Heidegger and the Giant Jellyfish

by Stuart Walton

Martin Heidegger, trans. Richard Rojcewicz, Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938
Indiana University Press 400pp ISBN 9780253020673 £48.00
Martin Heidegger, trans. Richard Rojcewicz, Ponderings VII-XI: Black Notebooks 1938-1939
Indiana University Press 366pp ISBN 9780253024718 £48.00
Martin Heidegger, trans. Richard Rojcewicz, Ponderings XII-XV: Black Notebooks 1939-1941
Indiana University Press 238pp ISBN 9780253029317 £48.00
Theodor Adorno, trans. Nicholas Walker, Ontology and Dialectics 1960/61
Polity Press 384pp ISBN 9780745693125 £55.00
Donatella Di Cesare, trans. Murtha Baca, Heidegger and the Jews: The Black Notebooks
Polity Press 288pp ISBN 9781509503834 £18.99

The publication and translation of Martin Heidegger's Schwarze Hefte (Black Notebooks) since 2014 has added substantially, in every sense, to what is already one of the most voluminous Collected Works of any modern philosopher. Comprising 14 volumes of fragmentary thoughts and short aphoristic reflections, ranging in length from mere jottings to little essays, they were always intended by Heidegger himself to be added to his Gesamtausgabe, but only posthumously. These supplementary intellectual labours cover a period from 1931 to the early 1970s, but it is the writings from the first 10 years of that period that have attracted the most notice.

Debates over whether Heidegger's involvement with the Nazi regime in Germany ought to influence present-day reception of his theoretical work have never quite faded with the lengthening retrospect of postwar history, but the Notebooks have spectacularly reignited them. Heidegger accepted the post of rector of Freiburg University from the Nazi state in 1933, the same year that he joined the NSDAP. He resigned the post a little over a year later, but maintained an ardent, if critically nuanced, belief that the coming of Hitler marked the first fresh beginning for western humankind since the golden age of Greek philosophy, a trail that it had fallen to the German people to blaze. He retained his membership of the party until the end of the war, and was banned from teaching in German higher education by the Allies until the early 1950s, when he resumed an episodic pedagogical career, under the shadow of a conviction that the institutional life was not for him. To the end of his days in 1976, he remained conspicuously more or less totally silent about his conduct and attitudes during the Nazi period, not even offering the hoped-for word of regret to the poet Paul Celan during their famous personal engagement at Heidegger's woodland home in Todtnauberg in 1967.

What has relit the fuse in the Black Notebooks is a scattered series of 13 explicit, and various other glancingly allusive, passages on the Jewish people, on Judaism, Weltjudentum (world Jewry) and Verjudung ('Judaisation'). The modern world has fallen victim to soulless calculating rationalism and a principle of dehumanising technification (usually translated as 'machination'), of which the Jews are the foremost exemplars. They are no part of the authentic Being of humankind for the simple reason that they are historically rootless, opportunistic in their exploitation of economic opportunity, permanently conniving to reduce their neighbours and host societies to a condition of apathetic cynicism and unbelief. 'The underlying reason for Judaism's temporary empowerment,' Heidegger writes, 'lies in the fact that western metaphysics, especially in its modern form, provided the starting-point for the ensconcement of an otherwise empty rationality and calculability, which thus managed to find a home in “spirit”.' Above all, they have lived under the aegis of a mythical narrative of racial purity, at least until the tables began to be turned on them in the Germany of the 1930s: 'With their marked gift for calculation,' he notes in 1939, 'the Jews “live” according to the principle of race, for which reason they themselves most vigorously resist its unrestricted application.'

In Heidegger's view, what was happening to the Jews in the 1930s was not so much the administratively planned extermination of a people, but more their historically determined self-destruction, for which they had only themselves to blame. 'When what is essentially “Jewish” in the metaphysical sense fights against what is Jewish, the high point of self-annihilation [Selbstvernichtung] in history has been reached; assuming that the “Jewish” has everywhere completely seized mastery, so that even the fight against “the Jewish”, and it above all, falls under its sway.' That said, the struggle for supremacy had been anything but a level playing-field. At the end of the decade covered by the first period of the Notebooks, while the war in Nazi-occupied Europe was still raging, Heidegger offered this lament: 'The Judaism of the world, spurred on by those who were allowed to emigrate from Germany, is intangible everywhere and does not need to engage in warlike acts in spite of their display of power, whereas we [Germans] are left to sacrifice the best blood of the best of our nation.'

The Italian philosopher Donatella Di Cesare has been among the many thinkers to engage with this incendiary material since its publication. Her newly translated 2014 book Heidegger and the Jews: The Black Notebooks is a fastidious forensic investigation of the historical and personal contexts in which Heidegger's confirmed antisemitism is to be situated. She reminds us that the antisemitic temper has always held a dignified position in European theology and philosophy. Martin Luther wrote a tract entitled 'On the Jews and their Lies' in 1543, and the tradition would continue through the careless antipathies of many 19th-century thinkers, from Fichte to Schopenhauer to Nietzsche, until it had become a resistless tide of public sentiment in the period leading up to Hitler's accession to the German chancellorship. As well as inspecting the antisemitic passages of the Notebooks from every conceivable discursive angle, Di Cesare addresses the long incriminating silence into which Heidegger relapsed on the subject of the Nazi period in the years after 1945. She teases out the references in his work that speak in favour of errancy, of the necessity of thought to be allowed to think itself, whatever the ethical dispositions of the thinker, and sets it against his fulsome lamentation for the tragic fate of the Germans, who have condemned themselves – the real victims in all this – to the misery of an unfulfilled destiny, the betrayal of their historical mission and their essence.

The defeat of the project of a new beginning was worse, for Heidegger, than whatever savagery the Nazis were responsible for in the camps because it resulted in a nihilistic refusal of the destiny of the German Volk. In a passage larded with sardonic scare-quotes, he asks, 'Is not the failure to acknowledge this destiny, and the repression of our world-willing, a “fault”, and an even more essential “collective guilt” whose enormity cannot be measured against the horror of the “gas chambers”, a guilt more terrible than all the officially censurable, publicly “stigmatisable” “crimes” for which nobody will apologise in future?' To put the gas chambers in quote-marks in the postwar period, as though they were the meaningless, possibly mythical, obsession of prattlers who were not to be trusted, speaks more eloquently of Heidegger's unrepentant defiance of humane remorse than the official silence that he otherwise maintained.

Images of the Freiburg professor at a ceremonial occasion surrounded by officers in Nazi uniform, together with incriminating correspondence in which he appears to denounce Jewish colleagues, not excluding his former teacher, the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, may for those less fastidious about such alignments be put down to the imperatives of the historical context. Heidegger would later privately rue his own Dummheit for not sooner seeing through the machinating tendencies of the Nazi state apparatus itself, even if he could relegate its flagrant atrocities to the margins of historical incident, but the question that insists on being put is to what extent this most egregious of all political affiliations in 20th-century philosophy could be traced back to the body of thought that preceded it. Are there central themes and stances in fundamental ontology that prepare the ground for what its principal exponent saw as its historic date with fascism? And if there are, where does that leave the intellectual status of Heideggerian ontology today?

Polity's new English translation of Theodor Adorno's 1960-61 lecture series at Frankfurt, Ontology and Dialectics, traces some of the contours of this dilemma. 'In the case of Heidegger's philosophy,' Adorno told his students, 'I believe it is impossible to write off what are often described as political eccentricities and aberrations simply as missteps of a thinker who has gone rogue, as it were, and imagine that we can then hold on to the unadulterated wisdom or the purified doctrine that remains. For the very aspects or moments of his thinking that allowed him to identify the Führer with 'being' are already harboured in this concept of being itself, are necessarily involved in the constitution of its thought.' In its claim to penetrate to the heart of existence itself, Heidegger's thinking posits Being as something transcendent over the reign of mere conceptuality, while at the same time being something more than the aggregate of all ontic beings. In its dual status as a more-than, it becomes a mythological thought-form, in which role it would, at least initially, be fitted for the profoundly mythological variant of politics to which Germany had now given itself up. These thoughts would lead Adorno to claim that Heidegger's thought was not incidentally implicated in fascism, but was 'fascist to its innermost cells'.

In a monograph on Heidegger written in 1978, George Steiner noted that the concept of das Man in the inaugural magnum opus, Being and Time (1927), the neutralising 'they' into which humanity's core being has eroded, alienating it from its own spiritual potentials, does little more than echo the critiques of modern alienation in Engels or Durkheim. If true authenticity is surrendered in the circumstances of mass society, it took an astonishing disregard of actuality to see the Nazi state as the antidote to such a condition. In any case, where Engels had seen dehumanisation as the occasion for compassion and the need to overturn the present dispensation, what Heidegger inherits from his selective reading of Nietzsche is a contempt for the 'they' that becomes a constitutive element of his thinking. Heidegger's ontology is not fundamentally an ethics; it knows no concept of evil, only the contingency of what happens in the world into which Dasein, the individual living being, finds itself thrown.

To the editorial consultant of the Gesamtausgabe, and former personal assistant of Heidegger, Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, it is indecently disparaging of the master to attribute anything as merely epiphenomenal as antisemitism to him. The 13 references to the corrupting influence of Judaism in the ontohistorical development of humanity are 'merely incidental passages' that bear no structural or systematic relationship to the philosophy as a whole. If they were not there, Herrmann claims, ontology would still be intact, which only leaves him with the miserable task of explaining why Heidegger did not therefore choose to excise them when he could have done, and what particular purposes are served by their remaining within the corpus of this posthumously emerging work. Some have tried to offer the relatively tiny percentage of such references within the hundreds of pages of the Notebooks in exoneration, as though a few droplets of fascist poison were neither here nor there, and could be overlooked by anybody reasonable. In none of the multi-authored volumes of essays that have appeared since the publication of the Notebooks does anybody put the obvious countervailing point that many other German thinkers – by no means all of them Jewish – managed to see precisely the cretinous fraudulence of Nazi ideology for what it was before the first concentration camp had opened for business, for all that it took Heidegger at least a decade to start entertaining doubts.

His intellectual reputation has taken a battering since this publication because he managed the worst of both worlds, on the one hand maintaining a studied muteness for 30 postwar years – 'Conscience discourses solely and constantly in the mode of keeping silent,' he piously reassured himself – while on the other, insisting that his condemnations of the Jews be published when he was no longer in a position to have to defend them. According to Steiner, his silence after 1945 should be taken as complicity, 'for we are always accomplice to that which leaves us indifferent'. Simmering in his shack in the Schwarzwald, Heidegger may have imagined he had wilfully excised himself from the reticulations of recent history which he so balefully misjudged, but he was more implicated up to his eyeballs in it even than those who had, to his contempt, been forced to flee it. 'There is no other way to break out of history,' Adorno writes in Negative Dialectics, 'than regression.'

In December 1949, in one of a series of lectures Heidegger gave in the city hall at Bremen, he had this to say about the technological enframing to which the principle of machination had subjected the world: 'Agriculture is now a mechanised food industry, in essence the same [das Selbe] as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockading and starving of countries, the same as the production of hydrogen bombs.' One could argue, as Di Cesare prudently points out, that Frankfurt critical theory made much the same point, that the same impulse that permits the mechanised slaughter of beef cattle will eventually produce the industrial processing of human death. The crucial difference, however, is that for Adorno and Max Horkheimer, these tendencies cut to the heart of what had turned the world into hell by the 1940s, whereas for Heidegger what is essential is the fundamental ontic indifference of contingent events. 'Nothing else mattered except the alienation of beings from Being,' Di Cesare writes. 'And just as the Jew, accused of causing that alienation, had been eliminated, so beneath the levelling and anaesthetising gaze of the philosopher of Being, extermination became an event like any other, ontically indifferent.' Indeed, he already knew this in the midst of the world war, as the Notebooks affirm: 'The last act of technology will be that the earth blows itself up and humanity disappears. This is no catastrophe, but the first purification of being from its disfiguration by the primacy of entities.'

Even without the overt antisemitism, which is more structurally integral to fundamental ontology than any part it plays in Hegel or Nietzsche, Heidegger's philosophy was a racially informed speculative teleology of the victory of Being, in which all hope for the fulfilment of human destiny lay with the Germans and their idealised party-state. 'The Volk!’ he writes in the Notebooks in the early 1930s. 'This is the decisive matter – all must be put to its service.' But then comes the premonitory moment of doubt: 'The Volk – good – but whither the Volk? And why the Volk: Is it only a giant jellyfish. . .?’ Regrettably, for Heidegger, it was. Pulsing along in the ocean of being, it turned out to be no less an ontic creature than the myriads of other life-forms amid which it found itself thrown. It evolved out of the same historically determined milieu from which all other cultural existence had been generated. The trailing ribbons of its Europe-gripping tentacles looked mesmerising in the dim aquarium light of Freiburg. Instead of a brain, it had an acutely responsive neural network. If only it hadn't proved so toxic to other life.