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Youssef Rakha on the death of Ágnes Heller
Àgnes Heller – A legacy of inspiration

Agnes Heller
Agnes Heller | Photo: Robert Newald; © picture alliance/APA/picturedesk.com

Despite not having heard of Àgnes Heller until the launch of Zeitgeister, the transnational dialogue on populism, in May 2019, the Egyptian novelist and poet Youssef Rakha soon felt a deep connection to the Hungarian philosopher through her incisive and thought-provoking essays. A tribute in his own words.

By Youssef Rakha

Embarrassingly, I hadn’t heard of Ágnes Heller before Jonas Lüscher made me aware of her while inviting me to be part of this colloquy a year or so ago. Having had a vaguely Marxist father, I did know about György Lukács, though. He was a patrilineal idol of some significance (not that I can pronounce his name even now!) So to be on the same team as Lukács’s most accomplished student 19 years after my father’s death made me proud in a strangely poignant way. More than once it occurred to me that to meet Ágnes – a privilege that in the end I was not lucky enough to have – would be like making the acquaintance of the 20th century in person. That would be, what is more, the 20th century at its European best.

Later, before I read her terse, to-the-point and (as Jonas and Michael point out in their obituary) admirably youthful contributions to our conversation, I came across this quote in Wikipedia, about having had her life marred first by the Nazis and later by totalitarian communist regimes, “So I had to find out what morality is all about, what is the nature of good and evil, what can I do about crime, what can I figure out about the sources of morality and evil? That was the first inquiry. The other inquiry was a social question: what kind of world can produce this? What kind of world allows such things to happen? What is modernity all about? Can we expect redemption?” And, deeply humbled as I was by the woman’s astonishing life and her essential work, I immediately felt intimately connected to a mind with which I seemed to have little in common, because I believe my work is driven by the last two questions as much as any others. “What is modernity all about? Can we expect redemption?”

My sense of affinity and gratitude grew as I engaged with her short essays, which though simple and straightforward on the surface clearly reflected a grasp of the political-philosophy issues at the heart of what we were talking about as any I’d ever come across. It was reassuring to see that my fraught understanding of democracy, so different from the prevalent scholarly one, was shared by someone so well versed in political theory. And without her two points – that populists (or ethno-nationalists, as she called them) were democratically elected, and that what we understand by democracy requires “a cultural elite” of “spiritual accomplishment” – I could never have framed my essay about Egypt or articulated my concerns.

It is certainly sad to have lost Ágnes Heller, but sadness is tempered by the certainty that she had as interesting and meaningful a life as any of us could ever aspire to, and that her words will remain a source of inspiration and comfort not only to the wider, global republic of ideas but – in a specific and direct way about which I am almost smug – to this tiny group of friends who have not met.

Youssef Rakha