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Sarah Kofman and the influence of an enigmatic mother

The French thinker’s philosophy was irrevocably impacted by her fickle mother, who she never understood. A Nietzsche fan, she also struggled to understand the woman who helped raised her

Sarah Kofman
Sarah Kofman at her home in Paris in November 1985.Bruno de Monès (Roger-Viollet/CORDON PRESS)

The work of French philosopher Sarah Kofman, a contemporary of Jacques Derrida, whose father was murdered in Auschwitz, has revived the interest of researchers and thinkers. In 2019, there was an international summit in Paris called Sarah Kofman: Philosophizing Differently. The speeches from that summit were published in 2021. The meeting marked a fertile exchange between academics and individuals from Kofman’s closest circles, figures such as Avital Ronell and Jean-Luc Nancy.

To understand Kofman, one must know her life story. She read abundantly and deeply, losing herself in the texts of her favorite authors, primarily those of Nietzsche and Freud. Her work is concentric and complex, delivered in circles or a whirlwind of words. Why does the author philosophize like this? And, above all, how does one begin to philosophize by practically tearing apart a text, by entering into the materiality by which it is organized, by taking a bite out of the page? In Kofman’s case, one might wonder about the initial impulse that compelled her to read in such a singular manner. Her maternal figures likely played a significant role.

In 1994, Kofman published her autobiography, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat. Soon after, she killed herself. The book is the story of her father’s deportation and its consequences. After the gendarmes arrested Berek Kofman, little Sarah suffered deep separation anxiety. She would vomit if she had to leave her mother’s side, and it got to the point that Kofman could no longer hid with others — her mother had to stay with her at all times. The two of them moved from Ordener Street, where the family had lived until her father’s arrest, to Labat Street, to the home of a French woman (Mémé, as Kofman would come to call her) who took them in at the risk of her own life.

Over the course of the days they spent hiding in the house on Labat Street, Sarah found herself caught between two mothers. Her Yiddish mother cooked her kosher food, while her French mother said such a diet was not suitable for the child, and brought her steak, cooked rare. The late Belgian feminist Françoise Collin says food is at the heart of Kofman’s account: “Everything is woven in terms of eating, of eating too much to eating not enough, between hunger and vomit, what it costs her to digest. Everything is woven between two dietary regimes in which she fruitlessly searches for the diet that will save her, that of eating well.”

Little by little, the girl tilts towards Mémé, who took her out for walks, bragging about how beautiful and blonde she was, and took her to concerts and museums. The world of culture opened up to Kofman like a bonbon that melts in your mouth. Abandoning the dietary restrictions of maternal tradition, Kofman entered the symbolic dimension of the French mother. Between two mothers, the child’s survival was at stake.

The traumatizing loss of her father makes up the bulk of the story: his absence, the difficulty that envelops the little girl. Sarah begins to study, and later on, to write philosophy, searching for a way out. This search for an escape helps us understand how the author philosophizes, and her relationship with Nietzsche’s work.

Nietzsche lost his father at a young age, like Kofman. In his marvelous biography about the philosopher, Daniel Halévy describes the boy’s helplessness in the face of his father’s early death. Nietzsche would later write, in Ecce Homo (1889), “As my father, I am already dead.” “Friedrich Nietzsche was then four years old,” writes Halévy. “The incidents of this tragic time made a deep impression upon his mind: night-alarms, the weeping in the house, the terrors of the closed chamber, the silence, the utter abandonment to woe; the tolling bells, the hymns, the funeral sermons; the coffin engulfed beneath the flagstones of the church. His understanding of such things had come too early, and he was shaken by it.”

Understanding too early is also a way of crossing the threshold into philosophy. For Nietzsche, the death of his father meant that he was left at the mercy of his mother and sister, whom he would later describe in a letter to Franz Overbeck. In 1883: “The treatment I have experienced at the hands of my mother and sister, up until this very moment, introduces in me unspeakable horror: here there is at work a perfect hell machine that, with impeccable accuracy, picks the very moment at which it can inflict a bloody wound, at my highest moments [...] since then every power is lacking to defend oneself against such a poisonous worm [...] I confess that the deepest objection to the ‘eternal recurrence,’ my most terrible thought, is always my mother and my sister.”

In the same way that, in Nietsche’s case, Ecce Homo is a summary of his work, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat represents for Kofman the moment in which she says what she was not able to express in her 20 previous philosophy books. Both works represent the end for the two philosophers, whose biografemas (in the words of French philosopher Danielle Cohen-Levinas) allow us to understand that which is, at times, philosophy’s traumatic impulse.

These two stories illustrate a manner of approaching philosophy, beginning with the question of what one is, in the eyes of their mother. One looks for a shortcut away from this impasse. This is how Kofman put it, in the opening of Rue Ordener, Rue Labat: “Maybe all my books have been the detours required to bring me to write about ‘that’.”

Sometimes philosophy is strange. Even if one looks to philosophize with the cognitive self, the compass of the unconscious points north, until one finds a possible way out. This does not always have positive results: Kofman killed herself on October 15, the day of Nietzsche’s birth.

Aristotle claimed that the capacity for wonder motivates people to philosophize. Perhaps Kofman’s case, as echoed in Nietzsche’s texts, suggests other reasons.

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