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Sein of the Times

MARTIN HEIDEGGER: Between Good and Evil.\o7 By Rudiger Safranski\f7 .\o7 Translated by Ewald Osers\f7 .\o7 Harvard University Press: 464 pp., $35\f7

April 12, 1998|RICHARD WOLIN | Richard Wolin teaches European intellectual history at Rice University. He is the author of "The Politics of Being: The Political Thought of Martin Heidegger" (Columbia) and "The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader" (MIT)

In 1967 the Jewish poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan paid a visit to Martin Heidegger's famous ski hut in the heart of Germany's Black Forest. It was there that, 40 years earlier, the German philosopher had written "Being and Time," one of the milestones of 20th century existentialism. For the Heideggerian faithful, the tiny cabin still functions as an obligatory pilgrimage site.

A day earlier Celan had delivered a reading to an overflow crowd at Freiburg University. When the poet and philosopher met for the first time following the reading, a journalist suggested that they pose together for a photograph. Celan demurred. Heidegger's Nazi past stood in the way. After all, he had never publicly distanced himself from his politics. Though Celan admired Heidegger's philosophy, he was not about to provide him with the political absolution he so desperately sought. Nevertheless, at Heidegger's insistence, and out of admiration for his philosophy, Celan agreed to make the trip.

In the poem "Todtnauberg" (named after the village location of Heidegger's hut), Celan recalls how he signed the cabin log book with "hope of a thinking man's coming word in the heart"--a word of contrition concerning the philosopher's political misdeeds. But his hopes met with stony silence. From the philosopher's lips there would never come any words of remorse. To add a further irony to an already tense situation, tod is the German word for death. For Celan, this visit to the lair of a former ideological enemy was no doubt suffused with macabre memories and associations.

The original German title of Rudiger Safranski's biography, "A Master From Germany: Martin Heidegger and His Age," cleverly plays on the Heidegger-Celan association. This title--dropped, regrettably, from the present translation--alludes to Celan's "Todesfuge" ("Death Fugue"), the poem that, following the war, catapulted Celan to international literary renown. Toward the end of the poem, Celan, the former death camp inmate, makes a portentous declaration: "Death is a Master From Germany." They are by far the most quoted words of his oeuvre. The poem's memorable opening lines bear citing:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening

We drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night

We drink and we drink

We shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped

Undoubtedly, the linguistic overlap between "Todesfuge" and the name of the ex-Nazi Heidegger's mountain retreat, "Todtnauberg," proved too much for the world-weary poet to bear. Celan had traveled to Todtnauberg seeking clarification and insight--an explanation for the inexplicable. Yet Germany's greatest philosopher, an ex-Nazi, felt no need to explain himself. Celan's disappointment at Heidegger's reticence was palpable. Three years later, Celan took his own life by drowning himself in the Seine.

Yet, in "Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil," the celebrated Celan-Heidegger encounter receives a weird, upbeat spin. The "word in the heart" Celan sought pertained, we are told, not to contrition but to the mysteries of Heidegger's philosophy. Moreover, Safranski describes Celan departing from Todtnauberg in an "elated mood"--a characterization that is strangely at odds with all previous accounts. This is only one of several prominent quirks that mar an otherwise fluid narrative.

Had it not been for Heidegger's fateful political lapse of 1933 when, with great fanfare, he joined the Nazi Party and assumed the rectorship of Freiburg University, biographers might have scant material to work with. Heidegger was studiously averse to traveling outside his native home in Baden. In the mid-1930s, he twice turned down offers to teach at the University of Berlin with resounding affirmations of the virtues of provincialism. One such account, "Why We Remain in the Provinces," reads like a parody of the German discourse of "blood and soil." According to Heidegger intimate Heinrich Petzet (whose testimony on the matter Safranski selectively omits), Heidegger felt ill at ease in big cities where too many Jews were to be found.

Yet Heidegger's dalliances with Nazism, though relatively short-lived, have made biographical considerations central to the evaluation of his intellectual worth. Heidegger resigned as Nazi rector of Freiburg University after a year in office. As it turned out, Hitler and company were not at all interested in metaphysics or the "question of Being." But, by then, sufficient damage had been done. He had effectively delivered over the university to the aims and ends of the so-called German Revolution. On the lecture stump, he proved an effective propagandist on behalf of the new regime, concluding one speech by declaring: "Let not ideas and doctrines be your guide. The Fuhrer is the only German reality and its law."

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