Our Philoso­pher

  • Review
By – November 27, 2023

First pub­lished in Ger­man in 1986, this new­ly trans­lat­ed nov­el begins with an insight­ful intro­duc­tion by Hofmann’s son, Michael Hof­mann (him­self a well-known poet and trans­la­tor). The rest of the book sur­rounds the death-bound fate of a Jew who was dis­placed to a small Ger­man town at the onset of Nazi hys­te­ria in the ear­ly 1930s.

Gert Hof­mann tells this hor­rif­ic sto­ry from the per­spec­tive of Hans, an empa­thet­ic Ger­man boy whose physi­cian father cares for Herr Veilchen­feld, the provin­cial town’s recent­ly arrived philoso­pher — a pro­fes­sor removed from his uni­ver­si­ty, we sur­mise, because of his eth­nic­i­ty. Our Philoso­pher describes Herr Veilchenfeld’s phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al wast­ing away — the drain­ing of his Jew­ish soul — as he becomes the object, and ulti­mate­ly the vic­tim, of the town’s unhinged racial hysteria.

Stu­dents of Euro­pean Jew­ish cul­tur­al his­to­ry will rec­og­nize Herr Veilchen­feld (whose name trans­lates as field of vio­lets”) as a famil­iar arche­type: he is a poly­math immersed in high cul­ture and high-lev­el ideas, a musi­cian, and an artist (indeed, Hans is inspired to take draw­ing lessons with him). Hans observes that Herr Veilchen­feld seems to be car­ried away by his feel­ings.” At a din­ner one evening, Hans notes with aston­ish­ment the philosopher’s tears: Herr Veilchen­feld is actu­al­ly sit­ting there and cry­ing into his soup!”

These tears seem to reflect a num­ber of emo­tions: Herr Veilchen­feld is grate­ful for the din­ner invi­ta­tion in light of his pro­found lone­li­ness, but he’s also fear­ful of what’s to come. Like the many Ger­man Jews in the ear­ly 1930s who wait­ed for an omi­nous knock on the door, Herr Veilchen­feld has made sure that his bags are packed and stand­ing in the cor­ri­dor.” As a result of Hofmann’s mat­ter-of-fact, under­stat­ed tone, we feel pal­pa­bly the trau­ma of van­ish­ing. Lit­tle Hans recalls his mentor’s self-mock­ing obser­va­tion about los­ing weight: “‘Yes, there is less and less of me,’ Herr Veilchen­feld often says and smiles and tugs at his coat. Soon I will sure­ly dis­ap­pear com­plete­ly … ’” In this respect, Hofmann’s philoso­pher stands in for all Jews on the thresh­old of extinction.

Herr Veilchenfeld’s ges­ture ulti­mate­ly proves prophet­ic: he becomes the object of hys­ter­i­cal mob vio­lence, pub­lic humil­i­a­tion, and abject degra­da­tion. In despair and fear, Herr Veilchen­feld locks him­self in his rooms, no longer sus­tained by his vol­umes of cher­ished books. Twi­light lay over every­thing, even at mid­day,” Hans observes. The books lying in the dark­ness are espe­cial­ly eerie.” And when the mob final­ly arrives, they tear up the books, unleash­ing their Jew hatred in an uncan­ny fore­cast of Kristall­nacht

In the end, Herr Veilchen­feld los­es his iden­ti­ty as a Ger­man cit­i­zen. His pass­port is shred­ded, and, in the bru­tal words of a town admin­is­tra­tor, he’s for­ev­er ban­ished from our nation­al com­mu­ni­ty.” Dis­ap­pear,” the admin­is­tra­tor com­mands, or I will have you and your ridicu­lous bag forcibly removed from this build­ing, which you have infest­ed long enough.”

Our Philoso­pher offers an inside account of an insid­i­ous, emer­gent Nazism. In light of the open anti­semitism of the present, the mem­o­ry of the vir­u­lent Ger­man Jew­ish past feels sad­ly and pro­found­ly alive. 

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions