I know as much about philosopher Martin Heidegger's writings as I know about how to stuff a turkey on Thanksgiving. Mostly because others have always stuffed the bird, all I have to do is stuff myself. But I want to understand philosophy. At one time I thought that Linus and Snoopy counted? But soon, when I have the time to delve, reflect and come up for air, I will return to the great books... My father was philosophic and quoted the ancients a great deal. The Greeks got in there, of course, but often Hillel took top billing. Still, when I read that CUNY was showing a film on the anti-Semitic nature of the esteemed German philosopher and rock star of Western thought, I jumped. I have a strange penchant for exploring Nazi stories and I suppose I keep my self-esteem in check with a weekly update of anti-Semitic news. It also didn't hurt that my Tanzanian friend, Ven Kwannin, a physicist, and my Greek pal, a beautiful jeweler, also think that Heidegger was the bees' knees.
As I didn't attend the entire conference at CUNY, I still can't really speak to Heidegger's contributions. Though I gather it has something to do with beingness and time. But that's not primarily what the conference was about. His Black Notebooks, heretofore unpublished writings are now being revealed. So I made a promise to get to his more popular work later on. But after having seeing the documentary Only God Can Save Us , I am less and less inclined to do so. This guy was really anti-Semitic... So good at it that the Nazis gave him a job. How is it possible to speak of him without mentioning this glaring fact? One might say that all peoples were racist then, (as if not now) and that he was merely a product of his times. But he was a product with a big megaphone. His whole Volks idea didn't leave room for the rootless people, the Jews, who couldn't be tied to the same land for generations like his people, the people of Germany. Any farmer knows that you can tie a goat to a tree in a field but when the pogroms and Cossacks and Inquisition come stomping in, the goat has no choice but to break out and run for another field. That is if he's lucky.
The film's director, Jeffrey van Davis, is also a philosopher and teacher and was exceedingly modest about his film, excusing its technical qualities. He needn't have bothered. It was well thought out, provided a variety of voices and gave a solid history of the times. At the Q&A, a Professor Karsten Harries from Yale was rather dismissive, saying that we all know these thing and to move on. Well, many people in the audience were not pure Heidergerrians and the film was informative and excellent.
I hope that we are now learning that the smartest people in the world may not always be right. (hello Henry Kissinger). Recently, a book has been published that refutes Hannah Arendt's take on Adolf Eichmann as a lowly, banal bureaucrat. Bettina Stangneth, the author of "Eichmann before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer researched extensively and reveals that Eichmann was much more a creator and perpetrator of terror than Arendt suggests. Does that overturn all of Arendt's critical thinking? When I discovered that she was not only Heidegger's lover before the war, but even after, after his spell at playing Nazi, I must reinterpret what smart means. Talk about your self- hating Jews! According to the film, three of Heidegger's lovers were Jewish. Who was his therapist? Certainly not Freud!
I think it's very important to study history and history of war, especially as we are in the midst of so many global conflicts. And as we are hopefully on a big push towards at least consciousness about the idea of peace, every example of hatred as well as love is worthy of inquiry. But as irony is the only truth, the mini war that took place on the panel of experts seemed psychedelically fitting as a way of understanding the larger picture. Emmanuel Faye, a French expert on Heidegger's anti-Semitism spoke about his new book which points out consistent clues in H's thinking, living and writing. When the lady sitting to my right asked me if I could understand him, I said, "pas une mot", not a word, as his accent was so heavy. But Thomas Sheehan from Stanford had no problem and after telling us about his close friendship and admiration of Monsieur Faye, launched into a laceration of Faye's work which, may or may not have been correct, but was certainly not very polite. Debates are fine though this conference wasn't called a debate but what I surely was left with was a clearer understanding of academic egos. Unlike Sheehan, Professor Richard Wolin of CUNY had no problem calling a rose a rose and is clearly on the side of the Heidegger as Nazi camp. But then, he is Jewish.
Will I pick up a copy of The Black Notebooks for winter reading this December? Doubtful. I'm sold on the idea that Mr. H was an anti-Semitic who didn't blink an eye when so many from the non-Volk of his hometown Freiburg were sent off to die. But do I still need to read Heidegger to understand or at least appreciate why those who also accept his anti-Semitic stance can accept the good part of his philosophy as gospel?
When I told a friend about the conference, he mentioned that Thomas Jefferson had slaves. Yes, great men of history make stupid mistakes. But the story goes that Heidegger like Eichmann never repented. This from a great thinker. I think not.