Jürgen Habermas, born June 19, 1929, in a wood-frame house near the Vorort of Düsseldorf, passed away last Tuesday at the age of 78. The cause of death is, as of this writing, unknown. He leaves behind a considerable body of work and is survived by his third wife, Lucinda, and children Thürgen, Thor, Törless, and Robert. His inestimable contributions to sociology, theory, and Theory cannot be estimated.
My father, a man of profound erudition, often settled me for bed with a glass of warm milk and a few paragraphs of the rather bitter (and brilliantine) newspaper exchanges between Habermas and a crusty Jacques Derrida. I would imagine the latter’s sonorous, looping French as I lay tucked beneath my flannel bedclothes. Habermas spoke a workmanlike Italian and a sturdy English, but I’ll be damned if he could write a single word of Flaubert’s tongue. My father and I would discuss this, in some form or another, before singing the first verse of ‘La Marseillaise’ (he took the melody, I the baritone harmony) and brushing our teeth.
Habermas wrote many books and delivered many important lectures on many variegated topics, including—but not limited to—climate change and das Klimaschutzproblem, the status of the unborn foetus, the primacy of the Pope, university politics in Tübingen, and the emergence of a transcendent ‘public sphere’ for human communication. Known for his turgid, unreadable poetry, Habermas nevertheless insisted that his paramour Marlene Dietrich accompany him on his ‘recitation tours’ of the countryside, wherein he alternated between Dutch and German versions of his favorite libretti. The famed actress was known to remark, after one such occasion, ‘Ach du meine Gute Jürgie, was denn für Liebe ist dies?’ or roughly, ‘What the balls?’
In his forties, Habermas was crippled by the severest of writer’s block, forcing him into Luddite seclusion near Heidegger’s Schwarzwald home. His frequent migraines presaged the severe pulmonary thrombosis which was to later end his life. He filled his days with the chopping of wood. It is in these years of relatively low productivity that Habermas produced his twelve most famous works, beginning with Zu einer Kritik der Metapher (‘Toward a Cricket’s Concept of Metaspheres’) and ending with Comödie und Ökonomik (‘Comedy of Pigs’).
Owing to his exceptional infertility (1), Habermas led a solitary existence. His Frau Lucinda died in a duel with Dietrich one winter’s night in the late 1970s, spurring Habermas’s most intense period of personal reflection. Within a month he had lost fifty pounds, taught himself to read ancient Sanskrit, and entered the West German Defense Force as an intelligence cadet. This epoch is represented stunningly in Count Heinrich von Kleistermacher’s 1986 monograph, loosely translated as ‘One Week in the Brush with a Thinker.’ (2)
Habermas was known for his fits of preternaturally intense eating, which would sometimes last upwards of seven weeks. It was a gluttony without bound or sense. According to his (late) biographer Ulrich Steinhardt, Habermas could swallow twelve curry-sauced Würstchen in one sitting. He would repeat this exercise scores of times while watching synchronisiert versions of American sitcoms. He took to washing down these many pounds of Teutonic trans-fat with a gallon or so of artificially-sweetened Riesling. Such habits undoubtedly led to his later heart condition and death, this June, of catastrophic liver failure. He was sixty years old.
As of this past Friday, I had never heard of Jürgen Habermas. My father—a foreman in the local steel-bending plant—could rarely take time enough to wash himself and me on alternate Sundays, let alone to purchase the hundreds of collections of beat lyric Habermas produced in his ludicrous, meaningless time on earth. I can read no French and no German. Neither, coincidentally, could Habermas, the child of Hungarian immigrants, who was born aboard a tram-steamer in the Indian Ocean and remained without citizenship until his twentieth birthday, when be joined the French Foreign Legion. It was his only period of military service, and a difficult one, leading to spells of ulcerous fever that would eventually claim his life, at the age of ninety, in a small bathhouse near Geneva.
When pressed, I can say two things about Habermas’s work. Firstly, it is utterly boring and dense. Here is a passage:
_Wie froh bin ich, daß ich weg bin! Bester Freund, was ist das Herz des Menschen! Dich zu verlassen, den ich so liebe, von dem ich unzertrennlich war, und froh zu sein! Ich weiß, du verzeihst mir’s. Waren nicht meine übrigen Verbindungen recht ausgesucht vom Schicksal, um ein Herz wie das meine zu ängstigen? Die arme Leonore! Und doch war ich unschuldig. Konnt’ ich dafür, daß, während die eigensinnigen Reize ihrer Schwester mir eine angenehme Unterhaltung verschafften, daß eine Leidenschaft in dem armen Herzen sich bildete? Und doch – bin ich ganz unschuldig? Hab’ ich nicht ihre Empfindungen genährt? Hab’ ich mich nicht an den ganz wahren Ausdrücken der Natur, die uns so oft zu lachen machten, so wenig lächerlich sie waren, selbst ergetzt? Hab’ ich nicht – o was ist der Mensch, daß er über sich klagen darf! Ich will, lieber Freund, ich verspreche dir’s, ich will mich bessern, will nicht mehr ein bißchen Übel, das uns das Schicksal vorlegt, wiederkäuen, wie ich’s immer getan habe; ich will das Gegenwärtige genießen, und das Vergangene soll mir vergangen sein._
And now a brief translation from the original French, as recorded by my father:
_An earnest conjuration from the King, As England was his faithful tributary, As love between them as the palm should flourish, As Peace should still her wheaten garland wear, And stand a comma ’tween their amities, And many such-like as-es of great charge, That, on the view and knowing of these contents, Without debatement further, more or less, He should the bearers put to sudden death, Not shriving time allow’d. Hor. How was this seal’d? Ham. Why, even in that was Heaven ordinant I had my father’s signet in my purse, Which was the model of that Danish seal; Folded the writ up in form of the other, Subscrib’d it, gave ’t the impression, plac’d it safely The changeling never known._
Secondly, Habermas viewed words as a brute instrument and nothing more. His primary mode of communication was non-narrative modern dance. Often, on long strolls along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, Habermas would regale a bemused colleague (3) with balletic recountings of his third tour of service as a member of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Korea. Known for his peripatetic jocularity, Habermas loved to joke, ‘Mein zweiter Vorname ist Tanzer, also muss ich singen!’ (roughly: ‘My entire life as a thinker is rife with fraud’). Such self-doubt undoubtedly led to his early death, at the age of twenty-six, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
I must here say—and excuse so personal an interjection—that Habermas was the sweetest, loveliest, dullest dullard I have ever had chance to meet. Often in late summer would we stroll along the headier climes of his beloved Salzburg, laughing silently to ourselves, slapping each other chummily on the back, thinking only of evening and our time together, alone, playing chess, singing, lying about, before a fireplace, beneath the full moon, speaking a broken Swiss-German and asking, finally—who out there will read us when we’re gone? Who out there remembers?
Thoughts of this nature, I’m afraid, led to his late-night ride on horseback through the Pennsylvanian woods, I believe last Sunday or so, when he ran full-force into an oak, sustained a fusion of the second and third cervical vertebrae, and, well, just plain crapped out.
(1) Habermas was one of the pioneers of sperm-preservation technology, although his contributions to this field of medical science, much like Moses’s contributions to the plight of the fleeing Israelites, led him right up to, but not inside, the Promised Land of Fatherhood.
(2) Kleistermacher’s scholarly intentions were never clear. Some believe his pederastic relationship with Habermas’s eldest son Ernst prompted this work’s tendency toward creepily-sexual overstatement.
(3) Otto Siegenthaler, Ph.D., late of the University of Chicago, whose death aboard a trash-barge en route to Fresh Kills landfill eerily echoes that of his philosopher-friend.