Everyone carries a room about inside him. This fact can even be proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one's ears and listens, say in the night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears, for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall.
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Category Archives: Heidegger
I’m having trouble finding a way to stay, hold things together. This isn’t the place for it. Things are too close yet nowhere near enough. ‘The frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness’, says Heidegger. The world is zooming into non-places. Pictures of everything from remote solar systems to the closest burger bar blend into a kind of uniform mirage, as if all distances have been conquered and it no longer matters what you look at.
On a whim, while watching a new Faroese-Danish crime drama on TV, I buy a plane ticket to the Faroe Islands and book an Airbnb. I get the second-last seat on the plane. I imagine other Danes got the same idea.
Almost shocking to see the massive grassy rocks loom out of the Atlantic. I take a bus from the airport, get settled with my hosts and the next day, after a short ferry ride from the harbour, I’m finally alone on the fells of Nólsoy island, above a small village of two hundred souls, in the rain and wind. Quite alone with the sheep and the birds. No sounds but those nature produces. The wind blows to a gale, the rain comes down hard, and I retreat, sodden, to the village pub. The late ferries might be cancelled, the bartender tells me, you better take the next one. He tells me some local lore and we smoke in his garage until I have to go to the harbour, bent over against the storm.
Next day to Kirkjubøur, with its bare, fourteenth-century church and a path beneath the cliffs. The weather and therefore the landscape changes by the hour. Sunny now, misty peaks in the distance. There’s no point taking pictures any longer. The next view is always bigger, more indifferent, more present. You don’t have to work at being in the moment here, the place seems to do it for you. It’s overwhelmingly clear how little say you have, how small you are. I cup my hands and drink from the little waterfalls that tumble down the cliffs. It tastes of rock, earth and grass.
Everyone here speaks Danish, the colonial language that was imposed on them – Faroese was forbidden in schools – but no one seems hostile when I address them. I barely understand their ancient language. It’s a mix of Norse and Irish, I read on Wikipedia. There’s something very old here I don’t understand. The people are different too, not at all like Copenhageners. I’d need more than a week to begin to let it sink in. I go back to Nólsoy to see the cliffs where the European storm-petrels roost: nightbirds that migrate as far as Africa. On the way back to the ferry I stop at the pub to chat with the bartender again. I ask him what they really think of us. He says, They often come here in their suits, with precise instructions, project schedules, and so on. You have to be here and here at such and such a time. We listen politely, then go away and do things at our own pace. We listen more to the weather, he says.
A review of The Moment by Alexander Carnera, published in the Norwegian version of Le Monde diplomatique, October 2021 (my translation from Danish).
What are poets for in a destitute time?
Heidegger poses this question at the start of a 1946 lecture held on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Rilke’s death, in the shadow of the Second World War. The back cover of the new Danish translation reads: ‘In the world’s night, some must dare look into the abyss and experience what we don’t yet have words for. This is what poets do. […] Poetry frees language from its everyday instrumental use, so it can speak of being itself, how beings are.’ Most will agree that times are hard. We’re up to our neck in problems: we’re destroying the natural world, undermining our own institutions, losing a sense of purpose in our working lives and politics. We consume as if there’s no tomorrow and our visions for the future are unconvincing. But for Heidegger, times are hard – destitute, even – first and foremost ‘because mortals are hardly aware and capable even of their own mortality.’
Our desire to turn everything around us into objects we can control stems from our inability to ‘venture Being’, as Heidegger says in his commentary on Hölderlin: our lack of courage ‘to venture to where all ground breaks off – into the abyss’. It’s when we dare step into the ‘ungrounded’ that our real venture begins, in a kind of opening that can bring us into a different and freer relationship with our surroundings, nature, animals, things themselves. It’s in this Abgrund – not on our own apparently solid ground – that our narrow worldviews can be overturned, our horizon can be opened up and something can begin again. Put another way, the challenge of thinking is to reflect on how real thinking happens in the first place. In destitute times, the poet must make ‘the whole being and vocation of the poet a poetic question’. For Heidegger, poets with this sense of purpose and practice are those who can reach out for and put into words what we haven’t yet fully thought, experienced or seen.
To see with new eyes
Martin Heidegger was once an important cultural and academic figure. But those days are gone. Writers, academics and artists rarely seem to read him nowadays. He barely features on curriculums. An altmodisch, nationalistic and backwards air still clings to this strange thinker, who’s been called one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, but whom few people actually read. His unapologetic attitude to his early Nazism has led to him being sidelined or erased from intellectual history altogether. It should go without saying that the aspects of his writing that place history and the fate of the German people on the same ontological axis are insupportable. But there are other ways to read Heidegger, as contemporary philosophers such as Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben have shown.
Heidegger’s late lecture What Are Poets For? and the Danish author Peter Holm Jensen’s new book The Moment (written in English) suggest that much of what Heidegger has to say about language, thinking and writing is undervalued and that he asks questions that remain relevant: What is thinking? What is the relationship between thought and experience? Can literary writing demonstrate a kind of thinking that can change our way of being in the world? True, there’s something anachronistic about Heidegger: an insistence on dwelling on things, taking nothing for granted, asking the same basic questions over and over. In our day, we chase answers rather than questions, information rather than meaning, communication rather than language. We have freer access to images, signs and facts than ever, yet reality seems increasingly remote. We’ve got so used to the idea that reality is something we construct that we’ve lost the ability to step back from our own constructions. It’s harder and harder to see things with different eyes, to see the other in the familiar.
A return to experience
As a result, our images and notions of reality harden before our eyes. Even this remains mostly concealed from us, since we’ve learned that it’s we who give things meaning through our observations, we who shed our light on things. We’ve lost the ability to see that the world thinks too, if not independently of us, then through and beyond the individual human mind – that there’s a kind of intimate thinking between all things, which, if we attend to it closely enough, can awaken our senses, connect us with our environment and grant us an experience of what it really means to be alive.
This is perhaps where Heidegger’s later writings have something to offer. Here it’s as if he gives more primacy to sensory experience, nature and place than in his famous early work Being and Time, where he analyses human temporality, historicity and anxiety. At the heart of this openness to the senses and the natural world is language. For Heidegger, language has less to do with linguistics and philosophy of language than the question of what actually speaks in language. For him it’s ‘being’, but what is being? A basic mood (Grundstimmung) that attunes us to reality? An experience of connectedness with things? A light in things that we can approach but never grasp? Maybe as thinking and speaking beings we’re always underway to reality. In any case, there’s something at work in language that we need more than we might think; something that can’t be captured in quick replies and easy solutions, but perhaps can only be engaged with deeply through experience, thinking, writing.
In his post-war ‘Letter on Humanism’, Heidegger says that ‘there is a thinking that is more rigorous than conceptual thinking’. By this he means in part that there’s a thinking that’s more closely related to the words we use every day than to abstract concepts. In contrast to concepts, insights arising from ordinary speech are linked to the senses and a bodily way of being in the world. In our shared words we tell our stories and try to decipher our immediate sensory experiences. Words move us, describe our moods, challenge us, shed light on things, set things in motion.
But in a destitute time everyday words can seem used up. In fact, says Heidegger in On the Way to Language, ‘ordinary speech is a forgotten, worn-out, overworked poem’. This is why we must return to language in a new way. It’s when we do this that we begin to think. We think in and through words. Thinking is an attempt, and this attempt always happens in language. Thinking is therefore always a work in progress. Truth reveals itself not through concepts but as something prior to naming. It is what’s there before it’s grasped, collected, interpreted. To think what’s already given to us, to unveil it in our words, we must continually rephrase it. He who thinks goes back in order to move forwards.
The task is to trace the movement that’s led to the concept. When Heidegger in one of his other late lectures, What Is Called Thinking?, provocatively says ‘we do not yet think’, he’s thinking not only of the dominant positivism of his time but also of the specialised sciences, and even philosophy itself. In Heidegger’s view, they’ve all been captured by conceptual representations and have turned everything in their realm into facts, objects and evidence. Thinking, on the other hand, involves questioning the ground of scientific and philosophical enquiry itself. As he writes: ‘We moderns can learn only if we always unlearn at the same time.’ This may be one of Heidegger’s most incisive thoughts. When our existing language is in constant danger of calcifying into clichés, it’s hard to learn in a new way and see things afresh. Because then we don’t recognise the extent to which we treat language as a mirror and words as labels and representations; we take them for granted. Language ends up as pure communication, a means of conveying information, no longer a place of thought. Thinking begins with unlearning, and to unlearn we have to return to language – to the words themselves. But not just words: unlearning also brings us into contact with the doubts and contradictions that give birth to thought in the first place.
Thinking must be brought to a point where it rediscovers its own experience as it happens – an experience that’s hidden within much methodical, objective enquiry. Academics and intellectuals too must learn to recognise their own kneejerk ideas and vulnerabilities again. The most dangerous and difficult thing is to give up one’s prior assumptions and secure positions. This is where poetry can come into its own as a venture in thought’s beginning, since it doesn’t stand still on its own ground but reaches back across the abyss. The poet/writer is concerned with how experience shapes our thoughts and practices, and with our limitations and possibilities in the face of an endlessly mystifying world.
Writing as a spiritual exercise
The Danish author Peter Holm Jensen has lived and worked as a translator in Norfolk in Eastern England for twenty years. His book The Moment (out in Danish next year) is a fictional journal in which he combines descriptions of a couple’s everyday life in the country, walks in the Norfolk Broads and a precarious working life with reflections on how to reconcile writing and life. In a subdued way, the book enters into a dialogue with the late Heidegger, Kirkegaard, Rilke and Kafka on writing as a work of healing. But it’s also a quiet critique of a world that’s falling apart, moving over an abyss. In carefully crafted language that ‘ventures being’, the book brings the reader before a world that seems to be awakening in an uncertain light. The journal entries reach into the ‘ungrounded’ for the enigmatic light and darkness of plants, animals, things.
For Jensen, literature is a kind of poetic thinking whose task is to reflect on (or unlearn) itself in order to really see the world it’s part of. What emerges is a kind of ethics, an (eco-)literature with this mode of life as its focal point, rather than nature as a romanticised model. In a time when many authors write autofiction, confessional literature or Facebook-style notes, Jensen deliberately uses the diary form as a ‘technology of the self’. In an approach that might be compared to that of the Greco-Roman Stoics, he shows that before I can relate to others, I must observe and relate to myself, take control of my own actions and my own life, if only to stay sane: ‘Words flow through you in a ceaseless stream whether you like it or not, it’s true. Then try to find yourself in them: stem the flow for a moment, just as you’d try to find yourself in a crowd of people going different ways and saying different things. Start like that.’ The diary becomes a tool the author uses to change himself, renew his relationship with the world and his past, and question states of being we’ve come to take for granted.
The journal’s entries fluctuate between an experience of capital’s pervasive de-subjectivisation – which makes our own lives foreign to us – and a faith in writing. It’s a demonstration in what was once called ‘spiritual exercises’, which the French historian of ideas Pierre Hadot described as a practice of self-exploration, attention, reading, writing and meditation on the brevity of life. In Hadot’s words, this is ‘a concrete attitude and determinate lifestyle, which engages the whole of existence. […] It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it’. (Appropriately, Jensen started the book in what he calls a place of ‘total obscurity’, where writing became an attempt to find faith in this world again.)
The familiar and the foreign
Most people wake up in the morning, go to work, get more or less productive and discuss more or less trivial problems. Jensen’s narrator has chosen to hit the brakes. It’s as if he wants to slow down a world that’s gone off the rails and practise seeing for once. The journal begins in the spring: the plants bloom and the animals give birth. The barn cats have kittens, the couple’s neighbouring farmer ends up on his deathbed, the light changes by the hour, the vast Norfolk sky is ‘ever-changing’. Life and death intermingle. Everything is in motion. The journal entries, too, are constantly marked by something that appears then withdraws. Jensen’s initial mistrust of writing makes him particularly aware of this overwhelming coming and going of things, but also of an abiding presence that seems to hide behind it.
At the same time, life in the country can be flat, monotonous: ‘The days blur into sameness.’ He finds a clue to the presence he’s looking for in Heidegger’s line: ‘In everything familiar, something worthy of thought still lurks’. A little later, he writes: ‘Doesn’t the commonplace hold its own secrets? Perhaps only our impatience obscures them. If we had the endurance of animals we might be better able to accept the familiar and simply wait, day after undistinguished day, until the day, unmasked, surrendered’. Elsewhere, too, he quotes Heidegger: ‘When we go through the woods, we are always already going through the word woods.’ He glosses this line as follows: ‘Both the woods and the word were there before us, but it’s the going through them that brings them together. In a sense, the saying of the word summons the thing. Summons but doesn’t create. We can’t give being, but we can help unveil it.’
When he describes animals, he’s looking for a secret link to them, but at the same time he’s concerned with the enormous gap that has arisen today between humans and animals. Today, animals are pets, sources of entertainment, resources. There’s no longer a hidden conversation between them and us, the kind of relationship that once was crucial to our way of life and our way of making sense of the world. (‘Crows and ravens carried messages from the gods or had sacred ties to the sun. They were bearers of meaning in the world.’)
When he describes the Norfolk marshland and coast (which he links in various ways to the west coast of Denmark), he’s also talking about how hard it is to really see the landscape and the secret lives of its plants and animals. Everywhere he describes the difficulty of experiencing concrete things: how they change, withdraw from sight, become something else, different from themselves. Even in the day-to-day entries about freelance work, evenings in the pub, the couple’s life with their pet cat, helping the neighbour with his rundown farm, one has the feeling that everything’s moving over unstable ground. Everything might just as well collapse as show a new side of itself.
But Jensen, who like many other GenXers grew up with a sense of increasing insecurity, a looming climate crisis, precarious work and complacent boomer parents – and by his own account has read too much Kafka and Beckett for his own good – now sees in the late Heidegger a way of writing that turns its back on the nihilism and resignation that prevails in many places, including artistic and intellectual environments. Many get their critiques and negating attitudes on the cheap. It dawns on him that the real difficulty is to affirm, clear the way for what might hold one open to a different light; to criticise and create in the same movement, reflect on one’s own language, received ideas and experiences, and dare to ask the basic questions once again.
Recovering lost time
Writing the journal and insisting on the everyday (the light at dawn and dusk, household chores, the things that slow time down and move it on) gives him the strength to continue without seeking a fixed goal or ideology. Yet he mistrusts the act of writing. ‘What do I want?’ he writes at the beginning of the book. ‘To find words that can bring life closer. But I start writing and watch lies roll across the screen.’ He makes approaches, has to stop. Tries again. For every day that passes, for every new sentence, one is brought closer to something. To what? A light, a dawning, things themselves? Later he writes:
The days are getting warmer. I’ve started exercising again. I work in the garden, ride to the farm shop. We cycle up to the north coast, chain our bikes to a tree and walk through the wood on a sandy path. S. stops here and there to open her wildlife book and identify some plant or insect. We chat without paying attention to our surroundings, emerge from the wood to find ourselves before a wide-open view: on one side the sea and the sky, a vast canvas of blues, whites, and greys; on the other, scrapes and grassy dunes spreading out inland. It’s moments like these I want to write about. Moments when you’re stopped on your way and made to see where you are with new eyes. As when you work on a problem that seems unsolvable and all of a sudden the answer comes: it was there all along, why couldn’t I see it? Or when a situation makes you act in a way that confronts you with yourself, and it’s as though the past opens up: so that’s why I’ve always behaved like that, now I see.
What keeps returning for Jensen isn’t just nature and daily life, but a way of being in the world in which describing remembered things serves as an exercise in recovering lost time and ‘owning’ the raw material of your life. By reformulating his own struggle and doubts, Jensen shows that the ownmost life is where thinking finds its home in the ungrounded and gathers up what’s been dispersed in place and time. You see what’s been lost, what’s gone wrong, and thereby what’s in common, the common abyss. You see that all beginning is a movement in time.
Writing approaches its own origins in the experiences of being it calls up. It circles around a centre that tends to withdraw, and finds its way back home in a forward movement. ‘Where are we going? Always home’, wrote Novalis. ‘Homecoming is a return to the vicinity of the origin’, wrote Heidegger about Hölderlin. But what is ‘origin’? What is ‘home’? Does it have to do with a certain place or time? Although Jensen’s narrator is preoccupied with ‘the moment’, presence, the fullness of time, it’s often place, or the movement into a place – the patient encounter with animals, the disturbing encounter with capital’s exhaustion of the landscape – that is the driving force of his journal. But ‘homecoming’ is also a movement in time. He quotes Heidegger’s saying that ‘origin always comes to meet us from the future’, and takes this to mean that:
time, rather than moving in a straight line from past to future […] describes a kind of circle between the future and the past that can bring us back to the moment of presence if we attend to it closely enough. I make plans, anticipate my future, and what comes back to me from the future is my entire past, demanding that I accept it as my own.
A strange hope
In his search for a lost past, a return to the vicinity of the origin, he finds a ‘strange hope’ in the form of something that comes to meet him outside of writing, outside of place and time. This happens when he walks through a cemetery and steps into an empty dilapidated church, where he sits still in the light that streams through the stained-glass window. It overwhelms him and withdraws. He can’t explain it. Maybe it has to do with what he later describes as an encounter with ‘an impersonal light’ – something that reveals itself to him but doesn’t belong to him.
But it also has something to do with the struggle of writing, this unreliable practice of continually reaching out and approaching the light. Jensen finds a possible explanation in some of Kafka’s aphorisms, which speak of ‘the indestructible in us’. One of these aphorisms reads: ‘Theoretically there is a perfect possibility of happiness: believing in the indestructible in oneself and not striving towards it.’ Not to go after it like a goal, in a calculated way, but to trust in it and go about your life in quiet contemplation. Kafka again: ‘A person cannot live without a steady faith in something indestructible within him, though both the faith and the indestructible thing may remain permanently concealed from him.’
Martin Heidegger, Hvorfor digtere?, trans. Kasper Nefer Olsen, Forlaget Mindspace, Copenhagen, 2021.
Peter Holm Jensen, The Moment, Splice, UK, 2021
The turning of the age does not take place by some new god, or the old one renewed, bursting into the world from ambush at some time or other. Where would he turn on his return if men had not first prepared an abode for him? How could there ever be for the god an abode fit for a god, if a divine radiance did not first begin to shine in everything that is?
The gods who “were once there,” “return” only at the “right time”—that is, when there has been a turn among men in the right place, in the right way. For this reason Holderlin writes:
. . . The heavenly powers
Cannot do all things. It is the mortals
Who reach sooner into the abyss. So the turn is
With these. Long is
The time, but the true comes into
Long is the destitute time of the world’s night. To begin with, this requires a long time to reach to its middle. At this night’s midnight, the destitution of the time is greatest. Then the destitute time is no longer able even to experience its own destitution. That inability, by which even the destitution of the destitute state is obscured, is the time’s absolutely destitute character. The destitution is wholly obscured, in that it now appears as nothing more than the need that wants to be met. Yet we must think of the world’s night as a destiny that takes place this side of pessimism and optimism. Perhaps the world’s night is now approaching its midnight. Perhaps the world’s time is now becoming the completely destitute time. But also perhaps not, not yet, not even yet, despite the immeasurable need, despite all suffering, despite nameless sorrow, despite the growing and spreading peacelessness, despite the mounting confusion. Long is the time because even terror, taken by itself as a ground for turning, is powerless as long as there is no turn with mortal men. But there is a turn with mortals when these find the way to their own nature. That nature lies in this, that mortals reach into the abyss sooner than the heavenly powers. Mortals, when we think of their nature, remain closer to that absence because they are touched by presence, the ancient name of Being. But because presence conceals itself at the same time, it is itself already absence. Thus the abyss holds and remarks everything.
— Heidegger, ‘What are Poets For?’ (tr. Hofstadter)
The presence of things to us is never exhausted by meaning: a friend, the sea, the tree, the flower — all that present themselves to us — are always more than how we present them. Cezanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire more than sixty times by several accounts, but never once did he think he had exhausted its showing, its manifestation.
— Richard Capobianco, Heidegger’s Way of Being
It is sufficient to name a “being,” and we mean, in a merely approximate yet portentous thinking, the being of this being. We name being along with it. Being is said along with every word and verbal articulation, if not named each time with its own name. Speaking says being “along with,” not as an addition and a supplement that could just as well be left out, but as the pre-giving of what always first permits the naming of beings.
Must not being, due to its multiple and constant saying, be already so articulated and well-known that its essence lies uncovered before us in complete determinacy? But what if the most said in saying kept its essence secret, if being kept to itself in the disclosure of its essence, and this not only occasionally and incidentally but according to its essence? Then not only would concealment belong to being, but concealment would have a marked relation to “saying” and would be silence.
— Heidegger, Basic Concepts (tr. Aylesworth)
If we now consider that being conceals itself, indeed that self-concealment belongs to being’s essence, it might seem once again as if being remains completely and necessarily withdrawn from us. But again, it can only seem so. For we lay claim to being everywhere, wherever and whenever we experience beings, deal with them and interrogate them, or merely leave them alone. We need being because we need it in all relations to beings. In this constant and multiple use, being is in a certain way expended.
And yet we cannot say that being is used up in this expenditure. Being remains constantly available to us. Would we wish to maintain, however, that this use of being, which we constantly rely upon, leaves being so untouched? Is not being at least consumed in use? Does not the indifference of the “is,” which occurs in all saying, attest to the wornness of what we thus name?
Being is certainly not grasped, but it is nevertheless worn-out and thus also “empty” and “common.” Being is the most worn-out.
“Being” stands everywhere and at each moment in our understanding as what is most self-understood. It is thus the most worn-out coin with which we constantly pay for every relation to beings, without which pay no relation to beings as beings would be allotted us. Being, the most worn-out and the most indifferent! And yet: we do not throw the “is” away; we also never become weary of the being of beings. Even where one might sometimes wish, oneself, no longer to be, ennui pertains only to oneself as this existing human being, but not to being. Even in that most extreme satiety that secretly remains a wishing, and wishes there might be the Nothing instead of beings, even there being remains the only thing called upon that resists expenditure and consumption. For also where we expect that it would be preferable for the Nothing to be, the last saving grasp is aimed at the most worn-out—at being. Therefore being can never become worn-out to the point of complete exhaustion and disparagement. On the contrary, in the extremity of the desired annihilation of all beings, and precisely here, being must appear. It appears here as something unprecedented and untouched, from out of which stem all beings and even their possible annihilation. Being first lets every being be as such, that means to spring loose and away, to be a being, and as such to be “itself.” Being lets every being as such originate. Being is the origin.
— Heidegger, Basic Concepts (tr. Aylesworth)
Below some excerpts from Susan Taubes’ letters to her husband, published in Korrespendez mit Jacob Taubes 1950 – 1951. (The letters were written in English. ST was in her early twenties.)
1949 (not sent)
Darling – I am very sad without you and troubled about many things and my meditations this evening lead me to feel very hopeless about there ever growing an understanding between us. And as to prayer I can only pray to an unknown light to save me from the nightmare of what men call religion.
We went tonight to the orthodox service and afterwards to the reform temple. I went with a very open heart and I wanted so deeply to come into my temple and participate in a service the thought of which I felt was noble and holy but I walked into a very awful farce instead and I felt very embittered. The whole room was illuminated with lightbulbs even on candles and full of the din of chattering people – all around me the women were gossiping during the service – the rabbi had to use a microphone even though it was quite a small temple and there was such a noise that he had to ask the people to shut up several times. People were running around, nobody listened and they looked utterly brutal and stupid – not one measure less than the Puerto Ricans you detest. The singing was monotonous and unmoving. The sermon was below the level of pulp magazines. The reform service was at least tolerable. The people were quiet the organ played well and Rabbi Bernstein at least did not presume to bring in God but spoke simply and humanly. But it was quite unnecessary.
It is clear to me that I must follow the voice that speaks in my soul and not to deceive myself by any talmudic or jesuitical rationalization that I can attach and commit myself to any mass belief and tradition. It simply is not true – what I believe and what the laws and scriptures and traditions uphold are two different things they are of different dimension and I am not at the moment concerned with how to discipline the masses or how to keep priests and rabbis employed and although there is nothing I desire more than to worship in community and not in loneliness I will suffer my loneliness rather than to give myself to hypocrasy and falsehood. I don’t think you have a right to force me to repeat and repeat the same process of decision. I am tired of being deceived in the same thing again and again. Because I love you and because we must build our lives together I want to see truth where you see truth and I strain many times in myself to open myself to it and every time I find that it is deception. I cannot go on in this endless repetition I want to build my own altar. It is awful, it is perhaps the most frightening thing not to be able to worship and live in the tradition of any people – it is truly death – but we must live this awfulness and not make sentiment or political compromises. This is my belief at least, and the few people I know of both semitic and non-semitic strain believe this. And I can no more keep to the laws of the Bible and the exile traditions than I can cross myself or take the sacrament because I would perjure myself and my honesty and my nakedness is all I possess.
There is only one sin and that is to destroy the image of God. Belief does not matter – ultimately where we have ceased to be children faith is not a spiritual matter. We would like human beings to wear the image of God in their lives, in their being, their acts and their handy-work. Calendar days for rest and atonement and being holy are simply a caricature of how a man ought to live. The law of the Torah may make life more simple, it saves us from searching all the time to distinguish between the holy and the unholy by an arbitrary rule; and it is easier to fast one day a year than to abstain from swinishness every day of the year and to judge our actions every moment of our lives; and it is more simply to dedicate one day of the week to rest and quietude than strive for quietude and dignity every day of the week; but I cannot live by this kind of logic and I cannot participate in the traditions of a people who live by it. And this is the last time I want to dwell on this thing.
I would be deeply hurt if you would expect that because you are good to me I must compromise my beliefs and to please you go along with the ritual. This would be very cheap. You cannot threaten me with love because there is a more awful thing than to be without human affection – hypocrisy rottenness, damnation. I am not wise and I am not “looking out for my interests” or interested in playing a part or saving my face. I feel I am writing to a rock and not to you – because I want you to be a priest, and I think you must withdraw very far from politics and people in the mass and find your own-way with God because otherwise you have no right to talk to the people.
And if your whole life and truth is the Torah and your whole aim to build a life and family according to its law you were unjust not to make your conditions clear to me before because you will not be able to force me in this mould. I am just sick from it and you must admit that this was not the basis on which we married and I am simply terrified
Sept. 15/16 1950
I pray that you have arrived safely, dear Jacob. It is before midnight and it is about now that the sun leaps out from behind the mountains in Jerusalem and I pray that you are sleeping well. Now that nothing is “happening” externally and – at least according to Parmenides – “nothing” is happening internally it is more difficult to write.
I found a book of yours, MYSTIC UND LYRIK by Hederer which is of some help. I begin to work on my thesis.
It seems that wherever one raises the lid of a question the same old Gnostic serpent twists up its seductive head and gives me its key to enter the problem of the “double truth” in scientific and mythopoietic language. (The pre-Socratic formulation of the problem centers around the opposition of Mythos and Logos rather than the logistics of modern positivism; but since the Logos concept is so problematic I feel safer in tackling the problem from the point of the modern antithesis of “fact and Fancy” – which squeezes so called philosophy out of existence altogether since it suits neither fact nor fancy.)
A word about the word. (I speak as a positivist.) An artificial sign or word is an object substituted for a natural sign (sense datum) the advantage of the thought-sign being that it is fixed, manageable and accessible to the subject at will, whereas the nature sign is passing, ponderable and cannot be produced by will. The common pivoting point whereon this translation from object to name turns is at the decisive point of the dialectical act of naming: for in the act of naming the object itself is created in the name and the nature-sign or object and the thought-sign or name stand for and fix identically a field of possible relations between confronting beings.
The act of naming for the increase of human powers even as Prometheus’ theft of fire for the same ends is an instance of the fall. Then, “the naming of the holy” or let us say the whole whence we have been cast out would mean: to regain IN the word what has been lost THROUGH the word. That is to create in the substance in the very corporeality of language that destroyed the immediacy of the whole, the totality. And in this effort to regain the holy the poet drives the cursed-godgiven language through all the excluded and forbidden realms of genesis, through all the secret passages of the creation out of nothing.
Forgive me for being so “academic” the Muses weep when I speak so; but I listen to the serpent, for he seduced us away from the source only to seduce us back to the source. And I trust the serpent who knows the secret of the passage and who embodies the mysterious necessity wherein “the way up and the way down are the same'” and the way of going hence is the way of returning.
Since in the attempt at naming the holy the whole sphere of opposition of true and non-true created by the naming of the object, is negated there is no longer a question of double truth, there is correctness or in- correctness as regards the scientific language and the term “truth” must find its mythical sense. (Is not this, in fact, what Heidegger does? Even if he does not create the word mythos anew he discovers the old mythos in the words at the point of the original createdness, Please try to explain to me a little what Heidegger means by the naming of the holy!!!) [Heidegger: “The thinker evokes Being. The poet names the holy.”]
What shall become of me “in absentia”! Be my good friend and genius. It is so good to speak to you – do you listen will you answer me in a word?
My good child, I think of you all day long, how deeply we belong to each other, that the powers of sea and earth have no deeper and more secret sources than our love.
I try to be cheerful which is for me very very difficult. – And will you grow chaste and tranquil! The priest’s “duties” by the altar in the refuge of the temple are rather his reward, we cannot wait till the moment at the altar – that moment may perhaps never even come in our lives. But we must walk like priests through the world, homeless in the absence of temples and altars, through the daily toil, rush and disorder, always searching among the many crooked, distorting lines for the true and holy countenance of the day and season. How can we hope, how shall we dare to build anything graceful, noble and rooted in the essential power of things, unless we first strengthen what is graceful and noble in our own powers. What does it help us to cover ourselves with what is no longer our own – ? The heavens shall hardly help anyone who is afraid of being naked for a while.
We should have days of fasting our eyes and ears from the human word, the printed words and the chatter, that after the food, the warmth and shelter is the last human comforts, of the human refuge, in itself a blessing even as the bread, fire, and covering – but at certain moments like food – like all comfort that is a sign of our dependence and relativity: something dirty, unclean, whereof we must purify ourselves.
I ache and tremble for you my lovely one, oh, terribly. Each evening I dress in all my jewels only for you and chatter with the men. How boring is all conversation! How much wiser are the southern peoples who do not talk about social problems but embrace a woman and touch her breasts. All talk is so fatally boring.
HOTEL VAN DORN
150 W4 57
Jacob, my dearest One, how good it was to receive two letters from you! I begin to feel like a sleep walker through the world – very efficient and quite dreamless but a sleep walker and in the gray hues of this sleep I taste the blackness of death. And, Oh, New York is so gray, pleasantly and relaxingly gray like a nice black and white movie.
The customs examination both for Mother and me was so smooth and gentlemanly that I was really moved. I was asked to open one book-case and was having difficulty finding the right key – so the man said I should not bother, he’ll take my word for it. It didn’t last five minutes. The whole S.S. America with immigrants and everything was cleared (trunks brought from hole to pier and examined) in less than three hours.
I managed to escape for a few hours to look through book stores: found a lovely new edition of “Anabasis” (Perse, trans. by Eliot) bought it. I am reading it – it is more much more than Darius’ boasting of how many conquered men’s ears he cut off: he makes the earth emerge in its primeval and mysterious – yet – open nakedness as a people first confront it. And this meeting between the people full of fresh arrogance and the earth full of a fresh and sensuous shyness is like the meeting of man and woman, before all reflection, before any distinction between “rape” and “holy marriage”, and therefore like the meeting of man and woman at the point when they no longer belong to themselves, utterly clear and of concrete and practical character, utterly beyond good and bad and beyond love in any romantic sense: It is naming at last the “inorgisches” the unfeeling, unorganized elemental being and no longer humanity or even the “gods” – and it comes closer to the longing of Holderlin and Heidegger than perhaps anything they themselves were able to utter. I came across some very interesting new poets – one feels a new heartbeat and breath struggling in the language of the new Poetry still half smothered in intellectual confusion and self-consciousness.
I am waiting very much for your pictures – oh my lovely body and soul, how awful it is not to be able to touch you – I must find graceful names for all the nameless, or shame-named parts of the body – that must be the first page for “The Book of Words” something I want to begin to work on – to begin to create the language of cult and sacrament.
“We are a footnote to Parmenides'” is not so simple: with “Being” and “Nothing” our vocabulary is not yet closed: there is movement, Becoming, “Eros” or quite prosaically DOING – neither in the pure Being of Parmenides nor in the pure Nothing of the Indians can the “doing” conceive and bring about itself neither does the Indian “passivity” escape the circle of “doing”, the circle of polarity, and it derives its power from being a term of the polarity. I realize all this is “metaphysical” whereas your look is more mystical. Nevertheless think about it.
Oh my dearest child – it is a deep sacrifice to be “brave” I cannot indulge in the deep suffering to remind me + compensate me of the deep joy + ecstacy of being with you. It is cold + gray; something military + monastic; but I cannot let the grief of separation be as intense as the joy ofbeing together. Perhaps this is a blessing, because I am really very well and cheerful + good. – But now I am getting sad. Cherish yourself dearest one. Goodnight.
Slowly, my dear we will give all of ourselves to the Holy, not in a sudden, catastrophic, apocalyptic fire (as one wishes at moments of despair when sinking from one’s own weight) but we will be consumed slowly in our own rhythm, through ripening and old age, give ourselves like the most solitary ones who in becoming monks relinquish all their privacy.
It is twelve days since we have parted. And whether one stands at the extreme point of union or the extreme point of separation one stays at the vanishing point of time. I think of you Jacob in awe and trembling and pray that my blessings reach you and preserve you.
We must yet think Jacob how we shall manage our lives, and think boldly my dear, no longer in the old language of our parents either yours or mine, for their world has crumbled – but find a language adequate to the chaos in which we live where the distinction of “dignity” between a “professor” and a bus driver has become sheerly romantic; and look with clear eyes into the job itself: what is more dignified to make a kindergarten affair of the Logos or simply to go and wipe little children’s noses. I am in no way relaxing in my “ambassadorship” and I think it will be arranged. But I doubt if this will be our way. You will get your legal status and then other possibilities may be open. Another thing: we will not be pressed by parents, yours or mine, to settle and begin to collect silver etc. Gerda spoke to me very strongly about this. And the truth is there is no “settling-down” for us ultimately unless we create this settlement.
And about the dark hours – I tremble before the terrible one against whose terror we put on the euphemising spectacles of religion: the power that has joined can also tear apart: who has given life can take it back. If manna can drop from the sky there can be a rain of plague + curses: I am witness to the manna and I fear terribly the wrath, deep and infinite as the grace.
Morning. Your letter of Sept. 27 just arrived via Rochester and I am very well! How good it is to have your words! And I kiss the sign of the “always” that is made of the union of man and woman. Dear Jacob, your probings in the Being and Nothing are deep and dangerous; that the fullness, the compactness – the continuity (in the stricktest mathematical sense) of the Being is the Nothing in the Being says that Being in its pure Beingness, replaces, supplants or “fills in” the nothing to the point of becoming identical with it – and however one terms the problem the two by necessity always merge and collapse into one another – there is no way of keeping them apart from the necessity of the 2 terms themselves; I wonder therefore if beyond the Being and the Nothing there must be a third: that which keeps the poles in separation, in a tension of opposition so that they are poles – since out of their own nature they fall back into identity. I wonder if there must not be a third – what we call God, the holy, the mystery beyond the Being + Nothing that composes “the structure of reality “who even as he separates light from darkness has sundered Being from non-Being and keeps them apart. For the separation of light and darkness so that there is light + darkness, and the separation of Being and nothing so that the world is and is lifted out of the ambiguity of Being-Nothing – this is the mystery of the IS that is the holy fiat of the Creator, that is a mystery because it will never be “deduced” from any manipulation, calculation or prestidigitation on the Being-Nothing. He has set the poles and keeps them apart, and the “metaphysical” distance between the poles, between the light and the darkness is his substance, and the life of the universe as the opposites strain toward each other and Being and non-Being merge and are freshly polarized, this life, this Eros circulates through his substance. But it is better to pray and to do service than to think and talk about this thing too much.
My dear, the night of the Sabbath has entered and I have lit the candle of the serpent and asked for the blessing of the bread and of the fruit as I have no wine, and sat on the ground and prayed, and with writing to you end my prayer.
Today it may be more difficult to obtain the blessing for the bread, but it is no less necessary. That all those who have toiled the earth and toiled their machines in sweat, smoke and confusion should for an instant meet at the common center of the mystery: and contemplate the mystery of their lives and their toil in the fire and the serpent. The serpent that is the AΩ – the seducer and enchanter that leads away from the source only to lead back to the source. And the fire, sign of the Holy itself and our most primordial coming to terms with the Holy: the fire that if we touch with naked fingers – we burn and perish; but if we handle it cautiously, indirectly, with many defences, some cunning and distance, gives us its power of warmth, light, motion for the fulfilment of our human needs – and thus makes it possible for us [to] live with the holy.
And I begin to grow into my life of wandering + migration even as the peasant grows into the climates of the land, and even as the peasant after a while learns to love the hoe whereon he breaks his back, the lands of his sweat and the stubborn seasons – so the wanderer, the uprooted, learns to love the dusty routes, the trunks, the warehouses, freight trucks and ticket-booths, the packing and unpacking. One grows into a familiarity with all the strange faces of Fate – slowly a pattern lights through the daily toil and redeems the sweat, backache and anxiety; the moment comes when the exile also celebrates his fate.
We are only ourselves, and are only those who we are, in our pointing towards what withdraws. This pointing is our essence. We are, insofar as we show in the direction of what withdraws. As the one who shows in this direction, man is the one who shows.
There is given [es gibt] the Nothing in spite of the fact that beings are. And perhaps it is one of the greatest of human errors to believe oneself always secure before the Nothing so long as beings can be encountered and dealt with and retained. Perhaps the predominance of this error is a main reason for blindness vis-à-vis the Nothing, which cannot affect beings, and least of all when beings become more and more ‘existant’ [seiender]. Perhaps the belief that the Nothing is just ‘nothing’ is also the main support for a popular piece of intelligence, namely: every reflection upon the Nothing leads to nothingness and endangers the legitimate trust in beings.
— Heidegger, Basic Concepts (tr. Aylesworth)