Sunday, February 8, 2015


Ach! These Germans! I never know what I’m in for. They can write clearly and engagingly. Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Max Weber all did it. Even Kant shows that German prose can be thorny yet still ultimately meaningful. But sometimes German writing gets as dense and trackless as the Black Forest. (I’ve driven through the Black Forest, but I haven’t walked through it, so I don’t actually know if it’s dense and trackless. But it seemed like a fitting simile.) Spengler and Husserl especially come to mind.

I had hopes for Martin Heidegger. I had hoped he would write more like Schopenhauer and less like Spengler. But, ach! my hopes were dashed. If it weren’t for editor David Farrell Krell, I don’t know that I would understand any of the passages in the anthology that he (with help from Heidegger himself) put together. But he gives me no help with astonishing sentences such as this one: “Negation is grounded in the not that springs from the nihilation of the nothing.”

When he comes to the piece entitled “The Origin of the Work of Art,” even the editor admits that he doesn’t fully understand. And I can see why. Here’s a sample of the notes I took from this chapter:
“The world worlds.” [Yes, that third word is a verb.] “World is the ever-nonobjective to which we are subject as long as the paths of birth and death, blessing and curse keep us transported into Being.” Truth in an art work brings forth a being into an open region. “Where this bringing forth expressly brings the openness of beings, or truth, that which is brought forth is a work.” Circular? “Truth essentially occurs only as the strife between clearing and concealing in the opposition of world and earth.” The truth occupies the open region as a rift, and the rift “must be set back into the earth.”
I think of philosophy as the exploration of a difficult question, especially a question about a notion or turn of phrase that normal nonphilosophers take for granted in everyday life. Ideally, the philosopher’s conclusions should be expressed in such a way that that nonphilosopher on the street could understand it (with some moderate education and little effort, to be sure). But “open regions” and “rifts” don’t make the tricky concept of art any clearer to me. In fact, they’re more opaque and need more explanation than the cloudy word “art” itself.

But it’s occurred to me to consider Heidegger not as a philosopher but as a poet. And suddenly he gets a lot better. He says that human existence is a presence held out into nothing – a nothing, the reader will remember, that can be negated by the not of negation. As philosophy, I can make neither heads nor tails nor arms nor legs out of it. Present to what? Who or what is doing the holding? But as poetry, it might just work.
Human existence.
What is it?
It is a presence held out into
The world worlds,
and it subjects human existence
as long as the paths
of birth and death,
blessing and curse
keep us transported into Being.
We bring forth Truth,
carrying with it the openness of beings.
Truth occupies the open space as a rift,
but the human presence
sets the rift back into the earth,
and Art creates both Artist and Work.
Ach! With a few line breaks, it actually starts to make a little sense. A little sense.

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