Eilenberger appeals to what he calls “the spirit of the 1920s”, which according to him involved bewilderment at the elusiveness of time, anxiety about the dehumanising effects of science, and amazement at “the birth of an age of global communication”. He must be aware, however, that there is scarcely a decade in the last 500 years that could not be described in the same way. He is therefore reduced to tying his magicians together by means of biographical chatter. He cuts rapidly from one life to another, never shying away from sexual speculation, and summarises his results in breezy chapter headings...
I found myself thinking a lot about Bachmann’s writing when reading The Time of the Magicians, and not just because of the creative link she makes between two of the book’s protagonists. Each novel in her unfinished cycle, Todesarten (“Ways of Dying”), features a woman’s death that is some way mysteriously connected to a charismatic man – a writer, a thinker, a father, a lover. The stories make explicit a truth that is implicit in Eilenberger’s account of brilliant men boldly attempting to square up to the modern world. There is a blindness, a narcissism, that is not just a matter of philosophical missteps or theoretical wrong turns, but which belongs to the historical violence of patriarchy.
These vignettes are gracefully done, but don’t distract from how high the stakes were. They were engaged in nothing short of a complete reconceptualization of philosophy. Here is the millionaire Heidegger giving it all away to become a rural schoolteacher and proclaiming that if you had ascended the ladder of his work you would realise how pointless it was. Here is Cassirer, like a latter-day Casaubon, attempting to finish his The Logic of the Cultural Sciences just as he had earlier argued that mathematics derives from nature and art from myth. Then here is Benjamin – shabby, feckless, saintly and a martyr, perhaps the most concerned of the four about how modernity is changing everything. Benjamin is a Marxist, Wittgenstein uninterested in politics, except his own aristocracy, Cassirer a stolid Social Democrat – and then there is Heidegger. Eilenberger has chosen his decade wisely, so there is no need to go too far into his Nazism. It broods in the background. Some of his quotes “Every man is born as many men and dies a single one” would not look out of place on a Gestapo cap. Yet he is indubitably the thinker who wrestled most.
So the book’s structure is established, cutting between the lives of its four subjects with increasingly elaborate paraphrases of the concept of ‘meanwhile’. (At one point we switch from Benjamin worrying about money to Wittgenstein, who ‘was also preoccupied with his finances, albeit in a different way’.) It is nonetheless an enjoyable read, partly because of the author’s love of gossipy detail and partly because he clearly adores the work of his subjects
Eilenberger’s account of Benjamin’s increasingly desperate attempts to gain professional recognition (as well as his extravagant gift for self-sabotage) is highly entertaining. His treatment of what was a somewhat chequered decade for Wittgenstein is less original, and the biographical details will be familiar to anyone who has read Ray Monk’s definitive life of the Austrian philosopher.
At the distance of a century it can be hard to relive the intensity of the opaque philosophical disputes of the time. Eilenberger strains every muscle to reconstruct the epoch, its characters and the stakes of their philosophising. Encompassing as difficult a cast of men and ideas in a single narrative is a conjuring act of its own right and one we should be grateful to Eilenberger for even attempting, let alone succeeding. His book is also a chastening reminder of how little the anglophone world knows of the cosmos of German literature and philosophy.
Eilenberger’s book begins in 1919 and ends in 1929, elegantly tracing the life and work of four figures who transformed philosophy in ways that were disparate and not infrequently at odds... Eilenberger is a terrific storyteller, unearthing vivid details that show how the philosophies of these men weren’t the arid products of abstract speculation but vitally connected to their temperaments and experiences. Yet he also points out that as much as they were wrestling with life-and-death philosophical questions, the bigger crisis was still to come.
Time of the Magicians is worthy of the hype that enveloped it in Germany, where it has sold more than 100,000 copies — that is, a hundred times as many as any of Benjamin’s works in their first print run. It is a tremendous feat of scholarship, but more pertinently it is also a technical masterpiece, knitting together the four men’s love lives, money troubles, ontological anxieties and the wider ferment of the Weimar republic with uncommon dexterity.