31 October 2009

Swept Under the Rug

When I took the course on Existentialism, we read some Heidegger. If you can slog through the word-salad of his book, there seem to be interesting and even useful ideas in it. Even before we started in on it, though, Dr. Levenson warned us about Heidegger's history, and commented that generally when Heidegger was mentioned in public forums, the conversation tended to degenerate and focus solely on what he called "The Catastrophe," rather than on Heidegger's actual ideas. The Catastrophe was that Heidegger, whose philosophy seemed to offer a broad and nuanced view of humanity, fell in with the Nazis.

For a while, the tendency was simply to claim that, well, he had no choice. He was an intellectual in a Nazi-run country, so of course he had to appear to conform to the mode. Sometime in the '70's, that view was overthrown by some of Heidegger's own writing and speeches coming to light. These were not merely spouting the party line, but willfully and cheerfully advocating it. Complicating the picture, Heidegger apparently engaged in a long, torrid affair with a Jewish woman, who ardently defended him.

Dr. Levenson, himself a Jewish rabbi, said that the thing that troubled him most was that Heidegger never recanted any of his pro-Nazi propaganda. He also claimed that Heidegger was against the extermination camps. So Levenson tried to take what he saw as the good in Heidegger's philosophy, and mention, but otherwise ignore, the fascist tendencies. I have a few problems with this. First, somewhere I ran across a claim that Heidegger's primary work (Being and Time) was translated into Japanese and used to justify the extant fascist regime. Second, the English translation is, as I said above, mostly word salad. If you think you find a thread of an idea, you can then look for it in the rest of the salad and probably find similar enough threads that you think you're justified in thinking that thread was intentional. I don't know if the original German is any better, though Dr. Pelletti claims that it's just as bad, but the English translation... I saw some of the parts with threads that seemed to suggest a near-humanist philosophy. I also saw some that could much more easily be taken as fascist.

I don't feel like beating my head against the wall of his text to go dig up examples, but I suspect that the truth of the matter is that the apparent humanist strains were accidental, artifacts of the difficulty of translation and Heidegger's own peculiar use of language, and the fascist strains expressed Heidegger's actual ideas. I could be wrong. Possibly he himself was confused, and reasoned to something more humanist, but simply couldn't get past his own fascist tendencies. The result is a confusing, beguiling text, with hints of greatness obscured by darkness.

There's a great deal of irony to think that a fascist helped shape, and even begin, a philosophical movement that is very much humanity-based. What brought all this to mind this morning was an article discussing new revelations about Heidegger and his Jewish mistress. Some of its claims directly contradict Levenson's. I don't have the source-material to know which is the true account, but I suspect Levenson is determined to give Heidegger the benefit of the doubt, due to the positive threads he sees in his work, while others without that axe to grind are likely to be more objective. HT: Evolving Thoughts

No comments: