Ecce Homo: How one becomes what one isn’t

Why I Am So Wise -Chapter title from Ecce Homo, by Friedrich Nietzsche

I am a sick man…I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts. -Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

So, in my most recent post to Acephalous, in the form of a long comment here, I found myself irresistibly drawn to reiterating that both Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man were supporters of the Nazis. I had to reference that fact towards the end of my commentary, which after all largely concerned Derrida. So a question arises: is it legitimate to draw connections between a philosopher’s work, and his or her political affiliations?

Where these affiliations are definitive mistakes, the question seems to recall another, familiar question about artists and philosophers who do bad things. Should we, in fact, continue to read Raymond Carver, knowing he was an abuser? James Joyce was an irresponsible borrower; T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite. John Berryman was a philandering lunatic.

I won’t even go into the various rock musicians catalogued in Behind the Music, except to say that we know much more about their weaknesses than I, for one, ever wanted to know.

It seems to me that in the answer to this question lies the great difference between literature and music on the one hand, and the majority of philosophy on the other. The difference is this: in literature, the writer is alienated from herself through acts of imagination. The writer is often a character in her own works, whether they are in prose or poetry, and as such is burdened with an obligation to represent that character somewhat realistically — to account, from the outside, for the triumphs and failures of that life.

As a result, the author of a literary work, or the singer of a song, is capable of being extremely withering about themselves. Creative work can be, and often is, the piercing expression of a neglected conscience. Hence the two lines from Dostoevsky above. Furthermore, as Bataille has written, literature is the realm of the impossible. It is possible for a writer to create fantasies that are compelling representations of an ideal, no matter how unreachable that ideal might in fact be. In real life, Nietzsche was difficult, isolated, and rather pathetic. As the fictional character Zarathustra, he is a fairly convincing hero. Although Nietzsche floundered in his efforts to become this character, Zarathustra succeeds, undimmed by the shortcomings of the man.

In philosophy, on the other hand, the author is compelled to present the reader with a picture of the world, and an explanation of our interaction with the world. As a result, most philosophy is not just a “form of autobiography,” as Nietzsche wrote — it is actually a supreme argument for oneself. In a story or poem which can encompass many positions, irony towards oneself is attainable, whereas in a work of philosophy, it is merely a feint.

So that Heidegger and de Man are truly more responsible for their Nazism, than Carver is for his abusiveness, in terms of the consequences for interpretation of their work. We recognize in Carver’s stories a despairing sense of failure to control oneself; he unflinchingly portrays the genuine ugliness of his own nature as ugliness, and in this manner he becomes what he isn’t usually: a person of compassion and reserve. Whereas we find in Heidegger, if his claims about the “ontic” and the “ontological” are taken seriously, a man both desperate for change, and fully possessed by the belief that change is impossible. We find in de Man a man desperate for presence and plenitude, but convinced that he is forever disbarred from this lusciousness of contact.

It should not be surprising that Fascism generally, and the Nazi party in particular, agreeably surprised Heidegger and de Man. Where Heidegger had previously found “idle talk,” he now found organized, militant ideology. For de Man, what was once a desolate landscape of ineffective symbols had been galvanized by the swastika and the other tangible evocations of the Party, such that language seemed to again brush with its grey wings the longed-for Real.

The Nazis brought hope to the Germans. For those Germans whose hopelessness was a function of their poverty, we can only be sorry. For bourgeois philosophers, who were victims of their own nihilistic illusions, we must reserve a measure of contempt. History will remember them for what they were, while James Joyce will be remembered for the kindnesses and foibles of Leopold Bloom, with his high hopes, and human failures.