Disappearing Act: The Sequel

16 March 2009


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An exercise in self-declaration

Since I started with Sartre yesterday (in Disappearing Act), it is appropriate, in a sense, that I continue with Sartre. In his influential essay, “What is Writing?” Sartre wrote:

If a writer has chosen to remain silent on any aspect whatever of the world, or, according to an expression which says just what it means, to pass over it in silence, one has the right to ask: “Why have you spoken of this rather than that, and — since you speak in order to bring about change — why do you want to change this rather than that?”

This is vintage Sartre: unforgiving, demanding, and totalizing. For the last reason — its totalizing pretensions — I cannot wholeheartedly agree. Nevertheless, even if my agreement falls short of totality, I recognize the imperative embodied in the words.

This little passage is quite pregnant with implicit references. Did Sartre ever read Wittgenstein? It is hard to imagine, but he may have been referring to Wittgenstein when he speaks of “passing over in silence”, as this is exactly what Wittgenstein recommends in the last sentence of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” (“Wovon mann nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss mann schweigen.”) Wittgenstein, too, offers an imperative.

No writer can say everything, or address every question posed by his public pronouncements. Similarly, one does not always want to effect a change in choosing to write about anything. To imagine that one only speaks in order to effect a change is to already have placed oneself in the attitude of an institution, in virtue of the avoidance of which, as we mentioned yesterday, Sartre refused the Nobel Prize: “I, Sartre the Institution, have said it, therefore let it be done.” This is what Sartre took pains to avoid, but in fact could not avoid.

But now my reader (if I have any readers) have the right to ask me why I am going on about this anyway. For this reason: yesterday, in a caption of a picture of Heidegger, I asked the rhetorical question: “And what are we to make of Heidegger? Was he a mere apologist for the Nazis, as Hegel was taken to be an apologist for Prussianism? Can the philosopher be salvaged from the ruin of the man, as one book recently asked?”

I think that if we interpret Sartre sympathetically, and do not insist on attaining an impossible totality of expression regarding any aspect whatever of the world, that he meant leading, rhetorical questions such as I asked above constitute a form of bad faith (mauvaise foi)… words lying there like inert objects that pretend not to act even while in not acting they act.

The written word is a two way street. The writer writes, and the reader reads. If the reader’s reading leaves him dissatisfied, he certainly has the right, if not the duty, to interrogate the writer. Thus the writer responds, and writers again, and the reader reads again. This does not give us the totality of the world in prose, but it does give an account of the demands of the public sphere.

So let me declare myself on Heidegger: can Heidegger the philosopher be rescued from the ruin of the man? Yes. That is the short answer. The longer answer is that, while I despise Heidegger’s writing style, which strikes me as unforgivably obscurantist, there are some valuable ideas hidden among the verbiage, like sapphires in the mud. The long answer must also honestly acknowledge that the content of Heidegger’s thought is intimately related to what initially drew him to Nazism, or least to what he believed Nazism represented in the spring of 1933 when he joined the Nazi party to the spring of 1934 when he resigned his rectorship. Heidegger’s Nazism wasn’t a “mistake” on his part; he quite earnestly believed that the movement did not live up to its promise, and it was that promise to which Heidegger remained committed.

There is a considerable Heidegger industry that cranks out commentaries and publications in numbers apparently calculated to pad academic CVs, and because of the Heidegger controversy there is also a virtual sub-industry of books on Heidegger and Nazism. There are philosophers who think that Heidegger is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and others who won’t mention his name. This Heidegger industry has turned both Heidegger the man and Heidegger the philosopher into an institution of no mean order.

I guess there is a sense in which my attitude to philosophy is utilitarian, as I will use ideas from any source whatsoever, be it Heidegger or Sartre, Gobineau or Valery, Croce or Marx — all deeply compromised men, but all with something of value to say. Sartre himself is supposed to have said, “Valery is a fascist, but not all fascists are Valery.” I don’t think that Sartre would have argued that great poetry excuses fascism, but the least that can be said is that he clearly sees the dilemma.

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