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Julian Young Heidegger's Philosophy of Art[1]

Julian Young Heidegger's Philosophy of Art[1]

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17. Heidegger had always been interested in Rilke. He is the only artist to
receive a more than passing reference during the period of Being and Time
and, as we have seen (chapter 1 section 17), had an important influence
on The Origin'. Though well-disposed to Rilke during that period,
Heidegger had, by 1942, become sharply,critical, complaining in the Ist er
lectures about the 'thoughtless lumping together of my thinking with
Rilke's [which] has already become a cliche'. In fact, he claims, his own
and Rilke's modes of thinking, in particular their use of the phrase 'the
open', are 'completely opposite'. Rilke's 'open' is really that 'fateful
modern and metaphysical concept of "the unconscious"' which is simply
a kind of waste bag for whatever will not fit into 'consciousness (ratio)'.
It is 'the irrational', 'a domain [which] remains the preserve of feeling and
instinct' (Ister pp. 91-2).
People posit the unconscious, Heidegger's critique seems to suggest, in
the grips of the idea that Being (reality) is disclosed to, and only to,
'reason'. They are, in other words, gripped by the metaphysics of natural-
ism, by the idea that the (one and only) way reality is, is the way that is
revealed by science and by sound common sense. They understand,
however, that human beings often experience reality in other, 'irrational',
ways. There is, for example, not just the 'nature' of science and common
sense, but, as Being and Time puts it, 'the nature which 'stirs and strives',
which assails us and enthralls us as landscape' (BTp. 70). To accommo-
date this, the 'rationalist', as part of a human pathology, posits 'the
unconscious' as the 'domain of feeling and instinct' and views the poet's
nature as the unconscious projection of 'subjective colouring' on to what
is really there.

Rilke, as Heidegger understands him, rightly rejects the metaphysics of
scientific naturalism. Yet by simply elevating the 'irrational' ('uncon-
scious') over the 'rational' ('conscious') he goes about the revolt against
scientism in the wrong way. Irrationalism, Heidegger stresses in many
places, is simply the obverse of rationalism, tarred with the same faults.
The irrationalist does not escape the metaphysical character of scientific
naturalism but simply replaces it with his own metaphysics, a metaphysics
according to which the way the world is, is disclosed, not by reason, but by


Modern art

'feeling and instinct'. (In practice, as we are about to see, this leads to a
metaphysics in which the key term is no longer 'matter' but rather 'will'.)
By 1946, however, by the time he came to write 'What Are Poets For?'
to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the poet's death,
Heidegger had considerably moderated his dismissal of Rilke as someone
hopelessly ensnared by metaphysics. Though the poet indeed stands, he
says, in the 'shadow' of German metaphysics, the Leibnizian-Nietzschean
metaphysics of 'will', his entanglement in metaphysics is a 'tempered' one
(PLTp. 108). In spite, that is, of the use of sometimes inappropriate lan-
guage, different, non-metaphysical currents are present in Rilke's 'valid'
(PLTp. 96) poetry. In his best work, Rilke achieves, or at least points the
way towards, a non-metaphysical experience of Being and is, therefore, a
poet of great significance 'for needy times'.
For Rilke, as Heidegger expounds him, the 'Urgrund9

, the 'primordial
ground' of beings, that is to say, 'Being', is, at least officially, the: 'will'
(PLTpp. 101-2) out of which 'truth' appears (PLTp. 60). In his best
work, however, Rilke calls the Urgrund, not 'the will', but rather 'the
venture' and, even better, 'the Open'. Though this is indeed, as Heidegger
said in 1942, the opposite of his own use of 'the open' as a synonym for
'the clearing', he now sees the merit of Rilke's usage, sees that since what
'Open' most naturally means is 'the unbounded' (PLT p. 105) (the
Dionysian), the expression points towards a non-metaphysical experience
of Being. Since a 'bounding' is when a being 'begins its presenting' (PLT
p. 154), the sine qua nonn

of beinghood, that Rilke thinks of Being as
unbounded suggests that it is conceived in a non-entifying way.
'The venture', says Rilke, offering a poetic metaphor of his experience
of Being, flings us 'ventured ones' out into existence yet at the same time
holds us in a 'gravitational pull' towards itself as the 'centre' (PLTp. 104).
The 'danger' to human beings is that they will become completely
insensible to 'the Open' and its 'pull', cut off by the metaphysics of natu-
ralism. The seeds of the danger lie in the fact that (unlike the animals) we
'represent', conceptualize the world into objects (PLT pp. 115-16).
'Objectification' as such, however (in other words, our gift for the


'A boundary is not that at which something stops [as if a thing could be recognized as the
thing it is independently of establishing its boundary] but, as the Greeks recognized,
the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.' In a slogan (which says
the same as W. V Quine's 'no entity without identity'), 'no being without a boundary'.



Apollonian'), is not itself the danger. For so long as we retain the 'festive'
mode of disclosure objects remain, for us, capable of being 'transparent'
to the Open, to, in other language, 'earth' (see chapter 3 section 4.) When,
however, the festive mood finally and completely abandons us, as happens
in the age in which things show up as and only as resource, then objects
become completely 'opaque' (PLT p. 108), an impenetrable curtain
between us and the Open. This is the condition of the present age. In our
enframed world the Open has become completely 'invisible'. Modern
humanity thus exists in the 'destitution' of oblivion to the gravitational
pull of the 'Other'. And it exists, too, in illusion. In its metaphysical insen-
sibility to the 'other side' of the 'globe of Being5

(PLT p. 124) it resembles
the child who, oblivious of the dark side of the moon, thinks of it as a
flat, illuminated disk.
Why, for Rilke-Heidegger, is the obstruction of the Open a condition
of 'destitution'? Modern life is, as Rilke sees it, a constant 'negation of
death' (PLT p. 127). Life is riddled with anxiety on account of our
'unshieldedness', our lack of 'securedness' (PLT p. 121) in the face of
death. The covert (and, of course, irrational) motive of all action, says
Rilke, is the quest for absolute security, the attempt to overcome death.
We take out health insurance,14

invest in non-mortal things like progeny,
property and reputation, we engage in the death-evading strategies
detailed in Being and Time, in the quest to escape anxiety, the quest for a
final 'safety'. The quest is, of course, futile.15

Security cannot be achieved
by taking measures of 'protection' (ibid). The absolute, unconditional


It is worth noting that the master poet of anxiety, Rilke's contemporary and fellow native
of Prague, Franz Kafka, was, in professional life, an insurance broker and theoretician of
actuarial risk.


Heidegger quotes and requotes Sophocles on this tragic point:

And into the sounding of the word
and swift understanding of all
he has found his way, even into courageous
governance of the towns.
And he has pondered how to flee
exposure to the arrows
of unpropitious weather and its frosts.
Everywhere venturing forth underway, experienceless without any way out
he comes to nothing.
The singular onslaught of death he can
by no flight ever prevent,
even if in the face of dire infirmity he achieves
most skillful avoidance.

(Ister p. 59; IM p. 147).


Modern art

security that we seek can only be achieved 'outside all caring' {ibid),
outside all practical calculation and measure-taking. As Hölderlin, too,
sees, 'full of merit, but poetically man dwells': though man indeed
deserves great credit for his practical achievements, when it comes to
'dwelling', to unconditional security, it is something entirely different, the
'poetic', which grants it to him.
The reason for our anxiety in the face of death, the reason we cannot
'read the word 'death' without negation' (PLT p. 125), as we know, is that,
gripped by metaphysics, we think of the 'side of life that is averted from
us' as something entirely 'negative', 'empty'. Rilke, however, who
describes poets (inter alios, of course, himself) as 'bees of the invisible',
bees which 'ceaselessly gather the honey of the visible, to store it up in the
sweet golden beehive of the Invisible' (PLT p. 130), teaches us qnce more
to see the unseen, to sense the dark side of the 'globe of Being'.16

In this

way he brings us to see that .

within the widest orbit of the sphere of beings there are regions and places which
seem to be negative but are nothing of the kind if we think of all things as being
within the widest orbit of beings. (PLT pp. 124—5)

Understanding that, understanding the 'other side' of beings not as an
emptiness but rather a 'plenitude' of all the, to us, unknowable 'facets' of
beings (ibid), allows us to face death without anxiety.
Rilke, then, by allowing us to become 'ecstatic', to stand out of the
visible and into its 'other side', offers us the 'poetic' experience of Being
which allows a genuine overcoming of anxiety about death, the first of
the two conditions of 'dwelling'. But he facilitates, too, our satisfying the
second condition, the condition that our world should become a world of
sacred, to-be-cared-for, things. For by allowing us to experience it as, like
the lighted side of the moon, the disclosure of an immense concealment,
by allowing us to experience Being as, like an iceberg, possessed of both
a visible and invisible 'dimension' (PLT p. 220) - the latter of 'unfath-
omable' proportions17

- the poet is, as Rilke himself puts it, the 'angel'


'That is', Heidegger adds, 'the globe of all beings as a whole' (PLTp. 124).


Heidegger quotes Rilke as suggesting that however vast the world of space and time may

it hardly bears comparison with the dimensions, with the depth dimensions of our inward-
ness, which does not even need the spaciousness of the universe to be within itself almost

East Asian art


(PLTp. 138)~who sings into being the 'haleness' and 'wholeness5

of the
'globe of Being' and thereby the 'holy' (PLTp. 141) (Heidegger puns here
on the various meanings of 'Heil'). As such he allows us to dwell in a 'safe'
and holy place and is, truely, therefore (the question Heidegger poses at
the beginning of the essay), 'a poet for needy times'.

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