Review: Heidegger’s Basic Writings

Review: Heidegger’s Basic Writings
Basic Writings

Basic Writings by Martin Heidegger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every valuing, even where it values positively, is a subjectivizing. It does not let things: be.

A Gentle Warning

In matters philosophical, it is wise to be skeptical of interpretations. An interpretation can be reasonable or unreasonable, interesting or uninteresting, compelling or uncompelling; but an interpretation, by its very nature, can never be false or true. Thus, we must be very careful when relying on secondary literature; for what is secondary literature but a collection of interpretations? Personally, I don’t like anybody to come between me and a philosopher. When a philosopher’s views are being explained to me, I feel as if I’m on the wrong end of a long game of telephone. Even if an interpreter is excellent—quoting extensively and making qualified assertions—his interpretation is, like all interpretations, an argument from authority; to interpret a text is to assert that one is an authority on the text, and thus should be believed.

Over generations, these interpretations can harden into dogmas; we are taught the “received interpretation” of a philosopher, and not the philosopher himself. This is dangerous; for, what makes a classic book classic, is that it can be read repeatedly—not just in one lifetime, but down the centuries—while continuing to yield new and interesting interpretations. In other words, a philosophical classic is a book that can be validly and compelling interpreted a huge number of ways. So if you subscribe to another person’s interpretation you are depriving the world of something invaluable: your own take on the matter.

In matters philosophical, I say that it is better to be stupid with one’s own stupidity, than smart with another’s smarts. To put the matter another way, to read a great book of philosophy is not, I think, like reading a science textbook; the goal is not simply to assimilate a certain body of knowledge, but to have a genuine encounter with the thinker. In this way, reading a great work of philosophy is much more like travelling someplace new: what matters is the experience of having been there, and not the snapshots you bring back from the trip. Even if you go someplace where you can’t speak the language, where you are continually baffled the whole time by strange customs and incomprehensible speech, it is more valuable than just sitting at home and reading guide books. So go and be baffled, I say!

This is all just a way of warning you not to take what I will say too seriously, for what I will offer is my own interpretation, my own guide-book, so to speak. I will make some assertions, but I’d like you to be very skeptical. After all, I’m just some dude on the internet.


An Attempt at a Way In

The best advice I’ve ever gotten in regard to Heidegger was in my previous job. My boss was a professor from Europe, a very well educated man, who naturally liked to talk about books with me. At around this time, I was reading Being and Time, and floundering. When I complained of the book’s difficulty, this is what he said:

“In the Anglophone tradition, they think of language as a tool for communication. But in the European tradition, they think of language as a tool to explore the world.” He said this last statement as he reached out his arm in front of him, as if grabbing at something far away, to make it clear what he meant.

Open one of Heidegger’s books, and you will be confronted with something strange. First is the language. He invents new words; and, more frustratingly, he uses old words in unfamiliar ways, often relying on obscure etymological connections and German puns. Even more frustrating is the way Heidegger does philosophy: he doesn’t make logical arguments, and he doesn’t give straightforward definitions for his terms. Why does he write like this? And how can a philosopher do philosophy without attempting to persuade the reader with arguments? You’re right to be skeptical; but, in this review, I will try to provide you with a way into Heidegger’s philosophy, so at least his compositional and intellectual decisions make sense, even if you disagree with them. Since Heidegger’s frustrating and exasperating language is extremely conspicuous, let us start there.

Imagine a continuum of attitudes towards language. On the far end, towards the left, is the scientific attitude. There, we find linguists talking of phonemes, morphemes, syntax; we find analytic philosophers talking about theories of meaning and reference. We see sentences being diagrammed; we hear researchers making logical arguments. Now, follow me to the middle of this continuum. Here is where most speech takes place. Here, language is totally transparent. We don’t think about it, we simply use it in our day to day lives. We argue, we order pizzas, we make excuses to our bosses, we tell jokes; and sometimes we write book reviews. Then, we get to the other end of the spectrum. This is the place where lyric poetry resides. Language is not here being used to catalogue knowledge, nor is it transparent; here, in fact, language is somehow mysterious, foreign, strange: we hear familiar words used in unfamiliar ways; rules of syntax and semantics are broken here; nothing is as it seems.

Now, what if I ask you, what attitude gets to the real essence, the real fundamentals of language? If you’re like me, you’d say the first attitude: the scientific attitude. It seems commonsensical to think that you understand language more deeply the more you rigorously study it; and one studies language by setting up abstract categories, such as ‘syntax’ and ‘phoneme’. But this is where Heidegger is in fundamental disagreement; for Heidegger believes that poetry reveals the essence of language. In his words: “Language itself is poetry in the essential sense.”

But isn’t this odd? Isn’t poetry a second or third level phenomenon? Doesn’t poetry presuppose the usual use of language, which itself presupposes the factual underpinning of language investigated by science? In trying to understand why Heidegger might think this, we are led to his conception of truth.

If you are like me, you have a commonsense understanding of what makes a statement true or false. A statement is “true” if it corresponds to something in reality; if I say “the glass is on the table,” it is only true if the glass really is on the table. Heidegger thinks this is entirely wrong; and in place of this conception of truth, Heidegger proposes the Greek word “aletheia,” which he defines as “unconcealment,” or “letting things reveal themselves as themselves.”

It’s hard to describe what this means abstractly, so let me give you an example. Let’s say you are a peasant, and a rich nobleman just invited you to his house. You get lost, and wander into a room. It is filled with strange objects that you’ve never seen before. You pick something up from a table. You hold it in your hands, entranced by the strange shape, the odd colors, the weird noises it omits. You are totally lost in contemplation of the object, when suddenly the nobleman waltzes into the room and says “Oh, I see you’ve found my watch.” According to Heidegger, what the nobleman just did was to cover up the watch in a kind of veneer of obviousness. It is simply a watch, he says, just one among many of its kind, and therefore obvious. The peasant, meanwhile, was experiencing the object as an object, and letting it reveal itself to him.

This kind of patina of familiarity is, for Heidegger, what prevents us from engaging in serious thinking. This is why Heidegger spends so much time talking about the dangers of conformity, and also why he is ambivalent about the scientific project: for what is science but the attempt to make what is not obvious, obvious? To bring the unfamiliar into the realm of familiarity? Heidegger thinks that this feeling of unfamiliarity is, on the contrary, the really valuable thing; and this is why Heidegger talks about moods—such as anxiety, which, he says, discloses the “Nothing.” Now, it is a favorite criticism of some philosophers to dismiss Heidegger as foolish by treating “Nothing” as something; but this misses his point. When Heidegger is talking of anxiety as the mood that discloses the “Nothing” to us, he means that our mood of anxiety is the subrational realization of the bizarreness of existence. That is, our anxiety is the way that the question faces us: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

This leads us quite naturally to Heidegger’s most emblematic question, the question of Being: what does it mean to be? Heidegger contends that this question has been lost to history. But has it? Philosophers have been discussing metaphysics for millennia. We have idealism, materialism, monism, monadism—aren’t these answers to the question of Being? No, Heidegger says, and for the following reason. When one asserts, for example, that everything is matter, one is asserting that everything is, at base, one type of thing. But the question of Being cannot be answered by pointing to a specific type of being; so we can’t answer the question, “what does it mean to be?” by saying “everything is mind,” or “everything is matter,” since that misses the point. What does it mean to be at all?

So now we have to circle back to Heidegger’s conception of truth. If you are operating with the commonsense idea of truth as correspondence, you will quite naturally say: “The question of ‘Being’ is meaningless; ‘Being’ is the most empty of categories; you can’t give any further analysis to what it ‘means’ to exist.” In terms of correspondence, this is quite true; for how can any statement correspond with the answer to that question? A statement can only correspond to a state of affairs; it cannot correspond to the “stateness” of affairs: that’s meaningless. However, if you are thinking of truth along Heidegger’s lines, the question becomes more sensible; for what Heidegger is really asking is “How can we have an original encounter with Being? How can I experience what it means to exist? How can I let the truth of existence open itself up to me?”

To do this, Heidegger attempts to peel back the layers of familiarity that, he feels, prevents this genuine encounter from happening. He tries to strip away our most basic commonsense notions: true vs. false, subject vs. object, opinion vs. fact, and virtually any other you can name. In so doing, Heidegger tries to come up with ways of speaking that do not presuppose these categories. So in struggling through his works, you are undergoing a kind of therapy to rid yourself of your preconceptions, in order to look at the world anew. In his words: “What is strange in the thinking of Being is its simplicity. Precisely this keeps us from it. For we look for thinking—which has its world-historical prestige under the name “philosophy”—in the form of the unusual, which is accessible only to initiates.”

What on earth are we to make of all this? Is this philosophy or mystical poetry? Is it nonsense? That’s a tough question. If by “philosophy” we mean the examination of certain traditional questions, such as those of metaphysics and epistemology, then it might be fair to say that Heidegger wasn’t a philosopher—at least, not exactly. But if by “philosophy” we mean thinking for the sake of thinking, then Heidegger is a consummate philosopher; for, in a sense, this is the point of his whole project: to get us to question everything we take for granted, and to rethink the world with fresh minds.

So should we accept Heidegger’s philosophy? Should we believe him? And what does it even mean to “believe” somebody who purposely doesn’t make assertions or construct arguments? Is this acceptable in a thinker? Well, I can’t speak for you, but I don’t accept his picture of the world. To sum up my disagreement with Heidegger as pithily as possible, I disagree with him when he says: “Ontology is only possible as phenomenology.” On the contrary, I do not think that ontology necessarily has anything to do with phenomenology; in other words, I don’t think that our experiences of the world necessarily disclose the world in a fundamental way. For example, Heidegger thinks that everyday sounds are more basic than abstract acoustical signals, and he argues this position like so:

We never really first perceive a throng of sensations, e.g., tones and noises, in the appearance of things—as this thing-concept alleges; rather we hear the storm whistling in the chimney, we hear the three-motored plane, we hear the Mercedes in immediate distinction from the Volkswagen. Much closer to us than all sensations are the things themselves. We hear the door shut in the house and never hear acoustical sensations or even mere sounds. In order to hear a bare sound we have to listen away from things, divert our ear from them, i.e., listen abstractly.

To Heidegger, the very fact that we perceive sounds this way implies that this is more fundamental. But I cannot accept this. Hearing “first” the door shut is only a fact of our perception; it does not tell us anything about how our brains process auditory signals, nor what sound is, for that matter. This is why I am a firm believer in science, because it seems that the universe doesn’t give up its secrets lightly, but must be probed and prodded! When we leave nature to reveal itself to us, we aren’t left with much.

And it was clear that I’m not a Heideggerian from my introduction. As the opening quote shows, he was partly remonstrating against our dichotomy of subjective opinion vs. objective fact; whereas this notion is the very one I began my review with. You’ve been hoodwinked from the start, dear reader; for by acknowledging that this is just one opinion among many, you have, willingly or unwillingly, disagreed with Heidegger.

So was reading Heidegger a waste of time for me? If I disagree with him on almost everything, what did I gain from reading him? Well, for one thing, as a phenomenologist pure and simple, Heidegger is excellent; he gets to the bottom of our experience of the world in a way way few thinkers can. What’s more, even if we reject his ontology, many of Heidegger’s points are interesting as pure cultural criticism; by digging down deep into many of our preconceptions, Heidegger manages to reveal some major biases and assumptions we make in our daily lives. But the most valuable part of Heidegger is that he makes you think: agree or disagree, if you decide he is a loony or a genius, he will make you think, and that is invaluable.

So, to bring this review around to this volume, I warmly push it into your hands. Here is an excellent introduction to the work and thought of an original mind—much less imposing than Being and Time. I must confess that I was pummeled by Heidegger’s first book—I was beaten senseless. This book was, by contrast, often pleasant reading. It seems that Heidegger jettisoned a lot of his jargon later in life; he even occasionally comes close to being lucid and graceful. I especially admire “The Origin of the Work of Art.” I think it’s easily one of the greatest reflections on art that I’ve had the good fortune to read.

I think it’s only fair to give Heidegger the last word:

… if man is to find his way once again into the nearness of Being he must first learn to exist in the nameless. In the same way he must recognize the seductions of the public realm as well as the impotence of the private. Before he speaks man must first let himself be claimed again by Being, taking the risk that under this claim he will seldom have much to say.

View all my reviews

Review: At the Existentialist Café

Review: At the Existentialist Café
At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.

Sarah Bakewell has followed her lovely book about Montaigne with an equally lovely book about the existentialist movement. Comparing the books, one can see an obvious theme emerge in Bakewell’s writing: the interest in practical philosophy. Montaigne and the existentialists share the tendency to write about their own lives and, in various ways, to attempt to live out the tenets of their philosophies. This makes Bakewell’s biographical method especially revealing and rewarding, while at the same time adding a subtle, highbrow self-help aspect to her books—life lessons with the imprimatur of big names and fine prose.

Bakewell attempts to tell the story of the existentialist movement from its twentieth-century beginnings (skipping over precursors such as Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard) to its apparent end, with the deaths of its principle architects. The four main protagonists are Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre (who, unsurprisingly, is the dominant personality), along with shorter appearances by other thinkers: Husserl, Camus, Raymond Aron, Karl Jaspers, and Simone Weil, to name the most prominent. When you consider the sheer amount of biographical and philosophical material this list represents, you realize the magnitude of the task set before Bakewell, and the consequent skill she demonstrated in producing a readable, elegant, and stimulating book.

I am sorry to say that I have read very little of the writings of the principle actors, with the exception of Heidegger. Bakewell’s account of him mostly confirmed my own experiences with the infuriating metaphysician, especially in his disturbing lack of character and, indeed, of basic humanity. Sartre comes across as far more human, if not exactly more likable. Few people could hear of Sartre’s enormous philosophical, biographical, journalistic, and literary output, over so many years, without feeling a sense of awe. Nevertheless, Sartre’s opinions rarely struck me as measured or reasonable. Though I often mourn the decline of the public intellectual, Sartre’s example gives me pause, for his influence on contemporary politics was not necessarily salubrious. Perhaps it is true that intellectuals, seeking consistency and clarity, are naturally inclined towards extreme positions. Sartre was, in any case, and it led him into some foolish and even reprehensible positions.

By contrast to these two giants, Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty come off rather well in this story. The former tempered her political opinions with a greater subtlety, thoroughness, and empathy; while the latter lived a quietly productive and happy life, while creating a philosophy that Bakewell argues constitutes the greatest intellectual legacy of the bunch.

Just as Bakewell argued that Montaigne’s writings are newly relevant for his sense of moderation, so she argues that the existentialists are newly relevant for exploring the questions of authenticity and freedom. Not having read most of their work, I cannot comment on this. But what I found most inspiring was their burning desire to think and to write—and to write like mad, for hours each day, in every genre, for decades on end. Though most of this writing was born today to die tomorrow, each one of them produced a magisterial tome for future readers to beat their heads against. I suppose I will have to pick them up sometime soon.



View all my reviews

A Walk through the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

A Walk through the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

When Washington Irving published “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in 1820, he forever blessed—or cursed—my hometown, turning a modest cemetery in an otherwise unremarkable village in the Hudson Valley into a tourist attraction. Maybe he knew this himself, for he chose to get himself buried in that cemetery, which has since grown to a sprawling size and has gained other prestigious bodies.

One of my cousins told me and my brother, when we were both young and impressionable, that you should hold your breath when driving past a cemetery so that you don’t breathe in the evil spirits. Neither of us were superstitious enough to believe that, but it made for a fun game in otherwise boring car rides. Yet holding my breath for the entirety of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, as we drove down Route 9, was always a painful challenge. The cemetery is vast—or, at least, it felt vast as I turned red, and then purple, and then blue.

Map
The free map of the cemetery

Every year around Halloween, when the fall foliage is at its most vibrant—“It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” said a friend from Spain who saw the New York foliage for the first time—this normally sleepy town is overrun with tourists from the city, all of them to see this famous cemetery. The cemetery is a ten-minute walk from the Philipse Manor station on the Hudson Line, making it an easy trip for urbanites. There are tours in the morning and evening, and on the weekends there are souvenir shops set up at the entrance. In the fall, closer to Halloween, you can buy freshly grilled sausages and drink mulled wine as you inspect the burials. They lock the gates at 4:30 pm daily.

Church
The Old Dutch Church

The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is sandwiched between Route 9, where cars continually buzz by, and the Croton Aqueduct, a trail that runs through the Rockefeller State Park preserve. The cemetery was built around, but is not affiliated with, the historic Old Dutch Church. This is a lovely stone and wooden structure, built in the 1700s near a pre-existent graveyard. The burial grounds of this church, going back to the Dutch ownership of New York, must be one of the oldest in the country. There are still tombstones written in Dutch on the property; and over the years, trees have grown up and nearly engulfed graves within their trunks. The Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns still holds services in the church every Sunday, where the congregation sits on its lovely wooden pews.

Dutch Grave
Dutch tombstone

The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery itself was established much later than the church, in 1849, and is non-denominational. The website says that Washington Irving had a hand in its creation, or at least its conception. The size of the cemetery is about 90 acres. Forty-five thousand people are buried there, about twice as many as the current populations of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow combined. As an old brochure put it, the cemetery is a veritable city of the dead. And it is still growing. Across a wooden bridge that spans the babbling Pocantico River are the recent burials, where funerals and mourners are most often seen, and where construction equipment still busily digs new graves.

Bridge

This wooden bridge, pretty and quaint with tree-trunk guardrails, is often mistaken for the bridge from Irving’s legend; but it did not exist in his day. The real location of that bridge is near the Old Dutch Church, where a sign marks its former location. Nowadays the Pocantico River is spanned by a monstrous concrete bridge in that place, which allows the busy Route 9 to cross over the water unimpeded.

When I was in high school, a friend of mine told me that his father, who worked for the cemetery, found the body of a young man who hung himself from the wooden bridge. Indeed, for many years, in the water underneath that bridge a stone plaque was clearly visible—although unreadable—which seemed to confirm the story. But now the plaque is gone—did it get washed away?—and I can’t find any information about the suicide online, which makes me wonder if the story was true.

The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is not a somber place. It is as beautiful and inviting as the finest park. I was surprised to learn that, in Spain, cemeteries have no greenery within; they are stone courtyards where bodies are interred in granite shelves and tombs. Our cemetery is almost as heavily wooded as the forest nearby, full of cedars, sycamores, and oaks, European beeches with scarlet leaves, and tiny Japanese maples whose seeds have blown into the park next door and begun to grow in the wild. There are so many bushes and ferns that the cemetery has become very popular with the local deer, who slip in through a hole in the chain-link fence. Once, in the dead of winter, I even surprised a couple of coyotes stalking around the graves, who promptly retreated to the forest.

Deer Cemetery
Deer among the graves

The graves and mausoleums of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery only add to its beauty. It is as much a statue garden as a graveyard. The monument to John Hudson Hall (1818 – 1891)—about whom I can’t find a thing—was, according to this site, crafted by the famous Beaux-Arts sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and indeed it does have a striking resemblance to one of his works, Amor Caritas. I am inclined to believe that the famous sculptor was involved, considering the extreme fineness and delicacy of the angel’s robe.

Statue Hammer
One of my favorite works in the cemetery

The monument to Owen Jones (died 1884), a successful dry-goods dealer in the 19th century, features a life-sized and lifelike statue of the late merchant. Somewhat nearby is a monument to Edwin Lister (1829 – 1889), who owned a fertilizer company. Lister’s monument has a stately bust of the deceased entrepreneur, and an excellent statue of a mournful woman eternally leaning on the grave.

Owen
Owen Jones

These monuments reminds me of the Pyramid of Cestius in Rome. That pyramid is the pharonic mausoleum of a rich Roman aristocrat, which coincidentally stands near the simple graves of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley—just as Jones’s and Lister’s graves stand near the simple graves of more famous men. It seems there are two ways of making one’s tomb a visiting place: accomplish something great, or invest in an elaborate monument.

The only statue to be marked on the official map (available for free at the entrance) is the so-called “Bronze Lady.”  It is a twice-life-size statue of a seated woman. Her eyes are sad and downcast as she looks mournfully at the mausoleum in front of her. This is the tomb of Samuel Thomas (1840 – 1903), a relatively obscure Civil War General. The sculpture is a work of Andrew O’Connor, Jr., a sculptor of considerable reputation in his day. According to the inscription at its base, it was smelted in Paris by a famous company, the Rudier Foundry, which also made works for Auguste Rodin.

Bronze Lady
The Bronze Lady

This statue was the subject of a New York Times article called “The Other Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and deservedly so. For several generations now, local kids have been telling ghost stories about the metal woman, reporting that the statue cries and weeps at night. Even when I was in high school, a whole century after the statue was installed, kids told stories about it. The story I was told was that, if you snuck into the graveyard at midnight, spit in her eye, spun around three times, and then looked into the little hole in the mausoleum door, you would be blinded for life. I never tried the experiment, although I have looked through the hole in daylight and wasn’t able to make out anything in the pitch darkness of the tomb. The legends are still going strong, if I can judge by the coins that are frequently deposited on her laps.

At least one more general is buried in the cemetery: Daniel Delavan (1757 – 1835). His military service goes back even further, to the American War of Independence. His actions in that war may not have been remarkable—since I can’t find anything about him—but his grave certainly is. A near life-size statue stands atop a large pillar, tall enough to be seen from my neighbor’s backyard. This pillar is surrounded by still more figures, including a moving sculpture of an angel cradling a crucifix. You can tell how old these statues are at a glance, since they’re so weather-beaten and eroded from the rains and years.

Delevan
Delevan’s Monument

Accompanying its two generals, the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery has a Revolutionary and a Civil War Memorial. The former is rather simple—it was erected long after the war concluded—and consists of a small stone obelisk with the names of the soldiers inscribed. The Civil War Memorial is more impressive, with a bronze statue (now carbonated and green) of a Northern soldier, striding with his musket and bayonet over a platform that bears the names of the fallen buried there. Cemeteries and wars march side by side.

Civil War

A review of the surnames of the burials here gives a taste of the ethnic makeup of the town in days gone by: Foster, Grave, Heartt, Knower, Bull, Clark, Coffin, Underhill, Newman, Newton, Small, Risk, Hackett, Hyatt. Apparently English was the dominant group—something that is certainly not true nowadays. Most graves have scant information about the people they mark. A name, a birth year, and a death year are the only facts that endure in the stone. There are some exceptions to this. One is the grave of Frederick Trevor Hill (1866 – 1933), which is an attractive plaque installed into a rocky outcrop, that informs us that he served on the American Expeditionary Force during World War I.

The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is a sea of names, read and soon forgotten. But several famous names stick out. Washington Irving is, of course, the most famous denizen of the cemetery. His tombstone is simplicity itself, a rectangular slab with a rounded top. If flags were not flanking his grave, most visitors would probably walk right by it. A family man in life and in death—he supported his brother and his nieces when they fell on hard times—Irving is buried in a family plot. As the first internationally famous American author, his funeral was a national event. It was the subject of a Harper’s Magazine cover. So many people crowded into the Christ Episcopal Church for the event that they feared the floorboards would break.

Irving

After Washington Irving, the most notable person buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919). Carnegie was apparently confident of immortality, since he did not create an ornate tomb for himself. His grave is a cross, about six feet high, isolated in a little grove. The cross is decorated in patterns that remind me of the Book of Kells. In the little footpath to the grave, there’s a plaque with a small portrait of Carnegie, as well as a list of the institutions he founded.

Carnegie Plaque

Carnegie was certainly an inspiring philanthropist, eventually donating 90% of his wealth to various charities. And he had the means to do it. Carnegie was one of the richest Americans who ever lived—and thus one of the richest people in history. A hugely admirable man, Carnegie’s reputation was slightly tarnished by his support of Henry Clay Frick (of the beautiful gallery in New York City) in Frick’s attempt to break the power of the unions in Homestead, Pennsylvania—a conflict which culminated in the death of seven strikers and three strike-breakers.

Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie and his wife

It is somewhat ironic, then, that the famous union organizer, Samuel Gompers (1850 – 1924), is buried about one hundred feet away. His grave embodies the principles of his life. Even more simple than Carnegie’s, it is a plain gray tombstone. He is not buried in a family plot; the tombstone is set amidst other burials. And it was not paid for by himself or his heirs, but by the union he helped to establish: the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Gompers was a labor organizer, who helped to join the competing guilds and small craft unions into a powerful organization, and his grave is a fitting tribute to his commitment to his fellows.

Gompers

Up the hill from Gompers and Carnegie is a decidedly immodest tomb: that of William Rockefeller (1841 – 1922). William was the younger brother of the richer and more famous John D. Rockefeller. Notwithstanding his role as second fiddle, he was still fabulously wealthy, since he co-founded Standard Oil with John. William’s tomb is a massive white mausoleum, at least twice as large as the next biggest in the cemetery. The urge that actuated pharaohs to build the pyramids—the urge to monumental immortality—seems to re-emerge whenever wealth is concentrated into the hands of few, powerful men. William Rockefeller’s former residence overlooking the Hudson, Rockwood Hall, is now a State Park. The massive mansion has been torn down, but the stone walls and groundwork remain, and the view is worth the millions he must have paid for it.

William Rockefeller
William Rockefeller’s mausoleum

Also among the opulent captains of industry buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is Walter Chrysler (1875 – 1940). His mausoleum is a kind of neo-Roman structure with Doric columns in front. The mausoleum is located at the very end of the cemetery, its entrance turned away from the road. I must admit that this tomb always strikes me as ugly. Although it emulates a noble Roman temple, it is clearly machine-made, with inhumanly sharp angles; and the gray concrete used in the building is drab and unattractive, especially when compared with the marble originals. My father, a longtime resident of the town, admitted the other day that he has never visited the cemetery. Considering that he is a big fan of Chrysler cars, perhaps he ought to come and give homage.

Chrysler
Chrysler’s mausoleum

Near the gap in the chain-link fence, used by deer, coyotes, and the occasional human to pass from the cemetery to the Old Croton Aqueduct, is buried Elizabeth Arden (1878 – 1966), the famous cosmetic entrepreneur and founder of the eponymous makeup company. Arden’s grave is astonishingly modest—so much so that it is very easy not to notice it. She is buried under a tombstone with the name “Graham,” which is her real name (“Elizabeth Arden” is a pseudonym). Looking down at the little plaque, it is hard to believe that, at one time, she was one of the richest women in the world.

Arden
The grave of Elizabeth Arden

A short ways away is the last grave identified on the cemetery map, that of the Helmsleys. Harry Helmsley (1909 – 1997) was yet another fabulously wealthy man, a prominent real-estate owner in New York City whose company once owned the Empire State Building. His wealth notwithstanding, he is nowadays primarily remembered for his second wife, Leona Helmsley (1920 – 2007), the famous “Queen of Mean.” Leona was a sort of proto Donald Trump—a quick-mouthed, tyrannical, arrogant, proudly rich New York real-estate baroness, who is remembered for saying “We don’t pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes.” This quote was brought to the public’s attention during a trial for tax evasion, which resulted in her conviction and imprisonment for 19 months (the rich always get light sentences, mysteriously).

The Helmsleys’ mausoleum is very similar to Chrysler’s—a Roman inspiration—except that it is slightly bigger. I find this tomb almost equally unattractive; but if you walk up to the door and peer through, you can see a lovely stained-glass window on the other side of the structure, with an image of the Manhattan skyline illuminated in the darkness of the tomb.

Helmsley Glass

As you can see from these examples, the tombs we build for ourselves can say a lot about our values. Our graves and mausoleums represent our stance on posterity. Carnegie wanted to be remembered for his charity; Rockefeller, Chrysler, and Helmsley for their power and wealth. Gompers apparently paid little heed to his grave, perhaps feeling that his work was more important than his immortal reputation. For many of us, I suspect, our anxieties about our posthumous reputation stems from anxieties about the ultimate value of our work. Compare, for example, the tombs of Owen Jones and Washington Irving. The dry-goods dealer invests enough money to preserve his likeness for future generations, while the lionized writer can rest easy under a plain headstone.

To the eyes of a cold logician, graveyards are nonsensical places. Why invest precious space and hard-earned money on a stone over a dead body? Why place bodies in expensive coffins that delay decomposition? Surely, it would be more sensible to bury our dead in unmarked mass graves, just like they do on Hart Island, and let them return their nutrients to the soil. Why build a monument or preserve a dead man’s name? The dead can make no use of their reputations; they are deaf to the tears of their relatives, and are well beyond caring whether they are remembered or not.

But I suspect that few among us could be so “sensible.” For death is not just a problem of logistics, expense, and disposal: it is an existential problem. Every culture that has ever thrived has had to confront the problem of death in some way. How can we reconcile human finitude with human striving? Why invest in the future if, inevitably, we won’t be a part of it? Death is traumatic, not just to friends and family but to communities. There must be communal rituals for death, acceptable stages of grief and routines of mourning, if a culture is to persist. These rituals allow the community to rally around the afflicted and to help pull them up, and allow the grief-stricken to put their pain in a wider context. Seen in this light, cemeteries are eminently sensible places.

Both Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the legends that grew up around the Bronze Lady illustrate something the anthropologist Victor Turner said about rituals. Rituals create what he called “liminal” spaces, spaces of transition and transgression, where boys can be girls and where social norms can be flouted, and where the living and the dead can mingle. These psychological “spaces” are essential for great transitions: from single to married, from boy to man, from living to dead. Cemeteries are an example of such liminal spaces, a meeting ground for this world and the next, which is why we call them “haunted.” Haunted places allow mourners to make “contact” with the deceased and then to retreat to their normal world. Cemeteries thus play a psychological and ritualistic role essential to the community.

Yet there is an existential danger in death rituals, too. When there is a routine for death, it makes mortality easier to ignore and to push into the background. In a way, rituals remove some of the terror of death by depersonalizing it: every mourner and every funeral follows the same procedure, and every corpse is buried in the same ground. But death is always personal, and can never be routine. For every person is radically unique, and death will only visit once. And as Heidegger reminded us, when death is ritualized, we risk forgetting that our lives are singular opportunities, limited and unrepeatable, and thus risk living inauthentically. In our quiet moments, most of us feel immortal; and with time stretched out indefinitely before us, there is little pressure to act on our deepest desires.

My own walks through the cemetery illustrates this double dilemma. Most of the time it is easy to forget that the names on the tombstones were, once, actual people, living and breathing, with their own ideas and perspectives and quirks, just as individual as I am. As a result, it is also easy to forget that, one day, I will be nothing more than a name on a tombstone—and maybe not even that. There is, to be sure, something positive in this forgetting. If we went around all day dreading our death, we would be miserable creatures; and if we were constantly obsessed with the potential death of our loved ones, we could hardly form any kind of relationship.

But we do need to be periodically reminded that life is limited, or we take things for granted. Real appreciation of life requires this delicate balance between awareness of our mortality and an absence of crippling dread. An occasional memento mori will suffice, I think, to prevent complacency.

Cemeteries accomplish both functions for us: they give us a place for our rituals, and they serve as perennial monuments of mortality. This was illustrated for me just the other day, as I strolled among the graves. I was drifting along when I noticed a tombstone with toy cars resting on its base. These were the same Hot Wheels that I used to play with as a kid. On the tombstone was a name, and below it the inscription “Beloved Uncle.”

Here was a private tragedy on public display, an uncle mourned by his nieces and nephews, children who lovingly placed these toys on his resting place. My insides twisted into a knot as I looked down on the grave. I felt pity, but also a twinge of dread—the flashing certainty that, one day, I would be a beloved somebody—or even an un-beloved somebody—and that this day might, for all I know, be soon.

Mountain

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Review: Introduction to the Reading of Hegel

Review: Introduction to the Reading of Hegel

Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of SpiritIntroduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit by Alexandre Kojève

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Generally speaking, there is a tendency to underestimate the difficulties of satisfaction and to overestimate those of omniscience.

Alexandre Kojève is easily one of the most influential thinkers of the last century. This is peculiar, considering that his reputation rests mainly on his interpretation of Hegel, an interpretation which he developed and propounded in a series of lectures in 1933-39. Many who attended these lectures—Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jacques Lacan, to name just two—went on to be important intellectuals in their own right, reinterpreting Kojève’s ideas for their own purposes.

Kojève’s thinking extended beyond the lecture hall, shaping his whole intellectual milieu—deeply affecting Sartre, who may never have attended the lectures—and even extended to the United States. This was largely thanks to Leo Strauss, who sent his disciples to study under Kojève. One of these disciples was Allan Bloom—of The Closing of the American Mind fame—and, in turn, Bloom taught Francis Fukuyama, who heavily relied on Kojève for his controversial bestseller, The End of History and the Last Man. Once again, Kojève was influential.

It is too bad, then, that I found his most famous book to be of little merit. Frankly, I failed to see anything of serious interest in these pages: either as textual interpretation or as philosophy. Admittedly, the former did not surprise me. By common consent Kojève was a heterodox interpreter of Hegel, mixing Hegel’s ideas with those of Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger to create something quite different from what Hegel intended (whatever that was). But I did not expect this book to be so devoid of intellectual interest. Indeed, I am somewhat at a loss as to why or how it became so influential.

For one, Kojève’s writing style will be irksome to any who prize clarity and concision. He is boorishly repetitious, persistently vague, and pompously obscure. Every other word—when it isn’t an unnecessary foreign expression—is capitalized, italicized, wrapped in scare-quotes, or set aside in parentheses, as if simple words and commas were not enough to convey his subtle message. Meanwhile, his meaning, stripped of its pretentious shell, is either a banal truism, nonsense, or obviously wrong. This, by the way, is so often the case with turgid writers that I have grown to be deeply suspicious of all obscurity. In academic circles, dense prose is easily self-serving.

I cannot make these accusations without some demonstration. Here is Kojève on work: “Work is Time, and that is why it necessarily exists in time: it requires time.” Or Kojève on being: “Concrete (revealed) real Being is neither (pure) Identity (which is Being, Sein) nor (pure) Negativity (which is Nothingness, Nichts) but Totality (which is Becoming, Werden).” Another insight on the nature of existence:

One can say, then, that Being is the being of the concept “Being.” And that is why Being which is (in the Present) can be “conceived of” or revealed by the Concept. Or, more exactly, Being is conceived of at “each instant” of its being. Or else, again: Being is not only Being, but also Truth—that is, the adequation of the Concept and Being. This is simple.

Very simple.

As I said above, Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel is distinctly implausible. Kojève sees the Master-Slave dialectic as the key to Hegel’s whole system, whereas it is only one stage in Hegel’s Phenomenology, and Hegel does not frequently refer back to it. This focus on the issue of subjection, alienation, recognition, and work allows Kojève to read Hegel as a quasi-Marxist. Kojève also has lots of things to say about space, time, mortality, and freedom, most of which is derived from Heidegger and which are totally alien from Hegel’s thought. Kojève’s originality is not in any ideas unique to him, but to the conglomeration of these German philosophers that he conveys in these lectures.

I found all this to be academically slipshod. The attempt to make Hegel into a quasi-existentialist, deriving freedom from the cognizance of death, is especially unconvincing: Hegel was anything but an existentialist. Generally speaking there are not nearly enough citations of Hegel, nor is there any discussion whatever of Hegel’s background, development, or intellectual influences. Thus as an introduction to Hegel, the text is basically useless.

Even more intellectually irresponsible is his habit of deferring to Hegel’s text right when any argument is necessary. Statements like these are common: “Once more, I am not concerned with reproducing this deduction here, which is given in the entirety of the first seven chapters of the Phenomenology. But I shall say that it is irrefutable.” He does this quite often, merely asserting something and than insisting that, to prove it, one must read and understand the whole Phenomenology of Spirit. (This habit of deferring to infallible texts, by the way, is a typical move in religious arguments, and has no place in philosophy.) As a result, this book is one bloated series of unfounded assertions—seldom citing the text or providing anything resembling an argument—which makes it worse than useless.

Now, in case you think I am being overly harsh, let me quote one section where he does seem to be making an argument:

Let us consider a real table. This is not a Table ‘in general,’ nor just any table, but always this concrete table right here. Now, when ‘naive’ man or a representative of some science or other speaks of this table, he isolates it from the rest of the universe: he speaks of this table, without speaking of what is not this table. Now, this table does not float in empty space. It is on this floor, in this room, in this house, in this place on Earth, which Earth is at a determined distance from the Sun, which has a determined place within the galaxy, etc., etc. To speak of this table without speaking of the rest, then, is to abstract from this rest, which in fact is just as real and concrete as this table itself. To speak of this table without speaking of the whole of the Universe which implies it, or likewise to speak of this Universe without speaking of this table which is implied in it, is therefore to speak of an abstraction and not of a concrete reality.

This argument is part of Kojève’s general thesis that only holistic knowledge (which he calls “circular”) is true “Knowledge.” Putting aside the dreary, bombastic pointing out of the obvious, this passage, insofar as it makes any point at all, is obviously incorrect. Kojève is saying that it is impossible to refer to concrete reality without having a complete, total knowledge (knowing everything about the table involves knowing everything about everything). This is false. To show this, as well as to demonstrate that philosophy need not always be written so badly, I will quote Bertrand Russell:

The fact is that, in order to use the word ‘John’ correctly, I do not need to know all about John, but only enough to recognize him. No doubt he has relations, near and remote, with everything in the universe, but he can be spoken of truly without taking them into account, except such as are the direct subject-matter of what is being said. He may be the father of Jemima as well as James, but it is not necessary for me to know this in order to know that he is the father of James.

Now, if this book were truly as devoid of value as I am making it out to be, it would lead to the question of how it became to popular and influential. Well, I can only guess. Perhaps Kojève’s dazzling obscurity, along with his sexy combination of the works of Marx and Heidegger—the two most influential thinkers in France at that time—allowed him to touch the Zeitgeist, so to speak. The attempt to reconcile a philosophical understanding of freedom and death (taken from Heidegger) with an understanding of oppression, historical progress, and work (taken from Marx and ultimately Hegel), may have given Kojève’s students an exciting impetus in the hectic days after the Second World War, when Europe was busy rebuilding itself. To any Kojève enthusiasts out there, please do let me know what you see in him. I remain blind.

View all my reviews

Review: The Stranger

Review: The Stranger

The StrangerThe Stranger by Albert Camus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


In Search of Lost Time

The Stranger is a perplexing book: on the surface, the story and writing are simple and straightforward; yet what exactly lies underneath this surface is difficult to decipher. We can all agree that it is a philosophical novel; yet many readers, I suspect, are left unsure what the philosophical lesson was. This isn’t one of Aesop’s fables. Yes, Camus hits you over the head with something; but the hard impact makes it difficult to remember quite what.

After a long and embarrassingly difficult reread (I’d decided to struggle through the original French this time), my original guess as to the deeper meaning of this book was confirmed: this is a book about time. It is, I think, an allegorical exploration of how our experience of time shapes who we are, what we think, and how we live.

Time is highlighted in the very first sentence: Meursault isn’t quite sure what day his mother passed. Then, he makes another blunder in requesting two days off for the funeral, instead of one—for he forgot that the weekend was coming. How old was his mother when she died? Meursault isn’t sure. Clearly, time is a problem for this fellow. What sort of a man is this, who doesn’t keep track of the days of the week or his mother’s age? What does he think about, then?

For the first half of the book, Meursault is entirely absorbed in the present moment: sensations, desires, fleeting thoughts. He thinks neither of the past nor of the future, but only of what’s right in front of him. This is the root of his apathy. When you are absolutely absorbed in the present, the only things that can occupy your attention are bodily desires and passing fancies. Genuine care or concern, real interest of any kind, is dependent on a past and a future: in our past, we undergo experiences, develop affections, and emotionally invest; and these investments, in turn, shape our actions—we tailor our behavior to bring us closer to the things we care about. Without ever thinking of the past or the future, therefore, our life is a passing dream, a causeless chaos that dances in front of our eyes.

This is reflected in the language Camus uses. As Sartre noted, “The sentences in The Stranger are islands. We tumble from sentence to sentence, from nothingness to nothingness.” By this, Sartre merely wishes to highlight one aspect of Meursault’s thought-process, as mirrored in Camus’s prose: it avoids all causal connection. One thing happens, another thing happens, and then a third thing. This is why Camus so often sounds like Hemingway in this book: the clipped sentences reflect the discontinuous instants of time that pass like disjointed photographs before the eyes of Meursault. There is no making sense of your environment when you are residing in the immediate, for making sense of anything requires abstraction, and abstraction requires memory (how can you abstract a quality from two separate instances if you cannot hold the two instances in your mind at once?).

Now, the really disturbing thing, for me, is how easily Meursault gets along in this condition. He makes friends, he has a job, he even gets a girlfriend; and for quite a long time, at least, he didn’t get into trouble. Yet the reader is aware that Meursault is, if not a sociopath, at least quite close to being one. So how is he getting along so well? This, I think, is the social critique hidden in this book.

Meursault lives a perfectly conventional life; for a Frenchman living in Algeria during this time, his life could hardly be more ordinary. This is no coincidence; because he’s not interested in or capable of making decisions, Meusault has simply fallen into the path provided for him by his society. In fact, Meursault’s society had pre-fabricated everything a person might need, pre-determining his options to such an extent that he could go through life without ever making a decision. Meursault got along so well without having to make decisions because he was never asked to make one. Every decision was made by convention, every option conscribed by custom. If Meursault had not been locked up, chances are he would have simply married Marie. Why? Because that’s what one does.

So Camus lays out a problem: custom prevents us from thinking by circumscribing our decisions. But Camus does not only offer a diagnoses; he prescribes a solution. For this, we must return to the subject of time. When Meursault gets imprisoned, he is at first unhappy because he is no longer able to satisfy his immediate desires. He has been removed from society and from its resources. This produces a fascinating change in him: instead of being totally absorbed in the present moment, Meursault begins to cultivate a sense of the past. He explores his memories. For the first time, he is able, by pure force of will, to redirect his attention from what is right in front of him to something that is distant and gone. He now has a present and a past; and his psychology develops a concomitant depth. The language gets less jerky towards the end, and more like a proper narrative.

This real breakthrough, however, doesn’t happen until Meursault is forced to contemplate the future; and this, of course, happens when he is sentenced to death. His thoughts are suddenly flung towards some future event—the vanishing of his existence. Thus, the circle opened at the beginning is closed at the end, with a perfect loop: the novel ends with a hope for what will come, just as it began with ignorance and apathy for what has passed. Meursault’s final breakthrough is a complete sense of time—past, present, and future—giving him a fascinating depth and profundity wholly lacking at the beginning of the book.

In order to regain this sense of time, Meursault had to do two things: first, remove himself from the tyranny of custom; second, contemplate his own death. And these two are, you see, related: for custom discourages us from thinking about our mortality. Here we have another opened and closed circle. In the beginning of the book, Meusault goes through the rituals associated with the death of a family member. These rituals are pre-determined and conventional; death is covered with a patina of familiarity—it is made into a routine matter, to be dealt with like paying taxes or organizing a trip to the beach. Meusault has to do nothing except show up. The ceremony he witnesses is more or less the same ceremony given to everyone. (Also note that the ceremony is so scripted that he is later chastised for not properly playing the part.)

At the end of the book, society attempts once again to cover up death—this time, in the form of the chaplain. The chaplain is doing just what the funeral ceremony did: conceal death, this time with a belief about God and repentance and the afterlife. You see, even on death row, society has its conventions for death; death is intentionally obscured with rituals and ceremonies and beliefs.

Meursault’s repentance comes by penetrating this illusion, by throwing off the veil of convention and staring directly at his own end. In this one act, he transcends the tyranny of custom and, for the first time in his life, becomes free. This is the closest I can come to an Aesopian moral: Without directly facing our own mortality, we have no impetus to break out of the hamster-wheel of conventional choices. Our lives are pre-arranged and organized, even before we are born; but when death is understood for what it is—a complete and irreversible end—then it spurs us to reject the idle-talk and comforting beliefs presented to us, and to live freely.

This is what Camus would have all of us do: project our thoughts towards our own inescapable end, free of all illusions, so as to regain our ability to make real choices, rather than to chose from a pre-determined menu. Only this way will we cease to be strangers to ourselves.

(At least, that is the Heideggerian fable I think he was going for.)

View all my reviews