David Farrell Krell: Ecstasy, Catastrophe: Heidegger from Being and Time to the Black Notebooks

Donovan Irven


Esctasy, Catastrophe: Heidegger from Being and Time to the Black Notebooks Book Cover Esctasy, Catastrophe: Heidegger from Being and Time to the Black Notebooks
SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
David Farrell Krell
State University of New York Press
August 2015
Hardcover $75.00

Reviewed by: Donovan Irven (Purdue University)

Writing this review was difficult, but perhaps not as difficult as reading the Black Notebooks appears to have been for David Krell. Based on Krell’s 2014 Brauer Lectures in German Studies, given at Brown University, Ecstasy, Catastrophe proceeds in two parts. It begins with excellent and nuanced analyses of sections 65-68 of Being and Time, which we have come to expect from Krell, before descending into dire lamentations over the content of the notorious notebooks from the 1930s and -40s.

Krell has been interested in Heidegger’s ecstatic interpretation of temporality for much of his career and returns to the topic here to show the seemingly inexhaustible fruits of reading Being and Time. I want to focus on this aspect of the book before turning to the latter half involving the Black Notebooks, because these two divisions could not be more different in tone and content. It seems Krell was disrupted in his work on Being and Time by the publication and reception of the Black Notebooks, and decided interrogate them at length despite their lack of emphasis on ecstatic time. I myself have not read these notebooks in their entirety, though I have read large excerpts, both the original German and in English translation. I will try, later in this review, to comment on both the strength and shortcomings of Krell’s treatment of the decidedly polarizing Black Notebooks, but will do so somewhat tentatively as I await the publication of the English translation in April 2016.

When it comes to interpreters of Heidegger, Krell is well established as a leader in the field, thanks to his masterful work on the Nietzsche lectures and the thoughtful commentaries contained therein. He continues this legacy here in prose that is conversational and largely accessible, even for Heidegger scholarship. This style is in part due to the fact that the book began as lectures, but it also stems from Krell’s familiarity with the material, which he is able to relate casually, authoritatively, and with insightful examples. While Krell is interested primarily in the appearance of Ekstase(n) in Heidegger’s text, he is also extremely sensitive to the peripheral – but no less significant – deployment of Entrückungen, which is related to the “sudden seizures,” “rapid removals,” or “raptures” of time. Readers familiar with Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche and Krell’s commentaries know well that the idea of rapture figures heavily in them, and we see this theme articulated with great care here in Ecstasy, Catastrophe. We are therefore asked to think at length on the suddenness of the ecstases of time, where it sheds light on another of Heidegger’s more difficult ideas, that of the Augenblicklichkeit, or the instantaneousness of those moments that, in the blink of an eye, transport us beyond ourselves. Transcendence is thus a key concept here, and Heidegger strives to show an immanent form of transcendence in the temporality of Dasein as it oversteps itself in its temporal being.

Krell focuses mostly on the work of Heidegger in Being and Time, but there are excellent scholarly passages which connect Heidegger to previous thinkers of ecstasis; notably Schelling, St. Augustine, Plato, and Aristotle. One of the most jarring and revelatory sections of argumentation concerns what Krell views as the source of Heidegger’s understanding of ecstasis in Aristotle. Krell makes a strange argument that a key passage from Aristotle’s Physics, starting at 222b 15, is the basis for Heidegger’s understanding of ecstatic time. This argument is fascinating due to what Krell perceives as a lack of attention to this specific passage and notes that Heidegger’s silence on it is “mysterious.” Yet when one reads the passage, which refers “to what has departed from its former state in an imperceptible time,” and that, “change itself is a departure, whereas it is only accidentally the cause of becoming and of being” (17), we cannot help but, with Krell, see the germ of Heidegger’s interest in the ecstases of time.

Krell’s text is valuable too for its attention to the plurality of ecstases in Heidegger’s work, although much of this material is rehashed from his earlier work Intimations of Mortality. Krell leans heavily on this text at the start of his analysis, and so I occasionally found myself demanding something new from my initial reading. Krell delivers on this demand in the second chapter, where he makes a significant departure from his earlier work on the temporal unfolding of anxiety as one moment of ecstasy that, Krell had earlier argued, resists depiction. Here, Krell treats us to an interpretation of anxiety-as-preparation, preparation for the required leap into thinking that Heidegger will increasingly emphasize as he continues to work on temporality throughout the 1930s. This is where Krell offers his most strident criticisms of Heidegger, arguing that anxiety and resoluteness relate in a vicious circle, and not the saving hermeneutical circle on which Heidegger hangs much of his hopes in Being and Time. I cannot rehearse this argument in full, but I think it warrants serious consideration and is illuminating in the way it prefigures Heidegger’s “turn.” The short of it is that anxiety must come out of nowhere, it must be sudden, and thus there is no way to ready ourselves for it in resoluteness the way Heidegger seems to require. Krell turns to the treatment of fundamental boredom in the 1929 lecture course translated as The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, and reads this as an attempt by Heidegger to ameliorate the damning circle initiated in Being and Time. As far as I can tell, Krell does not think Heidegger is successful in this attempt, and it ushers in some of the more troublesome moves Heidegger makes in the 1930s, beginning, at least, in the Beitrage. I think perhaps Krell lays too much blame on this one moment in Heidegger’s thought for those problems, nevertheless, his discussion shows great attention to the texts and marshals an impressive interpretation that makes judicious use of insights from Kierkegaard and Derrida. This section is one of the most interesting and difficult of the text, and deserves some close attention for those who are interested in the shortcomings of Heidegger’s arguments.

Another fascinating element of this text involves Krell’s analysis of “the other end” of Dasein, that is, where Heidegger treats birth and nascence over death and dying. Heidegger is so well-known for his philosophizing on death, that I was sent back to Being and Time to make sure the passages Krell indicates were actually there. They are, of course, and Krell breathes new life into these passages. However, one of the weaker sections of the book commences with a flight of fancy in which we are to imagine Being and Time rewritten with birth in mind over death. I think this part suffers from the lecture format, as Krell deploys the tactics of a novelist here, and those stylistic choices are better suited to a less conversational tone. The result is that some of the analysis comes off a bit flat, and the philosophical rigor of the text becomes slightly less apparent. I did enjoy the break, and the dialogue with James Joyce and Merleau-Ponty that accompanies the sections, but, as a novelist myself, I think the section could have stood a bit more stylistic nuance that may not be conducive to philosophical lectures.

While I’m being critical, one more dissension. Krell heavily criticizes Heidegger’s use of ipse selfhood in Being and Time. While it is true that Heidegger himself will later caution that Being and Time can lead to a “subjectivistic” interpretation, I do not know that his analysis dooms him to the same mistakes as if he would have committed to terms such as “spirit, soul, body, person, personality, and subject,” as Krell seems to think. I may be more generous with Heidegger on this point due to the influence of Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another on my own thought, however, and I tend to think the emphasis on ipse selves over an idem self successfully avoids the pitfalls Krell condemns.

With this said, I can highly recommend the first half of Ecstasy, Catastrophe as continuing a fruitful dialogue with Being and Time. Insofar as Krell set out to show the fruitfulness of that text, and to further develop themes that recur throughout his writing, I think he is largely successful. Novice students of Heidegger will find a powerful exposition of some of the more difficult aspects of Being and Time, which are always clearly discussed without over-reliance on the jargon we associate with Heideggerese. There are always clear signposts that connect Heidegger’s body of work, and advanced scholars interested in ecstasis and temporality will find valuable resources in Krell’s analysis. Then, unfortunately, we turn to the Black Notebooks.

Reading the Black Notebooks was an arduous task for Krell, and he finds almost no philosophical value in them. He catalogues with despair the bleak antagonisms of Heidegger toward anything and everything. Of course, there are the few passages of explicit anti-Semitism, amounting to about five pages in over a thousand of text, but there are additionally frequent polemics against Americans, Bolsheviks, Germans, and on and on. Heidegger is seemingly anti-everything, and makes sweeping generalizations about the dire state of the world that are difficult to square with the philosophical rigor exhibited in his other work. I was recently able to question John Sallis1 on this aspect of Krell’s book, and Sallis was largely in agreement: that reading the Black Notebooks is unpleasant at best, and at worst, a damning example of just how thoughtless Heidegger was capable of being – even when we must still admire his philosophical efforts elsewhere. It becomes clear that writing the first part of Ecstasy, Catastrophe became, for Krell, very much an effort to prove that there was still value to Heidegger’s work, especially Being and Time, in the face of the Black Notebook’s publication.

One very lucid idea occurs in the latter half of Ecstasy, Catastrophe, however, that I think demands emphasis and bears repeating. It is easy to condemn Heidegger, the Nazi and anti-Semite. He is dead, cannot defend himself, his thoughtlessness and inability to self-criticize are in themselves contemptible, and made all the more so by his continual demands that we all need to be more earnestly thoughtful. Hypocrisy does not begin to describe this behavior. But we must not use the condemnation of Heidegger as an opportunity to pat ourselves on the back for being ever-so enlightened while at the same time refusing to look in the mirror and take stock of our own damning failures. I’ll let readers do this uncomfortable work for themselves, but a brief survey of the American political scene this election cycle, the immigration crisis in Europe and certain responses to it, to name a few instances, will show just the sort of things of which we ought to be self-critical. Certainly, we cannot let Heidegger’s failings become our own.

And yet, I cannot help but see something of a performance in the Black Notebooks, what Babette Babich has recently suggested is an attempt to realize the kind of work found in Nietzsche’s Nachlass, which Heidegger may have pursued in a play for posthumous notoriety. It may be that I am not yet ready to give up on Heidegger; though I realize that when you have worked with a thinker as long as Krell has, only to be bombarded at this late hour with the absolute worst of him, it must be so difficult to find, yet again, a space, not for excuses, but for patience if not forgiveness. Indeed, Krell remarks repeatedly that Heidegger is both unforgiving in his writing, and that the result is further unforgiving in the manner it reveals Heidegger trapped in the everyday discourse of the Nazi They-self that plagued German culture at the time.

I am tasking myself with patience. These are, after all, only the first three volumes of Black Notebooks. I remain, perhaps foolishly, hopeful that later editions, written in the 1950s and -60s, will shed some light on the extreme darkness that threatens to cast Heidegger into an unredeemable catastrophe. Krell’s book is aptly named, and his bleak assessment of the Black Notebooks is a sobering reminder of the human, all too human side of the philosophers that we, as scholars, seek after in thought. Krell himself exhibits a bit of Heidegger emulation, living as he does in Germany. That must make it all the more unbearable to read the thoughtlessness contained in the recent editions of the Black Notebooks. But I would like to try, perhaps in vain, to make reading them into something worthwhile, even if only to humanize a thinker that far too many of us tend to lionize. In that, I may be more in line with Babich, who, in a forth coming book chapter,2 attempts to think philosophically through some of the more difficult and potentially damning portions of the Black Notebooks. Krell is not up for this task, alas, it seems too painful for him. And perhaps it is madness to expect anyone to continue on, raging at the dying of the light that once so brilliantly lit up a clearing in which we were all enjoined to think anew. Perhaps it would be better (though now it is I who is unwilling) to abandon Heidegger scholarship for the more noble task of thinking. After all, isn’t that what Heidegger would do?3


1. At the Catholic University of America’s conference on Philosophy and Poetry in Washington, D.C. This conversation occurred on 19 February 2016.

2. She recently posted this on her Academia.edu page: Babich, “The New Heidegger,” https://www.academia.edu/21486726/The_New_Heidegger

3. Calvin O. Schrag has, on many occasions, told me of the letter he received from Heidegger upon the founding of the Heidegger Circle, that, to Heidegger, it would have been better to start a circle whose task was to attempt to think…

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