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Heidegger and Trakl: Language speaks in the poet's poem Markus Wild What is the function of the poet? Certainly it is no...


Heidegger and Trakl: Language speaks in the poet’s poem Markus Wild What is the function of the poet? Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves. Nor is it, I think, to comfort them while they follow their leaders to and fro. I think that his function is to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives.1 Heidegger’s On the Way to Language is a collection of six essays arranged in chronological order, running from “Language” (1950) to the final piece “The Way to Language” (1959). The collection is no easy read and contains one of Heidegger’s arguably most difficult texts,2 namely: “The Language in the Poem. A Discussion of Georg Trakl’s poetic work” (1952). It is the aim of this paper to offer a comprehensive account of Heidegger’s approach to language and to Trakl’s work. There are, however, three features found in the Heidegger literature that stand in the way of a comprehensive account, namely exegetical internalism, exegetical subsumption, and exegetical oppositionalism. In the first part of this paper, I will explain what I mean by these three features. In the second part, I will offer an account of Heidegger’s approach to language and Trakl’s poems as they appear in the first two essays of On the Way to Language. Part I: Clearing the path Some interpreters choose to trace their way to On the Way to Language by starting with Heidegger’s take on language in Being and Time only to guide us then through the writings of the 1930s and the 1940s.3 This can be called ‘exegetical 1

Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, 1997, 660f.


“This interpretation of Trakl's poem, it seems to me, is one of Heidegger’s richest texts: subtle, overdetermined, more untranslatable than ever. And, of course, one of the most problematic.” (Derrida, On spirit, 1989, 86f.) 3

“Heidegger’s concern for the experiment as it relates to the question of language culminates in his final essay concerning language, ‘The way to language’.” (Powell, “The Way to Heidegger's ‘Way


internalism’ since the interpretation of the later Heidegger starts with traces from the early Heidegger. I will choose a different and, I think, more promising exegetical approach which I will call ‘exegetical externalism.’ The basic idea is to locate Heidegger’s often startling claims in relation to other discussions while responding to clues and hints contained in Heidegger’s text. It is well known that Hölderlin is incomparably important for Heidegger’s thought and it comes as no surprise that every other poet Heidegger writes about (Homer, Sophocles, Goethe, Novalis, Mörike, Hebel, Stifter, Rilke, George, Benn) is directly or indirectly compared to Hölderlin. However, there is one important exception: Trakl. While Hölderlin is quoted in virtually all of Heidegger’s poetry analyses, in the essays on Trakl Hölderlin is neither mentioned nor quoted. I take it that Trakl is not measured against Hölderlin because he stands right next to him, on equal grounds, as the following biographical reminiscence suggests: “In those days of expressionism, these realms [language, poetry, art] were constantly before me--but even more so, and already since my student days before the First World War, was the poetic work of Hölderlin and Trakl.”4 Trakl stands offside, he is standing apart: “All that Georg Trakl’s poetry expresses remains centered around and focused on the wandering stranger. He is, and is called, ‘he who is apart [der Abgeschiedene].’”5 In stark contrast to the interpretation of the others poets, Trakl is not read as someone offering statements that concern aspects of art, poetry, and philosophy. Trakl does not represent a link in the steady development of Heidegger’s thought on poetry.6 We should, therefore, refrain from subsuming Trakl among the other poets. I call this idea ‘exegetical subsumption.’ to Language’”, 180) 4

According to a letter by Heidegger from December 15th, 1952, Heidegger encountered Trakl's poem in the journal Der Brenner from 1912. Ludwig von Ficker (1880-1967), the editor of Der Brenner and mentor of Trakl, was present when Heidegger gave his talk on Trakl’s poem for the first time (Arendt and Heidegger, Briefe, 81). Heidegger opened his talk on Trakl with a short note indicating that he read Der Brenner in 1912 and bought Trakl’s Gedichte in 1913. (Cf. Hedeigger and von Ficker 2004, 8) 5 6

Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 170.

Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 170. Mitchell: “What Heidegger’s later interpretations of the poets present us with, then--in the readings of Rilke (1946), Trakl (1950, 1952), and George (1957–1958)--is a steady development and deepening of this thought of relationality and thus of the connections between word and world.” (Mitchell, “Heidegger's Poetic of Relationality”, 217)


Another problem one encounters on the path to Heidegger’s later writings is the idea, found in the literature, that Heidegger is opposing some traditional conception of truth, language, poetry, thinghood etc. in order to replace it. Here is an example: “Arguing against the traditional understanding of language (as a means of inner expression, as a human activity, and as representational), Heidegger construes poetic language as an intimate correspondence to this radiant presencing of things.”7 According to this view, Heidegger argues against the traditional conception of language which claims that language is an expression of mental states (language as expression), a tool used by human beings or a human activity (language as human practice), and the representation of worldly affairs (language as representation).8 I call this stance ‘exegetical oppositionalism.’ It amounts to a confusion between establishing distinctions and opposites. It is certainly correct that Heidegger takes the traditional conception to be inadequate for language as such, for language as language. Nevertheless, he thinks that this traditional conception is still correct: “No one would dare to declare incorrect, let alone reject as useless, the identification of language as audible utterance of inner emotions, as human activity, as a representation by image and by concept. The view of language thus put forth is correct [richtig].”9 Therefore, Heidegger does not think that the traditional conception is wrong and does not argue against it. Rather, he thinks that the traditional conception suffers from a serious shortcoming: it prevents us from thinking about language as such.10 The problem is not that language does not really display the three features just mentioned (expression, practice, representation). The problem is that we tend to think that this is all there is to language. Thus, if Heidegger writes that the “view of language thus put forth is correct [richtig],” he is not opposing this view, but is, rather, looking for its deeper significance. A deeper understanding concerns language as such and is captured in the claim: “language speaks.” Moreover, oppositional exegesis of Heidegger blocks us from asking pertinent questions concerning the relationship 7

Mitchell, “Heidegger's Poetic of Relationality”, 225. My emphasis.


Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 170.


Heidegger On the Way to Language 191. Cf. Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, 195-196 and Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 121). 10


Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, 206

between the expressive, practical and representational functions of language, on the one hand, and language as such, on the other.11 I submit that there are three topics in Heidegger’s text, “Language”: (1)

What are the metaphysical surface features of human language? Answer:

expression, practice, representation. (2)

What is language as language? Answer: Language speaks, and it speaks “as

the peal of stillness” (Die Sprache spricht als das Geläut der Stille) (Heidegger 1971b, 205). (3)

What is the relation between (2) and (1)? How does one get form (2) to (1)?

If you think that Heidegger argues against the traditional conception of language, you cannot take seriously the correctness of the answer to question (1) and you cannot make sense of (3). Yet (3) figures quite prominently in Heidegger’s text. So it would be preferable to adopt a point of view that makes sense of Heidegger’s writing. Let me try and render the structural features even more salient by locating the later Heidegger’s kind of writing within the tradition of classical rhetoric. Topics (1) and (2) are associated with two distinct levels of linguistic style in Heidegger’s writing. (1) roughly conforms to the plain style (genus humile) and (2) to the grand style (genus sublime). The plain style is suitable for instruction and argumentation, uses conversational language, and makes spare use of tropes. The grand style is an elevated and striking style, appropriate for eminent and important subject matter, and it employs daring metaphors, archaic expressions, and poetic license. The plain style is, of course, the preferred style of philosophical prose. Grand style, on the other hand, is traditionally associated with elegy and tragedy. Philosophers highly critical of traditional metaphysics, however, have a strong leaning towards grand style, as the writings of Nietzsche and Derrida illustrate. The essays in On the Way to Language make use of both styles; they are instances of mixed style (genus mixtum). When Heidegger switches to the sublime rhetorical mode, the purpose is no longer argumentation and instruction, but elevation and transformation. Departing in this way, he makes language come into its own. This elevated play with language has two purposes: firstly, in it, language speaks for itself, thus illustrating the claim that 11


Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, 206

language speaks; and, secondly, it aims at a transformation of the meaning of the statements and questions uttered in plain style. The point of this second aim is that the reader is supposed to hear the (basically) correct idea that language is expression in a novel way. The ultimate goal is to transform the reader. The distinction between these two levels of style harbors important consequences for the philosophical interpretation of Heidegger’s later writings. The plain-style-assertive parts can and should be evaluated by the norms of clarity and argumentative rigor. The grand-style-evocative parts, however, should be judged by their ability to transform and enrich the plain-style-assertive sentences, by their ability to let us better understand complex linguistic phenomena, such as Trakl’s poetry, and by their transformative power. Part II: Taking the path In the second part, I want to achieve a proper understanding of Heidegger’s claim that language speaks. I proceed in three steps. First, I ask what Heidegger means by the claim on the plain-style-level. Second, I defend the claim that there is such a thing as hearing language as language and that the poem is the place to look for it. Third, I attempt to come to grips with Heidegger’s purpose in his engagement with Trakl’s poetry. a) Language Speaks In the first essay, Heidegger famously claims: “Language is: language. Language speaks.”12 At first sight, the claim that language speaks seems to be either pointless (since it states a tautology) or a plain falsehood (since it is human beings that speak languages). Heidegger was, of course, well aware of this fact. Nevertheless, he further sharpened the peculiar nature of his claim by emphasizing that he means the claim in both of the following senses: firstly, what language does is speaking (language speaks), and secondly, language is the one that speaks (language speaks).13 12 13


Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, 198. Translation modified. Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, 195.

The second part of the claim does not imply that human beings do not speak. Rather, the point is that language speaks too. Speaking is what language does. Regarding the first part of the claim, however, Heidegger mentions the objection that, according to the ordinary view of language, speech consists in the activation of the organs that produce sound and in the audible expression and communication of minds. There are, thus, two objections against the claim that language speaks: first, there is no speaking without organs for producing sound and audible expression; second, speaking is essentially tied to minds. Since languages have neither organs nor minds, the claim that language speaks seems not so much pointless or wrong as rather meaningless. So, what is Heidegger up to? According to exegetical externalism, it is wise to relate Heidegger’s peculiar claim to other discussions by picking up clues in Heidegger’s text. I will consider two different clues in On the Way to Language: (1)

“As against the identification of speech as a merely human performance,

others stress that the word of language is of divine origin. According to the opening of the Prologue of the Gospel of St. John, in the beginning the Word was with God.”14 (2)

“To say and to speak are not identical. A man may speak, speak endlessly, and

all the time says nothing. Another may remain silent, not speak at all and, yet, without speaking, says a great deal.”15 Before I start, it will be useful to have an idea of what I am arguing for in the pages that follow. Heidegger boldly claims that every great poet writes just one poem. This, I will call ‘the poet’s poem.’ He also claims that language speaks. However, there is no such thing as a poet’s poem in the sense one finds poems in a poet’s collected work. In what sense, then, can language speak in the poet’s poem? I will, first, argue that analogous to a special interpretation of divine discourse, the great poet’s work is the deputized discourse of the poet’s poem. It utters poetic words representing the illocutionary power of the poet’s poem. In this sense, the poet’s poem speaks without consisting of words or marks. Moreover, one way that we can listen to language 14

Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 190.


Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 122.


speaking is by listening to the poet’s poem by way of the actual poems of the poet. And, in grasping the poem, we engage with language as language by abstracting from any implications, intentions, purposes, and special knowledge about some domain as well as about our general knowledge about persons, the language, and the world we inhibit. In this sense, language speaks in the poet’s poem. Let’s start with the first clue. For the sake of argument, assume the existence of a personal deity. A traditional answer explains that God, lacking hands and mouth, cannot literally speak, but can do so only in a figurative sense. However, speech act theory allows for a distinction between the locutionary act (uttering words) and the illocutionary act (such as asking, commanding, promising etc.). In ordinary circumstances the illocutionary act is performed by virtue of a locutionary act. Now, consider a lawyer bringing a charge on behalf of a firm. The lawyer is the mouthpiece that utters the firm’s charge. Again, consider the ambassador of the United States issuing a warning against some regime. In this case, it is rather the president who issues the warning, and not the ambassador. The subject of the locutionary act (performed by the lawyer or the ambassador) is distinct from the subject of the illocutionary act (performed by the firm or the president). One can, thus, deputize the locutionary act. Again, if you follow up on a remark by someone else by saying, “That goes for me too,” you appropriate the illocutionary force of the other’s utterances without performing the utterance in question. Prophets can be viewed, so to speak, as God’s lawyers or ambassadors, and prophetic discourse as deputized divine discourse. Moreover, the Holy Scriptures can be understood as divinely appropriated human discourse. In this sense, God speaks without words or marks.16 Now, we can pick up the second clue. In more mundane circumstances (and closer to Heidegger’s text) we readily recognize a difference between uttering and saying. Uttering words is not identical with saying something, because what I say when I say something is not the sounds uttered, rather it is something I mean or that the words mean. Moreover, one can say something without uttering words at all. For example, you can say something by pointing, by remaining silent, by displaying facial expressions, by waiting, by breathing, by posting a sign, by leaving a token, etc. Heidegger’s example of a person remaining silent, yet, saying a great deal without speaking, is an example of a person performing an illocutionary act without uttering 16


Cf. Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse.

any words. Once you extend the realm of language to include pointing, remaining silent, displaying facial expressions, waiting, breathing, posting a sign, leaving a token, etc., you can go several steps further.17 Firstly, Heidegger claims that listening is part of speaking: since language is understood as a communicative action (speaking), the hearing of and listening to what is said and spoken is part of language. In speech act theory, the perlocutionary act presupposes the listening on the receiver’s end. Secondly, beyond what takes place in the communicative situation, speaking and listening co-evolve simultaneously while we are speaking. In other words, there is a constant and constitutive feedback between our speaking and our listening. Finally, there is not only a listening while, but also a listening before we speak. This third step is important in Heidegger’s argument since it allows Heidegger to claim that “we do not merely speak the language--we speak by way of it. We can do so solely because we always have already listened to the language. What do we hear there? We hear language speaking.”18 There are, I think, at least five ways of making sense of Heidegger’s third step, namely, in terms of language rules, language as thought, linguistic lapses, language as perception, and language in poetry. I do not claim that Heidegger has these five ways in mind. Rather I simply elaborate on Heidegger’s third step by pointing to these five ways of making sense: a. Think of language as an immensely complex game governed by certain rules. When we say something, we perform a move in a language game. In speech act theory, locutionary and illocutionary acts (in contrast to perlocutionary acts) are conceived as being constitutively related to linguistic and social conventions. Thus, before we speak, we have to be aware of the linguistic and social conventions constitutive of speaking. b. Regard thought as a kind of inner speech, either simply as inner speaking or as a model for thinking. Much of our thought can be considered as internalized speech. There is, thus, an underlying unity to our thinking, namely, overt language use. In this sense, we hear language speaking before we speak.


Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 123.


Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 124.


c. Heidegger says that we speak in the most proper sense when we fail to speak,19 for example, when we fail to retrieve a word from memory (tip of the tongue phenomenon), when we are looking for the appropriate expression, when we try to find the right word in a delicate situation, when we are in a struggle with the right word, etc. To be sure, in all these cases, we are listening to language. d. Heidegger holds that language “speaks by saying, this is, by showing.”20 Heidegger claims that language is basically a kind of showing, not in the sense that language is a collection of signs, but, rather, in the sense that language is the foundation for the very existence of signs. Showing, according to Heidegger, is “reaching into all regions of presences, summoning from them whatever is present to appear and to fade.”21 e. Language speaks as language when we listen to eminent uses of language, such as we find in poetry. In poetic language, one is aware of the sound of language (including phonetic, phatic, and rhetic acts corresponding to the verbal, syntactic, and semantic aspects), forgotten meanings, ambiguities, puns, rhymes, alliterations, assonances, colors, rhythm, and other patterns. In contrast to ordinary language use, the language in poems has the power to make us listen to language as if words were uttered for the first time, as if we were to learn language again. Since the last point is evidently connected with Heidegger’s engagement with poetry I want to explore this last point in more detail. My aim is, still, to understand the idea that language speaks, especially in the poem. b) The Poet’s Poem The word “poem” (Gedicht) has several meanings in Heidegger’s work. Heidegger distinguishes between two meanings of the concept “poem”: the ordinary or general concept refers to the abstract concept of the poem, encompassing the features all poems have in common; the emphatic concept refers to an outstanding poem, a poem that marks our destiny.22 “Hölderlin’s poem,” of course, is a poem in 19

Heidegger On the Way to Language, 113f.


Heidegger On the Way to Language, 121.


Heidegger On the Way to Language, 125.



Heidegger, Elucidations, 210.

the emphatic sense. Since Hölderlin wrote many poems, what does Heidegger mean by “Hölderlin’s poem?” There is a third meaning of the concept “poem.” For Heidegger every great poet writes really only one poem, or more precisely: “Every great poet creates his poetry out of one single poem.”23 This bold thesis of the “poet’s poem” involves three additional claims. Firstly, a normative claim: the measure of the greatness of a poet is the extent to which he is able to stay committed to his poem. Secondly, an ontological claim: the poet’s poem is neither one excellent piece of work among the poet’s creation nor the totality of his creations, rather the poet’s poem “remains unspoken,” it remains silent. The poet’s poem is, as it were, the living source of his poetic creation. Or, as Heidegger puts it, the poet’s poem is the “gathering power” (versammelnde Kraft) of his poetry. Thirdly, a hermeneutic claim: it is the task of the reader or interpreter to locate the site or location (Ort) of the poet’s poem. The site or location of the poet’s poem is the place where “everything comes together.” On the one hand, the reader has to start from his readings of stanzas, lines, phrases, and words in order to get a grip on the poet’s poem (Erläuterung). On the other hand, the reader must already have some initial apprehension of the poet’s poem in order to grasp the lines (Erörterung). The dialogue (Zwiesprache) with a poet’s poem spans this reciprocity of consideration (Erörterung) and elucidation (Erläuterung). The site or location of a great poet’s poem is a gathering power, a groundswell that permeates everything the poet creates in the form of the poet’s poem. Before I argue for the bold thesis of the poet’s poem, I want to motivate its initial, intuitive plausibility. Heidegger is very explicit about the bold thesis that all great poets create poetry out of one single poem. It seems hard to assess the bold thesis in its general form. Let’s start with the more modest form. Does the bold thesis apply to Trakl’s poetry? I think it does. Trakls literary production is usually grouped into four phases or stages. The first phase embraces his more epigonal work until 1909. The creations of the second stage (1909-12) are collected in the volume Gedichte (published in 1913), which marks Trakl’s breakthrough towards his own personal voice. In his third phase (1913/14), Trakl accomplishes his unmistakably hermetic, hypnotic, and obsessive



Heidegger On the Way to Language, 160. Translation modified.

“Trakl tone.”24 The poetry of this stage is collected in the volume Sebastian im Traum (published in 1915, after the author’s early death). The final stage commences early 1914, when the tone and imagery of Trakl’s poetry withdraws from the self-enclosed and moves towards the more monumental style--hills transform into mountains, the mocking bird (Amsel) into the eagle (Adler)--of his final publications in the journal Der Brenner in 1914 and 1915. Heidegger is aware of the development of the “Trakl tone” because the bulk of Heidegger’s quotes from Trakl’s work (roughly 70%) stems from the third period, with occasional reviews and previews to the second and forth period, respectively. Trakl’s poetry has often been described as hermetic, hypnotic, and obsessive. The obsessive and repetitive quality of his vocabulary and imagery is especially remarkable. Walter Killy observed that “each new sad-beautiful image encountered […] is somehow already known and already read.”25 Trakl’s repetitive deployment of words and similes is one distinguishing mark of the lyric discourse of modernity, namely the establishment of an independent linguistic world carried by an abundance of internal cross-references rather than the transmission of unequivocal meanings. This palpable feature of Trakl’s work provides the reader with an important clue as for its interpretation: the poems are not self-contained entities, they are relational creatures, that make sense only within the whole web and kaleidoscopic landscape of Trakl’s literary world.26 There are at least two reasons for calling Trakl’s literary world a landscape. Firstly, the most frequently encountered words in Trakl’s poems refer to elements of a central European landscape, including “hill,” “forest,”


Heselhaus, Deutsche Lyrik der Moderne von Nietzsche bis Yvan Goll, 328.


Killy, Über Georg Trakl, 41. From the 1950’s on, we find observations of the “ascetic tendency of [Trakl’s] language” (Leitgeb, “Die Trakl-Welt”, 19) and his “stenographic system” (Schneider, Der bildhafte Ausdruck, 123). Michael Hamburger famously called this quality “selfplagiaristic” (Hamburger, A Proliferation of Poets, 204). Brigitte Peucker has argued that the repetitive character of Trakl’s imagery and vocabulary can be read as a phase of the Freudian compulsion to repeat in order to gain mastery over his predecessors and over his poetic materials. This is an instance of what Harold Bloom as called the ‘undoing’ of the writer from whom one borrows (cf. Peucker, “The Poetry of Repetition”). 26

In his interpretation of Trakl’s poem “Kaspar Hauser Lied,” Gunther Kleefeld aptly remarks: “Any attempt to illuminate the enigmatic verse of the fourth stanza of the ‘Kaspar Hauser Lied’ must take into account the connotative relations which inhere between this imagery and Trakl’s work as a whole. One must, in other words, refer once again to recurrent parallel imagery in other poems.” (Kleefeld, “Kasper Hauser and the Paternal Law”, 64).


“cultivated field,” “tree,” “water,” “pond,” “river,” “bird,” or “game.”27 Secondly, Trakl’s poems present what might be called a ‘temporal landscape,’ since in his literary world the reader simultaneously encounters different temporal stages of the poet’s personality. Many poems of the first section of Trakl’s second collection, Sebastian im Traum, exhibit this kind of personal temporal landscape (most explicitly, the poem “At the Mönchsberg”). Heidegger’s essays on Trakl display an accurate awareness of the repetitive character of the vocabulary and imagery in Trakl’s work. Heidegger also takes the geographical and temporal landscape of Trakl’s world into account. These important features of Trakl’s work motivate the thesis that Trakl creates his poetry out of one single poem.28 However, does the bold thesis hold for great poetry in general? It seems to be difficult to assess the bold thesis in its general form. Now, think of the poetic work of poets such as Keats, Eliot, Dickinson, Whitman, Stevens, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Valéry, Benn, Rilke, Celan, and Montale. They all, I submit, possess a certain tone and have found a voice of their own, which is an indicator of the bold thesis. Moreover, this suggests that the bold thesis indeed does make sense on a more general level. I even think that the normative claim has a certain plausibility. The German 19th century poets Eduard Mörike, C.F. Meyer, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote poems of great power and beauty, demonstrating an individual voice. Unfortunately, they very often fail in realizing their voice in their actual works. I do not, however, see why every great poet has to display the kind of unity of voice one encounters in Whitman, Trakl, or Valéry. Goethe is, I think, a perfectly good counter-example. Thus, I conclude that the bold thesis has some plausibility. But what is this site or location (Ort) of the poet’s poem supposed to be? It is the center of a poet’s poetical creation and, yet, it is a fictional entity, since there is, in a way, no such thing as the poet’s poem. Let me elucidate this thought by following the method of exegetical externalism, or, more precisely, applying an analogy with the center of gravity of an ordinary physical object and fictional persons. In Newtonian physics, a center of gravity (or mass) is the mean location of a 27 28

Cf. Wetzel, Konkordanz zu den Dichtungen Georg Trakls, #.

They motivate the claim, though they do not justify it. The justification of the claim naturally derives from the reading of Trakl offered by Heidegger.


distribution of mass in space. When an object is supported at this center, it remains in static equilibrium. Consider a broomstick. It has a center of gravity. If you are balancing it, you can tell quite accurately whether it would start tipping over or remain in equilibrium. Why does the broomstick not fall over? Because your finger is lodged at its center of gravity. This is an explanation, but it is not a causal explanation because the center of gravity has no causal force whatsoever. The center of gravity is neither a material entity, since the only physical property it possesses is spatiotemporal location, nor an abstract object (like numbers or propositions), since abstract objects do not have a precise spatio-temporal location. The center of gravity is, thus, a fictional entity. Yet, in contrast to fictional entities in model explanations, the center of gravity is a real feature of an object, even if it is a fictional entity. One can even change the center of gravity: chip off a little piece from the broomstick and you changed the spatio-temporal character of its center.29 Now, consider fictional characters in novels. They are persons without spatiotemporal location. Open up Anna Karenina and you will learn a lot about the heroine. Some information is explicitly contained in the text and the reader gathers some information by implication (e.g., Tolstoy neither mentions Anna’s navel nor her first encounter with a train, but surely she has a navel and has encountered a train for the first time somewhere sometime--and we can be sure that Anna does not have three hands). There are, however, questions about Anna that cannot be answered. Does she have a birthmark on her left shoulder? Has she ever eaten boar-stew? Has she ever cut her middle finger? The problem is not that we just do not know--there are no answers to these questions. Indeterminacy is a defining property of fictional characters, and this strongly distinguishes them from spatio-temporal entities, such as physical objects or human beings. Centers of gravity have only the properties they were endowed with by the physical theory that constitutes them. Fictional characters have only those features that are explicitly mentioned in the novel, implied by the novel’s plot, or implicated by our special knowledge of the writer’s context (Anna never took a plane to Italy) or our general background knowledge about persons, language and the world we inhabit (Anna never ate fire). I want to suggest that Heidegger’s notion of the poet’s one single poem can be understood along the lines just elaborated. It is a fictional entity 29


Cf. Dennett, “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity”.

that constitutes, as it were, the center of gravity (the gathering site) of a great poet’s creation. Despite its being a fictional entity, a creature of our mind, it possesses perfectly real features, features one can read from the poet’s written work. Just as in the case of fictional characters, the poet’s poem does not have a spatio-temporal location. In stark contrast to fictional characters (and this is the most important point), in locating the poet’s poem, the reader can only rely on the written word of the poet. Propositions implied by the poem’s lines and stanzas or implied by our special knowledge of the writer’s context or by our general background knowledge about persons, language, and world, does not count. This important feature guides Heidegger’s interpretation of poetry, especially Trakl’s work. The fact that one can only rely on what is said in the poet’s poem for the purpose of locating (Erörterung) the site (Ort) of the poet’s poem is expressed in Heidegger’s phrase that “what is spoken purely is the poem.” The poet’s poem is spoken purely, because all one can rely on are the poet’s words and images. Heidegger explains: “What is spoken purely is that in which the completion of the speaking that is proper, to what is spoken is, in its turn, an original.”30 What is this supposed to mean? In everyday situations, in the sciences, and in novels, what is spoken is always already involved in a huge net of implications, intentions, purposes, special knowledge about a domain, and general knowledge about persons, language, and the world we inhabit. In contrast, what is purely spoken is spoken just as if it were said for the first time, as if we were learning language again, as if we could engage with language in abstraction from the whole net of implications, intentions, purposes, and special and general knowledge. When we abstract from implications, intentions, purposes, special knowledge about a domain, and general knowledge about persons, language, and the world we inhabit, we encounter the speaking as language. Thus, language speaks when it speaks purely. And, according to Heidegger, we encounter language as language in poetry.31

30 31

Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, 192.

What I have been arguing for is nicely and powerfully expressed in Wallace Steven’s prose and poetry: “A poem need not have a meaning and, like most things in nature, often does not have.” (Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, 914). And the poem, “The Motive for Metaphor” (1947) says: “You like it under the trees in autumn, / Because everything is half dead. / The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves / And repeats words without meaning.” (Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, 257)


Now some strands of my argument can be pulled together. I started out this discussion by looking at two particular clues in On the Way to Language: “As against the identification of speech as a merely human performance, others stress that the word of language is of divine origin” and “to say and to speak are not identical.”32 Moreover, I noted that there are two objections against Heidegger’s slogan “language speaks.” First, there is no speaking without organs for producing sound and audible expression. Second, speaking is essentially tied to minds. Since languages have neither organs nor minds, the claim that language speaks seems not so much pointless or wrong as meaningless. I think I have given sense to the meaning that language speaks (and especially so in poetry). However, every argument, example, and analogy I have employed so far in order to make sense of this claim seems to presuppose that we need to assume that there is some sort of mind involved in speaking--in the case of God, it is the divine mind; in the case of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s mind; in the case of the poet’s poem, Trakl’s mind. c) The Emphatic Reader and the Apartness of the Poet’s Poem Now, what shall we do with the claim that language speaks? Or more precisely, what shall we do with the claim that language speaks in the speaking of the great poet’s poem? Again, the logical possibility we encountered in the case of divine speech is useful. On the one hand, prophetic discourse is deputized divine discourse; on the other hand, the Holy Scriptures are divinely appropriated human discourse. Our example for appropriation was the following: if you follow up on a remark by someone else by uttering “That goes for me too,” you appropriate the illocutionary force of the other’s utterances without performing the utterance in question. I would like to suggest that the speaking of language in the speaking of a great poet’s poem is discourse appropriated by the reader. If you follow up the work of a poet by uttering, “That goes for me too,” you appropriate the power (the illocutionary force) of the poet’s words without performing them. What the reader performs is the poet’s one single poem. Reading the work of a great poet is, according to the bold thesis, locating the poet’s one single poem. This does not mean that the poet’s poem is in the mind of the reader. Remember the example of the center of gravity: despite its 32


Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 190, 122.

being a fictional entity, a creature of our minds, a center of gravity possesses perfectly real features, features you can read off the physical properties of an object. And the same holds for the poet’s poem: Despite its being a fictional entity, it possesses perfectly real features, features you can read off the poet’s written work. Thus, if the great poet’s work is the deputized discourse of the poet’s poem and if the poet’s poem is the reader’s appropriation of the poet’s poem, who is speaking, after all? Heidegger calls it here “Zwiesprache,” discourse, or literally “double-speaking.” As we have seen, the dialogue (Zwiesprache) with a poet’s poem spans the reciprocity of consideration (Erörterung) and elucidation (Erläuterung) and, within this frame of dialogue, it is not clear who is the subject performing the poet’s poem. It thus seems natural to maintain that, in this case, language itself speaks, just as in the saying “one word leads to another” (ein Wort gab das andere).33 There is, thus, a certain insistence that the reader is central to Heidegger’s understanding of poetry. The idea that language speaks in the poem only makes sense if we take language to speak in the speaking of a great poet’s poem as discourse appropriated by the reader. In a way, the reader lets the poem of a great poet become his own voice. I think that Hannah Arendt has best understood this aspect of Heidegger’s approach to poetry. In 1953, Arendt set out (in a letter dated 15 July 1953) to defend Heidegger's interpretation of Trakl against criticisms by Hugo Friedrich. What might appear to Friedrich (and numerous other philologists) as ‘doing violence’ to the text is, in reality, comparable to the contortions one finds in paintings by Cézanne and Picasso. According to Arendt, Heidegger places himself at the very center of the work in order to elucidate it in an animated speech. Heidegger is thus able to recognize the inherent space of what cannot be said, which is distinct in each great work and gives rise to the work itself as well as its internal structure. Where Friedrich seems to detect violence, Arendt sees vitality. Nevertheless, she surmises that there is a danger that the interpreter may be rendered more significant than what is to be interpreted and that this might indeed have happened in Heidegger's exploration of Trakl. Arendt's notion that Heidegger places himself at the very core of Trakl's poetry in order to develop his poems through expressive language appears to


Cf. Paul Valéry: “Un poète […] n’a pas pour fonction de ressentir l’état poétique: ceci est une affaire privée. Il a pour fonction de le créer chez les autres.” (Valéry, Oeuvres (vol. 1), 1321)


me, therefore, to be a very promising way forward.34 We might envisage the reading of great poets to offer us “life’s second chance.”35 When we grow up and integrate into our social environment, we acquire habits of seeing, speaking, and judging. In other words, we acquire a second nature. That second nature is shaped by habituation, education, and learning. Acquiring a character, thus, requires that one, for example, develop dispositions based on habits. The particular nature of these dispositions will in turn depend on a specific cultural context as well as on certain hopes one projects into the future. Indeed, it is part of our very nature that we acquire this second nature. Not everyone, though, may be content with the particular shape of their second nature. They discover reading, for example, and then might gradually turn into emphatic readers. Reading becomes a way of being socialized a second time round, with assistance by a poet's linguistic world and the solidarity and community with the literary characters and figures of speech as well as with the creators and specialists of this world of language. One might call such individuals the 'inhabitants' of a linguistic world. The emphatic reader grows into inhabiting a world of language and poetry. Such a reader seeks to reform and replace the influence of their parents and teachers, education and personal context, and language and time. In short: reading emphatically creates a second chance to develop one’s second nature. Once we feel personally touched by this linguistic world, we seek to understand why and how this happens. We read our way deeper into this linguistic world and get to know more about who created it. Gradually, we come to see things through the lens of this world, with the eyes of the poet. As soon as we have made the poet's world of language our own, we can carry it with us. We start to describe the smaller and larger events that happen around us in the terms of this world. Some of the descriptions will help us, others repel us, some hit a right note, others miss their target. Most of all, we start discovering our own environment and ourselves through these descriptions. We might indeed recognize new things or familiar ones in a new light. It is possible that we see through these descriptions will not please us and, in the best possible scenario, these descriptions will then transform us. If we are careful 34

Arendt and Heidegger, Briefe, 316.


Cf. Edmundson, Why Read?.


enough, we will also grasp the place where the poet and her work originate and which gives rise to its particular character. We come to locate ourselves in this place and literarily undertake to be the poet herself. We find the “unsaid of what is said,” namely, the poet’s poem of which Heidegger speaks the moment we gather in that “secret site” where we can describe ourselves through her linguistic world. That which remains unsaid in what is said remains so simply as long as the emphatic reader has not yet rendered the linguistic world of the poet her own. She has never uttered (to herself and to others) what the poet speaks of. Sometimes we say about a verse, “Though it speaks to me, I do not understand it.”--Wittgenstein expressed this sentiment about Trakl. Yet, it can only speak to us if what we do not know before we do know it has already taken hold of us. Sometimes we also say, “It resonates with something in me.” Possibly, we dislike what has been touched in us and what we discover amongst the descriptions the poet leaves to our disposal. We surrender the linguistic world and shut ourselves out. In the ideal case, however, these descriptions transform us. Then we resonate with what speaks to us. Heidegger certainly resonates with what he takes to be the central feature of Trakl’s poem. As I have already mentioned at the beginning, the site of Trakl’s poem, the source of his creation, is “apartness” (Abgeschiedenheit).36 Now, I want to change from a plain-style-explanation of Heidegger’s basic claims in On the Way to Language to the grand-style-paraphrase of Heidegger’s account of the site of Trakl’s poem. The word “apartness” is taken from the last poem in Trakl’s collection Sebastian im Traum: “Song of the departed” or “Song of he who stands apart” (Gesang des Abgeschiedenen). According to the normative claim mentioned above, the more Trakl speaks of our apartness, the more profound the quality of his work; according to the ontological claim, all of Trakl’s poems belong to the unspoken, silent poem that trades on apartness; and according to the hermeneutical claim, any elucidation of Trakl’s poetical lines should relate to apartness. Heidegger starts his reading of Trakl’s poem with the sentiment, “Something strange is the soul on the earth” (Es ist die Seele ein Fremdes auf Erden). Against the interpretation of the Brenner circle, Heidegger refuses to read “soul” in a Christian or Platonic fashion. In other words, he does not think that the soul is a stranger on Earth because the soul is 36


Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 172.

not of the material or mundane realm. This reading strikes me as entirely correct. This is not to deny Trakl’s repeated reference to Christian vocabulary and imagery. The soul is not accidentally a stranger on Earth. The soul is a stranger essentially, an errant, a wanderer on Earth, or so Heidegger claims. The soul looks for a site or location in order to dwell on Earth. For Heidegger, apartness in Trakl’s poetry is closely linked to spirit, since “Apartness is active as spirit” and “apartness itself is the spirit.”37 Trakl’s spirit, or so Heidegger argues, is not something rational or intellectual or spiritual, in the religious sense, but is, rather, associated with the image of the flame: “Spirit is flame.”38 The spirit as flame is both a gentle and a destructive force; it is “both gentleness and destructiveness.”39 The spirit in this sense is the driving force of the soul: “The spirit chases, drives the soul to get underway to where it leads the way.”40 By the light of the spirit (flame “glows and shines”41), the soul produces a vision of its place on Earth. This is, as the line “Something strange is the soul on the earth” says, the place of an errant, of a wanderer. Having no place stands, of course, for “apartness.” The soul as an errant embodies both the one standing apart (since it is a stranger) and the one departing (since it is a wanderer). This “flaming vision” that drives the soul “is pain”--not pain as a sensible, bodily state, but the pain of being apart or departed. Apartness equals apartness from the earth as it is represented in the central European landscape evoked in Trakl’s poetry. Apartness sums up apartness from one’s own past (childhood), which is present as the temporal landscape in Trakl’s work. Finally, apartness amounts to being apart from others who are represented in the characters of the sister and the brother. Pain is thus “the animator” of the soul’s strangeness on earth. As soon as the soul starts dwelling on earth, pain is located. This is the reason why the most important line of the poem entitled “A Winter Evening” (the poem Heidegger interprets in the opening essay of On the Way to Language) runs: “Pain has turned the threshold to stone.” 37

Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 185.


Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 193, 180.


Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 179.


Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 180.


Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 181.


As we have seen above, some of the motives and words upon which Trakl obsessively dwells (e.g. soul, spirit, spiritual, flame, pain) flow together in the idea of “apartness.” But it is not clear whether Heidegger holds that all great poetry is located in apartness or whether this marks only the site of certain poet’s poems. I think that, just as in the case of the bold thesis, Heidegger wants to claim that “apartness” is the true site of every great poem and, yet, that the poets will articulate apartness in different ways. Just as in the case of the bold thesis, however, this might be true for some great poets, even if it does not seem to me that it needs to be true for all great poets (again, Goethe comes to mind). Rather, Heidegger’s claim has to be that those poets who create their work out of one single poem develop different articulations of apartness. For example, Mörike’s poem, “Seclusion” (Verborgenheit), should serve as an entry point to Mörike’s “apartness,” which will not be articulated as spirit and flame but, rather, as “openness” and “dream.” Another example is Robert Walser’s poetic work (including prose and verse). One of Walser’s most characteristic poems is “Aside” (Beiseit): “I take my daily walk / This leads not far or wide / And home; then without talk / or sound I’m put aside.”42 The title of the first printed version (1899) was „Saying“ (Spruch) and the last word was “freed” (befreit). Later, Walser replaced this last word by “aside” and chose the same word as the new title. Thus, in the case of Walser, it seems abundantly obvious that the articulation of “apartness” or “asideness” in this poet’s poem has to revolve around hidden sources of being free or, rather, freed. I have been emphasizing the idea that apartness sums up apartness from one’s own past. This holds, I suggested, for poets such as Trakl, Mörike, and Walser. In his Trakl interpretation, Heidegger refers at one point to childhood. I would like to suggest that we relieve this passage of its time-honored connotations and, instead, appreciate it as a directive for the emphatic reader. The reader departs (removes herself) by trying to inhabit Trakl's poem and, in the process, is rendered a stranger. Hence, the soul exists on this earth only as a stranger. Heidegger makes the following remark about the converging character of the place where Trakl’s poem resides. Given that to read means to gather and to collect, this converging place



Cf. Walser, Aside.

carries mortal nature back to its stiller childhood, and shelters that childhood of the kind, not yet borne to term, whose stamp marks future generations. The gathering power of apartness holds the unborn generation beyond all that is spent, and saves it for a coming rebirth of mankind out of earliness.43

It seems to me that here, Heidegger describes the process of emphatic reading whereby the reader might be socialized once more. The reader is an infant again by setting herself up for a missed opportunity of acquiring a new way of seeing, speaking, and judging. This second chance offered to her second nature is described in terms of “unborn” (Ungeborenes) or “the coming resurrection” (kommende Auferstehung) and the result of the initial socialization as “worn-out second-hand life” (Abgelebtes) and as “evil” (Böses). What is buried is less the childhood of psychoanalysis but rather opportunities missed in acquiring one's second nature. This does not exclude turning back to examine one’s childhood akin to the psychoanalytical vein. Nevertheless, very different ways of investigating one’s personal life history might be equally appropriate here, such as we find them in JeanPaul (in the description of his autobiography), in Stifter (in his fragmentary reminiscences), and in Proust (in La Recherche). Heidegger advises the emphatic reader about how to relate to the linguistic world of this particular poetic work. The reader is called upon to approach and appreciate radical openness (of whose character she must, as yet, be unsure) and to seek the inherent nature of that for which she is destined. If we truly come to inhabit the linguistic world of the poem (i.e. the poet’s poem) and in turn are ourselves transformed, it is clear why it should be exclusively destined for us and weave the destiny in which we find ourselves. Put differently: poetry merely comes into its own once it speaks to a reader who will eventually dwell in it and render its linguistic world her own. At the beginning of this essay I distinguished two theatrical levels of Heidegger’s essays in On the Way to Language, the plain style and the grand style level. When Heidegger switches to the sublime rhetorical mode, the purpose is not to argue and instruct, but to elevate and transform. The ultimate purpose is 43


Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 186.

transformation of the reader. As Wallace Stevens puts it: “I think that his [the poet’s] function is to make his imagination theirs [the reader’s] and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others.”44 A poem addresses an individual so that she might turn into an emphatic reader of the poem herself. And in this sense language speaks in the poet’s poem. Bibliography Arendt, Hannah, and Martin Heidegger. 1998. Briefe 1925-1975, edited by Ursula Ludz. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann. Dennett, Daniel. 1992. “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity”. In Self and Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives, edited by F. Kessel et al.. Hillsdale (NJ): Psychology Press. Derrida, Jacques. 1989. On Spirit. Heidegger and the Question. Translation by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. London / Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Edmundson, Mark. 2004. Why Read?. Bloomsbury: Bloomsbury USA. Hamburger, Michael. 1984. A Proliferation of Prophets. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Heidegger, Martin. 1971a. On the Way to Language. Translation by Peter D. Hertz. New York et al.: Harper & Row. ———. 1971b. Poetry, Language, Thought. Translation by Albert Hofstadter. New York et al.: Harper & Row. ———, and Ludwig von Ficker. 2004. Briefwechsel 1952-1967. Stuttgart: KlettCotta. ———. 2000. Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry. Translated by Keith Hoeller. New York: Humanity Books. Heselhaus, Clemens. 1961. Deutsche Lyrik der Moderne von Nietzsche bis Yvan Goll. Düsseldorf: Bagel. Killy, Walter. 1967. Über Georg Trakl. Göttingen: Vandenheock & Ruprecht. Kleefeld, Gunter. 1991. “Kaspar Hauser and the Paternal Law: The Dramaturgy of Desire on Trakl’s Kaspar Hauser Lied.” In The Dark Flutes of Fall. Critical Essays on Georg Trakl, edited by Eric Williams, 38-84. Columbia: Camden House. Leitgeb, Josef. 1951. “Die Trakl-Welt: Zum Wortbestand der Dichtungen Georg Trakls.” Wort im Gebirge 3: 7-39. Mitchell, Andrew J. 2011. “Heidegger’s Poetics of Relationality.” In Interpreting Heidegger: Critical Essays, edited by Daniel O. Dahlstrom, 217-230. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 44


Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, 660-661.

Peucker, Brigitte. 1989. “The Poetry of Repetition: Trakl’s Narrow Bridge”. In The Critical Cosmos: Modern German Poetry, edited by Harold Bloom, 123-137. New York: Chelsea House. Powell, Jeffrey. 2013. “The Way to Heidegger's ‘Way to Language’.” In Heidegger and Language, edited by Jeffrey Powell, 180-200. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Schneider, Karl L.. 1954. Der bildhafte Ausdruck in den Dichtungen Georg Heyms, Georg Trakls und Ernst Stadlers. Heidelberg: Carl Winter. Stevens, Wallace. 1997. Collected Poetry and Prose, edited by Francis Kermode. New York: The Library of America. Valéry, Paul. 1957, Oeuvres (vol. 1), edited by J. Hytier. Paris: Gallimard. Walser, Robert. 2007. Aside. Translated by Michael Hamburger. In Modern Poetry in Translation 3 (8): 120. Wetzel, Heinz. 1977. Konkordanz zu den Dichtungen Georg Trakls, Salzburg: Müller. Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 1995. Divine Discourse. Philosophical Reflections on the Claim That God Speaks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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