Friday, 21 August 2015

Husserl's edifying death

[a loose and free translation of Pier Luigi Fornari, "Edith Stein e la verità su Husserl," Avvenire 26 July 2015, p. 19]

In the easy way in which Italian papers contain items about philosophers, Pier Luigi Fornari has a little article in the Avvenire of Sunday, 26 July 2015 entitled “Edith Stein and the Truth about Husserl.” In contrast to what some say, it would appear that Husserl died a peaceful and edifying death.

It is a providential ‘lapsus’ on the part of Maurizio Ferraris that helps us discover the profound spiritual exchange between Edith Stein and her master Edmund Husserl. In his essay, “Ontologia ansiosa,” Ferraris tells us about the last dramatic days of Jacques Derrida, and in this context he mentions a letter of Husserl to Stein.

In point of fact, we are dealing not with a letter of Husserl to Stein, but with a conversation between the founder of phenomenology and Sr Adelgundis Jaegerschmid who was assisting him during the last years of his life. (The conversation itself was published in a famous German journal along with other dialogues with Husserl.) “I had no idea that it would be so difficult to die,” Husserl confesses. “And yet I have tried hard, all my life, to get rid of all futility! Now that I have arrived at the end, and everything is finished for me, I know that I have to begin all over again.”

Ferraris’ source, which is Derrida’s Il problema della genesi nella filosofia di Husserl, correctly attributes the phrase to the report by the Benedictine nun. But the philosopher of deconstruction mistakenly interprets these words as evidence of the human failure of Husserl, because of “an objectivist or idealist checkmate.”

Instead, if one goes further into Jaegerschmid’s account, one realizes that the true last words of Husserl indicate a victory rather than a defeat. Husserl’s agony began on Holy Thursday, 14 April and ended on 26 April 1938, extending over the weeks before and after Easter. Sr Adelgundis’ long account begins in 1931 and shows how Husserl slowly drew near to a faith that was intensely lived and not merely thought. On 14 April we find him still determined to maintain the neutral position of a thinker: “I have lived as a philosopher, I want to try to die as a philosopher.” Then things begin to change, in dialogue with the religious sister and nurse: “Is it possible to die well?” he asks. “Yes, and in deep peace,” responds the sister. “But how?” Husserl persists. “In God,” comes the response.

Later, at the end of a reflection on Psalm 22 (“You are my shepherd”) that the sister recited aloud, Husserl makes a request: “Now you must pray for me.” Towards 9.00 p.m. on Holy Thursday he says to his wife: “God has received me into his grace, and has allowed me to die.” From that moment he did not speak any more of his philosophical work and he appeared relieved. When he awoke the next morning he said: “Today is Holy Friday, what a marvellous day. Yes, Christ has forgiven everything.” Then he passed thorugh moments of anguish and of pain, but his struggle ended luminously. He said to the sister-nurse: “I have seen something marvellous: quick, write!” But when the nurse returned with a notebook, Husserl was dead.

We have a confirmation of this account by Husserl’s wife Malvine, who converted to Catholicism in 1941. The testimony is reported by Karl Schuhmann, the most rigour biographer of Husserl. Malvine recounts that for her husband, “the night of his death was like a revelation of the most profound mysteries of existence. Wonder, reverence, emotion, a presentiment of a wonderfully great reality, all these awakened in him, together with a feeling almost of happiness. There were no tears, he did not show any sign of bitter suffering. He lay in complete peace, his face becoming more and more beautiful, no wrinkle on his bright skin, his breath ever more peaceful. And when the nurse bent over him and said, ‘Proficere anima christiana,’ he breathed his last, barely perceptible breath. ‘He died like a saint,’ the Sister said in tears.”

It seems that Edith Stein has nothing to do with all this. But instead she does. She was following the final suffering of her master from her Carmelite monastery in Cologne, where she was preparing for her final vows, which she professed on 21 April. In a letter written a few days after the death of Husserl she said about a letter from Malvine: “The events of this week seem to me a real gift on the occasion of my profession. I was earnestly hoping that Husserl would pass to eternal life during this week, in the same way that my mother passed away exactly at the moment when we were renewing our vows. Not that I have great faith in my prayers or in my ‘merits’. I am only convinced that God does not call anyone for his own sake and that, besides, when he is happy with the offering of a soul, he is prodigal with the signs of his love.”

What Edith Stein had always thought about the sincerity and honesty of her master’s search for truth had actually come to pass: “The man who really searches for truth lives at the very heart of his intellectual quest. If he really aims at truth (and not merely at a collection of particular notions), he is perhaps closer to God than he himself suspects.”

Why do I keep discovering such things? In Jerusalem there was Minh Dang who told me about the little (or big) tricks that Heidegger had played with the work of Husserl and Stein. And now this.

Add to it the fact that Heidegger himself had that very ambiguous funeral. But certainly Husserl, if we are to go by the above, is clearer, far clearer – and more peaceful, in death as in life. That he passed his last agony in Holy Week; that his pupil and then Carmelite nun and later martyr Edith Stein should be praying her serene prayer for him; that he should be assisted by a Catholic nun and that his wife should later become Catholic.

And that I should discover that Stein’s godmother was a Protestant, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, herself a disciple of Husserl’s, and who wrote books that should be one of the driving inspirations in the thought of Joseph Ratzinger on person and community.

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