Erich Heller

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813

Thinking about poetry is not the same as poetic thought, but such "thinking about" would certainly busy itself in a void if it cut itself loose entirely from its subject matter's imaginative intellection; and it is the alpha and omega of Heidegger's philosophy that poetry is thought, just as true thought—that is, thought concerned with the meaning of Being—partakes of the essence of poetry. Yes, the alpha too, although it is only in his writings after Being and Time that poetry, above all Hölderlin's, assumes the role of Being's authentic and most "thoughtful" messenger…. Heidegger says in the essay "Why be a Poet?," "that the making of poetry … is a matter of thinking." For the domain of poetry is language, and even in Being and Time it is said of discourse in language that it is "existentially equiprimordial with understanding": "If we have not heard 'aright'," Heidegger writes,—characteristically taking an idiomatic expression at its word: "Ich höre wohl nicht recht,"—"if we have not heard aright, it is not by accident that we say we have not 'understood'," and understanding involves thinking even if it is of a vestigial kind in our daily routines of comprehension. But quite apart from such explicit statements about the near-identity of language and understanding, it is the burden of Being and Time—in every respect the burden—that its philosophical idiom is fashioned by the desire, or even the felt necessity, to say something that has not been said (in German, or in any other "modern" language) since the time some Greek poetic philosophers, or philosophical poets, Anaximander or Parmenides or Heraclitus, said it more than a century before Socrates. Through them, Heidegger believes, Being itself opened its eyes to inspect itself, opened its mouth to ask what it was. "What we call Greek, is not a national or cultural or anthropological character; Greek is that early historical dispensation by which Being itself lights up in all beings and determines the nature of man …," Heidegger writes in his reflection on "A Saying of Anaximander." No such immediate disclosure occurred afterward. Indeed, language itself was all but divested by Time of its power to reveal Truth, except through the poetry of the rarest of poets, through the art of the most "gifted" artists. For the rest, language became a foreign tongue with regard to Being, estranged from its true nature through the service into which it has been taken by metaphysicians, not to mention empiricists, positivists, or idle talkers in their Seinsvergessenheit, their forgetful remoteness from Being. (pp. 169-70)

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To have tried to restore the language of poetry … to its rightful dwelling in the house of truth (or, in the words of Heidegger's own deliberately circular way of speaking: in the truly real) is likely to be remembered as his heroic adventure in the history of philosophy, but not, I believe, the use he himself has made in his own writing of "poetic" language, often strained and awkward in his employment, and again and again guided, it would seem, by the principle of obscurum per obscurius. And this, perhaps, cannot be otherwise if Heidegger is right in believing that the true disclosures of thought and language are like the unfolding of blossoms in their own season, or like the growing of the old oak tree by the pathway of Heidegger's Messkirch childhood, the tree that, in growing, has opened itself up "to the breadth of heaven" and sunk its roots "into the darkness of earth." Heidegger's philosophical language has nothing of the solid simplicity of that oak tree; and, to judge by his own account of the history of Being, the "Befindlichkeit," the mode of his thinking and speaking, must have some of the qualities that characterize all things grown out of season…. But ironically—if this word is not instantly stifled by a philosophical atmosphere so utterly lacking the element of irony—this unseasonable language does not have the appearance of the frailty customarily shown by forced organisms. Its demeanor does create the impression of great force, even if this force is not the power of that deeply rooted oak tree. And the fascination Heidegger has had, a few decades ago in his homeland, then, for a while, in France, and now in some American philosophical enclaves, has been, I think, partly due to the quasi-mythological, centaur-like shape of his intellectual character: a human head sometimes thinking truly profound thoughts, sometimes merely thoughts of profound inaccessibility, yielding illuminations that not always justify the burning up of so much energy, yet a head placed upon an intellectual body that seems to possess the muscular vigor of a horse. (pp. 170-71)

Erich Heller, "Thinking about Poetry: Hölderlin and Heidegger," in Herkommen und Erneuerung: Essays für Oskar Seidlin, edited by Gerald Gillespie and Edgar Lohner (© Max Niemeyer Verlag 1976), Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1976, pp. 168-84.∗

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