Spring 2007

Being There

On the trail of Heidegger

Leland de la Durantaye

I stood on a steeply sloping hillside deep in the Black Forest, panting, bathed in sweat and covered in mud. A group of llamas had stopped grazing nearby to watch me. After disorientation and fatigue, flying, driving, walking, and running, after springing over an electrified fence and sliding down a wooded slope, after losing my phone, my wife, and my bearings, I had at last found Martin Heidegger’s hut.

Patrick Lakey, Heidegger: Hut, Todtnauberg, Black Forest, Germany, I, 2005.

Martin Heidegger was born in the small town of Messkirch on the edge of the Black Forest in 1889, a few months after Nietzsche rushed across the Piazza Carlo Alberto in Turin, threw his arms around a cab-horse, and never came out of the embrace. This conjuncture was to be an important one for the young Heidegger; he saw a line of continuity in the idea that he came into the world as Nietzsche’s reason left it. Heidegger would go on to compare philosophical communication as speaking from mountain top to mountain top, and Nietzsche, in his Alpine seclusion, was, for him, the nearest peak. As had been the case for Nietzsche growing up in a different corner of provincial Germany, it didn’t take long for Heidegger and those around him to recognize his brilliance. He excelled in all areas, from math to Greek, theology to physics, and the choice was open to him. His staunchly Catholic family favored theology; he chose philosophy. When he completed his studies, he moved to the picturesque university town of Freiburg im Breisgau in a different part of the Black Forest to work with Edmund Husserl, the founder of a new school of philosophy: phenomenology. Husserl felt that it did not suffice to examine the abstractions and to trace the contours of the conceptual systems of such thinkers as Leibniz and Hegel. For him, a philosopher worthy of the name needed to examine more closely how one arrived at such abstractions through how one experienced individual phenomena. And how one arrived at ideas and conceptual systems was through the thousand affects and attitudes that condition them, which meant that the phenomenologist needed to go, in his words, “back to the things themselves.”

As Husserl’s assistant, Heidegger grew famous the old-fashioned way: by talking. His lectures drew ever larger and more passionate crowds, and word of mouth soon carried his fame beyond the confines of the Black Forest. Intellectuals throughout Germany began to speak of “a hidden philosopher-king,” the successor of earlier princes of the mind such as Kant and Nietzsche. Word even reached Kant’s former home in Königsberg on the farthest side of Germany (in the part of East Prussia that is today Russia), where the eighteen-year-old wunderkind Hannah Arendt was finishing high school. A short while later, she traveled to the Black Forest and began to study with him. They fell in love.

Despite a truly remarkable depth and breadth of knowledge, neither then nor later did Heidegger have the speech or the mannerisms of high European cultivation. He walked, talked, and dressed like someone from the Black Forest, Germany’s closest equivalent to the Ozarks. Too intelligent not to make a virtue of necessity, Heidegger cultivated a quaint and bucolic image, wearing to his lectures a traditional outfit that his more metropolitan students dubbed “the ontological suit.” What seemed to them, at first sight, faintly ridiculous grew less so as they listened to the brilliant young professor with the hypnotizing dark eyes speak about philosophy’s furthest origins—and its bright future.

Then as now, publication was required for academic advancement, and so, at the insistence of Husserl and others, Heidegger began to plan a work that would secure his position. In 1922, his wife Elfriede had inherited a modest sum, and to avoid the galloping inflation of the period she invested it in a secluded retreat for her philosopher-husband and their growing family. She found a small plot of hillside land in the higher reaches of the Black Forest rendered inexpensive because a stream cut through it, making it too marshy for farming. She had a small hut, twenty by twenty-three feet, built into a hillside there, commanding a beautiful view of the valley below and the Alps rising in the distance. Soon thereafter, her husband began, at last, to write.

Heidegger knew what he wanted to write about, but he did not yet know how. He felt that he had stumbled upon something monumental, the metaphysical equivalent of a corpse in the cellar. It seemed to him that philosophy had lost something which it desperately needed back. This thing was as simple to sense as it was hard to express: “being.” Inclined towards fundamental questions, he asked himself: What did we mean when we speak of “being”? The answer seemed, at first sight, self-evident. Being was all this—everything around us, everything in which we live and breathe and of which we are a part: being is the being that all beings in one mysterious manner or another share. For most philosophers, this was both true and not a philosophical question—and here was where Heidegger saw his task lying. For him, the largest question that philosophy might ask was this: what do we mean when we speak of a being common to all modes and forms of individual beings? And he saw Western philosophy as having gone astray in that it had ceased to ask this question. Philosophy’s first and most fundamental problem—the true task of metaphysics—had fallen into neglect. He recalled that Aristotle said that philosophy was born of wonder. Heidegger located “the wonder of wonders” in the idea “that being is.” This wonder, and the question that lay at philosophy’s origin and its heart, had, however, been abandoned—or, in his words, it had been “forgotten.” His goal would be to remind his age—but he had not yet figured out how.

For his special task, Heidegger soon realized that he needed special tools. He saw that the terms and concepts employed by traditional metaphysical inquiry were little suited to the task at hand and would break under the strain of what he envisioned. And so he retreated to the Black Forest, and on long walks along its wooded paths, in glades and clearings, skiing down its slopes, and in long hours poring over books in his hut, he patiently crafted a special language for his unusual task. One thing was immediately apparent: it wasn’t pretty. German played a role in this. For him, “the forgetting of being,” as he called it, began early: with the translation of Greek texts into Latin. Things did not get any better with the translations from Latin into the burgeoning Romance languages. But German, in its rugged seclusion, had been spared and, what is more, possessed what he saw as an elective affinity with Western philosophy’s native language, Greek. (When once asked about the status of English as a philosophical language, he curtly responded that it had ceased being one in 1066.) Though German offered special advantages in its similarity to Greek, this was not enough, and Heidegger began employing a German like no other. More classical philosophers such as Ernst Cassirer and the young Walter Benjamin were at a loss as to what he was talking about—but they knew they didn’t like it. Adorno dismissed it as “ontological jargon,” and no less a stylistic master than Adorno’s friend Thomas Mann asked in shocked disbelief upon first reading Heidegger: “Should not such writing be subject to punishment?” A psychologist visiting one of Heidegger’s seminars had a more common reaction: “It was as if a man from Mars had come across a group of earthlings and was trying to communicate with them.”

Patrick Lakey, Adorno & Horkheimer: Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger’s House (Villa Aurora), Los Angeles, California, USA, II, 2005.

But while everyone remarked the strangeness of Heidegger’s language, not everyone rejected it, and figures as diverse as Karl Jaspers, Werner Heisenberg, Ernst Jünger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Lacan, Pierre Klossowski, and René Char found in it an intensity of expression without compare. For his own part, Heidegger was perfectly aware of the strangeness of what he was saying. In a lecture from 1925, he told his students, “If I am forced to employ here cumbersome and unattractive expressions, this is no mere whim on my part and stems from no special fondness for having my own terminology. Instead, it responds to the constraint placed upon language by the phenomena themselves.” Heidegger saw himself as renewing Husserl’s phenomenology, following the things of the world back to a distant—and thereby strange—origin.

Like his manner and his dress, Heidegger’s new philosophical language bore unabashed signs of its origins. He began Being and Time by apologizing for “the severity and strangeness of my expressions,” and it soon became clear to the book’s readers that these were not the severe or strange expressions of classical metaphysics, not technical-sounding formulations like Kant’s “thing-in-itself” or Hegel’s “sublation” but a new—and strangely sylvan—language. His preferred metaphorical register was that of the area around his hut: of forests and paths, of peaks and valleys, of dwellings and clearings, calls of nature and authentic connectedness with one’s environment. What seemed to most shape his language was the space before which I now, dirty and disoriented, stood.

Several days earlier I had been in Freiburg, clean and well-oriented. Our business in Freiburg done, my wife and I cut across the Black Forest to France (to Strasbourg) and on the way back visited family living in the heart of the Black Forest. Contrary to my expectations, the Black Forest is not black, though it is dark. Eighteenth-century logging removed a great many of the deciduous trees and their lighter greens, leaving the more robust firs and pines to dominate—and darken—the landscape. Also contrary to my expectations, it is hilly, and even, in High Black Forest, mountainous. We visited the ruins of a family of robber barons who controlled from a mighty peak one of the main passageways through the forest; we followed the winding swath of destruction cut by a recent tornado (“Lothar”); we tried to accustom ourselves to the local dialect; and we climbed to mountain peaks from which you can see the Vosges rising on the far side of the valley of the Rhine, as well as the Swiss Alps rising majestically in the hazy distance. After visiting a particularly breathtaking final peak, we began to make our way home, stopping by the side of the road to look at a waterfall. As my wife and her cousin moved towards the waterfall, I stood rooted by a small sign. It pointed towards “Todtnauberg.” 

I first heard of the Black Forest in high school, having overheard a friend of my mother’s who taught philosophy say that Being and Time was “the smartest and worst book” he had ever read. Being the adolescent I was, this was appealing, and I soon got my hands on the book. On the first page I read:

Dedicated to Edmund Husserl
in friendship and admiration.
Todtnauberg in Baden, Black Forest

April 8th 1926.

Given the absurd comprehensiveness of the title, it seemed to me fitting that it had been written in what did not sound like a real place. I knew next to no German, but enough to recognize the word for death, Tod, in the name of the town. Todtnauberg. Death-something-something-mountain, I said to myself. Death Mountain in the Black Forest! I was intrigued, but soon lost my way in the “strange and severe” words of the first chapters and gave up, appropriately enough, in a section entitled “The Task of the Destruction of Ontology.” As I stood with the waterfall sounding in the distance, I recalled the smart, bad book, the strange names, and was as transfixed by the little signpost as if it indicated that nineteen kilometers down the road was an entrance to the underworld. 

We were soon on our way. Todtnauberg proved to be tucked away in a lovely and largely untouched valley. Because of the small and steep roads and the almost total absence of signs, it took us far longer than we had expected to reach it—and when we did, there was little to reach. There was no center to speak of, and virtually no stores, and so we drove up and down steep and narrow roads, some paved and some not, asking if people knew where Martin Heidegger’s hut was and reaping a variety of befuddled “No’s.” At last we saw an elderly woman in well-worn hiking boots walking a large dog, and when we asked our question, she responded brightly, “Martin Heidegger Rundweg, of course,” and gestured to the valley’s crest a few kilometers away. After a few wrong turns and a steep final ascent, we at last saw a small wooden arrow with the words Martin Heidegger Rundweg carved into it. A few hundred yards away was a sign with a photo of the aging Heidegger, looking frankly smug, and a short text with the incipit: “Wer gross denkt, muss gross irren”: “He who will think greatly, must err greatly.” I thought this was funny. A few hours later, I found it less so.

Heidegger never finished Being and Time, but this did nothing to limit its success. He published a first installment, and this was enough to secure his growing fame and make his career. He learned many lessons from this first and unfinished treatise, and in the works to follow chose the smaller scales of lectures and essays. The first sign we had seen told us that the Martin Heidegger Rundweg was precisely 6.4 kilometers long and had five informational points like the first one. Rundweg means a circular path, and finding it on the sign seemed perfectly normal, but when we failed to reach the next information point the expected 0.4 kilometers later, the word began to play upon our minds. Heidegger had been fascinated by paths and circles, and often invoked “the hermeneutic circle.” If you wanted to talk about the origin of the work of art, as he did, how would you begin? You began with the artist, for the artist creates the work of art and is thereby its origin. But is an artist who does not create, or no longer creates, works of art still an artist? Is it not, rather, that the work of art is the origin of the artist? The answer to these questions are all, yes and no—or, seen from a different angle, involve “the hermeneutic circle.” Heidegger wrote about situations where “what is at issue is not avoiding the hermeneutic circle, it is in entering it in the right way.” Circular forms of reasoning could not be everywhere and always shunned—and nothing was gained by trying to avoid them. Everything instead depended “on how one entered the circle.” My wife and I had entered the circle of the Martin Heidegger Rundweg at the beginning and were enjoying the tree-lined peaceful walk bathed in afternoon sun, with its intermittent glimpses through the trees of the valley below and the mountain tops in the distance. But the trail markers that had been accompanying us seemed to have disappeared. Our goal—the information point that the first panel told us would be called “Heidegger’s Hut: Why the Hut is Not a Museum”—was nowhere to be found.

Photo Frédéric Le Mercier.

In philosophy, as with the martial arts, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. My little bit of knowledge about Heidegger’s philosophy told me that Heidegger’s final collection of essays bore the modest title Wegmarken. Wegmarken means “Path-Markers,” and was a simple enough title for a collection of essays. But when it came out, it reminded his readers of his most influential collection of essays and lectures published eighteen years earlier: Holzwege. Holzwege proved a disarmingly difficult title to translate, or even understand: Holz means “wood,” and wege means “paths.” Thus: “Paths in the Forest”—but Holzwege are not just any paths. They are paths made not for the forest but the trees; paths for finding and carrying wood (back to your hut), not for getting from point A to B. And when you are on one, you are, proverbially, on the wrong path. They are thus a special kind of Rundweg. And they can be dangerous if you do not recognize them for what they are, as sooner or later it gets dark and the animals come out. The French translated Heidegger’s book as “Paths That Lead Nowhere”; in a sign of Anglo-Saxon sobriety and pragmatism, the English translation is Basic Writings. Heidegger’s title had everything to do with what he called the “forgetting of being” and what he felt led to our dominant modes of reasoning, with their focus on instrumental value and immediate results. He had no problem with such reasoning so long as it was kept within limits, but pointed out that the instrumental reasoning useful for building cities or waging wars was not the reasoning that philosophy set out to study and practice. One of the things that he most energetically opposed was what he saw as the hyper-rationalization of means and ends in modern times and went so far as to suggest that the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan and the organization of Nazi death camps were the indirect but nevertheless real results of an unreflective dependence on instrumental reasoning (one of the very few points on which he was to agree with Adorno). It seems that Heidegger collected his philosophical writings under the heading of Holzwege not because they were meant to lead people astray, but because he wanted his readers to think of philosophy not merely as a means to an end, as a way of getting from point A to point B, but as an activity cultivating something of which our alienated age was perilously close to losing sight. This seemed to me a fine thing to think and write about, but I felt that we were, at the moment, in need of some very instrumental reasoning.

Half an hour later, we had found no further Wegmarken, no new information point, and suspected we had inadvertently left the Rundweg and forked onto a Holzweg. It was time for a decision. We were expected back at the head of the trail by my wife’s cousin waiting at the car with her infant child. Because we had already been gone too long, we decided to err separately. My wife, not having had any adolescent experiences with Heidegger and having known from earliest youth that the Black Forest was a real place, would go back. I would jog ahead, “take a little look at my hut,” and run back. 

The forest grew more dense, and a canopy of fir trees darkened the trail. A kilometer or so further down I at last found the long-awaited information point. The sign was laying on its back in the underbrush a few feet back from the trail. I couldn’t see where it had been removed from, maybe a few feet away, maybe a mile. Maybe Lothar had deposited it here, I wondered. I forked and reforked, went off the trail and returned to it, climbed to the valley’s peak to get a better look, and returned. The only figures I saw were miniscule ones in the distance. I combed the far peak for signs of my wife but found none. I had passed the point of no return. 

At a steady jog, I kept on the trail as it curved around the valley’s rim. The evening light grew more and more beautiful. And then I saw it! But it wasn’t it, it was a different hut. Not far I found a new sign, this one firmly fixed in the ground. It was called “Martin Heidegger Rundweg: Thinker to Thinker: Guests,” and listed some of the great minds who had visited Heidegger in his hut. One name stood out.

On the night of 9 November 1938, Reichskristallnacht, when ninety-one Jews were killed, hundreds seriously injured, about twenty-five thousand rounded up and later sent to concentration camps, and more than 175 synagogues and seventy-five hundred Jewish business burned, gutted, or otherwise demolished by government-incited mobs, eighteen-year-old Paul Celan’s train from Romania to France passed through one of Berlin’s principal stations. He went unnoticed and unharmed, but in his native Czernowitz (then Romania and today part of the Ukraine) his parents were soon interned and, a few years later, killed. He survived in a labor camp (his first job was destroying books) until the Soviets liberated Czernowitz. He worked as a male nurse in a psychiatric clinic not unlike the ones he would himself later visit, and composed his first great poem, “Death-Fugue.” Its now-iconic refrain notes that “Death is a master from Germany.” Although Celan had a remarkable array of languages at his disposal (French, English, Yiddish, Romanian, Russian, and German), he chose German, offering the chillingly laconic justification: “Muttersprache, Mördersprache,” “mother tongue, murder’s tongue.” 

Celan continued his hauntingly beautiful explorations of the German language, leading Adorno to retract his declaration that writing poetry after Auschwitz was not possible. In July 1966, Celan, since grown famous, gave a reading in Freiburg. He had long been an admirer of Heidegger’s writings on poetry, just as Heidegger had long been an admirer of his poetry. Celan accepted Heidegger’s invitation and was driven from Freiburg into the heights of the Black Forest for a meeting at the hut. Celan took a drink from the wooden well outside with the star above it, wrote a few lines in the guestbook, and the two men went for a walk. Heidegger marveled at Celan’s knowledge of the natural world—flowers, plants, trees, animals—and it was the healing powers of this natural world with which Celan began a poem he wrote a week later about his visit. “Todtnauberg,” begins, “Arnica and eyebright,” the first a flower to treat bruises, the other for pained eyes. But the flora of the poem changes as the poet thinks of the book he signed. “Whose name did it record/ before mine—?” he asks.

As virtually all who came in contact with him stressed, Heidegger’s intentions were not easy to fathom. In 1933, Heidegger joined the Nazi party, restricted contact with his Jewish mentor, Husserl, as well as with his Jewish love, Arendt, and his many Jewish students. He was appointed rector of Freiburg University in 1933 and during his inauguration speech announced that, “the Führer is himself and alone the present and future German reality and its law.” This was at once shocking and confusing for many present. One of Heidegger’s Jewish students, Karl Löwith, remarked that many present at the speech were unsure as to whether they should “go home and study the pre-Socratics or to join the SA.” After the war, most of those who had known Heidegger, like those who came to know him later, did not know how to understand his political engagement. He stepped down as rector nine months after taking up the title, and by 1934 had ceased to play a leading role amongst Nazi intellectuals. But he also never left the party and wore a Swastika in his lapel even when abroad—including a visit to Löwith’s apartment in Rome a few years later. Some compared him to Plato in Syracuse, the philosopher a prisoner to the tyrant; some suggested that his naiveté was still greater and that, like Thales, he had been staring so intently up at the philosophical sky that he fell into a political well. And others saw his choice as a cunning one—and, still worse, in line with his philosophy and its stress on authenticity and connection to the land. Years later, Elfriede Jelinek was to write a play called Totenauberg (changing the title of Heidegger’s second home from death to the dead) mercilessly attacking Heidegger and his attachment to a murderous Heimat.

In 1933, Heidegger had held a Nazi indoctrination session in his hut, and it was doubtless with a shiver of awareness that Celan recalled this as he asked himself who had signed the book before him. In characteristically subtle fashion, he evoked a nearby symbol in his own entry: “In the hut’s book, glancing towards the well’s star, in the hope of a word to come,” followed by his signature. The stress on the star was a stress on the stars Jews like himself had been made to wear, and which in so many cases meant their death. Much disturbed by the experience, Celan returned to this well and its star in the poem he wrote a week later, evoking, as well, “a thinker’s/ word/ to come,/ in the heart”—or, in other words, what so many awaited from Heidegger. That word Celan hoped would come—a word of acknowledgement and apology for his role in the Nazi party—never did and, ever more depressed by so much he recalled from his past and saw in his present, Celan drowned himself in the Seine in 1970.

I stood before the well with the star above it that Celan wove into his haunting poem and looked at the closed window of Heidegger’s study. In 1934, Heidegger turned down the most prestigious teaching post in Germany, the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Berlin. A radio address later that year entitled “Why I Remain in the Provinces” begins, “On the steep slope of a wide mountain valley in the southern Black Forest at an elevation of 1,150 meters, there stands a small ski hut.” It evokes how “on deep winter nights when a wild, pounding snowstorm rages outside and veils everything,” that “this is the perfect time for philosophy. The questions become simple and essential.” The answer as to why he remained in the provinces was that it was there that he could best follow his philosophical calling. Heidegger often stressed that his life was of little interest—and all the less for philosophy. His lecture course on Aristotle began, “Aristotle was born, worked, and died,” thus giving all the biographical information he thought relevant and moving on to the philosophy. He saw himself in similar terms—as a vehicle for ideas, and his phenomenological hut represented the point from which he could best experience the things of his world. 

Many visitors to the hut, like Celan, are known and documented. But there is one figure about whom there is some uncertainty, and yet who nevertheless saw its advantages and its shortcomings better than anyone else. Hannah Arendt and Heidegger spoke of the life of the mind, exchanged volumes of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain; they met secretly and passionately. There is every reason to believe that the love was mutual and real, and yet Heidegger chose to remain with his wife and family. Being and Time, written directly after their separation, proceeds by analyzing the affects that condition our experience of the world, such as fear and anxiety. He offers magisterial analyses of a range of these affects, but one is conspicuously missing: love. Years later, Arendt was as shocked and disappointed as the rest of Heidegger’s former friends, but she chose to contact him all the same. For a Festschrift on his eightieth birthday, she wrote “the storm that blows through Heidegger’s work—like the one which blows across centuries against it from Plato’s works—does not stem from this century.” And from her first book—on the idea of love in St. Augustine—to her last, she chose a much different path. While her public remarks were full of praise, her private ones were less so. After the war, Arendt, since married, returned to Germany and spent an uneasy afternoon with her former love and his resolutely anti-Semitic wife Elfriede. What she wrote of her experience was in her diary and was not published until after her death. This was not a diary entry like others she wrote: it was an animal fable called “Heidegger the Fox.” It begins, “Heidegger says proudly: ‘People say Heidegger is a fox.’ This is the true story of Heidegger the fox.” She continued:

There was once a fox who was so utterly without cunning that he not only constantly fell into traps but could not even distinguish a trap from what was not a trap.… After this fox had spent his entire youth in other people’s traps … he decided to completely withdraw from the fox world, and began to build a den [Fuchsbau]. … He built himself a trap as a den, sat down in it, pretended it was a normal den (not out of cunning, but because he had always taken the traps of others for their dens). … This trap was only big enough for him. … Nobody could fall into his trap, because he was sitting in it himself.… If one wanted to visit him in the den where he was at home, one had to go into his trap. Of course everybody could walk right out of it, except him. … The fox living in the trap said proudly: so many fall into my trap; I have become the best of all foxes. And there was even something true in that: nobody knows the trap business [das Fallenwesen] better than he who has been sitting in a trap all his life.

Arendt begins by pointing to Heidegger’s pride: others saw him as clever and cunning (as “a fox”) and this flattered him. The fable depicts his problem as that of weakness turned into a strength and that strength then turned against itself. His ability to discern logical inconsistencies and metaphysical mystifications, his suspicions about freezing the constant flow of life, thought, and being into the too-rigid forms of concepts and systems left him, like Nietzsche, without a home under the stormy skies of unending change. In the most famous book on political power, Machiavelli notes that “it is necessary to be a fox so as to recognize traps.” Heidegger was a fox and recognized traps, but, having isolated and denounced so many homes as traps, as limitations to thought, he found himself in a difficult position when it came time to seek a refuge for himself, and, so the story goes, when he set about to build himself a home he built himself a trap. 

I stood, bathed in sweat, mud-bespattered with the sun deepening into a rich orange glow. I wondered about the healing plants Celan pointed out to the philosopher and the word he longed for but never received, about the possibility that the hut was not perfect for philosophy, but a perfect trap, about the idea that if one wants to think greatly, one must risk erring greatly, and about love. Just then, I saw a flash of color on the trail above me. I bid the llamas a silent farewell, sprang over the electrical fence, and left the hut in peace.

This article is published as part of Cabinet’s contribution to documenta 12 magazines, a collective worldwide editorial project linking over seventy print and online periodicals, as well as other media. See www.documenta.de for more information on documenta 12 and this project

Leland de la Durantaye is assistant professor in the Department of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. In addition to his scholarly work, he has written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Review, Rain Taxi, Bookforum, and the Village Voice. His book Style is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov is forthcoming from Cornell University Press in July 2007.

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