Margarete Susman was one of the first women writers in Germany resolute and powerful enough to enter what was in her time still considered the exclusive grounds of male competence: philosophy, theology, and cultural criticism. While even progressive movements like critical theory seldom encouraged women writers except in auxiliary positions, and the role of women in existential and phenomenological schools of thought came at the cost of being typecast in subservient roles, Susman, who lived much of her life in Switzerland, succeeded in what for a short time was a uniquely liberal climate to establish herself as a distinct voice.
A student and close friend of Georg Simmel, she followed him in recognizing even in the least important object “its relation to the truly human” and its importance for what she called “the great themes, that is, the being of the soul, life, death, time, eternity, transcendence, and immanence” (“Erinnerungen an Simmel” [1958; Reminiscences of Simmel]). Simmel’s playful attitude to the deepest problems of existence liberated and inspired Susman, and her younger friends and fellow students Bernhard Groethuysen, Martin Buber, and Ernst Bloch, to rely in a more assured way on their own capacity for subjective intuition. Mentor, friend, and philosophical support, Simmel changed with his own “marginal” writing the philosophical climate and ascribed to the essay its own theoretical dignity.
While Susman had published in 1901 a volume of poetry which she soon withdrew, and a second one in 1907, her career as a writer did not really begin until 1907 when she became a regular contributor to the Frankfurter Zeitung (The Frankfurt news), run by Heinrich Simon. Her first essay, “Judentum und Kultur” (1907; Judaism and culture), a book review, announces in its title the two main themes she would pursue throughout her writing.
While Simmel provided the intellectual backing for the kind of essayistic approach Susman would embark on, she developed her own distinctive style. Replacing Simmel’s rapid, associative, and suggestive thinking with a contemplative, introspective mode, her essays as well as her book-length studies reflect a thinking that self-consciously rests in itself. Designed as appreciative interpretations, her essays observe, listen, and strive to find sense in, or rather make sense of, the abundance of historical figures, and social, political, and intellectual trends and events that shape her time. Tracing the Gestalt or mental images of individuals and intellectual-historical constellations, Susman presents interpretative sketches that provide a framework to express her concern with culture as well as reflect on the individual’s creativity and the role of self-determination in history.
Her essay “Vom Sinn unserer Zeit” (1931, revised 1965; On the meaning of our time) is typical in determining the stand her writings take. There she notes “that [the human] is the only being known to us that searches for the meaning of its life.” The fact that, as she claims, no other historical period has been further away from an answer to that question marks the searching yet firmly grounded perspective of her essays. While a definite answer of who and what we are may be undiscoverable, the recognition that we are always in search of it reminds us of the value of self-examination and self-judgment, as encouraged by the reflective character of the essay.
Spanning the full range of the cultural history of humanity, Susman’s essays link the diversity of their topics to the central quest for the meaning and determination of existence. Questions of religion, history, and cultural imagination receive their specific urgency from this core concern, and give the essays their philosophical stringency and cohesion. This is achieved, however, at the expense of concrete specificity. Abstract and lofty, Susman’s essays occupy the problematic space between the material and the metaphysical, the factual and the ideal. In a unique fashion, her writing takes on the mediation between these extremes in the seemingly free realm of pure thought. It performs a critical move that navigates the discursive deadlock of contemporary philosophy.
With Das Buch Hiob und das Schicksal des jüdischen Volkes (The Book of Job and the destiny of the Jewish people) Susman presents her most ambitious essay, a pioneering contribution to Jewish reconstruction in the wake of Auschwitz. Published in 1946 and revised in 1948, and addressing the challenge of the foundation of the State of Israel, this essay examines the single most haunting challenge of modern times: the systematic extermination of the Jewish people in the midst of modern civilization. It is in the format of an essay, a search for answers to the unanswerable, that Susman envisions a possibility of engaging with the past. For, she argues, it is only by way of responding in the present and future that we are able to produce—retrospectively and without fatally rationalizing the irrational—a “sense” of the past. Through reconnecting with the message of biblical Judaism, Susman suggests, Jewish life after Auschwitz receives its meaning, for it is the encounter with the biblical that makes it possible to confront convincingly the modern.
Gestalten und Kreise (1954; Figures and circles) is Susman’s final collection of essays on key figures in intellectual history, including seminal studies on Moses Mendelssohn, Goethe, Kafka, and Franz Rosenzweig. Contemplative and often meditative, these essays bring to a formal conclusion her attempt to comprehend the great themes by way of careful and empathic interpretations of individuals in their specificity.
Born 14 October 1872 in Hamburg. Studied at a school in Zurich; Arts Academy, Dusseldorf; studied in Paris, Munich, 1898–1900, and Berlin, c. 1901, where she studied under Georg Simmel. Married Eduard von Bendemann, 1906 (divorced, 1928): one son.
Book critic and literary contributor, Frankfurter Zeitung, 1907–33. Moved to Zurich, 1933. Joined the socialist-religious circle of the theologian Leonhard Ragaz. Government restricted her political writings, so she published some work in newspapers and magazines under the pseudonym “Reiner.”
Awards: City of Zurich Prize, 1944; Swiss Literary Association Prize, 1954; Swiss-Jewish Communal Association Prize, 1955;
honorary degree from the University of Berlin. Died in Zurich, 16 January 1966.
Essays and Related Prose
Frauen der Romantik, 1929
Das Buch Hiob und das Schicksal des jüdiscben Volkes, 1946; revised edition, 1948
Gestalten und Kreise, 1954
Vom Geheimnis der Freiheit: Gesammelte Aufsätze, 1914–1964, edited by Manfred Schlösser, 1965
Das Nah- und Fernsein des Fremden: Essays und Briefe, edited by Ingeborg Nordmann, 1992
Other writings: six volumes of poetry, literary criticism, works on the philosophy of religion, particularly concerning Jewish questions, and memoirs (1966).
Für Margarete Susman: Auf gespaltenem Pfad, Darmstadt: Erato, 1964
Goetschel, Willi, “Margarete Susman,” in Helvetische Steckbriefe 47 Schriftsteller aus der deutschen Schweiz seit 1800, edited by Zürcher Seminar für Literaturkritik and Werner Weber, Zurich: Artemis, 1981:247–53
Goldschmidt, Hermann Levin, Preface to Das Buch Hiob by Susman, Frankfurt-on-Main: Jüdischer Verlag, 1996
Nordmann, Ingeborg, “Nachdenken an der Schwelle von Literatur und Theorie: Essayistinnen im 20. Jahrhundert,” in Deutsche Literatur von Frauen, vol. 2, edited by Gisela Brinker-Gabler, Munich: Beck, 1988:364–79
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