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|senile||lit. speaking; convincing <example, evidence>; expressive <face, eyes>; eloquent <facial expression, glance, portrayal; descriptive <name>|
Whatever differences surely hold between them, Martin Heidegger’s chosen objects of study all share a certain allergy to demonstration. Demonstration would seem to require presentation, but Heidegger’s concerns can’t (or won’t) be presented. How to exhibit that which is unpresentable and yet seemingly omnipresent? It’s not easy to draw such a thing on a blackboard. Being, for example, is not found in beings, and yet ‘there is’ nothing but beings. Time is the medium of thought, yet one can't find it by looking at a clock. Georg Trakl’s Poetic (Gedicht) is not found in any of his individual poems, and yet it is the song they all sing. Heidegger’s thought attempts to grapple with the peculiar character of a series of unpresentable entities. Sometimes a tentative solution arises: one can indicate even that which one can’t speak or show. However arbitrary his argumentation may appear, Heidegger doesn’t abandon the responsibility of demonstration; instead demonstration is thought otherwise so as to accord with the peculiar nature of the entities in question: thus the importance of concepts like hint or indication.
Yet in at least one place, Heidegger is unsatisfied with indication: the second essay on Trakl, Language in the Poetic. In that essay indication is found at the beginning of a progressive series of relations to the place of Trakl’s Poetic (briefly: indication → attention → questioning); these relations correspond, respectively, to the three numbered sections of the essay. Here indication is preliminary in a negative manner: in the essay’s first section following the introduction, the place of the Poetic is, according to Heidegger, “merely indicated,” and it will be the task of the second section to “take it more clearly into attention” (Unterwegs zur Sprache, 48).
Indication provides a much-needed entry-point into Heidegger’s reading of Trakl. For it is easy to get lost in the Trakl essay. Indeed, perhaps the hypothesis that Heidegger himself got lost therein is not the most unconvincing. I have nothing to say against getting lost, but that’s not my immediate interest here. In order to hold onto sobriety while working through what is perhaps one of the maddest texts of the Western philosophical tradition, I’ll try to confine myself to two ‘issues’: the structure or map Heidegger offers for his essay in which indication (along with related terms metonymy and mediation) assumes a quasi-transcendental place, followed by Heidegger’s reading of Grodek (which is found in the Trakl’s essay’s second section). This distribution will hopefully clarify what will turn out to be wide-reaching stakes in an elegant and economical manner. Not only the quasi-epistemological stakes of indication in relation to that which is unrepresentable, but also inseparable political and ethical questions. Without signing onto his account, we note that for Heidegger these stakes couldn’t be higher: recall that it’s a matter of nothing less than the resurrection of humanity, which would consist in, among other things, the relearning of the ability to dwell in language. The enemy, as usual, is the metaphysical-Platonic-Christian tradition as well as its effectuation qua techno-science: for Heidegger this tradition would determine man as a simple animal rather than a ‘blue animal,’ and thus consign him to the brutality of discord, conflict, and oppositional sexuality rather than the tranquility of sexual difference without discord. Heidegger’s figuring of the future human generation as a blue animal should not lead one to think animality is here given a fair hearing: similarly to the Letter on Humanism, the problem with the human qua animal ratio (and in the Letter the whole humanist tradition in philosophy) is that it is in a precise sense not humanist enough, i.e. that against its stated intentions, it reduces the human to animality and thus misses the singularity of the former.
I had initially wanted to confine myself entirely to the question of indication in the Trakl essay. Yet I discovered, with Heidegger, that indication tends to promise more than indication. My investigation of indication pointed me to Heidegger’s reading of Grodek. For David Krell this reading is just about the most scandalous moment in all of Heidegger. There Heidegger contends that Trakl’s poem, seemingly a mourning lament for those lost at the World War 1 battle of Grodek, in fact has a certain positivity. What is the status of this positivity? For Heidegger the poem calls for what he has been talking about all along: a future generation of humanity, humanity qua resurrected ‘blue animal’: it’s for the sake of this generation that the soldiers will have died. It’s not this claim itself, but rather or in addition the counter-factual proof Heidegger offers for it which leaves me speechless: we know, says Heidegger, that Grodek is not solely about the negativity of the generation of soldiers dying in battle because if it were, Trakl would jubilate. Heidegger’s Trakl would see a mass die-off of the old (i.e. decaying, metaphysical) generation as joyous. The fact that Grodek is ‘sad’ at all proves, for Heidegger, that it is not just about soldiers dying, which for Trakl would supposedly have been a happy occasion. I try to be very cautious here. I argue that Grodek is indeed about soldiers dying for Heidegger, but not about soldiers dying qua negativity: the soldiers are martyred. What makes these soldiers worthy of mourning is precisely their sacrificial contribution to the promise of the blue generation. While Heidegger does not use the word, I argue that his reading of “proud mourning” (62, Unterwegs zur Sprache) of Grodek thinks mourning as sublation (the predominant English translation of the German Aufhebung), and that we seem to be in the zone of the Hegelian beautiful death or, what might amount to the same, a US Army television commercial. For Heidegger, these soldiers put themselves in harm's way for the sake of the blue generation: their dignity (the reason it is a not simply proud nor simply mourning but rather a “proud mourning”) follows from the promissory relation to this futurity that Heidegger has asserted.
I do not find myself in agreement with Krell’s rather ungenerous assessment of Heidegger’s general faithfulness to Trakl, but I agree with him that it seems difficult to exaggerate the madness of this moment. To be sure, one must be very careful here, both in analyzing the reading itself and in situating ethical objections to Heidegger’s thought. The Heideggerian context clearly necessitates something like ethical resistance or justice in the deconstructive sense; it’s however also a context where self-righteousness threatens to suffocate us in a fog of stupidity. Nothing is certain, and the issue is more complex than I’ve just presented it, but I tentatively argue what for me seems to insist: there is here—with the Grodek reading—no alibi for Heidegger, which is not the same as saying his reading is unforgivable.
And the case of Grodek is not a local concern. Derrida has taught readers of Heidegger to be suspicious whenever Heidegger denies making a value judgment, for example regarding what Heidegger calls in Being and Time the “vulgar concept of time” (Margins of Philosophy, 31). The word “vulgar,” insists Heidegger, is not reflective of any decision or judgment on Heidegger’s part. Yet whenever Heidegger distinguishes the primordial from the non-primordial, one tends to suspect, with Derrida, an implied decision in favor of that which is primordial. The case of Grodek seems remarkable because here there is even ‘more’ than a value judgment against the non-primordial, in this case the human generation characterized by decaying metaphysics (I say ‘in this case’ but could one imagine a ‘larger’ case of the non-primordial than this one?): it’s perhaps even not incorrect to say that Heidegger sentences this generation to death, although he does so 'only,' as we'll see, in the subjunctive. However mad and even obscene Heidegger’s reading appears, its violence is an essential and necessary possibility of his thought insofar as this thought is from beginning to end constituted by a decisive distinction between primordiality and non-primordiality, decisive in part because it decides for the former, and this even or especially when Heidegger insists on the equiprimordiality of two opposed terms. Such is only the beginning of an ‘explanation,’ and I am certainly not claiming that primordiality saturates Heidegger’s thought, but how indeed could a thought so organized fail to dream of the annihilation of non-primordiality? Annihilation, that is, in the worst (best?) (subjunctive?) case, sublation in the best (worst?)(real?) case. Trakl was for Heidegger the poet that sang the dream of a world without non-primordiality, and this in the predominantly indicative mode of metonymy or montage: Trakl’s poetry is almost cinematic in that it is mostly series of images without narrative organization. Heidegger to my knowledge never talks about film, perhaps he never even watched a movie; nevertheless, Trakl seems to be something like a Heidegger movie. I underline that my argument that Grodek teaches an essential risk of Heideggerian thought does not mean such influence cannot be displaced through a re-reading of Heidegger (there is in fact no responsible alternative to such a project) but it does make the (still indispensable) inheritance of Heidegger more difficult. If I arrive here at any conclusions regarding this immense topic, they are but modest and preliminary.
Indication, Mediation, Metonymy and Number
My preliminary guiding thought is that the curious position of indication as well as terms we’ll come to see as related (mediation, metonymy) might go some way towards explaining how things turned so dire with the reading of Grodek. Recall that Heidegger’s essay consists of an introduction and three numbered parts. How do these parts relate to his ‘methodological’ discussion of reading poetry (itself contained in the introduction), i.e. everything that touches on the dialogue between thinker and poet? We can begin by noting that the dialogue with the poet consists of two ‘sides’: on the one hand an emplacing (Erörterung)—a German word which usually means 'discussion in view of clarification,' but for Heidegger is here the inquiry occupied with the place of the Poetic, itself unspoken in any individual poem (mutatis mutandis: Being instead of beings), on the other hand, the commentary (Erläuterung) as the ‘ontic’ or local analysis of individual poems. Heidegger asserts these two sides stand in mutual dependence:
Since the singular Poetic remains unspoken, we can only emplace its place by attempting to follow indications that lead to it from the individual poems. But for that each poem will need a commentary. The commentary brings to its first appearance the sound that shines through all that is poetically said.
It is easy to see that a rigorous commentary already presumes the emplacing. The individual poems only sound and shine out of the place of the Poetic. Conversely (Umgekehrt) the emplacing of the Poetic already requires a preliminary passage through an initial commentary of individual poems. (Unterwegs zur Sprache 34)
A first incongruity: despite this asserted mutual necessity, Heidegger will never name his essay with the word commentary (Erläuterung). Conversely, he calls the essay an emplacing in the subtitle and will repeat this assignation throughout, describing, as we’ll shortly see, the sections of the essay as steps of the emplacing.
Why is commentary necessary? The emplacing requires indications from individual poems— and I underline that Heidegger specifies here that this is all the emplacing can rely on, “[s]ince the singular Poetic remains unspoken.” However, these indications cannot themselves appear absent a commentary, which conditions their “first appearance” qua “sound.” Can one identify the moment of this “first appearance,” i.e. whether it takes place ‘before’ the emplacing, during it, or both? This line of questioning speaks to a suspicion regarding what I call Heidegger’s pre-comprehension of the Poetic. Elaborating on this suspicion will require further analysis of the introduction.
The first two sections of the essay are therein described as “steps” of the emplacing, and I read these steps as those of stairs or even an escalator: it’s a progressive series which would get ‘closer’ to Trakl’s Poetic, or at least to the possibility of learning from it. As we’ll see, however, this essay’s escalating or ‘step’ structure has so many supplementary complications, is so folded onto itself, that if it’s a question of a staircase it’s not even a spiral staircase, instead rather more like the stairs of an M.C. Escher painting:
Here to emplace means firstly: indicate the place. It means subsequently: heed the place. Both the indication of the place and its heeding are the preparatory steps of an emplacing. Yet we already dare quite enough if we content ourselves in what follows with the preparatory steps. The emplacing ends, as befits a thinking path, in a question. It asks after the placeship of the place. (Unterwegs zur Sprache 33)
Heidegger here locates the first two steps of the series I have been referencing (indication →attention →questioning) as preliminary moments of the emplacing: the first step of the emplacing is to indicate and the second is to heed or take into attention. Both are "preparatory steps" but Heidegger is quick to add that “we already dare quite enough if we content ourselves in what follows with the preparatory steps.” Thus, according to Heidegger's literal phrasing, the third section is in an excessive position. Heidegger says the first and second steps would suffice but he nevertheless moves on to the consideration of a further step in the very next sentence, as well as of course in the essay itself. The status of the decisively important third step is rather curious: the third step will be of the emplacing but also its “end.” Heidegger will mark this excess again at the closing of the second section.
The emplacing would seem to consist of an introduction, two preparatory steps and then its end. I leave aside the fascinating question of whether the introduction (which, again, contains these ‘methodological’ considerations) or the ‘end’ qua end are themselves ‘part’ of the emplacing. I’d like instead to focus on the fact that the introduction’s proposed structure for the emplacing brings with it a bizarre consequence: the emplacing has no ‘middle.’ It is something like a book comprised of a foreword, a preface, an introduction and then a conclusion, but no body text. I highlight this ‘middle-less’ aspect of the emplacing because, in a different but related sense, the emplacing is in fact nothing but ‘middle,’ insofar as it is limited to a mediate relation to Trakl's Poetic:
The thinking dialogue with the poet can serve the Poetic only in mediate fashion. That’s why the dialogue stands in danger of disrupting (stören) the saying of the Poetic rather than letting it sing out of its own silence. (Unterwegs zur Sprache 34-5)
The qualifier “only in mediate fashion” implies the existence of ‘immediate’ relation, if only hypothetically or virtually, i.e. even if no immediate relation to the Poetic is asserted by Heidegger to be possible. This qualifier leads one to wonder about the status of the Poetic in its relation to itself—for example, is the Poetic different to itself? different with itself? similar to itself? To be sure, Heidegger does not say, at least not in so many words, that the Poetic is pure or immunized, irreducibly ‘safe’ in its immediate relation to itself. In any case, and despite the discussion around pain, the Poetic does not seem to be a pharmakon.
‘Indication’ seems to have led us to ‘mediation,’ and we’re thereby invited to consider the necessarily non-immediate status of indication: indication by essence is non-plenary and in this respect a less demanding operation than signification or symbolization. Yet does the claim that indication can’t be immediate amount to saying indication is always mediate? Is the only alternative to immediacy the mediate? This question will stay with us throughout our reading. To this series (“indication, mediation...”) we can add a third: metonymy. The rapidity and relative opacity of Heidegger’s asserted metonymic linkages between Trakl’s poems are a large part of what makes the essay so difficult to follow. In Geschlecht III, Derrida analyzes at length this aspect of the Trakl essay:
This leaping, sometimes elliptical and discontinuous approach is what literary critics, philologists, and philosophers reproach Heidegger for: he supposedly jumps arbitrarily in the middle of a poem, from one verse to another, from one poem to another without warning, without methodological caution. Heidegger knows this, he takes it on: blows, leaps, jumps, that’s the rhythm and regime of this “reading” which does something other than “to read” and which remains simultaneously so slow, winding, cautious, lingering, retracing its steps, etc.
It's difficult to exaggerate the importance of metonymy in Heidegger’s reading of Trakl. Metonymic jumps are, as Derrida noted in Of Spirit, responsible for all the miracles of Heidegger’s course (88). The situation seems even more acute given that Heidegger does not, to my knowledge, proceed in this manner anywhere else in his corpus. Not that his other texts would be purified of metonymy (such would probably be impossible for any text qua text); on the contrary, I suspect Heidegger’s metonymy is coextensive with his thought, even a signature characteristic of his idiom. One of the signature features of Language in the Poetic is simply that metonymy seems to take center stage.
Given the essay’s metonymic drift it is perhaps unsurprising that indication does not let itself be confined to its allotted zone of the emplacing. Indeed, indication metonymically stands in not only for the emplacing but also the entire dialogue with the poet. The whole essay is an indication, and this seemingly in ‘both’ form and function, if it can be put thus:
The presently attempted indication [Hinweis] of its place [i.e. the place of the Poetic] must make do with a selection of relatively few stanzas, verses and sentences. The appearance is thus unavoidable that we’re proceeding arbitrarily. The selection is however guided by the intention to bring, almost as through a saccade, our attention to the place of the Poetic. (Unterwegs zur Sprache 35)
This quotation is also from the introduction: the phrase “this presently attempted indication” appears to refer to the entirety of the essay (but does it refer to the introduction as well...? is the introduction part of the emplacing...?). Indication is a member of the series but also the form of the whole which is comprised of the series. The goal of the essay is to indicate the place of Trakl's Poetic and the essay is itself this indication. Heidegger’s comparison of the emplacing to “saccade” is also instructive and not without relation to indication. The word “saccade” is strangely omitted from the published English translation, which has “strange leap of thought” as translating Blicksprung, a word that just means “saccade” (161). A saccade is a fundamental genre of eye-movement and common in everyday life. It's defined as the rapid and ‘ballistic’ movement of the eyes from one focus point to another, ballistic because its course is set at the beginning of the movement and it cannot correct itself without another saccade (Purves et al.). The emplacing effect is supposed to resemble that of a saccade (“almost as through a saccade”). “Our” eyes would jump from whatever they were looking at to the place of the Poetic.
An important suspicion arises: who is this “our”? Whose eyes are being directed to the place of the Poetic by the Trakl essay? Are ‘we’ finding the Poetic for the first time, or being led to it by someone who already knows ‘where it is’? In other words, does the first-person plural include the author of the essay? It seems in principle that it could not. For if the selection of the poems is meant to precipitate a well-aimed saccade, the endpoint must be known in advance by the selector for the selection to be carried out. The reference to the supposedly inevitable appearance of “arbitrariness” betrays this situation: arbitrary for those on the receiving end of the saccade, surely, but necessarily not arbitrary for whoever makes the selection. In order to get going and keep going, the Trakl essay depends on a pre-understanding of Trakl’s Poetic, and this pre-understanding receives neither ground nor justification in the course of the essay. As we’ll shortly see, this pre-understanding will enable Heidegger’s jump from the indications of a few poems to simply “the poems of this poet,” i.e. from a minority of indications to their total consensus (48).
This jump is the transition from the first to the second section. During this transition Heidegger asserts that the indication section profited something of critical importance which will have allowed the emplacing to ascend to section two, i.e. to move from indicating to heeding: a name. Let's try to ride the escalator with Heidegger; here is the transition between the first and second sections:
The heretofore named stanzas and verses point us to a gathering, i.e. a place... Because the poems of this poet are gathered in the song of the separated one, we name the place of his Poetic separatedness.
The emplacing must now [i.e. after the indication/naming – DMM] attempt, with a second step, to take more clearly into attention the heretofore merely indicated place [nur angezeigten Ort].
Does separatedness, of all things, let itself be lifted into the contemplating gaze, what’s more as the place of the Poetic? If at all, then only if we now with clearer eyes [helleren Augen] follow the path of the stranger and ask: who is the separated one? What is the landscape of his path? (Unterwegs zur Sprache 48)
The border between indication and heeding is mystical, as mystical as the origin of language itself. Why? This border is marked by a massive event: somehow, indication gives rise to a name: separatedness (Abgeschiedenheit). The apparently total consensus of indications leads ‘us’ to “name” the place of the Poetic. From indications to a name: such a miracle is almost like finding a signified in a dictionary. Is this event, i.e. of indication qua indication giving rise to a name, strictly possible? How does one sort through a mass of indications and arrive at a name? Heidegger does not explain how it happens. He purports to simply be following the indications of the cited poems: “[t]he heretofore named stanzas and verses point us to a gathering...”. Yet no argument justifies Heidegger’s move from “the heretofore named stanzas and verses” to “the poems of this poet.” How to relate this Heidegger’s warning regarding the inevitable arbitrariness of the selection? When and why does that impression of arbitrariness disappear, if it ever does? Were the poems selected because “we” (that is, Heidegger) know they point to the Poetic (the “arbitrary” appearance, when pre-knowledge of the place of the Poetic determines poem selection) or do we know where the Poetic is because the poems point us to it (i.e. through reading “we” learn the place of the Poetic from the selected poems)? If the former, the essay remains naïvely incapable of justifying both its origin and its course. If the latter, there should be no irreducible appearance of arbitrariness at all.
I offer two tentative hypotheses for understanding this situation:
- If Heidegger's essay is guided by a pre-comprehension of Trakl's Poetic which cannot in principle be grounded, this situation hardly seems idiosyncratic. It’s even a habitual part of how a Heideggerian inquiry functions: recall how Being and Time got off the ground in part by noting that general use of the word “being” testifies to a pre-comprehension of its meaning, and that this pre-comprehension itself is a phenomenon which demands explanation. There were perhaps always reasons to be suspicious of that beginning, but here there is not even an argument regarding this pre-comprehension of the Poetic, a pre-comprehension without which there would be no Trakl essay (another reason we're not simply criticizing it). In other words, there is no naïve and everyday ‘use’ of Trakl’s Poetic as there was with the word ‘being,’ yet if I’m correct that there is a pre-comprehension of the Poetic here it seems that Heidegger reproduces an analogous structure of investigation despite the concern of this particular investigation supposedly responding to a different context than that of the existential analytic of Dasein.
Heidegger can neither ground this pre-comprehension nor how indication could give rise to a name because he explicitly denies himself the means to do so: number. I don’t claim such a process is straightforward or simple, but the text appears to demonstrate a proliferation of indications gives rise to a name through quantitative variance or rhythm: frequency counts. Heidegger appears to say so himself, several times:
Are we permitted, supposing we hold such a suspicion, to speak here of accident, if two of Heidegger's poems name the West (Abendland)? (Unterwegs zur Sprache 74)
Again and again (immer... wieder) this “so quietly” returns in Trakl's poetry. (Unterwegs zur Sprache, 39)
The form of Elis appears again in the poem “West” (Abendland), whereas “Helian” and “The Dream of Sebastian” are no longer named. [my emphasis] (Unterwegs zur Sprache 76)
And yet, he also takes number off the table:
The “quietly” resonates again... The “stone” appears again, which, if a count were permitted
here, could be recorded at more than thirty places of Trakl's Poetic. [my emphasis]
(Unterwegs zur Sprache, 59)
The consequences of this short sentence on counting appear to me incalculable. Heidegger does not explain why no count is permitted, nor does he delimit the borders of this “here” where counting would be unauthorized. Yet one can imagine at least the form of what he might say: number and the possibility of calculation are conditioned by the place of the Poetic and, as Heidegger always says, one can’t think the source on the basis of its streams. But what alternative do ‘we’ have, us as well as Heidegger? Doesn’t Heidegger himself have to do this, i.e. think the source starting from its streams, which perhaps means it’s not a question of ‘source’ after all? Didn’t he in fact do this? For to say one ‘could’ count over thirty stones in Trakl necessarily means one has in fact counted them. There is here no effective difference between ‘could count’ and ‘did count’. Heidegger did count “here,” in this zone where one ‘can’t’ count, and it’s obvious that for him that counting was important. Why otherwise would Heidegger make such consistent recourse to number, this even at the very moments when he is busy attempting to exclude quantity, such as when he emphasizes that the “one” in Trakl's phrase “one generation” is not “one as opposed to two”? At that moment Heidegger barely conceals his excitement at the fact that this is the only known instance of Trakl's use of italics: “The ‘one’ is emphasized. It is, as far as I can see, the only word in Trakl's poems that is written in spaced type” (Unterwegs zur Sprache 74). Thus, frequency counts at least in the form of rarity. Singularity has a surplus value through its distinction from plurality: Trakl’s emphasis means more, Heidegger implies, because it only happens once in his oeuvre. One perhaps can’t have it both ways: either singularity counts qua rarity and thus so does plurality qua plurality, or neither count.
Let’s summarize and link together our conclusions before moving onto Grodek. In Language in the Poetic Heidegger elevates apparently ‘mediate’ forms—metonymy and indication—to a quasi-transcendental position while at the same time signing an at least elliptic desire to transcend or elevate beyond mere mediate relation to the Poetic. The essay is nothing but mediation, but it also wishes to transcend necessarily mediate character of the thinker’s relation to the Poetic. For Heidegger that which enables going beyond “merely indicating,” that which effects the transition between the essay’s first and second sections is the total consensus of presented indications supposedly pointing to the name “separated-ness.” This moment, which is nothing less than the birth of a name, appears arbitrary—even magical—because in Heidegger’s framework it is inexplicable. The appearance of arbitrariness is not an inevitable consequence of the essay’s interest in an undemonstrable entity. Heidegger’s reading of Trakl appears arbitrary because he has denied himself the means to show why it isn’t. Without recourse to number and all that is arguably indissociable from it (rhythm, repetition, singularity; in a word, the specter) Heidegger is left to simply and unconvincingly assert totality, a total consensus of indications: thus the displacement between “the poems of this poet” and “heretofore named stanzas and verses” appears effected by the simple fiat of his desire.
Looking for justification where Heidegger says there is none (i.e. in the domain of counting indications) has the advantage of explaining how and why Heidegger does, in fact, read Trakl in this essay. That is: his reading isn’t simply arbitrary, isn’t through and through arbitrary and this non-arbitrariness is perfectly demonstrable. Perhaps he even reads so well that it scares him, and he must find a way to quiet down or tranquilize the reading machine that he has unleashed. The essay’s rigorous and metonymic reading of Trakl is however countered by and inscribed within what I would nickname a totalitarianism of primordiality. And the desire for primordiality roosts in the gap between what the text does and what it says. It’s perhaps with Grodek that this desire will show its most profound danger.
Yet being able to wait is not an actionless or thoughtless letting things come and go, it is not a closing of one’s eyes in the face of some dark foreboding. Being able to wait is a standing that has already leapt ahead, a standing within what is indestructible, to whose neighborhood desolation belongs like a valley to a mountain. Yet could such a thing ever happen without, through the pain of sacrifice, the historical humankind of this commencement first becoming ripe for whatever is of the commencement as its own? [my emphasis] (Heidegger, Der Ister 55)
Grodek was Trakl’s last poem, written only a few weeks before he died of a cocaine overdose. For most readers, the poem has a close relation to the battle of Grodek, a battle in which the Austria-Hungary army suffered a crushing defeat in World War 1, and victims of which Trakl cared for during his military service as a medic. Despite certain appearances, Heidegger doesn’t deny that the poem is “about” the Battle at Grodek. It’s doubtless not easy to parse Heidegger’s argumentation here, but my working hypothesis is that Heidegger reads Grodek as a sublation of negativity qua decaying generation. The soldiers’ sacrifice effects this sublation. While Heidegger would almost assuredly not sign onto the word ‘sublation’ and the rapprochement with the dialectic it would imply, I will attempt to show that such a comparison nevertheless insists. To that end I’ll now move through Heidegger’s claims about Grodek as carefully as possible. These claims are found in the second section of the essay, and open with the following argument: “Trakl’s last poem is called Grodek. It is lauded as war poetry. But it is infinitely more because it’s something other” (Unterwegs zur Sprache 61).
First question: what precisely does Heidegger mean when he says Grodek is other than “war poetry”? Does he mean that the poem doesn’t have anything to do with World War 1? I don’t think so. It’s of course true that if you look up “Kriegsdichtung” in Duden you will find no other definition than “a poem about war that comes from the experience of war.” So if Heidegger denies it is war poetry, isn’t he denying the referential relation to World War 1? After the just-quoted introduction of Grodek, Heidegger quotes the final two lines of the poem and continues:
“Today a great pain feeds the hot flame of the spirit
The unborn grandsons.”
The here-named “grandsons” are in no case the unbegotten sons of those fallen sons who stemmed from the decaying generation. If it were only a matter of the termination of the continuance of the heretofore existing generations, then this poet would necessarily have jubilated regarding this end. Yet he mourns; albeit a “proud mourning” that flamingly gazes into the peace of the unborn.
The unborn are called grandsons because they can’t be sons, i.e. immediate descendants of the decayed generation. Between them and this generation lives a different sort of generation. It is different because heterogenous according to the heterogenous essence of its ancestry, viz. stemming from the earliness of the unborn. The “enormous pain” is the all-enkindling gaze, which in the yet self-withdrawing earliness glimpses that dead one for the sake of whom the “spirits” of the previously fallen died. (Unterwegs zur Sprache 61-2)
It's indeed a question of generation and generations (Geshlecht/er). Let’s schematize the generations in question here. For Heidegger there seem to be three: first, what appears as a purely negative generation whose futurity is in the process of being effaced (“decaying generation”). This is the aggregate of the human race which Platonic-Christian metaphysics and its effectuation as technoscience will have successfully trapped in simple animality. Yet this generation is here only hypothetical. Do the soldiers at Grodek belong to a generation without a future? No, says Heidegger, for “[i]f it were only a matter of the termination of the continuance of the heretofore existing generations, then this poet would necessarily have jubilated regarding this end.” I share Krell’s shock at this sentence, but Heidegger’s use of the subjunctive here is why I take a certain distance from Krell’s reading: not in order to excuse Heidegger, but rather to make sure the deconstruction of Heidegger hits the mark. Heidegger is saying ‘if those who died at Grodek, (standing in for the totality of the human race) were completely without future (because irrevocably and totally determined), then Trakl would have necessarily jubilated regarding their deaths.’ David Krell’s claim is that Heidegger’s reading is absurd (and ethically reprehensible) in part because Trakl the combat nurse was surely traumatized by soldiers’ deaths and would never jubilate over the death of these soldiers. But Heidegger most assuredly does not think that the soldiers who died at Grodek, no more than the human generation generally for which he has the former standing in, are saturated by metaphysics, a decaying generation completely without future other than the reproduction of metaphysics, and thus Heidegger does not think his counter-factual of Trakl jubilating would ever be real. Indeed, it’s one of the most insistent and principal concerns of the Trakl essay to reread negativity in Trakl and invest it with the promise of a future; thus Heidegger’s insistent re-reading and clarification of everything that might appear hopelessly negative in Trakl, including death, derangement, and downfall.
So the first generation actually splits into two: a hypothetical ‘purely negative’ generation (whose death would be jubilated) and the ‘actual’ present generation (whose sacrifice is honored). What about the other two generations? The present generation has a relation to what I nickname the ‘blue generation’ just as the emplacing has a relation to the Poetic. As if by chance, both relations are mediate: “The unborn are called grandsons because they can’t be sons, i.e. immediate descendants of the decaying generation.” If we leave aside the rather curious implied assertion that a father and son stand in immediate relation to one another we have here the first indication that the word sublation aptly names what’s at stake: mediation is decisive. The deaths of the soldiers is sublated for Heidegger. The mourning of Grodek is a dialectic mourning because it holds negativity and positivity together through the sacrificial consumption of negativity: Trakl “mourns; albeit a ‘proud mourning.” We’ll return to the question of “war poetry” in a moment, but the reason Grodek is not “war poetry” for Heidegger is that war poetry does not call for the future blue generation, and thus doesn’t call for the future tout court.
The three generations are thus: present generation, promising generation, and blue generation, yet the present generation, however detestably metaphysical, is ‘saved’ by its mediate relation through the promising generation to the blue generation. Many questions arise. To start: if there is a community of essence between the promising generation and the blue generation (Heidegger says above that they both stem from the primordial earliness in contradistinction of essence the present generation), then what is the difference between these latter two generations which makes them two generations instead of just one? Is the latter a deeper shade of blue? It doesn’t seem as if any difference could subsist between them because the revolutionary or creative force of blueness is so overwhelming that no differential predicate could hold. Differences of quantity or even intensity seem not just impertinent but even off the table. Indeed, trying to solve this problem of differentiating generations #2 and #3 resembles a shell game: for example, if the difference between the latter two generations is that the former merely indicates the blue future whereas the latter actualizes it, the problem just shifts, for what would then be the distinction between the promising indication of the second generation and that of the first generation? Both the present and the promising generation would, in that case, have a mediate relation to blueness, so why was a second generation necessary in the first place? I am not decided on these questions. But I suspect that there are three generations simply in order to stage mediation. If there were two, the blue generation would stand in immediate relation to the present. Heidegger needs both a difference of nature and mediation here, mediation as well as the sublation’s result (here the blue generation): for this task a count of three generations happily suffices; coincidence, or numerical signature of the dialectic? Hardly fortuitous, it seems to me, that it’s precisely during the reading of Grodek that Heidegger proposes the definition of spirit as flame. The fire of sacrifice is the fire of the Aufhebung. That Heidegger grounds his count of generations in the word “grandsons” is not sufficient to exorcise suspicion here unless one can demonstrate that the Hegelian reading of inheritance is the only one possible.
Next question, which will invite us to take the question of “war poetry” head on: how does Heidegger know that the unborn children of the dead soldiers would merely be a hopeless continuation of the decaying generation? It’s with this asserted knowledge that he can deny that Trakl is talking about them, but he never explains why this would be the case. One has to elaborate upon his subjunctive counter-factual in order to understand because he does not justify this logical jump. The form of Heidegger’s argument is: 1. the words “unborn grandsons” don’t refer to sons whose fathers died in battle because 2. Trakl would jubilate if it were only a matter of the death of the decaying generation. The missing link in the argument is the reason why the traditional interpretation implies reference to a purely decaying generation. In other words, how does Heidegger know these sons and their sons would have been a generation completely without promise?
It’s a mystifying argumentative jump. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is only one plausible way to fill this mysterious gap in the argument. Heidegger would be debating an implicit ‘pacifist’ alternative, and for Heidegger, pacificism decides against the future—sacrifice is necessary for the future, so we know these soldiers had to die. To say ‘oh how terrible war is, how sad that their lives were cut short, how sad that their children will never be born’ would be the implied position of war poetry, and so the reason Grodek isn’t war poetry is not because it doesn’t refer to war or battle, but because it is more and other than this allegedly naïve position, and precisely due to the supplement of sublation. To mourn the soldiers’ deaths without sublation, without proudly acknowledging their contribution to bringing about the blue generation, this is a nefariously pacifist mourning because it implies non-death was an option. This explanation also clarifies the vertiginous shift in how Heidegger discusses the valorization of the soldiers. That is, he starts out by saying that if their generation died off, Trakl would jubilate (their death as purely positive), and then he analyzes Trakl’s “proud mourning” (their death as both negative and positive). It’s doubtless partly this puzzling shift in valuation that has led readers to think that Heidegger can’t possibly be talking about the same soldiers in both evaluations, that he must therefore be denying any relation of the poem to soldiers’ actual deaths. Sublation as beautiful death carries the day: since the soldiers fought and died, they earn the dignity of a proud mourning—if they hadn’t (i.e. if they had lived on and had children) their deaths would be something to celebrate. Not fighting (the only case, if one presumes the necessity of bloody sacrifice, where the unborn grandsons would have been born if Trakl was in fact referring with this phrase to the sons of the soldiers dead in combat) would be a decision to remain in the decaying generation, and thus Trakl would jubilate over the annihilation of the generation that made that decision because precisely through that decision this generation would have decided against decision and thus occulted its own promise. They would not even be the decaying generation analyzed at length in the Trakl essay because they would have severed their relation to the promising generation, and moreover they would have chosen this fate. The positive charge of the word “jubilate” suggests that for Heidegger their annihilation would even be deserved: can we here speak of capital punishment for desertion?
Separately, this explanation would appear consistent or at least consonant with certain bellicose statements of Heidegger’s elsewhere, for example the quotation from The Ister with which I opened this section, which speaks of the necessity of “painful sacrifice.” And as fragile and speculative as my hypothesis may be, it seems at the very least more plausible than the assertion that Heidegger really had his head so far in the clouds that he thought Grodek had nothing at all to do with war or the battle and city that share its name, a statement that Heidegger never makes as such. Instead, the two pieces of evidence that can be used to support the argument that Heidegger took such a position are 1. Heidegger’s exclusion of Grodek from the category of war poetry and 2. Heidegger’s denial that “unborn grandsons” refers to the children of dead soldiers who will never be born due to their would-be parents’ death in combat. Nothing is certain in this zone, but I hope to have shown that these arguments can at least potentially be dealt with.
Where war poetry would naively bemoan the soldiers’ deaths, Heidegger would sublate them. The final sentence quoted above fits quite nicely the form of sublation: “The ‘enormous pain’ is the all-enkindling gaze, which in the yet self-withdrawing earliness glimpses that dead one for the sake of whom the ‘spirits’ of the previously fallen died.” Here the “dead one” stands in for the whole blue promise of the Trakl essay: Heidegger is saying these soldiers died ‘for Elis,’ a figure we don’t have time to unpack but who at key moments functions as a sort of protagonist of the Trakl essay. The soldiers’ deaths are raised to the dignity of sacrifice, dare we say Christly sacrifice? The verb (entgegenstarb) and the precise structure of this German dependent clause are identical to a certain literary example in which it’s precisely a question of dying for the sake of the holiness of Christ and seeing his crucifixion as beautiful rather than tragic. In any case the obscenity of the Grodek reading comes more clearly into view: it’s not only a matter of the virtual jubilation of annihilation (which itself remains obscene given that the subjunctive complication explored above is not a dispositive defense), but also that Heidegger encourages one to look on the bright side of mass death, or rather on the blue side: ‘chin up,’ he seems to say, ‘for at least their deaths will contribute to attaining the blue generation, of bringing about the end of non-primordiality’; at least they were dialectical fuel for the sublation to end all sublations, that one fine day when difference will finally not give rise to opposition. It’s true that it’s World War 1 that is here in question, but I’m not sure the obscenity can be quarantined to that context. Heidegger in the Letter on Humanism is happy to assert World War 2 German soldiers died with one of his favorite poets in mind, in that case Hölderlin. In his lectures on Der Ister, Heidegger derided the decision of the United States to enter World War 2:
The entry of America into this planetary war is not an entry into history. No, it is already the last American act of America's history-lessness and self-destruction. This act is the renunciation of the Origin. It is a decision for lack-of-Origin. (Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister’ 79–80)
Heidegger's reading of Trakl is governed (albeit not saturated) by the inverse decision: a decision for the origin and for primordiality. However obscene the consequences of such a decision, moral renunciation is a rather feeble and ambivalent tool for displacing this Heideggerian tendency, not the least because Heidegger would say there is no alternative to deciding for primordiality and the risks associated with it. Indeed, he argues in Contributions to Philosophy that there is no other possible decision: we have to decide for decision or we risk the absolute disaster of the disappearance of the disappearance of decision.
Instead of simple moral renunciation, deconstruction (justice) is necessary. We can summarize the deconstruction of Heidegger pursued here with a few schematic points: first, Heidegger’s explicit theoretical access to reading seems blocked, de facto and de jure, by an attempted exorcism of indication qua counting of indications. Second, this blockage threatens to give the force of desire free reign with possibly calamitous consequences that would in my view be exemplified by the Grodek reading. Third, other readings of the Heidegger-Trakl constellation are called for: the positive character of Heidegger’s thought qua metonymic and indicative would need to be delinked from the ‘totalist’ or totalitarian drift of primordiality. Perhaps a promising possibility in this direction might be a ‘cinematic’ Heideggerian reading of Trakl, a reading which I hope to elaborate one day. With and against Heidegger, with and against Trakl, this reading would attempt to think the relation between thinker and poet otherwise. It’s to indicate the path of this reading that I close my essay with a poem of Trakl’s which Heidegger, to my knowledge, never mentions: Suburb in the Föhn.
Suburb in the Föhn
One will perhaps notice that “Poetic” is not a standard translation of “Gedicht” and that Language in the Poetic is not the title of the Trakl essay in the published English translation. Due to substantial issues with that translation, I’ve decided to work from the German – all translations are my own citing German pagination and with the original German quoted in endnotes. I’ve chosen the rather interventionist translation of Gedicht as ‘Poetic’ in order to mark the originary status of Heidegger’s use of the word; only rarely in this essay does the word seem to have its ordinary German sense of “poem” and I’m not here concerned with these (admittedly very interesting) cases. I thank Anastacia Konkova for her substantial help with the German text; all mistakes and deviations from good sense are mine and mine alone.
For example, Krell claims that Trakl’s poetry doesn’t endorse any eschatology and that Heidegger in fact imposes the promise of a future generation upon Trakl’s text, but references in Trakl to a “homecoming generation” make this characterization difficult to accept (“die Schonheit eines heimkehrenden Geschlechts”); see “Revolution and Downfall” in Surrender to Night: Collected Poems of Trakl.
Comparing Heidegger’s relation to Hölderlin with his reading of Trakl is obviously very complex and fraught terrain. Without denying Hölderlin’s importance or asserting that Trakl is somehow ‘more’ important I would insist on the singularity of the Trakl essay along with the extent to which this singularity accords with Trakl’s oeuvre. Nowhere else does Heidegger proceed in such a metonymic (read: indicative) fashion.
Weil das einzige Gedicht im Ungesprochenen verbleibt, können wir seinen Ort nur auf die Weise erörtern, dass wir versuchen, yom Gesprochenen einzelner Dichtungen her in den Ort zu weisen. Doch hierfür bedarf jede einzelne Dichtung bereits einer Erläuterung. Sie bringt das Lautere, das alles dichterisch Gesagte durchglänzt, zu einem ersten Scheinen. Man sieht leicht, dass eine rechte Erläuterung schon die Erörterung voraussetzt. Nur aus dem Ort des Gedichtes leuchten und klingen die einzelnen Dichtungen. Umgekehrt braucht eine Erörterung des Gedichtes schon einen vor-läufigen Durchgang durch eine erste Erläuterung einzelner Dichtungen.
Erörtern meint hier zunächst: in den Ort weisen. Es heißt dann: den Ort beachten. Beides, das Weisen in den Ort und das Beachten des Ortes, sind die vorbereitenden Schritte einer Erörterung. Doch wagen wir schon genug, wenn wir uns im folgenden mit den vorbereitenden Schritten begnügen. Die Erörterung endet, wie es einem Denkweg entspricht, in eine Frage. Sie frägt nach der Ortschaft des Ortes.
Die denkende Zwiesprache mit dem Dichten kann dem Gedicht nur mittelbar dienen. Darum steht sie in der Gefahr, das Sagen des Gedichtes eher zu stören, statt es aus seiner eigenen Ruhe singen zu lassen.
Der jetzt versuchte Hinweis auf seinen Ort muss sich indessen mit einer Auswahl weniger Strophen, Verse und Sätze behelfen. Der Anschein ist unvermeidlich, dass wir dabei willkürlich verfahren. Die Auswahl ist jedoch von der Absicht geleitet, unsere Achtsamkeit fast wie durch einen Blicksprung an den Ort des Gedichtes zu bringen.
Die bisher genannten Strophen und Verse weisen uns in eine Versammlung, d. h. an einen Ort...Weil die Dichtungen dieses Dichters in das Lied des Abgeschiedenen versammelt sind, nennen wir den Ort seines Gedichtes die Abgeschiedenheit.
Die Erörterung muß jetzt durch einen zweiten Schritt versuchen, den bisher nur angezeigten Ort deutlicher in die Acht zunehmen.
Läßt sich die Abgeschiedenheit noch eigens, und zwar als der Ort des Gedichtes, in den besinnlichen Blick heben? Wenn überhaupt, dann nur so, daß wir jetzt helleren Auges dem Pfad des Fremdlings folgen und fragen: Wer ist der Abgeschiedene? Welches ist die Landschaft seiner Pfade?
Wieder erklingt das »leise«, das jeweils in die wesenhaften Bezüge gleiten läßt. Wiederum erscheint »der Stein«, der, wenn hier ein Rechnen erlaubt wäre, an mehr als dreißig Stellen des Traklschen Gedichtes verzeichnet werden konnte.
Die hier genannten »Enkel« sind keinesfalls die ungezeugt gebliebenen Sohne der gefallenen Sohne, die dem verwesenden Geschlecht entstammten. Wäre es nur an dem, am Abbruch der Fortzeugung bisheriger Geschlechter, dann müßte dieser Dichter über ein solches Ende jubeln. Aber er trauert; freilich in einer »stolzeren Trauer«, die flammend die Ruhe des Ungeborenen anschaut.
Die Ungeborenen heißen Enkel, weil sie nicht Sohne sein können, d. h. keine unmittelbaren Nachkommen des verfallenen Geschlechtes. Zwischen ihnen und diesem Geschlecht lebt eine andere Generation. Sie ist anders, weil andersartig gemäß ihrer anderen Wesensherkunft aus der Frühe des Ungeborenen. Der »gewaltige Schmerz« ist das alles überflammende Anschauen, das in die sich noch entziehende Frühe jenes Toten vorblickt, dem die» Geister« der früh Gefallenen entgegenstarben.
Nicht schrecklich und grauenvoll erschienen ihm die Christenverfolgungen; er sah nur auf der Stirn der Märtyrer den Glanz des Morgenlichtes, dem die Seligen entgegenstarben. Auch Asmus Semper war bereit zu sterben; für seinen Vater wollte er sterben. from the collected works of Otto Ernst Schmidt (Gesammelte Werke: Asmus Semper's Jugendland, 275).
Darum haben die jungen Deutschen, die von Hölderlin wussten, angesichts des Todes Anderes gedacht und gelebt als das, was die Öffentlichkeit als deutsche Meinung ausgab (Brief über den Humanismus, 26-7).
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