The Passing of the World

by David Wemyss (May 2012)

Readers of my work will know that I often try to say something honest and straightforward about Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein or Heidegger, not least as an antidote to the baleful effect of the scholarship industries that have grown up around all three of them. Anyway, this little piece is about Heidegger, and I hope it will strike a chord with anyone who senses he is important but can’t get clear of the lingering suspicion that he isn’t.

So let’s cut to the chase. Heidegger thought we had become swamped by received wisdom about usefulness and efficiency, and that we could no longer sense that our mode of being might be fallen. He thought we had lost the capacity to feel our very homesickness. There is a striking similarity to Kierkegaard’s idea of being in despair but not knowing it. One thinks also of the Kierkegaardian pseudonym Johannes Climacus lighting his cigar in Frederiksberg Gardens and resolving to make things more difficult in an age when credit is bestowed upon those who bring about the efficiencies that will make things easier.

Human values and ideals have become the sole measure of all things. Amazingly - but should we be amazed? - Heidegger thinks this is a bad thing. To lead the life of the ‘they’, to read newspapers and watch the news, to think of oneself as a citizen, is perdition. 

Our self-consciousness knows only that it must satisfy manipulable rules and public norms - or else manage or repress failures to satisfy them. In other words, social man has no criterion by which to judge his behaviour other than that of society. This may seem like a good thing – in general - but its cash value is that the individual has given himself up to anonymous instrumentality, allowing it to govern his existence as an investment, or a managerial project.

Early Heidegger posits the authentic individual who, in comportment towards death, recoils from the emptiness of the organizational. In late Heidegger this matures into nuanced quietism, but the spirits hovering above the ashes are the same ghosts.

This is where most Heidegger scholars say “yes, but”. Their equivocation illustrates the extreme point at stake. Heidegger doesn’t mean that it is sometimes edifying to put human needs and interests in perspective before affirming what is otherwise their obvious seriousness. He means that human needs and interests aren’t serious. 

All of which leads us to the vexed question of his Nazi enthusiasms. It’s tempting to infer that someone who found human weal and woe less than compelling simply lacked the basic ethical assumptions that might otherwise have impeded an admiration for Adolf Hitler, but I think that’s a mistake.

A more apposite “explanation” of Heidegger’s position would be that human suffering is compelling but that, even so, a responsible politics may be difficult to reconcile with the terrible yawning irresponsibility experienced as foundational truth by a kind of throwback. I remember the critic James Wood saying something similar once about Knut Hamsun - another Nazi.

As always, it’s pretty difficult to be bright and breezy about Heidegger. I’m doing my best! But let’s try applying what I’ve said so far to a contemporary (and apposite) political debate: the virtue or otherwise of wind farms, which critics believe scar landscapes and seascapes for reasons of ideological piety and financial chicanery. Actually, I’m going to say that these installations might as well proliferate, but I reach that conclusion in a surprising way.

As any undergraduate studying Heidegger quickly comes to find out, the great man was very keen on old windmills. Sounds good for the proponents of wind farms, but it isn’t really - not at first - although I think it turns out to be after all!

Just as we can’t nowadays imagine the mindset of a medieval monk who “wastes” gold on the adornment of a beautiful book, we can’t easily get at what Heidegger means about old windmills. But the gist of it is that they don’t store the power of the wind instrumentally but leave it as it is. That is to say, it isn’t put in hand as “standing reserve” for human application. It all sounds terribly airy-fairy. But wait.

Obviously, a modern wind farm doesn’t fit with Heidegger’s Romantic view. Wind turbines are all about storage, and the debates about them are very different. According to friends involved in this sphere of activity, there are heated debates at planning tribunals about whether (for example) newcomers in an area might have fresher aesthetic palates than the indigenous oldies. The implication is that people with antecedents in the local churchyard end up taking their landscape for granted, whereas rich city incomers buy homes in the country because of a uniquely vibrant immediacy towards the natural world.

OK. Whose side are you on? Heidegger certainly romanticized indigenous oldies in the Black Forest landscape where he had his hut, although the usual academic take on this is to wonder if the indigenous oldies had the faintest idea what he was on about. Meanwhile I’d take a bit of convincing that stockbrokers buying country homes have fresher aesthetic palates, although no one should think they know for sure.

And then there’s the idea that wind farms are elegant - like modern art installations - and that the argument that they’re a scar on the landscape or seascape is in itself an affectation, or an overly-loaded theory about why a landscape is beautiful - just as people might reject an extremely good (contemporary) representational painting of a village scene because the High Street had been depicted with a bit of yellow lining visible.  

All these arguments and counter-arguments have a certain reasonableness about them, but they miss the mark from a Heideggerian point of view.

The point is that saying wind turbines are elegant is all very well if you’re speaking in 2012 with a prior conception that they’re going to have to be elegant if they’re also going to be admissible, but what about the conception of someone in 1812 that the natural world couldn’t possibly be interfered with in this way? What understanding of unadulterated beauty is available to someone living prior to the fear of adulteration - someone who has imagined neither an argument in favour of adulteration nor a plan to ameliorate its impact satisfactorily?

Right at the outset, the word satisfactorily is predicated on the assumption that an ameliorative effect could be satisfactory - no doubt in the view of “a reasonable person in possession of all the facts” - but, if we accept this assumption, the stage is set with dramatic props long before the drama begins.

We already know what sort of story is coming. The stage is set with a dark old house on the hill, a country lane in the foreground, a lonely telephone box, a distant streetlight. There is air of mystery, even menace - connotations of Psycho, or An Inspector Calls. But what if there are people who can still sense what a bare stage would have been like? A stage devoid of atmosphere, bereft of cultural promptings? Of course there will now be a fear that this analogy can only stand for yet another form of affectation. After all, who among us could be bereft of cultural promptings?

It all depends who you knock around with. John Cage spent his life wondering about a stage devoid of atmosphere. But the point is that, now that I’ve taken the time to tease out a rather odd position, how would it stack up at a planning tribunal to hear objections to a proposed wind farm? Well, it wouldn’t. Some things can’t be put into words because public (and private) language has been blunted and damaged. As if a fine sewing needle had been used to prise open a packing case. Even the poetic fails, unless it is truly distinguished, and so the only chance is a risky bid for the apophatically oblique. Apophaticism is a form of indirect expression employing the negation of all positive terms able to be predicated of its intended meaning - a via negativa usually applied to the intractability of speaking about God - and sometimes it’s the only option available.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Wittgenstein once rebuked Bertrand Russell for talking hubristically about setting up some sort of peace organisation, and Russell asked him if he’d rather he set up an organisation to promote war and slavery. The reply? Yes, rather that, rather that! You see the point - Russell’s affectation obviously couldn’t be stated as if it were a philosophical proposition - and Wittgenstein clearly thought he would have been guilty of the same affectation had he tried. So he said something that slanted oddly and hoped Russell would “get it”.

My guess would be that a few solitary individuals - sensitive to the limitations of language in a kind of anxious sublime - find wind farms objectionable in a way not brought to light by the planning processes run to test public opinion on such matters, and that you never hear from them because they know that what they feel cannot be advanced accountably. For people like this, the world has simply passed on. And they know the world has passed on. That’s part of their wisdom.

On this particular issue, I’m not one of them - I’ve never been enough of a countryman for that. And, anyway, most countrymen nowadays will be deeply instrumental in their assumptions, just as surely as stockbrokers. The point is that there will be exceptions -  they might even include a stockbroker! - and that they’re likely to remain silent. But my conviction that this is so - and that Heidegger is saying something important - is drawn from a different domain altogether.

Most of the people who go to classical concerts do so as a kind of lifestyle accessory. Music is lovely, but they would never save an orchestra ahead of a hospital ward. After all, you might end up in the hospital ward. But I can never think like that - even though, as I approach old age, I fear the wretchedness of illness more and more.

I can never think like that because Schubert’s last three sonatas and Beethoven’s late quartets (for example) are not just pieces of music I like. They’re miracles of inwardness that changed what it felt like to be me, a change still running after thirty years. And they remind me that, although the modern world is full of extraordinary things - and although we enjoy forms of autonomy that none of us should imagine we could honestly want to relinquish - the compass of the soul is correspondingly narrower.

M.O’C Drury tells how, in 1930, Wittgenstein came to his rooms in Cambridge looking very distressed, so much so that he was bound to ask him what was the matter.

WITTGENSTEIN: I was walking about in Cambridge and passed a bookshop, and in the window were portraits of Russell, Freud and Einstein. A little further on, in a music shop, I saw portraits of Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin. Comparing these portraits I felt intensely the terrible degeneration that had come over the human spirit in the course of only a hundred years.

This is not Romantic excess. On the contrary, I think there’s a great deal of truth in the richer strands of cultural pessimism. I feel deeply the oppressive management of public language, the cliché and sanctimony of civic affairs, the destruction of literary and musical canons, the trivialization of the humanities, the growth of scientism, and the sullying by doctrinal egalitarianism of the indubitably fairer and more likeable society built up since the end of the Second World War.

Just consider how difficult it is to say nowadays that some inequalities in society are so marked that you can’t ignore them judiciously but that many more are unremarkable and leave you unmoved. In the end, though, I think you have to let it go. There are too many well-meaning people who don’t want to say such things, and that reinforces my conviction that I can’t say they should. Not to my own satisfaction. I’m sure they should - but my attempts to say so, however mild and maieutic, seem oddly uncongenial. And so I’ve stopped. I’ve stopped because I had begun to dislike the sound of myself speaking. And, as most of those who know me will attest, I like speaking. And I still do.

So is there a message in all of this? Not really, apart from the gentle reminder that you can’t storm the barricades of a passing world, and that, even if you think a Schubert is now an impossibility, there are compelling reasons not to fall out with all the people who don’t care.  

Conversational congruence eases the heart - always - even if the easefulness comes at the cost of a certain reticence. And, in any case, how does that cost get broken down - and when does payment become due? Can it even be written off? Interestingly, Kierkegaard once asked what it would be like if the aftertaste of our conversations were to be such that it felt as if they had occurred fifty years ago instead of fifty seconds!   

A cheering thought with which to conclude?

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