"Precarious Thinking"

"Jan Assmann, Aleida Assmann and the World of a German Generation." Laudatory speech by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
© Reto Klar

It fills me with a tremendous sense of gratitude to be standing here in October 2018 in the Church of St. Paul for the purpose of celebrating Jan and Aleida Assmann and their “zweistimmige Lebensleistung” – their “lifetime achievement in two voices”, as the Board of Trustees of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade phrased it so eloquently and fittingly. However, it also fills me with a sense of inadequacy – one that is as unavoidable as it is precarious. I use the word “precarious” here in the specifically temporal sense to mean that there is no set guideline from the past and no vision of the future that can assist in the success of my words in the next twenty minutes. This subjective awareness of a precarious moment can nevertheless draw attention to many further, objective horizons of the situation in which we find ourselves together today.

The historical events of 1848 for which the Church of St. Paul is best known proved to be a precarious start to democracy in Germany – all the more so as the talk of the “end of history” unsettles us when we look back at what transpired. We live in an era of dwindling certainty regarding the conditions of peace stipulated by the Enlightenment and especially by Immanuel Kant, but also regarding those hopeful new interpretations that emerged after 1945 and again after 1989. Today, it is only with a tremendous dose of scepticism that we can permit the humanities – that realm of the mind to which Aleida and Jan Assmann have contributed so many vital insights for more than fifty years – to even contemplate their own institutional sur-vival. And, ultimately, given this backdrop, is it even possible for me to live up to the standards set by the Peace Prize, namely those of objectivity and precision, when my task involves speaking in front of and in praise of two of my best friends?

These two friends of mine were born at the very beginning and at the very end of a particular German generation, our generation, a generation to whom history granted the lead weight of a paradoxical – and existentially precarious – challenge. Anyone born in 1938 (such as Jan Assmann) could in no way have participated in the crimes committed in the name of the German nation; and anyone born in 1947 (such as Aleida Assmann) was still within reach of a call from the past obliging them to take on responsibility for actions that were not part of their own lives or their own remembrance (Andenken). This call was an appeal to work against the communicative silence and, worse still, the outright denial of the perpetrators. And, indeed, nobody has sought more consistently and imaginatively to think through (an-denken) against the impossibility of finding a solution to this paradox than Aleida and Jan. In doing so, they appear to have – perhaps incidentally – given the word Andenken a new meaning.[1] This new meaning takes the stasis of the remembered past and transforms it into the energy of an intellectual movement with no possible ending. It may seem improbable that the very good and very German poet Friedrich Hölderlin understood the title of his poem Andenken (Remembrance) in this sense, yet we can nevertheless see very clearly how for him, too, the remembrance of the gardens of Bordeaux led him to a thinking through – an An-Denken – of the promises and the threats of his future.  

Instead of reviewing the process with which today’s award recipients broadened the depth of focus now enjoyed by the word “memory” (Erinnerung), as no doubt many of you might expect me to do, I would like to instead bring to mind a series of moments and situations in which the two of them worked to think through against the presence of this inherited past. Their thinking resulted in a number of suggestions for the construction of new worlds in their nation; suggestions for frameworks of individual and collective existence that were infinite and could never become rigid – frameworks in which a life lived with that past was made bearable, so that we could then, finally, move beyond the initial trauma of our generation and begin to consider the problems associated with other, different futures. 

Without paying mind to any sort of chronological order or even the assumption of a logic of development, I will first concentrate on the concept of time as a central object in the thinking of the two Assmanns, so as to, after that – in a manner that is perhaps too phenomenological, even for a German audience – speak of their life in the space of dissipating national borders. However, my words of praise for this prize-winning couple would be lacking a centre if I did not mention the family of Jan and Aleida Assmann and their love – in a time when especially love and family have lost much of their self-explanatory nature. The same applies to the concept of peace which, in the almost seventy years since the inception of the Frankfurt Peace Prize, has unfortunately not become a merely decorative theme, but instead remains a very firm benchmark for the relevance of the prize-winners. Of course – and I would like to conclude with this thought – this criterion must appear, especially for people working in the humanities, at least initially as a rather excessive expectation.


As for the unique configuration of historical time for our generation, it was Aleida Assmann, in particular, who never shied away – indeed, one could also say she never hesitated – from using the evolving space of the public sphere to engage in controversial debates with a depth of expertise that could only have been gained in the humanities and with the sound judgement of passion. I am quite familiar with the power of her thinking and her words, because we find ourselves on opposing sides in one of those disputes, namely, to put it in elementary terms, Aleida on the side of understanding and myself on the side of condemnation. It was revealed that my academic mentor in Constance – whom I credit with launching a passable university career but also, above all, to whom I attribute the deep conviction that no work in the humanities should make do without philosophical thinking – was, during the six years of the Second World War, a member of the Waffen SS and unable, even up to his death, to bring himself to willingly answer any questions about that time in his life. Until that moment, there had never been a single controversy between Aleida and myself. But then I made the decision to engage in a damnatio memoriae, that is, to react with a conscious refusal of any willingness to understand – a reaction to which I am committed to this day. Aleida, on the other hand, and I quote, opened herself up to the “historical contexts” of an important achievement in thought, one that came to an end in Constance and one “that complicates the clear image we desire”. In other words, behind my damnatio memoriae, she revealed “a need for decontamination, a desire to discredit a work in toto so as to remove a name from the annals of the humanities. But this is not an easy task, seeing as when we – metaphorically, of course – remove that steel beam, a larger building collapses. And in such cases, we would have to also destroy and dispose of entire paradigms of literary theory (…)”. It was words like these that helped me – at first against my own resistance – achieve a sober evaluation of my own motivation and the consequences thereof. I have now come to the point where I can understand the opposing position – and Aleida and I have become part of a differentiated view together.

Like Aleida Assmann, so, too, is Jan Assmann a master of contouring his often productively counter-intuitive positions. However, his temperament is such that it precludes him from seeking out the polemic stage of the public sphere. For this reason – and not simply because he has clung fast to the culture of Ancient Egypt as the centre of his thinking to this day – Jan arrives at the present under much different circumstances. Allow me to quote him, too, here from his essay on “Todesbilder and Totenriten im Alten Ägypten” (tr: Images of death and funeral rites in Ancient Egypt) from the year 2000, still one of my favourite texts after many years of reading in the humanities: “[M]an, who has fallen outside the order of nature […] through a superabundance of knowledge, must create an artificial world in which he can live – and that is culture. Culture arises from knowledge of death and mortality. Culture represents the attempt to create a space and a time in which man can think his way out of the [finite] horizon and of his life and [trace the lines] of his action, experience and plans […].”[2] What sounds in all lucidity like the defining résumé of a thesis drawn from the history of philosophy, is actually a breathtaking provocation by the author Jan Assmann, which he then illustrates and develops further with the incomparable expertise of a specialist who has long since entered the hall of fame of his discipline. 

In contrast to the sharp awareness of difference found in the conception of a narrow present in the “historical worldview” of Western culture, we learn that the Egyptians, in response to the trauma of human finitude, created a present that extended without beginning or end into the past and into the future: into the past by means of the concept of “Ma’at”, that is, an obligation handed down by the state to maintain the presence of a tradition of moral life through memory; and into the future with the hope of surviving individual death by integrating the individual into the cycles of nature by means of particular funeral rites. Still, descriptions such as these – as sublime as they are – are never found at the end of Jan’s works. His sentence dedicated to the Egyptian pyramids, according to which “the message of these stones is one massive protest against death and surely the most grandiose attempt to overcome death that humankind has ever attempted”, succeeds at almost silently lending that present – which is infinite on both sides – the status of an existential yearning today. In our own age, this status gives our imagination the gift of an alternative to our historical worldview – and perhaps even the vision of a new, ecological temporality of conservation.


The political potential of such thoughts reveals itself, quite surprisingly, when we bring to mind the post-national spatial conditions in which it emerged in the lives of Jan and Aleida Assmann. Both took part in excavations in Egypt while they were still students at university. Jan’s thesis on the dialectical origins – in the Hegelian sense – of Jewish theology from out of an Egyptian-polytheistic pre-history was met with such an intense resonance in Israel that he very quickly became an honorary doctor at Hebrew University. This possibly also marked the beginning of Aleida’s polemical familiarity with the tension between Jewish and Palestinian memorial sites. Her own pre-history in English-language studies included a high school year in San José, California, where she became the first piccolo flutist to play in the school’s marching band. Indeed, both Assmanns have kept faith, even in difficult times, with our American universities. However, via England and France, in particular, Jan and Aleida also became Europeans avant la lettre institutionnelle. They were both born in northern Germany, and rather than “settling down” in one place, they found the axis of their lives running between Heidelberg and Constance. This came to pass, of course, because being the true cosmopolitans they are, all they ever find anywhere – even at home – is a constant flow of new questions and uncertainties, that is to say, nowhere do they find the peace of final certainty.


This was also already the case at a series of “international and interdisciplinary colloquia”, as we proudly called them back then, in today’s Dubrovnik in Croatia, where we three young colleagues became friends. Aleida and Jan travelled to the gathering with their five children, Vincent, David, Marlene, Valerie and Corinna, and never capitulated to the inevitable logistical difficulties of such an undertaking. On the contrary, the children were present almost every day during the two-week colloquium at most of our discussions, some of which lasted twelve hours. The concentrated liveliness with which the children read picture books, played in the aisles and drew caricatures of conference participants impressed us all just as much as the thirst for knowledge and attentive attention displayed by Aleida and Jan, who would pass a pencil back and forth like a relay baton while taking notes in their beautiful (and similar) penmanship.

What I am recounting here is more than a petit genre of childrearing rendered golden by the retrospective view of advancing years. Instead, my memory contains a tinge of friendly envy with regard to the success of the thinking through (An-Denken) against the ghastly alternatives of a life as intellectuals or as parents. And, in addition to that, I do believe that my friends have succeeded in not letting their passion for one another deteriorate into a routine partnership, a division of labour or even a synthesis. They love each other because they are so deeply different, even in their intellectual strengths and gestures; and this status of being-completely-different from one another has allowed them to keep a fire burning – one that lends two-fold energy to thought – even as they themselves advance in years. Although this kind of joy cannot and should not become a “prescription for young academic families”, it most definitely continues to have an impact as a form of encouragement and as a thing of beauty.


In other words, one can say with confidence that Jan and Aleida Assmann deserve a Peace Prize, because they have proven that family and love remain an organon of coexistence in understanding, affection and passion, even under new circumstances. However, I find such words a bit too peaceful and sweeping, and this prompts me to want to think further, that is, to think through (An- and Weiter-Denken). If we find ourselves responding to the fragility of today’s peace more with fear than mere concern, then it would behove us – with a view to Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” – to try to determine, with as much precision as possible, which conditions of peace have, in fact, become fragile. No doubt, this applies, first, to the positive limitation “of world citizenship to conditions of universal hospitality” (Kant’s third definitive article); and, second, to the demand that “no state shall by force interfere with the constitution or government of another state” (Kant’s fifth preliminary article). Today, the drastic extent to which so many states – especially in North America and in continental Europe – avail themselves of the right conceded even by Kant to refuse hospitality to strangers is ever-present and the subject of daily debate. And, at the same time, a tone of moral superiority – not least in Germany – has spread, an approach with which one seeks to interfere in the “constitution and government of another state”, for example, by imposing one’s own form of the separation of powers and political interaction on other political systems with a level of self-satisfaction that forgets all shame associated with German history between 1933 and 1945.

Can an expert in English literature and an Egyptologist have a serious impact on tendencies such as these – that is, can they think through (an-denken) against these tendencies – in a manner that is effective beyond their role as the protagonists of a Sunday speech? Aleida Assmann has devoted herself to fostering the willingness for greater hospitality, particularly in the societies of Eastern Europe and the so-called “Middle East”. She has done so, above all, by arguing in favour of clear and critical appraisals of each respective history and in favour of a turn towards the idiosyncrasies found in the cultures of the respective other (and often also of the respective excluded person). Jan Assmann’s thesis – one that he has been refining for over two decades – focuses on revealing a historical connection between the claim to absolute validity made by theological monotheisms, on the one hand, and political totalitarianisms, on the other – a theory that has served from the very beginning as a warning sign for European intellectuals against the perils of moral arrogance.

And yet, the humanists among us, in particular, should not succumb to any illusions, even in the atmosphere of peace – the Friedensstimmung – here on this celebratory morning. We cannot demand that politicians pay us any attention and express interest or confidence in our experiences or even our judgement. Indeed, we humanists will never attain the level of respect for learning in the fields of history and the arts that was cultivated, for example, by Wilhelminian society in the era of Theodor Mommsen, who was honoured with the Nobel Prize for Literature – only the second one awarded at the time – for his work as a historian of the Roman Empire. The dimensions of respect which Aleida Assmann and Jan Assmann have reclaimed – as a result of their noble erudition, patience and especially their passion for our generation of humanist scholars in Germany – are indeed much more precarious, despite all of the differentiation relating to the diversity of their talents. By means of the sober clarity of her thinking and her language, Aleida has succeeded in regaining a right that was perhaps squandered in an age of all too pretentious theories, namely the right to be heard and taken seriously. In contrast, if we make our way along the ongoing reception of Jan Assmann’s work, what we find is his persistent delight in the surprising and often counter-intuitive ideas he finds – especially in the pre-ancient worlds – and which he renders as concrete counter-images to that which seems immutable and always already existing. I like to describe this gift of his as “risky thinking”, and I admire it just as much as I admire Aleida’s friendly earnestness. Indeed, I adore my two friends equally and particularly in their contrast.


I would like to conclude by arguing that no higher or more demanding claim with regard to thought and peace could have been achieved by the humanist scholars of our German generation. Being humanist scholars also means, however, that the time for remembering Aleida’s and Jan’s achievements will indeed most likely be short-lived, shorter than that of many athletes, artists, actors or politicians. It is almost impossible to suppress this thought – one we should probably reveal to our younger colleagues – beyond the age of seventy. Nor is it likely that any member of our generation, not even Aleida Assmann and Jan Assmann, will win the Nobel Prize for Literature or the Nobel Peace Prize in the foreseeable future. This is why we should hold fast and as long as possible to the present of this celebratory morning in Frankfurt, so that we may thank Jan and Aleida with pure joy for their “lifetime achievement in two voices” from many perspectives and for many reasons. That is, before our uniquely precarious everyday lives in this historical post-historic era of ours return tomorrow morning and call on us all to think through

[1] Translator’s note: The German noun Andenken can be used to refer to a memory, a souvenir, a remembrance, etc. The verb andenken describes the act of remembering, contemplating or thinking about something. In this essay, Professor Gombrecht uses both the noun and the verb in a number of different ways, placing particular emphasis on a new interpretation of an-denken as a form of what has been translated here as a “thinking through”.

[2] Taken here from Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt by Jan Assmann. Translated from the German by David Lorton, Cornell University Press, Cornell. 2005, pp.  6-7.


Translated into English by The Hagedorn Group.