Wassily and Nikolay Gerassimez, and a magnificent performance of the Easter Oratorio of JS Bach by John Eliot Gardiner.  

Dear Jewish readers, I wish you a beautiful and happy holiday of Passover חג פסח שמח
Dear Christian readers, I wish you a beautiful and holy Easter


Sunday, January 4, 2015

An atheism which glorifies God

"There are atheisms that exist for the glory of God", asserted Fr. Albert Chapelle, a Jesuit, in a remarkable course on theodicy he gave at the Institut d’Etudes Théologiques (IET) of Brussels. What he meant by this is that the rejection of God is often the result of an image of Him given by those who claim to follow and serve Him, which is nothing more than a caricature.

What Fr. Chapelle claimed appears to be finding a new illustration in the Muslim world. Many observers are detecting a profound movement of rejection of religion in the Arab world. Such is the case especially among the younger generations behind the uprisings of the "Arab spring", so quickly seized upon by Islamists.

The savage atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State and its Caliph have the power of simply disgusting those who, even if raised in an environment of Muslim devotion, discover the grinning face of the god whom these monsters believe they are serving.

A recent article published on the Free Arab website provides an interesting analysis of the phenomenon. Another interesting article, in French, is published in a Lebanese newspaper and summarized by the Courrier International.

From my point of view, that of a Christian, atheism is obviously not the ultimate answer, but if it means to be a step in getting rid of brutish pseudo-religious idols, it is welcome.