Heidegger's Estrangements: Language, Truth, and Poetry in the Later Writings. By GERALD L. BRUNS. Yale University Press, 1989.
ln this. thoughtful, telling, and very valuable work, Bruns, a literary critic, demolishes many of the cliches about the later Heidegger which circulate among philosophers and focusses - in an audition of some of Heidegger's most pregnant texts - on the unsettling strangeness which these cliches are designed to repress: "philosophers are so stewed in their prejudices concerning poetry that they have pretty much closed themselves off to what the later Heidegger is about - frequently they don’t even have the general drift" (xvi). The heart of the book is an airins of two texts from Unterwegs zur Sprache, "Language" (Chapters 2 and 3) and “The Way to Language" (Chapters 4 and 5). The author proceeds slowly and elaborately, with a tendency to repetitiveness. His is an exemplary commentary in that it allows the reader to hear what Heidegger has to say with all its overtones. Along with Derrida's "The Retrait of metaphor" (1978) Bruns’ book is now the essential companion to these texts.
Contrary to a bland vocabulary of "unconcealment,' and “dwelling” Bruns teases out the most central strand in Heidegger's meditation on language: "Dichten as the letting-goof language, as the experience of being utterly bereft of language, as that which is exposed to the uncanny" (xxii). Bruns brings a calm and ripe Gadamerian notion of hermeneutics to his reading of Heidegger: "understanding Heidegger is not to be thought of simply as… getting inside or behind the 6lck of Heidegger. Understanding goes on in front of the text in the encounter with the Sache of thinking. The task of the text is to open thinking to this encounter by shaking it loose from the cozy ground of its concepts” (8). Bruns listens with exemplary patience to what Heidegger is saying, but, more importantly, he allows himself to be addressed by the matter with which Heidegger's texts are concerned.
This vulnerability to the Sache and its obscure, enigmatic aspects is demonstrated immediately as Bruns faces the Cerberus all readers of Heidegger must deal with: his involvement in Nazism. Bruns gravely points out that no thinking or study which has not artificially cut itself off from history can be totally pure: "historicality means more than intertextuality. It could be that no word can adequately serve this surplus meaning of historicality except miasma, the Greek word for defilement. One's life of study is always in question because one's texts for study can never be demystified, that is, can never be handled or dismantled in a purely analytical way" (15). Bruns does not, however, develop any critique of Heidegger's exclusively phenomenological approach to language and the poem in the course of the rest of the book. Severe words on Heidegger's moral autism merely serve to clear the ground for the admiring exegesis which follows. Cerberus is thrown the traditional sop.
The remainder of the first chapter revolves about “The Origin of the Work of Art" with strong emphasis on the artwork's "radical otherness, its reserve, its self-refusal" (42) which creates a salutary estrangement in the beholder or hearer, who is shaken out of the complacencies of everydayness._Art "breaks the will-to-power" and "the essence of poetry is to be found in its renunciation of the power of the word” (39). This interpretation reveals the inner strength of the later Heidegger’s ethos of "letting-be". However, Bruns seems infected with the narrowness of Heidegger's approach when he preaches against literary critics in the following caricatural vein: "The task of criticism is to make literature intelligible according to the norms of representational-calculative thinking, so that it becomes the ‘function’ of literature within the Ge-stell either to give us back an image of man, say the 'human form divine', or to disclose in its svstematic workings the mastercode of Western culture in any of its several symbolic, semiotic, ideological, logocentric or textual forms" (48). These sweeping statements reveal a non-dialogal attitude which. is more typical of what is worst than of what is best in the thinking of Heidegger.
"Language" deals with that happening at the heart of language, evokedin the slogan: "Die Sprache spricht”– a happening encountered “only in 'What is spoken purely [ein rein Gesprochenes]’, in contrast to what is spoken 'indiscriminately' any old way [nur bleibig Gesprochenes wahllos]" (61) – Note the gobbledygook in the second parenthesis here (bleibig should be beliebig), which reveals not only sloppy proof-reading (particularly noticeable in foreign words) but also an uneasy relationship between the author and the German tongue. He has gone to great pains to consult and expound the original, but he quotes only texts which have English translations, ignoring, for example, the Gesamtausgabe lecture series on Hoelderlin, Heraclitus and Parmenides, which are of great relevance to his theme. I had the impression that the author's references to Hoelderlin - e.g. “the romantic tradition of Hoelderlin" (106) - betray only a dim understanding of that poet and his significance for Heidegger. His judgment_that Trakl's "A Winter Evening" is "not a very prepossessing poem" (63) strikes me as an unpromising beginning to his discussion of Heidegger's commentary thereon, which is guided throughout by the spell that poem casts. He passes over Heidegger's reference to the beauty of the poem (Unterwegs zur Sprache, p. 18).
To say that Trakl's poem "remains for Heidegger a dark saying which he picks up on without explicating anything that can be attributed to the text" and that "Heidegger draws his language for talking about language from what the language of the poem gives off in the way of hints" (70) perhaps underestimates the firmness with which Heidegger moves to the culminating account of language as vehicle of "the intimacy of world and thing" (Unterwegs, p. 25). Is Bruns in danger of idolizing the obscurity of poetic language at the expense of its communicative valency? Although Bruns writes excellently of the central Heideggerian theme of the two-fold and the "rift" between Being and beings, I feel that he does not sufficiently emphasize the centrality and the governing role of this topic. There is a tendency to introduce a deconstructionist slippage foreign to the mobility of Heidegger's phenomenal language: "Call rift, therefore,(loosely) a figure of indeterminacy in deference to all those cases in which things don't (or can't) quite get put into words, that is, cases where, for whatever reason, you stop or come up short conceptualizing things, or saying (exactly) what something means - cases, or say fallings or failings in which the darkness of Saying appropriates our discourse" (p. 161). Derrida is interested in deconstructing concepts, but Heidegger is not interested in concepts at all; his language moves exclusively on a phenomenological register at the service of the phenomenon of the ontological dif-ference. Derrida himself appears to share my misgivings about the Derridean character of Bruns' Heidegger (p. 223). Bruns is close to Reiner Schuermann (Heidegger on Being and Acting, Indiana University Press, 1987) in seeing Heidegger more as a thinker of anarchy and dissemination than as a namer of the essence of being (see Jean Greisch, La parole heureuse, Paris: Beauchesne, 1986).
In quoting Levinas on discourse as "the experience of something absolutelv other” and "a traumatism of astonishment" (96) doesn't he focus too much on the unhomeliness of language at the expense of its nature as "the house of being" - a phrase unjustifiably dismissed as the product of "a weak moment" (57)? Heidegger's approach to the essence of language is less an exercise in disorientation than Bruns suggests in saying that “Heidegger allows the word [dif-ference] to unfold in a series of wild substitutions - wild, because none of them fits in with the others to form anything like a coherent pattern" (89). The guidance of the Sache is what gives coherence to the sequence of Diaphora, Ereignis, Dimension, Schmerz, der Riss. They home in on a precise apprehension of the being/beings or world/thing dif-ference, on which he believes himself to have a firm phenomenological grasp. To say that dif-ference can no longer function as “a term of art in determining such things as the relation of Being and beings” (88) is misleading. One may query whether it is possible for a thinker concerned exclusively with the given phenomena to speak of Being or beings in a unitary fashion. (I put this problem to Jean Beaufret who answered that Heidegger thought of the unity of Being only as a "working hvpothesis".) Such a query may provide the starting-point for a deconstruction of Heidegger. but that is not the way he himself chose to follow. Bruns cites a hermeneutical remark of Heidegger's: "leave everything open" (p. 126), but misuses it to elude the determining character of that toward which Heidegger's thinking is oriented.
Can one say that Heidegger's Eroerterung never reaches a precise Ort - "without arriving at a final determination" (56)? Surely the Ereignis in which speech and the thing/world play are gathered into their essential determinations does present itself as such a final resting-place for the discussion. To say that "language for the later Heidegger is more forest than house" (57) seems to underestimate the housing capacities of the Ereignis. The characterization of Heidegger's texts as "curiously unrevised… - a thinking-out-loud in which there is no looking back… Heidegger takes up one figure after another without bothering to clean up after himself, leaving behind within the text itself instead of in smudged manuscripts in the desk drawer the Nachlass of uncorrected thoughts" (90-91), reads a post-modern drifting into the quite purposeful course of Heidegger's meditative path.
The discussion of "The Nature of Language" again focusses on "language in its reserve, its excessiveness with respect to the logos (to logical or propositional form), its wildness or waywardness" (120). The author rather one-sidedly celebrates this therapeutic liberation or alienation "from the very idea of language… linguistics, semiotics, various criticisms… social theory of language” (99). Is not Heidegger's. purism in this regard very close to abstractionism and obscurantism? Is it not in the end rather facile to say that the dimension of language that he has brought into view is "absolutely other", bearing only a relation of distance and distaste to more mundane understandings of language? To place Heideggerin relation to Beckett and Blanchot (105-6) restarts the all-too-human literary critical approach to texts which cannot be treated as mere incidental, any more than exegesis of the letter of Scripture can be treated as incidental to the hearing of the divine Word therein. Even if hermeneutics is essentially negative - "that which we seek to understand withdraws itself, holds itself back, eludes our grasp" (13O) - that discovery depends on plunging into the empirical details of language just as much as on listening to the peal of stillness. The author's own musing on the texture of Heidegger's style - "the 'woolgathering', 'dawdling', or 'lingering' form, in which the normal inferential movement of reason toward some conclusion, or final picture is replaced by what seem like endless reflections on a starting point that withholds itself'(136) - belongs, as he is aware, to a genre of commentary that closes the gap between speech as "absolutely other" and the empirical aspects of speech and writing. In leaping to the dimension of pure being, speech, thinking, Heidegger perhaps had to practise a haughty disdain for the realms of mere metaphysics, everyday language and calculative thinking. But a fruitful reception of his thought will have to overcome this haughtiness and institute an interplay between reason and thinking, technology and contemplation, linguistics and poetic speech.
The author insists too much on the obvious fact that Heidegger is "completely reactionary with respect to representational-calculative thinking" (136), and this perhaps hampers his engagement with his task of discerning the kind of sense that Heidegger's language makes. Occasional attempts at jokeyness are even less helpful (69, 134, 135, 137). One could also query the allusions to madness (71-72, 81-82, 142, 158) as typifying that "language itself is always speaking, always sounding, going on in its own way, independently of us, heterogeneous and wild" (143). I feel that this blurs the contours of the Heideggerian apprehension of the non-human eloquence of language. Again, a clearer distinction should be made between the ways the pun functions in Heidegger and in Finnegans Wake respectively. "Words put themselves into words only by punning, that is, in disseminations of the word as sound" (147). But in Heidegger the punsall speak to thought of the "region" (Gegend) and he takes no Joycan (or Freudian) delight in letting them run wild. Their dissemination is gathered towards an essential centre. Speech is the Logos binding everything together - "the relation of all relations" (Unterwegs, p. 215) - not a disruptive pullulation. I have said enough to indicate what a probing and thought-provoking study Bruns has given us. All students of Heidegger will read it with pleasure.
Joseph S. O'Leary
From: Hermathena 150 (Summer, 1991)