One More: Maurice de Gandillac at Davos


Ok, one more post about Davos.  Here is Maurice de Gandillac’s rather deflationary assessment of the Davos dispute (in Salomon Malka’s biography of Levinas):

It remained a civilized dialogue between the elegant professor who symbolized the humanistic and liberal tradition, and Heidegger, who brought with him an entirely new outlook.  Mme. Cassirer was speaking of a real scene between the two of them.  But if there was something there, no one registered so much as an echo of it.  The students were far from the holy of holies.  Certainly Cavailles, who was our cayman, and who directed the general rapport in the session, gave an extremely positive summary of the exchange between the two men.  Many among us, myself included I must say, felt closer to Cassirer, but Heidegger interested in something new.  In other words, the tone of the polemic was, again, extremely courteous.  I was not struck by any particular tension.  Besides, had there been a great tension, Levinas would have stepped in as the interpreter.  

Gandillac continues,

It must be noted that we hardly imagined we were experiencing a historic event.  We simply felt we had something in common with Cassirer, while Heidegger was a great curiosity.

Gandillac also discusses the “variety show” put on by the students:

Cassirer was not easy to caricature.  It was done with such perfection, such fluidity.  I had never seen anyone speak with such a pure, such a clear language.  Levians really pulled it off.  With Heidegger, it was simpler.  I don’t recall if Bulnow had that rather harsh, somewhat peasantlike, voice that had so struck us.  In an article in Temps Modernes after the war, I compared it to Hitler’s voice.  This was a bit unjust, I was wrong to say that.  It was somewhat subjective, due possibly to the moustache.  But the voice was not the same.

Finally, Jean-Luc Marion, who, of course, wasn’t at Davos comments (also in Malka’s Levinas bio):

It was an episode that remained painful and troubling for everyone who participated.  It was a very ambiguous meeting, and I think that Levinas experienced it that way.  But I don’t think one can experience twentieth century philosophy without being imbricated in ambiguities that were not only political, but were the very ambiguity of the end of metaphysics. There was a moment when a number o benchmarks tended to disappear, for motives that were, for that matter, often rational and arguable. But when these benchmarks disappeared, at one moment or another, there was a price to pay, and the whole world was gripped in ambiguity.  Even for Levinas, it was not easy to have a simple entrenched position.

Franz Rosenzweig, who was not there, wrote a response, but I haven’t been able to dig it up just yet.  According to Malka, he (unsurprisingly) came down on the side of Heidegger.

2 thoughts on “One More: Maurice de Gandillac at Davos

  1. Thanks for all these perspectives on the “Davos incident.” Leo Strauss says somewhere that this encounter made it clear “for all who had eyes to see,” how lost was the urbane Cassirer; I find the “delfationary” version a helpful counterweight to such examples of what I’m tempted to call the received view, of an epoch-making showdown when the rumor of the hidden king began to circulate. What interests me is Cassirer’s remark– I find it noted in the introductory material to Humanism of the Other— that Heidegger was a usurper. Cassirer was not as lost-at-sea as Strauss thought. He suspected well what was happening.

    • Weird. I just mentioned Richard Cohen in another comment. I had completely forgotten about his introduction to Humanism of the Other. That’s an interesting comment from Cassirer. I think that even though their orientation (broadly) and philosophical training were quite similar there is something to be said for the notion that it was two epochs/pathos that clashed. I mean Cassirer cites Goethe, Heidegger draws from people like Nietzsche/Kierkegaard. Cassirer represented a forceful form of critical idealism, Heidegger seems to better represent the mood of a generation that had lived through the destruction of the “old Europe” in the trenches and in turn presents what Nietzsche might call an active nihilism. But perhaps that’s too forceful and dramatic. It certainly counters Gandillac’s delfationary comments, doesn’t it.

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