Monday, January 16, 2006

Politics & Philosophy (& poetry)

Over the long weekend on the Gulf Coast – unfortunately cut short for reasons too long to go into – I was reading thru some of the old books on my shelves, notably Martin Heidegger and National Socialism, ed. Gunther Neske & Emil Kettering (Paragon House, 1990), a collection of documents & responses concerning MH's "Nazi" years – his rectorship at Freiburg University in 1933-4, & as notably his long postwar silence about his involvement with National Socialism & about the Holocaust. It's a fascinating collection, reprinting H's rectorial address, his own immediate postwar explanations of the rectorship, & his poshumously published 1966 interview with Der Spiegel. All of it was prompted, of course, by the publication of Victor Farías's Heidegger and Nazism (Temple UP, 1989). There's a big shelf of responses to the Heidegger "affair" by now: books by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jacques Derrida, & Jean-François Lyotard, a detailed "political biography" by the historian Hugo Ott, & probably another dozen books over the last decade.

But some of the pieces in Martin Heidegger & National Socialism, while they by no means at the cutting edge of the debate (which has no doubt gone I have no idea where) are still notable:
•Emmanuel Levinas (a Jew and a wartime prison-camp survivor), in conversation with Philippe Nemo, speaks of the huge impact Sein und Zeit had upon him as a phenomenological study, a "verifiable" examination of the human being's experience in the world. He finds MH's later work much less compelling, & faults it for its emphasis on exegeses of Hölderlin & etymological explorations – neither of which is as compelling to EL as the phenomenology of S&Z. Interestingly, the biographical note at the end of the book cites a statement by Levinas to the effect that his knowledge of MHY's involvement with the Nazis made him unable to read H's later work with the same intensity with which he had engaged the earlier. (Shades of Eric & Baraka!)

•Jacques Derrida, also in an impromptu statement, agrees with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe that "Heidegger's silence" constitutes a "wound to thinking" – his silence, not so much about his own involvement with the Party & the rectorship, but about the significance of Auschwitz. JD speculates that had H made some sort of definite statement – the rectorship & all that surrounded it were a terrible mistake, Auschwitz was one of the absolute horrors of human history – then H would probably have been immediately forgiven, & thinkers would have been "relieved" of the very real task of thinking the relationship between H's still-central thought and National Socialism.
Of course, the name "Ezra Pound" springs to mind in this connection; at least for me, who have invested quite a lot of psychic energy into Pound's work over the years. And of course I recall having lived thru the Paul de Man "affair" at its ground zero, the Cornell University English Department. Cornell in the late 80s was something of a hotbed of de Man worship, & after the news had first been broken about PdM's pro-Nazi wartime journalism, it was the poet David Lehman – an Ithacan, tho not a Cornellian (and not yet the impresario of the Best American Poetry franchise) who took the lead in pillorying de Man, & by implication all of post-structuralism, in the American popular press (first in an article in I think Newsweek, then in his book Signs of the Times). Lehman was promptly persona non grata, to say the least, in Cornell academic circles, even as he continued to associate with certain faculty members & to attend creative writing department functions. The enormous volume of "Responses" to de Man's wartime journalism Werner Hamacher edited a couple of years later for U of Nebraska P went a long way towards confirming the suspicions of those who thought that post-structuralists were really just sophists, adept at making the "bad seem good." Not a high point of late-20th-century literary criticism.

But leaving aside de Man – for his involvement with the Nazis was much less intense, & ultimately much less interesting, than Heidegger's, or than Pound's involvement with Italian fascism – I'm fascinated by the sorts of reactions that get triggered among the partisans, scholars, or followers of a philosopher or poet when attention gets drawn to this sort of unsavory involvement.

[to be continued – in the next installment, a typology of justification/vilification, and What This Has To Do With Zukofsky]


Josh Hanson said...

Hmm. sincronicity?

Josh Hanson said...

and, no, I can't spell worth a damn.