Sunday, April 1, 2012

Blumenberg's Hybrid System

The philosopher Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996) left many unpublished papers. His estate or Nachlass has been deposited in Marbach. The bulk of it consists of more or less fully formulated short papers on a variety of subjects, collected in a system of maps or folders. One of the folders is entitled "UNF" which was first thought to mean "Unerlaubte Fragmente" or literally "Disallowed Fragments." The name probably means, however, nothing as mysterious as all that, but simply an abbreviation for "Unfinished" (which works both in German (Unfertiges and in English. There are supposed to be 10,000 typed pages of such manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts have been published as short collections. They are almost indistinguishable in style from some of Blumenberg's later collections. I am thinking specifically of Der Mann vom Mond, a book of notes about Ernst Jünger published in 2007 and Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer of 1979, a colleection of notes about the metapher of ship wrecks.

What makes the collection of folders even more interesting is that Blumenberg also kept a card index that refers to these manuscripts. The cards are numbered from 1 to 23,515. They order the material in a more or less systematic fashion and allowed him to easily connect the most disparate materials. The setup explains to a large extent Blumenberg's specialty, namely the easy connection of philosophical theory with apparently accidental texts from the most obscure places.

In fact, it explains what I have always found to be an annoying character of Blumenberg's work. Take for instance, his 1981 book on Die Lesbarkeit der Welt, perhaps best translated as "Reading the World. It reads just like the contents of a card index that have been written up for publication in historical order. You can almost see where the one card ends and the other one starts. It starts with the Bible and ends with the genetic code, talking in between of Newton, Johann Georg Hamann and Mallarmé, to name only a few.

The earlier named Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer does the same about ship wrecks. Blumenberg was obviously interested in shipwrecks and how they were used metaphorically in the history of Western literature. And the book is nothing but a collection of comments of such passages. It's cute, but does not lead to any deeper insight.

The same holds for most of his works. None of this is without interest, but it is ultimately disappointing. Blumenberg seems like Umberto Eco's hero in Foucault's Pendulum:
I was accumulating experience and information, and I never threw anything away. I kept files on everything. I didn't think to use a computer (they were coming on the market just then ... Instead, I had cross-referenced index cards. Nebulae, Laplace; Laplace, Kant; Kant, Königsberg, the seven bridges problem of Königsberg, theorems of topology ... It was a little like that game where you have to go from sausage to Plato in five steps, by association of ideas. Let's see: sausage, pig bristle, paintbrush, Mannerism, Idea, Plato. Easy. Even the sloppiest manuscript would bring twenty new cards for my hoard. I had a strict rule, which I think secret services follow, too: No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them.
In another novel, Eco has his character collect passages on fog. These passages then end up in his novel as a theme. Borges collected passages on death (if I recall correctly), Ernst Jünger collected "Last Words" (which also fascinated Blumenberg), etc.[1] This whole idea is sort of strange to me. But strange or not, mere collections of comments on passages collected according to some theme are not enough for a contribution to philosophy or literature, or so it seems to me. In other words, in Blumenberg there is a lot less than meets the eye.

1. See Jünger's Card Index.

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