Martin Heidegger

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L. L. Duroche

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The influence of Martin Heidegger on recent German letters has so far outweighed that of any other contemporary German thinker and has had such a profound influence on so many aspects of contemporary German thought that it is only to be expected that German literary criticism and literary theory have also felt the impact of his thinking. Without a doubt, the contribution of Heidegger to modern philosophical thinking surpasses that of any other contemporary philosopher. His work represents in a very true sense a "Copernican turn"; especially significant and probably the most important direct (intended) contribution is Heidegger's "ex-centric" emphasis in the analysis of human existence, the phenomenological attempt to see man "amidst" all that-which-is (Seiendes), to see human Dasein from a perspective other than simply man, from a different "ground", and thereby to overcome the Cartesian subjectivity, the solipsism and the humanism that have been a sore point in Western philosophy since Descartes. Considering factors such as these, it would seem amiss not to focus our attention on the thinking of Heidegger. (pp. 68-9)

[What is my] evaluation of Heidegger's contribution to literary criticism and theory? Beginning with the concept of the "holy",… I would say the following: It is difficult to imagine that criticism which consistently asked the question "What actually did the poet, a past age, another civilization, find to be holy?" would be anything other than Problemgeschichte and not the most exciting Problemgeschichte at that! Yet Heidegger himself at one time suggested that all literary history is Problemgeschichte. Such criticism remains too much bound up with our own historic being, and in trying to decide matters for ourselves—for example, the "problem" of death, or time, or ethical guilt and moral responsibility—we turn to the answers of other ages. In this sense, criticism is not concerned so much with the nature of poetry as such as with the nature of man. Here we are once again back at a central problem of the literary theorist: Where does literary criticism leave off and philosophical anthropology begin? (pp. 101-02)

The problem, as so many problems raised by Heidegger, is an intricate and involved one, central to all serious discussion of literary criticism. "Is poetry better because it is more philosophical?" The question has been of particular interest in this century, or perhaps more accurately, since the fall of systematic philosophy. There are those who say that philosophical content is of no importance whatsoever. Heidegger and those whom he has influenced seem to say that intellectual content is all-important. (p. 102)

I do not deny Heidegger his right to emphasize whatever aspect of poetry he wishes, as long as I am not asked by Heidegger … or anyone else, to consider automatically every utterance concerning literature to be literary criticism. Here we come to the important question of what the relation of literary criticism is to the other disciplines? In terms of the present study, the question must be asked in the following manner: What is the kinship of poetry to philosophy? Or more specifically still: Can or ought literary criticism expect anything at all from Heidegger's work; and if so what, and from which part? (p. 103)

It is a point of fact that Heidegger has written a good deal on poetry, not only on the poet Hölderlin (which essays are best known), but also on Rilke, George and Trakl. In commenting upon these poets Heidegger is actually advancing his own interpretation of himself, giving an exposition of his own views. The question is, must I consider what he does literary criticism simply because he uses...

(This entire section contains 3061 words.)

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poets to elucidate his own work? Must the literary scholar feel under obligation to appropriate the work of the philosopher for himself? Logical extensions of such a practice would lead to absurdities: what happens with the psychoanalyst with a purely clinical interest in literature, or the ancient historian, cultural anthropologist, etc.? Do such writers create literary criticism? In the matter of the epistemological foundations of literary criticism a great deal is solved if we can come to a decision whether literary criticism ought to borrow its methods from the other disciplines—from art history, psychology, sociology, philosophy—or develop its own, independently of the other disciplines. What might be thought of as the German view, if the reader permits a generalization, is that appropriate method is philosophically determined and can be developed only out of the subject matter itself. There is probably here, too, a middle way between extremes, an attitude that would permit the critic to use anything and everythingthat is of relevance but which, at the same time, insists that literary critical methods are sui generis.

When Heidegger judges Hölderlin, his judgment is made from a point of view different from that of the literary historian; it is the philosopher's point of view. The literary scholar must not forget that when he in turn passes judgment on what the philosopher has said. Heidegger is after all not really concerned with poetry as such, but only with poetry produced by a type of Dasein seeking the revelation of Being (the "holy"), with poetic existence. What [his detractors] do not seem to realize is that Heidegger is not penetrating to the "essence" of poetry at all, and in a sense is not even trying to. It is obvious, for example, that Heidegger is not undertaking a phenomenological analysis of the structure of the literary work, is not aiming at the recognition of the "essential predicables" that belong to the individual phenomenon Dichtung. I may generalize from his remarks concerning "poetic existence", they can be applied with more or less success to all Dasein; but I cannot generalize from his comments on poetry to the nature of all poetry. Heidegger himself believes it is impossible to gather together into a universal concept what the "essence" of poetry is, to construct a concept valid at all times and in all places, and arrive at an "essence" that is anything other than meaningless.

What Heidegger really means by the "essence" of poetry is "What is the essence of the poetic act?" This he hopes to find in the poet such as Hölderlin who writes about the poet's profession. But it is poetry as the expression of a particular kind, a "poetic" kind of Dasein that interests Heidegger. As with the critic, it is his right and duty to turn to whatever is relevant to his task. Too often the movement of ideas is from the thinker to the poet; we should feel indebted that Heidegger has rediscovered the strong existential ties between philosophy and poetry. In one sense it is unfair to object to such statements as "The Thinker utters Being. The poet names what is holy", or the even more notorious phrase "that a poet is all the more a poet, the more a thinker he is". We must use what insights we find in the work of the philosopher and not lament the fact that we are unable to take over everything he has done. The one thing we must not do is to let the philosopher outline our goals for us.

In contrast to the concept of the "holy", Heidegger's remarks on the nature of language are pregnant with meaning for the critic. What Heidegger is exploring in his remarks on language … is the relation between the "Expressed" and the "Inexpressible", the relation between language and Being. All that is "utterable" rests upon what cannot be uttered. To penetrate to the Ineffable is to disclose the secret, the true Being of the work of art…. This could well serve as the motto for every critic: The secret of true interpretation is to penetrate to what must remain "unspoken". But such a statement, is it really much different from the equally oracular utterance of Brice Parrain? "Le langage n'est qu'un moyen pour nous attirer vers son contraire qui est le silence et que est Dieu." Le silence—what is it? It is nothing more than das Nichts of Heidegger, which "as the other in regard to beings is the veil of Being" (als das Andere zum Scienden ist der Schleier des Seins). What is the relation between each and how do we adequately express it? What, in other words, is the nature of language? The question is not only Heidegger's, the problem is universal. Every serious poet must have asked himself the question at one time or another, and so must have every serious critic. Some poets have despaired for lack of an answer.

The problem may be universal, but it is also typical, typical of Heidegger's own time…. Modern poetry from early symbolism, through Expressionism, up to the present day has been tormented by the problem of language. The "Lord Chandos Letter" of Hofmannsthal rings with the spiritual anguish of a poet asking himself what language can and cannot do. Heidegger, in raising the question, is wrestling with the same problem that bothered so many of his contemporaries. Unlike a Lord Chandos, he does not despair, but persists in his attempt to come to grips with language. Out of the struggle rise brilliant, bold ideas: Language is a very specific example of how Truth is made "open" for us; "in a sense Truth is established for Dasein only in relation to the Word". The poetic act is the act of "naming", and it is, we are told, "only through naming [that] 'things' can become our own … [that] there can be transmitted to us and be made apparent how individual peoples have 'understood' themselves as being-in-the-world. In the Word the relation to the Gods takes on concrete form; and where the Word transcends simple Naming we find the foundations of cult, religion, poetry."

Certainly Heidegger has sharpened our awareness of some important aspects of language, his remarks are suggestive, he does strive valiantly to push beyond the border "where mystery begins". But does he help the critic? In a qualified sense, yes; for criticism must at some point recognize the nature of poetry and poetic language and separate it from the chatter of everyday speech. It may not be the task of the literary interpreter to articulate explicitly in some separate place his thought on theoretical matters; such speculation is methodologically prior in time to the critical act itself, but criticism should never occur without it. Here is one point where the relevance of philosophy to criticism is direct and obvious. Any criticism other than a purely arbitrary and subjective one has its own theoretical bases, implicit or explicit: Responsible criticism must be aware of its theoretical principles. Yet few are the critics who develop entirely independently their own first principles. For all others philosophy clearly can serve as handmaiden. It is in this light that we should consider Heidegger's remarks on the nature of language.

Probably even more suggestive than Heidegger's notion of language are the existentialia, the modes of Being, or "categories" of human existence, that Heidegger outlines in Sein und Zeit. (pp. 103-07)

In any attempt to apply the categories of human existence to literature, the critic must proceed with caution. If the "categories" are to be used, then I must ask myself how they are to be used. Furthermore, I must try once more to come to terms with the problem of "authentic existence" as a literary criterion (poetic existence is one manifestation of authentic existence). Can the category of authentic (eigentlich) existence be used in literary criticism? Can I justifiably speak of "genuine" as opposed to "artificial" experience? Although Heidegger himself does not use eigentlich and uneigentlich in any evaluative sense, the critic can hardly keep from doing so and thereby involves himself, almost involuntarily, in the problem of literary evaluation. To use the category of "authentic existence" in literary evaluation is to apply a moral criterion as a standard of judgment. This is what the critic must avoid. Insofar as the poet is truly concerned with an existential understanding of himself or existential attitudes are reflected in his work, the "categories" can be applied in interpretation to help open up the work; they can provide a necessary link between the biography of the poet and his poetic creation. I must ask myself, "Does the poet truly attempt to interpret, consciously or unconsciously, the meaning of his existence, the meaning of his world and his relation to the world in an existential way?" If he does not, then I have no right, on the basis of the absence of such an interpretation, to reject the poet as an insignificant poet. Here the line must be drawn very clearly between interpretation and evaluation, and the categories of existential concern must not be used as evaluative criteria for what is not present in the poem.

I would make a distinction between existential criticism and existentialistic criticism. The first is concerned directly with ontic problems, with the problems of Dasein…. The second brand of criticism is ontologically oriented (seinsgeschichtlich) and seeks out the ways in which Being is revealed through poetry (e.g., Heidegger's Hölderlin studies). The former seems the more legitimate; it applies the categories of anxiety, guilt, conscience, resolve, etc., mainly in interpretation. Heidegger evaluates, suggesting that the presence or absence of a partial revelation of Being may be decisive in determining whether or not a poet's work shall be transmitted.

The matter is complicated by the fact that literature may be divided in the same way: Some may be existential, some existentialistic. In a sense, all great literature is truly existential in that it is concerned with the human condition. But literary works can be existential (i.e., existentialistic) in a narrower sense in that they represent outgrowths of a definite cultural movement at a specific point in time, known by the name of Existentialism. A literature directly stimulated by the specific ideas and attitudes of Existentialism as a cultural movement brings with it separate problems for the critic. (pp. 107-08)

It is my belief, however, that literary criticism is above all parties and programs; it is neither "existential" nor "existentialistic". The question remains: Does Existentialphilosophie hold possibilities for literary criticism? Although Heidegger and others would undoubtedly disagree, I must reject all partisan approaches and insist that until they are worked out more carefully the proper use of the "categories of existence" is in interpretation and not in evaluation.

Approaching Heidegger from the point of view of the literary critic, one must recognize immediately the importance of his work. But one must also understand exactly where the importance lies. The importance lies, I suggest, only partly in any "existential" analysis of man and expressions of man (poetry). Just as important, if not more so, is the revision and renewal of the ontological question itself. Undoubtedly the one who can profit most from the fundamental thinking of Heidegger is not the literary critic but the aesthetician and literary theorist. Insofar as all disciplines are based on some ontological doctrine, any attempt to revise the ontological foundation of our thinking will affect all the sciences. This is as true for literary science as it is for applied mechanics. Thus the literary theorist, even the literary critic, insofar as the two cannot be separated, should heed Heidegger and realize that much of what he has to say about epistemology and the foundation of science in general applies to the business of criticism as well…. As Heidegger states it: "What the sciences accomplish, ideally speaking, is an approximation to the essential nature of all things". To ask what is the essential nature of the thing and to attempt to get as close as possible to it—this is exactly what literary theory tries to do, especially the theory of literary evaluation, in conjunction with the theory of interpretation (the two branches of literary theory which affect literary criticism most directly) and where it seems least to succeed. (pp. 108-09)

It may be true that literary study cannot accomplish its goal as easily or obviously as do the natural sciences; nevertheless, even if literary scholarship cannot be as "exact" as the natural sciences, it must remain as "strict" (as rigorous) in its method as the other disciplines. Exactitude is not to be confused with strictness. In fact, one is led to believe that where the dangers of subjectivity and impressionism are so great, strictness of method is all the more in order. This is why it is so important that the literary scholar reflect on the metaphysical foundation of his discipline and strive continuously to clarify his concepts and definitions of artistic truth, reality, and related problems. The truly salient point in all that Heidegger has to say is, I believe, that positive essences (not only the negative ones like Death and Guilt) should be reexamined to discover what aesthetic Selbstverständlichkeiten [things which are self-evident] are based upon.

The weaknesses of Heidegger's literary theory are obvious. As stimulating as the concept of the "holy" may be, it is nonetheless an irrelevant criterion. It is the philosopher's criterion and cannot satisfy the literary critic. Many great writers do help open up the depths of human experience, pointing to what is "holy" and of direct relevance to man's Being; but Heidegger can do little more than point with them. There are aspects of the analysis that are more important. Heidegger's reflections on the nature of truth are among the most profound contributions made to modern philosophy. The literary critic and the aesthetician are almost compelled to agree with Heidegger: Artistic truth can hardly be something seated simply in the intellect; its source must be something outside us, a force that breaks in upon our lives. The truth of poetry cannot be reduced to propositions.

The most important effect of Heidegger on German literary study has been to enliven methodological discussions in Germany and to revive the questions of principles and the metaphysical foundation of our work. It is for this reason that the literary theorist will undoubtedly profit more. But insofar as theory is ultimately inseparable from practice and practice becomes dilettantism without theory, both theorist and critic have an obligation to hear out Heidegger. (pp. 110-11)

L. L. Duroche, "Philosophy and Criticism: Heidegger's 'Existentialphilosophie'," in his Aspects of Criticism: Literary Study in Present-Day Germany (© copyright 1967, Mouton & Co. N.V., Publishers; reprinted by permission of the author), Mouton Publishers, 1967, pp. 67-111.


Frederic Will


J. Glenn Gray