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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

The Last Days of Immanuel Kant

Thomas De Quincey

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Title: The Last Days of Immanuel Kant
Author: Thomas De Quincey
Genre: Biography
Written: 1827
Length: 79 pages
Availability: Les derniers jours d'Emmanuel Kant - France
Die letzten Tage des Immanuel Kant - Deutschland
Gli ultimi giorni di Immanuel Kant - Italia
Los últimos días de Emmanuel Kant - España
directly from: Sublunary Editions
  • First published in Blackwood's Magazine, 1827; this edition based on the 1853 and 1854 version
  • The Last Days of Immanuel Kant was made into a film, Les derniers jours d'Emmanuel Kant, directed by Philippe Collin, in 1996

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Our Assessment:

B+ : curious focus, but well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       First published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1827, Thomas De Quincey's The Last Days of Immanuel Kant is an odd piece of work insofar as it is almost entirely a translation -- of Ehregott Andreas Christoph Wasianski's Immanuel Kant in seinen letzten Lebensjahren ('Immanuel Kant in the Last Years of His Life'; 1804). It is De Quincey's version, however, that has established itself; even in the original German, in recent decades, the Wasianski has only been reprinted in a facsimile-edition -- yet there is a German 'translation' of De Quincey's version. And while the Wasianski does not appear to have been translated into other languages, this De Quincey has -- including, notably, into French by Marcel Schwob and Italian by Fleur Jaeggy.
       De Quincey doesn't pretend that he is presenting an original work, clearly giving Wasianski credit -- "for the most part it is Wasianski who speaks" --, though noting that the account is: "checked and supported by the collateral testimonies of Jachmann, Rink, Borowski, and others". De Quincey does offer a brief introduction of sorts -- and he does occasionally question Wasianski's opinions and claims in a few footnotes along the way; most amusingly, he can't help but suggest, when Kant's stomach-troubles and attempted remedies are discussed, to add his two cents in the footnote:

For Kant's particular complaint, as described by other biographers, a quarter of a grain of opium, every twelve hours, would have been the best remedy, perhaps a perfect remedy.
       On the whole, De Quincey doesn't seem to have interfered much with the text, beyond abridging Wasianski's original -- though it's almost a shame there aren't more of his asides, as it is fun to see him get carried away, for example, in railing against German "maudlin display of stage sentimentality" in the longest of the footnotes. (There are only sixteen footnotes, so De Quincey shows considerable restraint and does indeed let Wasianski do most of the talking.)
       De Quincey introduces the account by noting that:
     I take it for granted that every person of education will acknowledge some interest in the personal history of Immanuel Kant. A great man, though in an unpopular path, must always be an object of liberal curiosity. To suppose a reader thoroughly indifferent to Kant, is to suppose him thoroughly unintellectual
       Though his subject is perhaps the epitome of the pure-thinker, De Quincey still assumes that the person behind the most abstract thought must also be of interest -- an early example of what has become an increasingly personality-obsessed world. Kant is, in a way, a curious choice, as, in the roughest outline, he sounds like the most wonderfully boring human imaginable, little more than a thinking machine: his was a life governed by the stiffest of rigid routines (as then also confirmed by Wasianski), with no romantic or sexual involvement that we know of, and he famously never even travelled beyond his native Königsberg. In focusing on the 'last days' -- in fact, the final years of decline -- De Quincey of course is able to highlight the breaking down of the great thinking machine, the physical decline of the aging man accompanied also by a steady and inexorable mental deterioration, until he is nearly mind-less, the extraordinary Kant cut down to oh so human size.
       In a way, it is a cruel exercise, closely documented by intimate Wasianski, who was literally at the great man's side for much of this time. Yet the account does provide some interesting insight into Kant's personal life, as Wasianski describes some of his habits and routines before the decline set in, the account not quite limited to those 'last days'.
       It's almost disappointing to hear that Kant was, in fact, tremendously sociable, inviting guests to dine with him every evening. At least there was a strict routine and rigamarole to some of this, but on the whole these evenings seem to have been disappointingly conventional -- and free of rarefied philosophical speculation
His style of conversation was popular in the highest degree, and unscholastic; so much so, that any stranger who should have studied his works, and been unacquainted with his person, would have found it difficult to believe, that in this delightful companion he saw the profound author of the Transcendental Philosophy.
       The subjects of conversation at Kant's table were drawn chiefly from natural philosophy, chemistry, meteorology, natural history, and above all, from politics. The news of the day, as reported in the public journals, was discussed with a peculiar vigilance of examination.
       The decline, when it sets in, is of the familiar doddering sort -- so also: "One of the first signs was, that he began to repeat the same stories more than once on the same day". A clearer sign: "of his mental decay was the weakness with which he now began to theorize", the brilliant mind no longer working quite as brilliantly.
       Some of what happens is almost comic, such as the consequence of Kant's more easily dozing off:
He fell repeatedly, whilst reading, with his head into the candles; a cotton night-cap which he wore was instantly in a blaze, and flaming about his head.
       (That this happens once might be understandable; 'repeatedly', however suggests the issue is not being well-addressed -- but Wasianski eventually comes up with a solution.)
       Amusing, also, is to find Kant planning, in the summer of 1803, "an extensive foreign tour". Wasianski humours the man who had never sought to travel beyond his hometown -- and they settle on a local carriage-ride. Still, Kant's plaintive call for: "Distance, distance. Only let us go far enough" is among the account's most poignant scenes -- and it's at points such as this one that one wishes De Quincey (or another) had taken a firmer, creative hand in embellishing the text, sticking not just to the record but imagining beyond it.
       The Last Days of Immanuel Kant is quite effective as an account of old-age decline, and touching, even, in some of its eloquence:
His powers of mind were (if I may be allowed that expression) smouldering away in their ashes; but every now and then some lambent flame, or grand emanation of light, shot forth to make it evident that the ancient fire still slumbered below.
       On the whole, however, it is more a voyeuristic exercise. If, as De Quincey claims, Kant is of interest also as a person, rather than just for his thought, it's odd to focus, as the account does, on that time in his life when he was least Kant-like, fading physically and mentally: it is not the demented Kant that is the person the people are interested in (one would think ...?). Perhaps there is some comfort to be found in seeing that even the greatest of thinkers, a man considered almost purely cerebral, will ultimately be no more than the hollow human shell we are all destined for, but it seems rather meager satisfaction.
       There's no question that Wasianski's close account, and De Quincey's rendering thereof, is gripping and fascinating reading, and it does offer some insight into Kant -- and certainly covers his declining years very well. One might have wished that De Quincey had made more out of Wasianski's account, building on the rich material, but as is it is also a fascinating example of a translated and reworked text supplanting the original (even in German, it seems, with the translation back into that language ...).

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 July 2021

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The Last Days of Immanuel Kant: Reviews: Les derniers jours d'Emmanuel Kant - the film: Immanuel Kant:
  • Immanuel Kant page at Books and Writers
  • Immanuel Kant page at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Kant on the Web -- excellent collection of links
  • Kant, a limerick sequence by Ernest D'Urfé at the complete review Quarterly
Thomas De Quincey: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Thomas De Quincey lived 1785 to 1859.

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© 2021 the complete review

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