George Steiner

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1685

[Literary] influences were not absent from Heidegger's early work. But it is only in the mid-1930s, under stress of public events and in the conviction that the language of Sein und Zeit had proved inadequate to its innovative, revolutionary purpose, that Heidegger turned fully to Hölderlin. The four readings of Hölderlin that Heidegger gave in the guise of lectures and essays between 1936 and 1944 make up one of the most disconcerting, spellbinding documents in the history of Western literary and linguistic sensibility. Spoken against a backdrop of deepening barbarism and national self-destruction, these commentaries on a number of Hölderlin's major hymns are nothing less than an endeavor to pierce, via a singular kind of textual and critical exegesis, to the last sanctuary of poetic invention, national identity, and human speech itself. As in the resplendent second chorus of Sophocles' Antigone, of which he has published an often arbitrary but profoundly suggestive interpretation, so Heidegger finds in Hölderlin one of those very rare, immeasurably important expressions of man's fallenness, of his ostracism from Being and the gods, and, simultaneously, a statement of this very condition whose truth and lyric power give assurance of rebirth.

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It is in Hölderlin's "Heimkunft" and "Wie wenn am Feiertag …" that the hidden, occluded truth of Being literally reenters into the house of man. The theme of pilgrimage and festive procession in the two hymns enacts a fundamental ontological homecoming. Because he is the "active occasion," the incarnate "clearing" in which Sein deploys its radiant enclosedness, the supreme poet—Pindar, Sophocles, Hölderlin—is pre-eminently the shepherd of Being. In the midst of a nihilism and waste of spirit of which his own vulnerable social and psychological status make him the most acute and also the most endangered of witnesses, it is the poet who, supremely, perhaps even alone, is guarantor of man's ultimate Heimkehr ("homecoming") to natural truth, to a sanctified hearth in the world of beings. (In the closing lines of the Antigone-chorus Heidegger "hears" the implicit, never-to-be exhausted evocation of this hearth.) It is the poet's calling—literal, soulconsuming, imperative to the point of personal ruin—to bring creation into the neighborhood of the divine. For though the gods have left the earth—Hölderlin hymns their going—and though they have abandoned it to its spoilers, they are near still, and light upon it in ardent visitation. Of these, it is the poet who is the immediate object…. But he can do so only briefly and at ultimate risk. Hence Hölderlin's inspired unreason, hence the existential disaster that so often attends on great creative genius—be it Hölderlin's or van Gogh's. It is, furthermore, Hölderlin's own gloss on Antigone as a being doomed by the proximity of the gods into which she has been thrust by her hunger for absolute truth and pure justice that inspires Heidegger's image of the poet as one similarly doomed by his intimacy with the divine.

But although he may part with his reason and his very life, the poet has held Sein in his pastoral guard, and this capture or, rather, reception and offertory acceptance, illumines, validates, and underwrites man's potential in a way that no theology, no metaphysics, no scientific theory, no technological wonder can equal. Authentic poetry, which is exceedingly rare, is "the real estate, the fundamental resource on earth, of man's habitation" ("das Grundvermögen des menschlichen Wohnens"). It is Hölderlin, the driven wanderer, the pilgrim into madness who, of all men, was most at home. (pp. 141-43)

[Hölderlin scholars] have no difficulty in showing that Heidegger's readings are very often indefensible. By etymologizing individual words and phrases, as he does in his own philosophical arguments, by using unreliable or fragmented texts, Heidegger imposes on Hölderlin a strain of nationalist mystique for which the actual poems give little support, and which is the uglier in view of the dates at which Heidegger put forward his gloss. Moreover, Heidegger arbitrarily extends to Hölderlin's earlier works ambiguities of intention and lexical-syntactical idiosyncrasies that only appear in the poet's late, partially "benighted" utterances. Here, as in his notorious "translations" from the pre-Socratics, Heidegger is carrying to violent extremes the hermeneutic paradox whereby the interpreter "knows better" than his author, whereby interpretation, where it is inspired and probing enough, can "go behind" the visible text to the hidden roots of its inception and meaning. This, undoubtedly, is how Heidegger operates, and on the level of normal expository responsibility many of his readings are opportunistic fictions.

But not always. Heidegger's commentary on Stefan George's poem "Das Wort" (in a lecture so entitled and delivered in 1958) seems to me incomparable in its penetration and finesse. If he augments the fitful, reiterative texture of the poems of Georg Trakl, Heidegger's reading of "Ein Winterabend" (in the essay Die Sprache of 1950) is, nevertheless, a marvel of sympathy. Heidegger's analysis of Trakl's oblique uses of tense and of epithets as predicate will stand. The parallel reading of the Antigone-chorus, of which Hölderlin had made a famous "metamorphic" rendering, is of a seriousness and appropriateness to its object of which there are few rival examples in the history of classical scholarship and criticism. Heidegger's proceeding here is analogous to that of Dante when the narrator places, and thus gives new illumination to, a Virgilian or Provençal precedent.

Heidegger is not aiming at textual fidelity in the customary sense. He is attempting to seize, to make audible the presence of Being in that uncanny hazard of total rightness, of time-rooted intemporality which we experience as, which we know to be (but how do we know?) a great poem. He is striving to articulate the paradox, evident in Trakl's best work, through which exceedingly simple, naked words enter into, generate a construct, a music of thought, of insight into the meaning of life which are, literally and demonstrably, inexhaustible. These enigmas of intrinsic gravity, of "everlastingness," of a sum of significance immensely in excess of its manifest constituent parts, are at the heart of poetry and of man's invention of and response to literature. The bulk of textual interpretation and literary criticism leaves them intact or relegates them to a category of reverent cliché. Heidegger faces them head-on. Hence the strangeness and strained "irresponsibility" of some of his findings.

Behind the particular exegesis lies the imperative vision. The poet's speech stiftet das Bleibende ("grounds," "initiates," or "guards," "the enduring"). The poet reenacts the primordial Schöpfung performed by the gods. Such re-enactment entails proximity and rivalry. In some perilous sense the poet is a re-creator who challenges the absent gods, who does their work for them, albeit under the lightning bolt of their spendthrift and jealous visitations. The nerve of poetry is the act of nomination. Authentic poetry does not "imitate," as Plato would have it, or "represent" or "symbolize," as post-Aristotelian literary theory supposes. It names, and by naming makes it real and lasting. The underlying motif here, familiar to Pietist thought, is of Adam's nomination in the Garden of every living thing. When Hölderlin names the Rhine, he neither imitates nor represents it: he "speaks it" in a nomination which gives to it precisely that unfolding, lasting verity and presentness which the builder of dams and the hydrographer decompose and destroy. There can be no valid difference, says Heidegger, between "the poem" and "that which is the poem" (i.e., between the river and Hölderlin's hymn).

Via Sophocles' "openness to the summons of Being," the Sophoclean Antigone herself becomes, herself is "the homecoming, the becoming housed in the condition of unhousedness." And this homecoming, which only the naming by the poet can perform and predicate, enables man to glimpse—to undergo by means of metaphoric prevision, as it were—his own entrance into the dwelling of death. "Mankind dwells poetically, in the condition of poetry" ("Dichterisch wohnet der Mensch"), wrote Hölderlin in a late poem. Heidegger expounds this saying in a lecture in 1952. He sees in it the ultimate, probably the only, hope for a way out from the nihilism of the age. The poet names what is holy; or, rather, his nomination calls from hiddenness, without doing violence to it, that which is still alive in the grimed earth. Poetry is not language in some esoteric, decorative, or occasional guise. It is the essence of language where language is, where man is bespoken, in the antique, strong sense of the word.

Heidegger's meditations on language and logic go back to a paper of 1912 ("Neue Forschungen über Logik"). His encounter with Hölderlin, Sophocles, Rilke, brings the poetic essence of all true speech into the center of his thought. Obsessed with instrumentality, with informational functionality, language has lost the genius of nomination and in-gathering as it is explicit in the original meaning of logos. Denken and dichten, "to think" and "to create poetry," are the two avenues of the logos. "The thinker says Being. The poet names what is holy." In "Das Ereignis" ("The Event"), an unpublished paper of 1941, Heidegger anchors both dichten and denken in danken. To think, to write a poem, is to give thanks for whatever measure of homecoming to Being is open to mortal man. But whereas Heidegger is not certain whether the language of even the best thought can escape from its rationalistic-deterministic imprint—a doubt which he explores sharply in Identität und Differenz (Identity and Difference) of 1957—he is confident that Sein has found its dwelling and its celebration in the work of the great poets.

It does seem to me that Heidegger is, at certain moments, a reader of poetry like no other in our time, a re-enactor of the poem's genesis and meaning who towers above the tired bric-a-brac of literary criticism and academic commentary. Linguistics and the understanding of literature have until now scarcely begun to grasp the wealth and consequence of his proposals. (pp. 143-46)

George Steiner, "The Presence of Heidegger," in his Martin Heidegger (copyright © 1978 by George Steiner; reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin, Inc.), The Viking Press, 1979, pp. 127-58.

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