The Obscure

Victor Grauer

I have, from the library, a book of four essays by Heidegger called Early Greek Thinking:The Dawn of Western Philosophy. The first in the book is "taken from a treatise composed in 1946" and deals with a fragment from Anaximander. In 1946, just after the Nazis, with whom Heidegger briefly but very actively collaborated, have been defeated, around the time, no doubt, of the Nuremburg trials, Heiddeger decides to write a purely philosophical essay on the following text (Anaximander as translated by Nietzsche):

Whence things have their origin, there they must also pass away according to necessity; for they must pay penalty and be judged for their injustice, according to the ordinance of time.

Amazingly, not only Heidegger but those who have written on his work, including many who are very aware indeed of the problems stemming from his Nazi associations, seem oblivious to the political and psychological implications of his interest in such a text at such a point in history. Heiddeger makes it seem as if he is discussing the text on a very "high" plane of understanding indeed, where "ordinary" meanings are disdained, where the "original and essential signficance" of "pre-conceptual" Greek thought is being revealed. Thus Heiddeger has problems with the above translation, questioning the terms that most prod his guilty conscience:

"They must pay penalty," Nietzsche translates . . . But the fragment says nothing about payment, recompense, and penalty; nor does it say that something is punishable, or even must be avenged, according to the opinion of those who equate justice with vengeance.

I'm not going into a detailed analysis of this particular essay. Suffice it to say that through a process where practically every single word of the fragment is subject to the most extreme torture, we arrive at the following typically Heideggerian translation, in which every troubling aspect has been abstracted out of existence:

... along the lines of usage; for they let order, and thereby also reck, belong to one another (in the surmounting) of disorder.

Yes, folks, that is what Heidegger has made of the original fragment, at least in an English translation that must also have been interesting to concoct. Something clearly to do with "penalty", "judgement" and "injustice" has become something vaguely to do with "order" and "disorder".

The most revealing essay is the one called "Aletheia" (Truth), devoted to the following fragment from Heraclitus, again initially quoted in a more or less literal translation:

"How can one hide himself before that which never sets?"

This essay was originally a lecture delivered in the interesting year 1943. Think of the situation. Heidegger in the early Thirties became Rector of a major university in Germany. He was a member of the Nazi party. On the occasion of his installation, he delivered a now notorious speech in which aspects of his philosophy are intermixed with fanatical nationalism and devotion to Der Fuhrer. (To his credit, this speech lacks any hint of the Anti-Semitism that one would have expected almost as a matter of course.) After a year or so, Heidegger has some problems with the Nazi leadership, who seem to consider his methods "too Talmudic." In addition, he apparently, so he later claimed, had problems with the more extreme racial views of Nazism. In any case, he resigns the Rectorship (but not, I think, his party membership) and lives out the war in a less "visible" academic position.

Now, in 1943, during the height of the war, during the height of the Jewish persecution, when trainloads of Jews are being sent to torture and death in Hellish camps, Heidegger comes upon a fragment from Heraclitus and decides that it might be a good topic for a lecture: "How can one hide himself before that which never sets?"

Read the text again and ask yourself how impossible it is not to read a subtext into this "topic" chosen at such a time and in such circumstances.

Heidegger begins the essay as follows: "He is called 'the Obscure.'" Heidegger is referring of course to Heraclitus, but is he not really referring to himself? Obscure not only because his work is so "difficult," but, even more to the point, obscure because of the position in which he has been placed (or placed himself) after his "problem" with Hitler and the resignation. Obscure because he has thus attempted to "hide himself" by resigning so visible a post as Rector. (but "How can one hide himself before that which never sets?")

Just after quoting the fragment, Heidegger immediately rejects a "theological-educational" interpretation offered by Clement of Alexandria (see pp. 104,105): "The Church Father was thinking about sinners hiding themselves from the light. Heraclitus, on the other hand, speaks only about 'remaining concealed'." The notion of "sin" is making him uncomfortable.

Then, a remarkable discussion. Heidegger describes a passage from Homer in which a similar vocabulary is used. "Odysseus, in the Phaeacian king's palace, covered his head [beneath his cloak] each time at the minstrel Demodocus' song, whether happy or sad, and thus hidden from those present, wept." (p. 106) In discussing the etymology of the word for "hidden," Heidegger, as though it were just simply a good example of a similar usage, a "handy" phrase to help us understand a term, quotes the tremendously powerful "well-known Epicurean admonition": "Live in hiding."

Is Heidegger, in 1943, or some part of him, secretly weeping while at the same time "covering his head" with what appear to be philological speculations? "Covering his head" in the same manner that orthodox Jews cover their heads with their prayer shawl at certain moments in the service? Is Heidegger, the Talmudist, living "in hiding" even as he writes this passage? Or perhaps some part of him is hiding itself from Heidegger. (but "How can one hide himself before that which never sets?")

All this relates to aletheia, a Greek word of special importance to Heidegger. Literally, "a-" ("non-") "letheia", referring to lethe, "forgetfullness" or "hiddeness". Aletheia thus is translated as "truth" in the sense of that which is non-hidden or non-forgotten, or that which emerges from hiding. Quoting another Greek word, meaning "to forget", Heidegger declares that it says: "I am -- with respect to my relation to something usually concealed -- concealed from myself." (p. 108) He continues: "The unconcealed, for its own part, is thereby concealed -- even as I am concealed from myself in relation to it. . . At the same time, this very concealing is itself thereby concealed." Is Heidegger or some part of him saying that some part of him is hiding itself from Heidegger but at the same time hiding this hiddeness? (but "How can one hide himself before that which never sets?")

Moving to the phrase "that which never sets," Heidegger decides that the "never-setting" is equivalent to the "ever-rising" (p. 111) and goes on to make much of this "ever-rising." My mind begins racing. Recklessly I think, what, in 1943 is "ever-rising"? Could it be smoke? During a war there is a lot of smoke. But the smoke of guns, bombs, artillery is evanescent, not "ever-rising." The only smoke that is "ever-rising" in 1943 is the smoke from the Crematoria, but surely this is too far fetched. My mind stops racing and I try to forget, to hide, this rash thought. (but "How can one hide himself before that which is ever rising?")

Another fragment of Heraclitus pops into Heidegger's mind: "The essence of things likes to hide." A little torture and it admits to a hidden meaning: "Self-revealing loves self-concealing." Again, Heidegger reminds us that he is playing a little game. But with whom? Us? Or himself? Or both? What is he self-revealing-and-self-concealing and is he hiding it from himself or only us? (but "How can one hide himself before that which is ever rising?")

Now Nietzche comes back into the picture again (that Nietzche who is of course the inspiration for Heidegger and Hitler both, but also that Nietzsche who castigated anti-Semites and ridiculed German nationalism). Nietzsche, in the form of a kind of Jiminy Cricket, pipes up with the following apt phrase: "'Being' -- we have no conception of it other than as 'life'. -- How can something dead 'be'?" p. 116. How can something dead 'be'? Is this the question haunting Heidegger? ("Son of man, can these bones live?") Is he hiding from smoky ghosts? (but "How can one hide himself before that which is ever rising?")

And if there is smoke there must be fire and sure enough before long Heidegger is suddenly talking fire: "World is enduring fire, enduring rising . . ." (p. 117) Suddenly "we are speaking of an eternal world-conflagration here . . . " And the Greek word for "fire" "names the sacrificial fire, the oven's fire, the campfire, but also the glow of a torch, the scintillation of the stars." (p. 117) "World conflagration", "sacrificial fire", "oven", "torch" -- what is being said? What is haunting his mind?

Now the fire becomes "the lighting" or "the shining" and this lighting, not the smoke of its fire, becomes the "ever-rising". (p. 118) "The never-setting, the lighting, sees and notices everything, nothing can hide before it." (p. 118) Is he speaking of the gestapo? Or is this marvelous "shining" Hitler himself? Is he speaking of or identifying with the Jews not yet in the camps, the Jews in hiding from Hitler? (but "How can one hide himself before that which ever shines?")

Heidegger now asks himself (p. 120) if the fragment "really" means what he is saying it means. Perhaps so, perhaps even in spite of Heraclitus' intention: "The fragment says it, and leaves it unuttered." Again, Heidegger is playing with us, for it is clear that he too is leaving something unuttered, saying something by means of leaving it unuttered. And if there is any doubt, this is what he has to say on the very next page:

We are too quick to believe that the mystery of what is to be thought always lies distant and deeply hidden under a hardly penetrable layer of strangeness. On the contrary, it has its essential abode in what is near by . . .(p. 121)

Is Auschwitz near enough? Or Buchenwald? Does Heidegger know about the death camps in 1943 and is he, in the same act, both concealing this knowledge from himself and revealing it to us? "Therefore the shining of the lighting is in itself at the same time a self-veiling -- and is in that sense what is most obscure." (p. 123) But isn't "what is most obscure" Heidegger himself?

My mind is boggled at this extraordinary essay in which self-delusion and self-illumination seem to become one and the same thing. It has haunted me and now that I have dealt with it perhaps I can put it to rest.