Transfinite Life: Oskar Goldberg and the Vitalist Imagination

Transfinite Life: Oskar Goldberg and the Vitalist Imagination

Transfinite Life: Oskar Goldberg and the Vitalist Imagination

Transfinite Life: Oskar Goldberg and the Vitalist Imagination

Synopsis

Oskar Goldberg was an important and controversial figure in Weimar Germany. He challenged the rising racial conception of the state and claimed that the Jewish people were on a metaphysical mission to defeat race-based statism. He attracted the attention of his contemporaries--Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, Thomas Mann, and Carl Schmitt, among others--with the argument that ancient Israel's sacrificial rituals held the key to overcoming the tyranny of technology in the modern world. Bruce Rosenstock offers a sympathetic but critical philosophical portrait of Goldberg and puts him into conversation with Jewish and political figures that circulated in his cultural environment. Rosenstock reveals Goldberg as a deeply imaginative and broad-minded thinker who drew on biology, mathematics, Kabbalah, and his interests in ghost photography to account for the origin of the earth. Caricatured as a Jewish proto-fascist in his day, Goldberg's views of the tyranny of technology, biopolitics, and the "new vitalism" remain relevant to this day.

Excerpt

The “Talk of the Town” section in the New Yorker of July 17, 1943, included a piece titled “Ghost Photographer” about a certain Dr. Oskar Goldberg. “He’s a German scientist of undoubted repute,” the writer explains. “Two years ago, when he arrived in this country as an émigré, he was sponsored by Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, and other Germans of equal standing.” Four months earlier (March 7, 1943), Goldberg had published on the first page of the New York Spiritualist Leader, a widely distributed newspaper at that time, a request for information about ghost and poltergeist sightings in the New York area. This request, with his contact information included, had the heading, “Haunted Houses: Wanted for Tests.” It was this advertisement that had caught the attention of the New Yorker writer. When he was interviewed, Goldberg explained that he was planning to undertake a scientific expedition to assemble photographic evidence of ghosts. “It’s his notion that a picture of a ghost could be obtained with a camera using film sensitive to ultra-violet and infra-red rays,” the writer notes. Goldberg said that he had learned how to actually see ghosts with the naked eye during his training under a yogi in India. in addition to his quest for scientific proof of ghosts and of life after death, Goldberg explained what his deeper motive was: “The only reason for psychic research is to release earthbound ghosts, all of whom are unhappy.” in “Rules for Research in Hauntings,” a piece Goldberg published in the New York Spiritualist Leader later that same summer, we learn that the reporting of “spontaneous” apparitions is a “religious duty” and that “anyone who conceals hauntings is acting unethically by preventing research in proofs of immortality.” the fact that a “German scientist of undoubted repute” was hunting for ghosts in New York in the middle of the Second World War could not help but arouse the interest of the New Yorker writer. Here was a “round, bald, kindlylooking man of fifty-seven” harmlessly and somewhat comically trying to find proof of life after death and, moreover, trying to redeem the unhappy dead.

Oskar Goldberg (1885–1952), as the New Yorker article attests, was never shy of publicity. in Weimar Berlin, Goldberg achieved a reputation among many young Jewish intellectuals as a brilliant Kabbalist with supernormal abilities to penetrate the secrets of the Hebrew Bible. Among those who were particularly drawn to Goldberg’s ideas were the philosopher Erich Unger (1887–1950), a fellow student one year behind Goldberg at the Friedrich-Gymnasium; the legal and economic historian Adolf Caspary (1898–1953); and the artist, poet, and later photojournalist Simon Guttmann (1891–1990). Outside of his circle of devoted . . .

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