European Thinkers and Their Roots—Volodymyr Yermolenko

Volodimir-YErmolenko-120x120The contemporary Ukrainian philosopher and director of European Programs of Internews Ukraine Volodymyr Yermolenko talks about a number of important European thinkers of Jewish heritage, their influence on the world of ideas, and Ukrainian roots. The project “Encounters” is supported by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

You are listening to Hromadske Radio, and this is the new podcast of “Encounters, ” a program dedicated to various Ukrainian-Jewish relationships and contacts, and the encounters through cultures, history, translation, and philosophy. Today we are going to talk about philosophy. Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher, and also the director of European Programs of Internews Ukraine. He will talk about the philosophical exchanges that took place between philosophers of different heritage. He will also tell us the reasons why there are many philosophers of Jewish heritage in the philosophy of the 20th and 21st centuries, and if this matters at all.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: There are many of them. If we are talking, for instance, about western philosophy or about the philosophy of the 20th century in general, every third name there has Jewish origins. This is a very interesting phenomenon. There is, for example, Henri Bergson, if we are talking about the beginning of the century. He was extremely popular in France, and he was without doubt one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. If we take the Germans, I mean German-speakers; you have Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Hans Jonas. If we again return to France, there is a galaxy of stars after the war. There is Claude Lévi-Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas, who incidentally spent some of his youth in Kharkiv. Then there is Jacques Derrida, Bernard-Henri Lévy. There are really very many of them. And what is most interesting is that they are all very different. We cannot say that philosophy has one Jewish heritage. It is all very different. There you can meet the Left, that is communists or socialists. You can also see anti-communists such as Bernard-Henri Lévy. You can also meet religious philosophers like Martin Buber or Gershom Scholem. Besides, you can meet absolute atheists like [Max] Horkheimer or Hannah Arendt. This is a very interesting phenomenon of course.

Iryna Slavinska: Let us return to the beginning of this talk about the fact that there are many similar philosophers since the beginning of the 20th century. How did it happen that in this time a certain cohort of thinkers of this origin emerged?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: We are talking about an evolution or the integration of Jews into European society. I am not a specialist in this issue. I think we can talk about the 19th century first of all. If we are talking about the philosophers, we see people who gradually emerge perhaps already in the second half of the 19th century. But first of all we should mention the German or French context. If we look at Eastern Europe, the Slavic people, Germans, and Jews most likely existed there in separate communities. The most interesting things happen when these communities start to mingle and intermix. Henri Bergson is not at all connected to such a Jewish tradition. This is a person who had achieved much by himself. The key to this phenomenon is our compatriot Lev Shestov. Shestov is a pseudonym. He was from Kyiv. This is a person who is perhaps the greatest Russian-speaking philosopher of the 20th century. After the Bolshevik Revolution he emigrated and finally found himself in Paris. As a matter of fact, he very much influenced the European context. Thus, there were two people from Kyiv—[Nikolai] Berdyaev and Shestov. Berdyaev does not have a Jewish heritage, and Shestov does. Shestov for example has a book called Apotheosis of Groundlessness, that is groundlessness, a feeling that opposed the epoch’s various nationalisms, whether German or French. These nationalisms viewed a so-called cosmopolitan element in the Jews.

Iryna Slavinska: I just wanted to bring up the Soviet horror story about cosmopolitanism. [The campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans” launched by Soviet authorities in the 1940s was directed at cultural figures deemed too pro-western. There was also a covert antisemitism in the campaign as many of those targeted were Jewish. Editor’s note.]

Volodymyr Yermolenko: You have the cosmopolitan element and from there any nationalism at that time turned into antisemitism.

Iryna Slavinska: I would like to talk more about this absence of roots. Is it seen in Shestov’s work Apotheosis of Groundlessness or in the other philosophers you mentioned who also have this notion of the absence of roots?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I would not say it is the absence of roots. There was the French writer Maurice Barrès, who was against these cosmopolitans. He wrote the text Les Déracinés [The Uprooted].

Iryna Slavinska: I believe he is a major French antisemite.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Well yes, he is a nationalist. Barrès and [Charles] Maurras were two leading figures in French nationalism at the beginning of the 20th century. I would not say it is the absence of roots however. It is rather when there are more roots, several roots. Claude Lévi-Strauss is a certain philosophy, a certain mind-set that appeared in a French person of Jewish heritage who went to Brazil, was there among the Brazilian Indians and understood something about indigenous communities. Then he went to America and met the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson. Jew, Amazon, America, France, Russia, and again France, and thus the mentality appeared. Jacques Derrida for example is a person who has a darker color of skin because he comes from Algeria. He is an Algerian Jew. And again, for us Algerians are a stereotype—Muslims, Arabs—but there were a lot of Jews there as well. French-speaking Algerian Jews come to France and are influenced most of all by German philosophy. Shestov is a person who frequently quotes the ancient authors—Greeks, Romans—in his texts. I think this is most important. Hannah Arendt for example is a person who had very difficult problems. Very often those were Jews who rebelled against an orthodox Jewishness. Hannah Arendt had major problems with the Jewish communities.

Iryna Slavinska: Well I think you also have the issue of the Holocaust. In particular, the banality of evil as expressed by Arendt, which regards evil as a banality, and something common to all people, and not some special bestial nature of those who perpetrated the Holocaust. I think it might also be a sign of the struggle with orthodox viewpoints.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Yes, yes, I think this is a certain reaction. I believe that what Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil is refuted by today’s events. Or it is modified as suddenly she saw Eichmann as a Nazi, but he is just largely conventional. He is just a person who does not think critically, who is not creative, an anti-Mephistopheles. If Mephistopheles is a sparkling evil, then Eichmann is a gray evil. But now people once again strive for some sparkling evil. This is a big paradox. For example, if we are talking about today, is Putin a banal evil or a sparkling evil? I think he is a banal evil that is trying to become a sparkling evil. And this sparkle makes him attractive to others.

Iryna Slavinska: Speaking about Shestov, we return to the topic of Ukraine and I would like to ask about the ties with Ukraine. Of course, I am not talking about biographical relations or about some ideological relations, but about the exchange of ideas. It is about the mutual influence of those precious and valuable things that have been borrowed from that environment. This was perhaps not called Ukraine—it was the territory of the Russian Empire or the USSR—but still it was the local environment, and some had a very fruitful influence on what there is in Ukraine at the range of ideas.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I think that it is very interesting to analyze the Russian-speaking or Ukrainian culture of Kyiv. It is completely different. It is not similar to the Russian-speaking culture of Moscow. Even if we take into account the philosophers of the 20th century, I would contrast Berdyaev and Shestov on one hand, with on the other hand people like [Vasily] Rozanov. This is a completely different culture of thinking, because Rozanov is a certain physicality, some attempt to return to the soil, to traditions. This is the feeling of enormity of the country, which is very characteristic for contemporary Russians. I believe that this is a feeling of “vast is my motherland,” and it is terrible, it is a poison. But people from Kyiv are different because for example even Berdyaev’s concept of the spirit, which is often discredited, is still very interesting because the spirit is one that breathes. This is something that is not stable, but dynamic and historical. This is something that does not depend on any ground. I think this image of Bulgakov’s Margarita, who flies on a broom and eventually arrives somewhere in Kyiv, on the Dnieper, is very important. It is the image of wind, the image of instability, dynamic, and the image of something in a culture that resists this deepening into the ground. Speaking of Jews and Ukrainians, one of the examples is Paul Celan, of course. Paul Celan is a man who was born in Chernivtsi, on Kobylyanska Street, the former Herrengasse. This is a man who apparently knew the Ukrainian language. His name was Paul Antschel and this poet is perhaps one of the most prominent German-speaking poets, the man who revolutionized German poetry and who may be compared with Rilke. The man who was at some point in the camp and on the card that recorded how many languages you know there was a bunch of languages. There was Slovak, German, Yiddish, and Ukrainian.

Iryna Slavinska: This reminded me of the talk with Ihor Pomerantsev. We talked about Chernivtsi. This is a city where all the different nationalities and languages meet; a city with a certain acoustic environment and a city where it is probably impossible not to know the languages of different communities that are there because everything is mixed.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Celan is from Chernivtsi, and most likely it is some mixture of the languages. He was a German-speaking poet who wrote in German after being in Auschwitz. And in Paris he eventually taught German. I tried to walk in his footsteps, because when I lived in Paris, I lived near the famous Mirabeau bridge that in fact is very gray and not very prominent, but famous. They say that Celan threw himself into the Seine off this bridge. He committed suicide in 1970 but this is only one version, because his body was found downstream. The main image for Benjamin is the image of the narrator. Benjamin, a Jewish philosopher of German origin, was born through the reading of the Russian writer [Nikolai] Leskov in Paris. The possibility to live with many roots is a great discovery of this culture.

Iryna Slavinska: Because we mentioned Benjamin, I would like to talk more about him, because it seems that Benjamin wrote an incredibly interesting image of the arcade: the transition between something and something. The transition from street to street, from courtyard to courtyard, from one state to another, and so on. This transition, this instability that you talked about, describing the Russian-language culture of Kyiv, how much is it peculiar to Benjamin and to the philosophers, thinkers, and authors you mentioned? This flickering.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: That is a very good image. Benjamin came to it through some understanding that...there were different reasons for that, but it is associated with the image of lightning, I think. Thinking as lightning. Lightning is something that you notice at some point, but then it disappears and you try to recall it or work with its traces. It is a metaphor for eternal inspiration, it always is. Regarding the arcade, it is interesting that Benjamin worked with space. He tried to understand how urban space works in the modern city. Urban space in the modern city works as a very uneven space, a discreet space. You wander the streets randomly, because Paris is a real city that is interlaced with these arcades. Not like we have here where the arcade is some kind of Main Street covered with glass roofs. There, on the contrary, it is a labyrinth where you often find some remains of the medieval city.

Iryna Slavinska: And to some extent they were lost after the reconstruction by Haussmann. [Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann directed the vast reconstruction of Paris in the mid-19th century. Editor’s note] When the Haussmann boulevards were built; the arcades became rather uncommon in contemporary Paris.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: They are rare, but again, there are still a lot of them. Suddenly you fall from one reality into another, because they are the first commercial galleries that actually offer you such a hallucinatory experience. I mean the experience of communicating with the trade goods of the world and so on.

Iryna Slavinska: To continue the conversation, I thought that among these ideas there is an obvious pattern of thinking that may be useful for understanding the current situation in a Ukraine that is experiencing war. When there is that flickering, when there is a transition, where there is evil. Whether the evil is absolute, outstanding, or banal and gray. Of course, when there is a problem of how to write in German after Auschwitz, there is also the problem of how to write in Russian after the occupation of Crimea, and so on. Are there many different building blocks of these authors and works from the general treasury of thinkers from different backgrounds, different cosmopolitans or not cosmopolitans, and thinkers of Europe that we in the Ukrainian context might use?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: This is complicated. The same concept of the banality of evil of Hannah Arendt still continues to be relevant, as ordinary people often create evil. Evil is often done by little people who want to feel bigger, or who do not want to harbor any doubt. On the other hand, what is not working I think is a Jewish culture that so often formulated a discourse of the Other because it was so vulnerable. Levinas is a classic example of a man who has done a lot for this philosophy of dialogue, the philosophy of responsibility, response, and so on. In Levinas there are many beautiful things on this subject, how he defines what is death. Death is a retreat when there is no answer. You can talk to the corpse, you can refer to a person that is not there, but you will not get an answer. This kind of situation is one way of speaking really. The danger is that these people—Levinas, Derrida, and Lévi-Strauss—in their own way have formed the opinion that all are different and all have different logics and all are, so to speak, transcendent. The “different” for me is another world and I must do everything possible to understand the Other, or other worlds. No matter what it is, and how strange it is, it is different, and my existence as a human being is always directed to that Other. This works very well when you need to overcome something, when you live in some enclosed world, in one identity, and when you have to overcome one identity and emerge into another one. But sometimes it does not work well and we are now in a crisis, because after all it is the discourse supported by Russia that says we are different, we do not think like the West, we think somehow differently. This is not possible to understand. We annexed Crimea because we wanted so, because it is our sacred ground, because it is a kind of Temple Mount, and so on. Or Russia is a separate civilization, and we rise up against Western civilization. You say that we should appreciate the Other and other cultures. We are a full embodiment of what you want, the mirror of what you want. Do you want the Other? Look, here is Russian civilization. They do things differently and live with another logic. This becomes dangerous because we have to return to the idea that yes there is the Other, but there is also some form of human nature, there is a civilization and not civilization. And annexing the territory of another country is uncivilized. It does not show that you are a different civilization; it says that you are not a civilization.

Iryna Slavinska: What are the relations with the Other in Ukraine? You now gave the example of Russia and the existence of the Other in their ideology. How do we deal with the Other?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: We have a very positive process. Both Russia and Ukraine are rich cultural societies. Both in Russia and Ukraine there are Jews. Both in Russia and Ukraine there are Muslims, Protestants, and Catholics. But this new Ukrainian identity that is being formed, this is an absolutely multicultural identity, because there are Catholics, Greek Catholics, four branches of the Orthodox Church, Crimean Tatars, Muslims, and a Jewish community that is very strong involved with and supported the Maidan. This is very positive, but here we will understand them without seeking any special civilization. This is what distinguishes us from the Russians. The Minister of Culture of Russia [Vladimir] Medinsky said that Russian is a civilization. You can be a Muslim, but you have to be Russian as a separate civilization. If you recognize this Russian pact, then you have to say that we are separate from the entire world. We are Russians. We are a separate civilization. Ukrainians do not do this. We understand things on a broader level, that we are all human, and the identity is that we are all people. We are all different. Yes we are Ukrainians, but this is not an ethnic or civilizational characteristic. It happened that we are a united society. This is very positive. We have a chance to appreciate this otherness, but understand that we are united by something common.

Iryna Slavinska: In these conditions what do we have to do with the stereotype about the prevalence of antisemitism in Ukraine? This horror story appeared during the Euromaidan, especially in January, when the first real confrontation between protesters and the Berkut [riot police, editor’s note] started.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: You know, everything is now changing in the entire world. I think that the myth of antisemitism has been refuted. You actually present some facts about the Jewish units on the Maidan, or you show some facts about Ukrainian businessmen who control certain regions, or provide the facts about people of Jewish origin at the highest levels of the establishment. In the Western world this is actually not a problem. The problem is elsewhere. If you take this “Russian world,” it is gradually disseminating a different theme, which is not very noticeable. It is spreading the idea that instead of antisemitism the Western world is busy propagating Islamophobia. The Muslims are now what the Jews were roughly in the 1930s. This is now a very strong line of attack by Russian propaganda in Europe. From television channels like Russia Today and Sputnik. This is the greatest paradox because Russia’s allies in Europe include nationalist parties that are anti-Muslim. They always hit this point and they address Europeans of Muslim origin, Turks and Arabs, and they say that they are being shadowed, and that Jews or Zionism or Israel are now your enemies, and they are shadowing you. But this is the European background. Here, in Ukraine I think, on the contrary, we were oddly enough able to integrate this Crimean Tatar Muslim identity.

Iryna Slavinska: Yes, it was probably always integrated, and we could somehow see it and look at it closer.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Perhaps.

Iryna Slavinska: In conclusion I would like to say that the previous discussion on “Encounters” was with Leonid Finberg, who spoke about the phenomenon that he called “the architects of understanding.” We talked a lot about Yevhen Sverstyuk, who in the 1990s wrote a number of very important texts, including texts about the joint dissident struggle by political prisoners of Ukrainian and Jewish descent. We must remember the man-made efforts of such reconciliation. Because people who formulate ideas can actually be, and in fact are, the architects of understanding. Is there a philosophical thought in Ukraine or any legacy from those philosophers who somehow revolve in orbit, or are the architects of understanding?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I would add that, for example, in addition to Sverstyuk, the best texts on Ukrainian political prisoners are those texts by the Jewish Mikhail Heifetz in his Ukrainian Silhouettes. I often read these texts about Stus or Chornovil and they are extremely interesting. This specific communication by political prisoners, above all by Ukrainians, Jews, Armenians, is surprisingly very interesting because it clarifies matters. The West is very afraid of the question: “Are you a nationalist or a liberal?” You try to explain, you know, Ukrainian patriotism, that it goes back to the same political prisoners describing Ukrainian Insurgent Army fighters who were old men in those camps and were tolerant to everybody. You see, our patriotism was totally multicultural then and now, and on the Maidan. There are problems, of course, in any patriotism, but this pattern of thinking in Europe that either you are with the national flag and you are a hyper nationalist, or you are not with the flag and then you are a liberal. We are in another context, in another phase. We are in another space. There is an understanding here among the Ukrainian political nation. I think this is just very good, but there is a certain neighbor who plays cards that are not civilized and those cards are of a large-scale historical choice. Roughly speaking, either you choose 21st century globalization, or you choose the Second World War. Some people choose World War II.

Iryna Slavinska: Volodymyr Yermolenko is a contemporary Ukrainian philosopher who was our guest in the program “Encounters” that is dedicated to Ukrainian-Jewish relations and the encounters through cultures, history, translation, philosophy, and the world of ideas.

Iryna Slavinska was working in the studio, and you were listening to the program “Encounters.” I would like to remind you that we are supported by the Canadian organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. You were listening to Hromadske Radio. Listen. Think.

Originally appeared in:

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter

Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger