No Comment — July 5, 2007, 7:02 am

The Cabin Between Being and Time


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.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Percentage of people who go to the bathroom in New York’s Penn Station who do not wash their hands:


Cell phones cause bees to behave erratically.

Paul Manafort accepts a plea deal; Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault; Jeff Bezos gets into the kindergarten racketon the clock

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


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today