Mahon O’Brien: Heidegger’s Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy

Heidegger's Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy Book Cover Heidegger's Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy
Mahon O'Brien
Rowman & Littlefield International
Paperback $19.99

Reviewed by: Christos Hadjioannou (University of Cyprus)

Introductions are historical pieces of work conditioned by the tendencies and urgencies of the moment, and that means they need to be rewritten again and again. Still, one might be excused for thinking that the world doesn’t need another introduction to Heidegger. After reading O’Brien’s excellent book, though, one will be convinced otherwise. Accessible and intellectually honest, this critical introduction to Heidegger’s life and works is a timely contribution to the field, which I recommend highly to beginners as well as specialists.

Today, undergraduates and other first-time readers of Heidegger do not come to his works empty-handed. We can assume that most of them have been exposed to “the Heidegger controversy.” Preserving Heidegger’s legacy requires addressing that controversy. O’Brien is therefore wise not to bypass it, but instead tell the story of Heidegger’s thought partly against that political backdrop. Nor does the book pretend to offer a guide to Heideggerian philosophical concepts from a “neutral standpoint.” It is a polemical introduction, taking a stand on the political issues as well as important interpretive questions that haunt Heidegger scholarship.

In his preface, O’Brien clarifies what he takes to be uncontroversial about Heidegger’s works, and what remains contentious to this day. Instead of painting a sacrosanct picture, he thematizes the controversies and presents a nuanced picture—one that cancels out neither the controversies and weaknesses in Heidegger’s thought, nor the immense value of Heidegger’s philosophical insights.

O’Brien identifies two extreme positions in Heidegger interpretation and rejects the squabble between them as a false dilemma. One position holds that Heidegger is “the greatest scourge to have afflicted academic philosophy,” while to the other, he is “the most important philosopher to have emerged from the Western tradition since Hegel” (ix). O’Brien offers an interpretation that accepts a version of both positions. He argues that while it is undeniable that Heidegger’s association with National Socialism was neither brief not incidental to his thought, and that his commitment to it was based on some of the core elements of his magnum opus, Being and Time (BT), this does not justify “the extirpation of Heidegger’s thought from the canon” (ibid.). Heidegger’s impact remains profound, and striking him from the canon obliterates his intellectual achievements and makes it impossible to explain the origin of subsequent thinkers, who were influenced by him. But O’Brien also warns against the extreme devotion displayed by some commentators, who are “guilty of all kinds of intellectual acrobatics and apologetics in an attempt to rehabilitate Heidegger’s image” (xi). He vows to avoid such misplaced loyalty, which risks alienating prospective readers of Heidegger “who will eventually learn for themselves that Heidegger was a Nazi and a selfish, arrogant egomaniac to boot” (ibid.).

In Chapter One, entitled “Ways Not Works,” O’Brien addresses Heidegger’s methodology and influences, and takes a clear stand on the Kehre debate, which concerns the relationship between the early and later works. Although this issue is decisive in determining what narrative is offered not only regarding the late works but most crucially regarding BT, it is often set aside in introductory texts. O’Brien warns against the two extremes that see either radically disjointed efforts over the course of his oeuvre or an overt systematicity. Instead, he supports the so-called “continuity thesis,” which finds unity across the Heidegger corpus. Thus he sees Heidegger’s work as “a continuous, evolving, if not entirely seamless, enterprise” (xi). Invoking Heidegger’s maxim “ways not works”, O’Brien presents his oeuvre as a series of attempts at thematizing the question of the meaning of being (2-3), which question he addressed most rigorously in BT. This approach helps us appreciate the reasons why Heidegger moved beyond that central work without ever actually rejecting it. O’Brien’s narrative thus rejects a distinction between “Heidegger I” and “Heidegger II,” and counters the assumption that the later works are incompatible with the earlier (5).

O’Brien also does a fine job in this chapter of acknowledging the most important influences on Heidegger’s work without giving a reductive account that denies his philosophical originality. As he argues, Heidegger’s work cannot be categorized under any of the movements that influenced him. Nonetheless, O’Brien identifies Husserl’s phenomenology as having exerted the most influence on his early thought.

Chapter 2, “Early Life,” covers the most significant biographical information with bearing on Heidegger’s philosophical ideas (and is actually not confined only to his early years), including his attempts at a political philosophy. What is crucial to take away from this chapter is the connection between Heidegger’s philosophical confrontation with modernism and his sense of belonging to his native region and its heritage. O’Brien argues that Heidegger himself made it “very clear that the biographical details of his own life […] were crucial to an understanding of the manner in which his thinking developed” (8). Accordingly, he relates the basic facts about Heidegger’s upbringing and family: his father’s vocational connection to the Catholic Church, and his many ties to the countryside and peasant communities, including his mother’s farming background. Thus he contextualizes Heidegger’s distrust of city life and cosmopolitanism (9), which he associated with inauthenticity.

O’Brien draws attention to the interpretive difficulty that hampers any serious attempt to distinguish between those of Heidegger’s philosophical discoveries that resulted from honest thinking, and ideas he espoused disingenuously, ad hoc, in order to justify his private proclivities. It is challenging to identify and appreciate some of Heidegger’s important philosophical ideas on their own merit when he himself attaches them to ridiculous personal views. As a result, some interpreters end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater (12), allowing these associations to discredit profound insights.

In the chapter, O’Brien does not shy away from commenting on Heidegger’s bad personality traits, such as his feigned humility, his extraordinary arrogance and pretentiousness, his serious messiah complex, as well as his philandering (12). The chapter closes with references to his wife Elfride’s antisemitism and nationalism, and shows that also Heidegger himself was fiercely nationalistic (14).

Chapter 3, “Rumours of the Hidden King,” tracks Heidegger’s intellectual development from the early Freiburg period, when he served as Husserl’s teaching assistant, to his years lecturing at Marburg, in the early 1920s. Once he took up employment at Marburg, Heidegger begun formulating his own ideas and themes, moving away from neo-Kantianism and Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, and recognizing “the importance of time as history for the philosophical project he wished to inaugurate” (21).

One topic stands out in this chapter: Heidegger’s break from Husserlian phenomenology. Here the book’s characterizations of Heidegger’s person are again harsh: O’Brien claims that while Heidegger was indeed at one point deeply inspired by Husserl, nevertheless he “carefully choreographed” the impression that Husserl was his mentor, dedicating BT to him as part of a “calculated piece of manipulation designed to win the favour of one of the most important and influential philosophical voices in Germany at the time” (19).

Chapter 4, “The Hidden King Returns to Freiburg,” is the longest and most important chapter of the book. Here, O’Brien discusses BT and tries to properly contextualize its main arguments in relation to the entire corpus. Discussing the structure of BT, O’Brien analyzes its incompleteness in terms of both philosophical motivations and purely professional-strategic ones. He finds a deep consistency between the projected (missing) second part of BT with the work of his later period. Proponents of the discontinuity thesis, he argues, misinterpret the idea of a “turn” (Kehre), supposing that the new approach and language characteristic of Heidegger’s later texts represent a “reversal,” a “turning away from” and thus a repudiation of BT. But on the contrary, O’Brien points out, the later works constantly invoke BT in order to explain key developments. Heidegger himself recommended that the 1935 Introduction to Metaphysics (IM), be read “as a companion piece to Being and Time” (30). While the later works are not reducible to the earlier, still “Heidegger never fully relinquishes some of the key ideas that he was developing in Being and Time” (28).

Having made his case for continuity, O’Brien is free to turn to important texts that postdate BT in order to clarify some of the latter’s central arguments. Interpreting BT as a book that tries to address the ontologically suppressed interplay of presence and absence, O’Brien refers to the 1949 introduction to “What Is Metaphysics?” (WM) (1929) in order to clarify the purpose that animates BT, which is none other than “to prepare an overcoming of metaphysics” (33). According to Heidegger, the meaning of being as traditionally understood in philosophy privileges presence, something which O’Brien says “distorts the nature of reality for us and indeed our own self-understanding” (30). Part of what Heidegger tries to do is challenge the prejudice that the word “being” and its cognates mean that something exists or is present (ibid.). In fact, when we say that things “are,” “it is not clear that that means that they exist as fully present or actualised before us” (32).

In WM, Heidegger would blame this “metaphysics of presence” for misrepresenting the way we actually experience the world (33). WM’s discussion of nothingness targets the principle of non-contradiction, O’Brien says—a principle “routinely invoked to dismiss all talk of the nothing as simply wrong-headed, illogical, unscientific, in short, as contradictory” (34). The tradition has decided in advance that being reduces to presence and that it itself is not nothing. According to O’Brien, this treatment of nothingness is anticipated early on in BT, specifically in the account of moods as the site which throws open the interplay of presence and absence (34). “Heidegger returns to and defends this idea in 1929, in 1935 and again in his 1940’s introduction and postscript to the 1929 lecture [WM]” (ibid.). Heidegger, O’Brien writes, is trying to show that “traditional approaches miss out on all of the possibilities inherent in what we ‘mean’ when we say that a [an entity] is here, or there, or is something or other” (39). Being means possibility—a multiplicity of possibilities—and although beings stand in Being, they never overcome the possibility of not-Being, something that the philosophical tradition has missed by conceiving being in terms of continuous presence. As O’Brien explains, “[w]hat is suppressed is the role that absence or nothingness plays in our experience and how most of our experience involves a constant interplay of presence and absence” (40).

O’Brien concedes that the existential analytic of Dasein does tend toward anthropocentrism or an excessive prioritization of human subjectivity, but he draws attention to the methodological reasons that led Heidegger to begin with Dasein. Heidegger was convinced that “a new brand of phenomenology, unencumbered with the transcendental baggage of the later Husserl, was the appropriate method, while recognizing that time (or temporality) should be central to any attempt to begin to investigate the meaning of being” (42). Rather than “beginning with some abstract theory or idea, Heidegger insisted that we should begin with ordinary, everyday existence, before any abstractions” (ibid.).

In the same chapter, O’Brien also critically responds to realist readings of Heidegger’s late work, which—as he convincingly argues—rely on a misreading of BT. Without attributing to Heidegger the view that Dasein actively creates meaning, O’Brien disagrees that the meaning of being subsists in the absence of Dasein. He clarifies that Heidegger does not deny that entities exist “out there,” only that their meaning (i.e. the phenomenological “world”) exists independently of Dasein. Here the analysis would benefit from a reference to Taylor Carman’s work, whose use of the term “ontic realism” could help O’Brien consolidate his position further.[1]

In the rest of the chapter, O’Brien offers an eloquent explication of the basic structures of Dasein as presented in BT, without ever becoming tiresome or overly technical. Thus he explains how “understanding” works in terms of projects and possibilities, how “affectivity” (Befindlichkeit) works in terms of moods in which we already find ourselves, and how “falling” works in terms of understanding being as presence.

As regards the focus on death in BT, O’Brien argues that Heidegger is not interested in the actual event of death per se, but rather in the fact that our manner of understanding everything in the world around us is conditioned by our own finitude (47). Heidegger wants to move from the metaphysics of presence to an ontology which reckons with the role that absence or nothingness plays in the meaning of a thing’s being (48).

Chapter 5 is entitled “The 1930s – Politics, Art and Poetry.” The chapter begins with Heidegger’s so-called “linguistic turn,” in which the poetic use of language in particular emerged as a key concern. While some commentators see Heidegger’s focus on language, and particularly his preoccupation with Hölderlin’s poetry during the 1930s and 40s, as a shift away from the project of BT, O’Brien argues that if we remain faithful to the fact that BT is about the meaning of Being, then there’s no surprise in the linguistic turn. In my opinion, O’Brien’s thesis here would benefit from a reference to Heidegger’s early notion of “formal indication,” which is also a precursor to poetic language.

Next O’Brien turns to Heidegger’s linguistic chauvinism, which he argues contributed to shaping his political views. Heidegger believed that German and Ancient Greek were philosophically superior languages that could grasp the world in the origin of its being, and that other languages, such as French and English, were philosophically destitute (57). O’Brien brings up the worrisome recurrence of Heidegger’s prejudice about a supposed inner affinity between Germany and Ancient Greece. He also discusses Heidegger’s intense criticism of “everything in the Western tradition that has led to modernity and eventually the age of technology” (60). It is in this context, argues O’Brien, that Judaism is thrown “into the melting pot along with everything else that he sees as a consequence of the history of the metaphysics of presence, a metaphysics which he believes the German people alone can overcome” (ibid.).

One of the most interesting moments in the book comes when O’Brien questions whether Heidegger’s confrontation with modernity is really as unique as we have been taught to think. Thus he calls for an excavation and identification of the sinister and at times disappointingly derivative motivations behind ideas that many have taken to be unique features of Heidegger’s critique (60-61). Some aspects of Heidegger’s critique of modernity, O’Brien says, are but “a variant on what were ultimately a series of stock antisemitic prejudices that proliferated in Germany from the late 1700s onwards” (59). In some of the most nationalistic and antisemitic remarks to be found in the 1933-1934 seminar Nature, History, State, Heidegger argues that for Slavic people, German space would be revealed differently from the way it is revealed to Germans, and that to “Semitic nomads” it would “perhaps never be revealed at all” (62). O’Brien argues that these attempts to relate philosophical views to a renewal of German spiritual and cultural life under National Socialism can be registered under a certain tradition to which also Fichte belonged (ibid.). Yet Heidegger’s conviction that this “revolution” must be based on key elements of his own philosophical vision, i.e. the attempt to overcome the metaphysics of presence and the inauguration of a new beginning which was specifically tied to the destiny of the German people, makes him stand out in this tradition. Heidegger was “as naïve as he was megalomaniacal” (63), O’Brien says, while reminding us not to dismiss the philosophy just because of the political ends the philosopher thought it could serve.

The final part of the chapter turns to the topic of art and follows Heidegger’s engagement with Hölderlin’s poetry in his 1934 lectures, as well as his 1935-1936 essay “The Origin of the Work of Art.” According to O’Brien, Heidegger was keen to distance his discussion of the origin of art from any conventional aesthetics, and previous analyses of this work have overlooked how Heidegger situates his treatment of art within his larger political vision. Invoking the unique destiny of the German people, Heidegger identifies Hölderlin as the poet the Germans must heed in order to foster an authentic happening, a new political and cultural beginning (65).

In chapter 6, “The Nazi Rector,” O’Brien addresses the apogee of the “Heidegger controversy”: his involvement with Nazi politics and his rectorship at the University of Freiburg. His appointment as rector came as a complete surprise to his students, the Jewish ones included, because as far as they were concerned, “there had been nothing in his demeanor or attitude to that point to suggest that he might be sympathetic to Nazism” (71). On the other hand, argues O’Brien, it’s unlikely that Heidegger happened upon his political allegiances overnight in 1933 (71). He draws attention to the fact that Heidegger reportedly read and was impressed by Mein Kampf, and that he held  antisemitic and reactionary views from early on (ibid.). Thus on O’Brien’s view, the Black Notebooks only confirm previously available evidence that Heidegger was an antisemite who thought he could articulate antisemitic views from within his own philosophical framework.

The whole controversy, argues O’Brien, “should have and could have been dealt with comprehensively and exhaustively a long time ago” (74). He identifies two key factors that contributed to the unnecessary protraction of the whole issue: firstly, the drip-feeding of problematic texts, which created the impression that further revelations, which might complicate the picture, were continuously underway; secondly, the fact that the most critical voices were philosophically weak or obviously biased, resulting in a superficiality that “managed to conceal the deep underlying philosophical questions which must be put to Heidegger’s thought” (ibid.). The chapter offers a critical review of the most influential books on Heidegger’s Nazism, analyzing their scope and breadth and ideological bents, and assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Here, O’Brien shows his prowess, and demonstrates an excellent grasp of the topic.

As regards the political philosophy, O’Brien argues that Heidegger was not a bloodthirsty biological racist, but an archconservative and traditionalist “prone to some rather bizarre provincialist notions which he sought to justify philosophically” (74). Heidegger unsuccessfully tried to marry his own provincialism with a philosophical antimodernism and ethnic chauvinism, thinking this political philosophy was the way to resist the growing dominion of technology (74-75). O’Brien’s verdict is that Heidegger failed to articulate a coherent political philosophy, “owing in part to the fact that his philosophy doesn’t really admit to being employed in the manner in which he wants to use it” (75). O’Brien also finds that Heidegger’s flawed character must have played a role in his stint with National Socialism (76).

Chapter 7, “Return from Syracuse,” covers the period following his banishment from teaching after the denazification proceedings, especially his philosophical output of the 40s, 50s and 60s. It discusses Heidegger’s musings on language, poetry and technology, specifically his analysis of technology, of releasement (Gelassenheit) and the notion of “appropriation/enownment” (Ereignis) (79). While in chapter 5, O’Brien argued that some aspects of Heidegger’s confrontation with modernity might not be as original as initially thought, here he argues against a reductionist misapprehension that his work on technology is simply a symptom of his antimodernism (80). Instead, he says, Heidegger’s essay on technology stands today as the single most important philosophical work on some of the issues concerning the philosophical age we live in (81).

Turning to the Bremen lectures, O’Brien offers a nuanced analysis of the infamous “Agriculture Remark.” The point of the remark, he argues, is not to liken the Holocaust with the harvesting of grain, as some commentators have suggested, nor is Heidegger arguing that agricultural methods are morally equivalent to genocide. What interests him is the role that the essence of technology (Enframing) has figured into everything that has taken place in the twentieth century, including genocide, war and agriculture (82).

Next O’Brien discusses “The Question Concerning Technology”—a good text for a first-time reader of Heidegger to begin with, he says, because in this essay Heidegger touches upon most of his fundamental concepts and views, such as “equipmentality,” “publicness”, das Man, etc. (83). Here, O’Brien’s continuity thesis is on full display, as he argues that Heidegger’s worries about technology are already hinted at in BT: “it is clear that Heidegger’s thinking about technology was there in embryonic form in Being and Time” (85).

O’Brien interprets Heidegger’s critique of (the essence of) technology as a critique of eliminativism, i.e. a critique of positivist approaches that posit that classes of entities which do not fall within the horizon of their investigation do not exist (89). The problem of Enframing is its eliminative character, namely that it is a mode of revealing that governs the way beings come to presence. Other forms of revealing, like poetry, are necessary in order to “allow people to see things coming to presence in ways other than what is rather aggressively demanded by Enframing” (93). O’Brien then discusses “releasement” (Gelassenheit) as the appropriate comportment of human beings that will enable such a non-eliminative, pluralist disclosure of beings, and closes the chapter by contextualizing Enframing in the history of Being (94). Acquainted as I am with O’Brien’s earlier books,[2] I think he could have spent a few more paragraphs elaborating in greater detail how Gelassenheit relates to Entschlossenheit and the project of dismantling of the ontology of presence.

Chapter 8 is entitled “Heidegger ‘Abroad’.” This is a rather short chapter that breaks up into three sections. The first covers Heidegger’s remarkable success on the French intellectual scene, especially among the existentialists, and gives some historical context to that success. The second concerns Heidegger’s relation to Eastern thought and covers his interactions with a number of Eastern intellectuals, briefly also referring to the body of secondary literature devoted to the intersection between Heidegger’s philosophy and Eastern traditions. The third section covers the impact his thought has had in the United States.

Chapter 9, “The Final Years,” is only three pages long, and provides biographical details of the peaceful and happy years at the end of Heidegger’s life. It notes that he faced his own death with a certain “grace and serenity” (109), and that in the end he arranged a Christian burial for himself after all.

In the tenth and final chapter, “Heidegger’s Legacy,” O’Brien sums up his verdict as regards the “Heidegger controversy.” The recent publication of the Black Notebooks refuelled the controversy, O’Brien says, because it discredited Heidegger’s own “official story” about his association with National Socialism. Heidegger was a committed Nazi and an antisemite who “tried zealously to use some of his core elements of his thought to articulate a philosophy of National Socialism, for a period of time at least” (111). However, Heidegger’s own “political vision was ultimately at quite a remove from historical National Socialism, and he clearly became more and more disillusioned with the regime from the mid-1930s onwards” (ibid.). O’Brien reiterates his own position against other interpretations, insisting that despite claims made even by Heidegger himself, he did try to offer a political philosophy, and deep inside believed “he could be the spiritual and philosophical Führer of an awakening in Germany that would change the course of history in Europe and the Western world in general” (112).

In addition to the political controversy, Heidegger’s legacy is entangled in another controversy, argues O’Brien, namely the divide between analytic and continental philosophy. In analytic circles, “Heidegger is often portrayed as the arch-villain for having led philosophy astray through his promotion of ambiguity, imprecision, a lack of rigour and the proliferation of jargon, mysticism and bad poetry masquerading as philosophical profundity” (114). O’Brien defends Heidegger’s writing style, arguing that the subject itself demanded such a style, but lambasts those “disciples” who try to imitate Heidegger’s style simply because they themselves are unable to write more clearly.

O’Brien ends the book by reflecting on the future of Heidegger studies, saying that it is difficult to foretell what course it will take. He believes that the Heidegger controversy “is only truly beginning, as scholars face squarely the question of how to read the texts of a thinker whose work, while not reducible to National Socialism, was nevertheless twisted and manipulated in various ways owing to his own belief that a happy union could be forged between his own thought and the new awakening in Germany which he initially saw as an underlying possibility of National Socialism” (115).


Carman, Taylor. 2003. Heidegger’s Analytic. New York: Cambridge University Press.

O’Brien, Mahon. 2011. Heidegger and Authenticity: From Resoluteness to Releasement. London and New York: Continuum.

O’Brien, Mahon. 2015. Heidegger, History and the Holocaust. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

O’Brien, Mahon. 2020. Heidegger’s Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy. London and New   York: Rowman & Littlefield.

[1] See Carman, Taylor. Heidegger’s Analytic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[2] See O’Brien, Mahon. Heidegger and Authenticity: From Resoluteness to Releasement. London and New York: Continuum, 2011; O’Brien, Mahon. Heidegger, History and the Holocaust. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Rochelle Tobias (Ed.): Hölderlin’s Philosophy of Nature, Edinburgh University Press, 2020

Hölderlin's Philosophy of Nature Book Cover Hölderlin's Philosophy of Nature
New Perspectives in Ontology
Rochelle Tobias (Ed.)
Edinburgh University Press
Hardback £80.00

Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Eds.): Philosophers and Their Poets, SUNY Press, 2019

Philosophers and Their Poets: Reflections on the Poetic Turn in Philosophy since Kant Book Cover Philosophers and Their Poets: Reflections on the Poetic Turn in Philosophy since Kant
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Eds.)
SUNY Press
Paperback $28.95

Günter Figal, Diego D’Angelo, Tobias Keiling and Guang Yang (Eds.): Paths in Heidegger’s Later Thought, Indiana University Press, 2020

Paths in Heidegger's Later Thought Book Cover Paths in Heidegger's Later Thought
Studies in Continental Thought
Günter Figal, Diego D'Angelo, Tobias Keiling and Guang Yang (Eds.)
Indiana University Press
Hardback $95.00

Ranjan Ghosh (Ed.): Philosophy and Poetry: Continental Perspectives, Columbia University Press, 2019

Philosophy and Poetry: Continental Perspectives Book Cover Philosophy and Poetry: Continental Perspectives
Ranjan Ghosh (Ed.)
Columbia University Press
Hardback $75.00£58.00

Marius Johan Geertsema: Heidegger’s Poetic Projection of Being

Heidegger's Poetic Projection of Being Book Cover Heidegger's Poetic Projection of Being
Marius Geertsema
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardback 93,59 €
VIII, 288

Reviewed by: BB Bieganski (University of South Florida)

In his 2018 book, Heidegger’s Poetic Projection of Being (henceforth HPPB) Marius Johan Geertsema demonstrates that in Heidegger’s oeuvre, Being is essentially dialogical with the poetic. The poetic is not to be understood as strictly tethered to poems, but as a type of thinking which contrasts the worrisome technocratic with thinking combatted by Adorno, Foucault, Ortega y Gasset, and Heidegger himself. The poetic refers to the intimation of the future that shapes human thought and behavior in light of our finitude. Geertsema’s reading of Heidegger describes Being as a relation to a sort of hermeneutical receptivity that is found in poetic thinking—that is, an attunement towards nature, ourselves, and each other.

HPPB divides into three sections: an overview and explication of Heidegger’s philosophy, followed by Geertsema’s argument for Heidegger’s onto-poetology, and last a conclusion and implication section.

The first section of HPPB is dedicated to a discussion of Heidegger’s corpus which includes all the juicy aspects for any serious Heidegger scholar. This includes an elucidation of both the early Heidegger (including work prior to the publication of Being and Time) and the late Heidegger, along with a discussion of the Kehre—Heidegger’s turn from Dasein toward Being. Geertsema recontextualizes each phase of Heidegger’s work in light of the others, and even though he subtly offers his interpretation of the rupture between the early and late Heidegger, the first section of HPPB is primarily focused on outlining the different philosophies of early, middle, and late Heidegger.

The next 150 pages or so of HPPB are Geertsema’s own analysis of how Heidegger treats poetry, and its important role in Heidegger’s philosophy. In this section, Geertsema discusses the relationship between Being (that is, the world of experience) and poetry, and how Heidegger illuminates the role of language in our understanding of the world. Geertsema does an excellent job of citing textual evidence for Heidegger’s analysis of the intricate relationship of language and thought. It’s not surprising then, that Geertsema thinks that Being and poetics are intimately linked and that the way we interpret the world will be enmeshed in the way we discourse.

Geertsema takes great care in combing through Heidegger’s work: even in the areas that seemingly contradict the relationship between language and thought, Geertsema finds textual evidence that the discrepancy between thought and language isn’t so wide. For example, in the postscript to What is Metaphysics? Heidegger mentions that the poet and the thinker live on separate peaks of two mountaintops, which seems as though he views philosophical and scientific thinking as inconsistent with poetry and art. But Geertsema points out that in Anaximander’s Saying, Heidegger asserts that thinking grounds poetry and poetry grounds thinking, suggesting that Heidegger doesn’t think them as strictly incommensurable. And even though it seems as though Heidegger is inconsistent on the topic, Geertsema finds a way to bridge these ideas into a consistent overarching narrative in Heidegger’s thought.

Another impressive aspect to note in this section is that Geertsema tackles the dreaded Fourfold that flummoxes even the most well-read Heideggerian scholars, arguing that the Fourfold is a projection of a realm of thought that only poets can think. The Fourfold, which has two poles—the earth-sky pole and the mortal-divinity pole—can only be comprehended by poets, or “demigods”: those who exist “between” humans and gods and are receptive to the world around them as they project a type of thinking that anticipates and prepares for the future. Because poets are receptive to the world while understanding the boundaries that shape their understanding, poetry, or poetical thinking is able to get out of calculative, instrumental thinking. Metaphysicians, on the other hand, are concerned solely with how to explain reality, which opens up the question of technocratic domination. Poetry is dwelling, says Geertsema’s Heidegger: a sort of becoming comfortable with one’s own situation and context, where humans must realize their place according to their own boundaries. Thus, as poetry constitutes dwelling, it is the poet rather than the metaphysicians who understands the Fourfold as mode of thinking which grants us a way of navigating and understanding the world.

The final section, which concludes and examines the implications of the thesis laid out by Geertsema, unfortunately lasts only 4 pages. Here Geertsema introduces his own thoughts on the matter, which is the most interesting part of the book. Geertsema points out several worries for Heidegger, if Being is tied to the poetic (for example, Geertsema questions why should poetry be privileged—can’t architecture or a ballet also unite a people the same way poetry does?). Moreover, here Geertsema also considers certain secondary figures who have problematized Heidegger’s affinity for poetry, whereas in the bulk of the text such secondary exegesis is absent. Perhaps in a future book Geertsema will unearth these implications more in detail, as his worries seem to be problematic for Heidegger, if not outright lethal.

 The greatest virtue of HPPB is that Geertsema has clearly done his homework. Every exegetical claim made in the book is backed up by a quote or citation from Heidegger. Moreover, Geertsema doesn’t examine only the early or the late Heidegger, but the whole of Heidegger’s work, including lectures and biographical anecdotes. Scholars who focus on one period of Heidegger’s thought might come away from Geertsema having a better grip of Heidegger’s entire project because of how well Geertsema integrates every Heidegger—early, middle, and late—into one cohesive text.

However, there are limits to HPPB. Anyone who has little to no experience with Heidegger will effectively drown in the Heideggerese that Geertsema presents. Take for example: “To put it simply, Being can, according to Heidegger, only be what it is, in as far as it is appropriate at all to assert that Being ‘is’, when Being grants the human being the experience of Being, not only as the presencing of Being, but also as concealment; that is, the oblivion of Being as oblivion yielding from Being” (p. 52). Anyone without a sufficient background in phenomenology or Heidegger would find this passage to be mere nonsense, or some kind of unfunny joke. On the opposite end, those who are well-researched Heideggerian specialists might find swaths of HPPB uninteresting, uninformative, or uninspired. Experts studying a particular epoch of Heidegger might pass over sections of HPPB in order to reach their own area of interest. Since Geertsema offers expositions of Heidegger’s philosophy rather than a radical or novel reinterpretation of it, there is a risk of such inquisitive experts coming away only to be empty-handed. The primary audience that might get the most out of HPPB would be those who have read Heidegger but don’t understand him well enough yet. In other words, to use Geertsema’s nomenclature, HPPB is a book for demi-Heideggarians.

Another odd aspect of HPPB is that some of Geertsema’s claims are either wrong or open to easy misinterpretation. For instance, Geertsema claims that “Heidegger never took an interest in poetry and literature incidentally” (p. 9), which is either wrong (Heidegger wrote several poems, most of which are clumsily bad), or oddly-worded (Geertsema actually quotes some of Heidegger’s poetry, calling it “ugly,” p. 110). Or, for another oddity: “We will therefore examine = now [sic] the truth of the Being in relation to the phenomenon” (p. 103). Is the equal symbol supposed to represent that the concept of the ‘now’ to be examined? Or is it a weird typo that was maybe overlooked in the proofreading process (there are a few throughout the book, such as ‘Being a Time’ instead of ‘Being and Time’, p. 50). Or, in one of the rare instances in which Geertsema invokes secondary literature on Heidegger, he cites Thomas Sheehan’s work, Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift (2015), asserting that Sheehan gripes about the translation of “Ereignis” as “event”, but we should “pay attention to the use of the term by an author [Heidegger], instead of assuming a rigid frame of reference of the reader [Sheehan]…” (p. 38). However, Sheehan points out in several places in which Heidegger himself refused the interpretation of Ereignis as an event (as early as page xvii in the foreword of Making Sense of Heidegger, and which Sheehan explicitly tackles in chapter 8). These issues are mostly just distracting, but if this book is being recommended to scholars who are interested in learning more about Heidegger but are not yet experts, more could be at stake than simply getting one or two tenets of Heidegger’s philosophy wrong.

Lastly, and most pedantically, Geertsema tries his hand at Heideggerian etymology which turns out merely decorative rather than argumentative or explanatory. Those of us who don’t find the etymology interesting or informative have to sit through Geertsema’s own attempt at it. For example, Geertsema proffers that every seeing is a saying, and points out that both the English word ‘saying’ and German word ‘sagen’ come from the Indo-European ‘seku’, which means to ‘scent’ or ‘smell’, meaning to follow the trace of something (in Latin, to ‘tell’ or to ‘sequence’ is a following, ‘inseque’), which is also where the English word ‘seeing’ and the German word ‘sehen’ come from (p. 113-4). Heidegger would often analyze etymology to make a point about the relatedness of two ideas, but Geertsema’s own analysis is hardly elucidating or argumentative.

Despite some issues, Geertsema’s HPPB is a fantastic resource for Heidegger scholars who are interested in getting a stronger handle on Heidegger’s own thought. And while Geertsema doesn’t offer much of his own thinking here, the ideas that he offers will be suggestive to anyone who has an interest in Heideggerian phenomenology or continental philosophy of language.



Geertsema, M. J. 2018. Heidegger’s Poetic Projection of Being. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sheehan, T. 2015. Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift. New York, NY: Rowman &   Littlefield International Ltd.

Martin Heidegger: Hölderlin’s Hymn “Remembrance”

Hölderlin's Hymn "Remembrance" Book Cover Hölderlin's Hymn "Remembrance"
Studies in Continental Thought
Martin Heidegger, translated by William McNeill and Julia Ireland
Indiana University Press
Hardback $50.00

Reviewed by: Shawn Loht (Baton Rouge Community College, USA)

This text originates in a lecture course Heidegger gave at the University of Freiburg in the winter semester of 1941-42.  This course preceded a second course, on Hölderlin’s “The Ister,” which Heidegger later gave in Summer 1942.  As reported in the Editor’s Afterword, Heidegger originally conceived these courses as a single course covering the poetry of Hölderlin, but ended up using the entire winter 1941-42 semester to develop his reading of “Remembrance.” This work comes seven years after an earlier course Heidegger gave on Hölderlin, in winter 1934-35, on the hymns “Germania” and “The Rhine.”  This very readable translation of Hölderlin’s Hymn “Remembrance” furnished by eminent Heidegger scholars McNeill and Ireland completes the English translation of the entirety of Heidegger’s Hölderlin courses, the others having appeared intermittently over the last several years.

The majority of this lecture course shows Heidegger providing a very close reading of Hölderlin’s important hymn “Remembrance,” often dissecting it line by line and word by word.  However, equally important are the introductory sections, which comprise a significant portion of the course and which engage at length the correct mode of access for reading a poet such as Hölderlin.  The correct way into understanding Hölderlin, Heidegger says, is not to focus on Hölderlin the person, or his life and times, or even his mental illness.  Nor does the task involve getting a grip on the images or content of Hölderlin’s poetry, as if the primary obstacle is simply to understand what the poems are about.  (Throughout the course, it will be clear to the reader that constructing a “correct” reading of the poem is not of significant interest for Heidegger.)  He asks rhetorically on this note, are we sure that the content of the poem “coincides with what this poetizing poeticizes” (19)?  Heidegger emphasizes instead that in order to comprehend Hölderlin’s poetry, one must “think into the poetizing word” (22) encountered in the poem.  One cannot appropriate the meaning of Hölderlin’s poetry without entering into the proper hearing of what has come to language in the poet’s work.  The task involves appreciating the poetized moments, the disclosures of being that were occasioned to the poet and which gave themselves to expression in words.  In a way, then, Heidegger’s point here about comprehending what has been poeticized echoes the methodological claims one also finds in his writings on ancient thinkers such as Heraclitus and Parmenides from the same period, to wit, that there is no understanding to be gained of the thought at hand solely through an analysis of the philosopher’s words alone.  Instead, the task calls for appreciating the matter of thought [das Zu-Denkende] – the disclosure under whose sway the thinker operates – or in the present case, the poeticizing of what has been poetized.  Much of the territory explored in Heidegger’s reading of “Remembrance” has its focus in this approach.

On Heidegger’s reading of “Remembrance” proper: Heidegger suggests at the outset that Hölderlin’s hymn thematizes the concept of thinking [Denken] just as much as it connotes a notion of commemoration or memory.  Heidegger highlights the root word at work in the poem’s title: “Remembrance” in German is An-denken.  For Heidegger this entails an overlap in the notions of thinking and poetry; “thinking” [Denken] in the genuine sense involves tracing the poetic disclosure and movement of being.  He says in a passage well into the text: “Poetizing and thinking is authentic seeking” (114), where seeking is questioning, with the poet’s vocation to question the holy.

While the ins and outs of Heidegger’s analysis of “Remembrance” are too complex for me to summarize in a short space, in what follows I will highlight some of the principal themes and contours of Heidegger’s reading.  I begin at the end of the course, in view of his claim that the last lines of the hymn connect it with its beginning and reinforce its message.  Overall, as Heidegger reads it, “Remembrance” is a description of the poet’s experience as a poet.  The hymn’s last words read “Yet what remains the poets found” (18).  As Heidegger reads this line, the poets preserve and keep alive the time-space of the historical being of the human, the things that have come to pass and those that remain to be borne (165).  Heidegger interprets the hymn as poeticizing a narrative of the poet’s sojourn and homecoming, such that the hymn illustrates the poet’s experience as one of figuratively departing from one’s own land, and then returning to it.  (On this score Heidegger observes the correspondence between the hymn’s travel narrative and Hölderlin’s own return to Germany, on foot, after a period in Bordeaux.)  The poet is the one who can appropriate this very crossing from the foreign to the homely, recognizing the foreign and the homely in their own right.  Heidegger highlights several images in the poem that articulate metaphorically the poet’s sojourn: the northeasterly wind’s promise of the sun’s return; the turning of the equinox; a footbridge crossing a narrow valley (from France to Germany, and more distantly, Germany to Greece); the Garonne river of France joining the Dordogne and spreading to the sea.

Heidegger does not spend much time in this lecture course discussing what the poem means.  The reader should not expect that Heidegger’s analysis will enhance their understanding of what Hölderlin was trying to say, or of the metaphorical allusions Hölderlin gives to the various places and phenomena mentioned in the hymn.  Heidegger’s interest is much more to isolate the poeticizing, historically significant moments that phenomenologically condition the poem’s principal images and overall composition.  In other words, Heidegger attempts to highlight within specific concepts and themes of “Remembrance” the primordial disclosures that were poeticized for Hölderlin and which received some voice in his poetry.  One such theme is that of the “festival” or “holiday,” and the relation of these to the more fundamental notion of the “holy.”  As Heidegger describes it, the festival constitutes a commemoration of a momentous event in the past, a celebration of a god’s presence in and consecration of the human domain.  In its original instantiation, “[t]he festival is the event in which gods and humans come to encounter one another” (62).  For Heidegger, this commemorated moment originates with the dawn of history in Greece and the advent of the Greek gods.  Accordingly, the festival and the holiday occasioning it are a reflection of the presence of the holy in the historical being of the present.  Phenomenologically speaking, Heidegger’s meaning seems to be this: the existence of the festival as articulated by the poet is significant because the festival and its holiday illustrate the extraordinary quality of certain days and times by which they command celebration, revealing their own consecration.  More broadly, Heidegger interprets the festival and holiday to commemorate historical being itself, including the circle of life to which human beings belong as the receivers of this being.

Another theme for which Heidegger gives a rather idiosyncratic, yet ostensibly phenomenological account is that of dreams.  This treatment is noteworthy given that dreams are a subject that does not figure prominently in many other texts of Heidegger’s corpus.  He takes up dreams here in the course of discussing the ending lines of the second strophe of “Remembrance.”  These lines read “And over slow footbridges/Heavy with golden dreams/Lulling breezes draw.”  In the wider context of this citation, Heidegger interprets this image as a reference to the poet crossing over to the homeland, where “golden dreams” convey the slumbering but still extant, “lulling” presence of ancient Greek culture (103ff).  However, Heidegger gives a deeper analysis of how dreams are to be understood in their own right and outside the framework of modern psychology.  He emphasizes that we should consider dreams “nonscientifically,” an approach that stands to be “more scientific” than traditional science by virtue of interpreting dreams outside of any standard point of reference.  Heidegger offers a phenomenological description of dreams, citing for illustration two passages from the Greek poet Pindar, whom he identifies as an ancient counterpart of Hölderlin.  In the first cited passage, taken from Pindar’s eighth “Pythian Ode,” the key phrase reads: “Shadows’ dream are human beings” (95).  Human beings are the dream of shadows.  Heidegger interprets this phrase to portray dreams as a vanishing within an appearing, but an appearing which itself is constituted by a darkening, a shadow-character.  In Heidegger’s words:

Pindar wants to say that the dream is the way in which whatever is itself in a certain way already lightless, absences: the dream as the most extreme absencing into the lightless, and yet nevertheless not nothing, but in this way too still an appearing: this vanishing itself still an appearing, the appearing of a passing away into that which is altogether devoid of radiance, which no longer illuminates (98).

So Heidegger’s account of dreams sets about attempting to describe the underlying phenomenological character of dreaming, particularly as dreams are characterized by an evanescent but nonetheless definite, illuminating appearance from a hidden source.  In claiming that he aims to give a nonscientific account, Heidegger’s emphasis seems to rest in the fact that dreams are first-person experiences.  As such, the most one can provide in a genuinely philosophical reckoning must be formulated on the basis of how dreaming presents itself.

On the relation Pindar’s ode sketches between the dream and the human being (“Shadows’ dream are human beings”), Heidegger goes on to comment as follows:

The shadow’s dream is the fading presence of that which is faded, lightless; by no means a nothing; to the contrary, perhaps even that which is real – that which alone is admitted as real where the human being is stuck only with that which is constantly vanishing, the daily aspect of the everyday, insofar as the latter counts as the only thing that life knows as proximate and real (Ibid.).

Heidegger offers something profound here in his citation of Pindar.  He casts dreams more broadly as reflecting the vanishing of the original illumination that constitutes the open of human being itself (100).  Dreams echo the original, yet always withdrawn presence of being.  The evanescent character of dreams simply is the character of the human experience of meaningful intelligibility, and of everyday human life.  This observation yields at once a metaphysical sketch of everyday human being, and a cloaked criticism of modern culture, on the ground that every moment of life is a fleeting instantaneous juxtaposition of consciousness and forgetting.  Heidegger concludes that dreams reflect the presence-in-absence constitutive of human being itself: “And so it is that what the human being is, as presencing in the manner of a shadow, he is not in the manner of mere presence and cropping up….  That which presences stretches itself as such…in accordance with its essence – into absencing” (100).  In sum, to call human beings the dream of shadows is a way of sketching the temporally stretched, yet self-negating character of human existence.  While this interpretation stands on its own and greatly fills in the opaque meaning of Pindar’s words, Heidegger also explains the significance of this excursus for Hölderlin’s mention of “golden dreams.”  Here Heidegger cites a fragment from Hölderlin’s philosophical treatise “Becoming in Dissolution,” where Hölderlin describes the freedom realized in the creation of art as a terrifying yet divine dream, straddling the line between being and nonbeing, possible and real, and actual and ideal.  Heidegger explains: “the dreamlike concerns the becoming real of the possible in the becoming ideal of the actual” (103).  As Heidegger writes elsewhere in his own accounts of the origin of art, art’s creation articulates the interplay of one’s own place and time with the presence of the divine.  Thus, the “golden dreams” of the “lulling breezes” blowing across the footbridge convey the historical presence of Greece’s golden age, which in turn also represents the dawn of historical meaning occasioned in the advent of art, poetry, and language.  So while Heidegger provides an exhaustive hermeneutic analysis of dreams and their presence in human being, he also interprets Hölderlin’s lines regarding the lulling breeze crossing the footbridge to express at once the poet’s experience of straddling the homely and foreign, and more broadly, the essence and meaning of the existence of art.

On a related note, another example of Heidegger’s preoccupation with the phenomenological disclosure bound up with the birth of poetry and art is visible with his highlighting of Hölderlin’s emphases in “Remembrance” of phenomena as they occur to him.  In the first strophe, Hölderlin describes the “northeasterly” as the most beloved of winds “to me” (16).  A few lines after, he invites the reader to “go now and greet/The beautiful Garonne” (Ibid.).  And in the second strophe, Hölderlin says “Still it thinks its way to me” [Noch denket das mir wohl] (17), suggesting a notion of being reminded, of having a thought occasioned from outside oneself.  For Heidegger, Hölderlin’s use of these locutions indicates that the poetic experience involves heeding moments that disclose themselves, rather than actively seeking out words that describe experiences.  In this light, the northeasterly wind, or the Garonne, are poeticized phenomena that self-present, as it were.  They are not discovered by the human agent’s searching or cataloguing of geography or atmospheric patterns, or finding aesthetically pleasing ways to describe these.

What results from Heidegger’s often tangential explorations in this lecture course are as penetrating and exhaustive discussions as one will find in his oeuvre on the nature of poetry and particularly, what it means for disclosures of being to be “poeticized.”  This book will make a fine companion to Heidegger’s other writings on poetry such as On the Way to Language, “Poetically Man Dwells,” and “The Origin of the Work of Art.”  Also noteworthy in this volume, several early sections of the course address at length the biography and legacy of Norbert Von Hellingrath, the young Hölderlin scholar who, before his untimely death in the first World War, collected the edition of Hölderlin’s poems Heidegger deems essential.  Although many of Heidegger’s other writings of this period, especially those on Hölderlin, exhibit a nationalistic streak, the presence of this dimension in Heidegger’s analysis of “Remembrance” is for the most part rather muted.  In this vein, Heidegger primarily takes his cues from Hölderlin’s historical conceptions of Germania and does not develop much material from out of his own voice.  These topics feature most prominently in Part Three of the text, which is entitled “The Search for the Free Use of One’s Own.”  I do not believe this text will provide a major contribution for understanding themes of nationalism in Heidegger’s work.

I will finish by highlighting one last issue to which Heidegger gives attention in this lecture course that I believe is very interesting vis-à-vis his treatments of art and poetry elsewhere.  Heidegger gives repeated attention to the concept of images [Bild], particularly in the context of the visual representations one experiences in reading and hearing poetry.  In these passages, Heidegger emphasizes that the images evoked by poetry cannot function as a vehicle for understanding what is poeticized.  Similarly, he argues that images are not simply the visible counterpart of an unspoken, invisible form or essence comprising the real truth of the poem, as if the poem were some kind of derivative, lesser version of a true reality not possible to capture in words (29-30).  As Heidegger describes, images have this limitation because what is poeticized transcends the poem altogether.  What is poeticized is not something the poem represents or symbolizes.  Thus, the fact that a piece of poetry contributes to the formation of images in the hearer has no bearing on a poem’s meaning or the disclosure of being that occasioned the poem’s composition.  Interestingly, Heidegger does not speak here of the actual ontology of images, or of the human capacity for image consciousness.  Nor does he comment on the western tradition of privileging visual perception among the sources of knowledge, as he does more critically elsewhere in writings such as “The Age of the World Picture” and “The Origin of the Work of Art.”  In those works, Heidegger’s position is that artworks (which, as he says, have their origin in poetry) do not merely represent; art in the genuine sense does not simply re-produce a subject by placing it in front of the viewer in the manner of a copy.  Instead, artworks have the function of preserving the eventuation of historical truth for a particular time, place, and culture.  Artworks wrest truth from oblivion and bring it into light, albeit not permanently.  In view of his comments on images in the course on “Remembrance,” I believe one can take issue slightly with the dichotomy Heidegger draws between the images occasioned through poetry, and the question of whether such images represent a more original meaning or not.  In other words, Heidegger’s suggestion that images are merely representative, and not reflective of a deeper disclosure, is perhaps overly restrictive.  As Karen Gover has written on this topic, Heidegger perhaps ought to say that art and poetry do in fact represent their subjects (in the manner of re-presenting), but in a way that goes deeper than merely copying their subjects.  Maybe the key is that they simply represent in a more originary way, and not that they do not represent at all.  In the case of Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin’s “Remembrance,” Heidegger would seem to allow that the hymn re-enacts some trace of the primordial disclosure that was given to the poet; one simply needs to be in the correct mode of hearing to appreciate the offering of this disclosure.  On the other hand, the equally decisive point emerging from Heidegger’s interpretive framework in the lecture course seems to be that the images Hölderlin’s hymn affords us must not distract us from the fact that poetry’s origins transcend both images and words; poetry (or poeticizing) is the moment of being coming into language.  Understanding Hölderlin’s hymn therefore concerns heeding the eventuation of being that precedes both the poem and its images.

Works Cited:

Gover, K.  “The Overlooked Work of Art in ‘The Origin of the Work of Art.’”  International Philosophical Quarterly 48 (2) (2008): 143-53.

Kevin Hart: Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry

Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry Book Cover Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry
Kevin Hart
Bloomsbury Academic
Hardback £76.50

Reviewed by: Jacob McGuinn (University of London)

Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.

Psalm 119:18

Kevin Hart’s attention moves from what he calls his “native tongue,” (10) phenomenology, towards theology. His work is consistently concerned with attending to the theological in the phenomenological. This turning to theology has manifested through readings of modern philosophy, most particularly, and perhaps surprisingly, in reading Maurice Blanchot, whose concerns with the impossibilities of literature have lead Hart towards the parallel impossibilities of the sacred. In Poetry and Revelation, Hart resumes these themes: the religious constructions of philosophy, and poetry’s difficult role in shaping and articulating those constructions.

Poetry and Revelation is explicitly concerned with phenomenology, and with developing a phenomenology of reading poetry. Such a project is certainly aligned with contemporary trends in poetics, many of which are favourable to religious experience. Here, for Hart, the shape and structure of this phenomenology is itself afforded by the theological experience of reading. Reading is already theologically inflected, and so is any phenomenology. So while Hart is concerned with the experience of reading poetry, he is at the same time concerned with the ways such reading shapes our sense of phenomenology, and thereby with a theological inflection to phenomenology. Reading modern religious poetry – Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Geoffrey Hill, first of all, and then other Australian and European voices – means responding to the range of Christian theology which frames that poetry, and in to the ways this reading frames a version of phenomenology. If there is a religious ‘experience’ of poetry, then it is attuned to the world under the revelation of faith. This is the world experienced as ‘created’, in which that creation is given. And if there is any phenomenological bracketing of the world, it is through a capacity to register shifts in representation framed by this religious experience. The book is therefore a meshing of specifically Christian experience of modern religious poetry with the phenomenological apprehension of that experience; and the two, for Hart, are mutually inflecting. Religious revelation can be subject to phenomenology, “a ‘religious’ experience” where “the speaker has been converted to see things from a new perspective” (54). And this ‘conversion’ of revelation, for Hart, mirrors the epochē of phenomenological bracketing. But it also exceeds phenomenal appearance – and here is Hart’s problem. If there is a religious, revelatory experience, it is of something that transcends the given, because “the phenomenon of divine revelation, centered in Incarnation, saturates our intentional horizon” (59). If we are to speak of a phenomenology of revelation, then, we must do so attentive to this “saturation,” whether disabling of the resources of phenomenology or not.

Poetry can offer new resources for such a phenomenology, and this is the connection Hart is concerned with excavating. Husserl’s injunction that we return our thinking to appearance is, for Hart, “as valuable to a philosopher as to a poet: one must learn how to attend to phenomena, and not merely inherit a sense of the ‘poetic’.” (151) From Husserl, then, Hart’s modernity inherits a double demand: both to think about appearance, and to write it. This twinning shapes his book. The question of ‘phenomena’ in poetry collides with the question of the ‘phenomenological’ reading of it. Both, Hart suggests, are modes of ‘revelation’, and both are therefore channelled through religious experience and writing. Religious poetry, attentive as it is, for Hart, to phenomenal appearance as ‘revelatory’ of religious truth, can span these two poles: its concern with its own poetic ‘phenomena’ models a ‘phenomenology’ of its appearance as poetry. Poetry, in this way, cooperates with phenomenology, defined by Hart as an “attentive response to what is given” (77) – poetry is both response to the world’s phenomena and doing its own phenomenological work. Hart’s Husserlian poet is already involved in a bracketing of experience, an epochē, because a poem’s strategies of manifestation in language already include not merely the questions ‘what’ or ‘why’, but also ‘how’ something appears (156). The artist is “someone wakeful” (157). But “Art is not attention; it is a change in the quality of attention so that we can see that we have already been in contact with what we see.” (157) If the poet is phenomenologist, that phenomenology is articulated in the vocabulary of poetry, and its consequences are registered in a poem.

We are in the orbit of a poetics of phenomenology, here, with, in Part I, Eliot distinguishing between a poetry written in the language of philosophy, and a philosophy articulated through the language of poetry. We favour the latter. Hart’s Eliot is “concerned with how one thinks in verse, not how one translates philosophy into poetry,” (45) and Hart traces his question through poetic encounters, letting these reading encounters shape his articulation of phenomenology. Part I develops a close reading of religious poetry as a phenomenological theology. Hart reads Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot as poets of religious revelation. In Part II, this attention shifts to the limits of religious poetry, described by Geoffrey Hill, and the limits of poetic revelation, rather than of the poetry of revelation. Parts III-V then retrace these two positions – revelation and its limits – through Australian, and then French, Italian, and American, poetries. This poetic scope is matched by a philosophical scope, asking after the limits of phenomenology from Husserl to Derrida, Heidegger, Michel Henry, and Jean-Luc Marion, but also with Levinas and Blanchot, in particular. And Hart brings each of these discourses into a further conversation with Christian theology, ranging from Patristic thinking forwards.

Hart’s methodology is, to use his own metaphor, ‘triangular’ (and no doubt Trinitarian), triangulating poetry with theology and phenomenology. The work of the book is in plotting this triangulation, and this plotting is subject to its own transcendental scrutiny: what kind of experience could account for the conflation, or at least the coincidence, of these distinct modes in the act of reading? In Part I, in close reading Hopkins’s poems (themselves acts of close reading the world), this act of getting reading right is itself theological, and this seems to be Hart’s central point: exegesis can be revealed as intum legere, reading from the inside, in which interpretation is not a determination of experience but its phenomenological revelation. There is certainly a phenomenological shaping of reading experience. The more obvious reference point is Jean-Luc Marion, and his sense of the limits of intuitive experience, but Hart poses the question directly to Husserl. The epochē is resituated as a theological bracketing (22-24). But this in turn resituates theological experience, more explicitly making its transcendent claims part of an experience of immanence. Revelation is the key to this conversation. Under revelation, the phenomenological sense of the world’s unfolding takes on theological dimensions – as one mode of creation, and of faith – as much as theological experience undergoes a phenomenological reading.

A revelatory experience of the world, immanent or not, requires an epochal shift in our sense of the world. Hart is attempting to uproot the theological assumptions in such a bracketing, and to imply that the representational shift of dimensions involved in it are coincident with a ‘revelatory’ Christian tradition. The triangulation of theology and phenomenology with religious poetry is therefore an attempt to demonstrate that shift. Reading such poetry compels us to recognise the revelatory as at once a phenomenological bracketing, and an epochal shift in representation of the world. So Christianity adds to phenomenology “another protocol that does not change it but clarifies its range” (23). Faith opens experience to new intentional horizons. Religious poetry emerges from a contemplation of the world through this faithful bracketing: a sensual imagination of the world as ‘instressed’, to use a word of Hopkins, by faith. For the poem, attuned to faith, the world appears as revelatory: through a phenomenologically guided shift in representation (28-34). “There is no special revelation, only a conversion of the gaze that intensifies the meaning of general, public revelation for the poet.” (34) Hopkins is here participating in a revealed world, not revealing it. Reading a poem, then, means assuming a phenomenological position towards the text: just as the poem is already bracketed from normative experience (here Hart follows Jean-Luc Marion closely, for whom certain experiences are ‘saturated’ with intuition which exceeds any concept invoked (15)), so too a reader of a religious poem is bracketed from expected objects of experience. The poem is ‘of’ revelation to the extent that it is ‘revealed’ (and “reveiled” (10)) through being read.

The question, then, is how much, or in what way, poetic revelation coincides with or collaborates with phenomenological reading. Hart seems to shift his emphasis with each momentary reading of a poem. In Part I, with Eliot, we are explicitly concerned with philosophy articulated in the language of poetry, and not with the poetic adornment of philosophical truths. As suggested, Hart’s Eliot is “concerned with how one thinks in verse, not how one translates philosophy into poetry.” (45) But as we proceed through the book – starting in part II with Hill – religion shifts from being a phenomenological mode of poetic writing to a mode of poetic reading. Hart reads the poems through religion, in a sense suggesting that exegesis is one of the poetic modes of articulation these religious poems inhabit. We shift, then, from the poetic experience of revelation to the revelation of poetic experience. This shift is important, because it opens up one of the ambiguities of this work. To what extent is the articulation of experience something poems do, and to what extent is articulation itself something by which poems are experienced? Do we ‘experience’ revelation in a poem, do we witness, as attuned readers, the revelatory experience poems themselves articulate, or is ‘revelation’ one of the experiences readers can bring to a poem? Is this poetry as revelation, or poetry for revelation? How are these two modes aligned in reading and writing about poetry?

In Part III, describing the saturated sensuality of A.D. Hope’s poem “The Double Looking Glass”, Hart remarks that, “What we see of Susannah in the poem has not all been seen before; it was never so visible.” (138) The poem, here, is exposing the reader to an experience of saturation, and is making visible phenomena which would not otherwise be so. In the poem, “the story [of Susannah] becomes a visionary narrative, a poem in which sensuality and transcendence cooperate rather than compete” (139). In this ‘visionary’ work of making visible, the poem combines the revelations of religious transcendence with the revelations of phenomenal sensuality. The revelatory ‘vision’ of the poem is in making this combination, and cooperation, visible. In part IV, Hart turns explicitly to the idea of poetry’s experience – poetry of, or as, experience – and the congruence of such experience with religious experience. Again, Hart marks poetry as, and not about, experience; but as such, structuring or making visible certain experience. “I am not thinking poetry as Erlebnis, lived experience, but as Erfahrung.” (194) The question raised here by religious poetry is of the experience of transcendence. Such ‘experience’, however, is complicated by the way that poetry draws upon an impossibility of experience. Hart’s point of contact here is the Italian poet Eugenio Montale. There is an inconceivability to this poetry, because of the inconceivable – unthinkable – range of possibilities both inscribed and erased from the poems. Such poetic experience is therefore both ‘impossible’ experience and an experience of ‘impossibility’. Here Hart draws upon Blanchot, and thinks of the ways poetry can configure ‘impossible’ experience itself through its presentation of language: “the poem brings into meaning something that refuses to settle into a definite meaning”. (196)

The ‘impossible’ also signifies the space left for poetry after the ‘departure’ of the Gods (here Hart is after Hölderlin): after a symbolically meaningful religious experience of the world, poetry presents the impossibility of such meaning so that, in such saturation, meaning might be preserved (205-6). Hart’s question, however, is not of a post-Christian experience, but rather, “In a reality held to be finite what sense, if any, can be made of transcendence?” (206). Hart’s thinking about the poetic image in Jaccottet and about poetry’s experience in Montale thus resolves into a question about poetry’s transcendence, or not, of possible experience. The terms of a Husserlian ‘bracketing’ of experience are thereby channelled through a poetic claim that “one cannot simply suspend reference to transcendence in the case of a text, literary or not. One can at best fold that reference.” (207) The ‘transcendence’ Hart has in mind is, of course, religious, and revelatory: an experience, such as Hopkins’s, of the transcendence of the world itself, rather than of any world beyond it. This question is “skewed in advance” by an insistence that modernity is “co-ordinate with the finite” (208). In such insistence, “we distance transcendence from experience at the cost of rendering transcendence unintelligible.” (209) Hart’s task, here, is a reintegration of religious transcendence to our sense of finitude through poetry’s Erfahrung.

Section V leads us to the work, implicitly assigned to poetry throughout, of imagination: that poetry’s invocation of images does not merely ‘present’ a world, but also ‘contemplates’ it, contemplation historically indexed by Catholic devotion to Mary. The picturing of the world in contemplation, as in poetry, reveals the world as not just materially inert, but immanent with poetry’s revelation of meaning. The question of such contemplation is phenomenological: how, we ask in contemplating Mary, does the incarnation happen? How does transcendence happen? In this way, contemplation of Mary and poetry parallel a (more overtly Protestant) Hegelian ‘concretion’: “the particular ways in which the dialectic gathers all that there is and makes it into an ever more concrete reality.” (229) The poetic contemplation of Mary, asking ‘How’ Mary becomes meaningful, thereby also makes the transcendent concrete (242); and in doing so, despite its transcendent object, invokes a phenomenology. Hart’s final question, then, comes into focus here: the question of revelation is the question of ‘how’ the world becomes meaningful, and in a religious sense ‘transcendent’; and as such, the question of poetic revelation exposes us to a phenomenology of the transcendent which other versions of phenomenology might conceal. Religious poetry invokes a bracketing of experience in order to present the transcendent as the ‘impossible’ – sacred or silent, but still one intentional horizon in which the world becomes meaningful. In reading poetry this way, for Hart, we employ a phenomenology. And in this employment, phenomenology is exposed to a religious intentionality it might otherwise conceal, or have concealed. This is not just a compatibility of religious experience with phenomenology, but their coordination.

This coordination amounts to an intervention in our conception of phenomenology – the intervention of theology which, as Hart has repeatedly suggested in his career, is not in an intervention so much as an anamnetic recovery of revelation. In the final chapter, Hart attempts to describe this intervention. Without mentioning recent work on Derrida’s theology, Hart plays deconstruction against this kinds of ‘negative theology’ he has been detailing. Deconstruction takes différance to be a quasi-transcendental condition for the play of meaning between text and context, whereas in negative theology the transcendent idea of God yields multiple meanings in experience of the world. In this situation, however, the two are “back to back,” and in fact, “deconstruction can only ever be the ghost of apophatic theology precisely because it answers to a structure of transcendence and not a divine transascendence” (259). Derrida’s exemplary readings yield a silence behind their texts. Hart asks whether ‘other’ silences might be read, too, and this is where theology becomes operative. Husserl’s presupposed exclusion of the transcendence of God from phenomenology would in such a reading be exposed to a different version of appearance. “In uncovering this presupposition we may ask ourselves what happens if we do not limit our phenomenality at all, restricting it neither to objects (Husserl) nor being (Heidegger), and instead granting everything the right and the power to manifest itself in whatever way is appropriate to it.” (259) For Hart this attitude is indexed through the theological tradition of engaging with the world in its revelation, and articulated by a religious poetry concerned with what the word might reveal (or not) in the world. Undertaking the phenomenology of reading such poetry would only be to rediscover a phenomenological attitude concealed in the Husserlian bracketing of the transcendent from the transcendental. Religious revelation, as religious poetry shows us, is the manifestation of its own transcendent mode of showing, and theology is its shaping construction. After all, “Every prayer is an epochē that can make the writing of theology possible, and theology only begins when we are led back from the world we master and that tries to master us to a created world” (260). And religious poetry is attuned to such creation, the “morning knowledge” of “the way of knowing granted when things are seen as created, invisibly tied to God” (260).

Kevin Hart: Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry, Bloomsbury, 2017

Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry Book Cover Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry
Kevin Hart
Bloomsbury Academic
Hardback £76.50

Martin Heidegger: Introduction to Philosophy—Thinking and Poetizing, Indiana University Press, 2016

Introduction to Philosophy—Thinking and Poetizing Book Cover Introduction to Philosophy—Thinking and Poetizing
Studies in Continental Thought
Martin Heidegger. Translated by Phillip Jacques Braunstein
Indiana University Press
Paperback $20.00
96, 2 b&w illus.