Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History: Applied Hermeneutics

By Dieter Misgeld; Graeme Nicholson et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
ARE THE POETS FALLING SILENT?

In our society, which is increasingly ruled by anonymous mechanisms and where the word no longer creates direct communication, the question arises: what power and what possibilities can the art of words, poetry, still have? For the poetic word is essentially different from the perishing forms of speaking which otherwise support the communicative event. What is special in all these forms of speaking is the self-forgetting within the words themselves. The word as such always disappears in the face of what the word engenders. The poet Paul Valéry, who must have known, formulated a brilliant metaphor for the difference between words used in spoken communication and the poetic word. The spoken word is like a coin, i.e., it means something that it is not. The gold coin of the past, however, had as well the value which it signified, since the metallic value of the gold coin equaled its value as a coin. So it was itself at the same time what it meant. Clearly, the distinctive character of the poetic word is exactly that it does not refer to something in such a manner that one is directed away from it, in order to arrive somewhere else, as the coin or bill needs its backing. In poetry, when one is directed away from the word, one is also at the same time directed back to it; it is the word itself which guarantees that about which it speaks. That is the experience which we all have with the poetic word. The more intimate one is with poetic conjoining [Fügung], the richer in meaning and the more present the word becomes. The distinctive characteristic of the poetic word lies in the manner in which it presents itself by presenting something.

I wish to ask our age and the literature of our age: Is there still a task for the poet in our civilization? Is there still a time and place for art in an age where social unrest and the discomfort with our social life in an anonymous mass society is felt from all sides and where the demand for rediscovering or reestablishing true solidarities is advanced over and over again? Is it not an escape when one claims art or poetry to still be an integral part of human being? Must not all literature be now littérature engagée? And like all committed literature quickly become outdated? Is there still a stable framework in the art of words, when only the constantly changing contents in their instability constitute the center of legitimation for literature in general? Where consciousness is fulfilled by nothing but

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*
Essay first published in 1970.

-73-

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