Heidegger [ePub]

by George Steiner

I am not convinced that Martin Heidegger wanted to be "understood" in the customary sense of that word; that he wanted an understanding which would entail the possibility of restating his views by means of a more or less close paraphrase. An ancient epigram on Heraclitus, in so many respects Heidegger's model, admonishes the reader: "Do not be in too great a hurry to get to the end of Heraclitus the Ephesian's book; the path is hard to travel. Gloom is there, and darkness devoid of light. But if an initiate be your guide, the path shines brighter than sunlight". Initiation is not understanding in the ordinary sense. Heidegger conceives of his ontology, of his poetics of thought, to be such that they cannot, finally, be reconciled to the manner of ratiocination and linear argument that has governed Western official consciousness after Plato. To "understand" Heidegger is to accept entry into an alternative order or space of meaning and of being. If we grasped him readily or were able to communicate his intent in other words than his own, we would already have made the leap out of Western metaphysics. We would, in a very strong sense, no longer have any need of Heidegger. It is not "understanding" that Heidegger's discourse solicits primarily. It is an "experiencing", an acceptance of felt strangeness. We are asked to suspend in ourselves the conventions of common logic and unexamined grammar in order to "hear", to "stand in the light of"—all of these are radical Heideggerian notions—the nearing of elemental truths and possibilities, of apprehension long buried under the frozen crust of habitual, analytically credible saying.

I find Martin Heidegger to be inescapably fascinating. Whatever level of understanding I possess of the man I've only managed through exposure to the interpretation of others—Graham Harman and William Barrett and George Steiner have pride of place here—and from whom, in especial the latter two, I've come to accept that my own impatience with Heidegger's maddeningly mirrorlike etymological root-uprooting, his stickily encircling and prickly precise structural manipulation of language—and the fact of the latter being provided through the medium of translation offering but a further impediment—is the major and perhaps insurmountable obstacle to my ever entering into experiencing his prose-bound thought to the degree required to extend that fascination into the realm of enlightenment. By the latter, I do not mean knowledge, in the objective sense. At this moment in my Heideggerian noviciate, I maintain, with perhaps insufficient reason, that Heidegger's ultimate value may be revealed in the poetic truths, the inner intuitions of a deeper, more attuned awareness that his thought—straining mightily but subtly to reach beyond existential tautology, banality, ineffability, into the very void it(un)self to draw forth the essence of Essence—may open to the reader's own avenues of mental percipience. But are we then merely in the realm of examining how a pattern-detecting and -configuring species works such as triggers for other deeply-layered fractals or forms or filaments deposited in otherwise inaccessible areas of our brain during the sensory bombardment we endlessly undergo whilst actively conscious of but a minute portion of the entirety? Are Heidegger's excavations of an interior architecture waiting a more formal exploration by a more focussed, more nano-technologically-enhanced science? There are more things in our memory and brain cells, Manling, than are dreamt of in your philosophy and in your science.

I just don't know. There is a part of me—glib perhaps, self-righteous possibly, humane hopefully—that looks at how this man, austere and disciplined and all-consumed by his pursuit of the being of Being, came to capitalize, at the moment when he might have been positioned to make a substantive difference, upon the smaller, the meaner, the unflatteringly vainglorious side of his own personal being and the apocalyptic tenor of his political essence. It calls to my mind the immortal words of Anton Chigurh, via Cormac McCarthy: If the rule you followed led you to this of what use was the rule? Does that extend to the entirety of his thought? Is the man, if we contemplate, drill down into his own being, but a philologist building vast and abstractly-shaped sand castles with his back arrogantly turned to the philosophical tides rushing in? A theologist veiling his Absolute with esoteric linguistic constructs but for whose Being the word God could be substituted and, more or less, enhance the comprehensibility of his thought? The other part of me does not believe so—and I wish to delve further into his work to buttress that half of my own still relatively ignorant take. It strikes me that Heidegger's concept of time lies in the Kantian provision of it being a form of inner sense, of which the latter, together with its outer sibling of spatiality, really grabbed me and stuck with me in my reading of Scruton's VSI to Kant a few weeks ago. I continue to be highly intrigued by what Heidegger has to say—it remains for me to configure myself, steel myself, bring myself such that I can partake of his voluminous output with the mindset and patience requisite for channeling that intrigue into apprehension.

Ah, right—what about the book under review? I thoroughly enjoyed it. Steiner is an elegant writer, well capable of rendering Heidegger's more occluded and tangled constructs into clear, but lovely, English. This edition includes an invaluable opening essay on Heidegger in 1992, which sets the table perfectly for the ruminative progression to follow. Steiner's work actually combines quite well with Graham Harman'sHeidegger Explained , for while both cover the entirety of Heidegger's output, the latter dwells deeper upon Heidegger's concepts of Tools and Things, while Steiner prefers to decant more upon Caring and Thrownness and Fallenness and Dasein's relationship with Death and Finitude. Steiner is careful to include cautionary and critical interjections, both of his own and from the opinions of other thinkers, as well as endeavoring—quite impartially considering that, when he first penned the book in 1978, he did not have access to all of the details and incidents in Heidegger's personal life that were subsequently made available to the likes of Harman and Rüdiger Safranksi—to address the connexion between Heidegger's philosophy and his embrace of National Socialism. In particular, a brief but moving assessment of Heidegger's relationship with, and influence upon, Paul Celan reveals quite starkly what the stakes were, and how loudly the former's silence resounds in the light of them.

What I especially appreciated about Steiner is that he allows Heidegger's thought to be described in a way that, whilst remaining true to the formulator's rigorous word dynamics, reveals itself more readily to our means of linguistic apperception as currently constructed—ie, enmeshed within the Western Metaphysics that Heidegger would wish us to overcome. What I particularly desire to get behind, through better understanding (and direct from the source), is Heidegger's intention to erase the dualities—mind/body, body/soul, God/Devil, inner/outer, right/left, subject/object, rational/irrational—that have riven our mental constructs from time immemorial and sundered us from Being, together with that inherent sense of decay, of existing in a fallen state from some primordial, Edenic purity. There is potent imagery in the way that Steiner brings this to the surface: just as Heidegger does not conceive of Being as something outside of us, beyond us, a hierarchical order over us, but rather as how, in the darkness, we might be revealed as aglow with light of perceptible hue, though the source be candent—so Dasein, in its current modern temporal permutation, does not possess itself of a being that is corrupted or in a state of Original Sin; it has but changed its ontological hue to reflect the existential progression of ourselves along a path made inevitable by ontic and epistemic alterations in our language. Our being is not a decayed being—it is a modified being of which we must seek to effect—in asking questions about, caring about, thinking about, opening ourselves to Being—a reconfiguration such that our lambent chromaticity returns to its original, pre-Dialectic and -Western Metaphysical colouration and its resultant tonal properties as set against the horizontal shading of Nothingness.



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