No Comment — July 5, 2007, 7:02 am

The Cabin Between Being and Time

todtnauberg_thumb

This month’s Harper’s features a wonderful poem by Les Gottesman entitled “Heidegger’s a.m.” which presents some Heideggerian phenomenology with caffeine and an unmistakably ironic base note. “Coffee grounds/the problem in ancient inquiries/concerning being not being beings,” Gottesman writes.

Heidegger is a problematic character – he shows outward signs of greatness, he delivers a devastating critique of modernity, he offers captivating readings of many philosophers of antiquity – readings that make them undeniably relevant to mankind in the nuclear era.

On the other hand, his character is marked with so many reprehensible traits. His betrayal of his great mentor Edmund Husserl. His decision to join the Nazi Party. His unforgivable Rektoratsrede in which he debased one of Europe’s great universities with absurd, hate-tinged politics. And his use of his podium to destroy the remaining vestages of academic freedom in Freiburg. His incomprehensible love-hate relationship with a largely Jewish entourage: Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, Jacob Klein, Karl Löwith and Leo Strauss. He was embarrassingly misdirected at an historically critical moment. Heidegger faced a fork in the path of his life, and he took the easy and morally compromised route rather than the difficult and righteous one. So what remains to be salvaged from the life of Martin Heidegger? For me, he was a useful tool for the understanding of his intellectual progeny. But Heidegger himself? It makes me wince.

I think back to hearing a tape of a discussion that occurred more than thirty years ago at St. John’s between Leo Strauss and Jacob Klein in which they speak in a flustered way of “him,” the great one whose name is so difficult to mouth. Their octogenarian voices are filled with a curious mixture of marvel and contempt; for it is clear that Klein and Strauss continued to view Heidegger as what the Germans call a Respektsperson, even as they saw in him an enemy. How could this man who taught us so much have turned out to be an enemy? They seem to ask.

Some twenty kilometers outside of Freiburg at an elevation of some thirty-five hundred feet stands a small hut in the Black Forest which figures prominently in Heidegger’s life and works. I went there once many years ago, having read that Hannah Arendt had been there to visit her lover and thinking that a walk in the woods might be just the thing. It was an early summer day, but then – as Heine says – “Summer in Germany is but a winter painted green.” (Like today – I write this on board a German ICE train, sailing down the fringe of the Black Forrest, not at all far from Heidegger’s Waldhütte, and the temperature has barely cleared 50 degrees). It was cold and pouring rain, and I decided the better part of valor remained in not pressing through the woods and getting drenched. Lunch and a Schnapps at a Freiburg Gaststätte seemed far more attractive.

However, the current issue of Cabinet Magazine demonstrates that Leland de la Durantaye is a hardier soul than I, because he made the trek, and lived to recount it. Moreover, he uses the visit as a marvelous base to talk about Heidegger and his times. His article manages the unlikely feat of making a discussion of Heidegger the thinker and Heidegger the man something at once entertaining and enriching. Moreover, he does a good job of warning his fellow hikers about the poisonous mushrooms that line the trail. Durantaye tells us he gets lost along the way, but don’t you believe it – this man is a skillful trailblazer.

Durantaye masters perfectly the merger of time, place and being that is so essential to Heidegger. He does it in a way that seems almost effortless. Reading this makes me jealous.

For his special task, Heidegger soon realized that he needed special tools. He saw that the terms and concepts employed by traditional metaphysical inquiry were little suited to the task at hand and would break under the strain of what he envisioned. And so he retreated to the Black Forest, and on long walks along its wooded paths, in glades and clearings, skiing down its slopes, and in long hours pouring over books in his hut, he patiently crafted a special language for his unusual task. One thing was immediately apparent: it wasn’t pretty. German played a role in this. For him, “the forgetting of being,” as he called it, began early: with the translation of Greek texts into Latin. Things did not get any better with the translations from Latin into the burgeoning Romance language. But German, in its rugged seclusion, had been spared and, what is more, possessed what he saw as an elective affinity with Western philosophy’s native language, Greek. (Once asked about English’s status as a philosophical language he curtly responded that it had ceased being one in 1066.) Though German offered special advantages in its similarity to Greek, this was not enough, and Heidegger began employing a German like no other. More classical philosophers such as Ernst Cassirer and the young Walter Benjamin were at a loss as to what he was talking about—but they knew they didn’t like it. Adorno dismissed it as “ontological jargon,” and no less a stylistic master than Adorno’s friend Thomas Mann asked in shocked disbelief upon first reading Heidegger: “Should not such writing be subject to punishment?” A psychologist visiting one of Heidegger’s seminars had a more common reaction: “It was as if a man from Mars had come across a group of earthlings and was trying to communicate with them…”

[Heidegger’s] preferred metaphorical register was that of the area around his hut: of forests and paths, of peaks and valleys, of dwellings and clearings, calls of nature and authentic connectedness with one’s environment. What seemed to most shape his language was the space before which I am now, dirty and disoriented, stood.

Heidegger’s secret language, his esoteric approach, seem strange to us today, though for his time they were far less so. This was after all he generation that brought us Stefan George, with his curious aestheticism. George wanted not only his own language and style; he even insisted that his own peculiar type be cast for his books. Compared to George, Heidegger seems almost normal. But it is essential to Heidegger to understand his ferocious elitism. He understood that the process of philosophical dialogue was one maintained from mountaintop to mountaintop, to borrow the powerful metaphor of his fellow Swabian, the philosopher-poet Friedrich Hölderlin, whose works so deeply influenced Heidegger.

The one bone I would have to pick with Durantaye in his recounting would be his decision to call the Black Forest a backwater and to compare it with the Ozarks. Having lived a while on its edge, I may suffer from a bit of local patriotism, but this comparison is absurd. The Schwarzwald and the Alemannic world around it may be rural, and their dimuitive-laden dialect may produce smirks in the faces of Germans, but they have played a vigorous – almost unequaled – role in German intellectual history. One thinks of Schiller, Hegel, Hölderlin, Kepler, Mörike, Wieland, and Heidegger’s contemporary–but in many ways his spiritual counterweight–Hermann Hesse, not to mention all the leaders of German liberalism from the 1848 revolution to Theodor Heuss, who hailed from this region. Life in the area was primitive and rural, in a sense, but this was hardly an intellectual backwater by any measure. Rather the opposite.

One sign from the path in the woods that Durantaye describes so wonderfully sticks with me. “Wer groß denkt, muß groß irren” – it says. “He who thinks great thoughts is bound to make enormous mistakes.” What a wonderful apologia to put over the life of Martin Heidegger, though, I would reformulate it a bit, perhaps. There can be no question about Heidegger’s enormous mistakes, but about his great thoughts – on that there are still issues.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

  • Juan G.

    I enjoyed how irreverent you are towards Heidegger. Ferocious elitism! ha! Absolutely right.

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2015

In the Shadow of the Storm

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Measure for Measure

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Israel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Camera on Every Cop

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Part Neither, Part Both·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Eight months pregnant I told an old woman sitting beside me on the bus that the egg that hatched my baby came from my wife’s ovaries. I didn’t know how the old woman would take it; one can never know. She was delighted: That’s like a fairy tale!”
Mother with Children, by Gustav Klimt © akg-images
Article
What Recovery?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Between 2007 and 2010, Albany’s poverty rate jumped 12 points, to a record high of 39.9 percent. More than two thirds of Albany’s 76,000 residents are black, and since 2010, their poverty rate has climbed even higher, to nearly 42 percent.”
Photograph by Will Steacy
Article
Rag Time·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From a May 23 commencement address delivered at Hofstra University. Doctorow died on Tuesday. He was 84.
“We are a deeply divided nation in danger of undergoing a profound change for the worse.”
Photograph by Giuseppe Giglia
Article
The Trouble with Israel·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.”
Photograph by Adam Golfer
Post
Greece, Europe, and the United States·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“A progressive Europe—the Europe of sustainable growth and social cohesion—would be one thing. The gridlocked, reactionary, petty, and vicious Europe that actually exists is another. It cannot and should not last for very long.”

Photograph by Stefan Boness

Number of pages in the bills that created Social Security and the Federal Trade Commission, respectively:

29, 8

A case study was published about a man who has consumed 40,000 pills of ecstasy, a new world record. The man suffers from memory problems, paranoia, hallucinations, and depression, as well as painful muscle rigidity that keeps him from opening his mouth.

Hackers breached Ashley Madison, a website that facilitates extramarital relationships, compromising the private information of millions of users. “This could be a boon,” said one lawyer, “for divorce attorneys.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today