Thomas Lynn reviews a new translation of the correspondence between Heidegger and Jünger, touching on the ideas discussed by the pair and how they might be useful in today’s political context.
Martin Heidegger and Ernst Jünger, Correspondence 1949-1975, trans. Timothy Sean Quinn (New Heidegger Research, 2016) 144pp.
Among the virtues of correspondences is their capacity to recall us to the ‘everydayness’ of their participants. This aids our perspective, especially with names whose celebration has delivered their bearers to the obscuration of hagiagraphy. Also, it serves as encouragement, an illustration that the dramas of thought and poetry is actually unfolding on the stage of the everyday that we all occupy.
Timothy Sean Quinn’s translation of the lettered exchanges between Martin Heidegger and Ernst Jünger brings the reader exactly such a sense of the realities of both men, as, for instance, in their mutual disdain for being “monumentalized”. One humorous note is found in a note of Jünger to Heidegger’s wife Elfride on the approach of Martin’s eightieth birthday (Entry 55). Unable to attend himself, Jünger is ‘conspiring’ with Elfride to surprise her husband with the gift of a volume Federbälle (Shuttlecocks). Along with discussing the particulars of their birthday conspiracy, Jünger goes on discuss the scuttling of an effort to have a local elementary school named after him.
I was rather relieved about that, because such an honour mostly occasions new terms of abuse. Best that I should put a clause in my will in which I refuse to tolerate it posthumously – I already dread the people that “then will come.” (47)
In tandem with such moments of the ordinary, there is also an explicit engagement with philosophical. Even the Shuttlecocks gift leads the two into considering the implications of the receding distinctiveness of regional dialects and the manner in which the particulars of folk etymology touched on serious philosophical matters. Other moments of reflection found through the collection include discussion of interpretation of a passage from the maxims of Antoine de Rivarol, “Le mouvement entre deux repos est l’image du present entre le passé et l’avenir. Le tisserand qui fait sa toile fait toujours ce qui n’est pas.” (Entries 16-19, pp.17-20). There is also conversation around the question of the “clearing of Being”, marked especially in entries 46 through 48. (39-42) Here replying to Jünger’s wondering as to how one can “step out” into that clearing, Heidegger conveys,
We need not first “step out” into the clearing, since we always already stand in it. This in-standing determines ex-istence. But the clearing was up to now not properly thought. The first echo however resounds in ‘A-λἠθεια, providing that we think this in the Greek sense, instead of misinterpreting it through the traditional concept of truth. (42)
We find explication of what Heidegger intends by the traditional concept of truth in his essay, On the Essence of Truth (Vom Wesen der Wahrheit). To recapitulate that gloss roughly, the traditional concept of truth is one that considers ‘truth’ as a quality of correctness, or correspondence, a kind of adequacy of a notion or term to its referent. For Heidegger this tact proves superficial and ultimately hazardous. By reducing ‘truth’ to the status of a kind of property of statements rather than as an unfolding or revelation which one encounters, the traditional concept of truth almost shuttles one into a corridor of exclusion from that encounter: the stipulation or adoption of a map or grid of correspondence conceals rather than illuminates. This transpires in virtue of man’s or Dasein’s in-sistence upon a particular disclosure of this or that being which leads to a forgetfulness of “being as a whole” and “Being” more basically. In this regard, we are brought to a surprising reflection on ‘contemporary’ science, suggesting that it’s inflection upon the quantitative reflects its roots in the traditional ontology of scholasticism which it is often thought to subvert or evade.
Heidegger’s argumentation here, his effort to recuperate the notion of truth as unconcealment, his criticism of the traditional concept of truth and how it has ramified for the project of science, and for modernity in general…this all occurs for a complex of reasons which bring us beyond the scope of the present review. One of those, however, which does merit our attention, is an indictment of the traditional concept of truth as linked, perhaps inexorably, but at least very strongly, to nihilism. Hence in his Letter On Humanism, Heidegger indicts humanism, and the advancement of ideologies more generally as collapsing into a trivialization of value itself:
…[I]t is important to finally to realize that precisely through the characterization of something as “a value” what is so valued is robbed of its worth. That is to say, by the assessment of something as a value what is valued is admitted only as an object for man’s estimation. But what a think is in its Being is not exhausted by being an object, particularly when objectivity takes the form of value. Every valuing, even where it values positively, is a subjectivizing. It does not let beings: be. Rather, valuing lets beings: be valid – solely as the objects of its doing. ( Heidegger, Basic Writings, David Farrell Krell, ed., 251)
The concern with nihilism though was obviously not simply a Heideggerian one, but a theme which ran through a broad swath of discussions through the early to mid-twentieth century. It was also a matter of deep concern for Jünger, and in fact was the topic of address for another essay which he dedicated to Heidegger on the latter’s sixtieth birthday. The essay “Über die Linie” or, as Quinn has rendered it in his translation, “Across the Line,” comprises the second part of the volume along with the correspondence. It is this essay translation which really sets the new volume apart, for while there is much that is fruitful in the letters, this sustained reflection upon nihilism and the possibility of moving beyond it represents the most concentrated and sustained engagement found in the course of the book. Jünger’s important essay had not previously been available in English.
The connection between nihilism and the concept of truth at play in modernity is spelt out by Jünger in the course of fixing exactly what the most essential characteristics of nihilism actually are: explicitly, he rejects the trifecta of chaos, disease and evil usually linked with nihilism as merely secondary or derivative symptoms. Instead order, physicality, and expedience emerge as the driving foci of a milieu where nihilism is ascendent. Connected intimately with all three is a marked reductivism. Hence, in the eleventh section of the essay, Jünger tells us,
…In these symptoms [order, physicality, expedience] one is struck at first glance by an essential characteristic, which one could call reduction. The nihilistic world is in its essence a reduced and increasingly self-reductive world, which necessarily corresponds to the movement to the null point. The most basic sentiment that reigns in it is that of reduction and of becoming reduced. Against it, romanticism no longer prevails, but only echoes a vanished reality. Profusion dries up; the individual feels himself exploited in multifarious, not merely economic ways…
Characteristic of nihilistic thinking is also the inclination to reduce the world with its complicated and multifaceted tendencies to a common denominator. It seems impressive, if only for a little while… (84)
Jünger’s report upon nihilism though is not simply a dreary reprise of its features, but an effort to offer ultimately emboldening suggestions. He begins that effort first through a recollection of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky’s differential assessment of the phenomenon of nihilism. For though these two authors approach the matter from dramatically different vantages, yet their account exhibits a common feature. Whilst Nietzsche is “directed to the spiritual and constructive standard of measurement”, the Russian “considers the moral and theological content.”(70) Yet in both cases what emerges is the sense of nihilism not as an endpoint, but rather as a phase through which one can pass to, as it were, a higher place.
The inherent affinities between both conceptions are undeniable. The advance in the same three phases: from doubt to pessimism, from there to actions in valueless and godless space, and to a new fulfillment. This allows us to conclude that we are seeing one and the same reality, although from quite distant points. (75)
By dint of this reconfiguration, one can resist the temptation to defeatism which was in the atmosphere at the time of Jünger’s writing, and which yet decidedly is in the air today as well.
Jünger is quick though to distinguish defeatism from pessimism, which latter can actually be founded in a deeper optimism. The sketch of the relationship amongst these three terms is another moment in ‘Across the Line’’ advancing towards encouragement, encompassing its third through fifth sections. Of optimism, Jünger conveys,
…one encounters it as a knowledge that reaches more deeply than the authority of facts – and that can even create facts. Its center of gravity lies in character rather than in the world. This sort of optimism is intrinsically valuable, in so far as its supporters are animated by the will, the hope, and even the promise of enduring the eddies of history and its dangers. This is not negligible. (71)
Here is a crucial assertion. Jünger situates the individual as capable of exhibiting a significance which goes beyond the apparent import of the historical moment, of grounding an affirmation of the world in the face of moribund conditions. Jünger builds upon his analysis of nihilism as fundamentally ordering and reductive to connects its ascendency to totalizing political and cultural currents which latter can be bracketed or termed the Leviathan. The dominance of Leviathan is in what typifies the present as seemingly moribund. But through optimism one can yet resist that tide. In particular it finds its expression through two distinct but related terms – freedom and eros. The former is epitomized for Jünger in a fearlessness which conduces to sacrifice, and which is not deterred by the prospect of mortality. The latter finds itself in the powers of love and friendship:
…when two individuals love, they seize ground from Leviathan, creating a space it cannot control. Eros will always triumph as the gods’ true messenger over all titanic constructs…(97)
Eros is also alive in friendship, which, confronted with tyranny, is subjected to the ultimate ordeal…In times when suspicion penetrates into the family, the individual adapts to the form of the state. He arms himself like a fortress, from which no signs emerge…In a situation like this, conversation with the trusted friend is not only infinitely consoling, but restores and affirms the world in its free and just measures… (98)
Jünger rounds concedes that the world today is fundamentally nihilist, and that we are all in some measure complicit. However, to languish is self derision is unhelpful. The temptations of nihilism notwithstanding, recourse is yet at hand in the recollection that the Archimedean point is not in that void, but elsewhere.
The authentic heart: that is the center of the world of deserts and ruins, as was once in Thebaid. Here is the cave besieged by demons. Here everyone stands, regardless of condition and rank, in direct and sovereign struggle, changing the world with their victory. If one prevails here, Nothing will recede. It will deposit treasures from the flood along the shore. They will compensate for the sacrifice. (101)
Heidegger in was duly moved by “Across the Line”, sufficiently so that he would offer an extended response in a piece initially entitled “Über ‘die Linie,’” or “Across ‘the Line.’” Unfortunately, that reply was excluded from the present volume due to the vagaries of copyright law. For my own part, though, I took good substance from Jünger’s composition, timely in its warnings against the allure of defeatism and in its commending of the individual as the locus from which a better world may be realized. At all events, Quinn’s translation of this essay, and the correspondence it accompanies are to be warmly recommended both for their stimulation, and for some philosophically informed inspiration.
[The quotation from Heidegger’s Letter On Humanism was drawn from the translation found in the 1993 Harper Collins publication of his Basic Writings as edited by David Farrell Krell. The translation was rendered by by Frank a. Capuzzi, in collaboration with J. Glenn Gray, and the editor David Krell]
Thomas Lynn is a writer working in Cincinnati. Among his preoccupations are the ways in which phenomenology can inform questions in current philosophy of mind, the relations between the analytic and Continental traditions in philosophy, and off the beat thinkers such as Jacques Ellus, Paul Feyerabend, or Michael Polanyi. He is also the host of Thinking Thomas, a channel dedicated to critical theory and an interview series with authors in theory and philosophy.