Book Review: Absolute Recoil, Slavoj Žižek (Verso, 2014)
Žižek continues to fret away at the sweet-tasting bone of ontology, gnawing it from slightly new angles in the hope of stripping away any remaining morsels that will distract from savouring the pure marrow that lies within — a materialist philosophy that confronts the mystery of why there is nothing instead of something. His latest venture starts again with the dichotomy that Kant drew between the fundamental and allegedly unknowable nature of reality, the ‘in-itself’, and the human subject who, armed with his categories of thought like Captain America and his shield, goes out to meet and make sense of phenomenal experience.
A worthwhile materialism must go beneath, yet accommodate, the realisation that our sense of reality is governed by horizons of meaning, frames of reference, that we are born into. There is no escaping hard-wired webs of meaning — Kant’s transcendental idealism — but neither is there any breakout from the Real of a meaningless void. London Transport’s advice to mind the gap warns of the unresolved problem bequeathed to us by Kant: as passengers with mental coordinates for the lay of the land we step onto the firm ‘objective’ ground of the station platform and forget the space that is not accounted for in our conceptual maps of reality.
As ever, it is to Hegel’s ontology we must turn for understanding — a split universe of becoming, incessant movement through time in a praxis of being and nothing — and Žižek remains close to translating this ontology into the layperson’s language of quantum physics: a groundless vortex of what Badiou calls pure multiplicities, infinitely divisible and restless pluralities that contingently and finitely stabilize what is inherently opposed to the unifying power of thought. It is a universe utterly at odds with traditional notions of substantial entities bearing essential qualities independent of ourselves – in this sense it is nothing.
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Wittgenstein in Exile, James C. Klagge (MIT Press)
Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, Lee Braver (MIT Press)
For James Klagge in his study of Wittgenstein and his philosophy, exile becomes a metaphor that help identify the enigmatic nature of his subject. Wittgenstein’s rootless, itinerant life was a crisscross of journeys across western Europe, from his home in Austria to England, to Norway, to Ireland – returning to Austria to teach children in a rural location, returning to England in 1929 (‘God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15 train’, announced Maynard Keynes to his wife), returning to Norway to live. Always he travelled, as he lived, alone. He exiled himself from family, friends and academia and, given the strangeness of his temperament, exile serves as a description for his state of mind. Everyone feels alienated to some degree of other – those who don’t are spooky or just plain numpties – but Wittgenstein’s estrangement from the society and culture of his age was profound and the author’s understanding of this underlies what he writes about the man.
Wittgenstein in Exile is enjoyable to read because it does not indulge in abstruse, intricate arguments and is mercifully free of the mind-numbing prose that results when the author of a book about philosophy solely addresses a professional audience of people assumed to share his interests. Klagge’s comfortable style of writing, reaching out to a wider readership, succeeds in presenting the peculiarity of a man who could not separate his philosophical work from the way he conducted his own life. Unable to avoid remorseless self-examination, Wittgenstein was an artist of the intellect not just in his writings but in his relationship with the world and to demonstrate this Klagge draws considerably on reminiscences of those who knew Wittgenstein and who experienced in conversation aspects of his austere genius.
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Two Ways of Seeing: Review of Exhibitions by Kazimir Malevich and Dennis Hopper
Tate Modern is currently home (until 26 October) to a major Malevich retrospective, the likes of which has not been seen in Britain before, while at the Royal Academy there is an exhibition of over 400 photographs taken by Dennis Hopper and on show in Britain for the first time. Malevich and Hopper are both regarded as radical figures who challenged convention but their differences outweigh any perceived similarities. This is not down to painting and photography being different art forms but to the uncrossable gulf between someone who revolutionised the nature of art and someone who happened to be around at a time of social change and captured aspects of it with a camera.
Malevich experienced the October Revolution and then enacted it artistically, dramatically tearing down the old canvas and inaugurating a new way of representing reality. But like most such sweeping summaries, it occludes the history that leads up to a significant moment, washing it over with a rhetorical flourish that rinses out a meaningful understanding. What distinguishes the Tate retrospective is its resolve to show Malevich developing as an artist in a particular place, Russia, and at particular times, from pre-revolutionary tsarism through to Stalinism.
Born in 1879 into a Polish family in Kiev, Malevich travelled to Moscow as a young man, discovered impressionism, saw the work of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse and began to develop his own style of painting while still feeling he had to speak the language of the western avant-garde. This shows in his Self-Portrait of 1908-10 which takes from Gauguin a compositional ploy which positions the image in front of a painting – a just discernible scene of bathers in this case – while presenting himself as dapper and urbane. Room Two of the exhibition shows him as an artist drawn to Russian themes and styles, painting rural workers using simple forms and expressive colours to portray their hard-working, honest lifestyles. The Scyther of 1911-12 reveals the influence of modernism without sacrificing allegiance to a Russian cultural identity. The figure is barefoot, as poor peasants would have been, set against a warm red background signifying the rye harvest; the farmer’s form and mass is far from traditional representational art but the word for the colour red in the Russian language also denotes something beautiful (hence, Red Square) and this is also part of the painting’s iconography.
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Book Review: SELF AND EMOTIONAL LIFE, Adrian Johnston and Catherine Malabou (Columbia University Press, 2013)
Most of us know that we don’t know ourselves as well as we like to think we do but there is a more trusting and steadfast belief in our possession of a self. In everyday life we make reference to it in a variety of ways and, notwithstanding those occasions when we catch a glimpse of an image in a mirror and wonder who that person is, filling out personal details on a form is not usually the cause of metaphysical trepidation. Besides such acts of public self-identification, we do not doubt that our name is also a marker for a more private and defended identity that lies behind the forename and surname we answer to and surrender to others. Descartes got to the heart of it when he set about doubting everything about the world but reached a bedrock of knowledge with the certainty of his own thinking self. From this zero-level of self-proof a mind-body dichotomy emerged as constitutive of the conscious subject and while many philosophers after Descartes have challenged his model it is only with the advance of neuroscience that it has been seriously wounded. This is the subject matter of Self and Emotional Life, a book of two halves by two authors.
Neurobiology shows the brain, consciousness and the body’s nervous system to be interconnected in such remarkably labile ways that the metaphor of the brain as a computer, neatly processing information that reaches it via the senses, has to give way to a picture of an open organism, plastic and frangible, affective and cognitive. The brain – the emotional brain – is modelled as the site of a libidinal economy and this carries implications for any notion of a selfhood inhabiting a comfortable milieu where a subject can be in conversation with itself and its affects. Such an alluring notion is understandable; we think mostly with words after all and forms of introspection, as depicted in cartoon’s thought bubbles or in fiction’s stream-of-consciousness, can seem like engagements with our inner self.
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Book Review: Phantom Home, Ahlam Shibli (Hatje Cantz, 2013)
The sudden and violent death of someone close to you can only intensify the grief and feeling of loss that accompanies any bereavement, so much so that looking at a picture of the person may be too unbearable to bear. The raw and unavoidable facticity of someone’s absence becomes a too-painfully presence that would be compounded by a photograph that makes the ordeal even more difficult to cope with. This is understandable and it takes an effort of imagination and empathy to comprehend another kind of response when the sudden and violent death is a public and political moment in the life of a community that is itself living with an ongoing sense of loss and deprivation. Palestinians living in their land under occupation by Israel have witnessed death at the hands of their occupiers for most of their lives and seen the destruction of their homes and crops. They live with daily indignities that prevent them from travelling on certain roads in the West Bank, they suffer from a grossly unfair allocation of water and they observe the expansion of settlements for Israeli colonizers.
Ahlam Shibli, a Palestinian photographer, explores the visual culture — posters, murals, banners, paintings, photographs and graffiti – of the community of Nablus as it commemorates those accorded the status of martyrs: Palestinians killed fighting Israeli forces, civilians killed in Israeli attacks and suicide bombers whose missions took them into Israel.
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Book Review: Event, Slavoj Žižek; The Most Sublime Hysteric, Slavoj Žižek and Hegel and the Art of Negation, Andrew W. Hass
Event, Slavoj Žižek (Penguin, 2014)
A difficulty in reading Žižek is that he often seems to be juggling with too many balls, making dizzy the reader who tries to track the course of a single idea as it speedily travels from one page to the next before somersaulting in a paragraph. The challenge is not in grasping the idea but in following it amidst the inflections and involuting digressions. The whole asymptotic shebang can become just too much and the exasperated reader is tempted to close shop on the whole act by slamming the book shut.
What makes Event easier to read and follow through from start to finish is that this time one of the balls is bigger and more brightly coloured than all the others. The reader can keep this master ball in focus, safe in the knowledge that the smaller ones circulating with it are all derivatives, examples or reduplications of the one defining conceit: Event.
Ordinarily an event is just something that happens but with an Event something is realized in a way that is extraordinary. Rust Cohle in True Detective is far from being an ordinary police officer because of how he actualizes and fully realizes, in a Platonic way, the Idea of the detective. For Plato, everyday empirical reality is a pale shadow of the bright and substantial reality of Ideas, an originary and eternal order not to be confused with the fleeting world of appearances. DunmanusBay that I see outside a window, and every other bay that anyone ever sees, only participates in the Idea of Bay by virtue of being a surface copy. Žižek gives Platonism a twist by saying, yes, there are absolute Ideas but they realize themselves purely in appearance. Rust Cohle, in the pursuit of his investigation embodies what it authentically means to be a detective, he enacts the truth that belongs to the concept of detective and in him the Idea of detective shines in all its purity. The essence that he embodies is there, unhidden in the material reality of his behaviour. In Hegelese, the distinction between appearance and essence is inscribed within appearance – because appearance is all there is.
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Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World by Geoff Dyer and Steven Hoelscher (University of Texas Press)
City Stages by Matthew Pillsbury (Aperture)
Some of the finest poetry of Wallace Stevens expresses the constant struggle between representing things as they are, capturing moments that accord with something independent of the mind – moments, one might say, of cast-iron existence where no metaphors or tropes attach themselves to this level of material being — and, on the other hand, the alluring inclination to mediate experience with subjective positions of contestable value. In ‘The Auroras of Autumn’ he writes of ‘form gulping after formlessness’, the need to impose some order and pattern on restless, multiplex reality.
Photography is like the late poetry of Wallace Stevens in that it too battles with the conflicting drives of representing what is there, in all its necessary incongruity, and depicting a mediated slice of life that tells us more about the photographer than the photographed. When Magnum first established itself, co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of ‘ a respect for what is going on [in the world] and a desire to transcribe it visually’. What was going on was war, first in Spain and then across Europe and the globe, and war begat Magnum with the idea amongst a small group of Left-leaning photographers in 1947 for a cooperative that would allow them to take and disseminate pictures free of control from commercial and military organizations. The experience of conflict had brought home to the Magnum founders the importance of pictures in conveying to non-combatants what happened when war was unleashed and two of them (Robert Capa in the First Indochina War and David Seymour in the Suez War) would die in the course of their chosen careers. Another one of the co-founders, George Rodger, gave up war photography after taking pictures at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, appalled that he treated ‘this pitiful human flotsam as it were a gigantic still-life’. What shocked Rodger was that ‘I could look at the horror of Belsen … and think only of a nice photographic composition, I knew something had happened to me and I had to stop. I said this is where I quit.’
The concentration camp, its dead and its survivors were there before Rodger’s eyes but so was his camera and when he put one up against the other something else came into play. What Wallace Stevens said, in the same year that saw the formation of Magnum Photos, is as true of the photograph as it is of a poem: ‘What our eyes behold may well be the text of life but one’s meditations on the text and the disclosures of these meditations are no less a part of the structure of reality.’ The tension between the photographer as a reporter and as an artist lies at the core of the best work residing in the Magnum archives for as Philip Jones Griffiths put it, ‘There is no point in pressing the shutter unless you are making some caustic comment on the incongruities of life’.
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Book Review: Berthold Lubetkin: Architecture and the tradition of progress, John Allan (Artifice) and 21st Century London: The New Architecture, Kenneth Powell (Merrell)
Today, the idea that architecture plays its part in changing society only gains purchase with a pejorative sense of what change entails. Look to the Dubai skyline, where architects are still binging on cocktails of concrete, glass, indentured labour and fat fees – 25% of the world’s cranes were operating there when 100 skyscrapers went up in ten years, — producing a mad jamboree of eye-catching buildings.
But it can’t be said the architecture fails to respond to the needs of the community because Dubai, peopled with expatriates lured by the loot, waiting for their contracts to end, doesn’t have anything so organic as to be properly called a community. London, on the other hand, is a city of many communities and while it’s not Dubai the architecture that is currently redefining the city’s skyline is similarly characterized by excessive ostentation fuelled by the inexorable logic of capitalism and purchasable architects eager to join a bandwagon.
The mantra for the architectural companies winning contracts in London is build it big, construct a photogenic monument that will stand alone in glorious and pastless isolation from its neighbourhood, untroubled by its surroundings, self-sufficient testimony to its own ambition. Kate Goodwin, the curator of the Sensing Spaces exhibition now on at the Royal Academy of Arts, spells out what is missing : ‘Unlike almost any other art form, architecture is part of our everyday life, but its ability to dramatically affect the way we think, feel and interact with one another is often overlooked’. The greatest architect who has worked in London, Berthold Lubetkin, would have shaken her hand in warm agreement.
John Allan’s book on Lubetkin is an astonishing achievement and one wonders how many years he spent putting it all together. When it first appeared in 1992 — a second edition has now been published – it was praised as ‘the most intelligent English-language account of any twentieth-century architectural career in its context’ and the accolade still holds. The whole story of Lubetkin’s work is here, from his birth in Georgia in 1901 to his appointment in 1947 as architect-planner of a new town for 30,000 residents in the Durham coalfields. This, his greatest project, was never realized and John Allan analyses with care the reasons behind his resignation from the post.
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A selection of the best non-fiction read by Seán Sheehan in 2013. Also see the best fiction he read in 2013.
An Armenian Sketchbook, Vasily Grossman (Maclehose Press)
Grossman made a two-month trip to Armenia in 1961. Some accounts say he needed the money, travelling there as part of an official commission to edit an overlong novel by an Armenian writer, but he also needed to get away from Moscow where officers had arrived at his apartment and confiscated the manuscript of his great novel Life and Fate. Not only had his magnum opus been ‘arrested’, his marriage was in tatters.
He writes of how one never forgets arriving in a foreign city for the first time, in this case Yerevan: ‘Its autumn leaves have their own unique way of rustling; there is something special about the smell of its dust, about the way its young boys fire their catapults.’ Sometimes you worry the prose might slip into swooniness but Grossman’s romanticism is always tempered by the real, even at his most Dylanesque —
I saw warriors, knights, thinkers, swindlers, hucksters, poets, builders, astronomers and preachers. I saw collective-farm chairmen, physicists and engineers who built bridges.
— and it sits alongside an impish sense of humour: arriving in Yerevan, he notices the washing lines with ‘sail-like brassieres of hero-mothers’ and market stalls with eighteen-inch-long radishes ‘that seemed to be belong to some phallic cult’. He is cynical about the criticisms being unleashed against Stalin, not because they are untrue but because they are expressed by those who previously worshipped him. Grossman can be hard-nosed but is always alive to the contradictions of existence: Armenia’s always stony landscape yielding orchards of peaches; ordinary lives afflicted with tragedies yet loyalties surviving eternal (like the wife he meets who turned up at the Siberian camp where her husband was serving nineteen years and lived in a hut outside the gulag). His travelogue ends with an Armenian wedding, a tour de force that leaves more famous literary travel writers in a dull shadow. No other writer of our times has expressed with more unsentimental admiration the nature of what it means to live with a sense of nobility.
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A selection of the best fiction read by Seán Sheehan in 2013.
Top Fiction of 2013
Something Like Happy, John Burnside (Jonathan Cape)
Frank O’Connor wrote how the short story is marked by ‘an intense awareness of human loneliness’ and given the unsettling mix of memory and melancholy that haunts the stories of John Burnside it is tempting to locate the genre in such a desolate landscape. But Burnside’s canvas is larger: his writing has an acuity that goes deeper than a sense of the isolation of the individual’s existence. What F.R. Leavis said about Lawrence helps bring out more carefully the special quality of Burnside’s stories. Leavis, wanting to defend Lawrence against those who saw him as an arrogant and uncouth genius, applauded his reverence towards life. It found expression, he said, in a certain tenderness; not ‘tender-minded’ or soppy, he hastens to add, but something strong and clairvoyant and incorruptible in its preoccupation with realities of living. There is reverence in Burnside too and it exists alongside his ability to evoke the pain of just being alive, of remembering loss and the lacerations of time. This sensitivity – what Keats in ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ calls ‘the giant agony of the world’ — verges on the morbid and risks crossing over into the unrepresentable but Burnside always keeps this side of the border; he also avoids gratuitousness. In ‘Peach Melba’, one of the unforgettable stories in this remarkable collection, he doesn’t surrender to the gestural. Instead, he orders his language to recall with precision the narrator’s memory of someone he once worked with and had known – but only too briefly.
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Book Review: Three new books about World War II:
The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945, Richard Overy (Allen Lane)
Year Zero: A History of 1945, Ian Buruma (Atlantic Books)
Sandakan, Paul Ham (Doubleday)
Richard Overy’s subject is the bombing campaigns of WWII that were not part of ground or sea operations. The rationale for these campaigns was the belief that the enemy’s capacity to continue fighting would be undermined by demoralizing non-combatants, hopefully precipitating a surrender by their rulers. The first bombings by Germany in WWII, of Warsaw, the Low Countries and France, were tactical operations in support of ground movements. The bombing of Britain that started in the summer 1940 was part of an invasion plan but by mid-September it was clear that the RAF was not defeated. The bombing continued because to do otherwise would be seen as a British victory and, anyway, Stalin had to continue believing that an invasion was about to commence while Germany planned its surprise attack on the USSR. Targets in Britain became economic ones like ports and industrial centres, with London being hit 57 nights in succession. When Germany switched to nightime raids there was no effective deterrent to these attacks, yet little of lasting importance had been achieved (though 43,000 people died).
Overy devotes a chapter to the British civilian experience, more or less confirming the commonplace view that the existential threat was accepted by the public with fortitude. Public shelters were not used as much as expected; Londoners trusted more to the Underground even though it was not official policy at first. Communist Phil Piratin led a protest group of 70 from Stepney to the Savoy and occupied the basement, where they found colour-coordinated shelters with armchairs, but he led them out again the following day.
Another chapter covers the relatively unexplored area of German bombing of Russia, reflecting what at times has become a general indifference to the mighty and hugely decisive part that the USSR played in the defeat of Hitler. In contrast to London, Moscow’s subway system was wholeheartedly utilized from the start and Stalin’s HQ was based in one part of it. Another area that benefits from Overy’s research is Italy’s role in bombing and being bombed.
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Two very different books sharing a niche interest that will strike some as macabre: one concerns the work of an American freelance photographer, an ‘ambulance chaser’ who arrived at violent crime scenes with camera at the ready; the other offers psychoanalytic readings of British murderers on the basis of archival crime scene photographs taken by the police.
How Can I Too Become A Weegee?
Weegee: Murder Is My Business, Brian Wallis (Prestel, 2013)
Weegee and his ’38 Chevvy cruised the mean, dark streets of New York from the mid-1930s to the mid-’40s — working at night was his forte — with his fedora and tools of his trade on the front seat and accessories in the boot. His mission was film noir, literally: Arthur Fellig, known as Weegee, apocryphally for his psychic-like ability (as in Ouija board) to know where a crime had taken place, was a freelance photographer. He had the nose of a nocturnal trufflehound for what was pleasing and his dish of choice, served best whilst still warm, was homicide; preferably a mobster killing, though brawls, fires and grisly car crashes would do at a pinch – as long as a person, dead or alive, was in his frame. Often, he was indeed the first to arrive at the crime scene, sometimes before the cops, helped by having a police-band radio in his car and another in his one-room apartment situated very close to the Manhattan Police Headquarters. He worked with a cumbersome, large-format Speed Graphic camera – usually set at f/16 at 1/200 of a second with a set focus distance of ten feet — and, what was a fairly new piece of gear at the time, a large, bulbous flash. Nothing else was required, except his special pass issued by the New York Police Department that allowed him to cross police lines. After all, murder was his self-declared business and as he explained years later in an interview, ‘when you go out on a story, you don’t go back for another sitting. You gotta get it.’ And get it he did, time and time again, earning his living by selling to tabloid newspapers the kind of photographs reproduced in this book.
Nowadays, of course, a crime scene is strictly off-limits for press photographers and the generic kind of pictures the public are allowed to see have to be taken from behind the ubiquitous police line of coloured polythene tape. The close-up shots of suspects that could once be taken are now rare. One of the photos in Weegee: Murder Is My Business shows Anthony Esposito, a hoodlum probably but with his humanity on display, about to be booked on suspicion of killing an officer of the law in New York in 1941. He is handcuffed to one detective, is cut under one eye and his shirt is dishevelled, while the back of a second, broad-shouldered detective commands more space than the man in custody. Both lawmen have turned away from the camera to avoid their faces being shown.
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Book Review: Harvest, by Jim Crace
The time and place of Harvest seems to be Tudor or medieval England – seven days in the life of a community after the harvest has being brought in and celebrations begin — though one critic reckons it must be after 1850 because of some of the characters’ vocabulary. This is not carelessness on the author’s part (though it may be impishness); Jim Crace likes to equivocate in such matters and it would be a reckless reader who made a bet on the terrain or time of Continent, his first novel, with its seven different parts and a style that mildly mixes Borges with Kafka. Quarantine, his 1997 novel, is easier to pin down for it takes an episode from the Bible, Jesus’s forty days in the Judean desert, but then this could be a fictional event in the first place.
In Craceland, historicity is labile even though one can often make a reasonable guess as to time and place. All That Follows (2010) is recognisably located in a Britain of the near future and there is no doubting that Harvest takes its context from a real historical movement, one arising from the intersection of economic plate tectonics: an old-world, pre-capitalist order coming up against a new mercantile domain where profit and loss calculations take precedence.
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Book Review: Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber (Norton, 2013)
It seems like good news when a new book about Marx is not a hatchet job, is widely reviewed (though not, of course, in Ireland) and receives fairly universal acclaim in the mainstream press. Mind you, another biography of Marx that appeared in 1999 was also praised at the time and few seemed to be offended by the tone of its author, Francis Wheen. Wheen’s style, writing, for example, how Marx had little regard for his mother ‘except when he was trying to wheedle money out of the old girl’, revealed a supercilious, platitudinous attitude towards its subject, as if a book about Marx had to be presented as a jolly wheeze in case anyone thought he might be taking the ideas of the author of The Communist Manifesto just a tad too seriously.
It comes as a relief to find that Jonathan Sperber does not write like Wheen, that he approaches his subject with scholarly seriousness and presents Marx’s life in elegant and scrupulous prose. He successfully communicates a sense of Marx as a restless, erudite intellectual, fired-up by the limitations of others and hugely learned in a way that contemporary academia would have difficulty in coping with. This in itself would not have been a problem for a German university in the nineteenth century but the young Marx burnt that bridge when he crossed over into Young Hegelian territory and identified himself as a caustic opponent of the ultra conservative Prussian order. Until then, his prospects were sunny. Born 1818 inTrier, a southwestern German town that had been annexed to the French republic during the Revolution, he was the son of a Jewish lawyer who pragmatically adopted Protestantism but never abandoned his adoption of Enlightenment thought. Sperber is adept at explaining the obstacles faced by Heinrich Marx and the pressure he would have faced to assimilate. For many in his position, Catholicism would have been the religion of choice for conversion but Heinrich was an heir to the Enlightenment and this explains choice of denomination.
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