Tag Archives: Søren Kierkegaard

Reading Lessons from Martin Heidegger

Trying to derive an aesthetic system or outlook from Martin Heidegger’s writings on art in Poetry, Language, Thought is an errand for fools; Heidegger explicitly rules out the idea that his hermeneutic philosophy, or at least, his philosophy which inclines itself towards hermeneutics, is concerned with aisthesis, or the apprehension of an artwork. Instead, he subsumes it within his wider philosophical task, to get to the nature of Being, note the capital B.

For Heidegger, Western philosophy has insufficiently grappled with ontology. René Descartes made a mistake in trying to determine what is, Heidegger thinks he should have thought a bit more about what is is. What exactly we mean by Being is complicated by the alienating processes of industrialisation, mercantilism and urbanisation, which have left us with an increasingly utilitarian sense of things in the world. Instead of enquiring into the nature of what something is, we define it relative to its use-value. Heidegger writes that art is also part of this wider enquiry into Being, that this is the primary function of ‘poets’ – which I decide to extend as a catch-all term for artists in a more general sense – to do exactly what it is that Heidegger is doing, and reach a more nuanced definition of Being. This might seem like a self-involved or solipsistic manoeuvrer, but if you came from a national literary tradition as philosophically inclined as Heidegger (Rilke, Goethe) you might well agree with him.

So how would one read a text in a Heideggerian way? Well, Heidegger was always more interested in the posing of further questions than in proposing resolutions. There’s very little in Poetry, Language, Thought that one could hope to derive a positive methodology from, unless saying something like ‘The answer to this has six primary components,’ and providing a long digression on said components is your notion of pragmatism. Interestingly, one of his students, more invested in heremeneutic philosophy as an autonomous branch of philosophical enquiry, Hans Georg-Gadamer, is similarly anti-systematic, perceiving the work of art as something that makes you subject to its meaning-makings. In this schema, the process of interpretation is something that leaves the putative reader behind, meaning overtakes your agency as it establishes itself. Which I think could be productively linked with the writings of Heidegger which attempt to justify National Socialism. Digression for another time.

Rather than describe how the work of art works on us, Heidegger divvies it up into increasingly thin components, the allegory of the form/content binary, within which there is the form-matter, which is distinct in itself, the process of ‘worlding’ that a work of art inaugurates, ‘the earth’ on which the work dwells and many, many other features which contemporary literary critics would probably understand, rightly or wrongly, as relating to a work’s context.

There is a tendency in the wake of Jacques Derrida, particularly when he seemed to be such an attentive reader of these philosophers supposedly foundational to post-structuralism, such as Heidegger, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, that within these philosopher’s works are the germs of Derrida’s system of thought. Therefore Heidegger’s insistence on the context being made up of these manifold sections, interdependently and intricately linked, may create a sense that this structure is about to be deconstructed, and lapse into its own angst. In fact, Heidegger is very clear that these sections retain their formal integrity, each may be articulated relative to and within the other, as is the case in Derrida’s re-formulation of Ferdinand de Saussure’s differential networks of meaning, but within this mutual articulation, they remain solid. This comes across in a very interesting passage that describes the process of building a bridge:

“It does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge lies across the stream. The bridge designedly causes them to lie across from each other. One side is set off against the other by the bridge…With the banks, the bridge belongs to the stream the one and the other expanse of the landscape around the stream.”

By coming to an understanding of what is outlined in this perhaps wilfully obtuse paragraph, Heidegger hopes that we may come to an understanding of art which will provide a place of dwelling rather than merely a refuge, a place that we can authentically ‘live’ within, rather than merely taking refuge. Hear, hear, I say, probably.

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Augustus Young’s ‘The Nicotine Cat’ and How To Live

There is a school of thought that argues that we read literature in order to better understand the world, ourselves and how to live. On the one hand I am sympathetic to this point of view. Literature can bolster our emotional intelligence, imaginative faculties and our empathy, as anyone who has cried after having one of their favourite characters meet their demise in some way can attest to.

However, there’s a problem here. Not only is it probably simplistic to say that our empathetic faculties are enhanced by having them used, as if they were a bicep, but it is also a bit beside the point to treat literary history as a massive instruction manual, when in fact, what most novels can tell us about life and how to live it is fairly minimal. It is also indicative of attitudes to literature that develop in a neoliberal era as if reading a novel is only worthwhile if one is up-skilling one’s life management techniques.

This is probably why we see the rise of literary critics interpreting novels as just that, such as Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. According to de Botton, Marcel Proust’s six volume work In Search of Lost Time which details the life of a precocious and rich young man as he makes his way as a literary dilettante in late-nineteenth century Parisian salons has enough to tell us about ourselves that Proust can be read as a moustachioed Stephen R. Covey. Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us, is another case, intent on reclaiming a self-consciously difficult and defiantly non-inclusive elite novelist for today’s working man.

Oh, according to de Botton, Proust also anticipated the breakthroughs of neuroscience and we all know how marketable science is, right? Great branding, that science.

At the same time, one wouldn’t want to throw one’s lot in entirely with Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater and the other assorted aesthetes that proclaimed art’s uselessness. According to this group, all art has to do is to look pretty, like a bouquet of flowers or a tastefully folded handkerchief in one’s shirt pocket. I find this perspective to be ahistorical, paradoxical for the sake of being so and fundamentally, boring.

Both schools are guilty of believing that living, reading and thinking are somehow easily separable activities, rather than existing as a palimpsest, with overlaps and conflict and dialogue between each layer. This is the perspective that we get on life, literature and the consequent relationship between the two in Augustus Young’s The Nicotine Cat.

The Nicotine Cat is part of a largely continental genre that goes by the name of autofiction, that attempts to coalesce memoir, art criticism and the essay into one form, all while calling into question the extent to which any objective account of reality, such as one might find in a memoir, could ever be achieved. Autofiction is a fluid category but a niche one, surprisingly, considering how embroiled an author’s work often is in their lives. One could say that more what we read is autofiction than not.

Young is an erudite narrator and his text begins with a sequence of thoughts written on Patrick S. Dinneen, an Irish historian and lexicographer responsible for the 1904 Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla. It is fertile territory for Young, who allows his many encounters with the often idiosyncratic Foclóir to set the tone for a sequence of meditations on exile, language and identity, all important for the remainder of the novel-essay-memoir.

We see Young dispense brief anecdote-inflected histories of figures such as the 19th century Dutch philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett and novelist Henry James. These mini-disquisitions are often prompted by events in Young’s ‘real’ life in the town of Bras-de-Vendres and inflect even the most apparently minor social encounters with a greater depth; the everyday and the erudite mutually enhance each other. As in Storytime, Young’s concealed vulnerability is an important facet of the text; as we see his world from his point of view we see the ideality that can be afforded one within the world of thought is more often than not discommoded by contingency. Ideas that are renounced earlier in the text are dusted off and deployed in earnest in conversation with whetstone-in-residence Welsh, self-consciously from a defensive position.

It is in The Nicotine Cat that we see how literature and learning reach beyond ‘How To Live’ to something more complex and interesting. To demand instruction from it is counter to the nature of autofiction itself and, I would add, contrary to what literature should aspire to be. I want to read books, not WikiHow articles.