Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas (2)

The second half of this “novel” is good, but I had a few problems with it here and there.   Beginning with “Speculative and Science Fiction” he writes several vignettes about U.S writers.   They are clever but not as impressive as when he writes about characters in Argentina or Chile.   He doesn’t have a solid block of U.S. vignettes – as if to indicate that we are all (South and North America) one screwed up entity.  The U.S. writers J.M.S. Hill (who writes science fiction) and Zach Sonderstern who wrote a “Fourth Reich Saga,” the opening pages of which introduce “a mutant, stray German Shepherd with telepathic powers and Nazi tendencies.” 
But the fourth novel (of the Fourth Reich saga) is entitled The Crystal Cathedral.  Did Bolano know there was an actual Chrystal Cathedral in Orange County California?  Surely, he did for he centers Sonderstern in Los Angeles, but he describes The Crystal Cathedral as being “a story about God, fundamentalist preachers and the ultimate meaning of life.”  Robert Schuller, the founder of the Chrystal (not the spelling used by Bolano’s translator, and presumably Bolano) Cathedral is the very opposite of a fundamentalist preacher.  In fact the fundamentalist preachers, and they are in abundance in Orange County, have been critical of Schuller for being too liberal.  So if Bolano intended something interesting in this allusion, it fell flat – at least for someone who used to live in the very city (Garden Grove) where Schuller.
And to some extent I have the same complaint about his other vignettes about U.S. writers.  His section on “The Aryan Brotherhood” is an example.  The Aryan Brotherhood is a prison gang (in reality and not just in Bolanoity).  The Whites against the Mexican Mafia and the Black Guerillas . . . or more recently the Aryans and Mexican Mafia against the Black Guerillas, but names intending to be intimidating.  This gang has little to do with the German or Italian Fascists.  They like invoking the Nazi image in order to scare those that might challenge them, but do they have anything to do with what Hitler believed?   Don’t be too quick to say “racism,” because Hitler wasn’t a racist in U.S. terms.  His greatest enemies were the Russians, who are “white” and therefore acceptable to the Aryan Brotherhood.  Nazi, after all, stands for “National Socialism.”  Hitler believed the Germans and not a “white race” should rule Europe, if not the world.  I’m sure the real Nazis would have shuffled those Aryan Brothers off to the nearest crematorium if they had encountered any of them. 
The concluding vignette on “Carlos Ramirez Hoffman” was further developed in Distant Star, the story of an Allende assassin who (on orders) kills twin girls, one of whom he is in love with, is a fighter pilot who writes poetry in the sky, and is finally killed by a Chilean assassin (also on orders).  I read Distant Star back in 2007 and so don’t have it vividly in mind, but it was written after Nazi Literature in America; so I assume the story fascinated him so much that he sought to develop it further.  It is 25 pages in Nazi Literature in America and 149 pages in Distant Star. 
The relative briefness of the “Carlos Ramirez Hoffman” vignette gives it a different flavor than Distant Star.  I was reminded of the conclusion of Kafka’s The Trial in a way I was not in Distant Star.  But if that was intended, and I am reluctant to accuse Bolano of “not” intending any allusion I think I see, in what sense was Hoffman or (in Distant Star, Carlos Weider) like Kafka’s Joseph K?  Hoffman/Weider both engaged in violent acts in support of a brutal government; so one might say that they didn’t understand the reality of their situation with the proper (or at least ultimate) reality.  They were not guilty in any clear sense.  They acted as agents of a legitimate government.   So that vagueness is perhaps relatable to Joseph K’s crime or sin which is never defined.   Bolano seems to have some sympathy for him.  In Nazi Literature he (Bolano) pleads that Hoffman’s life be spared, but the narrator of Distant Star, while suitably “horrified,” doesn’t plead for Weider’s life.  But Bolano in Nazi Literature seems more an actor in the death of Weider than the narrator does in Distant Star; which made me think of the men in the pork pie hats who came to execute Joseph K.  Someone unidentified determined that Hoffman, Weider, and Joseph K. should be executed, and so they were.
Is Nazi Literature in the Americas truly “a novel”?  Not in any traditional sense, but Bolano is so good we must let him have his way.   After all it must be the writers who write them and not the critics who review them who determine the nature of the “novel.”   But I’m reminded of the poetry of E. E. Cummings and the novels of Kafka here.  Who could write like them?  No one.  I am also reminded of J. R. R. Tolkein who created a whole world of fictitious beings who have taken on a reality that is still with us.  I’m tempted to reread Distant Star, thus getting his stories in their proper order and determine if I still believe what I’ve written here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas (1)

Rorty in a footnote in his Essays on Heidegger and Others quotes from Byron’s Don Juan, XIII, ii: “Cervantes smiled Spain’s chivalry away;/ A single laugh demolished the right arm / Of his own country; -- seldom since that day / Has Spain had heroes.”
There is no smiling away of German heroism in Heidegger, no “single laugh” in anything I’ve read, but that isn’t true of the Chilean, Roberto Bolano. 
I began Nazi Literature in The Americas wondering what Bolano was up to this time.  He has created a fictitious genre and a series of fictitious poets, novelists and artists, but to what end?  There were Nazis in Chili -- that much is true.  There was even a fondness on the part of many Chileans, indeed many in “the Americas” (Bolano does not restrict himself to Chili) for the Nazis.  But we find no expose – no hint of  the furious malevolence we saw in Emmanuel Faye’s treatment of Heidegger.  In an accumulation of vignettes we often see Bolano “smile.”   His American (largely South and Latin American, but he doesn’t exclude North America) Nazi lovers drift into their affection.  One poet, for example, became a lover of Hitler because Hitler once held her as a baby.  She treasured a photo of that event above everything she owned. 
I don’t mean to imply that Bolano is uniformly humorous – he isn’t uniformly anything.  He seems rather brutal, for example with his  “Silvio Salvatico.”  I noticed before I read the vignette that he was the longest lived of any of Bolano’s “poets” as far as I had read (1901-1994).  Salvatico advocated one outrageous thing after another, and “. . . From 1920 to 1929, in addition to frequenting the literary salons and fashionable cafes, he wrote and published more than twelve collections of poems, some of them won municipal and provincial prizes.  From 1930 on, burdened by a disastrous marriage and numerous offspring, he worked as a gossip columnist and copy-editor for various newspapers in the capital, hung out in dives, and practiced the art of the novel, which stubbornly declined to yield its secrets to him.  Three titles resulted: Fields of Honor (1936), about semi-secret challenges and duels in a spectral Buenos Aires; The French Lady (1949), a story of prostitutes with hearts of gold, tango singers and detectives; and The Eyes of the Assassin (1962), a curious precursor to the psycho-killer movies of the seventies and eighties.
“He died in an old-age home in Villa Luro, his worldly possessions consisting of a single suitcase full of books and unpublished manuscripts.
“His books were never republished.  His manuscripts were probably thrown out with the trash or burned by the orderlies.”
But “Willy Schurholz” is another matter.  Purportedly raised in the 100% German “Colonia Renacer,” and Willy came to think of his childhood as rather like being in a concentration camp.  Bolano tells us that Willy “. . . had what it takes to fail spectacularly . . .  His first poems combined disconnected sentences and topographic maps of Coloni Renacer.  They were untitled.  They were unintelligible.  Their aim was not to be understood, and certainly not to secure the reader’s complicity.  One critic has suggested that they indicate where to dig for the buried treasure of a lost childhood. . . .”
[Skipping ahead a bit]  “In 1980, with the support of Review of Thought and History, he published his first book.  Fuchler, the editor of the review, wanted to write a preface.  Schurholz refused.  The book is called Geometry, and it sets out countless variations on the theme of a barbed-wire fence crossing an almost empty space, sparsely scattered with apparently unrelated verses.  The fences seen from the air trace precise and delicate lines.  The verses speak – or whisper – of an abstract pain, the sun and headaches.”
[Skipping further ahead]  “In 1985, Schurholz, whose fame had previously been restricted to Chile’s literary and artistic circles, vast as they are, was catapulted to the very summit of notoriety by a group of local North American impresarios.  Commanding a team of excavators, he dug the map of an ideal concentration camp into the Atacama desert: an intricate network which, from the ground, appeared to be an ominous series of straight lines but viewed from a helicopter or an airplane resolved into a graceful set of curves.  The poet himself dispatched the literary component by inscribing the five vowels with a hoe and a mattock at locations scattered arbitrarily over the terrain’s rugged surface.  This performance was soon hailed in Chile as the cultural sensation of the summer.
“The experiment was repeated in the Arizona desert and a wheat field in Colorado, with significant variations.  Schurholz’s eager promoters wanted to find him a light plane so he could draw a concentration camp in the sky, but he refused: his ideal camps were meant to be observed from the sky, but they could only be drawn on earth. . . .”
[Skipping ahead]  “In 1990, to the surprise of his followers, he published a book of children’s stories . . . the children’s stories were scrutinized with disdain and pitilessly dissected.  In his stories . . . Schurholz idealized a childhood that was suspiciously aphasic, amnesic, obedient and silent.  Invisibility seemed to be his aim.  In spite of the critics, the book sold well. . . .”
“Shortly afterwards, amid protests from certain sectors of the left, Schurholz was offered the position of cultural attaché to the Chilean Embassy in Angola, which he accepted.  In Africa he found what he had been looking for: the fitting repository for his soul.  He never returned to Chile.  He spent the rest of his life working as a photographer and as a guide for German tourists.”
COMMENT:  I begin each Bolano novel expecting to dislike it.  Who writes like Bolano?  No one.  He writes nonsense as though he is doing journalism or literary criticism.  And yet I am inevitably surprised to discover that he has created something . . . it would be a disservice (as well as an impossibility) to attempt to reduce what Bolano does to what that something is.  To borrow Heidegger – or perhaps Rorty – one can see Bolano writing of one aspect of Chilean (and American) history thus far.  What we find isn’t an “essence” (Heidegger, by contrast, seems to come close to describing the “dead serious” essence of the German spirit), but something of this history – the naïve attraction of Chileans and others for the Nazis.   Heidegger wouldn’t laugh at this, but we can, and because we (of the Americas) can, perhaps we have given up, or are in the process of giving up our ability to produce heroes.  One thinks of Nietzsche’s “last man.”  Nietzsche, and Heidegger after him, don’t find this “last man” humorous.  But Bolano often does. For Bolano the last man isn’t an untermensch in Nietzschean or Heideggerian terms.  He isn’t subhuman or uninteresting.  Bolano’s poets are uniformly untalented.  There isn’t a Holderlin among them, and the “literary salons,” “fashionable cafes” and literary publications don’t give evidence of caring.  Perhaps we can group all of these Bolanoen characters together and conclude they are “last men,” but Balano would deny that they are uninteresting.  They are worthy of our interest and laughter –  when Bolano describes them to us.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Rorty and Heidegger: Narrative and Essentialism

In his essay, Heidegger, Kundera, and Dickens (page 69 of Essays on Heidegger and Others), Richard Rorty writes, “. . . In 1935 Heidegger saw Stalin’s Russia and Roosevelt’s America as ‘metaphysically speaking, the same.’  In 1945 he saw the Holocaust and the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe as two instances of the same phenomenon.  As Habermas puts it, ‘under the leveling gaze of the philosopher of Being even the extermination of the Jews seems merely an event equivalent to many others.’  Heidegger specializes in rising above the need to calculate relative quantities of human happiness, in taking a larger view.  For him, successful and unsuccessful adventures – Gandhi’s success and Dubcek’s failure, for example – are just surface perturbations, distractions from essence by accidents, hindrances to an understanding of what is really going on.

“Heidegger’s refusal to take much interest in the Holocaust typifies the urge to look beneath or behind the narrative of the West for the essence of the West, the urge which separates the philosophers from the novelists.  Someone dominated by this urge will tell a story only as part of the process of clearing away appearance in order to reveal reality.  Narrative is, for Heidegger, always a second-rate genre – a tempting but dangerous one.  At the beginning of Being and Time, Heidegger warned against the temptation to confuse ontology with a story which relates beings to other beings.  At the end of his career he takes back his earlier suggestion that what he called ‘the task of thinking’ might be accomplished by narrating the History of Being, by telling a story about how metaphysics and the West exhausted their possibilities.  In 1962 he cautions himself that he must cease to tell stories about metaphysics, must leave metaphysics to itself, if he is ever to undertake this task.

“Despite this suspicion of epic and preference for lyric, the ability to spin a dramatic tale was Heidegger’s greatest gift.  What is most memorable and original in his writings, it seems to me, is the new dialectical pattern he finds in the canonical sequence of Western philosophical texts.  I think that his clue to this pattern was Nietzsche’s interpretation of the attempts at wisdom, contemplation, and imperturbability by the people whom he called ‘the ascetic priests’ as furtive and resentful expressions of those priests’ will to power.”

            COMMENT:  Rorty disagrees with Heidegger’s belief that the West has fallen, or collapsed, or become exhausted.  Earlier, Rorty writes, “Heidegger and, more generally, the kind of post-Heideggerian thinking which refuses to see the West as a continuing adventure, I want to put forward Charles Dickens as a sort of anti-Heidegger.”  I sort of see what Rorty has in mind by using Dickens.  Although I would prefer a more modern example, Dickens’ oeuvre fits the West as Rorty’s “continuing adventure.”

            Heidegger would have enjoyed Battlestar Galactica.  The collapse he envisioned in his philosophy is graphically illustrated.  Technology turns against humanity with a vengeance.  And as humans continue to squabble amongst themselves, we are reminded in each episode, of the small number of humans who remain in the Universe.  Despite that, the Cylons, the robots who “evolved” have more attractive personalities than the humans.  The end of the series is near (as far as I’ve watched) and the number of Cylons has also been reduced.  If I had to choose just one set of beings to save (based upon what the writers of Battlestar Galactica have shown me), I would select the Cylons.  What does about the philosophical beliefs of these writers?

            The Battlestar Galactica writers anthropomorphized Technology, but Heidegger reified it, as he did “The West.”  The West cannot be literally reified.  I know people do, or think that they do, but they create imaginary images that bear no reality.  Someone disagreeing with me could say the West is this and this and this, and go on enumerating whatever it is that he would put in a category he considers “the West,” but then it is no longer a unity.  There is no essence to it.  Why stop with such an enumeration?  Why not go on and list everything that has ever existed?

Is there a definition of “the West” we can all sign up to?  I think of Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations at this pointWould he disagree with what I have written?  He refers to the various civilizations, but if we read what they are, they prominently include “religion,” for example. The Orthodox Civilization was shaped by Orthodox Christianity and the West by Catholic and Protestant Christianity, but is that not the “Narrative” of the West rather than its “Essence”?   Huntington was not interested in establishing essences of the various “civilizations,” only narratives, only where they have brought themselves by the point in time in which he wrote his book. 

Who in America today could read Spengler’s or Heidegger’s narratives of “The West” and recognize themselves or their beliefs?  Which American could read Heidegger and say, “wretched man that I am, who can save me from this narrative of failure and collapse?”   No, we won’t say that.  We may very well say “those people over there have caused lots of trouble.”  If we could only render them inactive we could move ahead smartly and progressively, but we are a long way from failure or collapse.  And Rorty would interject at this point, “and don’t you see?  That is the continuing adventure of The West.”


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rorty, Heidegger, and whether language can be transcendent

In his essay, “Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the reification of language” (on page 50 of Essays on Heidegger and Others), Rorty writes, “What Gustav Bergmann christened ‘the linguistic turn’ was a rather desperate attempt to keep philosophy an armchair discipline.  The idea was to mark off a space for a priori knowledge into which neither sociology nor history nor art nor natural science could intrude.  It was an attempt to find a substitute for Kant’s ‘transcendental standpoint.’  The replacement of ‘mind’ or ‘experience’ by ‘meaning’ was supposed to insure the purity and autonomy of philosophy by providing it with a nonempirical subject matter.
“Linguistic philosophy was, however, too honest to survive.  When, with the later Wittgenstein, this kind of philosophy turned its attention to the question of how such a ‘pure’ study of language was possible, it realized that it was not possible – that semantics had to be naturalized if it were to be, in Donald Davidson’s phrase, ‘reserved as a serious subject.’  The upshot of linguistic philosophy is, I would suggest, Davidson’s remark that ‘there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what philosophers . . . have supposed. . . .  We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language users master and then apply to cases.’  This remark epitomizes what Ian Hacking has called ‘the death of meaning’ – the end of the attempt to make language a transcendental topic.
“I take Frege and the early Wittgenstein to be the philosophers primarily responsible for imposing on us the idea that there was such a clearly defined shared structure.  In particular, we owe to Wittgenstein the idea that all philosophical problems can in principle be finally solved by exhibiting that structure.  I take the later Wittgenstein, Quine, and Davidson to be the philosophers who freed us from the idea that there is any such structure.  The early Wittgenstein had defined the mystical sense as ‘the sense of the world as a limited whole.’  By contrast, the later Wittgenstein triumphed over his younger, more Schopenhauerian self by no longer feeling the need to be mystical, no longer needing to set himself over against the world as ‘the unsayable limit of the world.’
“The younger Heidegger, the author of Being and Time, was much more free of this Schopenhauerian urge than was the younger Wittgenstein.  That book was filled with protests against the idea of philosophy as theoria.  Heidegger saw that idea as an attempt to rise above the ‘guilt’ and ‘throwness’ which he claimed were inseparable from Dasein’s worldly and historical existence an attempt to escape from the contingency of that  existence.  The younger Heidegger, had he read the Tractatus, would have dismissed that book in the same way as the older Wittgenstein dismissed it – as one more attempt to preserve the philosopher’s autonomy and self-sufficiency by letting him picture himself as somehow above, or beyond, the world.  The young Heidegger would have seen the linguistic turn recommended by Frege and Wittgenstein as merely one more variation on the Platonic attempt to distance oneself from time and chance.”
COMMENT:  There seem to be at least two axes Rorty is grinding here.  The first is to make Heidegger almost as much a pragmatist as Dewey, and the second is perhaps an academic shot at those who sought (are there any who still seek?) to keep a pristine Platonic ivory tower and hold its ramparts against Pragmatists (like Dewey and Rorty) who have left that tower.  They left much like a man once left Plato’s cave, and saw that it was “safe” outside in the real world.  Philosophy, at least Pragmatic philosophy, needn’t feel threatened by science and technology.  In another place Rorty sees Heidegger’s fear of technology as being wrong.  It is of course antithetical to American Pragmatism and Rorty argues that technology isn’t the threat Heidegger imagined it to be.  It is certainly not a dangerous force requiring an ubermensche to manage it.   Once that Heideggerian error is swept away then other elements of his philosophy are seen as approaching American Pragmatism quite closely (Rorty assures us).
If we consider again some of the thoughts from , we might be tempted to make Analytic Philosophy a philosophy of engineers who wanted to define all meaning based upon a Tractatus-type structure.  Since the Analytic School has collapsed (or has it?) this might be moot.  Several philosophers, including Grice described ways in which philosophical analysis did not end up in incontrovertible meanings.  The engineers couldn’t make it work.
But not to worry, Rorty would tell us, we have Heidegger and Dewey to tell us that we can relate to whatever it is we find or know or think in the world, just not in any absolute way that would apply to all languages, all histories and all traditions.  Language is not transcendent in any manner that the engineer can make use of.  The poet (Holderlin, but also Heidegger) and what the poet writes will be transcendent, but this transcendence cannot be grasped by the engineer and made use of with any sort of precision.  It remains transcendent.  It may inspire engineers to act in the world, but no one can follow “the poet” such that he grasps his transcendence utterly.
Heidegger’s authentic language can be considered transcendent.  And what of those who made use of it?  Richard Wolin writes of Heidegger’s Children, Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse.  Each of these “children” diverged from Heideggerian philosophy, but how could they not if it was “transcendent”?  They must diverge and fall short.   And yet each one made use of Heidegger’s philosophy.  They took what they thought was valuable and then made of it something of their own – engineer’s perhaps, but also creating something, Wolin thought, that was authentic.  They thought certain issues through, not thinking Heidegger’s thoughts after him perhaps, but thinking somewhat in rhyme with him, hearing something of the transcendence of his poetry. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Heidegger and authentic thinking

On page 44 of Essays On Heidegger and Others, Richard Rorty quotes Heidegger to say, “History only begins when beings themselves are expressly drawn up in their unconcealment and conserved in it, only when the conservation is conceived on the basis of questioning regarding beings as such.  The primordial disclosure of being as a whole, the question concerning beings as such, and the beginning of Western history are the same.”

Rorty then goes on to explain what he thinks Heidegger means: “I interpret this as saying that prehistorical people living in the west may have played sophisticated language-games, written epics, built temples, and predicted planetary motions, but they didn’t count either as ‘thinking’ or as ‘historical’ until somebody asked ‘Are we doing the right things?’  ‘Are our social practices the right ones to engage in?’

“Thought, in Heidegger’s honorific sense of the term, begins with a willing suspension of verificationism.  It begins when somebody starts asking question such that nobody, including himself or herself, can verify the answers for correctness.  These are questions like ‘What is Being?’ or ‘What is a cherry blossom?’  Only when we escape from the verificationist impulse to ask ‘How can we tell a right answer when we hear one?’ are we asking questions which Heidegger thinks worth asking. . . .”

COMMENT:  Taking the above second and third paragraphs together we see that the sort of thinking Heidegger believes is authentic is the sort for which verification doesn’t exist.  An engineer might figure out how to build a pyramid out of stones, but that sort of figuring wouldn’t qualify as authentic thinking for Heidegger.  Not even the sort of thinking that created the milieu and framework within which Pharaohs felt a need to construct such pyramids to secure their happiness in an afterlife would qualify as authentic thinking.  If we accept the theses of Sir James G. Frazer (in The Golden Bough), we can see that a sort of pragmatism went into the creation of the Egyptian religion.  Certain things pleased the gods, that is had a beneficial result, and others didn’t.  Certain actions worked, or worked most of the time, and others didn’t. 

Later on the Egyptian and indeed all other religions were rejected by atheists, but did these atheists engage in “authentic thinking”?  Not the ones who followed Darwin.  Darwin was a sort of engineer in such matters.  He studied the fossil record and certain animals such as pigeons, and drew conclusions based upon that evidence.  He accounted for all animal life that he saw or envisioned and developed a principle from his observations: the creation of species through natural selection.  Modern day atheists follow his “verifications,” but such following (and probably not Darwin’s thinking itself) does not comprise authentic thinking.

Taking one of Rorty’s examples, Marx engaged in authentic thinking when he questioned the “social practices” of his time – unless we call him an “engineer” for correcting the authentic thinking of Hegel.  But let’s for the sake of discussion assume that Marx did engage in “authentic thinking” about the social practices of his time.  The result of this thinking resulted in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, The Poverty of Philosophy, Wage-Labor and Capital, Manifesto of the Communist Party, and his magnum opus, Capital.    Thus, if Marx was an authentic thinker, we see that all those who came after him, who sought to apply his philosophy, were being engineers.  However much they sought to promulgate his ideas and however persuasive their arguments, they were not engaged in “authentic thinking” but in applying, as engineers, the authentic thinking of another.

But what about the person who developed the ability to think authentically who happened to have lived in the USSR during the Stalinist period.   He might have thought authentically, even rethought Hegel’s and Marx’s philosophies and been more authentic about his thoughts than Marx was about his, but the times would have been against him.  If he voiced his authentic thoughts, he might well have been shipped off to a Gulag, but being a philosopher, which is what a person capable of authentic thinking is, he probably would have thought through all the possibilities resulting from speaking his thoughts and decided to keep them to himself. 

But all those non-authentic thinkers who followed Marx as engineers would have rejoiced in the oneness they felt with the master.  They would have joyfully burned at the stake any authentic thinker who disagreed with him.  There was no premium on authentic thinking in the days of Stalin, nor is there today -- or any other day.  We today in the U.S. are successful not because we think authentically, or admire those who do, but because we are very good at applying the innovative (whether authentic or not) thoughts of others.   We value the entrepreneur, the person who can apply thoughts (whether authentic or not) in such a way as to result in a profit.  

Consider the authentic thinking of Jesus Christ, e.g., “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. . . Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. . . .Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. . .  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  What do those words mean?  However the engineers apply themselves to their exegesis, they slip away.  The engineers can’t apply this authentic thinking in any very practical way.  And if one of them tries, whatever he comes up with is sure to be contradicted by the conclusions of some other engineer.  Look now at Paul at any part of Paul’s writings.  He is often called the real founder of Christianity because he thought as an engineer about what Christ taught.  We are comfortable with Paul because he tells us what to do, but what are we to do with Jesus Christ, that is the difficult question Christians have to grapple with – unless they would rather follow some engineer who filters the teachings of Jesus in some pragmatic way.

And what do we do with Heidegger?  That is a question that more of us as time goes on decide to grapple with.  He is being applied but the steps taken in the application are mysterious.  How does Derrida derive himself from Heidegger for example?  And what of Heidegger’s students, Arendt, Lowith, Jonas and Marcuse, whom Richard Wolin sees as deriving from Heidegger, but they do not – or do so only grudgingly?  In the end, everyone becomes an engineer.  The “authentic thought” is nothing, so the thinker thinks, unless it can be applied; so Arendt, Lowith, Jonas Marcuse and others set about applying Heidegger or applying their “own” thoughts (only coincidentally related to Heidegger’s), but they did it, notice, in different ways.  Heidegger spent much of his academic life seeking to think authentically and did not worry about being applied – except now and again usually during an interview, and he often sounded (and probably was) out of his element.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Rorty on Heidegger's world-view(s)

On page 42 of Essays on Heidegger and Others, Rorty writes, “. . . after seeming to contrast ontology and world-view, Heidegger goes on to say the following:  ‘It is just because this positivity – that is, the relatedness to beings, to world that is, Dasein that is – belongs to the essence of the world-view, and thus in general to the formation of the world-view, that the formation of a world-view cannot be the task of philosophy.  To say this is not to exclude but to include the idea that philosophy itself is a distinctive primal for [ein ausgezeichnete Urform] of world-view.  Philosophy can and perhaps must show, among many other things, that something like a world-view belongs to the essential nature of Dasein.  Philosophy can and must define what in general constitutes the structure of a world-view.  But it can never develop and posit some specific world-view qua just this or that particular one.’

“But there is an obvious tension in this passage between the claim that philosophy ‘is a distinctive primal form of world-view’ and that ‘philosophy . . . can never develop and posit some specific world-view.’  Heidegger never tells us how we can be historical through and through and yet ahistorical enough to step outside our world-view and say something neutral about the ‘structure’ of all actual and possible world-views. . . .”

COMMENT:  Rorty then goes on to put the matter in his “own jargon” in order to disagree with Heidegger, but if we leave this matter in Heidegger’s terms it makes excellent sense.  To illustrate, after fighting an enormous number of battles against the Cylons, the Battlestar Galactica crew encounters another Battlestar, the Pegasus.  The commanding officer of the Pegasus, Admiral Cain is superior in rank to Commander Adama and at first Adama accepts the new situation.  Military protocol demands that Adama give way to Cain, but Cain has developed a very different “world-view” from Adama and his crew.  Adama’s military background is in “obvious tension” with the world-view he and his crew developed in their fight against the Cylons.  When Admiral Cain arrests two of Adama’s best men and plans to execute them, Adama has had enough.  Adama’s “military world-view” gives way to his newer “Galactica against the Cylon world-view.”  He is prepared to take the Galactica to war against the Pegasus unless Cain returns his men unharmed.  This is a very “authentic” piece of writing.  It illustrates Heidegger’s argument about “world-view.”   At one time the crews of the Galactica and Pegasus were part of the same civilization and shared the same world-view, but after the Cylon attack they went their own ways and developed unique world-views; which as it turned out were not very compatible.

To use another example, consider the Christian Church.  It is almost more accurate to call it the Christian Churches because so many different “world-views” have developed.  We see the world-view-process at work in the earliest days.  Paul and Barnabas were sent off on an evangelism mission, but the day came when the Paul realized that his “world-view” had diverged from the “world-view” of the church at Jerusalem and sought a meeting to reconcile their differences.  They seemed to be largely reconciled, but reconciliation didn’t last.  We are so used to “new world-views” being developed in the Christian Church that we no longer are alarmed about it.  We don’t have Paul’s concern about ironing out all the differences and achieving unity.  And the longer our churches are separated the more distinctive the world-views.  Consider the differences between the Orthodox churches and the Western Christian Churches.  Then consider the differences between the Lutheran and the Calvinistic Churches.  The Western churches since the Peace of Westphalia in 1641 have been learning to accept each other.  Still, we Christians do believe a meta-Christian-world-view exists.  It comprises the thoughts of God as God thinks them.  Some believe their particular church’s “world-view” equals the meta-Christian-world view.  Others aren’t quite that presumptuous.  All are, more or less, tolerant of the others.  The secularism that grew out of the Christian Church has made “tolerance” one of its cornerstones. 

As Rorty worked through this subject he was not willing to let go of the idea that philosophically their “could be only one.”  Perhaps there could be different histories, but the job of philosophy was to cut through those differences and find the one true ontology.  For Heidegger the one truth is that there have always been and probably will always be multiplicities of world-views, weltanshauungen. 

But what of Fukuyama’s Liberal-Democratic World-View?  Isn’t that view “one”?  It is in a sense, a meta-world-view based on the “tolerance” developed in the West since the Peace of Westphalia.  It works well on the level of the individual nations much as the Christian Church works well on the level of the individual denominations.  Much of the world seems amenable to the Western sort of Tolerance.  The Islamic Civilization seems to be a hold-out at present but Fukuyama thinks they will eventually come around.  An article in Foreign Policy, Jan/Feb 2010 seems to support that view:

I haven’t watched all the Battlestar Galactica episodes yet, but my observation is that the Cylons, with their single World-View dominated the humans who had multiple world views.  The Cylons could operate in accordance with a single plan.  Humans couldn’t manage that level of solidarity.  Peace between the Cylons and Humans won’t be achieved until the Cylons become more human – and learn to squabble amongst themselves.


Friday, January 8, 2010

Rorty and "The End of History"

            Rorty writes on page 229 of Truth and Progress, ”We should concede Francis Fukuyama’s point (in his celebrated essay, The End of History) that if you still long for total revolution, for the Radically Other on a world-historical scale, the events of 1989 show that you are out of luck.  Fukuyama suggested, and I agree, that no more romantic prospect stretches before the Left than an attempt to create bourgeois democratic welfare states and to equalize life chances among the citizens of those states by redistributing the surplus produced by market economies.
            “Fukuyama, however, sees nothing but boredom ahead for us intellectuals once we have admitted that bourgeois democratic welfare states are the best polities we can imagine.  He thinks that the end of romantic politics will have the same dampening effect on our collective imaginary as the admission that contemporary Athenian institutions were the best he could imagine would have had on Plato.  As a follower of Strauss and Kojeve, Fukuyama regrets this dampening.  In the intellectual tradition to which he belongs, political philosophy is first philosophy.  Utopian politics, the sort of politics whose paradigm is Plato’s Republic, is the root of philosophical thought.
            “On a Straussian view, the hope of creating a society whose hero is Socrates, rather than Achilles or Themistocles, lies behind what Heidegger calls ‘Western metaphysics.’  So to damp down political romance is to impoverish our intellectual life, and perhaps make it impossible.  Straussians tend to agree with Heideggerians that the end of metaphysics means the beginning of a nihilistic wasteland . . . .”
            “So far I have been suggesting that what Fukuyama, like Nietzsche and Kojeve before him, is worried about is not the end of history, but the end of philosophy, and thus the romance, of history.  What bothers him is our diminished ability to use History as an object around which we intellectuals can wrap our fantasies.”
            COMMENT:   Rorty is wrong, in my opinion, to suggest that Fukuyama was worried about the end of philosophy rather than the end of history.  Fukuyama invoked the idea of Nietzsche’s boring “last man” not to suggest that there won’t be anything for philosophers to talk about, but to suggest that there won’t be anything of substance for nations to fight about.  There is some truth to the idea that Liberal Democratic nations won’t have anything to fight over inasmuch as they are all the same, but if a Nietzsche Ubermensche were to arise, he wouldn’t need a “political” reason.  He would come equipped with his own inspiring “fury.”  He could and, Fukuyama thinks, might very well start up history again (by warring against other nations) for no other reason than an exalted view of himself and his own destiny.  But that wasn’t something Fukuyama longed for; quite the contrary.  It was the one potential danger, the only one he could think of, that might render Hegel wrong after all.  Nietzsche’s bland “last man” wasn’t something Fukuyama regretted, but he thought a future Ubermensche might regret him.
            Rorty may be reading more of Kojeve into Fukuyama’s book than Fukuyama put there.  Fukuyama had every opportunity to state that he was more concerned about the end of philosophy than history in his subsequent writings, but we don’t find that in his America at the Crossroads, Democracy, Power, and the NeoConservative Legacy.  Fukuyama wrote that in 2006 as a rejection of the use to which his earlier (1992) End of History was put by the Neocons.  He intended his End of History to establish that Hegel was correct when he taught that Capitalism (aka Liberal Democracy) would be the “end of history.”  Up until 1989 Marx’s view that Communism would be “the end of history” and that Hegel was wrong held sway.  But after the failure of the Marxist experiment, it was time, Fukuyama thought, that we give Hegel his due.  The “end of history” was indeed Capitalism (aka Liberal Democracy) and would not be Communism.  However, Fukuyama intended his End of History and the Last Man to be a theoretical work and not a handbook for political action.  He did not believe in the active exportation of Liberal Democracy, especially not by military means.  Whether or not Fukuyama’s ideas inspired the Bush administration to hope that Iraq could be converted into a Liberal Democracy, some Neocons were speaking out as though there was a connection and Fukuyama could not abide that.

Heidegger, politics and despair

On page 24 of Essays on Heidegger and Others, Richard Rorty writes, “When it comes to attempts to make non-analytic philosophy continuous with politics [as opposed to literature] things become more complex and problematic.  For non-analytic philosophy is, with some exceptions dominated by a Heideggerian vision of the modern world rather than a Deweyan one, and by despair over the condition of the world rather than by social hope.  Because the typical member of this tradition is obsessed with the idea of ‘radical criticism’, when he or she turns to politics it is rarely in a reformist, pragmatic spirit, but rather in a mood either of deep pessimism or of revolutionary fury.  Except for a few writers such as Habermas, ‘continental’ philosophers see no relation between social democratic politics and philosophizing.  So the only sort of politics with which this tradition is continuous is not the actual political discourse of the surviving democratic nations, but a kind of pseudo-politics reminiscent of Marxist study-groups of the thirties – a sort of continual self-correction of theory, with no conceivable relation to practice.”
            COMMENT:  William James wrote Varieties of Religious experience in which he concluded that religious people had either “sick souls” or “healthy souls,” and their “souls” rather than any particular dogma would determine whether their religious life took on a “sick” or a “healthy” bias.  Rorty’s comment suggests that the same sort of thing might be true in the realm of politics.
            One of the great modern mysteries, to my mind, is why the British and French didn’t properly prepare for the Second World War.  The evidence that they would again have to fight Germany was there for them to see.  Historians describe it and it isn’t anachronistic of them to do so.  Those living at the time could have seen and understood it.  Some few did, but the predominate attitude was that of the “sick soul.”  They felt hopeless about the future.  Their mood was of “deep pessimism.”
            I’ve been watching Battlestar Galictica episodes, one after the other.  One of the questions hanging over these episodes is “does mankind deserve to survive?”  The pessimistic writers of this series aren’t at all convinced that it does.  Perhaps it “deserves” to become extinct and replaced by Cylons.  Did the pessimistic French think something like that when they found themselves incapable of preparing properly to fend off the Germans?  Did they continue to think it during their Vichy period?  And did some of their philosophers continue to think it after the war when they took up German philosophy as their inspiration.
            The Battlestar Galictica writers have just (as far as I’ve watched) introduced a revolutionary group of Colonists who want to sue for peace with the Cylons.  The Cylons have consistently and unambiguously sought to destroy all human life.  That is their goal as far as anyone knows; so to seek peace with the Cylons is to become complicit in the destruction of the human race.  The leader of this Pro-Cylon revolutionary group can’t resist flying into a rage when he describes the sins of humanity.  I thought that was clever of the BG writers.  It is true to our own experience.  In the days when the Soviets were promising to destroy us, we in the U.S. had a great number of Communist sympathizers working for our enemy.  And today when the Islamists are promising to destroy the Western way of life, we have those in the West who sympathize with their cause.  Why does this happen?  It is one thing to believe you are psychologically incapable of fighting against an enemy.  It is quite another to actively support that enemy.  Perhaps the answer lies in our having produced in the West an abundance of “sick souls.”
            Rorty mentions “revolutionary fury” which reminds me that some sort of fury is demanded if a nation is to fight effectively against an enemy.  Fury isn’t “sick” in the James’ sense but “healthy.”  American Indians knew the need for fury and engaged in war dances intended to build themselves into a furious rage before rushing off against an enemy tribe.  Hitler knew this when in his charismatic speeches he worked crowds up time after time into a contagion of fury.  Contrast that with the French who felt they had lost too many men during the First World War and that its allies had treated them unfairly.  They could not work themselves into a fury.  The predominate feeling was despair.  Perhaps the Germans would have defeated them anyway, but the French had the supplies and armaments to put up a strong defense.  And they lacked the fury.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Heidegger's Linguistic chauvinism


I am ready to abandon my investigation of Heidegger’s Nazism.  I have most of the major attacks against Heidegger written in or translated into English, and while I haven’t read them all cover to cover I have read enough.   I have had difficulties with these anti-Heideggerian authors as I have indicated in earlier notes.  I found the arguments of the pro-Heideggerian, Julian Young, the most convincing and satisfying.  Young in his Heidegger, Philosophy, Nazism, concludes with an “Afterward.”  He writes, “This work will no doubt be received by some as a whitewash perpetrated by a ‘Heideggerian’.  Let me say in anticipation, therefore, two things.  First, that I did not start out with any such intention.  On the contrary, though I had long been convinced of the essential ‘innocence’ of Heidegger’s pre-1930 philosophy, with respect to the later work I was initially convinced by the accounts of, in particular, Wolin and Losurdo – which is why, in chapters 4 and 5, I have made them central targets for criticism.  The conclusions I have presented here were arrived at, even somewhat reluctantly, only after long exposure to the texts made my preconceived picture of things no longer tenable.  The spirit of Gelassenheit, the ability to let the texts speak for themselves, to ‘let them be’, arrived only slowly.” 

In Young’s “Second Point” he discusses an objection to Heidegger he has retained.  I am not quite ready to abandon this one.  It has to do with Heidegger’s “linguistic chauvinism.  German cultural chauvinism was evident in Heidegger’s 1933 ideology, “Germany as uniquely the land of Dichter und Denker,  poet and thinker.”  That Heidegger continued to hold this view is evidence by an interview with Spiegel sometime after the war in which he said “[There is an] inner relationship of the German language with the language of the Greeks and with their thought.  This has been confirmed for me today again by the French.  When they begin to think, they speak in German, being sure that they could not make it with their own language.”   

Young examines the evidence pertaining to this cultural or linguistic chauvinism and concludes that Heidegger maintained his belief that the German language was superior to all other European languages.   Young finds later references in which Heidegger thought the Japanese language might be even better suited to philosophy – and a statement in which Heidegger said that “Descartes was ultimately a greater philosopher than either Kant or Hegel”; so Heidegger was at least ambivalent on the subject.  Young, living in New Zealand doubted that Heidegger meant to denigrate English.  “Given the close kinship of English and German this looks to be highly irrational.  Heidegger’s disposition to privilege German over all other European languages really is, it has to be faced, irrational chauvinism.”

            COMMENT:  Heidegger was entitled in my view to take some pride in the number of philosophers that developed in Germany, primarily in Prussia which is interesting, although Heidegger himself was a Bavarian.  But the French do have a philosophical history that is respectable.  One thinks (at least I do) of Montaigne, Descartes, and Rousseau, but when one comes forward in time to look at the major philosophers of the 20th century, one finds German antecedents.  Michel Foucault was influenced by Nietzsche. Derrida was influenced by Heidegger.  Bourdieu was influenced by Marx.  Lacan was influenced by Freud.  So perhaps Heidegger had France in mind and simply dismissed the other European languages as not even measuring up to the French.

            It is interesting that the American, Richard Rorty has created his own philosophy out of American Pragmatism.  He was inspired by Pierce and James but moreso by Dewey and Davidson.  It is interesting because Pragmatism seems especially suited to the American work ethic.  It is a suitable philosophy for our “can do” Capitalistic Technology – which Heidegger hated.   

            A comparison of Anglo-American philosophy to German philosophy might be interesting.  If Heidegger were to mention just some major names, he might assert that Kant, Hegel, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and cough, cough, cough, he himself, as much greater than the corresponding major names in Anglo American philosophy, perhaps Hobbes, Hume, Locke, Berkeley, Dewey, and Peirce.  I would quibble at once asking why he didn’t include (in the list I made up for him :-) Marx – Marx, another Prussian, who while great in influence was also extremely great in causing harm.  But I am merely quibbling.  Probably Heidegger was right in his assertion that German philosophers have achieved the most in the philosophical traditions that the Greeks began.  I will concede that to him.

            But when we move into the realm of poetry I think Heidegger is in over his head.  We Anglo-Americans have Shakespeare.  Perhaps Holderlin was a poet for a destitute time, but Shakespeare invented the Human, if we are to believe Harold Bloom who wrote Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human.  Bloom has some interesting arguments, and I half believe them.  Heidegger doesn’t make any claims quite so grandiose about German poets as far as I know.  He doesn’t seem to have liked Goethe as much as he did Holderlin – at least he doesn’t put Goethe forth as an example of German culture; so I will do it for him.  If we advance Shakespeare as (in Bloom’s sense) the inventor of the human, how shall we advance Goethe?   In The Sorrows of Young Werther, he offers good reasons to commit suicide.  In Faust he dwells upon the idea of making a deal with the devil.  Of course I am giving away my American pragmatic roots when I put the comparison in these terms, but . . . so be it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

On Poets for destitute and other times

John Taratuta has left a new comment on your post "Poets for destitute times":

The concept of "universal salvation" seems to have floated back, oddly enough, by way of Heidegger or rather under Heidegger's influence.

'Anonymous Christian' is the concept introduced by the theologian Karl Rahner (1904 - 1984) a student of Heidegger, declares that "people who have never heard the Christian Gospel or even rejected it might be saved through Christ."

Another poem that seems to reflect some destitution of the spirit is "I AM" written by John Clare (1793 – 1864). It is believed to have been written in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum.

Lawrence replies,

            Tillich also was a Universalist, if I recall correctly, but how much he was influenced by Heidegger in this regard, I can't see, but perhaps Rorty could (see below).   

            In regard to John Clare's poem "I Am," I would agree that it reflects "some destitution of the spirit" but don't think he or his poem fit the description as being for a destitute time.  I take Heidegger to have an exalted view of "the poet for a destitute time."  He liked Rilke, and thought Rilke wrote some important poetry and may have been for a destitute time, he said diplomatically, but time would tell. 

            Your invoking of Clare suggests a more egalitarian approach to the idea of "what is the poet for in a destitute time?"  I assumed Heidegger had an elitist view and only Holderlin fulfilled what he had in mind.  I have suggested Eliot and Milton as fulfilling the elitist qualification. 

            But if we insist on our right to borrow from Heidegger and then modify what we borrow as we see fit, we could take a more egalitarian view.  We could declare that any poet who bemoaned the destitute times in which he lived was living up to the Heideggerian ideal, but I rather think Heidegger would have a problem with that.  I think he would come closer to granting me Eliot and Milton, than he would granting Clare.

Consider a comment made by Rorty on page 19 of Essays on Heidegger and Others: "I would grant that Heidegger was, from early on, suspicious of democracy and of the 'disenchanted' world which Weber described.  His thought was, indeed, essentially anti-democratic.  But lots of Germans who were dubious about democracy and modernity did not become Nazis.  Heidegger did because he was both more of a ruthless opportunist and more of a political ignoramus than most of the German intellectuals who shared his doubts.  Although Heidegger's philosophy seems to me not to have specifically totalitarian implications, it does take for granted that attempts to feed the hungry, shorten the work day, etc., just do not have much to do with philosophy.  For Heidegger, Christianity is merely a certain decadent form of Platonic metaphysics; the change from pagan to Christian moral consciousness goes unnoticed.  The 'social gospel' side of Christianity which meant most to Tillich (a social democratic thinker who was nevertheless able to appropriate a lot of Heideggerian ideas and jargon) meant nothing to Heidegger."

Perhaps I infer too much, but just as feeding the hungry or shortening the work day would have meant nothing to Heidegger, I suspect that Clare's personal anguish would have meant nothing to him either.   

On page 18 Rorty writes, "The pragmatist and Heidegger can agree that the poet and the thinker (in Heidegger's special 'elitist' senses of these terms) are the unacknowledged legislators of the social world.  But whereas Heidegger thinks of the social world as existing for the sake of the poet and the thinker, the pragmatist thinks of it the other way around.  For Dewey as for Hegel, the point of individual human greatness is its contribution to social freedom, where this is conceived of in the terms we inherit from the French Revolution."  If Rorty is correct here then (I infer) "THE POET" is to ordinary poets what the ubermensche is to ordinary men.  Personally, I'm more comfortable with the Poet in this role than the political leader.  And I don't intend this as a cheap shot at Heidegger for having thought for a while that Hitler might be that great leader.  Even if we concede that Heidegger probably had a leader in mind with the qualifications of Frederick the Great, and even if Frederick was as great as Thomas Carlyle thought he was, I would rather muddle through with the inferior Liberal-Democratic leadership we are accustomed to than risk the downside of totalitarianism. 

In thinking further about Milton, his ambition was to write an epic poem, something to match The Iliad and The Aeneid.  If that was his sole goal, then he might say it just happened that he lived in destitute times and it was merely coincidental that his poem might be seen as a metaphor for those times.  Eliot too wanted to prove himself as a poet, to demonstrate his greatness, but he also lived in destitute times and could think of no other subject suitable to his task than the waste and confusion that followed World War One. 

Milton wanted to write an Epic Poem and Eliot did not.  Heidegger doesn't seem to have an exalted view of the epic poem.  His poet will not seek to follow that ideal but will instead seek something else.  Heidegger concludes his essay by writing, "Holderlin is the pre-cursor of poets in a destitute time.  This is why no poet of this world era can overtake him . . ."

"If the precursor cannot be overtaken, no more can he perish; for his poetry remains as a once-present being.  What occurs in the arrival gathers itself back into destiny. . . ."

Two American poets come to mind as having failed in these regards.  They sought to write epic poems.  The first was John Brown's Body written by Stephen Vincent Benet.  He wrote the poem in 1928 about the destitute times of the Civil War; which Heidegger might say was doing things backwards.  There is something prophetic in Holderlin's poetry.  There is something historical in Benet's. 

The second failure is Hart Crane's The Bridge.  He had exalted ambitions but perhaps they never took on a form that he could truly believe in.  This is from Wikipedia: "'Faustus and Helen' was part of a larger artistic struggle to meet modernity with something more than despair. Crane identified T. S. Eliot with that kind of despair, and while he acknowledged the greatness of The Waste Land, he also said it was 'so damned dead,' an impasse, and a refusal to see 'certain spiritual events and possibilities.' Crane's self-appointed work would be to bring those spiritual events and possibilities to poetic life, and so create 'a mystical synthesis of America.' This ambition would finally issue in The Bridge (1930), where the Brooklyn Bridge is both the poem's central symbol and its poetic starting point."  Critics didn't like Crane's poem.  And Crane evidently came to view it as a failure.  Why would the negative poem about destitution, The Waste Land, succeed while his more positive poem about "spiritual events and possibilities" fail?  Perhaps some of it had to do with Eliot's superior ability, but perhaps also it had something to do with Eliot reaching honestly into the abyss -- whereas Crane resolved to reach elsewhere, and in doing so wrote of what "ought to be" rather than what the abyss held.  He might have succeeded had he truly resolve questions of the abyss, but I don't think he did.  He was as destitute as John Clare, but rather than write about it as Clare did (dying in 1864 [in an asylum] 'after years addicted to poetical prosing'), he leaped off the aft end of a ship into it.


Monday, January 4, 2010

Poets for destitute times

I encountered Eliot's poetry long before I knew anything about him.  I was very impressed by it.  Perhaps Eliot had Fascistic tendencies.  I read a biography and the first half of the first volume of his letters years ago but don't recall them.  He was an aristocratic prig and an unpleasant personality.  He whined a lot.  In a review in the London Times of the second volume of his letters, the reviewer dealt with the whining by saying he really was sick and so was his wife.  Furthermore, the reviewer adds, people who cared about him really did want to know. 

The question of whether one should reject or at least demote a person's work when one learns his life has serious flaws is an interesting one.  It has been dealt with almost continually in Western thinking.  For example, Origen was a very important "church father" but he was also a very independent thinker and many of his ideas were later declared heretical, "universal salvation" was one such "heretical" idea.  The Church couldn't reject him entirely.  Many of the doctrines that the Church (Protestant as well as Catholic) still holds came from Origen.  But Church leaders were cautious in dealing with his works. 

One of the major controversies in the early Church was whether one could denounce Christianity, under duress, and later (after the coercive force was removed) recant the denouncement.  The Donatists believed that a Church in which traditors both existed and dispensed the sacraments was no church, and baptism administered by traditors was no baptism.  Traditors, surely, were eternally lost, but the Church eventually came around to the view that this denouncing, this cooperating with the coercive power, could not be an "unforgiveable sin" for had not Peter denounced Christ three times without losing his salvation?

And what of all the French as well as German traditors?  Their sins weren't settled in Church Council, but they were settled in that Western tradition.  A "secular council" was created to deal with them, the Nuremberg.  Certain individuals, the coercers, were considered to have committed unforgiveable sins and executed.   But those coerced, the traditors, were for the most part accepted back into non-Fascist societies as members in good standing.  They were forgiven.

            The question I was attempting to explore was first of all, what Heidegger had in mind when he asked "what are poets for in destitute times?"  This essay of his was based on a lecture he delivered in 1946 on the 20th anniversary of Rilke's death.  I doubt that Heidegger could have answered his own question in any definitive way.  He liked Rilke, but said in his lecture Rilke was less of a poet than Holderlin; so only Holderlin measures up completely.  I have the Penguin Classics edition entitled Selected Poems and Fragments, and can see, somewhat, why Heidegger appreciated him, but just because Holderlin was Heidegger's "Poet in a Destitute Time" doesn't mean we are stuck with this one example.   

The Waste Land was the first poem that came to my mind when I searched for an Anglo-American "Poem" for a time of destitution.  If instead of all the "critics" who wanted to tell us what Eliot's symbols and references were we had historians explaining this poem, then we would see, I believe, that it was of a piece with the destitute times in England and Europe in which Eliot lived.    Eliot didn't go on being a poet for a destitute time, in my opinion, but he was when he wrote The Waste Land.

            Another Poem that comes to mind is Paradise Lost.   Surely Milton lived in a destitute time, and was the poet for it.  What better subject for such a time than the loss of paradise?  This was a great poem for the Revolutionary times in which Milton lived.  Milton's critics both in the (Protestant) church and out of it are critical of Milton's heretical beliefs – some of which appear in his poem if we look in the right spots – and these "spots" are easier to find, if I recall correctly, than Fascist ideas in Being and Time.


Saturday, January 2, 2010

T. S. Eliot, a Heideggerian Poet?

Shall we seek to be discreet poets much like other discreet poets?  What would Heidegger have us be.  Let us go see:
            “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 morals the way toward the turning.  The ether, however, in which alone the gods are gods, is their godhead.  The element of this ether, that within which even the godhead itself is still present, is the holy.  The element of the ether for the coming of the fugitive gods, the holy, is the tack of the fugitive gods.  But who has the power to sense , to trace such a track?  Traces are often inconspicuous, and are always the legacy of a directive that is barely divined.  To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods.  This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy.  This is why, in Holderlin’s language, the world’s night is the holy night.
            “It is a necessary part of the poet’s nature that, before he can be truly a poet in such an age, the time’s destitution must have made the whole being and vocation of the poet a poetic question for him.  Hence ‘poets in a destitute time’ must especially gather in poetry the nature of poetry.  Where that happens we may assume poets to exist who are on the way to the destiny of the world’s age.  We others must learn to listen to what these poets say – assuming that, in regard to the time that conceals Being because it shelters it, we do not deceive ourselves through reckoning time merely in terms of that which is by dissecting that which is.
            “The closer world’s night draws toward midnight, the more exclusively does the destitute prevail, in such a way that it withdraws its very nature and presence.  Not only is the holy lost as the track toward the godhead; even the traces leading to that lost track are well-night obliterated.  The more obscure the traces become the less can a single mortal, reaching into the abyss, attend there to intimations and signs.  It is then all the more strictly true that each man gets farthest if he goes only as far as he can go along the way allotted to him. . . .”  [Poetry, Language, Thought, pp. 94-95)
COMMENT:  This is a poetic description of what the poet should be in a destitute time.  We might ask, what about those of us who don’t live in a destitute time?  If Heidegger could be brought back to life so that he could look about him in 2010, he would pronounce it as destitute an age as the one in which he wrote his essay.  So those of us who don’t feel we are living in a destitute age would be denied the possibility of tracing the track of the fugitive gods or reaching down into the abyss.  But let’s go to an assuredly desolate age, the age in which the British were so horrified by World War One that they hindered their nation from acting prudently in the face of the imminent threat of a second world war.  Here is the Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot writing in 1922, The Waste Land: .   Consider the first section:
   April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,   
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

   What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,                                 
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.                             
        Frisch weht der Wind
     Der Heimat zu
      Mein Irisch Kind,
      Wo weilest du?
"You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
"They called me the hyacinth girl."
––Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,                                   
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed' und leer das Meer.

   Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.                                                
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

   Unreal City,                                                           
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying "Stetson!
"You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!                           
"That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
"Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
"Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
"Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men,
"Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!
"You! hypocrite lecteur! - mon semblable, - mon frere!"

Typically, commentators get caught up in the details of the symbols and references in this poem, but take in the sweep of it, as some of us are inclined to do, and we may recall how “The Burial of the Dead,” was something that went on year after year in England, Germany, Austria, France and elsewhere in Europe.  Not all of the dead died in battle.  Some came home and died of their wounds later on.  Commentators tend to trivialize Eliot by removing him from his time.  Here is a typical commentary on this section: “The first section of The Waste Land takes its title from a line in the Anglican burial service. It is made up of four vignettes, each seemingly from the perspective of a different speaker. The first is an autobiographical snippet from the childhood of an aristocratic woman, in which she recalls sledding and claims that she is German, not Russian (this would be important if the woman is meant to be a member of the recently defeated Austrian imperial family). The woman mixes a meditation on the seasons with remarks on the barren state of her current existence (“I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter”). The second section is a prophetic, apocalyptic invitation to journey into a desert waste, where the speaker will show the reader “something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; / [He] will show you fear in a handful of dust” (Evelyn Waugh took the title for one of his best-known novels from these lines). The almost threatening prophetic tone is mixed with childhood reminiscences about a “hyacinth girl” and a nihilistic epiphany the speaker has after an encounter with her. These recollections are filtered through quotations from Wagner’s operatic version of Tristan und Isolde, an Arthurian tale of adultery and loss. The third episode in this section describes an imaginative tarot reading, in which some of the cards Eliot includes in the reading are not part of an actual tarot deck. The final episode of the section is the most surreal. The speaker walks through a London populated by ghosts of the dead. He confronts a figure with whom he once fought in a battle that seems to conflate the clashes of World War I with the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage (both futile and excessively destructive wars). The speaker asks the ghostly figure, Stetson, about the fate of a corpse planted in his garden. The episode concludes with a famous line from the preface to Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (an important collection of Symbolist poetry), accusing the reader of sharing in the poet’s sins.”
Here is part of another commentary: In conclusion, everything in this poem is sad and dead. The people miss things that have passed or ended. They are also indifferent to what happens to them. The images and seasons are dark, cruel, and desolate. This is a hard poem to read because of the imagery and the dead things. But it is clear that Marie, Lil, and the unnamed woman in it are sad. Different things make them so, but they have that sadness in common. Because of this, they all seem to be cast from the same mold.”
Very well, but where is the perspective in this commentary.  Someone familiar with the history of the time will find this poem replete with references to the recent war and its terrible wastage.  This was a war that went on making much of Europe a Waste Land.  Surely Eliot was a poet for that destitute time.   Things in the poem are “sad and dead” not because Eliot is having personal problems but because he lived in a Destitute Time.  It is indeed a waste to read this poem if we are seeking escape, but if we are willing to watch a poet of Heideggerian stature reach down into the abyss, we can do no better than read this poem.