The title Traces footnote1 mobilizes for the purposes of philosophical theory the primary experiences derived from reading Red Indian stories. A broken twig, a footprint on the ground, speak volumes to the eagle eye of the child who speculates about them, instead of resting content with what anyone can see. There is something here, something hidden, in the midst of ordinary, unobtrusive normality: ‘There’s more here than meets the eye’ (p. 15). What it is, no-one knows, and Bloch, taking a leaf from the book of the gnostics, suggests that it may not be there at all yet, that it may be in the process of becoming. But il y a quelque chose qui cloche,footnote2 and the more mysterious the source of the trace, the more persistent the feeling that something is really there. This is the point at which speculative thought seeks a foothold. As if in mockery of the dispassionate, scientific reflections of phenomenology, the speculative thinker sets out in search of the ineffable, feeling his way experimentally towards an interpretation. Indefatigably, the philosophical moth flutters against the pane of glass between itself and the light. The conundrums of what Bloch once called the shape of the unformulatable question are made to crystallize out into whatever answers they may fleetingly suggest. His traces are survivals of the ineffable experience of childhood which once upon a time communicated everything.

Many friends are quoted in the book. I would like to wager that they date from adolescence, Ludwigshafen cousins of Brecht’s cronies from Augsburg, George Pflanzelt and Müllereisert. Here they are smoking their first pipe as if it were the pipe of perpetual peace: ‘Wonderful is the approach of evening, and beautiful the conversations of men among themselves.’footnote3 But these men come from the town of Mahagonny, from a fantasy-America, together with Old Shatterhand and Winnetou from Leonard Frank’s robber-band in Würzburg, an odour more sharply redolent between the covers of a book than it ever was on the fish-laden river and the smoke-filled saloon. The adult, however, who recalled all this to mind, wants to win the game he began all those years ago, but without betraying the memory of those images to an all-too grown-up rationality; almost every interpretation smuggles in some kind of rationalization and then rebels against it. These experiences are no more esoteric than whatever it was about the sound of Christmas bells which moved us so profoundly and which we never wholly outgrow: the feeling that this can’t be all, that there must be something more than just the here and now. A promise, however deceptive, seems to have as firm a guarantee as the promise contained only in the great works of art which Bloch, who is impatient with culture, for the most part ignores in this book. Constrained by their form, all the happiness vouchsafed by works of art is inadequate, and is really no happiness at all: ‘Here too things grow in more luxuriant profusion than the familiar limits of our subjectivity (and the world) permit; both immoderate fear and “unfounded” joy have repressed what caused them. They are concealed within us and have not yet gained access to the world; joy least of all, even though it is the main thing’ (p. 169). Bloch’s philosophy aims to capture their promise, to tear them out of their intimate petit-bourgeois cosiness with the grappling hooks of the literary buccaneer, spurning their immediate purpose and projecting what lies at hand into the supreme good, that which has never existed. Goethe’s twofold division of happiness into what lies at your elbow and the bliss that soars to the empyrean is forced together again here until it reaches melting point. The happiness close at hand is only real when it is also the highest bliss, and the highest bliss is only present if it is within your grasp. Bloch’s expansive gesture wants to burst out from the limits set by its origin in what lies nearest, in immediate individual experience, the psychologically contingent, the merely subjective mood. The initiate scorns to declare an interest in what permanent astonishment can tell us about the person who gazes in wonder, and turns instead to the meaning of that astonishment, regardless of how the poor, fallible individual came to his experience: ‘The thing-in-itself is the objective imagination’ (p. 89). The calculation makes due allowance for the fallibility of the individual. The inadequacy of the finite consciousness turns the infinite, of which it is supposed to be part, into something uncertain and enigmatic; but the infinite receives a precise, compelling confirmation because the uncertainty is nothing but that same subjective inadequacy.

Thought which tracks down traces is narrative, like its apocryphal model, the adventure story of the journey to utopia, whose radiant image Bloch would like to recapture. Narrative is imposed on him as much by his theory as by his temperament. It would be a mistake to read his story as a parable. The parable’s single level of meaning would destroy the tonality of Bloch’s narrative whose colours can no more be found in the spectrum than can the trumpet-red of one of Perutz’s thrilling novels of suspense.footnote4 Instead, his aim is to make use of adventure and other outlandish occurrences to construct the truth that we do not have in our pockets. Specific analyses are few and far between; it is rather as if the devotees of Hauff’sfootnote5 fairy stories had forgathered in a circle around someone from that Oriental corner of Swabia where there is a town called Backang and an interjection that goes ‘Ah-um’, and bit by bit this and that emerges; progressively, of course, with a conceptual movement which keeps mum about Hegel, but knows him backwards. Over the chasm separating a concrete datum which actually only represents the concrete, and an idea which transcends the blindness and contingency of the concrete, while remaining oblivious of its greatest merits, there echoes the emphatic voice of a man who has something special to proclaim, something different from what we have all heard before. The narrative tone provides us with the paradox of a naïve philosophy; childhood, indestructible notwithstanding all reflection, translates even the most highly mediated phenomena into the stuff of unmediated narrative. This affinity with concrete data, right down to and including the raw substrata of experience devoid of all meaning, puts Bloch’s philosophy into contact with the lower depths, with sub-cultural elements, with the openly trashy, in which, as the late exponent of an anti-mythological Enlightenment, he thinks salvation can alone be found. Like poor B.B., it could be situated bag and baggage in the big cities where he belatedly tells the stories that could never be told before. The impossibility of narrating, which has condemned the heirs of the novel to produce Kitsch, becomes the expression of the impossible world which is to be narrated and whose possibility he wishes to proclaim. The moment we sit down, we go to meet the story-teller half-way, not knowing whether he will satisfy our expectations. In the same way, we must make allowances for a philosophy which is spoken and not written. The oratorical style inhibits responsible formulations, and Bloch’s writings only become eloquent to those who do not read them as texts. The stream of narrative-thought flows along, sweeping all before it, past all arguments, captivating us as it goes. It is a form of philosophizing in which in a certain sense nothing is actually thought out; it is extremely shrewd, but not at all subtle or ingenious in a scholastic way. What echoes in the narrative voice does not become the material for reflection, but is appropriated by it, and this is even and indeed particularly true of those features which it fails to permeate stylistically and melt down. To ask where the stories came from or what the story-teller was doing with them would be absurd in the light of the anonymity at two removes, the complete absorption into the truth which he intends: ‘If this story is worthless, so say the story-tellers in Africa, then it belongs to the man who tells it; if it is worth anything, then it belongs to us all’ (p. 158). A critic should not point out errors in them, as if they were the rectifiable mistakes of an individual, but instead should spell out the wounds of Bloch’s philosophy, just as Kafka’s delinquent must spell out his own.footnote6

But the voice of this story-teller is anything but ‘authentic’ in the conventional way. Bloch’s ear, which remains extraordinarily sensitive even in the midst of the raging sonorities of his prose, has noted with precision how little anything which aspired to be different would gain from that worthy concept of pure identity with self. ‘A soft, richly emotional story in the musty twilight of the 19th century, with all the cheap romantic overtones of the motif of parting. Its shimmering colours show to the best advantage when bathed in half-genuine feeling. Parting is itself sentimental. But sentimental with depth, it is a tremolo hovering indistinguishably between surface and depth’ (p. 90). This tremolo survives in the great popular artists of an epoch which no longer has any time for popular art; it can be heard in the vocal exaggerations of Alexander Girardi,footnote7 plaintive and inauthentic like a woebegone crybaby; what was genuine about it was the false note, its lack of domestication, the echo of its own impossibility. It is above all the masses who are attracted, sometimes more than is good for them, by an exaggerated mode of expression whose excesses evoke a sense of the authentic in the mind of the average philistine. For example, there was the servant girl who destroyed the rhythm of Scheffel’sfootnote8 verse ‘Das ist im Leben hässlich eingerichtet’footnote9 by changing it to ‘horribly organized’. Bloch too blasts away like Scheffel’s trumpeter.

Naïve philosophy disguises itself by its swagger, like a saloon-bar pianist who plays false notes on the bass, and who sits there poor, misunderstood, trying to make the astonished onlooker who stands him a beer believe he is Paderewski. It is an atmosphere like this that can be suddenly ignited by one of those philosophical aperçus which are Bloch’s claim to fame: ‘Even when the young musician Beethoven suddenly knew or claimed that he was a genius, he was practising a scurrilous swindle when he felt himself to be like Ludwig van Beethoven, a person he had not yet become. This piece of presumption, which was not justified by anything at the time, was needed to enable him to become Beethoven, and in the absence of the audacity, indeed brazenness of such anticipations, nothing great would ever be achieved’ (p. 47).