Thomas De Quincey who wrote arguably the best English prose of the 19th century is known nowadays mainly for his “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater”. But this author that had so manifold interests was writing also about philosophy, history, archaeology, theology, and economics, authored an essay “On Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts” and a series of articles “Gallery of the German Prose Classics”, in which he presented among others Jean Paul for the first time to an English-speaking public. Another skillful article of this series is on “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant”. This essay was republished in Italy and Germany a few years ago in a nice little volume together with an instructive preface by Giorgio Manganelli and other material. (I read it in the German version, by Matthes & Seitz publishers)
De Quincey who was very interested in German literature and philosophy, started about 20 years after Kant’s death to collect all surviving reports and information related to Kant’s last phase of life. At that time, Kant’s philosophy was not yet very well known outside the German-speaking countries, since he had published almost everything he wrote in German, a language that had until then no tradition as a language of science and that was therefore not very well known in academic circles outside the German-speaking countries. (Leibniz had still published exclusively in Latin or French)
The Kant we meet in De Quincey’s essay – and that is based mainly on the work “Kant in seinen letzten Lebensjahren” (Kant in the last years of his life) of Kant’s pupil and administrator of his household during the last years of his life, Ehrengott Andreas Wasianski – is at the beginning a man at the height of its intellectual abilities and health, a man whose meticulously regulated everyday routine was legendary already at his time, but also a man that liked to socialize at his lunch table with other men from diverse backgrounds.
Kant, who skipped all meals except lunch also invited young people to his table and was thanks to the diverse and ever-changing participants of these meals a man who was always very well-informed about any sphere of life that was interesting to him – and he was a person with a very wide range of interests and a great curiosity. The lunch was taken in a rather informal manner that kept everyone at ease and all participants helped themselves to refill their wine glasses on their own as frequently as they wished. (Women were not admitted at these occasions.) De Quincey’s Kant is a charming and witty host who knows always how to refuel an interesting debate and keep the relaxed but always focused discussions going.
We get to know Kant as a very modest person that secretly took a great interest in the fate of his former students and who used a big part of his income to help poor relatives or other people in need. Altogether we meet a very kind and attractive personality here. But also someone that shows us in some moments that the permanent working on philosophical theories and the publication and revision of his own works and the works of others took a toll on him. Some of Kant’s actions show us that he was not free of some “tics” that were maybe still harmless, but already bordering the pathological. Kant kept himself very busy to invent an extremely complicated device that would keep his socks in place without having a negative impact on his blood circulation and he could only work properly when he was sitting in his study and could see the tip of a nearby tower. When after some years, some trees in a neighbor’s garden had grown so much that Kant had difficulties to see the tower, he was suffering a major crisis and writer’s block – that ended swiftly after his friendly neighbor agreed to cut the tree tops that had such a negative impact on Professor Kant’s creativity.
During the last years in the life of the philosopher, symptoms of physical and mental decline are getting evident, first in a hidden form, then more and more open. Wasianski, since years part of Kant’s household, is the first to remark it: his master is telling the same stories several times on the same day without remembering the fact that he already told them before, his short-term memory is getting worse and worse and the notes he starts to make for these cases, he is losing regularly. The philosopher who is slowly drifting toward dementia is aware of this process and it is very touching to see the slow extinction of this great mind. His arguing with the servants – so untypical for him, but a result of his growing inability to make himself understood properly – his declining interest in the lunch conversations, finally his inability to read or to write his own name – there is not a single painful symptom that De Quincey (and his source Wasianski) spares the reader. We readers of the 21th century may be grateful for the fact that Kant was not bothered very much by his contemporaries and mostly left alone in his suffering. In our times, knowing almost no privacy anymore, we can be almost sure that sensationalist reports about his health and state of mind would be reported in the voyeuristic media on a daily basis, if he would be our contemporary. A kind fate saved Kant (despite Wasianski) at least from these experiences.
The last pages of the essay have something agonizing: every time the reader thinks (and hopes it for Kant’s sake) that it is all over now, a further deterioration is happening, until the poor man can finally die. His wish, voiced in one of his last clear moments before the end, to be kissed one last time by his sister and the loyal Wasianski, is touching even for the cool Englishman De Quincey (who makes it very clear in his meandering annotations that he usually finds the over-exaggerated display of feelings he remarks frequently among Germans as being not appropriate and a sign of weakness – Kant, the descendant of a Scotsman was more to De Quincey’s liking also because he usually abstained from such “French” habits).
Leaving the fact aside that it is always a great pleasure to read the prose of such a master as De Quincey, we learn in this essay a lot about the man Kant (not so much about his philosophy), things that are usually not very well known. But beside from that this essay is particularly moving because we all know that one way or the other we will not evade from the topic ‘dementia’ during our own lifetime – either because we might suffer it ourselves in the future or because someone close to us is spending the last part of his or her journey to the end of night with this diagnosis. That even a great mind like Kant was no exception to this is deeply disturbing but in a strange way also comforting. We cannot run away from our own fate, we can just use the bit of time we have in the best possible way. In this respect Kant set a good example for all of us.
Thomas de Quincey: The Last Days of Immanuel Kant – Die letzten Tage des Immanuel Kant
Aus dem Englischen übersetzt und herausgegeben von Cornelia Langendorf. Mit Beiträgen von Fleur Jaeggy, Giorgio Manganelli und Albert Caraco, Matthes & Seitz
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