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Work on Blumenberg Author(s): William J. Bouwsma Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun.

, 1987), pp. 347-354 Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press Stable URL: Accessed: 21/12/2009 23:52
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Hans Blumenberg, Workon Myth, tr. Robert M. Wallace. MIT Press, (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), 685 pp., introduction. Hans Blumenberg is widely considered one of the most stimulating philosophers in Germany, and with the publication by the MIT Press, in its Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought, of Robert M. Wallace's translations, first of The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1983), and now of Work on Myth, Blumenberg's major works are beginning to be available in English. These are long, sometimes difficult books, but exuberantly learned and full of arresting insights. Blumenbergis hard to classify. He is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miinster, but he does not seem to belong to any community of contemporary philosophical discourse. He is not an analytical philosopher in the Englishspeaking mode; he has not taken "the linguistic turn," and his tone is often assertive and even oracular. Although he has a gift for detecting structural similarities among apparentlyunrelated philosophical, and in this work mythical and literary, productions, he seems little touched by the novelties recently emanating from France; and he is neither a Marxist nor a partisan of any psychoanalytic school. Although he sometimes relies on the abstractions of German philosophy, he has no system, is more accessible than Heidegger, and not much interested in hermeneutics. He seems nevertheless aware of all these possibilities, and he also has a sense of humor. Blumenberg is not a systematic or even a very coherent thinker. His books are composed less of arguments than of ruminations and insights, advancing by association and analogy rather than logic and emerging in an overall pattern of thought not always immediately apparent. As Wallace remarks in his introduction, Blumenberg "avoids distinguishing between imaginative and conceptualanalytical 'work' " (xiii). Workon Myth is sometimes repetitive and frequently obscure because the connections between one sometimes remarkableinsight and the next are left unstated. It is also, at times, both contradictory and ambiguous. One "works" on it much as Blumenberg himself "works" on myth, with the sense that more, and perhaps something else, might always be said. His title, then, suggests how to approach him, but it also hints at how to "locate" him. He is a philosopher in the mode of the Enlightenment, with its belief in progress through the intellectual mastery of the world (the immediate subject of The Legitimacy of the ModernAge), its rejection of the abstractsystembuilding of seventeenth-centuryphilosophy, its reliance on the data of experience, and its tendency, as Ernst Cassirer put it, to be "even more fascinated by the activity [of reason] than by the creations brought forth by that activity." For Blumenberg as for the philosophers of the Enlightenment, "the power of reason
Donald Kelley, however, has called my attention to Manfred Frank, Der kommende Gott: Vorlesungeniiber die neue Mythologie (Frankfurt am Main, 1982), which groups him with H. E. Richter and L. Kolakowski as an exponent of "new mythology."




does not consist in enabling us to transcend the empirical world but rather in teaching us to feel at home in it."2 A philosopher in this sense is not so much a specialist as that generally cultivated person once described as "a man of letters." Conceiving philosophy in this way, Blumenberg is variously a historian of ideas with a special talent for identifying the implicit affinities and strategies in the various productions of Western culture, a literary critic, and a source of striking psychological insights and anthropological speculation. His willingness to take risks, combined with this breadth, is, I think, an element in his attraction for readers who are not professional philosophers, but so also, I suspect, is his confidence, however guarded, in the capacity of an open-ended rationality not only to comprehend but also to improve the world. Although most of us have had to give up the assurance of the Enlightenment, it remains a temptation to which we would still like to believe we can yield. Yet Blumenbergis aphilosopheof the twentieth century, not of the eighteenth, and for him the restless accomplishments of reason since the Enlightenment represent notable advances beyond it. This conviction is reflected in the subject of the present work; an eighteenth-century philosopher would simply have dismissed myth as a primitive and erroneous way of explaining the world. For Blumenberg progress in biology, anthropology, and psychology has made clear that this was a mistake and that myth cannot be so easily disposed of. Indeed myth constitutes a unique challenge to reason. It consists of "a material whose hardness and power of resistance [to interpretation] must have unfathomable origins" (266), and it must constantly be reinterpreted:"one has to 'work' on it if it is to continue to be adaptable to life as it goes on" (501). Any claim to exhibit "the ultimate possible way of dealing with myth runs the inescapable risk of being refuted, of being convicted of implying a still-unfulfilled claim" through the emergence of still another possibility (632). It is impossible, in short, to produce anything but "essays" on myth. Blumenberg aims, while rejecting the conclusions of the Enlightenment on this subject, to be more faithful to its open-ended critical spirit than the Enlightenment was itself. In this spirit he attributes its misunderstanding of myth to a fundamental contradiction between its belief in reason as a universal faculty and its own "historical myth of the darkness out of which reason lighted its way" in order to make a new beginning (265). Blumenberg has no use for such radical discontinuities in the history of thought; The Legitimacy of the Modern Age had attributed the idea of progress to "experiences involving such a great extent of time that the spring into the final generalization of the 'idea of progress' suggested itself as a natural step" (30-31). In this book he criticizes the rational "projects" of the Enlightenment on grounds that, for him, reflect a more consistent rationality. "It can be rational," he remarks (163), "not to be rational to the utmost extent ... rationality is all too ready to engage in destruction when it fails to recognize the rationality of things for which no rational foundation is given." Myth, for Blumenberg, is a dimension of human experience whose function in human existence had not been graspedby the rationality of the Enlightenment, which was based on a too narrowly rationalistic (and therefore insufficiently
Cassirer, The Philosophyof the Enlightenment, tr. Fritz C. A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove (Princeton, 1951), esp. 5, 13. 2 Cf. Ernst



rational) anthropology. The Enlightenment could not "appreciatethe intellectual and emotional needs" that give rise to myth, or finally the helplessness of the modern age before "a question that it posed for the first time in this nakedness and for which it had forbidden itself every dogmatic and every mythical answer: the question of the reason for being" (287). In the culture of the Enlightenment, only the operas of Mozart, perhaps, acknowledged the murkier depths of human existence, and then in a form that too often produced a delicious frisson rather than reflection.3 But Blumenberg, a philosophe of the twentieth century, insists that the terrors surroundinghuman existence are perennial and must be included among those matters most urgently calling for rational examination. It is precisely the task of myth, then, for Blumenberg as for Nietzsche, to deal with the terrors implicit in human existence itself; myth "shows mankind engaged in working up and [mentally] digesting something that won't let it alone, that keeps it in a state of unease and agitation. It can be reduced to the simple formula that the world is not transparent for human beings, and they are not even transparent to themselves" (274). Through myth the world "ceases to contain as many monsters;" it "becomes 'friendlier,'" a place in which, after all, we might be able to feel at home. Myth, then, is not a defective way of answering scientific and philosophical questions, as the Enlightenment assumed. It is therapeutic; it dispels uneasiness. It is the antidote to the anxiety [Angst] of the human animal oppressedby the monolithic determinationof nature;mythmaking is thus an aboriginalhuman step toward freedom, all the more impressive, as Wallace remarks, as "something that man does in order to deal with the problem of what he is-in order to make himself biologically viable" (xv-xvi). Indeed myth is superior to the dogmatic formulations that human beings have contrived for this purpose that were especially abominated by the philosophes. Myth makes no martyrs;this is why "myth and enlightenment are allies" (163). It is thus in the spirit of the Enlightenment and as an extension of rational inquiry into a domain that had been misunderstood and ignored by the Enlightenment that Blumenberg, taking myth seriously as a necessity of human existence, advances his own "philosophical theory of myth." To be acceptable, he argues, such a theory "must prove itself with respect to the question of whether it can make comprehensible the effectiveness and the effective power of mythical elements" (66). Although for Blumenberg the needs met by myth are not, like the questions philosophy purports to answer, "epoch-specific," they originated at a particular stage in the development of the human animal. Myth, he argues against LeviStrauss, is a product of human history. It became necessary when the human race, having taken the fateful step of elevating itself from the ground by standing on two legs, achieved a new level of consciousness, especially of the "determining forces" threatening its being. To relieve the dread implicit in this consciousness, early human beings began to attribute a degree of order to the world by telling stories in which the "absolutism of reality" was reduced and weakened through a polytheistic division of labor that ended its omnipotence. This is the crucial work of myth; by it the powers, given names and shapes, could be recognized, addressed, and ritually manipulated. The rivalries, jealousies, envies, capacity
3Cf. Geoffrey Clive, The Romantic Enlightenment: Ambiguity and Paradox in the WesternMind (1750-1920) (New York, 1960), 39-56.



for distraction, and occasionally fidelity to vows attributed to the gods in these stories gave human beings a degree of freedom for maneuvering among and escaping from them. Since the stories were placed in a remote past, they also made the terror more distant. In this way work on myth succeeded in "a dismantling of the old seriousness" (632); later stages in the development of myth saw the introduction of that humor and parody to which-for philosophy, in contrast to myth, is always serious-Plato objected. Blumenberg's account suggests, then, the progressive success of the mythical project. We know nothing about the earliest efforts to make the world more comfortableby myths, but the persistence of animal shapes in mythology suggests a process of natural selection in which theriomorphic gods gradually gave way to gods in human form, until finally, after vast stretches of time, the most effective myths for reducing the oppressiveness of existence emerged. The reduction of myths to writing came at a late stage in this process, and its result was to end the process of improvement; from this point on "only corruption remains possible," including perhaps the corruption representedby the mingling of myth and dogma (153). Myth itself, therefore, like its interpretation, is the product of a prolonged "work on myth." Myth, then, served the needs of archaic man; but for Blumenberg it appears also to be a perennial necessity of human existence. "The fundamental patterns of myths are simply so sharply defined, so valid, so binding, so gripping in every sense," he tells us, "that they convince us again and again and still present themselves as the most useful material for any search for how matters stand, on a basic level, with human existence" (150-51). For Blumenberg, then, there seems to be a limit to the potential emancipation of mankind. The human animal "never entirely attains the certainty that he has reached the turning point in his history at which the relative predominance of reality over his consciousness and his fate has turned into the supremacy of the subject" (9). He has a special talent for discerning mythical elements in the more pompous constructions of the moder mind such as, in its various manifestations, German Idealism. Since Kant, Blumenbergobserves, philosophers have merely "put new, from abstract to highly abstract titles in the place of the old [divine] names: the 'I,' the world, history, the unconscious, Being," to do the work of the old myths: "they drive out the desire to ask for more" and, without providing answers to questions, "make it seem as though there is nothing left to ask about" (288). Myth can be particularly discerned in theodicy and philosophy of history, Idealism's most pretentious offspring; these finally fulfill myth's most secret longing not only to moderate the difference in power between gods and men and deprive it of its bitterest seriousness but also to reverse it. As God's defender, as the subject of history, man enters the role in which he is indispensable. It is not only for the world that, as its observer and actor, indeed as the producer of its "reality," he cannot be imagined as absent, but also indirectly, by way of this role in the world, for God as well, whose "fortune" is now suspected of lying in man's hands. (32) Some of the richest pages in this work illustrate these views by analyzing what Blumenberg calls "fundamental myths," myths that offer something like a total explanation for human existence, its tribulations, and the manner of their



relief. Because of their comprehensiveness, fundamental myths also represent the final product of the process of natural selection. Blumenberg gives special attention to the Homeric myth of return, with its circular pattern in which both absence from and the need for home are assumed, and the return to it "is a movement of the restoration of meaning" (75). He sees in Dante's version of the story of Ulysses an expression of the "incipient doubt" of the Middle Ages "about the finality of its horizon and its narrowness" (79). He dislikes Joyce's version of the story on the ground that it sometimes fails to meet the essential requirement of myth: the unfaithfulness of Joyce's Penelope disturbs him as an "offense against the Homeric ethos" and "probably the most insidious form of the refusal of meaning" (84). But Blumenberg is enthusiastic about Freud's myth of return because of the comprehensiveness of meaning that it embodies. It is simultaneously "natural history and cultural history, cosmology and anthropology" (93); indeed Freud makes both Narcissus and Oedipus into "representatives of the 'significance' of myth itself, for narcissism, too, is a turning back: a turning away from the reality outside the ego, an avoidance of the expenditure involved in separation and the energy involved in existence" (92). Freud's myth is thus filled with meanings singularly appropriateto the modern age. Gnosticism deals in a different way with the pervasive inability of human beings to feel at home in the world, and at the same time it illustrates how myth weakens the absolutism of reality by division. For Gnosticism the god who made this world is a tyrant, but it pits against him a benign god, foreign to this world and representing the "place" where man truly belongs. In this conception the history of the human race is a function of the changing balance in a cosmic struggle. Blumenberg follows here a path made familiar by Hans Jonas and others, but always with fresh insights drawn from his own more general understanding of myth, as he reviews the hints of Gnosticism in Paul, their exaggeration by Marcion, and, as Gnosticism matured, the degree to which its challenge shaped Christian orthodoxy. He attributes the failure of Gnosticism to an artfulness which precluded the natural selection that only exposure to a large audience could provide. An effective myth, for Blumenberg, is necessarily popular. But the myth that interests him above all, as perhaps the most complete of final myths, is that of Prometheus. Prometheus, a Titan himself, had helped the Olympians to overthrow the old gods; but later he had taken pity on the human race, which had been created by the old gods and was therefore resented and oppressed by Zeus. To rescue them from their misery Prometheus stole for them fire from heaven, which, materially as heat and symbolically as light, became the basis of civilization. The story is thus equivocal about civilization, which is depicted as at once a means of surviving the hostility of the world and, as an offense against divinity, the source of a chronic human uneasiness about existing. For his theft, Zeus chained Prometheus to a peak in the Caucasus, where his liver, as immortal as the rest of him, was constantly eaten by an eagle. But throughout his torment, Prometheus, a god as anti-god, continued to defy Zeus, indomitable in his resistance, stronger in his suffering than his divine tormentor. Meanwhile Zeus, in an epilogue to the story, took his revenge on mankind by



sending them Pandora with her fateful box. The story explains both the glory and the wretchedness of mankind. A major part of the book is devoted to tracing the myth of Prometheus through the ages in its various forms, and above all in the nineteenth century, for whose self-understandingit was of special importance. Kant, though troubled by what Franklin's experiment with the kite portended, had called him "the Prometheus of modem times"; and early philosophers of history-Schlegel, Schiller, Schelling-saw in Prometheus a representation of the divine principle at work in all human accomplishments and For Marx the rebellion of Prometheus stood for his own protest "against all heavenly and earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity," though Blumenberg suggests that Marx also projected onto the story his own revolt against Hegel (570-86). But he is particularly interested in the more ambiguous treatment of Prometheus by Nietzsche and-by implication rather than explicitly-by Freud, both of whom were conspicuously dubious about the benefits of civilization. In his misogyny, Blumenberg suggests, Nietzsche was on the side of the Zeus who "denies that men deserve to live" (616); Nietzsche blamed Prometheus for making "death invisible for men under the veil of culture" (619). For Freud fire had been first experienced as a resource to be domesticated, and had been basic to the distribution of labor between the sexes: "Prometheus had stolen fire from the gods; Freud's primeval man must merely give up pissing in the fire," whereas woman's role, for which she is suited by "one of her most incidental incapacities," is to preserve it (624). This may already suggest that "deformation of the myth into the grotesque" which Blumenberg associates with Gide's Promethee mal enchazne (1899). Gide brings this survey, and in more than one sense the nineteenth century, to an end. This is a book that can be understood in various ways, one of which is connected with the figure who looms largest in this account of the admirers of Prometheus, and indeed is uniquely important to Blumenberg as he has been to other modem German writers. Suddenly, nearly two-thirds of the way through the book, Blumenberg tells us where it has been headed from the beginning (399): Everything up to this point in this book has a gradient; all the lines converge on a hidden vital point at which the work expended on myth could prove to be something that was not fruitless. It was not fruitless if it could feed into the totality of one life, could give it the contours of its self-comprehension, its selfformulation, indeed its self-formation-and this in a life that is open for our access, without the merciful hiding places that we all demand for ourselves. The life he has chosen, ostensibly for its accessibility, is that of Goethe. Blumenberg does not tell us why this convergence of lines is required to prevent his book's proving fruitless. He simply proceeds to provide his reader with 157 pages of psychological and literary biography that explore in great detail Goethe's identification both of Napoleon and himself with Prometheus, and the degree to which he perceived his own life as a reenactment of the Prometheus myth. The clue of this self-perception, for Blumenberg, is the "extraordinary saying" in part 4 of Dichtung und Wahrheit:Nemo contra deum



nisi deus ipse. This motto is appropriate to the self-exaltation, against fate and all lesser powers, of both Napoleon and Goethe, and it leads Blumenberg to a lengthy discussion of the attitude it expresses in relation to Epicureanism and Spinoza's pantheism, Luther's attitude to the deity, and the end of the Enlightenment. Taken by itself, this section of the book is of extraordinary interest; but, at least for a reader whose cultural formation does not require so strenuously coming to terms with Goethe, it is likely to seem a bit unbalanced. I suspect that it is included in the book because Goethe is for Blumenberg both the worthiest representative imaginable of the Romantic challenge to the Enlightenment and, at the same time, because Goethe also sought to retain the values of the Enlightenment as part of a fuller vision of human existence, a suitable model and guide for himself. "No one," Blumenbergnoted, "has ever articulated more precisely why reason admits needs, which it arouses itself, without being able, in its regular discipline, to satisfy them: not in order to acquire secretly, after all, the excess that is denied to it, but in order not to let unreason gain power over the unoccupied space" (401). It was Goethe, perhaps, who compelled him to reexamine his commitment to the values of the Enlightenment, to criticize it with its own instruments, and so, by the same token, to vindicate it. If this is so it would also help to explain his mixture of respect for Goethe with irony about Goethe's Promethean posturing. The first way to understand this book, then, is as aggiornamento:a bringing up to date of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The book can also be read as the most recent episode in the long love affair between German intellectuals and the Greeks, and this reading would help to explain a puzzling limitation of the book. Although it professes to formulate and test a general theory of myth, it is concerned exclusively with the mythology of the Greeks. One might have expected Blumenberg's concern with the genesis of myth to have led him to examine, if not more exotic mythologies, at least our own oldest mythological material, the mythologies of the Eastern Mediterranean that lie behind not only the biblical material on which he often draws for illustration but also the myths of the hellenic world. Yet the names of Mithras, Gilgamesh, and Astarte, of Isis and Osiris, are missing from this book. I do not mean to suggest that an examination of other mythologies would invalidate Blumenberg's theory; this is not a matter on which I am competent to judge. But it is odd that a scholar of such broad culture has not felt it necessary to consider their relevance to his argument. This omission does not, at any rate, suggest the method of the Enlightenment. The book may also be read as evidence of the intellectual pilgrimage of a singularly lively, imaginative, and original mind. Here comparison with The Legitimacy of the Modern Age is instructive. In my own reading that book was more clearly a defense of the attitudes of the Enlightenment and their continuing viability; it contested only implicitly the Enlightenment's own conception of itself as a "new beginning." The present book suggests, both in its argument and in its occasional signs of ambivalence, an increasing tendency to criticize what may have been the author's own earlier assumptions and an openness to aspects of the human condition not hinted at by either the Enlightenment or the earlier book. And while the earlier book took religious thought seriously only before it chose to distinguish itself absolutely from philosophy, this book



may hint that religion occupies a positive and necessary place in human existence as such. I word this suggestion so diffidently because Blumenberg's discussion of the relationship between myth, logos, and dogma and of the role of this triad in philosophy and theology seems to be equivocal and perhaps even contradictory. Thus myth and logos are at once distinct and identical; myth in some sense precedes and excludes logos (170, 600); and like dogma it seeks to end the questioning, which logos, operating in philosophy, persists in asking (25760). But myth is also, in another sense, a province of logos (350), "a piece of high-carat 'work of logos'" (27). Blumenberg also seems surprisingly ambivalent, at times, about dogma, so regularly denounced by the Enlightenment. Dogma, he says, "is not the consuming of myth by the bit of philosophy that it also contains, but is itself already a piece of remythicization" (256); and although antithetical to the tolerance essential to the free exercise of reason, dogma has its uses. Like myth the product of natural selection, it "is directed toward preserving something that is subject to attack or temptation, which presupposes a world that is full ... of attack and temptation" (252). In Blumenberg's work on myth, we may perhaps find hints of uncompleted work on behalf of a Blumenberg who is still situated a bit uneasily between two only partly integrated cultures. These are all ways of reading the book as a whole. But I am not sure that this is always the most profitable approach to Blumenberg, or what those who have found him stimulating and even profound have most appreciated in his work, which is full of incidental insights to which no account of this kind can do full justice. Philosophers, literary scholars, anthropologists, theologians, and historians are all likely to find this book valuable. As a historian myself, I should like to exercise a reviewer's prerogative by concluding with an example of Blumenberg'sarrestingobiterdicta relevant to my own discipline. In this passage he describes en passant and without referring to it directly, the danger implicit in a certain influential tendency in contemporary historiography (102): The consolation we derive from giving precedence to conditions over events is based only on the hypothesis that conditions are the result of the actions of an indeterminate large number of people instead of just a few whom we can name. But it is just as natural to suppose that history then becomes a process in nature, a sequence of waves, a glacial drift, a tectonic fault movement, a flood, or an alluvial deposit. Here, too, science works against elementary needs and therewith in a way that favors susceptibility to remythicization. Here again myth seems at odds with logos, but the observation invites, with some urgency, to work on history. University of California, Berkeley.