One of the Black Notebooks’ little surprises is Heidegger’s praise for the painter Caspar David Friedrich, whom he calls “a peak towering into the godforsaken spaces of the divinity of the onetime God,” a figure on a par with Hölderlin (GA 95: 364/285 tm). Heidegger must have known what is today Friedrich’s most famous painting, The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. A man adopts a bold stance on a craggy peak, and we look out with him over a breathtaking landscape where the lower elevations are shrouded in mist. Heidegger must have felt that exhilaration when thinking of himself as one of the rare dwellers on mountaintops. But did he reflect on the mist? The wanderer in the painting has a magnificent view, but he does not see all: the clouds obscure the valleys below. Maybe he does not care—maybe that is part of his triumphant mood. So be it. But at least he should realize that he does not know what lies under the mist. The heights are heights of both knowledge and ignorance. In his Olympian pose, Heidegger not only fails to see through the mist, but fails to see the mist itself. He not only has no sympathy for real, suffering individuals, but also thinks that he knows them when he does not. The dismissive statements in the notebooks—such as the repeated claim that he is living in the age of the total lack of questioning and thought—are themselves thoughtless, because the fact is that he does not know whether others are questioning. Zarathustra must go down in the beginning of Nietzsche’s book, and the philosopher-rulers must return to the cave in the Republic. Heidegger, who blames Platonism for so much, failed to learn the lesson of Plato’s allegory. The philosophers return to the cave not only in order to save the polis, but also in order to understand the political realm in its particularity after spending time in the light of the intelligible forms. When they first return, they are unable to see in the relative darkness (Republic 516e, 518a). Knowledge of essences, then, does not suffice to grasp politics; we must both ascend and descend, and take the time to adjust our understanding to both realms. Heidegger’s interpretations of the allegory of the cave exemplify blindness instead of recognizing it: he wrongly asserts that “with his view of essence [the philosopher] can now see what happens in the cave for what it is” (GA 34: 89/65). He takes the returning philosopher simply as an enlightened liberator who may be the victim of the deluded masses’ stupidity and resentment, rather than understanding that the philosopher himself needs to relearn to see in the dimness (GA 34: 80–94; GA 36/37: 180–85).

Time and Trauma
Thinking Through
Heidegger in the Thirties
Richard Polt

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