Tuesday, May 29, 2012

José Pablo Feinmann's "La sombra de Heidegger"

Argentine philosopher and political theorist José Pablo Feinmann wrote a philosophical novel about the influential and controversial German philosopher Martin Heidegger. La sombra de Heidegger (The Shadow of Heidegger) (2005). The main narrator writes at one point of Sartre's novel Nausea, "it's hard to know where one discipline ends and the other begins. What was philosophy, what was literature." (my translation)

As the cover image with its young men marching in uniforms and carrying swastika flags suggests, the novel focuses heavily on the aspects of Heidegger's thought and personal career that connected him in sympathy with the National Socialist movement, including his own membership in the Nazi Party (NSDAP) until 1945.

The story is in the form of accounts written by a fictional student and disciple of Heidegger's, Dieter Müller, and a much shorter one by his son, Martin, who Dieter named after the philosopher. Dieter's account is an extended suicide note. The son's describes his visit to Martin Heidegger in Freiburg, Germany in 1968.

Dieter's note introduces us to critical issues about Heidegger's direct involvement with the NSDAP and the issues in his philosophy that may have been especially compatible with, or particular open to adaptation to, the Nazi worldview and political program. As the title implies, Heidegger hangs over the story more than participates in it, though he does appear in places as an active character. The philosophers Hannah Arendt and Jean-Paul Sartre also appear as characters in the narrative, Arendt as Heidegger's girlfriend (which she was in reality) and Sartre as also a shadowy kind of presence. The German philosopher Karl Löwith shows up in connection with his account of his 1936 meeting with Heidegger in Rome, an important document in understanding Heidegger's support of the NSDAP.

Dieter and young Martin introduce us to Heidegger's apparent relationship to the SA (Sturmabteilung), aka, Brownshirts, and his competition with Alfred Rosenberg and Alfred Bäumler to articulate an official philosophy for the Nazi movement. Heidegger largely abandoned this effort after the suppression of the SA in 1934, though he continued to insist on the greatness of the Nazi movement from the viewpoint of his philosophy.

A number of key philosophical issues in and around Heidegger's philosophy are touched upon: his concept of truth as aletheia (ἀλήθεια), which he understood as the un-forgetting of the experience of Being; the privileged position he assigned to the pre-Socratic philosophers; his notion of the history of metaphysics as a long-term decay from the pre-Socratics; his concept of the inauthenticity of the present human Dasein (mode of existence); Heidegger's relation to Hegel's philosophy; his notion of historicity; the role of intense experience of living in Heidegger's outlook; the concept of death in his thought; the (in Dieter's view) surprising adaptation of Heidegger's though in French philosophy not only in Sartre's existentialism but also by thinkers by Jacques Derrida and others in the deconstructionist school of literary criticism.

Dieter has Heidegger at one point explaining his support for Nazism as based on his sense that Germany had a particular mission to save Western culture from the threat of Bolshevism, i.e., Soviet Communism. A mission that was connected with Heidegger's sense of Germany as the nation of the most superior culture. The Germans were a "metaphysical people", as Dieter puts it interpreting Heidegger's view on this point. Dieter also notes that Heidegger distanced himself from the biological racism of Rosenberg and the official Nazi doctrine, though this didn't mean that he was free of anti-Semitism.

The novel doesn't have a lot of sex or romance. Most of what is there comes in the form of Dieter and his SA friends gossiping and fantasizing about what the Master and young Hannah Arendt might be doing during their romantic encounters. Probably the cheesiest part of the story comes early on, when Dieter and his SA friend Rainer Minder encounter the fictional characters Sally Bowles and Maximilien von Heune from the musical Cabaret.

The most interesting action sequences come after Dieter emigrates to Argentina in 1944 with his son, and there after the war encounters old Nazis who want to recruit him to a neo-Nazi Fourth Reich conspiracy. This provides some cloak-and-dagger time moments, though not a lot of them. Dieter, like his mentor Heidegger, had been and NSDAP member and believer in the cause, though the particular Party factions they would have preferred had not won out. Once Dieter allows himself years later to realize the magnitude and seriousness of what the Nazis had done, he commits suicide.

The timing of Dieter's arrival in Argentina allows him to convey us his own Heideggerian interpretation of the Peronist movement and the Revolución Liberatadora, the military coup that overthrew it in 1955. He connects the Peronist notion of the tercera posición that Juan Perón advocated, a "third poisition" that, in Dieter's description, "debe rechazar tanto el comunismo como el capitalismo" ("should reject Communism just as much as capitalism"), with Heiddeger's justification of Nazism as a middle road between Russia's "Bolshevism" and the "mercantilism" of American capitalism.

In the conclusion of the novel, Martin Müller confronts his namesake in 1968 in his study in Freiburg, a confrontation heavily burdened by his relationship to his father's, his father's inability to resolve his contradictory feelings and attitudes towards Heidegger and his philosophy, and Dieter's own suicide.

Not only is it a challenge in this book to know "what was philosophy, what was literature". It's also a challenge, as usual with fiction, to distinguish what the author may be trying to say by what he has the narrators say. The narrators do have their own story, and Dieter's viewpoint is that of a disciple of Heidegger's until the end.

But our author has given us a clue suggesting that when Dieter Müller accepts Heidegger's view of the Germans as a "metaphysical people" with a special role assigned to them by history - or as the agent of Being in history? - the character Dieter departs from the outlook of the author who created him. In his book La sangre derramada: Ensayo sobre la violencia política (1998/2006), he includes a chapter, "Digresión: Heidegger y el nazismo, ¿contingencia personal o necesariedad interna de su filosofar?", in which he identifies that concept as the central problem in Heidegger's philosophy and political outlook. He quotes from Heidegger's description of the historical mission of the Germany people in Introduction to Metaphysics (1935), and concludes (my translation):

Détras de estas líneas late el genocidio. Cuando un pueblo se adjudica un misión histórica, cuando esa misión consiste en rescatar a los otros pueblos de su decadencia espiritual y remitirlos a un centro originario y puro que él, ese pueblo, representa, aquí, exactamente aquí, se abre el horizont conceptual del genocidio.

[Behind these lines lies genocide. When a people assigns itself an historical mission, when this mission consists in rescuing other peoples from their spiritual decadence and sending them to an original and pure center {of existence} that they, this people, represent: here, precisely here, is where the conceptual horizon of genocide opens.] (italics in original)
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