Agnosco veteris vestigia flammae.
Dido, in Virgil’s Aeneid
Spiritus ubi vult spirat et vocem eius audis sed non scis unde veniat et quo vadat.
der geist geistet wo er wil. du hörest sin stÿme. du enweist aber nit wenn er komet. oder war erfert.
John 3:8, in the Vulgate and a Middle High German translation of it by Meister Eckhart

Several times in Geschlecht III, as well is in the volume Of Spirit, Jacques Derrida notes the following peculiar feature about Martin Heidegger’s reading of the poet Georg Trakl: Heidegger insists that the core of Trakl’s work is more original, more essential, and more promising than anything on offer in the metaphysical and Christian traditions; however, Heidegger’s description of that core (which he himself seems to sign on to) does little more than to repeat the very same content of the these traditions. Heidegger’s discourse, in other words, remains plagued by what it endeavors to purge. And yet, for all that—and at times even despite itself—his reading of Trakl provides a fertile re-reading of the nature of being and of our beleaguered relation to it.

In what follows I will critically examine Heidegger’s interpretation of Trakl, focusing in particular on a possibility it opens up but just as soon forecloses: namely, the idea that spirit is inherently and insuperably riven. Rather than allowing for the inevitability of discord, distress, and dissemination—as his own logic seems to demand—Heidegger tranquilizes the pain of being, turning it into a force of gathering and an actor in a rather conventional three-part drama about ontological history.

I. The Promise

Heidegger’s reading of Trakl is surely the most violent ever offered of the poet, and perhaps the most violent reading the philosopher ever offered as such. In Heidegger’s second essay on Trakl, “Die Sprache im Gedicht: Eine Erörterung von Georg Trakls Gedicht” (in Unterwegs zur Sprache), nearly every key term takes on a new and unfamiliar sense; or rather, the ‘proper’ sense of nearly every key term is resurrected from the ancient tombs of language—the German language above all. The word Erörterung from the subtitle does not mean ‘discussion,’ but ‘emplacement’ or ‘situation.’ But we must be careful, for Ort does not merely signify one spatial coordinate among others, or even one particular locale; it marks the site at which all of Trakl’s poems are gathered together, like the ‘tip,’ or in Old High German the ort, of a spear. We are thus dealing ultimately, not with poetic creations, but with what Trakl has gathered together of being and condensed (ge-dichtet) into song, into a single Gedicht (the typical word for ‘poem’ in German).

In this Gedicht Trakl sings of the soul as ein Fremdes auf Erden, ‘something foreign on earth.’ Heidegger, however, would have us hear fremd auf as Old High German fram ūf: the soul is ‘on the way to the earth.’ Thus, on Heidegger’s etymological re-reading, Trakl is not concerned with the soul’s salvation in heaven, with the soul alone trembling before God alone, hungering for the bread of life and thirsting for the wine of the blood shed for it. The soul is, admittedly, subordinate to Geist, yet Geist does not mean pneuma or spiritus, let alone the Holy Ghost, but rather the archaic *gheis, that which, as such, stands ambiguously outside of itself: on the brink of insurrection, but also on the brink of releasement. We, however, currently live in the throes of Geist, or better in the throes of Geist qua spirit, having forgotten its original twofold essence in favor of the abstracted and absolutized Good of Plato and the abstracted and absolutized God of Christianity, as well as their techno-scientific counterparts.

Our Western Geschlecht has grown decadent and corrupt. But a new dawn looms on the horizon. The time beckons when the sexes, tribes, generations, and species—Geschlecht means all of these, and more besides—will no longer strike out into violence and warfare, but will be folded back into the gentle and harmonious doubleness of times past, or rather of the primeval time before time that marks the time to come, provided we heed its summons.

If there is a single sense to all these old and new senses, it is sense in the spatial sense of direction. The soul, Heidegger contends, is on the way to a promised land with very specific features. It is a land cut off from the degenerate race of Occidental metaphysics and its progeny. But it is not therefore Oriental or otherworldly. It is rather an Abendland held in store for us, or more accurately for some of us. This Abendland is the place for those with ears to hear the proper sense and heed the proper direction of this word (not ‘Occident,’ but ‘land of evening’) and of all the German words Heidegger has been discussing, or rather situating. It is the place of authentic Germany.

But, you might ask, isn’t the English ‘sense’ related to the German Sinn? After all, both words mean not just ‘meaning,’ but ‘direction.’ Yet, we would have to ask in reply, would this matter to Heidegger? Would the border guards of his dreamland therefore grant Anglophones asylum? If they did, wouldn’t they also have to admit the Francophones, who likewise go in the same sens? What, then, would become of Deutschland?

In Heidegger’s drama, we begin Act One in an imagined paradise. But paradise is soon lost, not on account of Satanic pride or envy, but owing to an inflammatory impulse at the heart of being, to a sort of ontological autoimmunity, or, if you will, to an asthma of the spirit. Act Two recounts this lapsarian attack, even as it prophesies purgation for the elect and promises a homecoming. Act Three imagines a paradise permanently regained, where pain does not rend the folds of the one Geschlecht but more firmly mends them together. For all his silence about the genre, Heidegger’s agōn is essentially a comedy.

But what of an epilogue? Would it close the circle with a Dantean presentation of our will and desire “turning with / the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars” (Paradiso XXXIII, 142-145)—or might it instead suggest a sequel?

II. The Promise, Painfully Broken

Heidegger allows for no sequel in his reading of Trakl. To be sure, he never explicitly says the arrival will be permanent, but his promissory, even messianic language readily suggests as much. Before questioning this eschatological thrust in Heidegger’s essay, I should pause for a moment to consider an alternative advanced by Derrida toward the end of Geschlecht III. On Derrida’s reading, what Heidegger promises is not merely a long-awaited return to our proper abode; additionally, Heidegger’s promise of a return is “necessarily and irreducibly the return of the promise. [...] [T]he promise is already the salvation” (171-172). The show, in other words, must go on, and it must continue to go on, as such and evermore.

Now, while valuable in its own right, this interpretation seems to stand in tension with Heidegger’s own text, which frequently points to arrival at specific destinations, and thus to the fulfillment of the promise. Take a few examples from the third and final section of “Die Sprache im Gedicht” (and note the peculiar usage of verbs with ‘in’ followed by accusative objects):

  • “[...] die Zwietracht der Geschlechter einfältig in die sanftere Zwiefalt versammelt.”
  • “[...] die Flamme des Geistes ins Sanfte spricht.”
  • “[...] in die Frühe aufersteht.”
  • “[...] das Menschengeschlecht in sein noch vorbehaltenes Wesen verschlägt, d. h. rettet.” (Unterwegs zur Sprache, 74-76; emphases added)
  • “[...] sim-ply gathers the discord of the Geschlechter into the gentler twofoldness.”
  • “[...] speaks the flame of spirit into gentleness.”
  • “[...] resurrects into earliness.”
  • “[...] strikes, i.e. saves, the human Geschlecht into its essence still held in reserve.”

In either case, though, whether it be as Heidegger develops it or as Derrida deconstructs it, I will argue in this section that the promissory structure of spirit necessitates that such promises be broken, or that perhaps they ought never to have been made in the first place.

Let’s begin with a classic question from the annals of speculative philosophy: why does the One become Many? We can imagine Heidegger’s response: first, he might say, you need to see that there is no One to begin with, or if there is, it’s not the One as you understand it. I’m no Neoplatonist. The One I’m speaking about is always already a gathering of two. Its very nature is twofold. But I’m not some sort of Binitarian either; I’m not advocating two Persons instead of three. As much as my remarks on the onefold/twofold of Geist might be helpful to Christians trying to understand the interrelation of the three hypostases in the one substance, my Geist is fire, and fire is not, or at least not in the first place, the purifying fire of Baptism or the cloven tongues of Pentecost; my flames may just as well flare up into evil as radiate goodness. You wish to know my spiritual fathers? Then put down your Plato, Paul, and Plotinus, and pick up some German theosophy. Here, as with so much else in my essay, Böhme, Baader, and Schelling are my guides.[2]

Still, though, how is it that Heidegger’s duplicitous Geist comes to be discordant? Looking at Heidegger’s diagram in his personal copy of Trakl (see Figure 1 at the end of the paper), if Geist could just as well become releasement (Gelassenheit) and gentleness (das Sanfte), why does it end up in insurrection (Aufruhr)?[3]⁠ Heidegger has no answer. He simply describes: “Geist, understood in this way, essentially holds sway within the possibility of the gentle and the destructive” (Unterwegs zur Sprache, 56). The gentle (or the good of spirit) holds the destructive in check, even as the destructive (or the evil of spirit) threatens to break out “into the ungatheredness of calamity or perdition [das Ungesammelte des Unheilen]” (Unterwegs zur Sprache, 56). Why, though, does it break out? Based on Heidegger’s text, the only answer seems to come in the form of tautology: it breaks out because it breaks out. Evil lies in the nature of being, and, like being, evil is without a reason why. Shit happens.

While this may be unsatisfying to the intellect, it at least takes evil outside the domains of divine and human agency—or, to put it more cautiously: evil, on this account, is not primarily of a theological or anthropological nature. This theoanthropodicy is, incidentally, consistent with earlier treatments of evil in Heidegger’s corpus. Here I do not wish to question it per se; rather, what I would like to question is the role Heidegger assigns it in his history of being, and in particular the possibility that it could be contained as such.

Before the possibility of such containment, another possibility is haunting the origin. It is the possibility that the tender doubling of spirit might become accursed dissension. It is the possibility that pain might not merely gather, but instead shatter and scatter. It is, in short, the possibility of insurrection. Listen to Derrida on the implications such a possibility:

The fact, the factum, or the fatality of division being able to arrive, the fact of this possibility (which, after all, Heidegger recognizes) implies that the structure of that to which this can happen is such that it can happen to it. It thus happens to its structure enough for one to say that this structure is essentially not indivisible but divisible. Besides, in order for it to gather or tend toward gathering, it is necessary that it be divisible and that this divisibility not just be an accident. At bottom, an accident does not happen if the essence cannot be affected by such an accident. If the essence is accidentable, it is a priori accidented [Si l’essence est accidentable, elle est a priori accidentée].⁠ (Geschlecht III, 106)

Derrida is not simply arguing, with Aquinas, that whatever is capable of not being, at some point is not (Summa theologiae I.2.3). Negativity must in fact always already affect the origin. If the origin can be affected by insurrection, insurrection has already affected it.

Since, moreover, we are talking about auto-affection, and not calamity from without, this ‘accidented’ status of Geist is hardly superable. On a dualist model, we could also say that one of the two principles must at some point be affected by the other, and is therefore on some level always already affected. But this need not exclude the possibility of an ultimate triumph of one over the other. (Think, here, of Gnosticism in its various guises.) Such will not work for Heidegger’s model, though, for, despite its many folds, it is still a monism of spirit.

We might compare Heidegger’s model with the similarly com-plicated monism of theosophy, then. Take Schelling, for example, whom Heidegger certainly knew better than Böhme or Baader, and whose influence can be felt throughout Heidegger’s reading of Trakl.[4] But Heidegger can follow Schelling only so far. In the Freiheitsschrift, Schelling shows how, in God, being qua ground (darkness) is inseparably subordinate to being qua existence (light). God, however, in order that he be revealed as the spirit in which these two non-dualistic principles are thus united,[5]⁠ allows for the possibility of their separation and perversion through the freedom of the human being, who, like God, but unlike animals, is also of spirit. Evil occurs as a result of the human being’s freely chosen negation of the divine order and the human being’s assertion of the predominance of the ground in its stead, thus as a sort of insurrection. But this is only temporary. As Scripture prophecies,

The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. [...] And when all things shall be subdued unto him [Jesus], then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him [God] that put all things under him, that God may be all in all [ta panta en pasin]. (KJV, 1 Corinthians 15:26-28)

Or, in Schelling’s terms,

spirit [Geist] is the first being which unified the world of darkness with that of the light and subordinates both principles to its realization and personality. Yet, the ground reacts against this unity and asserts the initial duality, but only toward ever greater increase and toward the final separation of good from evil. The will of the ground must remain in its freedom until all this may be fulfilled and become actual. [...] [T]he end of revelation is casting out evil from the good, the explanation of evil as complete unreality. (404-405/66-67)

The differences between Schelling’s and Heidegger’s accounts should be evident. For Heidegger, evil does not serve as revelation. There is no spiritual God permitting it or gaining anything from it, since, on Heidegger’s model, evil comes before God or gods (at least on the order of principles, cf. Unterwegs zur Sprache, 56). Heidegger’s eschatology no doubt resembles Schelling’s. But what justifies it? Heidegger, unlike Schelling, has no God or principle of revelation to rely on. Heidegger wants resurrection to follow insurrection, but without a savior being foreordained.⁠[6] Why this would follow, and why another fall would not in turn follow it, remain questions without adequate answer.

Heidegger’s analysis of evil is at once distinctive and conventional. Importantly, evil becomes a matter for ontology, but Heidegger’s ontology of evil smacks of the very substance metaphysics he had striven so hard to dismantle. Rather than conceding and articulating the inevitability of insurrection, Heidegger tries to purify the being of spirit and its one Geschlecht—he quarantines a strain for a future free from contamination. Or, in Derrida’s words, he still adheres to “the most continuous grand logic philosophy, which supposes an exteriority between essence and accident, the pure and the impure, the proper and the improper, good and evil” (Geschlecht III, 107).

Heidegger’s analysis of pain bears a similar status. On the one hand, he endeavors to understand pain on a level deeper than physiology or psychology (Unterwegs zur Sprache, 24-25, 58), in terms of what Werner Hamacher has called “Other Pains.”[7] Take the third stanza of Trakl’s “Ein Winterabend”:

Wanderer tritt still herein;
Schmerz versteinerte die Schwelle.
Da erglänzt in reiner Helle
Auf dem Tische Brot und Wein. (Dichtungen und Briefe, 57)
Wanderer, step stilly in
Pain has petrified the threshold
Gleaming there in purest brightness
On the table bread and wine.

Regarding this stanza, and in particular its second line, Heidegger writes, in his first essay on the poet,

Der Schmerz reißt. Er ist der Riß. Allein, er zerreißt nicht in auseinanderfahrende Splitter. Der Schmerz reißt zwar auseinander, er scheidet, jedoch so, daß er zugleich alles auf sich zieht, in sich versammelt. [...] Die dritte Strophe ruft Welt und Dinge in die Mitte ihrer Innigkeit. Die Fuge ihres Zu-einander ist der Schmerz. (“Die Sprache,” in Unterwegs zur Sprache, 24-25)

Pain rends. It is the rending. Only, it does not rend asunder into splinters that drive apart. To be sure, pain does rend apart, it separates, but it does so in such a way that it likewise draws everything to itself, gathers everything into itself. [...] The third stanza summons world and things into the middle of their intimacy. Pain is the jointure of their to-getherness.

On the other hand, Heidegger’s treatment of pain here seems to render it innocuous. All harm is illusory or merely temporary. Pain, properly understood, always serves the higher end of gathering. There may be scars, and we may not be dealing here with absolute knowing, but the wounds of pain, like those of Hegel’s Geist, always heal.

If, however, insurrection is inevitable, so too is shattering pain. Not the pain that “bestows what is essential”—Der Schmerz ist die Gunst des Wesenhaften alles Wesenden (Unterwegs zur Sprache, 60)—but precisely the pain that Heidegger denigrates as superficial semblance: “[w]hat is disturbed, inhibited, calamitous and without the possibility for salvation, all the suffering in what is decaying [Das Gestörte, Verhemmte, Unheile und Heillose, alles Leidvolle des Verfallenden]” (Unterwegs zur Sprache 60).

III. Trakl and the Promise of Pain

Trakl may well have sung of a more tender, less rending pain in some of his poetry, but he is no stranger to the irredeemable pain of loss. Heidegger would have us read all of Trakl’s work under the aegis of triumph—not, to be sure, the triumph of the tortured Christ, which Trakl also sings, but the triumph of a Land and a Geschlecht, or (horribile dictu...) a nation and a humanity, long held in store for the favored. I have, however, argued that the promise of such a triumph hardly follows from Heidegger’s own account of spirit. Moreover, such a triumph hardly follows from the tortured spirit of Trakl’s song. Now, I can hardly prove this here. Instead, I ask, in conclusion, how you hear Trakl’s final poetic words. Is Trakl looking forward to a new birth, as Heidegger claims, or is he lamenting a painful miscarriage, a tragedy of spirit that will soon drive him, not to the poetic sounding of silence, but to the irrevocable silence of suicide?

Am Abend tönen die herbstlichen Wälder
Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen
Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne
Düstrer hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt,
Das vergossne Blut sich, mondne Kühle;
Alle Straßen münden in schwarze Verwesung.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
Zu grüßen die Geister der Helden, die blutenden Häupter;
Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunkeln Flöten des Herbstes.
O stolzere Trauer! ihr ehernen Altäre,
Die heiße Flamme des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,
Die ungebornen Enkel. (“Grodek,” in Dichtungen und Briefe, 94)
At evening the autumn woods issue tones
Of deadly weapons, the golden plains
And blue lakes, over which the sun
Rolls on more gloomily; the night envelops
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their shattered mouths.
Yet quietly in the pasture red clouds,
In which a raging god dwells,
gather up the blood that was shed, lunar chill;
All streets enter the mouth of black decay.
Under golden boughs of night and stars
The shadow of the sister staggers through the silent grove,
To greet the spirits of heroes, the bleeding heads;
And gently in the reeds the dark flutes of autumn resound.
O prouder mourning! you brazen altars,
The hot flame of spirit is nourished today by a mighty pain,
The unborn grandchildren.
Figure 1: Heidegger’s marginal note following Trakl’s “Grodek”Figure 1: Heidegger’s marginal note following Trakl’s “Grodek”
Figure 2: Derrida’s marginalia in his copy of Heidegger’s Acheminement vers la paroleFigure 2: Derrida’s marginalia in his copy of Heidegger’s Acheminement vers la parole


    1. In what follows, all translations for which an English edition is not specified in the Works Cited are my own.return to text

    2. Heidegger writes, “Trakl versteht den Geist nicht zuerst als Pneuma, nicht spirituell, sondern als Flamme, die entflammt, aufjagt, entsetzt, außer Fassung bringt” (Unterwegs zur Sprache, 56). Is this really so incompatible with Christianity, though? Isn’t spirit, as Pneuma Hagion, associated precisely with fire (pur) in Baptism and Pentecost (Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:16, Acts 2:3-4)? Don’t evil spirits (ta pneumata ta ponēra) populate the Bible (Acts 19:13 et passim)? Isn’t God, too, a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29, et passim)? For more along these lines of critique, see Roesner, “De la tautologie. Heidegger et la question de l’esprit.”return to text

    3. Heidegger’s diagram appears after the poem “Grodek” in his personal copy of Trakl, Die Dichtungen, 195 (cf. Unterwegs zur Sprache, 56). In its entirety, the marginal note reads:

      “Geistliche Dämmerung” – : die sanften Flöten des Herbstes

      Flammen: auflodern – leuchten –

      Gelassenheit (das Sanfte)

      Geist – geist[lich] – außer sich <


      “Spiritual Twilight” – : the gentle flutes of autumn

      To flame: flare up – shine –

      releasement (gentleness)

      Spirit – spirit[ual] – outside of self<


      I discuss this and other marginalia in Moore, “For the Love of Detachment” and “Heidegger’s Trakl-Marginalia.”return to text

    4. In Of Spirit, Derrida frequently points to the fact that Heidegger’s reading is “literally Schellingian” (63, 78, 102, 107). Indeed one of the few non-translational words in Derrida’s marginalia to Heidegger’s essay is “Schelling” (see Figure 2 at the end of the paper). Typically, Derrida just provides translations or non-lexical marks.return to text

    5. It would go beyond the scope of this paper to work out the details of Schelling’s monism. See, for starters, Schelling, 357-359/27-28.return to text

    6. It is worth noting that Schelling encounters similar problems with his notion of the Unground or ‘non-ground,’ or what he also calls the love that stands higher than spirit, that ‘is’ before ground and existence, and that ‘is’ their “absolute indifference” (406/68). As the translators of Schelling’s treatise explain, “Schelling’s notion of indifference does little to explain how difference can come to be, that is, how anything can come to be—the origin remains necessarily mysterious, ever a challenge to thought, and a stern reminder of the possible limits to thought” (169n95).return to text

    7. See also the work of Ilit Ferber, especially her recent book Language Pains.return to text

    Works Cited

    • Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Prima Pars, 1-49. Translated by Fr. Laurence Shapcote, O.P. Edited by John Mortensen and Enrique Alarcón. Volume 13 of the Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas. Lander, Wyoming: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012.
    • Dante. Paradiso. In Italian and an English translation by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander. New York: Random House, 2007.
    • Derrida, Jacques. GeschlechtIII. Sexe, race, nation, humanité. Edited by Geoffrey Bennington, Katie Chenoweth, and Rodrigo Therezo. Paris: Seuil, 2018.
    • ———. Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
    • ———. Marginalia, in Derrida’s personal copy of Martin Heidegger, Acheminement vers la parole, translated by Jean Beaufret, Wolfgang Brokmeier, and François Fédier. Paris: Gallimard, 1976. The Library of Jacques Derrida, Studio Series, Box B-000204 Folder 5; Rare Book Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.
    • Ferber, Ilit. Language Pains: On Pain and the Origin of Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.
    • Hamacher, Werner. “Other Pains.” Translated by Ian Alexander Moore. Philosophy Today 61, no. 4: (Fall 2017): 963-989.
    • Heidegger, Martin. Unterwegs zur Sprache. Gesamtausgabe, vol. 12. Edited by Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1985.
    • ———. Marginalia, in Heidegger’s personal copy of Georg Trakl, Die Dichtungen. Gesamtausgabe. Mit einem Anhang Zeugnisse und Erinnerungen. Edited by Kurt Horwitz. Zurich: Arche, 1946. Located in the unprocessed collection of the Martin-Heidegger-Archiv, in Meßkirch, Germany.
    • Moore, Ian Alexander. “For the Love of Detachment: Trakl, Heidegger, and Derrida’s Geschlecht III.” International Yearbook for Hermeneutics 18 (2019): 232-255.
    • ———. “Heidegger’s Trakl-Marginalia.” Forthcoming in Research in Phenomenology.
    • Roesner, Martina. “De la tautologie. Heidegger et la question de l’esprit.” Les Études philosophiques 1 (January: 2006): 63-88.
    • Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph. Philosophische Untersuchungen über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit und die damit zusammenhängenden Gegenstände. In Sämmtliche Werke, Abteilung I, Band 7. Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta, 1860. Translated by Jeff Love and Johannes Schmidt as Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom. Albany: SUNY Press, 2006.
    • Trakl, Georg. Dichtungen und Briefe. Edited by Walther Killy and Hans Szklenar. 3rd ed. Salzburg: Otto Müller, 1974.