Magazine article The Spectator

Heidegger, Creative Obsession and the Salute Church in Venice

Magazine article The Spectator

Heidegger, Creative Obsession and the Salute Church in Venice

Article excerpt

Last Friday I attended a brilliant lecture at the Royal Institute of Philosophy given by Michael Inwood of Trinity College, Oxford. Inwood is our leading authority on Hegel but more recently he has turned to the formidable and mysterious Martin Heidegger. In about 1953, I remember J.P. Sartre saying that Heidegger was the most important philosopher of the 20th century, adding that even he found him 'difficult'. George Steiner ranks him, along with Wittgenstein, as 'dominant' in our age. I knew that Heidegger was a Nazi of sorts - his political trajectory is set out in Hugo Ott's biography - but I found it hard to understand why non-Nazis, indeed violent anti-Nazis, found him useful. I started to read Being and Time, and found it not merely difficult, to use Sartre's term, but impossible. As Charles II wearily remarked of his nephew by marriage Prince George of Denmark, 'I have tried him drunk and I have tried him sober, and I can make nothing of him.' Now along came Inwood to ask, Does the Nothing Noth?' and in the course of an intense hour, illuminated by sparkling metaphors and images, brought the thinking of this obscure, repellent man to life.

Heidegger was obsessed by Nothing. When Cordelia uses the word, Lear angrily replies, `Nothing can come of nothing -speak again.' But as the superb Ian Holm performance showed this year, an entire play comes out of that nothing. By arguing that Nothing is not really nothing but something else, Heidegger, or rather his interpreter, Inwood, showed that we can pose a number of important questions, including the vital one, `Did God create the universe out of nothing?', and in some cases move towards answers. It was Heidegger's view that man is poised halfway between the angels and the insects, and that metaphysical speculation - examining the nature of nothing, for example - is what pushes him away from the insects and towards the angels. He thought that `ordinary people', as opposed to scientists and philosophers, unconsciously engage in metaphysics the science of things transcending what is physical or natural - and the metaphysician's work is to make explicit the deep transcendent anxiety from which we all attempt to flee by feverish worldly activity. I learned a lot in an hour, and it occurred to me that Heidegger's relentless puzzling about metaphysical concepts was a good example of creative obsession.

Working at my new book, I am becoming slowly aware of the importance of obsession in the creative process. It operates at any number of levels. At the lowest level -journalism, for instance - I find that my temporary obsession with the iniquities of Britain's Porkie-in-Chief has proved illuminating and enables me to see what is wrong with the British media as a whole. The characteristics of an iniquitous individual - his gossip-column approach, his mendacity and malice, his appetite for character assassination, his inability to see good in human beings and his determination to emphasise all that is mean, dirty, selfish and degrading in mankind - is merely a heightened version of the media's collective persona. By investigating Porkie, I am now much clearer in my own mind why the media is in such a deplorable moral state, and even how to put it right.

At a higher level, I find obsessions punctuate the creative process as regularly as commas and semicolons. Shorn of his obsession with the perfect and total music drama, Wagner would have remained a better-than-average routine composer, and Proust, deprived of his time/memory bewitchment, might have been nothing at all. …

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