Martin Heidegger in his garden in Freiburgundatiert

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2018 edition of New Humanist

On 24 July 1967, the poet Paul Celan gave a reading in Freiburg im Brisgau. At the time he was on a leave of absence from Saint-Anne psychiatric hospital, where he had been interned after suffering a nervous breakdown, in the midst of which he attempted suicide. At the reading was the philosopher Martin Heidegger. The day after the reading Celan was invited to a meeting with Heidegger at the philosopher’s hut. On arrival Celan signed the guestbook, then the two men went for a walk, which was curtailed by rain, and were driven back to the hut. After their brief meeting Celan returned to Saint-Anne’s.

One week later, on 1 August, Celan wrote a poem about the encounter in the form of a single, oblique sentence named after the place where Heidegger’s hut stood, “Todtnauberg”. The title contained two words crucial to both the the poetry of Celan and the philosophy of Heidegger – berg meaning mountain, and todt, death.

What was discussed on their walk is not known – some have speculated they discussed their shared interest in botany, while other accounts suggest that Heidegger talked about his recent interview with the magazine Der Spiegel. But it is what was not discussed, between a Jewish poet who survived the Holocaust and a philosopher who was one of the highest-profile sympathisers of Nazism, that has continued to resonate for more than 50 years.

Paul Celan was born Paul Antschel (Celan is a reversal of the two syllables) in 1920, into a German-speaking Jewish family in Bukovina in Romania. His father, Leo, was a Zionist, who insisted his son learn Hebrew, while his mother, Fritzl, insisted, as a devotee of German literature, that German be the language spoken at home.

After briefly studying medicine in Tours, France – a Jewish quota made it impossible for him to study in Romania – he returned to Bukovina in 1939. His journey to France had taken him through Berlin, where, from the train, he saw plumes of smoke rising the day after Kristallnacht.

Under German occupation in Bukovina, Celan was interned in a ghetto, writing poetry and translating Shakespeare’s sonnets while being forced to gather and destroy Russian books. In a life shot through with historical symbolism, the significance of these simultaneous acts seems terrifyingly apt.

Celan’s parents, meanwhile, were taken to a camp in the Transnistria Governorate. His father died of typhus, while his mother, exhausted by forced labour and thus surplus to needs, was shot. Celan himself spent much of the rest of the war in a labour camp. Having survived – an achievement not without its complexities for the simplest of men, let alone one of Celan’s constitution – he lived for most of the rest of his life in Paris, teaching, and writing the poems which would see him revered as one of the great poets of the 20th century.

Celan was a solitary and shy individual weighed down by a history from which he could not escape; the tension between speech and silence. His task was, in a sense, to refute Adorno’s injunction that it is “barbaric to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz”. Perhaps more than any other writer, Celan attempted to show that it is barbaric not to.

As for Heidegger, it is perhaps the worst fate of any philosopher to have their philosophy taken to its logical conclusion. The ways in which Heidegger’s thought “coincides” with some of the fundamental philosophies of National Socialism is a rich topic. As Jesu Adrian Escudero has argued in response to the ongoing publication of what are known as The Black Notebooks – 34 notebooks composed between 1931 and 1976 – Heidegger rejects the Nazi ideology of racial and biological oppression. However, Heidegger does, let us say “unfortunately”, find a great deal of congruence between his own sense that the decline of civilisation is attributable to mechanisation and nihilism, and the Nazi argument that the Jews are both a symptom of, and responsible for, this sense of groundlessness.

In Heidegger one finds, without much looking, a mystical and almost fanatical search for Heimat, a homeland. At best this argues for a rootedness in place, at worst a kind of primitive nationalism; Heidegger wrote of “blood and soil”, which, while not an exclusively Nazi notion, would not have appeared out of place in their propaganda.

In perhaps the most chilling passage of The Black Notebooks published so far, Heidegger writes, “one of the stealthiest forms of gigantism and perhaps the most ancient is the cleverness of calculation, pushiness, and intermixing whereby Jewry’s worldlessness is established.” As the French philosopher Emmanuel Faye notes:

We know that [Heidegger] speaks in his Black Notebooks of the “worldlessness” of Judaism ... Jews aren’t just considered to lack a homeland, they are said definitively to be worldless. It’s worth recalling that worldlessness is an expression that Heidegger doesn’t even use for animals, which, in a 1929 lecture, he calls “world-poor”. In this complete dehumanisation of Judaism, the Jews no longer have a place in the world, or, rather, they never had one.

In Being and Time, Heidegger’s most famous work, a stone is an example of something that is worldless. But a stone is not seen as a threat to community in the way that people can treat other groups of humans. As Escudero notes, “from Heidegger’s perspective, in which autochthony is based on groundedness in one’s homeland, Jews are an ungrounded people” – a threat.

But if the philosophical correlation between Heidegger and National Socialism is disputed, there is no doubt that Heidegger the man at best accommodated and at worst colluded with the National Socialist programme. The facts of Heidegger’s relationship with the Nazis are well known, and would have been known to Celan in 1957. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in May 1933, 10 days after being elected Rector of the University of Freiberg. His rectorship address, titled “The Self-Assertion of the German University”, appeared to endorse the Nazi programme for education.

In November, Heidegger issued a decree applying Nazi racial policies to his students, banning Jews from certain privileged positions. While he wrote appeals in defence of three Jewish professors, he also broke off contact with his mentor, the German-Jewish philosopher Edmund Husserl, removing the dedication to him in the fifth edition of Being and Time and failing to attend his funeral in 1938.

It is possible to give Heidegger the benefit of some doubt on each of these actions – while he was never known as a man to miss an opportunity for expediency, the circumstances in which he found himself were extraordinary. But it is hard to accommodate his actions after the war. Having failed to renounce his membership of the Nazi Party, Heidegger remained notoriously silent about his activities during the war, his position regarding National Socialism as theory and a practice, and the Holocaust.

His avoidance of the latter topic is particularly grievous given that – leaving aside his other public forums – as a philosopher his work increasingly focused on the alienation of humankind caused by modern technology, an argument he deployed regularly against Bolshevism but not against surely the most egregious example, the Nazi gas chambers. In the words of the philosopher Thomas Sheehan: “We have his statements about the six million unemployed at the beginning of the Nazi regime, but not a word about the six million who were dead at the end of it.”

Heidegger had broken his silence in September 1966, with the Der Spiegel interview, “Only a God Can Save Us”, but that was given on the condition that it only be published after his death, as it was in May 1976. In it he painted a picture of resistance and ignorance which continues to be debated.

Celan had long debated meeting Heidegger. As early as 1957 he had considered sending him a poem (the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber had visited Heidegger in the late spring of that year) but felt uneasy, not wanting to give him a Persilschein; that is, he didn’t want to whitewash the philosopher. He had read Heidegger’s work on Nietzsche and been profoundly engaged by it, without being fully aware of the former’s involvement with National Socialism.

Meanwhile, Heidegger’s philosophy became more and more attuned to the idea that poetry (by which he more or less meant German poetry) shared the duty with philosophy (by which he meant, more or less, his philosophy) in uncovering the meaning of Dasein, the experience of being that is particular to humans.

“What are poets for?” he asks in his essay of the same name. They are, he reasons at excruciating length, for articulating the truth that man “dwells poetically on this earth”, which is, for Heidegger, “to find in the simple and homely things of every-day experience the divine and the holy”. Thus the poet makes man aware of this dwelling by allowing him – or, hopefully, her – to conceptualise the divine. The poet is as important as the philosopher in revealing the truth of Dasein.

Language, writes Heidegger, has a double task: on the one hand, to enable communication between people; on the other, to reveal deep essential truths about being. Or, as he puts it in “Holderlin and the Essence of Poetry”:

Language is charged with the task of making beings manifest and preserving them as such – in the linguistic work. Language gives expression to what is most pure and most concealed, as well as to what is confused and common. Indeed, even the essential word, if it is to be understood and so become the common possession of all, must make itself common.

“To what is most pure and most concealed” – it is not hard to see how this chimed with Celan, whose grappling with the said and the unsaid, that which can be spoken and that which cannot, provides a sort of torsion around which, within which and against which his poems situate themselves. To speak is always to say too much, but to not speak is to invite your own death.

Why did Celan meet Heidegger? A simple answer is, of course, as an admirer of his philosophy, and for the pleasure of an intellectual relationship with one of the great minds in the history of thought. There is no doubt, from reading Celan’s poetic response to the encounter, that he was both attracted to and repulsed by Heidegger. This confrontation may have been, for
Celan, unavoidable.

Celan’s poem opens with images of hope – two flowers that are used for healing, arnica and eyebright. He drinks from a well, another symbol of regeneration. It is only as the poet writes in the guestbook that his ambivalence makes itself present – whose name did it record/before mine? – what other guests have attended to Heidegger? He hopes for a “thinker’s word/to come,/in the heart”. The pair walk across a forest sward – unlevelled unlike, as a number of critics have pointed out, the levelled ground of Jewish mass graves.

In the car, returning, something crude is said – Celan uses the word krudes, which is uncommon in German, and the poet wonders if the driver also heard. The poem ends quietly but with a feeling of chagrin: “humidity, much.” It is, as Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe has put it, “the poem of a disappointment; as such, it is, and says the disappointment of poetry”. Did Celan confront Heidegger about the Holocaust? It is not difficult to read such a question, and the inadequacy of Heidegger’s response, into the poem. Extra-poetic accounts vary. The philosopher and theorist Maurice Blanchot wrote that:

Heidegger’s irreparable fault lies in his silence concerning the Final Solution. This silence, or his refusal, when confronted by Paul Celan, to ask forgiveness for the unforgivable, was a denial that plunged Celan into despair and made him ill, for Celan knew that the Shoah was the revelation of the essence of the West. And he recognised that it was necessary to preserve this memory in common, even if it entailed the loss of any sense of peace, in order to safeguard the possibility for relationship with the other.

James K. Lyon, whose Paul Celan & Martin Heidegger. An Unresolved Conversation, 1951-1970 explores the relationship in detail, disagrees, arguing that:

There is not a shred of documented biographical evidence from their entire time together to suggest that Celan condemned Heidegger, felt hostility toward him, or was disappointed with him. In fact the opposite seems true. Later attempts to portray this as a failed encounter and an enormous disappointment for Celan are based on considerations that arose more than a week after the visit. […] Temporarily, at least, the meeting with Heidegger had had an undeniable salutary effect on his mental state, which no one could have predicted and which most critics afterward have ignored.

Lyon argues that it was only after Celan arrived back at Saint-Anne’s psychiatric hospital that “the demons that had tormented him now returned” and:

In the process the irreconcilable conflict he had struggled with for years – his attraction to Heidegger’s thought and his repulsion at the thinker’s activities in the Third Reich – not only resurfaced, but the tormenting ambivalence that marked much of his thinking in the last years of his life in general also radically altered his perception of what had happened in Freiburg and Todtnauberg.

The poet and the philosopher would meet twice more, the last time in March 1970, one month before Celan committed suicide in the Seine on 19 April. In his final letter to Heidegger he wrote “Heidegger . . . that you (by your stance) have decisively weakened that which is poetic and, I venture to surmise, that which is thinking, in the serious will to responsibility of both.” It is as elusive and allusive as ever.

In his 2002 essay “On Forgiveness”, Jacques Derrida, whose work is informed by both Heidegger and Celan, notes that since 1945 there has been an explosion of “scenes of repentance, confession, forgiveness or apology” where “one sees not only individuals, but also entire communities, professional corporations, the representatives of professional hierarchies, sovereigns and heads of state ask for ‘forgiveness’.”

This explosion has, in more recent times, reached a pitch that Derrida could not have imagined, although he did note that, even back in the early 2000s, “all sorts of unacknowledged ‘politics’, all sorts of strategic ruses, can hide themselves abusively behind a ‘rhetoric’ or a ‘comedy’ of forgiveness.”

We are increasingly witnessing public figures carrying out what might be termed transactional apologies, whether they be to save a career or to reassert standards below which they have fallen. For Derrida, these are not genuine apologies. Asking for forgiveness can only be authentic when it is not given in exchange for anything:

I shall risk this proposition: each time forgiveness is at the service of a finality, be it noble and spiritual (atonement or redemption, reconciliation, salvation), each time that it aims to re-establish a normality (social, national, political, psychological) by a work of mourning, by some therapy or ecology of memory, then the “forgiveness” is not pure – nor is its concept. Forgiveness is not, it should not be, normal, normative, normalising. It should remain exceptional and extraordinary, in the face of the impossible: as if it interrupted the ordinary course of historical temporality.

The political theorist Hannah Arendt, whose relationship with Heidegger was as complex as Celan’s, offers a similar notion of forgiveness. It is “the only reaction which does not merely re-act, but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.”

What would it have meant if Heidegger had apologised to Celan? Is there an apology that would be in any way adequate? Obviously not.

One of the least edifying spectacles in the parade of public apologies that are occurring at the moment is the notion that an apology undoes the crime, and it is not hard to read in the more crafted and cynical of these apologies a sort of special pleading on the part of the perpetrator to be regarded as one of the victims. Do this for me, and then we are even.

But it is possible that there was an apology that, if not adequate, was sincere. It would have, of course, come long before 1967, as the current round of apologies would have happened not at the moment of media outing, but at the moment where nothing was to be gained. Inadequate, but with the possibility of sincerity.

There is, of course, no obligation for the one receiving the apology to accept it – the crime may be too grievous. the cost too high – but it is precisely the knowledge that the apology may be rejected that gives it the possibility of authenticity. It is outside the economy of forgiveness. Could Celan have accepted the apology? We will never know.