William V. Spanos

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2186

Martin Heidegger's philosophical thought has been a guiding presence on the European continent for half a century, having influenced virtually every area of the human sciences from psychology to art in what must be called a revolutionary way. And, yet, a meaningful understanding of the enormous importance of his thinking, especially of his unmethodical methodological impulse, which informs the more immediately appealing "existential analytic" in Being and Time (Sein und Zeit, 1927) and his later ontological meditations in such texts as Holzwege (1936–46), Vorträge und Aufsätze (1936–53), Gelassenheit (1944–55), and Unterwegs zur Sprache (1950–59), is still limited in the United States and England to a small community of philosophers who have responded to the crisis of the human sciences. This is the case despite the important ground broken by the American schools of theology, above all by Union Theological Seminary during the postwar (Tillichean) period, and, more recently, by publishers such as Harper and Row and Northwestern University Press, which have made translations of this work and commentary on it available to Anglo-American scholars.

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It is true, of course, that along with the recent emergence of a sense of the crisis of knowledge, Heidegger's presence is now coming to be felt, however tentatively, by some American scholars professing the other humanities, especially literary studies. But this Heidegger, by and large, is the one appropriated, by way of Friedrich Nietzsche, by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and the Belgian literary critic Paul de Man and their followers—critics such as J. Hillis Miller, Joseph N. Riddel, Eugenio Donato, Samuel Weber, among others. He is, in other words, the deconstructed Heidegger, "saved" from the metaphysics that, according to them, it was his project to de-center and surpass, but which he failed to accomplish. He is the "post-Structuralist" Heidegger, who, finally, points the way to deconstructive literary criticism, the free-play of a decentered écriture against the logocentric parole. However viable this appropriation of Heideggerian thought may be … the fact remains that Heidegger's work itself has not "spoken" to American literary critics directly. It is, therefore, the purpose of this "gathering" of essays [Martin Heidegger and the Question of Literature: Toward A Postmodern Literary Hermeneutics (edited by Spanos)] not only to introduce Heidegger's destructive hermeneutic thinking as it pertains to the question of literary interpretation and criticism to the serious writers, readers, interpreters, and critics of literature in the English-speaking world, but also to suggest, by way of example, some of the significant aspects of the problematic distinction—not yet made explicit, as far as I know—between the phenomenological Heidegger and the post-Structuralist Heidegger, that is, between the "destructive" and "deconstructive" possibilities for literary hermeneutics that his thought has opened up.

But the purposes of this gathering go deeper than merely to introduce to the Anglo-American literary community another provocative voice contributing to the current dialogue on the philosophy of literature. Heidegger's Destruktion of what he has called the Western onto-theo-logical tradition as it developed from his masterpiece Being and Time to his later meditations on poetic language as the saying of being was, despite the well-known problematic "turn" (Kehre) after Being and Time, a continuing explorative effort to overcome what Husserl, before him, called the "crisis of European thought," generated by the hardening of ontological inquiry. For in fulfilling its informing imperative to perceive meta-ta-physica (from after or beyond or above things-as-they-are) or, to use the significantly analogous rhetoric valorized by Modernist literary criticism, to spatialize temporality, the metaphysical tradition "comes to its end" in the modern period—the time of the world picture (Weltbild), as Heidegger aptly calls our detemporalized age of technology [in his essay "Die Zeit des Weltbildes" in Holzwege]. More specifically, in fulfilling its historical mission in the triumph of technological method, that is, in succeeding by way of re-presentation (Vorstellung) to Enframe (ge-stellen) physis and thus virtually to transform the earth (die Erde) into standing reserve (Bestand), metaphysics finally succeeds in imposing its will to power over being or rather the be-ing of being. To adapt Michel Foucault's useful rhetoric to Heidegger's project, in initially assuming the privileged status of the en-compassing eye in the pursuit of truth, metaphysics finally becomes in the modern period a self-generating, in-clusive, and monolithic discourse that does not simply over-look the "truth" of temporal process but, in fact, super-vises panoptically, as it were, the difference generated by the temporality of being and thus coerces the "text" of existence into an abiding Identity or Presence. Metaphysics as discourse or … as method, thus comes "full circle." It "achieves" the re-collective—and recuperative—dream of Western philosophers from Plato through Augustine to Descartes, Hegel, and Bentham: the forgetting of being (die Seins-vergessensheit)—and the "accomplishment" of what Heidegger, alluding to the logocentric myth inscribed in all the supplements of the ontotheological tradition, refers to as Western man's "spirit of revenge" against the "transience of [fallen] time."

In thus remembering the be-ing of being that a recollective panoptic metaphysics "forgets" or, to use another important Heideggerian metaphor, in dis-covering the be-ing of being from the oblivion in which a fulfilled metaphysics and its calculative measure has buried it, Heidegger's destructive/projective thought appears more and more, we are beginning to recognize, like a Copernician Revolution. It is in this sense that his paradoxical hermeneutic project "to surpass" (überwinden) the metaphysical tradition by way of a demystification of the logos and retrieval or repetition (Wiederholung) of ontological beginnings (not as "absolute origin" but in the sense of "in-the-midst," of "occasion," as it were) can be called postmodern.

As such, it seems to me—and, in various degrees of explicitness, to all the other contributors to this volume—Heidegger's thought, especially on human understanding and linguistic interpretation, constitutes a remarkable parallel in recent philosophical inquiry to the essential formal activity of contemporary, or what is now coming to be called, however problematically, "postmodern," literature. I am referring, of course—to name only the most obvious—to fiction such as Samuel Beckett's Watt, Jorge Luis Borges' Ficciones, John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Donald Barthelme's The Dead Father; to plays such as Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Eugene Ionesco's Victims of Duty, Jean Genet's The Blacks, Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; and to poetry such as Wallace Stevens's "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," William Carlos Williams's Paterson, Charles Olson's The Maximus Poems, Robert Creeley's Pieces, Edward Dorn's Gunslinger, and A. R. Ammons's Tape for the Turn of the Year. For, like Heidegger's destructive hermeneutics, this is, in the phrase Wallace Stevens appropriates from Simone Weil, a "decreative" literature. It is a literature, in other words, that simultaneously destroys the received forms (and their rhetorics) inherited from the Tradition—forms that are recognized as agencies of the general will to power deeply inscribed in the Western mind—and, in the process, dis-closes or opens up projective possibilities for a "new" poetics, a poetics of and for our occasion.

As in the case of Heidegger's thought, the emergent "measure" of this "postmodern" poetics is not, as it is in the poetics of the tradition, modeled on a music that has its ultimate source in a centered universe. It is not, for example, the stately, ceremonial, and predictable measure of the Elizabethan poet Sir John Davies…. Nor is it the nostalgic and distancing "Byzantine" measure of the Modern poet W. B. Yeats—the ego-centric measure, that is, of the polis of Art that becomes the supplément of the old logocentric measure of the Civitas Dei…. It is, rather, the de-centered and generous measure enacted in … Charles Olson's The Maximus Poems—a measure that, like Heidegger's … "owes" much to the pre-Socratics…. In a phrase of Robert Creeley's that echoes Wallace Stevens, its measure is "the measure of its occasion." That is, as the etymology suggests—from occasus ("the setting of the sun"), which, with the word "case," ultimately derives from the ablative form of cadere ("to fall," "to drop," as of the setting of heavenly bodies, and "to fall," "to perish," "to die")—it is, whether it takes the form of the periplus of Olson's poetry or the "free-play" of Beckett's prose, the eccentric measure of mortality or, in Heidegger's rhetoric, of "dwelling" in the context of mortality:

Poetry is presumably a high and special kind of measuring. But there is more…. To write poetry is measure-taking, understood in the strict sense of the word, by which man first receives the measure for the breadth of his being. Man exists as a mortal. He is called mortal because he can die…. Only man dies—and indeed continually, so long as he stays on this earth, so long as he dwells. His dwelling, however, rests on the poetic. Hölderlin sees the nature of the "poetic" in the taking of the measure by which the measure-taking of human being is accomplished.

As such, it is the primordial measure of the West, of the Abendland—a westering measure, as it were—gradually forgotten since Homer and Heraclitus (according to both Heidegger and Olson, postmodern thinker and poet) in the hardening process that has characterized the history of the ontotheological tradition…. For another etymological root of "occasion" is, of course, the cognate occidere (which "means" both "to fall," especially "to set" or "to wester," as in the case of the "movement" of the sun, and "to die," "to perish") from the present participle of which (occidens) the English word "occident" derives.

Given, therefore, the continuing authority of the formalist interpretive orientation of the New Criticism in literary studies and broader semiotic contexts—an authority in the process of being, not superseded as it is misleadingly claimed, but the-oretically shored up by Structuralist poetics—Heidegger's project … has much to teach contemporary literary critics who are responding positively to the crisis of criticism. What it offers is not simply an interpretation of understanding and a rhetoric capable of suggesting what the New Criticism is driven by its enclosed horizon, by the blindness of its insight, as it were, to condemn as manifestations of the "fallacy of imitative form": the experiments in open, or, as I prefer to call them, "dis-closive" or "de-structive," forms of much of the most dynamic and powerful contemporary writing; forms whose mastered irony assigns us as readers to ourselves and activates rather than nullifies consciousness of being-in-the-world as our case…. Heidegger's project also, and perhaps even more importantly, points to modalities of literary hermeneutics capable, in their willingness to remain "in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reading after fact and reason," of leading criticism out of the impasse into which the will to power of the metaphysical tradition has driven it. Indeed it promises a re-vitalization of the literary tradition, which, in having become reified, has transformed the originary explorative and/or playful activity of understanding into a secondary or derivative and finally coercive methodological confirmation of unexamined formal and ontological logocentric presuppositions. In Ezra Pound's misunderstood formulation of the post-modern imperative,… Heidegger's destructive/projective hermeneutics promises to "make it [the tradition] new." (pp. x-xv)

Western literature or, at least, Western literary criticism, if it has not already come to its end, is moving toward closure as it comes increasingly, like Western philosophy, to assert its will to power over the being of the "text," that is, to fulfill the formalist imperatives of its determining logos, the imperatives of a hermeneutics in which Form (Being) is ontologically prior to temporality, Identity to difference, the Word to words. Like Heidegger, therefore, they feel that the time has long since come to call into question—to dis-cover—what Heideggerians call the unexamined privileged status of "metaphysical" or "spatial" presuppositions and Derrideans, the "nostalgic" and "recuperative" logocentric assumptions that silently guide traditional hermeneutics. For they recognize, each in their own way, that these unjustified "givens" have increasingly informed the reading and interpretation of literary texts and the "text" of Western literary history in behalf of the certainty of Identity ever since Aristotle, on the model of his Metaphysics, affirmed the plot—the beginning, middle, and determining end (telos)—as the primary constitutive element ("the soul, as it were") of the highest form of poetic discourse, and repose—the annulment of the kinetics of anxiety about difference (catharsis)—as the end of these recuperative teleological formal strategies. (pp. xv-xvi)

[Such] an interrogation of the ontological priority of form over temporality—and its innocent rhetoric of closure—in the hermeneutic process, will suggest "new" hermeneutic modalities that are capable of dis-closing and preserving the mystery of the Earth, or in Derrida's brilliant adaptation, the differance, which is contained or closed off and annulled within the logocentric circle. For this, it is becoming increasingly clear, is the essential imperative of the de-centered world that, to adapt Heidegger's seminal rhetoric from Being and Time, the breaking of the Western epistemological hammer has left postmodern man heir to. (p. xvi)

William V. Spanos, "Martin Heidegger and the Question of Literature: A Preface," in Martin Heidegger and the Question of Literature: Toward a Post-modern Literary Hermeneutics, edited by William V. Spanos (copyright © 1976 by boundary 2), Indiana University Press, 1979, pp. ix-xix.

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