Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather And the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna
By Peter Singer
Ecco/HarperCollins, 272 pages, $24.95.
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Ever since his “Animal Liberation” hit the best-seller lists in 1975, Peter Singer, the Australian-born philosopher and recently appointed professor of bioethics at Princeton University, has been notorious for his radical views in support of euthanasia, infanticide and, of course, animal rights. These positions stem from a common center: a rigorous utilitarianism that Singer claims we fail to consult because of the “Judeo-Christian inheritance” that impresses on us an anthropocentric “speciesism” and a doctrine of the privileged sanctity of all human life. Singer rejects both bequests and calls for a “Copernican revolution” against these pillars of the “old ethic.” But in his latest and most personal book, he takes up another kind of legacy — and with it an entirely different sort of alleged moral failure — in a way that casts new light on his philosophical project.
“Pushing Time Away” is the engrossing story of his maternal grandfather, David Oppenheim, whom Singer never met. Born in 1881 into a distinguished rabbinic family in a Vienna where secular Jews — including writers Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig and composers Arnold Schoenberg and Gustav Mahler — vitally enriched that city’s cultural life, Oppenheim devoted himself to studying and teaching Greek and Latin literature. He was driven by the credo he rather precociously set down at the age of 25:
Seeking to harness this sensitive young man’s knowledge of ancient mythology to his own project, Sigmund Freud invited Oppenheim in 1910 into the small group then laying the groundwork of modern psychology in Wednesday night meetings at Freud’s home at 19 Berggasse. The collaboration between the two would result in a co-authored manuscript, “Dreams in Folklore.”
But it was another, distinctly modern set of myths — those guiding Nazism — that would ineluctably decide the fate of Oppenheim, who, like so many of his Viennese Jewish contemporaries, favored assimilation and rejected Zionism. As the 1930s wore on — and as this man for whom, as Singer reports, “being Jewish seems to have been of remarkably little importance” came to be persecuted precisely for his Jewishness — Oppenheim fell into the tumultuous inner rhythm that emerges from and animates the letters cited by his grandson: Increasing fatalism, isolation and desperation clashed against optimism, Austrian patriotism (he was a decorated soldier in World War I) and willed blindness. A former student, for instance, urging Oppenheim to finally flee Austria to save himself, is met with a reply of heartbreaking incredulity:
What they did, in August 1942, was send Oppenheim and his wife, Amalie, to Theresienstadt, the concentration camp some 40 miles from Prague, where six months later he died, a victim of illness, cruel malnutrition and despair.
Only in the very first pages of this saddening and sometimes maddening account does Singer’s own voice — in other books analytic and abstract, but here warmed by nostalgia for a ruined world — rise from narration to reflection. “There is a terrible, tragic irony,” Singer writes,
This leads Singer to “a disquieting thought.” He wonders aloud, “Could I be sharing my grandfather’s delusion?” But the usually hyper-articulate philosopher leaves it, rather abruptly, at that. Famous for refusing to shrink from his own logical conclusions, no matter how counterintuitive or shocking (in justifying, say, putting seriously disabled infants to death), at the moment of assessing the message of his grandfather’s life he becomes disappointingly oblique.
Perhaps, in telling this story, Singer came to consider the limits of his narrow brand of rationalism. Perhaps, in his grandfather’s blindness — not the sightlessness of stupidity, but of brilliance — to the great evil of his time, Singer recognizes his own, and with that perspective he sees, too, that there are graver, more pressing moral ills than honoring human lives too much or animal lives not enough. Then again, perhaps this is hoping for too much.
“There are more things in heaven and earth,” as Hamlet says, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Benjamin Balint is the assistant editor of Commentary magazine.