A Heideggerian account of literary style

Martin Heidegger is a philosopher who had a very specific idea of the kind of philosophy he wished to practice and as such, he doesn’t make it easy for those who wish to extract something of use from his system of thought for use elsewhere, as in, for example, literary studies. His primary interest was in the nature of Being, what we might simplistically define as ontology, less simplistically, the ontology of ontology.

His style is famous for its obtuseness and difficulty, and in my own estimation, Heidegger would be less an author who demands multiple readings, than one who requires a lifetime of serious study. Unlike Nietzsche, it can hardly be said that he endorses this praxis as a proper stylistic mode. Instead, he envisioned literature, which he refers to mostly as ‘poetry’, as an extension of his own philosophical work, in establishing the nature of Being.

The only material that we can harvest from his collection of hermeneutic writings, Poetry, Language, Thought which seem relevant to literary stylistics, comes in the second chapter, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’. Enquiring into the nature of poetry involves, for Heidegger, an enquiry into its origin, in the artist and the artist’s activities. Getting to what the artist is is a difficult matter also; both seem to depend on one another as categories:

it is the work that first lets the artist emerge as a master of his art. The artist is the origin of the work. The work is the origin of the artist. Neither is one without the other. Nevertheless, neither is the sole support of the other. In themselves and in their interrelations artist and work are each of them by virtue of a third thing which is prior to both…art.

This is an unfashionable view; reflecting the increasingly social, collaborative nature of the humanities, we might increasingly wish to understand style as a likewise collaborative phenomenon, a social entity which allows for both the expression of a historical tradition and an individual idiom simultaneously.

Not for Heidegger. For him, style is somewhat beside the point, and elucidating it is a symptom of our decadent modernity, our tendency towards using things as means to ends, rather than ends in themselves. Elaborating on a text’s stylistic features, is to engage with rather facile aspects of its thingliness:

a thing is not merely an aggregate of traits, nor an accumulation of properties by which…an aggregate arises. A thing…is that around which the properties have assembled.

A style in which a thing, (and I should say, he’s talking about a jug or a stone here, hardly a novel or poem) appears does not define its thingliness completely, but it definitely partakes in it. Rather than having a secure sense of style, we have an aporia, direct information on the difficulty of confronting it methodologically, because of our fallen culture. Rather than grappling with style in its actuality, we only list traits, and thereby we come to an understanding of a thing-concept, rather than thing.

In resolving this, we might construct ‘a free field to display its tingly character directly,’ in such a way that that which interposes itself between the interpreter and an understanding of thingly nature, would be set aside. Of course, Heidegger is a pessimist regarding the success of this endeavour:

There is much in being that man cannot master. There is but little that comes to be known. What is known remains inexact, what is mastered insecure…When we contemplate this whole as one, then we apprehend, so it appears, al that is — though we grasp it crudely enough.

A Gadamerian Theory of Literary Style

Hans Georg-Gadamer was a philosopher working within the field of hermeneutic theory, which investigates the ways in which interpretation works, and how we come to understand things in the way that we do. He is a thinker deeply steeped in the Western philosophical tradition, but I came to him for his influence on literary theory, as Gadamer is also working within the tradition of German philology, from which Erich Auerbach, the author of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature also emerge. This post will deal with his theories as they are laid out in Gadamer’s magnum opus, Truth and Method.

The first thing to know about Gadamer, is that he was a student of Martin Heidegger, which is very significant for those approaching his works. Not only does this require of us a sensitivity to their political resonance, which does, at times, veer towards justifying totalitarianism, but also allows us to detect subtle tendencies towards Heidegger’s philosophical thought, such as those on the nature of Dasein.

One of Gadamer’s objections to hermeneutics is its perceived aspiration towards practicing it objectively, or with a manner of disinterestedness. Gadamer traces this positive valuation of objectivity back to the Enlightenment, which argued for a scientificist ideology within the human sciences. One might recall Heidegger’s own vision of modern society as overly mercantilist and alienating, pursuing things for their ends, rather than treating things as ends in themselves.

If restoring the temporal angle to a work of art sounds familiar it should, as it recalls one of the most significant things Heidegger identified relating to the nature of Dasein, namely, its temporal quality, and therefore, its being in a constant state of becoming. This is ontology as process, and it is something that we as interpreters should be aiding, rather than stymieing. We should never be trying to ‘resolve’ a work of art, but open it up to further questions. It is fortunate then, that Gadamer believes that this happens automatically, in the course of a very interesting process called ‘play’, a full account of which I won’t provide here, because I’m primarily interested in Gadamer’s notion of style, which he outlines in a fairly brief appendix to Truth and Method.

Gadamer objects to the notion of style, seeing it, as any good philologist would, within a genealogy. For Gadamer, its meaning has changed over time, but in some originary sense, it owes its significance to jurisprudence, and the way in which one would conduct a trial along pre-determined lines. This manner of conducting trials led to the idea that a particular style of writing can be deployed incorrectly, in a way inappropriate to the occasion.

The romantic era brought with it a notion of style that Gadamer attributes to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose definition became more widely accepted:

An artist creates a style when he is no longer just engaged in imitation but is also fashioning a style for himself. Although he ties himself to the given phenomenon, this is not a fetter for him. He can still express himself in the process.

Therefore style is a social, collaborative phenomenon, which happens when one draws on a tradition which exerts influence over you, while maintaining one’s own idiom. However, for Gadamer, this instantiates a notion of inherency or essence that recalls the jurisprudence argument, the appropriateness of style, from which we derive its normative, or oppressively standardising vibe.

While accepting that Gadamer is dealing with this in a three-page appendix, I think his argument is slightly thin in this instance, he goes on to say that style refers to something ‘fixed’ and ‘objective’ within works of art. This notion is inscribed by the historically effected consciousness, or the wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein, which allows us to compartmentalise each epoch along straight lines, rather than doing justice to their complications and ambiguity. Classificatory approaches along the lines of style, Gadamer argues, do us no good.

Reading Lessons from Martin Heidegger

martin-heidegger-2Trying to derive an aesthetic system or outlook from Martin Heidegger’s writings on art in Poetry, Language, Thought is an errand for fools; Heidegger explicitly rules out the idea that his hermeneutic philosophy, or at least, his philosophy which inclines itself towards hermeneutics, is concerned with aisthesis, or the apprehension of an artwork. Instead, he subsumes it within his wider philosophical task, to get to the nature of Being, note the capital B.

For Heidegger, Western philosophy has insufficiently grappled with ontology. René Descartes made a mistake in trying to determine what is, Heidegger thinks he should have thought a bit more about what is is. What exactly we mean by Being is complicated by the alienating processes of industrialisation, mercantilism and urbanisation, which have left us with an increasingly utilitarian sense of things in the world. Instead of enquiring into the nature of what something is, we define it relative to its use-value. Heidegger writes that art is also part of this wider enquiry into Being, that this is the primary function of ‘poets’ – which I decide to extend as a catch-all term for artists in a more general sense – to do exactly what it is that Heidegger is doing, and reach a more nuanced definition of Being. This might seem like a self-involved or solipsistic manoeuvrer, but if you came from a national literary tradition as philosophically inclined as Heidegger (Rilke, Goethe) you might well agree with him.

So how would one read a text in a Heideggerian way? Well, Heidegger was always more interested in the posing of further questions than in proposing resolutions. There’s very little in Poetry, Language, Thought that one could hope to derive a positive methodology from, unless saying something like ‘The answer to this has six primary components,’ and providing a long digression on said components is your notion of pragmatism. Interestingly, one of his students, more invested in heremeneutic philosophy as an autonomous branch of philosophical enquiry, Hans Georg-Gadamer, is similarly anti-systematic, perceiving the work of art as something that makes you subject to its meaning-makings. In this schema, the process of interpretation is something that leaves the putative reader behind, meaning overtakes your agency as it establishes itself. Which I think could be productively linked with the writings of Heidegger which attempt to justify National Socialism. Digression for another time.

Rather than describe how the work of art works on us, Heidegger divvies it up into increasingly thin components, the allegory of the form/content binary, within which there is the form-matter, which is distinct in itself, the process of ‘worlding’ that a work of art inaugurates, ‘the earth’ on which the work dwells and many, many other features which contemporary literary critics would probably understand, rightly or wrongly, as relating to a work’s context.

There is a tendency in the wake of Jacques Derrida, particularly when he seemed to be such an attentive reader of these philosophers supposedly foundational to post-structuralism, such as Heidegger, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, that within these philosopher’s works are the germs of Derrida’s system of thought. Therefore Heidegger’s insistence on the context being made up of these manifold sections, interdependently and intricately linked, may create a sense that this structure is about to be deconstructed, and lapse into its own angst. In fact, Heidegger is very clear that these sections retain their formal integrity, each may be articulated relative to and within the other, as is the case in Derrida’s re-formulation of Ferdinand de Saussure’s differential networks of meaning, but within this mutual articulation, they remain solid. This comes across in a very interesting passage that describes the process of building a bridge:

“It does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge lies across the stream. The bridge designedly causes them to lie across from each other. One side is set off against the other by the bridge…With the banks, the bridge belongs to the stream the one and the other expanse of the landscape around the stream.”

By coming to an understanding of what is outlined in this perhaps wilfully obtuse paragraph, Heidegger hopes that we may come to an understanding of art which will provide a place of dwelling rather than merely a refuge, a place that we can authentically ‘live’ within, rather than merely taking refuge. Hear, hear, I say, probably.