Frederic Will

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3016

If literature can accurately be said to capture and embody knowledge, it follows that it embodies "truth" or objective reality. The capacity of poetry to capture reality, in the highest sense, has in our day been most forcefully asserted by Martin Heidegger.

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His aesthetics, which amounts to a theory of poetry, is of the greatest importance as an effort to argue the fulness of poetry. The argument is a dominant concern of his recent thought, and shows how much its author had profited from the experiences with Being which he had already dramatized in Sein und Zeit…. Like all his thought, Heidegger's aesthetics is intended for the initiate and demands participation. It rewards a good reading, though, with latent power for new experiences of art.

Heidegger claims that poetry, or art, is something real. This is the basic assertion of his aesthetics, if the word "real" is taken seriously. It is no mild assertion, for it distinguishes Heidegger from all unthorough apologists for poetry. The defense of poetry as an interpretation, or merely an imitation, of nature, is familiar. It is a commonplace in the history of aesthetics. It confirms us in our "reasonable" feeling that art is somehow real and somehow an illusion. Yet it does not oblige us to take our aesthetic experience seriously; as seriously, for example, as we have always been exhorted to take our inward "religious" awareness. This defense takes no step toward launching us further into reality through art.

Characteristically, Heidegger explains the reality of art in several ways. In his essay "Hölderlin und das Wesen der Dichtung" … he grounds the reality of art in that of language. Man, he says, is the creature who must bear witness to what he is. "What man is" means "what structure of reality he is." Man must bear witness to "his belonging to the earth." The character of this belonging is that man is both a beneficiary and a learner. He holds these poles of his situation in poise through "inwardliness" and testifies to his belonging to this inwardliness through the creating of a world. This testimony to his belonging to the earth, to all things in their totality, occurs as history, that is, as the consciousness of a temporal context, the making of a realm of time around one. But history only comes into being through language. Language is the raw material of the newly created world. It provides definiteness and character for that world. It goes without saying, therefore, that language is real; that it is the condition of our existence as historical beings.

It follows that the creation of language is a serious and responsible event. Just as this event creates our historical existence, so it creates the possibility of danger, that is, of the threatening of Being by existing beings. Through speech the openness of Being is laid out before man, and in that openness he may go astray, risking the loss of Being. That loss was not possible prior to speech, for the possibility of the winning of Being did not exist; but now that loss is a permanent threat. In humbler terms, since speech is called on to create a world, it may be called to account, like God himself, for the quality of the world it creates. This danger for man is created by speech. So is the related danger of speaking "unessential words," words which may appear to seek Being but actually only mask it. Speaking well, that is speaking in consonance with Being, is never easy, and must be guaranteed continually in the doing, without reference to apparent qualities.

Poets are especially fit for such doing. Poetry is the embodiment par excellence of an effort to move into the openness of Being: for poetry, at its best, "founds that which is lasting." This is a paradoxical assertion. One might suppose that "the lasting" could not be founded or brought into being. By definition we are accustomed to think of the lasting as that which exists in complete independence from us. This paradox takes us far into Heidegger's thought. Already in Sein und Zeit he made it clear that he believes Being, or the lasting, must be revealed in order to exist. One way to understand—if not necessarily to agree with—this point is to see that Being has no past. It is only the revealed. "What remains will therefore never be drawn from the transitory." It is the job of the poet, particularly, to "found" the lasting over and over again. Poetry, consequently, is "real" in the highest sense, and the poet is the priest of the real.

The word "priest" is nearly appropriate here. Heidegger writes: "The poet names the gods and names all things in that which they are." We hear much about the gods in Heidegger, particularly in his discussions of Hölderlin's poetry, and although we are never given a definition of "gods," through context we are made to feel their "presence" as the highest expressions of Being. They are lasting; yet they are attainable only by the naming of things "in that which they are." It is not, Heidegger points out, that an arbitrary name must be provided for what is, but that an "essential word" must be found to open up the reality, the Being, of each thing. (pp. 25-7)

The poet, who names the reality in which the gods are, projects himself farther into reality than do other men. In fact, he becomes a demigod, one who experiences Being and returns as a revealer of Being to other men. This is hard work. For not only are true poetry and the true poet rare, but in our time true poets must endure the temporary absence of the gods. The poet, as poet, exists between the "vanished gods" and the "coming gods." Heidegger admires Hölderlin's dramatization of this situation of the poet, in his own poetry, and elaborately analyzes that aspect of Hölderlin. (p. 28)

The "point" at which the gods appear in poetry—rather, in art in general—is more precisely plotted in "Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes."… This long essay inquires what is the Being in art. Heidegger considers the joining and strife of world and earth the structure of Being in art, thus the "point" at which the gods may appear. Earth, here, means the unformed, inert component which the artist "uses" for his work, and which is called medium. World means the "world" of attitudes and traditions, in short, the "spiritual" ambience which the work radiates. Heidegger describes this art-world in a Greek temple. Before the temple was built, there had been only a potential: carrying plateau, a blue sky, and the sea in the distance. After the temple is built, the nature surrounding it is defined, made accessible. The people who use the temple are given a distinct vision of the reality around it and a defining center for their own experience. "Through its presence the temple gives things their first form, and it gives men their first view of themselves." Being a work of art means presenting such a world. But "the work as work is in its essence producing." The work lets the earth step forth in all its massiveness, and "the producing of the earth fulfills the work, in which it returns itself into the earth." The world in the artwork is continually drawing the medium forth, while the medium pulls the world back into it. This is the strife of world and earth which is for Heidegger the structure of Being in art. A mere thing or a tool distinguishes itself from artworks by its lack of poised strife. The mere thing is all earth without radiance, Heidegger believes. The tool has a world; it springs from creative effort to form a medium. But that is an effort to use (in effect to misuse) the medium, not to deploy it in its own character. Only the artistic work lives from a tensile, but mutually respecting, relation of world and earth.

In these terms Heidegger speaks of the truth of the artwork. In his essay "Von Wesen der Wahrheit" … he defends the idea of truth as revelation rather than as conformity of "thought to thing." To put it briefly, he holds that truth is the unveiling of Being and exists only in our creative relationship to Being. The truth of art is also revelatory: "Thus it is a question, in the work, not of the reproduction of an individual existence, which happens to be present, but much rather of the general essence of things." The artist must release all things in their totality into the openness of Being. This he does by bringing into play the strife of world and earth. That strife is a model of the "general essence of things," a new world. But it must be created. That creation is an establishment. "The essence of poetry is the establishment of the truth." For, as Heidegger has said before, the poets "found" what lasts. Whether Heidegger calls that "lasting," "gods," or "truth," he means one thing: that Being which lies under each existing thing and needs only to be revealed.

The chief problem for Heidegger's philosophy of human existence, a problem with which he struggled as early as Sein und Zeit, lay in its denial of norms for, and outside of, that existence. In that book, Heidegger tried to read the phenomena … of human existence and to chart the realms of authentic and inauthentic existence. Yet he tried to make that charting without reference to god or nature, standards outside existence in terms of which measurement and comparison with existence would be possible. He tried to explain how existence authenticates itself in the process of existing: such self-authentication consisted in accurate self-discovery through acts of the self. For Heidegger denied that man has even a definable essence which he can discover and employ as a norm: he may only bring his essence into play through act. In Heidegger's terms, existence precedes essence. Heidegger would go no further toward prescribing even an inner norm than to repeat Goethe's paradoxical exhortation: "become what you are."

It is no wonder, then, that this problem reappears in Heidegger's aesthetics. (pp. 28-30)

He seems to be tempted, but no more than that, to consider poetry a self-certifying, self-sufficient activity. From the outset, he sees language as a bridge cast off into the open, detached from what it was originally supposed to "name." We feel that language may be left to wander through reality like a ship without a rudder or a pilot. We may look, for example, at the discussion of Hölderlin's "Heimkunft" in Erlaüterungen zu Hölderlins Dichtung. There the poet describes the joyfulness of the Bodensee as he crossed it on his return to Swabia. He describes the lake itself as joyful. Heidegger appreciates and "defends" this description; he asks in effect how long we will assume that things and our feelings or descriptions of things are different, that a lake is something other than what we name it or what we "feel" in its presence. Why do we talk so piously of the "reality" of some un-named body of water, as yet unknown to man, which we now call the Bodensee? Language creates reality. Language creates a world. By such creation man testifies to his own existence.

Such testimony is a self-sufficient act. Yet Heidegger is not content with that formulation, any more than he has ever been content with an extreme of "subjectivism." He will not entirely agree that poetry certifies itself, bears its own credentials. For speech has a direction. At least the highest speech, poetry, is an effort to carry on a dialogue with the gods. And since the poet is commissioned to bring back news of the gods to other men, we judge that those gods are a universal good and an end of speech. But not only does poetry, as speech, work out from its own center in a direction. For, as has been seen, "the gods can acquire a name only by addressing and, as it were, claiming us. The word which names the gods is always a response to such a claim." The poet's direction through speech is not only not fortuitous, but is guided "upwards" by the gods.

I have also observed that this is not the only concession made by Heidegger to the danger of considering linguistic creativity a self-authenticating adventure into the openness of Being. Artistic truth, the "point" where the gods enter art, is, in Heidegger's ontology, another more-than-artistic structure which serves as a kind of norm for art. Yet are we to consider this primarily a norm "inside" or "outside" of art? What kind of standard for art is being considered? It may help in grasping this particular norm if we look at another example from Heidegger's thought. In his description of the structure of existence, in Sein und Zeit, he spoke of inauthentic and authentic existence. Authentic existence was in accordance with the nature of one's self, as Heidegger described that nature. Inauthentic existence was basically a loss of self. It may seem that Heidegger confronts us with a "normal" judgment here, in the traditional sense of the word. Yet he emphatically rejects that way of envisaging his problem. Moral judgments rely on the application to human existence of concepts which are presumed to have an "absolute" existence independent of human existence, of concepts like "goodness" or "justice." For Heidegger such conceptual externality disqualifies moral judgments from any relevance to the radical existential context of each existence, its attribute of being-in-the-world. That being so, he limits the norm of authenticity to the "inside of" Being. His notion of art-truth is a norm for art only in the sense that authenticity is a norm for existence. The artist and his work must strive to reach a tense poise of medium (earth) and world, in which the essence of things will be realized. This act of realizing, as we have seen, is simply the bringing into clarity and definiteness of the network of "relations" which are founded by the artwork. As an act it occurs totally "within" the work of art, or in the artist's creation of it. The art-truth thereby produced is a quality which can at least be thought apart from the purely aesthetic existence of the work. But it is a norm which cannot be applied from outside. It is an element in the internal creative or appreciative experiencing of the work.

In his notions of gods and art-truth, Heidegger tries to treat the problem of aesthetic norms without violating his conviction that art is a "world of its own." He sets out directions, or paths, through the open, and yet preserves for the latter its "open" quality. Even Heidegger's idea of the claim which the gods make—a "word from beyond" to the extent that Heidegger ever hears one—is a minor confinement of the openness of Being. For the gods exist only by the grace of speech, and therefore can be external to it only paradoxically. (pp. 30-3)

A poet must reach the gods through poetry: Heidegger tells us this. But as the poet works experientially into his verse he will find that nature, as distinct in the broadest sense from what man has made, will be the matrix of the gods. Here, I believe, we moderns have had our own literary experience. We have seen attempts to create technical divinities, gods of the machine, or mythologies of utopian society. But these efforts have on the whole been unsuccessful, because they have not arisen from intimately human preoccupations. Mechanism and society cling to the peripheries of the self's consciousness. Only the natural context from which we have emerged and to which we return can elicit our deepest affinities to it through all our powers of knowledge. When we are able again to name the essence of things artistically, our naming will illuminate natural deities. They will be its gods.

Many directions are possible to us, and they are worth at least brief envisaging. In following the bent of our deepest form of knowing we may recommence with a form of the Greek vision: art's truth-making may again enable sky, sea, sun, and moon to burst into named divinity. If so, we shall be less imitating the Greeks than rejoining them in a deep form of self-expression. The forces that join and maneuver natural phenomena may find holy names: energy, love, transcendence may in some form become the new names. Or, in terms of "natural" experiences, we may find a new vision. For us that finding may take a long time, but for Being—as Heidegger reminds us—it will not be a long time. Being has only a present and no past.

In some such terms I read the continuing intention of Heidegger's notion of gods as poetic norms. His own thought recurs frequently to the Hellenic model, and yet is deeply rooted in the "present." Perhaps the Greek mythological vision reoccurs simply because we cannot conceive another. Newness, that which yet comes, is by definition unpredictable. Prediction will not help on that which yet comes, either. It seems the solution cannot be that easy. For, as Heidegger has said, only the poet's patient standing near to the roots of his being will help. In the meantime, though, prophesy at least keeps our minds on the importance of inner norms for poetry. It reminds us that art-truth, even as the revelation which Heidegger calls it, is not complete. It is the light in which the gods, those forms of existence which have most concerned us, can reappear. And it is thus, I think, the key to the infinite gravity of art as an undertaking. (pp. 34-5)

Frederic Will, "Heidegger and the Gods of Poetry," in The Personalist (reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XLIII, No. 2, April, 1962 (and reprinted in a slightly different form in his Literature Inside Out: Ten Speculative Essays, The Press of Western Reserve University, 1966, pp. 25-35).

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