Sunday, October 02, 2011

Thompson, Iain. Review of Martin Heidegger, COUNTRY PATH CONVERSATIONS. NDPR (September 2011).

Heidegger, Martin.  Country Path Conversations.  Trans. Bret W. Davis.  Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010.

Heidegger wrote these rich, fascinating, and deeply hopeful philosophical dialogues in the middle of what was probably the darkest period in his life. The time between November 1944 and February 1946 centered around Germany's defeat in the Second World War. It began with the 55 year-old Heidegger's conscription into the Volkssturm or German Territorial Army (along with all the other remaining German men between the ages of 16 and 60), where he spent several exhausting weeks digging trenches in the Alsace region between Germany and France (as the Nazis desperately sought to defend their borders from advancing Allied troops). It ended with Heidegger's dismissal from Freiburg University by the French de-Nazification committee and his subsequent psychiatric hospitalization for depression. In the interval, Heidegger supervised the hiding of his voluminous philosophical manuscripts in a cave (after the bank where they had been stored in a vault was reduced to rubble by an Allied air raid on Messkirch); his two sons both went missing in action in Russia (and became captives in Russian prisoner of war camps); his two year-old love affair with Princess Margot of Saxony-Meiningen came to threaten his marriage (when his wife Elfride demanded he choose between them; Heidegger chose Elfride but the Prince and Princess were divorced in 1947); and he lost drawn-out trials with the local and French de-Nazification committees. All these stressful events, especially the last two, precipitated the depressive crisis for which he was hospitalized.

And yet there was also a brief period of calm in the eye of this storm. As soon as Heidegger was discharged from the Volkssturm in December (for the recurrent "heart problems" that now look like psychosomatic symptoms of severe anxiety), he fled on his son's bicycle from the city of Freiburg (where he lived and taught) to his hometown of Messkirch (some 75 miles away!) so as to stay out of the grasp of the French Army. Heidegger spent the next few months writing in Messkirch and teaching at the nearby Wildenstein Castle (an idyllic site high in the hills above Beuron, with a panoramic view of the Danube river valley below), where has was soon joined by what remained of Freiburg University's philosophy department. The philosophy faculty taught joint seminars to about 30 women students and also helped the local farmers bring in their hay harvest in order to earn their own keep (food and other necessities being extremely scarce).

Heidegger felt truly in his element here, and even planned to have one of the towers of Wildenstein Castle restored with hopes of working there in close proximity to the Princess. (He paid a year's rent on the tower but the shortage of laborers and materials made the project impossible to complete at the time. Still, the romantic, Hölderlinian idea of living and working in a tower looms large in the second of these dialogues, "The Teacher Meets the Tower Warden [or, better, the Tower Dweller] at the Door of the Tower Stairway."[1]) While lecturing primarily on Heraclitus and Hölderlin, on such timely topics as the spiritual riches that material poverty can help disclose, Heidegger also discovered Daoism (recognizing profound affinities with his own views, on the basis of which he hoped one day to conduct a dialogue with the East).[2] It was during this temporary reprieve -- a brief stay (or Aufenthalte) in the midst of intense historical, political, and psychological turmoil -- that Heidegger wrote his first philosophical dialogues, the Country Path Conversations. In them, the thinker seeks to make sense of some of the troubling events through which he was living by placing them in the broader context of the "history of being," that is, his growing understanding of the way metaphysics focuses and transforms Western humanity's basic sense of what it means to be. . . .

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