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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The Final Days of Immanuel Kant

Odd Nerdrum

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To purchase The Final Days of Immanuel Kant

Title: The Final Days of Immanuel Kant
Author: Odd Nerdrum
Genre: Play
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 92 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: in How We Cheat Each Other - US
in How We Cheat Each Other - UK
in How We Cheat Each Other - Canada
  • Norwegian title: Immanuel Kants siste dager
  • Translated by Mette Line Myhre

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Our Assessment:

B : good theater, though a bit facile in much of its take on Kant

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Stavanger Aftenblad . 18/11/2003 Eirik Lodén

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mennesket Kant er derimot i all sin skrøpelighet tegnet ikke uten sympati. Han er feig, smålig, hevngjerrig, misunnelig på Goethe, og han bærer på en mørk hemmelighet. Et liv fullstendig viet til filosofien har sine omkostninger. Kant fremstår som en selvlaget abstraksjon av et menneske, nærmest en tenkemaskin fra det samfunnet han imøteser med slik forventning. (...) Det er et ekstremt portrett, javel, en karikatur av mennesket og filosofen Kant; men etterhvert går det opp for oss at dette først og fremst er et drama om vår tid, en samtidskommentar og -kritikk. Kants siste dager er våre dager." - Eirik Lodén, Stavanger Aftenblad

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Although the collection How We Cheat Each Other in which The Final Days of Immanuel Kant is published in English is presented as 'Six Short Stories', the work is clearly a play; like the rest of the pieces in the collection, it is essentially entirely in dialogue, with a few stage directions. Indeed, The Final Days of Immanuel Kant was apparently to premiere at the National Theatre in Norway in 2003, but protests about the portrayal of Kant led to the production being cancelled (though it has been staged since). It's certainly heartening to see that this could even be grounds for debate and outrage -- though surely, more than two hundred years after his death, Kant and his thought should be entirely fair game. Given its focus on the philosopher's 'final days' -- a period which saw him in well-documented mental decline -- one can hardly have expected a flattering picture in any case.
       The play opens on the evening before Kant is to receive an honorary doctorate. (It's unclear why Kant would be receiving an honorary degree in his native Königsberg -- but Thomas Bernhard's play, Immanuel Kant, also has the philosopher preparing to receive such an honor -- albeit abroad.) Kant's longtime servant Lampe is set to go out that evening, and in their exchange there are already hints of Kant's true feelings for Lampe, and for the male sex in general.
       Left alone, Kant is left to his thoughts -- which also have him wondering what his reputation will be a hundred years hence. He is interrupted in his revery by the appearance of a pale, naked man, as Nerdrum plunks a just-dead Han van Meegeren, the (in)famous forger, into the play. Meegeren is recently deceased -- he claims to have died in a Rotterdam jail two days earlier -- and now finds himself in the Königsberg of Kant's time -- i.e. almost a century and a half before his own.
       Meegeren has reason to seek out Kant: as he explains and complains upon intruding into the philosopher's home: "You have destroyed my life". He blames Kant -- and, specifically, Kant's philosophy -- for it, claiming nothing less than: "You forced me into art forgery". A painter who had great mastery over the craft, Meegeren found himself in a world where talent and skill were not rewarded. The art-world was no longer one where mere skillful rendering sufficed -- or was even called for:

Nothing could be loved for what it was,
and there had to be some deeper meaning to everything.
That's what they called the search for the authentic. The authentic
They worshipped the word.
       His original art was unappreciated in these times -- and so he turned to forging old masters. Initially, he merely wanted to show up the art critics -- but the money was too good for him to unmask himself and make his point publicly.
       If a bit contrived, this confrontation between Kant and Meegeren, and their debate over art, is quite clever and fun. Nerdrum's Kant remains sure of himself and his way of seeing things, even as Meegeren argues passionately against it. A nice touch is having the philosopher engage fully on this intellectual level, to the extent that he barely takes much notice of the fact that the presence before him is both dead and naked.
       This would have seemed basis enough for an entire play, but Nerdrum then turns it in another direction, Meegeren turning the tables and provoking Kant by asking him what burdens he has carried with him in his life, what desires have moved him. The dispassionate philosopher reveals himself to have another side -- and, after getting all defensive and even shooting Meegeren (to little effect, since the man is already dead), he unburdens himself:
But there was something missing.
I had these peculiar fantasies,
and I may as well be frank with a dead man,
my fantasies dealt with forbidden desires.
       In admitting to them and allowing himself to consider his deep, dark desires -- and the guilt over having acted on them, years earlier -- Kant becomes undone. On the one hand, it is freeing -- he comes to admit to his love for Lampe (though, as it turns out, Lampe was well aware of his master's longings, pointing out: "We both knew something we could never talk about") -- but it is also a reminder of his failure: "I have never experienced life".
       A student who venerates Kant and came to visit him earlier in the evening -- and then waited in front of the house all night for his audience with the great man -- notes the next morning, still blinded by the ideal:
A philosopher is a man who takes responsibility,
who searches for deeper meaning.
I am a morality philosophy, like Master Kant.
Everyone knows he has been Germany's pillar of morality all these years.
       Seeing the state the master is in, the student does have to admit: "Maybe not today, but ...", while Headmaster Knott, overseeing the honorary degree celebrations, puts it more succinctly: "Master Kant, you're a mess !" Admitting his weakness -- the only way he can think of this animal-passion -- to himself, and also publicly, does not bring with it any relief; essentially, it comes to be only another explanation (along with old-age dementia) for Kant losing his mind.
       Nerdrum does add some neat connections in his small cast of characters -- the student and the maid, for example, and then Lampe's having met a cobbler while he was out that evening, who sends his greetings to Kant, the father, it turns out, of the young boy that Kant had defiled years earlier. It makes for a small chamber piece that easily feels larger -- but remains also uneasily split between it's two only partially overlapping Kant-critiques. The suggestion that Kant was not, as legend has it, purely chaste and cerebral, but rather moved -- rather seedily, too -- by deep sexual passions which he could, in part, not control comes across as a bit simple, but makes for mostly decent -- if predictable -- drama. The much more interesting clash and debate, between Kant and Meegeren about the nature and value of art, gets shorter shrift -- and feels, as a scene, somewhat forced: to have a recently deceased Meegeren simply pop up here -- but then also equally abruptly leave the scene ("Han disappears") -- feels almost entirely arbitrary.
       Nerdrum has a good ear for dialogue and a fine feel for drama; The Final Days of Immanuel Kant makes for good theater. As a take on Kant, it offers some interesting ideas and arguments -- though the (mostly-)closet-homosexual (and opportunistic pedophile) aspect certainly feels too facile, The arguments concerning the effects of his thought on (modern) art, on the other hand, are more intriguing, and while perhaps harder to continue to develop over a whole play, Nerdrum certainly seems onto something in bringing in the character of Han van Meegeren to debate it. (As is, however, it feels like an idea -- and storyline -- that he just couldn't figure out how to develop further, hence the sudden disappearance of Meegeren from the scene and the play, with only some of his arguments left over as catalyst for part of the rest.)
       If it doesn't quite convince, The Final Days of Immanuel Kant is nevertheless a decent and in many parts well-shaped play.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 August 2021

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The Final Days of Immanuel Kant: Reviews: 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
Odd Nerdrum: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian painter and author Odd Nerdrum was born in 1944.

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© 2021 the complete review

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