What Are Poets For In Destitute Times?
Heidegger, Adorno, and Levinas
Thanks to everyone who has signed up for this newsletter. I figured that a substack account would give me a little more privacy than a public-facing blog, sort of like how I prefer to post to instagram stories than a regular post. I’m still figuring out out exactly what I’m going to use this for: the bulk of posts will be something in the vicinity of literary criticism or just thoughts on what I’m reading. Probably I’m also going to use this as a space to share my own short fiction. It’s unlikely that most posts will be as formal as today’s, in which I attempt to synthesize Adorno and Levinas to provide a response to Heidegger’s phrasing of the question “what are poets for in destitute times”. I also do some analysis of Hölderlin’s apocalyptic “Bread and Wine”, a poem I intend to return to.
What Are Poets For In Destitute Times?: Heidegger, Adorno, and Levinas
What are poets for in destitute times? The question comes from Heidegger, a member of the Nazi party. The definitive answer may have been offered by Adorno, a German Jew, in his claims that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”. Maybe this should settle it: a member of the Nazi party asks of what use is poetry in evil and dispossessed time and is answered by a German Jew in the wake of the historic evil of the work of that party, answered that not only is there no use for poetry, not only is poetry no longer possible, but that to even attempt it would be barbaric. Maybe it’s obscene, even barbaric, to contradict Adorno’s claim; however, poetry, like barbarism, has persisted.
These are barbaric and destitute times. The time of monsters. Heidegger borrows the question from the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin’s apocalyptic “Bread and Wine”, which asks what use are poets in times of need: “and what, after all, is the use/ And purpose of poets in an age of darkness?”. These are dark times but it’s also a time of unbearable light, and democracy can die as easily die in the latter as in the former. The unveiling itself is the apocalypse. Hölderlin asserts that “only from time to time can humans bear the fullness of the gods”. Apocalypse is the revelation of a god we are unable to bear and is painted in interplay of darkness and light, the chiaroscuro from which Gramscian monsters surge as the old world dies and the new one remains stillborn. The ideas that drove the Nazi party- racial superiority, hatred of others, will to power- have returned and never left. Fascism has violently reasserted itself. Everything is seen as a Heideggerian standing reserve by everyone, and the abuse of resources has brought us to the edge of climate apocalypse. Hölderlin also asserts “we arrive too late. True, the gods are still living,/But over our heads, up in a different world.”. There’s the pervasive sense that we’ve arrived too late, that we’ve arrived at the end of the end of history and history has come flooding back. There is some sense that the gods have retreated and only the monsters are left.
Another response to the question of the use of poets comes from Emmanuel Levinas, another Jewish philosopher who reckoned with the meaning and meaninglessness of the Holocaust. Levinas, unlike Adorno, was follower of Heidegger, and he tried to reconcile his mentor’s existential insights humanity and his mentor’s involvement with the most devastating violation of humanity in history. Levinas, like Adorno, attempted to determine what it meant to live after the Holocaust. However, they came away from the question with differing attitudes on life and living. Where Adorno wrote that
“mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz”
“We breathe for the sake of breathing, eat and drink for the sake of eating and drinking, we take shelter for the sake of taking shelter, we study to satisfy our curiosity, we take a walk for the walk. All that's not for the sake of living, it is living. Life is a sincerity.”
In this sense, then, we make poetry for the sake of making poetry. This is living. I’m not talking about the Romantic idea of art for art’s sake, art that is detached and above everything else but rather every action, in existing for it’s own sake, constitutes living. Without poetry there is only mere survival, which calls for the coldness that leads to barbarism. Adorno later amended his opinion on the role of poetry after Auschwitz, conceding that “perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream.”. However, while he allows possibility of poetry, he also simultaneously broadens his interrogation from the possibility of poetry to the possibility of poetry, asking “whether after Auschwitz you can go on living.”. According to Levinas’s formulation poetry isn’t for the sake of living: it is living itself. And so the two are are inseparable. If it is barbaric to write poetry then it is barbaric to live.
Poetry is the first thing to go in destitute times. It’s the first thing to be cut from the curriculum, the first thing to be sold off when money’s tight, the first thing to be broken down for kindling when the weather turns. It’s hard to fault people for staying warm, but mere survival is a coldness, and it leaves another question: what are we going tell ourselves around the fire now? If were going to survive what ever’s coming next we’re going to need the will to live, and that will comes from poetry. Poetry is the only language that can bear the weight of apocalypse.
Part 7 of “Bread And Wine” by Hölderlin
But my friend, we have come too late. True, the gods are still alive
But somewhere high above us, in another world.
There they repeat themselves eternally, and don’t give a damn
If we live or die, so little do they care about us.
For a weak vessel cannot contain them. Only from time to time
Can humans bear the fullness of the gods. And therefore,
The life we know is a dream about them. But confusion
And sleep assist us, sorrow and night make us strong,
And soon heroes enough will emerge from the warlord’s cradle,
With hearts rivaling a god’s in courage.
In the meantime, I believe it is better to sleep than to live
Without friends, waiting without hope, not knowing the right
Thing to say or do -- and what, after all, is the use
And purpose of poets in an age of darkness?
Yet you say they are like the priests of the wine god,
Moving from place to place in the sacred night.
–- translated by David Lehman