35. Feuerbach's Nihilism (Nihilisme Feuerbachs)

Greyscale portrait of Feuerbach, small version.
[larger image/full caption]

Ludwig Feuerbach.

Feuerbach's Nihilism

Nihilisme Feuerbachs

Excerpts from Feuerbach, Gedanken über Tod und Unsterblichkeit aus den Papieren eines Denkers

Brot eftir Feuerbach, Gedanken über Tod und Unsterblichkeit aus dem Papieren eines Denkers

Light is the source of all things,
luminous Nothingness,
the fountain of life
limpid and undefiled.
The source is Nothingness,
Nothingness is night,
therefore night blazes
with blinding radiance.

Oh mighty God!
Oh monstrous desolation!
Our end is Nothingness,
everlasting death.
Oh my blithe soul,
bear unshaken
this burden of truth —
bitter as it seems.

Once you are nothing,
are No-Self,
the eternity behind you
lies ahead of you, too!
Awareness of this
can wash your eyes,
give you light and blood
and bright features.

Ljós er alls upphaf,
Ekkert er bjart,
ljóstær er þeirra
lífs uppspretta;
upphaf er Ekkert,
Ekkert er nótt,
því brennur nótt
í björtum ljóma.

Ó, mikli guð!
ó, megn hörmunga!
Ekkert að ending,
eilífur dauði;
sálin mín blíða,
berðu hraustlega —
sárt þótt sýnist —
sanninda ok.

Eilífð á undan,
og eftir söm,
orðinn að engu
og Ósjálfur!
Það getur þér augu
þvegið hrein,
ljós veitt og lá —
og litu góða.

Date:Spring 1845.
Form:Three fornyrðislag strophes.
Manuscript:ÍB 13 fol. (facsimile KJH234-5; image). (On the title and subtitle adopted here, see below.)
First published:Partially in 1847 (A251-2; image) under the title "Brot" ("A Fragment"); fully in 1929 (1D231; image).

Commentary:        Judging by its position at the end of manuscript ÍB 13 fol., this may well be one of the last poems Jónas ever wrote.

The reputation and influence of the German philosopher Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach (1804-1872) stood at their height in the early 1840s. Feuerbach had begun his career as an admirer and disciple of Hegel and is often mentioned among the Junghegelianer ("Young Hegelians"). But he was never an uncritical follower of the master and he ultimately came to feel that Hegel's system was vitiated by its religious and rationalistic elements.

Feuerbach set out to demystify both faith and reason. Among his most important works — all published in the 1840s — are The Essence of Christianity (1841), Principles of the Philosophy of the Future (1843), and The Essence of Religion (1846). There is no evidence that Jónas was familiar with any of these major works of Feuerbach's (though he will surely have heard them discussed in Sorø and Copenhagen). What he knew was Feuerbach's early Reflections on Death and Immortality, from the Papers of a Philosopher (Gedanken über Tod und Unsterblichkeit, aus den Papieren eines Denkers), published anonymously in Nürnberg in 1830.1

The Feuerbach of this early work was not yet an atheist (as the second of the two quotations below makes clear). But he was determined to discredit any belief in life after death, and his outspoken denial of this cardinal point of Christian faith — as well as his argument that such a belief blinds Christians to the real value of life on earth — caused so enormous a scandal that Feuerbach's chances for promotion in the German academic world were permanently ruined.

In order to make his ideas both more accessible to the non-philosophical reader and more emotionally appealing, Feuerbach included a poetic resumé of them in his book. It is not possible to know how deeply Jónas had penetrated into Feuerbach's prose (though there are hints that he was familiar with at least some of it); what he chose to translate were a few excerpts from the poem, which he knew in the untitled form it took in the first edition of Feuerbach's Reflections (1830), not in the titled form ("Reimverse auf dem Tod") of the second, revised edition (1847), published after Jónas's death.

In the manuscript of Jónas's translation, he has written the Danish phrase "Nihilisme Feuerbachs" ("Feuerbach's Nihilism") in the margin to the right of the first strophe, probably intending it as a title.2 It is important to appreciate the fact that the word "nihilism," here, has none of the associations of moral and political radicalism that it has borne ever since the appearance in 1862 of the character Bazarov in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. Jónas uses the word in a strictly limited (and quite literal) sense to refer to Feuerbach's idea that Nichts ("nothingness, nonexistence") is the ground of being.

The first strophe of the poem is based on lines 153-4 and 167-8 of Feuerbach's poem:

Der Grund is Licht, das Nichts ist hell,
Nichts trübet euern Lebensquell: . . .
Der Grund is Nichts, das Nichts ist Nacht,
Drum brennt's in solcher Feuerspracht.3

Jónas's second strophe reproduces lines 109-12 of Feuerbach's poem:

O strenger Gott! o Herzensnoth!
Zuletzt ein Nichts, ein ew'ger Tod!
O liebe Seele trage doch
Mit Muth der Wahrheit mildes Joch.

The third strophe reproduces lines 149-52:

Das ew'ge Fort, das ew'ge Hin,
Das Nichtmehrich, das Nichtmehrbin,
Das wäscht die Augen gar so rein,
Bringt Feuer, Licht und Farbenschein.

Jónas rearranges these three excerpts from Feuerbach in such a way as to create a unified and integrated poem.4 The point of Feuerbach's lines (in Feuerbach's context) is that it is the total dissolution of each unique individual in nothingness that guarantees the freshness, originality, and brilliant colors of subsequent individuals when they arise from that nothingness.

Ich muß in Nichts vergehen,
Soll neues Ich entstehen. . . .
Das dunkle Nichts, der dunkle Grund
Der ist den Farben so gesund.

Jónas, by rearranging the material as he does and altering some of its emphases, creates a poem which suggests that acceptance of Feuerbach's doctrine can open up life and death, bringing a kind of enlightenment or spiritual rebirth, a cleansing of one's point of view and the development of a fresh and healthier outlook on life. This is certainly in line with Feuerbach's own view:

Nur wenn der Mensch wieder erkennt, daß es nicht bloß einen Scheintod, sondern einen wirklichen und wahrhaften Tod gibt, der vollständig das Leben des Individuums schließt, und einkehrt in das Bewußtsein seiner Endlichkeit, wird er den Mut fassen, ein neues Leben wieder zu beginnen und das dringende Bedürfnis empfinden, absolut Wahrhaftes und Wesenhaftes, wirklich Unendliches zum Vorwurf und Inhalt seiner gesamten Geistestätigkeit zu machen. (1FFS199)

This seems very close to the attitude adopted in a late poem of Jónas's like "Above the Ford" (and also, perhaps, "On New Year's Day [1845])".

In "Feuerbach's Nihilism," this emphasis is thrown into high relief by the fact that Jónas borrows several key terms from the creation story in the Poetic Edda, specifically from the account of how life was bestowed upon the male and female ancestors of the human race. The eighteenth strophe of "The Sybil's Prophecy" ("Völuspá") tells how three of the Æsir gods — Óðinn ("the High One"), Hoenir, and Lóðurr (apparently a byname for Loki) — came upon these ancestors in the form of two trees lying "helpless" and "weirdless" on the seashore:

Avnd þau nè átto,
óþ þau nè havfþo,
lá nè læti,
nè lito góþa:
avnd gaf Oþin,
óþ gaf Hoenir,
lá gaf Loþur
ok litu goþa. (Rask)

They had no breath,
they had no soul,
no voice, no blood,
nor bright features;
High One gave breath,
Hoenir gave soul,
Lóðurr gave blood
and bright features.

Jónas's appropriation of this language from the eddic creation story suggests the degree to which he is taking Feuerbach's ideas seriously and is bent on conferring dignity and stature upon them.

Feuerbach's poem is little better than doggerel — passionate doggerel, to be sure! — as the excerpts above make clear. Jónas's adaptation, thanks to the inherent stateliness and solemnity of fornyrðislag, is an aesthetic triumph.5

Bibliography:        For a slightly different approach to Jónas's poem, see Dagný Kristjánsdóttir's article "Ástin og guð" (50TMm356-7).


1 There is a useful English translation by James A. Massey, Thoughts on Death and Immortality from the Papers of a Thinker (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

2 The material adopted here as a subtitle begins beneath the third strophe and continues up the right margin beside strophes 2 and 3.

3 This and the following quotations are found on pp. 154-6 of [Ludwig Feuerbach], Gedanken über Tod und Unsterblichkeit aus den Papieren eines Denkers, nebst einem Anhang theologisch-satyrischer Xenien, herausgegeben von einem seiner Freunde, etc. (Nürnberg: Bei Johann Adam Stein, 1830).

4 The word brot in Jónas's manuscript note to the poem ("Brot eftir Feuerbach") is ambiguous: it can be read as singular or plural and interpreted to mean either "a fragment, taken from Feuerbach" (see 4E215) or "fragments taken from Feuerbach" (see 1D400). The second interpretation is much more likely, since Jónas never refers to a work of his own — even an unfinished work — as a brot.

On the other hand, Matthías Þórðarson obviously went much too far (1D231) when he interpreted Jónas's three strophes as independent of one another and unconnected, rearranging them in the order of their source-material in Feuerbach.

5 It is worth mentioning that Jónas's poem, especially its final strophe, underlies the moving poem, "The Road, the Lake, and the Night" ("Vegurinn, vatnið og nóttin") by the twentieth-century Icelandic poet Tómas Guðmundsson. Tómas knew Jónas's poetry intimately and in 1945 produced an important popular edition of it.

Copyright © 1996-8 Dick Ringler. All rights reserved.

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