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Wolfram Eilenberger
Between Magic and Reality

Wolfram Eilenberger has written an epic novel: Epic not just in size – 400 pages – but with regards to its four protagonists, who are among the most important German philosophers of recent times.

By Friederike van Stephaudt

Zeit der Zauberer © Klett-Cotta Zeit der Zauberer (Time of the Magicians) cleverly links Ernst Cassirer, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin – four thinkers with very different lives and life plans, and four men who decisively shaped both German philosophy and public discourse during the Weimar Republic.

It all begins (and ends) in 1929: Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger are preparing for the famous Davos University Conference, where they will finally meet. Meanwhile, Ludwig Wittgenstein is about to receive his Ph.D. in Cambridge, while Walter Benjamin is once again in the middle of an existential crisis. Seemingly a snapshot, yet one that will prove decisive for both Eilenberger’s narrative and these philosophers’ lives.

Approaches to life and philosophy

We witness a studious and almost rigidly focused Cassirer confronted with the rise of National-Socialist fascism. We follow Heidegger as he establishes himself in the German university landscape and experiences his own vulnerability as he gets closer to his student Hannah Arendt while trying to preserve domestic peace with his wife. We foresee Wittgenstein’s failure as a village teacher and are relieved to read of his return to Cambridge. We get to know a restless Benjamin who visits brothels, finds love on a night out and has a hard time finishing a text or a job.

But we also see the philosophical approaches of these four men develop: Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms, Heidegger’s critique of Kant, Wittgenstein’s theory of reality and finally Benjamin’s idea of the translator.

History of philosophy – gripping and engaging

Eilenberger weaves theoretical expositions about these philosophers’ thought processes into his description of their lives, so that a gripping and surprisingly engaging web develops across the chapters.

Their philosophies are sketched intelligently and the most important steps in their development processes concisely set out. In a similarly structured manner, the author handles the phases of his protagonists’ lives while maintaining a critical distance at all times – with regards to their lives as well as to their philosophies. No life is being exploited, no way of thinking trivialised.

Not that Eilenberger could afford to do that, of course – at the end of his book, the former chief editor of Philosophie Magazin expresses his thanks to the well-know biographers of his protagonists. In terms of content, the book offers only limited new information or unknown details about the lives and ideas of its protagonists: Wittgenstein’s philosophy is the subject of numerous treatises, Benjamin’s excesses have been discussed in literary form more than once. Yet Eilenberger still creates something new: He brings these philosophers together so cleverly that new insights form in the meeting of their lives and ideas. The interplay that results from their sometimes conflicting positions allows for a new understanding of the spirit of that time.
Cherry Picker

Eilenberger, Wolfram: Zeit der Zauberer
Stuttgart: Clett-Kotta, 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN: 978-3-608-11017-3

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