Vol. 11 No. 10 · 18 May 1989

Search by issue:

Heil Heidegger

Half-way through his review article ‘Heil Heidegger’ (LRB, 20 April), J.P. Stern asks: ‘Do we need Heidegger’s biography in order to understand his philosophy?’ His caveat lector at the beginning of the piece, however, seems already to have prejudiced this question. As this is a prejudice which threatens to distort Stern’s presentation of Heidegger’s philosophy, it deserves comment.

Does Heidegger really return repeatedly, as Stern asserts, to the question: ‘Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by “being"?’ This would seem to be precisely the kind of semantic consideration which Heidegger attacks in his – admittedly highly subjective – readings in the Scholastics. On the contrary, it seems clear that the question which Heidegger constantly returned to was: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ The distinction between the two questions is important, for the first, directed as it is towards an understanding of existence, and therefore towards Heidegger’s phenomenological reductions of the Twenties, is, in fact, solely the preparatory work – the ‘clearing of the ground’, to employ a Heideggerian metaphor – which must precede any attempt to answer the second.

It is Heidegger’s answer to this second question which is of crucial significance for any discussion of his philosophy. In asking the ‘Why’ question, Heidegger seeks to understand the meaning of existence on the basis of the ontological difference between ‘being’ – overwhelmingly human being, Dasein – and ‘Being’, Sein, Sein transcends Dasein, but occasionally ‘irrupts’ into human existence in what Heidegger refers to as an ‘event’, Ereignis. When this takes place, the ontological difference between Sein and Dasein is understood as a relationship – rather than an arbitrary distinction – in which the meaning of human existence is revealed. What is at the heart of Heidegger’s thought, therefore, is an event-theory of revelation in which the meaning of human existence comes to light out of darkness, and which is conceptualised in terms of this distinction between ‘Being’ and ‘being’. In this sense, Heidegger’s phenomenological reductions, in which he analyses the conditions of human existence, are, in fact, tangential to the philosopher’s primary task, which is to think the ontological difference as event of revelation. Here, all of his previous work can be summarised in Heidegger’s use of the expression Gelassenheit, which can be translated as ‘openness to revelation’, understood in terms of Heidegger’s event-theory. It is this Gelassenheit which Heidegger attempts to practise in his interpretations of such writers as Trakl, Rilke and Holderlin. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a form of Californian laissez faire. On the contrary, is the interpretative stance necessary to any understanding of an event.

This approach to the question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, however, engendered two great errors on Heidegger’s part. First, he identified the rise to power of National Socialism as an event: in other words, as an irruption or revelation into human existence of something of transcendental significance and meaning. Hence the high hopes with which he invested 1933 and Hitler’s election to office. Irrespective of Heidegger’s own pettiness and political aspirations, the very heart of his thought seems to be corrupt if he can regard National Socialism as a revelation of the meaning of human existence, unless one is pessimistically to find the meaning of human existence in murder and destruction. And such was never Heidegger’s intent. Here, therefore, is something which strikes at the very life of his credibility as an interpreter.

Heidegger’s second error was one of attitude. He acknowledged more or less throughout his life that the expressions he used to conceptualise his event-theory were ‘only words’: i.e. that his method was simply an analogy, a way of understanding the meaning of existence. In this sense, Sein, like Dasein, is simply one term which could be replaced by another if it better conveyed the philosopher’s intention. Sein is nothing like the Hegelian Geist, or even the Christian God. Heidegger never claims that there is something ‘out there’; he is not an idealist. He is an interpreter: but he forgets that there can be other interpretations, other interpreters. From this arrogance – the forgetfulness of his own standards of Gelassenheit as a hermeneutic stance – arose his dismissive attitude towards his colleagues. This was not always the case: in 1928 he spoke movingly of the late Max Scheler’s contribution to the task of ontological reflection. But it seems to be true that later in his life he became more and more dictatorial, at precisely the time when he should have been more open. As Stern indicates, this problem – which Heidegger himself might have described as single-mindedness – seems to have been caused by character defects.

Whatever the outcome of such psychological conjecture, however, one thing seems clear: that it was Heidegger’s identification of the rise to power of National Socialism as an event of revelation which destroyed his own credibility. Compared to this, the questions which Stern raises seem less important. If we are now to think through Heidegger’s event-theory – and it is by no means certain that we must – it is not Heidegger’s personality which we must disown, but rather certain of his interpretations. It would, after all, be curiously anti-phenomenological to base our estimation of Heidegger’s major contribution to 20th-century philosophy upon psychological considerations.

Gareth Jones
Keble College, Oxford

‘The Satanic Verses’

Now that the Satanic Verses agitation, the jihad and the counter-jihad, has been off the front pages for a number of weeks it is time to consider some of the wider aspects of race relations which the affair highlights but which have been unremarked. It has now become common knowledge that intense Muslim lobbying and large demonstrations had been taking place since October. That they were invisible to the national media till the middle of January was not the result of an accidental oversight, but was rooted in how educated opinion understands race issues. The invisibility stems directly from a mode of looking at non-white people. In the main, Asian and other ethnic minorities are only granted a shadowy existence as statistical ‘blacks’, as victims of racism with no identity or consciousness of their own. They cannot but be invisible and unheard if they should become agitated by issues to do with their own being rather than by what white people think of their ‘race’. In order to see something we need to look for it; in order to look for it we must admit the possibility of its existence. For too many politically-informed people in this country Asians are a welcome addition to black statistics but cannot be accepted on their own terms.

The marginalisation of Asian experience follows as a natural consequence of the philosophy of race relations which in the Eighties rather successfully marketed the idea of an Alabama-like Britain of two races, whites and blacks, and of the latter as a potentially revolutionary underclass politically attracted to all the radical and libertarian tendencies in white society. Laughable as these ideas will seem, except perhaps to those who have been in hibernation this winter, they have till recently enjoyed an orthodoxy amongst the Left to challenge which in public is to risk excommunication or worse. The ideas still have a lot of political life, but are clearly in decline, partly because events keep proving them false and partly because of the Government’s attack on local government – the set of institutions where these ideas have been most at work. That one of their latest expressions is Black Section’s declaration that, despite their 2.5:1 population ratio, Asian and Afro-Caribbean MPs should be in a 50:50 proportion underlies the institutionalised inequality towards Asians that this movement represents.

With a climate influenced and in some quarters dominated by this anti-racist perspective, it has been difficult for moderate ethnic minority opinion to express itself and to gain media space. While instant publicity was guaranteed to the wilder reaches of Black Sections, more representative opinion has found it consistently difficult to meet the criteria of newsworthiness. Media interest has been narrowly circumscribed by racism and anti-racism: ethnic minorities are of interest if and only if they can be portrayed as victims of or threats to white society. This ‘radicals and criminals’ paradigm, a kind of yellow star that minority persons have to wear on their coat before they have access to the media, is perhaps best epitomised in the deportation of Viraj Mendis. Not only was that the dominant race story in the media in the first half of January, when the unreported anger against the Satanic Verses was spreading like wildfire from mosque to mosque, but Mendis managed to combine in his person both prongs of the fork ‘radical and criminal’.

The Muslim agitation against The Satanic Verses began from day one (obliging the Indian Government to ban the book within a few days of its launch), but because it was confined to behind-the-scenes lobbying, it attracted no media attention – unlike the book. Even when Muslims began to take to the streets, as in Bolton on 2 December in an 8,000-strong march, they were determined to be orderly and thereby doomed themselves to continuing invisibility. They found themselves silenced by the racially-discriminatory judgments that lie at the heart of how race is reported and theorised about. Faced with this powerlessness, the unfortunate but true conclusion reached by the organisers was that they would remain unheeded till something shocking and threatening was done.

This led to a book-burning publicity stunt, and the stunt to a reaction on the part of the libertarian Left, which, when such stunts were interpreted through a prism lent by the Ayatollah, culminated in hysterical denunciations of the demonstrators as Nazis! How demonstrations noteworthy for their peacefulness could be compared to wholesale ransacking of libraries, to bully-boy intimidation and beatings, was never explained. ‘Nazi’ is the strongest term of political abuse in most people’s vocabulary, and it does not require much intelligence to see what its effects are going to be on a community which is deeply offended and feels itself marooned in a sea of incomprehension. When those who have no qualms about the burning of effigies of living persons, a national flag, or a Poll Tax registration form, declare a counter-jihad on those who protest by burning a book, the casualty, in the polarisation which ensues, is moderate Muslim attempts to find constructive ways of channelling anger.

Some of those who are now concerned about the social dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, and of ethnic minority separatism in general, are doing their best to create what they least want to see. To emigrate to another culture is to initiate a process of change – in oneself, in one’s children and in one’s children’s children. This process of change is difficult and painful, much more so for communities than individuals. Add to that the experience of racism and you have extremely vulnerable, confused and at moments angry communities. Rushdie, in his own fantastical way, has portrayed aspects of this, though his difficulty – and the root cause of the process which has ended with his enraging Muslims – is his preference for the introspective subtleties of his own individuality rather than a collective self-expression. He asked himself, ‘where am I at?’ rather than: ‘where at the present in the process of our inevitable metamorphosis is the community at?’

The process of communal metamorphosis is likely to be made much worse the greater the pressure there is to assimilate and to do it fast. Nothing is more likely to distort or freeze that process; and if the call for assimilation is accompanied by racial discrimination and social exclusion, then you have the worst of all formulas, one which leads to alienation, conflict and a more politicised separatism – as a generation of Afro-Caribbeans can testify. A politics which addresses itself to these problems must support the minority psyche and not become an additional abrasive by creating further anxiety about change.

In the Fifties and Sixties it was blithely assumed that non-white individuals, particularly West Indians, would metamorphosise into quasi-whites. It did not happen. It was then assumed in what was the cardinal error of the later period that West Indian and Asian communities would decompose and be reconstructed into ‘blacks’. Despite strenuous efforts and much radical passion, it has not happened, and it is now clear that it will not happen.

The road to social integration and race equality politics has to go through ethnicity, not against it. In the Eighties we learnt that these goals could not be achieved by being ‘colour-blind’ – witness the change of attitudes over the decade to ethnic monitoring. The lesson of the Nineties will, I believe, be that these goals cannot be achieved by being ‘ethnic-blind’. The recent ferment will not have been wholly negative if we come to acknowledge the falsehood of racial dualism and chart a course to a viable ethnic pluralism.

Tariq Modood
University College of Swansea

Many of those who violently object to Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses have not read it from cover to cover. They cite excerpts to argue Rushdie’s ‘mischievous intent’, but their arguments do not persuade. The ‘offensive’ parts occur within a madman’s dreams or hallucinations. The whole fiction, abounding in surrealism and imagistic hyperbole, is itself a kind of dream. Within its richly convoluted context, nothing is what it seems.

The 12 whores in The Satanic Verses who take upon themselves the names of the wives of Mahound figure in a satire directed, not against the holy, but against those who would play-act sexual intercourse with the holy, whether to worship, to partake of the god, or to insult the divine by a sacrilegious approximation. Gibreel, one of the many Creatures of Doubt within this book, suffers a visualisation of this futile ‘fingering’. By means of this image, Rushdie, the author of all this, mocks the mockers, and also holds the mirror up to us. The desire to make sex with the votaries of the divine, whether as worship or as gross insult, is both ancient and current. The desire to lie with the Queen, the goddess, the High Priestess of the Goddess – the boss’s wife, the movie star, or the lady in the centrefold – is with us still, and with us takes myriad guises. Rushdie’s novel is about us.

In the final analysis, neither the Prophet nor anything belonging to the Prophet can be touched, nor can the inner Islam be injured, by any fantasy of a schizophrenic within a fiction cast in the form of a dream. Nor can the author of this novel in the form of a dream be accused of such a vain and small-spirited intention. To read its most pointed critics, The Satanic Verses might be a political tract or an anti-religious polemic. It is neither. Nor is it, in any of its details, inspired by small-minded calculations of saleability after notoriety – as some say. Nor has Rushdie, as some allege, treacherously ‘sold out’ to ‘the enemies of Islam’. There are no ‘enemies of Islam’: the Crusades are done, and Jenghiz Khan’s Mongols, who laid waste to whole cities in Islam, are long since dust. There is only this dark and troubled world, in jeopardy enough without such sectarian paranoia. On the contrary, this book is an exploration of holy doubt, exercised in a wide milieu that includes men and djinn and myths and dreams and ‘angels’ and ‘gods’ and dreams-within-dreams and fables and nursery-rhymes and madness and Brecht/Weil and newspapers and ayatollahs and chiefs of police. It is Rabelaisian in its exuberance; mystical in its perceptions; catholic in its range of targets; and high-spirited and jolly in its treatment of the most serious of themes.

Rushdie portrays our all-human duality. This fundamental is sounded from the start, when two figures, one angelic and one satanic – two quite ordinary men out of the Indian subcontinent – fall from an exploded jet 29,000 feet up over the southeast coast of England and, as if having descended the birth canal, survive into a Swiftian double-arabesque.

Is he not entitled to portray, expose, explore, and above all sing, his Muslim-Anglo Angst – and ours?

Arthur Binder
Brooklyn, New York

An Epiphany of Footnotes

Marjorie Perloff’s eloquent discourse on Modernist self-quotation (Letters, 4 May) is at such a tangent from my argument that I have no difficulty in agreeing with much of it, in the way I would agree that Milton wrote Paradise Lost or that Europe was at war in 1914-1918: unless, that is, she really wants to persuade us that the works of Joyce and Proust (‘to name two’, in addition to naming Beckett, Calvino, Perec and Pinter) are all to be read as congeries of footnotes. It hadn’t escaped my notice that many modern texts, like many older ones, were self-referential, or concerned with the pleasures of ‘recognition’; nor even that the Cantos were not exactly offering themselves to us as a well-wrought urn. I also agree that self-quotation in the Cantos ‘has a very different status from, say, the footnotes Eliot added (and later regretted adding) to The Waste Land’ I even said so, regretting McGann’s failure to go into this question.

This is one of the several instances in which, when Professor Perloff doesn’t altogether miss my point, she has a tendency to make it for me. To find out what McGann rightly or wrongly tells us that Pound’s lines require us to know (in this case, where and when Pound bought his Divus), one needs the footnote by McGann to which she refers (or its equivalent). My point was that the information about Divus and the officina Wecheli could just about be decoded from within by an exceptional reader, but that for the other fact one did, as McGann said in the passage I quoted, have to be directed to what Pound ‘tells us elsewhere’. That seemed sufficient for the point I was making without my having to spell out that the relevant Poundian text was the essay on early translators of Homer. Perloff makes such a production of this essay, its contents and dates of publication, and my not citing it, that I can only suppose she believes I’m unaware of it. This would place me in roughly the same predicament as quite a few other educated readers and would add reinforcement to McGann’s vindication of the value of annotation, which I endorse. On the other hand, while I freely confess that there must be many works by Pound which Professor Perloff has read and I haven’t, it does so happen that I have long been familiar with this particular essay and have at least once discussed it in print in a different connection.

On Perloff’s main argument arising from that essay, I of course agree with her that readers who knew to the point of immediate recall every line of all of Pound’s works would be able to decode the Cantos more easily than those who didn’t, though I suspect that there would even then be plenty of occasions when the ministrations of annotators would be gratefully received. When she goes on to speak of Pound’s ‘ “footnotes", or rather cross-references’, her ‘or rather’ merely means part of what I meant when I said the footnotes weren’t footnotes, my review being specifically concerned with degrees of literalness and the slippages between them. Her claim that these non-footnotes were Pound’s way of saying, ‘look, if you want to understand my work you’ll have to read it, all of it’, suggests that she’s saying it for him, since if he’d said it she’d be likely to have cited him in his own words. If Pound did entertain this as a tenable proposition in the world in which the rest of us live, it would not be altogether out of character: greater divagations from the reality principle may be found in his life and work. But he said many things, like everyone else, and one of the things he said on the difficulties of the Cantos was ‘skip anything you don’t understand and go on till you pick it up again.’ He went on to say that the ‘foreign’ quotes are clarified in the immediate context, but if you didn’t know Greek you had to go outside to learn it (a principle he seems readier to contemplate than Perloff’s scenario allows for): the realistic alternative nowadays resorted to is the footnote explanation, useful also for those who don’t know what officina means in Latin or who haven’t heard of Christian Wechel-probably a widespread condition among Pound’s readers, then as now.

Lastly, Perloff seems to have misunderstood my argument that McGann’s way of attributing ‘referential functions’ to Pound’s ‘footnote style’ was simplistic to mean instead that I thought it simplistic to attribute referential functions to that style at all. Much of my review was, in fact, concerned with the referential features (and limitations) of the texts in question. I don’t even deny, as Perloff’s selective quotation implies, that there is a footnoting dimension in Pound’s lines: as I said, ‘they evoke the genre without enacting it.’ I went on to argue that such evocations contain self-conscious elements of irony and even parody, to be set beside other well-attested Modernist mock-pretensions to a learned manner: that they were oblique and playful rather than simply informative.

Claude Rawson
Yale University

Sylvia’s Plaque

Many LRB readers may already be aware of recent controversy in the British press concerning the grave of Sylvia Plath in Heptonstall, Yorkshire, which lacks a monument to her memory. The suggestion that she be given sanctuary in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey has been raised. Whether or not this idea is taken up, two other projects to commemorate Sylvia Plath are presently afoot: first, the erection of a sculpture in her memory on Primrose Hill; second, a blue plaque to be erected on the house in which she died in Fitzroy Road. The scheme to commemorate the homes of great figures by the erection of plaques was previously administered by the Greater London Council. Since the abolition of that body, the scheme has survived under the aegis of English Heritage, which is part of the Department of the Environment. The erection of a blue plaque for Sylvia Plath was considered by the London Advisory Committee of English Heritage in January 1988. At the time, the matter was placed in abeyance ‘to allow time for an assessment of her lasting importance as a poet’. Although the manuscript for her last novel is said to have ‘disappeared’ shortly after her death, it is my own view that on the strength of The Bell Jar alone, Sylvia Plath deserves to be commemorated as a novelist as well as a poet. Anyone wishing to assist English Heritage in reaching a decision on Sylvia Plath’s lasting importance as a poet and novelist are invited to write to Mr Victor Belcher at English Heritage, Chesham House, 30 Warwick St, London W1R 6AB as soon as possible. I would greatly appreciate copies of letters sent.

Ruth Richardson
35 Hartham Road, London N7

Barking up Wordsworth’s tree

Jenny Graham (Letters, 20 April) dismisses as an improbable surmise the identification by Nicholas Roe in his book Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years of the figure of Joseph Priestley in James Gillray’s 1795 caricature Copenhagen House, on the grounds that Priestley left England for America in 1794. Ms Graham should be informed that Gillray did not care about such details. The figure in the caricature is unquestionably that of Priestley. Furthermore, in 1798 Gillray included in his Anti-Jacobin caricature New Morality representations of both Priestley (he has a paper on ‘Inflammable Air’ in his pocket and ‘Priestley’s Political Sermons’ in his hand) and a pamphlet called ‘Original Letters to Dr Priestley in America’. In caricature you can be in two places at the same time. As for Roe’s supposedly improbable identification of ‘Citizen Wordsworth’ sitting in a tree, that, as E.P. Thompson saw in his original review (‘Perhaps Roe is pulling our leg?’), is a joke. Roe’s point in making it was, I assume, to suggest that Wordsworth remained in the background: since he did not publish his subversive writings, such as ‘A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff’, he was not publicly identifiable as a radical in the way that his fellow poets were. In this respect, it is noteworthy that among the Jacobins in New Morality are Southey, Coleridge, Lamb, ‘&Co’ – as Stephen Gill points out in his new biography. ‘& Co’ is Wordsworth.

May I suggest that the correspondence about whether Wordsworth was a Red (under the bed, up a tree, or anywhere else) be closed and one about whether he was a Green be opened? In his review of Geoffrey Hartman’s The Unremarkable Wordsworth, in the same issue, Peter Swaab claims that Wordsworth ‘quite strikingly didn’t’ write ‘proto-ecological poems about a ravished countryside’. What is the ‘Sonnet on the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’, if not such a poem? (‘Is then no nook of English ground secure/From rash assault?’) Or the section in Book Eight of The Excursion concerning ‘changes in the country from the manufacturing spirit’? ‘Where does Wordsworth call to “save" nature, and what would it be to do this?’ Swaab asks. The answer is that Wordsworth made such a call in his most ‘proto-ecological’ text, ‘A Guide to the Lakes’. As for the question of what saving nature would involve, those who established the Lake District Defence Society in the later 19th century took their cue from Wordsworth’s remark in the ‘Guide’ about the Lakes being ‘a sort of national property’: in many ways, it is Wordsworth we have to thank for the National Trust (in its original function as the preserver of land, not its 1930s aberration as the custodian of stately homes) and the National Park system.

Jonathan Bate
Trinity Hall, Cambridge

I identified the caricature in the foreground of Copenhagen House as Joseph Priestley, given its slight resemblance to the figure that stands at the centre of Gillray’s New Morality cartoon holding a volume labelled ‘Priestley’s Political Sermons’. Jenny Graham asserts that this identification is ‘improbable’, since Priestley had left for America in 1794 and so could not have been at the 1795 meeting depicted by Gillray in Copenhagen House. But she misses the point. Gillray’s purpose was to give the massed London ‘Jacobins’ a recognisable image, and a caricature of the well-known dissenter and reformist enabled him to do so. The matter of Priestley’s emigration is irrrelevant. Mary George’s catalogue of prints in the British Museum lists five cartoon allusions to Priestley between 1795 and 1800. With reference to Copenhagen House, she says that ‘in the centre … with his back to the woman selling drams, is Priestley, caricatured, standing with folded arms facing Thelwall.’ Priestley’s appearance there is an instance of his enduring reputation in English political and intellectual life, and is in no way ‘improbable’

Nicholas Roe
University of St Andrews

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences