Kant and Hamann

There’s a story related in Manfred Kuehn’s Kant. When Hamann finally moved back to his native town from Riga – breaking off his engagement with the daughter of the man he was working for, the merchant Behrens – he began to express opinions much different from the enlightened ones that he had left Konigsberg with in 1752. At that time, as he wrote in a letter to his father that he was being driven from the narrow society of Konigsberg because it stymied his ‘freedom to think and to act, our highest privilege.” He was, he said, forced into a “kind of life in which I can grow neither morally nor intellectually,” whereas in the wide world, with cities like Berlin, he could prove himself to his father’s satisfaction.

But he came back to take care of his father’s house with a different sense of what growing in morals and insights meant. This disturbed his friend Kant. When Johann Christoph Berens visited Konigsberg in 1759, Kant and he got together and decided to pay a visit – to make a sort of enlightened intervention – on their friend Hamann. On July 12, Hamann wrote his brother that he and his two friends broke peasant bread at a tavern in a suburb of Konigsberg, “Between us,” Hamann wrote, “our commerce doesn’t have its former familiarity, and we impose upon ourselves the compulsion to avoid all allusion to the same.”

I wonder, given Hamann’s new and ferocious interest in the bible, and in particular, in Job, if he mentally classified these enlightened souls as Job’s comforters.

What had happened to Hamann was simple and complex. He’d gone to London on a mysterious mission for the Berens House in 1757-1758, and not only failed in his mission, but had fallen into an old habit of lounging – Mussigang – and had made friends with a man who, he discovered, to his shock, was being kept as the lover of another, more powerful man. The rumors that reached Hamann had tempted him to open a letter that he’d been entrusted with by his friend – for obscure reasons – and Hamann had read for himself a somewhat obscene love letter. Alone, tormented by – as we know from his memoir of his early life – sexual desires (like Rousseau, Hamann makes a special note, in his memoir, of the boy who taught him how to masturbate), and broke, Hamann sank into one of the funks that seemed to overcome him periodically. Like the protagonist in Hunger, he subsisted on barely a meal a day, plus coffee. Then one night - the 31st of March, 1758 – Hamann opened the book of Genesis and read the story of Cain and Abel. He fell into a revery over the words, “The earth has opened its mouth to receive the blood of your brother”

“I felt my heart begin knocking, I heard a voice in the depths sigh and moan, as the voice of blood, as the voice of a slain brother, who wanted vengeance for his blood, when I commenced to stop up my ears against myself and soon did not hear – even as Cain did unsteadily and fleetingly. I felt all at once my heart swell, it poured itself out in tears, and I could no longer – I could no longer conceal from my God that I was the fratricide, the fraticide of his only begotten son. God’s spirit continued to work in spite of my great weakness, in spite of my long resistence, which I had employed up to now against his testimony and contact, revealing more and more to me the secret of divine love and the beneficence of belief in our blessed and only savior.”

That voice from the subterranean depths of London shattered his belief in pre-established harmony, or the advancement of knowledge, and turned him into a resistor, what we would call a reactionary if, in fact, such a call made sense in 1759, with absolutism heralded by enlightenment. Hamann felt himself called to Job’s side – and it is a great historical symbol that he happened to be friends with Kant, and communicated with him even after that failed intervention. He was never going to convince Kant that the world had ever opened up its mouth to him. On the other hand, he was never going to return to any kind of orthodoxy – any church. Hamann, like many disparate figures convinced that they were called to prophecy, fully accepted the consequence of the Enlightenment critique of institutions.

Like a prophet, too, Hamann had a disability – he had some kind of speech impediment. A stammer of some sort. He went to a quack in London to have it healed, but the quack was too ludicrous and too expensive for Hamann’s taste and pocketbook. Instead, Hamann threw that speech disability into his writing, and began a campaign of deliberate obscurity against the lightfilled flow of 18th century writing. In order to redeem prophecy in his time, he thought, he needed to reawaken the prophet’s old weapon of a rhetoric that shook with private, apocalyptic meanings – as though the blood of Abel were being gargled in the mouth of the earth.