Academic journal article Philosophy Today

"Poetry and People" in Heidegger's Germanien Lectures

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

"Poetry and People" in Heidegger's Germanien Lectures

Article excerpt

Heidegger's 1933 Rektoratsrede, "The Self-Assertion of the German University,"1 is very much an exhortation in the first person plural. By addressing the German academic community, of which he himself is a part, Heidegger is, at least indirectly, addressing the German people as a whole. To this community he says: "let us assert ourselves!" And yet, this act is also an exhortation to the first person plural; for what selfassertion [Selbst-behauptung] requires for Heidegger in this context is not that Germany, as a prior "we" with a pre-determined essence, somehow assert this essence but rather that Germany, through the very act of self-assertion, produce or enact itself as an authentic we-a we which, up to that point, had not yet existed. For the Heidegger of 1933, the we is not an actuality; it is a first person plural possibility which stands before "us," a possibility yet to be grasped.

The precise character of the we's self-assertion marks a significant point of contention in Heidegger scholarship. My explicit concern here, however, is not this self-assertion but Heidegger's rejection, only one year later, of such collective self-assertion as a possibility available to the German people. Specifically, in Heidegger's 1934 lecture course on Holderlin's Germanien,2 the we is presented as a possibility which is not, here and now, at "our" disposal; moreover, the emergence of the authentic we is no longer viewed to be a matter of rethinking science in terms of τεχνη but rather of rethinking art in terms of τεχνη. To be sure, one could speculate endlessly upon the many factors which might have led Heidegger into such a radical shift during this highly controversial and tumultuous period in his life. What I will do here, however, is restrict myself to one specific question: what becomes of the we in 1934?

The Whirl of Conversation

The poem Germanien opens with the line "Not they, the blessed, who once appeared."3 For Heidegger, this line encapsulates, through the sharp negation of this "Not," the caesura that separates the singular being [Einzeln], the "I," from its essence [Wesen]. Our situation is one in which the I, previously secure in its I-hood, has lost itself because it has lost its gods, i.e., it has lost all source of stable order and rank (§5a). It is here, in this distress, that the I first comes to glimpse its ontological-historical rootedness in the we, in the people which stands in relation to its gods (i.e., to its essence)-though this glimpse takes place only once the gods have fled and we-ness has thus lost its stability (§5b). At this juncture, the time of the "Not they . . .," the poet emerges. His/her task is to be the δα?μων of the we, of the people, to herald the new gods through poetic saying and thereby ground the we once more:

The poet compels and averts the lightning of the god into the word and places this lightning-laden word into the language of his people. The poet does not deal with his soulful experiences, but rather stands "under the storm of the god" -"with bare head," defenselessly abandoned and without means. (GR 30)

Likewise:

Storm and lightning are the language of the gods, and the poet is he who, steadfast, bears and absorbs this language and places it in the Dasein of the people. (Ibid., 31)

According to these passages, the poet receives and bears the language of the gods, placing it in the language of the people. With this, however, Heidegger is not saying that there is first the language of the people in which we and our poet are situated and then, subsequently, the gods' address to us. "Our" language does not precede and situate the poet but is the preservative echo of the poetic event which constitutes it (ibid.). Thus, for Heidegger, Holderlin is the "poet of the Germans" not in the sense that his poetic address presupposes and happens in the already constituted German language but in the sense that German, as the people speak it, is a response to or echo of his poetic address. …

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