Other relevant keywords: border, pessimism
Boris Khazanov (1928–2022)
Boris Khazanov (a pseudonym of Gennady Faibusovich), a writer and an essayist, is one of the most significant representatives of Russian–Jewish philosophical personalism. Born in Leningrad, he was educated in classical philology at Moscow State University and was arrested in 1949 for “anti-Soviet” activity. Upon his release in 1955, Khazanov became a medical doctor and worked for many years as a physician. In 1982, he emigrated to Germany and settled in Munich, where he edited (together with Kronid Liubarsky) an influential Russian-language political-philosophical journal, Strana i mir (The Country and the World). He is the author of several books of philosophical fiction and essays, which concentrate on existentialist and national themes.
Russian and Jewish Personalism
Personalist thinking in Russia incorporates a strong Jewish component, introduced by one of its principal founders, Lev Shestov (1866–1938). It would be interesting to compare the two mainstreams of Russian personalism, one deriving from a purely Russian source, Vasily Rozanov (1856–1919), and the Jewish trend originating with Shestov. Personalism as such presupposes a challenge to the dictatorship of generalities grounded in reason and proceeds from the uniqueness of the human personality. However, the source of this uniqueness may be conceived in different ways. Rozanov, much like his successor the writer Mikhail Prishvin (1873–1954), was oriented toward the organic relationship of personality and corporeality, which for Rozanov expressed itself as sexuality and marriage and for Prishvin, as the natural world. For Shestov and his successors, Russian-Jewish thinkers like Yakov Druskin (1902-1980), Grigory Pomerants (1918-2013), and Khazanov, the antithesis of reason is faith rather than nature, and the source of human uniqueness is found in one’s complicated and contradictory relationship with God.
Nation and Personality
As in the case of other personalists, Khazanov’s polemics are directed against nationalism, including its most refined philosophical premises, which tend to identify nation with a single personality and to extrapolate onto a whole people such categories as “will,” “destiny,” “fear,” and “hope.” As soon as a nation is viewed as a personality with its own soul and fate, a real personality becomes a mere supplement to this enormous collectivist entity:
Russia is a huge body, a warm female body. To sink into it completely, to dissolve in it. … This is, properly speaking, whence comes the concept of nation as a higher existentiality, embracing individual existences, all of us without exclusion; and contemporary Russian nationalism has added nothing new to this concept. (Mif Rossiia 108)
Khazanov embodies the Jewish personalist tenet quite explicitly, as he focuses much of his work on the existential problems of Russian Jewry. Russia, in his definition, is the country where absurdity is not just a metaphysical principle but a constant condition of everyday existence. What German and French existentialists managed to express in concise philosophical formulas, Russians experience as a daily routine. “The feeling of the absurd is not abstract. It may dominate the entire life, it may become a mass feeling. … This, I would say, is a Russian feeling” (Idushchii po vode 206). For Khazanov, it is absurdity that is the antithesis of religion and not materiality, since materiality is not opposed to meaning and reason. Soviet materialism, despite its avowed hostility to traditional religious faith, relies on a faith in objective laws of matter and on a historical telos, and thus is quite compatible with spirituality. Absurdity, on the other hand, is inimical to both materialism and spiritualism, since it denies meaning on all levels of existence.
In Khazanov’s view, being a Jew in Russia intensifies this feeling of absurdity, since the Jew has not even the solace of being organic to the place that engenders the absurd. He is alien even to absurdity, hence exponentially aware of his parlous existential condition. “You will say, ‘What about the ground, how could one live with an abyss under one’s feet instead of native soil?’ But the fate of Russian Jews is to walk on water” (Zapakh zvezd 284). This metaphor of walking on water provided the title for one of Khazanov’s most significant philosophical books, which features the problem of ungroundedness as its central concern. The core of this work is Khazanov’s correspondence with two religious friends that addresses the problem of belief.
Khazanov’s own position is far from the confidence of either the believer or the atheist. His starting point is the uncertainty of the human being, who is forced to rely solely on the uniqueness of his or her own existence. “The world is devoid of meaning, and a person imposes meaning on it. Heaven is empty but is reflected in mortal, human eyes, which lend it value and justification by the very fact that they see it” (Idushchii po vode 96). At this point, Khazanov’s position is close to Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, but without the idea of the political engagé. For him, meaning cannot be supported by practical changes in society, a polity typically too absurd to be substantively changed; and thus, it remains a purely personal spiritual challenge to the emptiness of life. A person is like a sailor on a sinking ship: it is not in his power to save the ship; “but which flag flies from the mast is determined by this man, and this is the meaning and the justification of his life” (97; see also 215). The flag on a sinking ship is the symbol of Khazanov’s heroic pessimism, reminiscent of Camus’s Sisyphus, who finds happiness in the absurdity of his existence. This dignified atheism—“atheism may become a formula of high human dignity”—allows one to preserve meaning in a world of silence and indifference (96). A person’s only destiny is “to determine his destiny for himself, because nobody else will make it for him” (214). Khazanov pessimistically calls this position “the morality of crying in the wilderness,” since nobody, not even God, will respond to this cry. Thus, the fate of human freedom in this world is never victory but only resistance.
The Morality and Theological Value of Atheism
Disagreeing with his religious interlocutors, for instance the Russian Orthodox priest Sergei Zheludkov (1909–84), Khazanov argues that atheism does not preclude spiritual greatness and moral righteousness. He likewise disputes Pascal’s famous wager as an argument for belief in God; the bet, in Khazanov’s view, presupposes a lack of value in earthly life. For Pascal, wagering on God’s existence promises an infinite reward (eternal life, a higher good) if one wins, but costs nothing substantial for the loser, since this world is viewed as transient and empty. Khazanov objects that the Pascalian gambler has already written off his or her life on earth even before the game begins. As an alternative to Pascal, he proposes that, in the face of the uncertainty of God’s existence, we choose to live with the assumption that He does not exist. In such a situation, “we are that which must fulfill in this world the function of God,” thus maximizing the meaning of worldly life, rather than, as does Pascal, discounting it (Idushchii po vode 100).
Atheism has the moral advantage of refusing to justify human sins with claims of demonic temptation and avoids the religious paradox of needing to sin in order to repent. Khazanov defends atheism against the charge of engendering the totalitarian systems of communism and fascism by arguing that Lenin and Hitler were not secular atheists at all but quasi-religious visionaries; thus, it is the mentality of religious fanaticism that may be charged with the atrocities of the twentieth century. For Khazanov, atheism is not so much an opponent of religion but one of its necessary, though long-neglected, components. Atheism, as a kind of iconoclasm, supplements religion by distinguishing between God and his false images and names.
Atheism and Negative Theology: God and Man
Khazanov revives the old monotheistic tradition forbidding the creation of God’s likeness or taking his name in vain. While proposing to live as if there is no God, he means to emphasize the real existence of God beyond human comprehension. “There is a feeling that forbids proclaiming God. There is no God, because He is. God exists in such a way that he does not exist” (Zapakh zvezd 103).
Khazanov cites the story of Moses, who wants but is forbidden to see the face of God.
God stands behind one’s back, never before one’s eyes. Let us resist, then, the temptation to turn around, since if you look back you will find nobody…. God does not want to be seen, he does not require declarations of faith, does not want icons, statues, prayers, glorifications. God must feel disdain for all attempts to violate the natural course of things; that is why, as one Hassidic teacher said, God is not generous with miracles. (103)
Khazanov’s atheism thus becomes an instrument of negative theology, which he compares to the dialectical theology of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich but prefers to call “border (pogranichnaia) theology”: “it refuses to talk about divinity because divinity is always on the border of comprehension, of vision, on the border of existence” (103). To support the theological importance of atheism, Khazanov notes that, even from the standpoint of belief, it must be granted that God gave humanity the freedom to doubt his existence, and that He blesses those that struggle against him, like He blessed Jacob.
Khazanov is well aware of the shakiness of his position, which remains “somewhere between the assertion that God created man and the assertion that man created God” (207). But he sees this uncertainty not only as a sign of the religious crisis of the epoch of secularization, but as a hint of a new religious consciousness nascent in our time. Atheism and theism will comprise two complementary aspects of this consciousness, which “neither denies the meaning of the world in the name of the world itself, nor denies the world in the name of eternal meaning” (241). He foresees a perspective from which the traditional antinomies of scientific knowledge and religious revelation will seem absurd. Following Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the outstanding Protestant German theologian of the twentieth century, Khazanov explains this vision as the outcome of the “maturation” of humanity, which can return neither to its childhood belief in God nor to its adolescent nihilism. Like the teenager who abandons his childlike notion that babies come from the mutual sympathy of parents in favor of a belief in the purely material process of sex, humanity has transitioned from its mythological conception of God to a scientific rejection of religion. But a mature person understands that love and sex are compatible explanations of birth, in the same way that religion and science are compatible explanations of the world.
Mikhail Epstein, January 2021
Khazanov, Boris. Idushchii po vode. Stat´i i pis´ma. München: Strana i mir, 1985.
—. Mif Rossiia. Opyt romanticheskoi politologii. New York: Liberty Publishing House, 1986. 108.
—. Zapakh zvezd. Tel-Aviv: Vremia i my, 1977.