Friday, November 19, 2010

Heidegger's "Evening Conversation"

As tends to happen, the SPEP discounts led to an influx of new books at my home. Amongst them are Tracy Colony's translation of Heidegger's 1920 lecture course Phenomenology of Intuition and Expression, Richard Capobianco's Engaging Heidegger, and Bret Davis' translation of Heidegger's Country Path Conversations. It is this last text I would like to briefly discuss now.

I had heard Davis discuss the process of translating the Country Path Conversations while at the meeting of the Heidegger Circle this past May and so had been looking forward to getting my hands on the book. As Davis tells us in his Afterword, Heidegger wrote these dialogues in the winter of 1944-45 when World War II was drawing to its end. We are familiar in translation with the nature of these dialogues primarily from "Conversations on a Country Path" which appears in the Discourse on Thinking and consists of a portion of the larger "Triadic Conversation" which is the first of the three dialogues in Davis' translation.

When I received the book I went immediate to the final dialogue entitled "Evening Conversation: In a Prisoner of War Camp in Russian, between a Younger and an Older Man". Although these dialogues represent an essential move in the changes in Heidegger's thought which occurred throughout the 30s and 40s, I have to admit that what drew me to this last dialogue was more of a historical and biographical than a strictly philosophical interest. Heidegger's sons were held in a Russian prisoner of war camp and were, I believe, still being so held at the time when he wrote this dialogue. If ever there was to be an insight into Heidegger's feelings towards the catastrophic events through which the world passed during the 30s and 40s it would, I felt, be found here. I was not, I feel, disappointed. This dialogue, which is born from a sudden feeling of healing experienced by a younger prisoner, becomes a meditation upon healing, waiting, devastation, malice and rage as well as the question of the identity of a people and the problem of nationalism. In the course of it Heidegger, although not in his own voice, offers us some of the most direct expressions of his feelings towards Nazis Germany I have seen (the places where he claimed to have struggled in thought against the Nazis during the 1930s, for example in his Nietzsche lectures and his Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning), tend to be far less transparent.) If, however, we want to mention some elements of philosophical import I was particularly struck by the way in which the dialogue identifies the concept of a nation and the connected nationalism with subjectivism and the dominance of an interest in "work for the sake of increased possibility of work".

Here then are a few striking moments, without further comment on my part, from the dialogue:

"Older Man: ...And what is not all wounded and torn apart in us? - us, for whom a blinded leading-astray of our own people is too deplorable to permit wasting a complaint on, despite the devastation that covers our native soil and its helplessly perplexed humans."

"Older Man: This waiting people would - especially during a time when its essence still eludes it, and precisely because of this still unexperienced waiting essence - be endangered like no other.
Younger Man: And indeed, this people would be endangered not by threats from outside, but rather by the fact that it would tyrannize itself with its own ignorant impatience, and so would spur itself on to continual mistakes.
Older Man: And it would even do all this in the opinion that it is thereby following its essence, which would have to finally fight to win recognition from the side of other peoples.
Younger Man: While in fact this rash pseudo-essence remains a perpetually maldroit imitation of the foreign.
Older Man: It this people were to ever become a people that waits, then it would have to remain indifferent to whether others listen to it or not.
Younger Man: This people could also never, so long as it would know its essence, insist on its waiting essence as on a special calling and distinction.
Older Man: You mean that by becoming those who wait, we first become German?
Younger Man: Not only is this what I mean - since early this morning, it is what I know. Yet we will not become German so long as we plan to find 'the German' by means of analyzing our supposed 'nature'. Entangled in such intentions we merely chase after what is national, which, after all, as the word says, insists on what is naturally given.
Older Man: Why do you speak so severely against the national?
Younger Man: The idea of the nation is that representation in whose circle-of-vision a people bases itself on itself as a foundation given from somewhere, and makes itself into a subject. And to this subject everything then appears as what is objective, which means that everything appears only in the light of its subjectivity.
Older Man: Nationality is nothing other than the pure subjectivity of a people that purports to rely on its 'nature' as what is actual, from out of which and back to which all effecting is supposed to go.
Younger Man: Subjectivity has its essence in that the human - the individual, groups, and the realms of humanity - rises up to base itself on himself and to assert himself as the ground and measure of what is actual. With this rebellious uprising into subjectivity emerges the uprising into work as that form of achieving by means of which the devastation of the earth is everywhere prepared for and ultimately established as unconditional.
Young Man: The national and international are so decidedly the selfsame that both, by basing themselves on subjectivity and insisting on what is actual, know just as little - and above all can know just as little - whose business it is that they are incessantly conducting.
Older Man: The business of the devastation, and that means of work for the sake of increased possibilities for work. Thus we cannot become German - which means those who poetize and think, that is, those who wait - so long as we chase after the German in the sense of something national."

"Younger Man: And for a long time this may perhaps be the sole content of our teaching: the need and the necessity of the unnecessary."


  1. Thank you. Very thought-provoking, and it also offers some hope. Along with all the dangers of the present moment, it is also a time of the most extensive scholarly production--in human history, so far as I am aware. Too little of it, of course, poetizes. But that's OK, since hope is still such a rare event.

  2. I agree, in fact I am finding the full texts of the Country Path Conversations more hopeful than much of Heidegger's later work often sounds. I am struck by the fact that in both the second conversation, "The Teacher Meets the Tower Warden at the Door to the Tower Stairway", and the third, "Evening Conversation", one of the character references a life changing experience which offers reason for hope. As mentioned, in "Evening Conversation" it is a sudden experience of healing and in the Tower conversation it is a mysterious experience of strangeness derived from a work of art.