Lev Shestov’s Angel of Death

Memory, Trauma and Rebirth

by Marina G. Ogden (Author)
Monographs XX, 270 Pages


At the beginning of the twentieth century the Russian émigré philosopher Lev Shestov (1866–1938) challenged traditional philosophical norms and brought the individual experience of the anxiety of death to the forefront of philosophical investigation. Based on new research and translations of Shestov’s unpublished manuscripts, notes and correspondence, this book analyses the thoughts of one of the most influential thinkers of the past century in an interdisciplinary context. While uncovering the roots of the philosopher’s existential position, the author traces Shestov’s «wandering through souls» of the world’s most significant philosophers and writers within the context of a historical and biographical narrative, offering a close reading of his thinking in its chronological progression. A new interpretation of Shestov’s philosophy, this comparative and hermeneutical analysis focuses on the thinker’s continual search for meaning on the question of human mortality. Bringing together up-to-date research findings in Russian, English and French, an evolutionary analysis of the key notions in Shestov’s philosophy – the problems of truth, revelation, faith and death – is carried out in conjunction with the ideas of such pivotal figures in Western culture as Fyodor Dostoevsky, William James, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Martin Buber and Sigmund Freud.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword (Ramona Fotiade)
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction Philosophy as a Way of Thinking about Death
  • Chapter 1 A Path in a Groundless Abyss
  • Chapter 2 The Quest for the ‘Other Truth’: Going beyond Philosophical Norms
  • Chapter 3 The Revelation of Death: Shestov’s Fight against Self-Evidence
  • Chapter 4 Credo Quia Absurdum. On the Possibility of the Impossible: The Gift of the Angel of Death
  • Conclusion Stepping into the Unknowable Unknown
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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When Lev Shestov’s collection of aphorisms, All Things are Possible, was first published in English translation in 1920, it had the effect of a spiritual meteorite coming from a far-away land which had only recently ‘been inoculated with the virus of European culture and ethic’.1 What for Europeans seemed ‘organically inevitable’ because it belonged to the ‘very blood and bones, the very nerve and root of our psyche’, according to D. H. Lawrence’s preface, remained alien to the Russians, for whom the process of modernization which started under Peter the Great produced an inner struggle similar to the reaction of an organism fighting a disease. However shocking or prophetic these remarks may seem to contemporary audiences they aptly capture the impression of radical alterity which Shestov’s writing provoked in Western intellectual circles, coming as it were in the wake of two defining moments in the twentieth century: the First World War and the Russian Bolshevik revolution.

In trying to define the Russian specificity, D. H. Lawrence mentions its assimilation of European culture as a ‘rootless’ import. Besides the reference to the original title of Shestov’s volume, The Apotheosis of Groundlessness, this remark takes its cue from the provocative portrayal of the Russian as the noble, yet naïve savage as contrasted to his savvier, civilized European counterpart. ‘Scratch a Russian and you will find a Tartar […] To us in Russia, civilisation came suddenly, while we were still savages’,2 affirms Shestov in the apodictic fashion of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. The rallying call for a new genealogy of thinkers, ‘homeless adventurers, born nomads, to whom ubi bene ibi patria3 hasn’t escaped the attention of both English ←xi | xii→and French commentators, for whom Shestov became the prow figure of ‘nomad thought’ and of the ‘thought from outside’. Following a period of relative neglect after his death in 1938, his work was rediscovered during the 1960s by some of the most influential postmodern philosophers (among whom Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari), and began to be associated with a non-systematic philosophical undercurrent running from Tertullian to Pascal, and from Nietzsche and Dostoevsky to Kierkegaard, Kafka and Blanchot among others. The retrospective exhibition and the events dedicated to the 150th anniversary of Shestov’s birthday in 2016, highlighted the contemporary legacy of an author whose radical alterity epitomized the persistence of ‘nomad thought’, of a thought from outside the positivity of our scientific knowledge and the boundaries of the Western rationalist philosophical tradition.4 From Deleuze’s remarks on ‘the underground man’ in Difference and Repetition, to Deleuze and Guattari’s later argument about the ‘private thinkers’ in A Thousand Plateaus, Shestov’s paradoxical type of reasoning, which aimed at breaking the logical continuity of argument and ‘bringing man out on the shoreless sea of imagination’5 left an indelible mark on the postmodern Western philosophical discourse.

From the early days of Shestov’s reception in the U.K. and France, his dissonant message resonated with the concerns of absurdist or disenchanted Western essayists and writers at a time of unprecedented spiritual malaise, heralded by Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God and subsequently diagnosed by Freud’s postulation of the unconscious. The writers of D. H. Lawrence’s generation seized Shestov’s positive reassessment of the savage or nomad thinker to reinstate the creative autonomy of the human soul: ‘The positive central idea is that the human psyche, or soul, really believes in itself and in nothing else. […] The human soul itself is the source and well-head of creative activity.’6 Contrary to Freud’s dismissal ←xii | xiii→of the existence of the soul, and of the primitive belief in ghosts (which he explored in his famous essay on Jensen’s Gradiva, ‘The Uncanny’), Shestov did not hesitate to qualify the alternative language of dreams, visions or apparitions as a ‘second dimension of thought’, whose truths were at the core of an individual’s conception of life and death, grief and survival, although they vanish as soon as the logical mind attempts to grasp and measure them against known criteria of possibility and impossibility. In his Introduction to an earlier collection of Shestov’s essays published in English translation in 1916, John Middleton Murry remarked on the ‘intimate connection between philosophy and life’ and the unity of all the energies of the human soul which conceptual thinking artificially divides between the real and the unreal, turning experiences into ‘deceptive, barren half-truths’.7 According to Murry, Shestov’s attitude to philosophical enquiry was that of a man ‘aware of himself as a soul seeking an answer to its own question; and […] aware of other souls on the same quest’.8 In stark opposition with the therapeutic vocation of Freudian psychoanalysis, which aims to bring the fantastic contours of the dream world down to the recognizable landscape of the ‘reality principle’, Shestov’s method is an invitation to a metaphysical journey, a ‘wandering among the souls’, akin to Dante Aligheri’s descent into the underworld. Shestov’s definition of philosophy as the ‘most worthy’ or ‘the only necessary thing’ (Plotinus’s to timiotaton), brings Plato’s notion of a ‘meditation on death and dying’ into contact with the Christian idea of redemption and the immortality of the soul.9 While both Freud and Shestov use myths and fictional stories to explore the other side of the rational world, Shestov’s allegory of the Angel of Death stages a most unsettling confrontation between two incompatible notions of truth and reality: on the one hand, the implacable truth of death and dying; on the other, the revelation of the outside of time. From the vantage point of the ultimate human experience, the opposites ←xiii | xiv→of life and death become the two sides of the same coin, just like time and eternity meet in the present in Zarathustra’s vision of the eternal return.10

There is something so atypical, so ‘uncanny’ about Shestov’s approach to philosophical reflection that it risks going unnoticed. He comes from a different tradition of religious thinkers even within the Russian intellectual landscape of his time (which included Soloviev, Berdyaev and Bulgakov, among others). The period of relative neglect which Shestov’s existential philosophy went through in the post-war period, until Deleuze started mentioning him in the 1960s, reminds one of the manner in which Nietzsche attributed the ‘untimeliness’ of his works and their lack of popularity to a problem of acoustics. If the audience seemed deaf or unreceptive to Nietzsche’s work, this may have been due either to the frequency on which the message was sent or to the quality of listening of contemporary recipients:

[…] no one can extract from things, books included, more than he already knows. What one has no access to through experience one has no ear for. Now let us imagine an extreme case: that a book speaks of nothing but events which lie outside the possibility of general or even of rare experience – that it is the first language for a new range of experiences. In this case simply nothing will be heard, with the acoustical illusion that where nothing is heard there is nothing … This is in fact my average experience and, if you like, the originality of my experience.11

Shestov’s existential critique of Kantian idealism was similarly unlikely to reach the ears of a wider audience at a time when the steady rise of Husserl’s phenomenological method was acting as a sound box for Heidegger’s ontology and Sartre’s atheist existentialism. In quoting Kant’s considerations on ‘experience which teaches us what is but does not say that what is must be precisely so and not otherwise’,12 Shestov alluded in his last work, Athens and Jerusalem, to the obscured message ←xiv | xv→of an undercurrent of philosophical reflection which from ancient times to the medieval period and from the advent of modernity to the late nineteenth century has strayed from the ‘sure path of science’ and ‘universal truth’ in order to reclaim the value of individual experience and revealed truth. Shestov’s interest in the philosophy of the Middle Ages derived from his preoccupation with the rare instances in the history of Western metaphysics when dissenting voices rose against the harmonious speculative reconciliation of Biblical revelation and Greek wisdom. The ability of tuning into the alternative, dissonant or absurd message, passed on from Plotinus to Duns Scotus and William Occam, according to Shestov, can be said to depend on one’s willingness to abide jarring contradictions (non pudet quia pudendum est, certum est quia impossibile) without dismissing them as ‘noise’ or, worse still, silence – ‘nothing to hear’. The problem, as Shestov sets it out in the opening paragraph of his exegesis of Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, consists in establishing whether a Judeo-Christian philosophy ever existed and if so, ‘how was such a philosophy possible and what novelty did it bring to human thought’?13 The difficulty, which Gilson himself highlights, resides precisely in juxtaposing two incompatible strands of enquiry: on the one hand, the Judeo-Christian system of beliefs, grounded in Biblical revelation, and on the other, speculative thought, based on rational philosophical principles and logical argumentation. As Shestov often pointed out in his work, Pascal’s method of enquiry (chercher en gémissant – ‘seeking with lamentation’) cannot agree with Spinoza’s ‘non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere’ (not to laugh, not to lament or curse, but understand). If revelation ‘never proves anything, is founded on nothing, and is never justified’, contrary to rationalism which aspires to found, prove or justify each of its assertions, ‘how, then, could medieval philosophy discover a metaphysics in the Book of Exodus’? – asks Shestov, and then he adds: ‘Can there be a metaphysics where all proofs, on principle and once for all, are rejected?’14 This absurd possibility finds support in Gilson’s statement, quoted at length by Shestov, about the ←xv | xvi→‘metaphysics of the Book of Exodus’ which ‘penetrates to the very heart of epistemology’ and introduces a new ‘notion, unknown to the ancients, of a created truth’.15 Religious philosophy, as Shestov argued, ‘is not the search for the eternal structure and order of immutable being; it is not reflection (Besinung)’ but ‘the final supreme struggle’16 of the soul on the threshold of death. The final struggle, which places each of us before the choice between the tree of knowledge and the tree of life, thus holds the promise of an overcoming of time ringing out in the enigmatic call to those meant to follow: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6).

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This work reflects my thinking over the twenty years since I left my home city of St Petersburg (formerly known as Leningrad), where I was born into a family of Russian–Jewish intelligentsia and lived for the first twenty-eight years of my life. The historical, cultural and spiritual challenges in the life and work of Lev Shestov as the philosopher, artist and God-seeker that this book focuses on are close to my heart. The former Russian capital city’s turbulent history, beauty and rich cultural atmosphere are entwined with the intense intellectual thirst and free artistic spirit that provided the driving force for this research project.

The concept for this book has developed over the last decade. It was during my studies on art theory and philosophy at Central Saint Martins in London and my subsequent visit to the Lev Shestov Archive at the Sorbonne in Paris, where I read Lev Shestov’s original manuscripts for the first time, that the notion of the ‘regeneration of convictions’ in the philosopher’s writings came to my attention. In early 2015, following intense discussion with my then supervisor Christopher Kul-Want in the corridors of Central Saint Martins, the seed for the main idea in this book – the possibility of a powerful, sudden and fundamental transformation in one’s beliefs and ideals – was planted.

In retrospect, I feel immensely grateful to my first teachers of art and philosophy in St Petersburg, Marina Davydovna Levina and Professor Vyacheslav Borisovich Melas, for their trust in the nature of my creative abilities and their encouragement of independent thinking. I would also like to thank Dr Ramona Fotiade for her reassuring supervision of my research as a doctoral student and for contributing with the Foreword to this book. I am grateful to Professor George Pattison for his helpful advice and for his support of my project. Special thanks are also due to Glasgow University and the Lev Shestov Studies Society. Most of all, I am indebted to my family who have supported me on my never-ending quest for learning, making it possible for me to dedicate many years to this academic endeavour. At ←xvii | xviii→times the journey has been challenging, but I shall always remember these years with deep gratitude.

Amongst many people with whom I have discussed the ideas over the years and whose kindness and generosity contributed to the successful completion of this book, I would like to thank Charlotte Toupet-Martinet and Alla Rubitel especially. Various parts of the present text have been read by Stephen Ogden, Julian Neal, Binesh Hass, Margarita Jijina-Payne and three anonymous reviewers, to whom I would like to say a heartfelt thank you for their invaluable feedback. I also wish to express my appreciation to Nicholas Chevalier at the Sorbonne Library Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts and Saven Morris, the Head librarian of the British Psychoanalytical Society at the Institute of Psychoanalysis, for their assistance in finding key sources for my research.

Chapters 1 and 4 of this book include revised versions of my published papers, which originally appeared in The Oxford Philosopher, the Cyclops Journal, The Lev Shestov Journal and the European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling. I would like to express my gratitude to the Editor of The Oxford Philosopher, George P. Simmonds, for his hard work reading my earlier drafts at a time when the name of Lev Shestov was still unknown to the British reader. I am also deeply thankful to Laurel Plapp, the Commissioning Editor at Peter Lang, for her enthusiasm in undertaking my project and her expertise in bringing this book into print.

Biographical notes

Marina G. Ogden (Author)

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Marina G. Ogden holds a BA in Humanities from St Petersburg’s Herzen University (the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia), an MRes in Art Theory and Philosophy from Central Saint Martins UAL and a PhD in Modern Languages and Cultures from the University of Glasgow. A Research Affiliate in Theology and Religious Studies at the School of Critical Studies of the University of Glasgow, a Research Assistant at The Lev Shestov Studies Society and an award-winning artist, she is an interdisciplinary researcher, specializing in the philosophy of Lev Shestov and nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian and European philosophy and culture. She has published articles, given interviews and created artwork on the subjects of philosophy and art, Lev Shestov, R. G. Collingwood, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard and Sigmund Freud.


Title: Lev Shestov’s Angel of Death