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On and on it ran, past many sights [Erscheinungen], but took no notice of the sights it passed. On and on it ran, past many people, but took no notice of anyone. On and on it ran, until nightfall, but the child took no notice of the night. It gave heed neither to day nor night, neither to objects nor people, gave no heed to the sun and none to the moon and every bit as little to the stars. Further and further it ran, neither frightened nor hungry, always with the one thought in mind, the one notion-- the notion, that is, of looking for the end of the world and running till it got there. (101)In the course of its wanderings, the child entertains various fantasies as to the nature ofits goal:
On and on the child ran, imagining the end of the world first as a high wall, then as a deep abyss, then as a beautiful green meadow, then as a lake, then as a polka-dotted cloth, then as a thick, wide paste, then simply as pure air, then as a clean white plain, then as a sea of bliss in which it could rock forever, then as a brownish path, then as nothing at all or as something the child itself, alas, couldn't quite identify. (101)As we might expect, the project doesn't go well. But after much searching, the child comes upon a farmer who, knowing that a farmhouse nearby is called "End of the World," informs the child that its goal lies only a half-hour's walk away. Exhausted from its travels, the child finally arrives at what the farmer's wife confirms to be "the end of the world." Upon awaking from much needed sleep, the child, who we now learn is a young girl, asks if she might stay at the farm and be of service to the family. She is taken into the home of the farmer's family, at first as a maid but with the promise of a future as a genuine member of the clan: "It set heartily about its chores and went diligently to work [Es fing an fieissig zu werken und wacker zu dienen], and so was soon liked by everyone, and never did the child run off again, for it felt at home" (102).
And whenever preparations were being made for the spinning of the top, he hoped that this time it would succeed: as soon as the top began to spin and he was running breathlessly after it, the hope would turn to certainty, but when he held the silly piece of wood in his hand, he felt nauseated. (444)The project's repeated failures generate a quasi-psychotic state in the philosopher whereby he begins to assimilate to the properties of the object of his fixation: "The screaming of the children, which hitherto he had not heard and which now suddenly pierced his ears, chased him away, and he tottered like a top under a clumsy whip" (444).
From the beginning as well as from the end the world is "infinite," from the beginning infinite in space, toward the end infinite in time. Only from the center does there arise a bounded home in the unbounded world, a patch of ground between four tent pegs, that can be posted further and further out. ("Germ Cell," 57)Rosenzweig's decision, in 1920, to turn down the possibility of an academic career as a professional historian--he had written a brilliant dissertation on Hegel's political philosophy under the supervision of Friedrich Meinecke--represents the existential dimension of these philosophical concerns with the difficulties and complexities of opening to the middle of life--of, as it were, avoiding the temptations to which Walser's little girl and Kafka's philosopher succumb. Rosenzweig clearly began to experience the entire academic enterprise as a kind of defense against the exigencies of being in the midst of life, the forms of answer ability he was coming to associate with it. In the letter he wrote to Meinecke who had offered him a lectureship in Berlin, Rosenzweig explains the "dark drive" that now, as it were, binds him to a patch of ground between four tent pegs (Rosenzweig had, by this time, decided to dedicate his life to the project of Jewish adult education in the context of the new Judisches Lehrhaus in Frankfurt). As Rosenzweig tells it, this drive emerged in the context of a breakdown: "In 1913 something happened to me for which collapse [Zusammenbruch] is the only fitting name. I suddenly found myself on a heap of wreckage, or rather I realized that the road I was then pursuing was flanked by unrealities." Of the academic road he had been traveling, Rosenzweig writes that it "was the very road defined for me by my talent, and my talent only. I began to sense how meaningless such a subjection to the rule of one's talent was and what abject servitude of the self it involved."
I must tell you something that will grieve you and may at first appear incomprehensible to you: after prolonged, and I believe thorough, self-examination, I have reversed my decision. It no longer seems necessary to me, and therefore, being what I am, no longer possible. I will remain a Jew.Against this background, we can better understand the terms in which Rosenzweig, in his letter to Meinecke, relates the story of his 1913 collapse and recovery, which is the story of a breakdown that became a life-defining breakthrough. At first, Rosenzweig employs an extended metaphor, that of contracting into himself, of withdrawing, as he puts it, to "a place whither talents could not follow" and where an "ancient treasure chest" whose existence he had never forgotten but which he had never fully explored was found to contain his "most personal possessions, things inherited, not borrowed...." For Rosenzweig, the upshot of this self-contraction was the impossibility of pursuing an academic career as an intellectual historian: "The one thing I wish to make clear is that scholarship [Wissenschaft] no longer holds the center of my attention, and that my life has fallen under the rule of a 'dark drive' which I'm aware that I merely name by calling it 'my Judaism.'" One of the effects of this "rule" was, as Rosenzweig put it, that he was now "more firmly rooted in the earth" than he had been when he wrote Hegel and the State under Meinecke's supervision. One aspect of this new rootedness (correlative to the "rule of a 'dark drive'") was an enhanced capacity to find value in the mundane details of everyday life: "The small--at times exceedingly small--thing called [by Goethe] 'demand of the day' [Forderung des Tages] which is made upon me in my position at Frankfurt, I mean the nerve-wracking, picayune, and at the same time very necessary struggles with people and conditions, have now become the real core of my existence--and I love this form of existence despite the inevitable annoyance that goes with it." And in language that recalls the conclusion of Walser's story, Rosenzweig writes, "Cognition [Erkennen] no longer appears to me as an end in itself. It has turned into service [Dienst], a service to human beings...."
Excerpted from On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig by Eric L. Santner Copyright © 2001 by Eric L. Santner. Excerpted by permission.
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