2. Thought, Poetry, Politics, and Heidegger
As World War II drew to its end in Europe, during the winter semester of 1944-1945 Martin Heidegger offered a lecture course at the University of Freiburg entitled Introduction to Philosophy—Thinking and Poetizing.* The course was cut off abruptly after just two sessions when Heidegger was drafted into the Landssturm, pressed into service along with other men too old or too young for the regular military, but thrown into Nazi Germany’s desperate, last-ditch efforts to defend itself against the Allied armies invading the German homeland at the war’s end.
More than eleven years before, in May 1933, Heidegger had himself joined the Nazi Party, under the aegis of which he became chancellor of the University of Freiburg. He resigned from that post the following year, in 1934. However, he continued to pay Nazi Party dues until 1945, when there ceased any longer to be any Nazi Party to pay them to.
Heidegger’s voluntary engagement with Nazism, from its most active, infamous stage in 1933-1934 through its less active—and arguably even at times critical—stage from 1934 to 1945, continues to engender debate to this day. Perhaps even more debate has been generated by Heidegger’s subsequent silence, from the end of the war until his death in 1976, about the Holocaust and the millions of deaths wrought by Nazi Germany in concentration and death camps and killing fields across Europe, especially its eastern parts.
Whatever one finally makes of Heidegger’s relationship to the Nazis, even in Heidegger’s thought during the Nazi years there are resources that can be tapped for articulating a notion of politics altogether different from the sort that was operative in Nazi Germany itself. That latter sort of politics—politics as Hitler and the Nazis practiced it—by no means came to an end with the end of the Nazis, unfortunately, nor did it start with them. It was practiced in nation-states well before the rise of Hitler, and it continues to be all too operative in nation-states down to the present day. Indeed, in one form or another it is actually constitutive of what passes for politics under the dominance of the nation-state in general.
One can find at least some suggestions of a very different sort of politics even in the text of Heidegger’s truncated 1944-45 lecture course introducing his students to philosophy by guiding them through reflections on thought and poetry—a course given when there was still a Nazi party, and Heidegger was still paying dues to it. At the very beginning of that course (GA 50, page 91) Heidegger remarks that, although we believe we know the regions and places where houses are supposed to go, and where trees are supposed to grow, we barely give a thought to what regions are those wherein philosophy and art—the “thinking” and the “poetizing” of the second part of Heidegger’s course title—“are what they are.” We barely give a thought, that is, to just where philosophy and art themselves belong—where they are at last allowed “to be all they can be,” we could say, adapting for subversive service the old advertising slogan used to lure volunteers into the United States Marines in service to that particular nation-state.
We hardly ever give a thought to that, says Heidegger. What’s more, he adds immediately, “[we] give no thought at all to this, that philosophy, that art, might on occasion themselves be regions of sojourn for human beings.” We give no thought at all to how philosophy and art might themselves sometimes be regions and places of human dwelling—how works of philosophy and works of art might themselves be places where human being itself takes place, rather than being things made by human beings, and then placed somewhere by them.
Indeed, if we think along with Heidegger when we read such remarks, we will eventually even want to give some thought to whether what he says we hardly ever think about doesn’t go together with what he says we never think about. That is, we will eventually want to give some thought to whether the only way philosophy and art can be set free to be all they can be, is when we truly take up our own place in “thinking and poetizing,” realizing that it is only in those places that human beings themselves belong.
In turn, if we really ask ourselves that question, then we also will need to ask what sort of politics would go with such thoughtful, poetic dwelling, as it were. We will need to ask what sort of politics is appropriate to dwelling in thought and in poetry—rather than in Nazi Grmany, or any other nation-state.
Toward that end, it would behoove us first to consider a bit more carefully the sort of politics that is rooted in what is called “life” in nation-states themselves. Then we can get a better idea of what, by contrast, a politics that emerged from life lived “elsewhere” might look like.
* * *
To be continued.
* The text of the course makes up the second of the two parts of volume 50 of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe (GA)—the Complete Edition of his works. GA 50 was first published in 1990 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann). An English translation by Phillip Jacques Braunstein appeared twenty years later (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010.)
** “Elsewhere Politics” is the title of the final section of “Trauma and the Remnants of Politics,” the sixth and next to last chapter of my book The Open Wound: Trauma, Identity, and Community (CreateSpace, 2012). This new blog post series on “Waiting and the Politics of Trauma” is itself a reprise and expansion of what I wrote there, to which I refer readers of this blog.