Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought

Poetry, Language, ThoughtPoetry, Language, Thought by Martin Heidegger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite the convenience of this popular collection introducing the thinker’s aesthetics, to comment on Heidegger exposes us to the same embarrassment as essaying on Hegel—except that the 19th-century philosopher’s obscurities were, at least to his own mind, the steam generated by a drive toward clarity so total it was blinding. His 20th-century successor, by contrast, pursues the incomprehensible as a goal in itself, a dark wooded refuge in a world of synthetic and ersatz bedazzlements. Though largely humorless, Heidegger can produce sentences we might expect to find in his contemporary Gertrude Stein: “The jug presences as a thing. The jug is the jug as a thing.” And not only such sentences, but a methodological defense of such sentences:

Merely to say the same thing twice—language is language—how is that supposed to get us anywhere? But we do not want to get anywhere. We would like only, for once, to get to just where we are already.

Like so many artists and thinkers of the early 20th century, Heidegger thinks we need to slow down in a world consumed by the efficiencies and transparencies of technological change. As in other contemporaries, not only Stein but also figures as temperamentally diverse as Eliot and Shklovsky, he accordingly uses language as an impediment, to make us aware of this medium of all thought and experience. For Heidegger, language is “the house of Being,” the world-making capacity that sets us apart from plants and animals.

Yet “world-making” suggests something too agential and Hegelian; Heidegger is a human exceptionalist, but not one who urges us toward further and further action, more and more dominion over earth. Rather, he believes we disclose what can be disclosed of the necessarily obscure earth by using language and art to create revelatory worlds within it: the temple in which the god resides is his example in this volume’s key text, the 1935 essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art.” There he distinguishes among things, equipment, and art. Things are worldly phenomena, of which equipment and art are subsets. Equipment designates items made for use, matter formed for a distinct human purpose—tools, in other words. The better they work, the less conscious one is of the matter so formed. Art, on the other hand, reveals the essence of the matter it’s fashioned from, brings it into individual and collective consciousness:

In fabricating equipment—e.g., an ax—stone is used, and used up. It disappears into usefulness. The material is all the better and more suitable the less it resists perishing into the equipmental being of the equipment. By contrast, the temple-work, in setting up a world, does not care for the material to disappear, but rather causes it to come forth for the very first time and to come into the Open of the world’s work.

Again we see an affinity with other modernists, even ones quite distant from Heidegger in sensibility, like Joyce. For those authors of the early 20th century, the revelation of the form comprising what were once thought to be mimetic or functional representations seemed an urgent task in a mass-media landscape suddenly multiplying representations at a fantastic rate. Viewing truth not as a logical proposition but as “aletheia, the unconcealedness of beings,” Heidegger prefers images far from the world of technology and commerce. Besides the Greek temple, he extols Van Gogh’s painting of a peasant’s shoes; to it he devotes an ekphrastic prose-poem reminiscent of Pater’s reverie on the Mona Lisa:

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself.

In the painting—indeed, in the peasant woman (cf. Woolf’s beggar in Mrs. Dalloway)—world, generated by the art itself, and earth, as the art’s subject matter and material substrate, come together. “Art is the setting to work of truth,” he writes, whereas, by contrast, “science is not an original happening of truth,” first, because science works only with truths already established by the artist, to whom it is alone given to unconceal beings, and, second, because science abets the anti-artistic reign of technology that makes modernity so spiritually impoverished. Looking at art trains us in a less assertive and acquisitive mentality: “to restrain all usual doing and prizing, knowing and looking, in order to stay within the truth that is happening in the work.”

This collection’s other long essay, written immediately after World War II, “What Are Poets For?”—a question he takes from Hölderlin—answers its titular query:

Poets are the mortals who, singing earnestly of the wine-god, sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay on the gods’ tracks, and so trace for their kindred mortals a way toward the turning.

In what Heidegger follows Hölderlin in calling our “destitute time,” the culprits who have beggared us are not only technology and commerce, but totalitarianism too (more about Heidegger’s complicity therewith in a moment). “Modern science and the total state,” he laments, driven by “self-assertive production,” cause “[t]he earth and its atmosphere [to] become raw material. Man becomes human material, which is disposed of with a view toward its proposed goals.”

In self-assertive production, the humanness of man and thing thingness of things dissolve into the calculated market value of a market which not only spans the whole earth as a world market, but also, as the will to will, trades in the nature of Being and thus subjects all beings to the trade of a calculation that dominates most tenaciously in those areas where there is no need of numbers.

The poets, “the sayers who more sayingly say,” like the temple-builders and like Van Gogh among the artists, demonstrate a savingly divergent, anti-scientific, anti-commercial, anti-totalitarian sensibility:

Their singing is turned away from all purposeful self-assertion. It is not a willing in the sense of desire. Their song does not solicit anything to be produced. In the song, the world’s inner space concedes space within itself. The song of these singers is neither solicitation nor trade.

This is all clear enough—and to me, in time more technologized than a writer in 1946 might have been able to imagine, almost entirely welcome—but most of the long essay, a gloss on a short poem of Rilke’s that turns the poet’s limpid mysticism into murky prose, is almost unreadably abstract:

The sphericity of the unifying, and the unifying itself, have the character of unconcealing lightening, within which present beings can be present.

If you say so! Yet the overall thesis can be recovered. Human exceptionality among living things both allows our techno-commercial rampage over the earth—what Heidegger joins Rilke in deriding as “Americanism”—and enables us, through art and language, to reveal without dominance or objectification the mysterious source, the mysterium tremendum, he portentously calls “Being” to receptively attentive and actively passive eyes. Humanity is both the disease and the cure; as Hölderlin writes, “But where there is danger, there grows / also what saves.”

Other essays in this collection are more opaque to me, particularly “Language,” which defines language as what speaks rather than what is spoken and seems to anticipate Derrida (much talk of a word the translator spells as “dif-ferrence”) in ways I find unclear, except that its diminution of human agency may anticipate where it does not actually influence today’s censorious “words are violence” attitude. More revelatory is “The Thing,” in which Heidegger seems to dissolve the differences among thing, equipment, and art that he’d maintained in the “Origin” essay. Here his example is a jug, surely a piece of equipment, yet one he defines by its sacramental function of pouring out for the feast in which the fourfold of “earth and sky, divinities and mortals dwell together all at once.” He ends the essay with a list of similarly redemptive things, a list expansive in one way, yet (tellingly) restrictive in another: jug, bench, footbridge, plow, tree, pond, brook, hill, heron, roe, deer, horse, bull, mirror, clasp, book, picture, crown, cross. A beautiful list, a poem in itself, yet it was written in the middle of the 20th century, even though it harbors no item newer than the Middle Ages, newer even than antiquity.

I have been comparing Heidegger to his fellow modernists, but here he differs even from those of a superficially similar ideological bent. Could he, like Pound, have seen “petals on a wet, black bough” in the Paris Metro? Could he, like Woolf, have detected a new sublime in an airplane skywriting a candy ad? Could he, like Joyce—well, no, he couldn’t have, because Joyce was a city man, and a philo-Semite to boot. But I am not so interested in the doleful commonplace of our philosopher’s Nazism. His preference for what’s rooted in the earth—including “the historical destiny of a people,” to quote one of this book’s more troubling phrases—is enough to explain and to deplore his political dereliction. I find the fascist elements of his thought both obvious and, for my purposes, fairly detachable from his plainly worthwhile critique of imperial scientism and his valorization in its stead of a poetry that demands no such furious and total human activity. My preference for Joyce, for Woolf, even for fellow-fascist Pound is about something other than, if related to, Heidegger’s recoil from modernity.

Some of Heidegger’s fellow philosophers deride him as not really a philosopher at all. Sam Dresser writes up his conflict with Rudolf Carnap, a thinker ambitious to dispel metaphysics with logic, who called Heidegger a “musician without musical ability.” Without wishing to weigh in on the question of what is or isn’t philosophy—like a conjugal quarrel in the next apartment over, it’s blessedly none of my business—this particular insult is a direct hit. I don’t know if Heidegger is a good or bad philosopher or a philosopher at all, and I don’t understand much of what I read in this book, even though I also read George Steiner’s Fontana Modern Masters entry on Heidegger, listened to illuminating lectures by John David Ebert and Michael Sugrue, and, for that matter, studied Heidegger years ago in two separate graduate courses (in English, not philosophy: a student from the philosophy department, an analytical emissary from the Vienna Circle, sat in the back of one of these seminars and confidently pronounced everything on the syllabus—Leibniz, Spinoza, Heidegger, Derrida—to be nonsense and gibberish, much to the chagrin of our deconstructive professor).

Whatever his status in philosophy, though, Heidegger seems to me to be a bad poet. The great poets reveal the mystery of Being by specifying objects and experiences that incarnate its refulgence; again, Pound needs only two lines and one metaphor to light up modern Paris and old Japan at once, and to change the subway rider’s perception forever. Heidegger’s pages of bizarre and repetitive abstraction, by contrast, light up very little. Here (except that it doesn’t quite explain Pound’s case in the same way) I am tempted to say the literary flaw and the political flaw become one. Averse to too many of the sights where a more receptive eye might have seen splendor—incognizant that “what saves” might actually have been growing in the last places he’d have thought to look for it: the street, the marketplace—he sought too severe a shelter, a darkness not pregnant with holy mystery but only fogged with the foul smoke of human sacrifice.