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.

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.