- Witnesses for the Future: Philosophy and Messianism
Before appearing in Michael B. Smith’s fine translation, Pierre Bouretz’s Témoins du future, first published with Gallimard in 2003, existed as a well-kept secret in American academia. It was known to be a monumental study treating, with sweeping boldness, the very canonical figures that have occupied scholars of modern Jewish thought and intellectual history for the past decades: Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, Ernst Bloch, Leo Strauss, Hans Jonas, and Emmanuel Levinas. But, because of the barrier of language, its daunting size, and the ocean in between, it was rarely used and acknowledged in further scholarly work.
Seven years after its French edition, Johns Hopkins University Press has now, with a boldness of its own, made this book accessible to the English speaking audience, publishing, unfazed by the market’s dictates, a work of close to a thousand pages that asks from its readers what few other books dare to ask: patience and a very high attention span. Here, reading takes time, and the reader must, as with all great books, work tenaciously to become the author’s worthy apprentice and companion. After all, Witnesses for the Future is no introduction, nor is it, despite its breadth, a philosophical anthology; nor is it, for that matter, a mere synthesis of scholarship to date. What Bouretz offers is at once a Jewish intellectual history of the twentieth century and a philosophical book in and of itself, a book belonging, in some ways, to the very tradition it undertakes to study, while being, in other ways, a testimony to its afterlife.
The twentieth century, for Bouretz, was a century of extremes, a century that pushed its subjects back and forth between unspeakable terror and unthinkable hope. Our minds, Bouretz writes, still labor to form a “concept of what that century, scarcely over, was,” while our imagination “still remains imprisoned by our experience of the worst” (1). Within this labor of conceptualization and within the flights of imagination, there existed, for Bouretz, a certain school of thought, both rigorously philosophical and imaginative, realistic and visionary, that refused to surrender to the dark depths of time, imagining instead the possibility of a future unfinished. [End Page 167]
L’imaginaire, this obscure but evocative concept and the Lacanians’ darling, looms large in Bouretz’s book, and the translator, known for his renderings of Levinas’s writings, rightly wonders whether there exists an English equivalent. There does exist a conceptual cluster of sorts that allows us to integrate l’imaginaire into Anglo-Saxon parlance, for it reflects, in effect, what good utopian thought, from the time of its inception, has claimed for itself: not to be a flight from reality, a Weltflucht, but to be reality’s real alternative. “Actualizing utopia” (verwirklichende Utopie), Franz Rosenzweig once cleverly called this frame of mind, which, in contrast to world-denying “negative utopia” is “the utopia that knows that its nowhere is not nowhere but here.” L’imaginaire, though notoriously allergic to pedestrian utopianism, lives somewhere in the conceptual crevasses of twentieth-century “Realutopie,” as Martin Buber put it, historical future (geschichtliche Zukunft), as Hermann Cohen saw it, or as Ernst Bloch wrote, “utopia of the present” (Gegenwartsutopie) — utopias, in other words, that envisioned themselves to be in the here and now, agents in the same history they imagined transcending. L’imaginaire, far from being imaginary, shares this deepest utopian fantasy: not to be utopian at all. It lives as the faithful companion of suffering and terror, as protest against a world completed and irreversible — against the terrifying excesses of immanence.
Witnesses for the Future begins indeed with a protest against the world of worldliness, against the world of history. It begins with a protest against the past as past. “To reject the idea of the past as over and done with” and “to challenge the prediction of a blind future” — this, for Bouretz, would become the hallmark of the school of thought he has...