Unattributed woodcut, about 1850, in the Library of Congress at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003672999/. Photoshopped. The lines of verse are by the botanist-poet Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), grandfather of Charles Darwin.
Ostensibly a work of modern non-fiction, Martin Heidegger’s autobiographical essay “Why Do I Stay in the Provinces?” (text below) is written in the language of a pastoral genre that had been popular in Germany since the nineteenth century: the novel of blood and soil (Blut und Boden), “which idealized its subject and painted the mythology of peasant life, far from the crossroads of the world” (Mosse 138). During the Third Reich the genre was cultivated like an agribusiness crop, and as its formulas became part of the vocabulary of the state they acquired a derisive nickname, Blubo. Heidegger himself disliked the term Blut und Boden, but the narrator of his essay speaks its language like a native.
“Why Do I Stay in the Provinces?” was published in 1934. As of 2015, many wars and a holocaust later, an international consortium of astronomers is attempting to build a great telescope atop Hawaii’s 14,000-foot extinct volcano Mauna Kea, one of the world’s premier sites for an observatory. However, the road to the construction site is being intermittently blocked by a group of native Hawaiian cultural practitioners who claim that to build anything atop Mauna Kea except altars to the volcano goddess is (as their media releases put it) a desecration. Speaking of desecration, Heidegger’s great object of hate René Descartes wrote a theory of the telescope, and I’m sure that if Heidegger were in Hawaii now he’d be up there at the roadblocks himself.
As he raised his voice in a chant of protest, he’d be joined by some of my post-colonialist colleagues from the University of Hawaii. For them and for Heidegger, then, this collegial contribution in the rational language of Descartes and Photoshop. It depicts the mountain hut where Martin Heidegger grew his deep thoughts out of the Boden. One peak higher, goddess willing, will arise the Thirty Meter Telescope.
George Mosse, ed. Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural and Social Life in the Third Reich. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1966.
Heidegger’s “Why Do I Stay in the Provinces?”:
“Here’s the thing,” Rabbi Avi Shafran chummily confides to the Jewish magazine Tablet. Then, summoning his reserves of charm, he proceeds to confess:
“Here’s the thing: I’m a Jewish heretic. I don’t mean forsaking (as some famously have done) traditional Orthodox Jewish belief and practice for a libertine life [. . .] Instead, I refer to a real heresy: my reluctance to accept an orthodoxy so deeply entrenched in contemporary society that its rejection summons a hearty hail of derision and ridicule, and results in effective excommunication from polite society. What I can’t bring myself to maintain belief in is . . . evolution.
“There, I’ve written it.”
If, like me, you grew up in a small town in the days of prayer in the schools, you’ll recognize Rabbi Shafran’s tone from sixty years ago. It’s “Hey, kids! You know who’s really cool? Jesus!” But this recent history also has a prehistory, and embedded in that are some actually interesting bits. Those are the vestiges within the fossil: traces of classical rhetoric retroactively assimilated into the stone-age dialect of theology. Consider, from the same essay:
“[. . .] the high priests of scientism (and the masses that venerate them) [. . .]”
“Yet it is unassailable dogma among the enlightened these days that non-living matter generated living matter [. . .]”
“I don’t reject science, only speculations and assumptions made in its name. And I’ve read and pondered all the ‘answers’ to my questions.* My skepticism remains unbudged.** [. . .]
High priests, venerate, dogma, the enlightened: here Rabbi Shafran employs irony, or rather irony’s shabby cousin, sarcasm, in the service of his heretical persona. But with these days the mask comes off (in Latin, persona means “mask”) and the rabbinical beard springs back into view. It is a seriously long beard, too. No more “Hey, kids” noises surface from its depths. Instead there comes a piercing and utterly sincere cry de profundis:
“In the meantime, lead me to the stocks, if you must. And as I’m pilloried, I will proclaim [. . .]”
Well, we’re all familiar with this vocabulary of martyrdom. It’s ecumenical. In the United States as of 2015, it’s the property not just of Rabbi Shafran but of the Southern Baptist Convention, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Fox News. It’s also long established. As far back as 1704 Jonathan Swift was taking an interested view of it in A Tale of a Tub.
Meanwhile, in 2015, in Syria and Pakistan and West Africa, Christians actually are being martyred. The tools of their martyrdom aren’t figurative stocks or pillories, either, or even copies of The Origin of Species. No; they’re non-literary, actually literal agents like slavery and murder.
On the scale of the suffering inflicted by those physical things, Rabbi Shafran’s own effective excommunication from polite society may seem to score low. But effective excommunication from polite society does command a reserve of pain that mere slavery and murder don’t have. Unlike slavery or murder, after all, the agents that torture Rabbi Shafran have an aesthetic power. They give pain a form shaped by the concept called metaphor, which works by evoking an analogy between something that doesn’t exist and something that does. Twinned by metaphor with an image of the real, the name of something imaginary (pillory, proclaim) begins to seem real itself. It communicates not pain but an idea of pain from the body (somebody else’s nameless, featureless, who-cares body) to the mind (Rabbi Shafran’s own, uniquely self-treasured mind).
In the mind, of course, it still isn’t real. But now (or rather these days) any language that might have been able to say so lies buried under institutional rock. Look, there, at the strata of language that have been laid down to hold reality’s mute remains still! They shape a tomb whose Hic jacet translates as “Here’s the thing.”
Of course the thing isn’t there. Technically, it never was there. It was a vehicle whose tenor never did exist. The metaphors that built its tomb covered its non-existence with words, spoke more words to make it seem to have disappeared, and then set men happily howling, “I am a martyr” at what they would no longer have to know. No more science commanding, “Know the world”; no more Delphic Oracle commanding, “Know yourself.” Only the howl, the happy wordy howl howling effective excommunication from polite society.
Among its echoes, nothing need remain standing except the tomb. Word-bearing but silent, it is stone all the way to its center; but stone artistically made to appear formerly alive and capable of meaning.
* Yes, the modest polymath did write “all.”
** But isn’t a dogmatic skeptic a contradiction in terms?
Source: Avi Shafran, “Skeptical About Evolution — And Not Because of Religion.” Tablet 20 July 2015, http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/192334/skeptical-about-evolution-and-not-because-of-religion. Accessed 23 July 2015.