Much of Heidegger’s later work is devoted to an exploration of language and its relation to the question of Being.1 This chapter will focus on the evocative imagery and diction employed in eight of Heidegger’s later essays, and will argue that Heidegger’s experience of poetic language reveals evidence of an encounter with la mère qui jouit.2 That is to say, the imagery of these essays suggests an association of the semiotic dimension of language with the feminine, in an even clearer way than in Being and Time.
These particular essays are not the only ones dealing with the question of language, but they are representative of Heidegger’s treatment of the issue. They are also among the richest in imagery, and therefore offer themselves as valuable resources for this sort of investigation. In what follows, our attention will focus not on the particular arguments or “paths” developed in each of the essays, but rather on the rich network of evocative words and phrases to which they all contribute. This network displays a distinctive “texture,” a unique feel and appearance, that is attributable to Heidegger’s attempt to respond to and incorporate a new dimension in his language. I will argue that his project, in striving to make room for what Kristeva calls the semiotic in language, also becomes a testimony to la mère qui jouit, the “feminine” in language.
This analysis has three parts, inevitably overlapping and interwoven, but nonetheless distinguishable. First, we shall examine the ways in which language, and often Being itself, are described in “maternal” terms—“maternal” in a particular way, to be sure. Next, the position of the human being in relation to language will be addressed, and finally, the question of jouissance. In each case, we will draw together images from the various essays, in the assumption that Heidegger’s later thought is a relatively consistent whole, addressing and readdressing the same question over and over again from slightly different perspectives.
Language as Mother
Heidegger himself does not directly refer either to language or to Being as a “mother.” Yet he attributes to each of them many characteristics that may be seen as “motherly.” The first and perhaps the most obvious maternal association is the reference to language as “source.”
In “The Nature of Language” Heidegger reflects on Stefan George’s poem “The Word.” This is a poem about the poetic experience itself, and Heidegger writes, “The poet experiences his poetic calling as a call to the word as source, the bourn of Being.”3 The “word” as “bourn” (born: spring, well, fountain, source, fount)4 is the place from which Being springs. It is the origin, at least as far as human experience goes, of Being itself.
Further on in the same essay, Heidegger writes: “The word itself is the giver. What does it give? To go by the poetic experience and the most ancient tradition of thinking, the word gives Being. Our thinking, then, would have to seek the word, the giver which itself is never given. . . . ”5 The word, then, is what gives Being, what makes it possible, what brings it to light.
In terms of human existence, this is also what the mother does. Even if she were to have no subsequent role or function whatever, the mother is and remains the source, the origin, the giver of life. And she is, indeed, “the giver which itself is never given.” Although the infant’s project may be to possess the mother, just as integral to the mother’s giving role is her refusal to give herself. She grants existence, and possibly much else besides, but never her self, for this is finally impossible.
It is clear that Heidegger is developing a very broad definition of “language” here. Language for him is always more than a means; it is in some sense a creative force in itself: “Language is not only and not primarily an audible and written expression of what is to be communicated . . . ; language alone brings what is, as something that is, into the Open for the first time.”6 Language thus bears, gives birth to, “brings . . . into the Open” what is. It is the fount, the origin, the mother as source.
In addition to being a “source,” the “word” which thinking “seeks” is also mysterious. It is on its own, never completely graspable, describable, or accessible to human comprehension. Just as the mother is beyond the infant’s ken, infinitely larger and unknowable, so too language in these essays remains beyond understanding. “If language everywhere withholds its nature, then such withholding is in the very nature of language.”7 Language “withholds” (verweigert: refuses, denies, declines) its nature; this inaccessibility of language’s essence is not simply an effect of human inadequacy, but is a property of language itself. Language refuses or denies us its nature, as the mother ultimately “refuses” herself to the child.
In the “region of the word,” mystery and unknowability prevail:
—A mysterious [Rätselhafte] region where there is nothing for which to be answerable.
—Because it is the region of the word, which is answerable to itself alone.8
The word is rätselhaft, puzzling, enigmatic, “riddle-some,” as is the mother, who has her own ways and is not answerable to the questions of the child, not responsible for explaining herself.
Withholding, mysterious, answerable only to itself, this “word” is indeed a difficult topic to approach. Thinking that follows the track of such a self-contained inaccessible aim must be wary of destroying its own chances of success. In approaching a mystery, the greatest temptation is to dispel its mystery, and thus to make it other than what it is:
—Then we really can’t describe what we have named?
—No. Any description would reify it. [Jede Beschreibung müsste das Genannte gegenständlich vorführen.]
—Nevertheless it lets itself be named, and being named it can be thought about. . .
—. . . only if thinking is no longer re-presenting [Vorstellen].9
Named but not described, the region of the word can be thought about in a certain way, but does not allow its representation as an object. The infant cannot bring its mother before itself as an object, and thus the mother remains a “mystery,” perhaps the primal mystery. In just the same way, human beings remain uncomprehending of the mystery of language.
Thus for Heidegger, language is a source, and a mysterious and enigmatic one. It is also seen as “dominant” in the relation with human beings. Far from being a tool or implement in the possession of humanity, there is a sense in which speakers, “users” of language, are rather used by it, as channels or conduits for its own proper activity.
In a passage somewhat reminiscent of his discussion of “idle talk” in Being and Time, Heidegger writes in the essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” about the perversion of language that prevails in the modern world:
There rages round the earth an unbridled yet clever talking, writing, and broadcasting of spoken words. Man [der Mensch] acts as though he were the shaper and master [Meister] of language, while in fact language remains the master of man [sie doch die Herrin des Menschen bleibt]. Perhaps it is before all else man’s subversion of this relation of dominance [Herrschaftsverhältnis] that drives his nature into alienation. 10
This English translation, paradoxically, both exaggerates and obscures the gender distinctions in this paragraph. What is rendered in English as “man” is the more genuinely generic term der Mensch, while language (die Sprache), mistress (Herrin) of humanity, becomes in English “the master of man.” In the context of an exploration of feminine and maternal imagery, some of the power of this statement is surely lost in translation. We do not want to make much of the fact that die Sprache is a feminine noun, but rather we want to concentrate on the image of the mistress (feminine of “master”) of humanity and the quality of dominance that is explicitly assigned to her here.11
Heidegger says that to talk, write, and even broadcast in an “unbridled” or “licentious” way is to subvert the proper relationship between humanity and language. Language’s dominance and high status as “mistress” are flouted or ignored in this way only at the cost of human “alienation.” Again, Heidegger’s words for this are more evocative. He says that the subversion of this relation of dominance drives humanity into das Unheimische, into the not-at-home.
Here we begin to see a shift of perspective from Being and Time, where the “not-at-home” (nicht-zu-Hause) and the “uncanny” (das Unheimliche) were effects of the call of Care, and were implicitly valued as marks of authenticity. In this essay, by contrast, to remain subject to the proper dominance of language protects one from alienation, from the not-at-home. In the next section, on the human response to language as mother, we shall see that for the later Heidegger, this feminine mistress has a double effect, both sheltering and displacing, and that this doubleness is a crucial aspect of her relation to humanity. At this point, what is clear is that language, in addition to being a mysterious source, is also a “dominant” and powerful reality.
The imagery of dominance is reinforced at several other points throughout these essays. For example, in “The Nature of Language,” Heidegger mentions that “the poet undergoes his experience with the word’s lofty sway” (mit dem hohen Walten des Wortes).12 This word Walten as a verb may be translated “rule, govern, hold sway, hold the reins of government,” and as a noun: “rule, control.” The idiomatic expression mentioned in Cassell’s German-English Dictionary is das Walten Gottes, “the hand of God.”13 Thus the word is imaged as in some way parallel to God, as having a comparable “rule, control,” or “sway.”
Again in “The Nature of Language,” Heidegger writes:
Language is, as world-moving Saying, the relation of all relations. It relates, maintains, proffers and enriches [sie verhält, unterhält, reicht und bereichert] the face-to-face encounter of the world’s regions, holds and keeps them [hält und hütet sie], in that it holds itself—Saying—in reserve [an sich hält].14
Without attempting to interpret precisely what Heidegger means by “Saying,” “regions,” or “reserve” here, we may yet hear in the diction of this passage, in its richly resonant sounds, the naming of a powerful, all-encompassing, and all-enclosing, dominant force.
Finally, in “A Dialogue on Language,” one of the speakers says, “language is more powerful than we are, and therefore weightier [gewichtiger].”15 Language is “weighty” in the sense of “important, momentous; influential.” Speakers, especially when trying to speak about language itself, must be extremely careful. Language’s power and its importance are potentially overwhelming, Heidegger seems to be telling us.
Yet this mysterious dominant source is not sufficient unto itself. Language is not language independently, on its own, outside of relation to those who speak. Heidegger states that “man is man only because he is granted the promise of language, because he is needful to language, that he may speak it.”16 A “mother” is not a “mother” independently of a child, of offspring. How, then, does such an enigmatic, weighty power as language in Heidegger’s sense come into relation with humanity? Heidegger’s most frequent response to this question is the image of the “call.” This choice is not surprising, coming as it does after his extensive reliance on it in Being and Time, where Dasein was called by Care out of inauthenticity into authenticity.
In “The Nature of Language,” Heidegger says, “to think is above all to listen, to let ourselves be told something and not to ask questions.”17 This “telling” happens of its own accord, if we only listen; questions do not stimulate the call. Language itself is an “appeal” or “exhortation”: “Among all the appeals [Zusprüchen] that we human beings, on our part, can help to be voiced, language is the highest and everywhere the first.”18
Heidegger expresses in many ways the experience that language itself calls. He writes, “Language speaks. It speaks by bidding. . . ,”19 “The naming [of poetry] calls. Calling brings close what it calls.”20 But also, “Language withdraws from man its simple and high speech. But its primal call does not thereby become incapable of speech; it merely falls silent.”21 Here again, we are reminded of the silent call of Care, of silence as a possible mode of discourse. “The soundless gathering call, by which Saying moves the world-relation on its way, we call the ringing [or “peal”] of stillness [das Geläut der Stille], It is: the language of Being.”22
In “A Dialogue on Language,” one speaker specifies the human contribution to the process of thinking as “[giving] heed to the trails that direct thinking back into the region of its source.” When he is asked about finding such trails, he replies that they are “not of my own making, and are discernible only quite rarely, like the wind-borne echo of a distant call [verwehtes Echo eines fernen Zurufes].”23 Not really a “trail” at all but a faint echo on the wind, this call requires close and careful attention if it is not to be missed.
One final passage confirms the importance of this image of the “call” as the way in which language, and, through language, Being itself, communicates with humanity. The participants in the dialogue are talking about the human being as message-bearer, walking a path and seeking a “mystery” or “secret” (Geheimnis). One of them says that this “mystery . . . cannot be hidden in anything other than the voice that determines and tunes his nature [in der Stimme, die sein Wesen be-stimmt].”24 This sentence plays on the relationship between Stimme, voice; stimmen, tune; and bestimmen, determine, decide, or ordain. The voice of language itself is decisive for human being in that it “tunes” humanity to itself.
One is reminded here of the importance to Kristeva’s analysis of the human voice, the way in which it mediates and modulates the world to the infant, and its determinative, decisive influence, via the semiotic dimension, on the situation of the subject in process / on trial.
In our exploration of Heidegger’s sense of language as a “motherly” force, we have seen that he images it as the source of Being, as both mysterious and dominant, and as calling to humanity to come into relation with it. A final example must suffice to illustrate the way in which Heidegger is constantly drawn to feminine imagery in his quest for appropriate ways to express the nature of language. At the end of “Conversation on a Country Path,” the three participants in the conversation are discussing Heraclitus’s Fragment 122, which reads simply “Anchibasiē” (’αγχιβασίη).25 They are considering its appropriateness as a name for thinking and knowing, which throughout the conversation have been identified with a proper relation to language. The speakers come to translate Anchibasiē as “letting-oneself-into-nearness,” and then use it to name their evening walk and conversation on the country path.
The path has taken them deep into the night, which itself becomes the focus of the last few exchanges of the dialogue. The “teacher” points out that the night “nears” (nähert) the stars’ distances from one another, and the “scientist” responds, “at least for the naive observer, although not for the exact scientist.” The discussion continues, in one of Heidegger’s most lyrical passages about the feminine character of the object of thought:
Ever to the child in man, night neighbors the stars. [Für das Kind in Menschen bleibt die Nacht die Näherin der Sterne.]
She binds together without seam [Naht] or edge or thread.
She neighbors; because she works only with nearness [mit der Nähe].
If she ever works rather than rests . . .
. . . while wondering upon the depths of the height [indem sie die Tiefen der Höhe erstaunt].26
Here Night is “at work,” but in a restful way, remaining “for the child in people” the Näherin, the seamstress of the stars. Näherin ordinarily derives from the verb nähen, to sew or stitch, but could also be the feminine agent form of the verb nähern, to bring near, as this translation suggests. Thus Night, the seamstress of the stars, also brings them near, at least for one who remains a child in some way. “She binds together without seam [Naht], working instead with nearness [Nähe]”
Let us look again at the last two lines of this passage:
—Falls sie je arbeitet und nicht eher ruht. . .
—. . . indem sie die Tiefen der Höhe erstaunt.
One speaker has said that Night works only with nearness. Now the others speculate: “Supposing that she ever works and doesn’t rather rest . . . ” “. . . in that she amazes the depths of the height.”27”
She accomplishes her wish of “nearing” the stars not by “working with nearness” but by “astonishing” or “amazing” the distances, by restfully allowing her being itself to “astound” them and thus draw them near. The English translation in Discourse on Thinking has night “wondering upon the depths of the heights,” but this translation seems to be justified neither by the syntax of the German phrase (sie die Tiefen der Höhe erstaunt) nor by the sense of the passage, which needs to show how Night can draw the stars near without working.
At this point, we have explored five “motherly” attributes ascribed to language by Heidegger. He has called language the “source” of human Being, mysterious as an infant’s mother, dominant, calling, and finally “night,” who appears (to the childlike at any rate, if not to the scientist) as a “seamstress” binding distances through astonishment.
What, for Heidegger, is a proper human response to the call of this enigmatic, astounding, and motherly figure? The close of the “Conversation on a Country Path” provides a hint:
Then wonder [das Staunen] can open what is locked?
By way of waiting . . .
. . . if this is released [gelassenes] . . .
. . . and human nature remains appropriated to that. . .
. . . from whence we are called.28
In what follows we shall examine more evidence about Heidegger’s perspective on approaching language as mother.
Thinking / Saying Toward the Mother
How are human beings to respond to the call of this “mother”? What comportment is appropriate in relation to her? In this section, we will briefly outline three aspects of Heidegger’s response to this question, again suggesting that throughout the works examined, an attraction to and an exploration of “the feminine” are under way.
If that to which we want to draw near is powerful, dominant, and at the same time withholding, what mode of approach makes the most sense? Heidegger calls the thinking that is appropriate to this “object” (which behaves more like the “subject” of the relation) “meditative thinking.” He contrasts it with “calculative thinking,” which also has its place, but which seems to him to dominate almost all of our contemporary ventures. He holds our obsession with calculative thinking responsible for the devaluing of earth and even, it seems, for the specter of nuclear annihilation. He writes:
. . . since modern thinking is ever more resolutely turning into calculation, it concentrates all available energy and “interests” in calculating how man may soon establish himself in worldless cosmic space. This type of thinking is about to abandon the earth as earth. As calculation, it drifts more and more rapidly and obsessively toward the conquest of cosmic space. This type of thinking is itself already the explosion of a power that could blast everything to nothingness.29
Calculative thinking, oriented toward mastery and conquest, seeks to abandon earth, to leave behind the “matrix” of human existence, and to establish itself on its own ground. In warning of the dangers of this kind of thinking, Heidegger’s project seems consonant, at least at this point, with the strand of feminist thinking that identifies ecological destruction and nuclear armaments as effects of a onesided “masculinized” world-view. The “obsession” with flight (from earth, from woman, from mortality), the causa sui project, and control and domination are here repudiated by Heidegger. He calls for a kind of thinking that can correspond to the motherly character of Being, rather than attempting to escape from her domain.
Contrasted with “calculative thinking” (das rechnende Denken) is “meditative thinking” (das besinnliche Nachdenken). It is quiet, mindful, patient, and still: “It demands more practice [than does calculative thinking]. It is in need of even more delicate care than any other genuine craft. But it must also be able to bide its time, to await as does the farmer, whether the seed will come up and ripen.”30
Meditative thinking is a way to come near to that which calls us. Rather than seeking to go great distances, cover huge areas with giant steps, it is an attempt to come nearer to where we already are. But “the way to what is near is always the longest and thus the hardest for us humans.”31
Meditative thinking is the longest and hardest way because it entails a kind of letting-go that Heidegger calls Gelassenheit, which is translated as “releasement.” Although in ordinary German usage, Gelassenheit denotes simply “self-possession, calm, composure,” Heidegger develops his special use of the term throughout the “Conversation on a Country Path.” One of the participants in this conversation complains that although he was able to follow what the discussion had said about releasement, “all the same I can re-present nothing of it to myself.”32
It may also be impossible here adequately to re-present or reproduce all that is implied by Gelassenheit. Still the quality of the word as an image may be useful for our inquiry into Heidegger’s picture of the appropriate human response to the call of Being. “Letting-go” or “letting-be,” allowing, permitting, not resisting, even attempting to cooperate with what is—can this really be called thinking? Is this activity at all or merely nonaction?
Various commentators have remarked on the resemblance between this kind of active nonaction and the Taoist and Buddhist ideals of harmony and detached selfless action, and others have noted the clear connection between Heidegger’s Gelassenheit and the sense in which it was employed by Meister Eckhart.33 Most important for our immediate purposes here are the associations of letting-go and letting-be both with childlikeness and with “the feminine.” It takes a childlike trust in process to surrender to the ways of the mother, and this trust is the only way to get close to her. At the same time, cooperation and harmonizing have traditionally been defined in the West as “feminine” virtues. Rather than struggling and striving, arguing and wrestling, aiming for a firm and indisputable conceptual grasp on the matter for thought, Heidegger recommends waiting, delicacy, and allowing thinking to emerge.
Such advice does not seem altogether strange to us today, and Heidegger’s influence may be one of the reasons for that. His work seems already to have helped to revise our cultural images of the doing of philosophy in the direction of greater balance between traditionally or stereotypically “masculine” modes (calculative thinking) and traditionally “feminine,” receptive modes (meditative thinking). Is it possible that the “overcoming of metaphysics” attempted by both Nietzsche and Heidegger was also an unwitting move toward overcoming the domination of philosophy by traditionally “masculine” ways of proceeding? The evidence we have examined here would seem to indicate that this is a possibility.
Heidegger has much more to say about thinking and its proper attitude toward its aim; at some points he writes of “openness to the mystery.”34 Elsewhere he says, “When we let ourselves into releasement . . . we will non-willing.”35 Being open, and willing not to will, the thinker acknowledges and submits to the power of the dominant source, as the child submits to the loving mother who gives only when it pleases her to do so, when the child has properly responded to her call.
The Nuptial Dance
At several points in the essays here under consideration, Heidegger’s imagery becomes almost frankly erotic. He describes the interactions of entities that are separate and that yet “belong together” in terms of intimacy, embrace, dance, enfolding, and betrothal. Perhaps this “erotic” theme might better be characterized as “nuptial,” for, as we shall see, there remains something slightly chaste or modest about it all. Still, the emergence of this type of language is significant in the context we are developing here. If we see that Heidegger figures the great “ungraspables” of Being and language in maternal terms, and that he then concerns himself with the ways in which the mother’s “children” might join her in her activity, it is reasonable to expect that at some point, in addition to the passivity and compliance detailed in the last section, a sense of erotic exchange might develop.
If Kristeva is correct when she suggests that “poetic language would be for its questionable subject in process the equivalent of incest,”36 then Heidegger’s language, to the extent that it is “poetic language,” brings him and the reader into erotic relation with the great mother in language, la mère qui jouit.
In the passages we shall examine here, the eros seems somewhat displaced, in two ways. First, as mentioned above, the striving and struggle of intimacy are quickly transmuted into a somewhat tamed or domesticated “nuptial” imagery; and second, the erotic “belonging” that is evoked is ascribed to entities not directly identified as Being or language, and human being. Still, it is within the overarching context of his discussions of “language” and “art” that these revealing passages occur; they show a sense of erotic exchange that may also call for some modest dissimulation.
In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger shows how the work of art both “sets up” (Aufstellen) a world and “sets forth” (Herstellen) the earth. The “world” established by a work of art, for example by the Greek temple discussed in the essay, is a context of human being and history:
It is the temple-work that first fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being. The all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this historical people.37
At the same time the work “sets forth” the earth. It moves the materials from which the work is made into relation with the world of human concern:
The rock comes to bear and rest and so first becomes rock; metals come to glitter and shimmer, colors to glow, tones to sing, the word to speak. All this comes forth as the work sets itself back into the massiveness and heaviness of stone, into the firmness and pliancy of wood, into the hardness and luster of metal, into the lighting and darkening of color, into the clang of tone, and into the naming power of the word.38
The relation between the opposed elements in the work is mysterious and yet central to the work as work. “World and earth are essentially different from one another and yet are never separated. The world grounds itself on the earth, and earth juts through world.” Relying on each other, they yet struggle with each other. “World” tries to bring “earth” into opening itself up, and earth tries to “draw the world into itself and keep it there.”39
Their relationship is thus “a striving” [ein Streit]. This translation, “striving,” may render Streit too genteel; Cassell’s German-English Dictionary translates Streit as “dispute, quarrel, wrangling,” and fifteen other terms, including “row,” “clash,” and “brawl.” To be sure, “strife” is among the options, but “striving” does seem a bit tame.
Still Heidegger himself quickly notes that Streit is not to be confused with “discord and dispute . . . disorder and destruction.” When he does specify in a more detailed way what he means by the word, the erotic overtones mentioned above begin to sound more explicitly. He writes:
In essential striving, rather, the opponents raise each other into the self-assertion of their natures. Self-assertion of nature, however, is never a rigid insistence upon some contingent state, but surrender [das Sichaufgeben: giving oneself up] to the concealed originality of the source of one’s own being. In the struggle, each opponent carries the other beyond itself. Thus the striving becomes ever more intense as striving, and more authentically what it is. The more the struggle overdoes itself on its own part, the more inflexibly [unnachgiebiger] do the opponents let themselves go into the intimacy of simple belonging to one another.40
Here I think we are justified in drawing a comparison with the erotic struggle of lovers. This passage combines “self-assertion” with “surrender,” or giving oneself up. It repudiates “rigidity” while claiming that opponents can “inflexibly” let themselves go. It talks about the struggle as intense, as “overdoing” itself, and as issuing in “the intimacy of simple belonging to one another.” It even implies that the opponent in this struggle is somehow “the source of one’s own being,” that outside of the struggle, neither is what it is, that each requires the other, the opponent, in order to discover its own nature.
Heidegger’s essay uses this language to evoke the way in which a work of art, whether temple, painting, or poem, works: how it “instigates” or “accomplishes” the striving of world and earth. It seems to me that Kristeva is after much the same end when she explores how symbolic and semiotic dispositions in language struggle with each other, oppose each other, and yet are not without each other. They exist only in relation to each other.
Perhaps Heidegger’s interest in the character of materials (the “massiveness of stone, . . . luster of metal, . . . clang of tone”) points to a way for us to understand works of art other than literary ones also in terms of symbolic and semiotic dimensions. If “world” has to do with the “destiny of human being,” with the “decisions in the destiny of a historical people,” it corresponds rather well to Kristeva’s symbolic dimension, the realm of meaning, truth, and representation. “Earth,” on the other hand, the “self-secluding,” “sheltering and concealing” quality of materiality, invisible as earth until brought into tension with world by the work,41 seems allied to the semiotic dimension.
Thus the eros in the language of the passage belongs, from one perspective, to the interaction of symbolic and semiotic dispositions. But is it not also relevant to the interaction of human being and language itself? David Krell says that the “world” evoked in “The Origin of the Work of Art” resembles Heidegger’s portrait of “worldliness” in Being and Time, while the notion of “earth” is “strange and without precedent—except perhaps for the myth of Cūra in section 42 of Being and Time.”42 He is evidently referring to the contribution of body by earth in that fable, and not to Cūra herself, whose effect we interpreted in the last chapter as a call into the semiotic dimension.
But when Krell attempts to give the reader some sense of what “earth” might mean for Heidegger, beyond what is revealed in the essay itself, he cites the Homeric hymn Eis Gēn Mētera Pantōn, “To Earth, Mother of All.” This hymn to Gaia, “allmother” celebrates her generosity and power, describes the blessed life of those whom she favors, and calls her the “oldest” and “holy goddess, bountiful divinity.”43
Here once again a goddess both reveals and conceals herself in Heidegger’s writing. If “earth” does genuinely resonate (by way of Hölderlin and the Homeric hymns) with Gaia, mother of all, then the striving between world and earth which leads to a letting go into intimacy is also the striving of the poet or artist with la mère qui jouit. Thus the poet or artist is the one who responds to the call of the mother to engage with her, to wrestle and struggle with her, to instigate the agōn between world and earth, between human projects and divine power, between the dimensions Kristeva names “symbolic” and “semiotic.”
Other passages in these essays deploy similar imagery. Perhaps most notable is a section of the essay “The Thing” where Heidegger discusses the way in which an ordinary “thing,” in this case a jug, constellates around itself the “four-fold” of earth and sky, mortals and divinities. Heidegger writes an extended lyrical meditation on this notion, of which we will quote only a few phrases here. He says:
In the gift of the outpouring earth and sky, divinities and mortals dwell together all at once. These four, at one because of what they themselves are, belong together. . . . they are betrothed, entrusted [Zugetraut] to one another. At one in thus being entrusted to one another, they are unconcealed. 44
Later in the essay, he says that each of these four elements “mirrors” the others:
. . . each of the four plays to each of the others. The appropriate mirroring sets each of the four free into its own, but it binds these free ones into the simplicity of the essential being toward one another.
The mirroring that binds into freedom is the play that betroths each of the four to each through the enfolding clasp of their mutual appropriation.45
Playing, mutual appropriation, binding into freedom, betrothal, and the enfolding clasp typify the sort of subdued erotic imagery that seems to appeal to Heidegger. This section moves into a remarkably lyrical passage describing what Heidegger calls “the round dance of appropriating.” He writes:
The round dance is the ring that joins while it plays as mirroring. Appropriating, it lightens the four into the radiance of their simple oneness. Radiantly, the ring joins the four, everywhere open to the riddle of their presence. The gathered presence of the mirror-play of the world, joining in this way, is the ringing. In the ringing of the mirror-playing ring, the four nestle into their unifying presence, in which each one retains its own nature. So nestling, they join together, worlding, the world.46
Perhaps if the striving of earth and world or of language and human being is a picture of erotic struggle, the round dance of earth and sky, mortals and divinities, celebrates the wedding of the partners.
The language of intimacy appears at yet another point, in relation to another pair of “lovers,” in “language.” Here Heidegger writes:
For world and things do not subsist alongside one another. They penetrate [durchgehen] each other. Thus the two traverse a middle. In it, they are at one [einig]. Thus at one they are intimate [innig]. . . . The intimacy of world and thing is not a fusion. Intimacy obtains only where the intimate—world and thing—divides itself cleanly and remains separated. In the midst of the two, in the between of world and thing, in their inter, division prevails: a difference.47
One might ask where this eros really belongs. We have quoted passages that show it at play in the relation between “world and earth,” between “world and things,” and among the four elements of the four-fold dance, “earth and sky, mortals and divinities.” How are all of these terms related? Is it possible to clarify in a conceptual way precisely what the various references of each of these terms are? Would such an attempt be helpful here?
More relevant to our purpose here than sorting out the conceptual relationships and distinctions among these terms is the way in which Heidegger’s later thought displays a fascination with the semiotic dimension. Many of the central passages in these essays become extraordinarily rhythmic. They rely heavily on transformations and transpositions of key words, building up patterns of sounds and images that practically force the reader away from the habitual mode of representational, metaphysical thinking, and draw him or her toward a way of reading that is ready to hear, to hear associations, relationships, hints, and suggestions that are amenable neither to proof nor to logical, rational arrangement.
We set out in this section to show that an element of erotic relation to language itself was part of the human response to la mère qui jouit, to the “feminine” or semiotic dimension in language as Heidegger seems to have experienced it. We have examined a passage relating to the striving and intimacy of “world” and “earth,” and have alluded to other sections focusing on other key terms which also demonstrate an erotic relation to one another. Yet in each essay, Heidegger is centrally concerned with the one question which continued to occupy him throughout his life, the question of Being. How may human being appropriately and satisfactorily come into relation with Being? The answer is always, in one form or another: “Through language.” This answer then becomes another mystery, or the same, to be investigated by following multiple wandering paths, experimenting with various images for the way Being allows itself to be approached and revealed.
Straying on Excluded Ground
Intimacy with the mother is not achieved simply by willing it, or even by “non-willing” it. As in the case of social prohibitions, here too the maternal domain is guarded by taboo, and to approach it is dangerous. Heidegger tacitly recognizes this throughout these essays, and his images of erotic intimacy and blissful nuptial harmony are balanced and qualified by moments of displacement, errancy, and homelessness. In order to attain an experience of the forbidden mother, a kind of exile and wandering must be endured, he seems to say. In what follows, we will examine several instances of this sort of imagery.
In “A Dialogue on Language,” the “inquirer” says: “ . . . in the field in which we are moving, we reach those things with which we are originarily familiar [anfänglich Vertraute] precisely if we do not shun passing through things strange to us.”48 In order to come close to what is “originarily familiar” or “intimate,” to “what before all else has been entrusted [zugetraut] to our nature,” we must pass through the strange. What is nearest, most intimate and entrusted (the same word which elsewhere is also translated as “betrothed”), is yet guarded by some region of strangeness, of unfamiliarity. Through this the one who wishes to reach the “familiar” must pass.
This may happen through the agency of a work of art, which can shift us out of our ordinary concerns into a new relation with what is. This shift Heidegger calls a “displacement”: “To submit to this displacement [Verrückung] means: to transform our accustomed ties to world and to earth and henceforth to restrain all usual doing and prizing, knowing and looking, in order to stay within the truth that is happening in the work.”49
Such displacement may not be necessary for all people. It is the artist or poet who seeks the mother; not all do. As Heidegger puts it: “Not all mortals are called, . . . but only ‘more than a few’—those who wander on dark courses.”50 Wandering on dark paths, not being able to see where one is going, capable only of listening for a distant echo, the poet is consigned to errancy, to not finding, to going on straying. Heidegger writes:
. . . thinking of Being is a highly errant and in addition a very destitute matter. . . . Everything here is the path of a responding that examines as it listens. Any path always risks going astray, leading astray. . . . Stay on the path, in genuine need, and learn the craft of thinking, unswerving, yet erring.51
Thinking about Being cannot “get it right,” cannot attain its object and represent it within a metaphysical framework, as though it were just any other object. Being is resistant and unavailable to such methods; the one who seeks Being must be willing to risk erring, to risk wandering and straying and not making “progress,” in order to come to a place where the silent appeal of Being may be heard.
These wanderings and errings unsettle the usual sense of identity and orientation. At one point in the “Conversation on a Country Path,” the “scientist” becomes frustrated because the images developing throughout the conversation refuse to yield conceptual clarity. He says, “With the best of my will, I cannot re-present to myself this nature of thinking.” The “teacher” responds: “Precisely because this will of yours and your mode of thinking as re-presenting prevent it.” The scientist asks (with perhaps a note of panic), “But then, what in the world am I to do?” When told “We are to do nothing but wait,” he seems to explode with the anxiety of this path of thinking that seems to have no direction, and no clear goal. He says, “Then what are we to wait for? And where are we to wait? I hardly know anymore who and where I am.” The teacher advises him, “None of us knows that, as soon as we stop fooling ourselves.”52
On the path of thinking toward Being, radical displacement is the order of the day. When one’s usual mode of grasping the world and manipulating it conceptually must be abandoned, one may lose a sense of who and where one is. Identity and orientation are so strongly linked with the usual modes of “calculative thinking” that to let oneself go into the “releasement” of “meditative thinking” may be experienced as extremely threatening. Perhaps it even bears some resemblance to the fear of being overwhelmed or engulfed by the mother; to let go of one’s hard-earned sense of self on the path of thinking toward Being is indeed a risky matter.
But it may be, according to Heidegger, the only way properly to approach the feminine “object” of thinking, and to be capable of experiencing the appropriation that can proceed from it. He writes in this same conversation that the human being is “released to [that-which-regions] in his being, insofar as he originally belongs to it.”53 Releasement is both into a radical displacement, full of wandering and erring, and into the possibility, harbored by that “not-knowing,” of experiencing the call of that to which one “originally belongs.”
Once again, the key images of Heidegger’s discourse seem remarkably consistent, although always highly resistant to conceptual ordering and analysis. They seem, over and over again, to picture human being, in relation to Being (the paradoxical object and source of thinking and saying), as a child in relation to a powerful, dominant, yet giving mother. To think is to be released, non-willing, non-grasping, waiting; thinking toys with erotic possibilities, with intimacy, embrace, and mirror-play; and it confronts the concomitant anxiety of loss of identity, displacement, and erring. Still, the mother’s silent call is audible as reward for all the distress: “As soon as man gives thought to his homelessness, it is a misery no longer. Rightly considered and kept well in mind, it is the sole summons that calls mortals into their dwelling.”54
John Caputo, in his book The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought, wonders whether, given the similarities between Heidegger’s and Meister Eckhart’s versions of Gelassenheit or releasement, one might call Heidegger a “mystic.” He concludes that the Being toward which Heidegger’s Gelassenheit is directed lacks the necessary qualifications of a religious object. While for Eckhart, God is ultimately “fatherly, loving, benevolent,” the play of Being for Heidegger is “not the play of a loving father but of an inscrutable child.”55
We are suggesting here that a third alternative is possible, and is indicated by Heidegger’s choice of images and key phrases; for him, Being is neither benevolent father nor amoral inscrutable child, but “mother,” who, while she may be “inscrutable” to metaphysical and calculative thinking, is not altogether so, if one hears her call to enter onto a straying path of thinking toward her.
Julia Kristeva, like Heidegger, talks about straying. In her introductory chapter to Powers of Horror, she describes the writer (in her terms, the “deject,” “the one by whom the abject exists”) as a “stray.”
He is on a journey, during the night, the end of which keeps receding. He has a sense of the danger, of the loss that the pseudo-object attracting him represents for him, but he cannot help taking the risk at the very moment he sets himself apart. And the more he strays, the more he is saved. . . . For it is out of such straying on excluded ground that he draws his jouissance.56
What is Heidegger’s jouissance in these later essays? Is there further evidence of his encounter with la mère qui jouit, beyond what we have explored to this point? In the next section, we will attempt further to specify the nature of the jouissance in these essays.
Over the Abyss
Heidegger’s jouissance in language shows itself in numerous ways. We have explored his images of Being and language as feminine and maternal, and his sense of the human being in relation to them as meditative, erotic, and displaced. In this section, we will briefly introduce a few of the many other evidences of jouissance discernible in Heidegger’s writing; although they seem only indirectly associated with the feminine themes noted above, they attest to an experience with language that is presided over by la mère qui jouit.
Heidegger has a sense of living in an age that “hangs in the abyss.” It is a “destitute” time, defined by the “default of God.” He awaits a turning away from the abyss, but for now, “the abyss of the world must be experienced and endured. But for this it is necessary that there be those who reach into the abyss.”57 His whole project of exploring poetic saying as a path toward Being assumes the contemporary situation of groundlessness, of suspension over a bottomless void. The poets and artists about whose work he writes, and to whom he is in many ways akin, are the ones who “reach into” this abyss, who experience and endure it more consciously, more faithfully perhaps, than the rest of us.
How is jouissance possible “over an abyss”? Heidegger proposes an image for this possibility that will come to seem characteristic of this entire way of thinking, and that offers us a way into his particular kind of jouissance. He writes: “Language is—language, speech. Language speaks. If we let ourselves fall into the abyss denoted by this sentence, we do not go tumbling into emptiness. We fall upward, to a height. [Wir fallen in die Höhe.]”58
The ability to let oneself fall into the abyss, the capability for releasement or Gelassenheit, leads to “falling into the height.” How is this possible? What does it mean? As with so many of Heidegger’s expressions, any attempt to specify it too precisely or to restate it in more logical terms lets both the sense and the mystery of his images escape. I think we can see in this “falling into the height” an awareness of the paradoxical exaltation that is available through giving up or letting go, a kind of involuntary flight resulting from leaving behind a willful, self-controlled stance.
The Swing of Saying
“Falling into the height” is also an image that is typical of Heidegger’s solution to the problem of finding a word that “speaks.” One who is trying to speak the truth of Being is always in a place of suspension, says Heidegger. In “Conversation on a Country Path,” he writes:
Thus we are and we are not [already appropriated to that-which-regions].
Again this restless to and fro between yes and no.
We are suspended as it were between the two. Yet our stand in this betweenness is waiting.59
The one who waits in the betweenness experiences a “restless to and fro,” a suspension between yes and no. The sense of “to and fro” is evoked by many of Heidegger’s most mysterious formulations, as we shall see below. His attempt to embody the jouissance he experiences in the “sway” of the mother in language leads him to develop a series of oxymoronic expressions that carry with them both sides of the relation to the mother and the oscillation or vibration between the two. The word the poet seeks is one that hums with this tension and communicates it to the hearer.
In “A Dialogue on Language,” the participants are very cautiously approaching the revelation of a Japanese name for “language.” The Japanese warns that the “surprise” which this word will bring “needs to have the possibility of swinging widely [weit auszuschwingen].” He goes on to say:
. . . the word is a hint, and not a sign in the sense of mere signification.
Hints need the widest sphere in which to swing [Schwingungsbereich] . . .
. . . where mortals go to and fro only slowly.60
This word Schwingung may be translated “swinging; oscillation, wave, vibration.”61 The word as hint rather than mere “sign” must have room in which to swing, oscillate, or vibrate. It is this oscillation or vibration that makes it capable of saying what it wants to say. The “hint” [der Wink] is another important word here, being related to the “beckoning” character of what is to be said: “[Hints] are enigmatic [rätselhaft]. They beckon to us. They beckon away. They beckon us toward that from which they unexpectedly bear themselves toward us.”62
Mortals who want to speak an appropriate word in relation to language are left hovering over an abyss, suspended in the between, ready for the vibration or swinging of a word that only hints and does not specify. We must be careful not to force the vibration (Schwingung) of the poetic saying into the rigid groove of a univocal statement, and so destroy it.63
Is it any wonder that Heidegger’s later thought resists conceptual analysis? The jouissance so tenuously attained, the delicate balance between “to and fro” or “yes and no” in Heidegger’s terms, or in our analysis between fundamentally divergent dispositions in language, between submission to the mother and displacement by her, are all fragile. When we attempt to force the “vibration” or “swing” or “oscillation” of poetic saying into a “rigid groove,” the jouissance disappears. Heidegger’s own sense of this “vibration” leads him frequently to employ oxymoronic expressions. Beckoning and “oscillating,” they frustrate attempts to force them into univocal meaning, and they convey some of the jouissance of suspension between contradictory forces in language.64
Oxymoron and Jouissance
One section of the essay “The Nature of Language” includes three oxymoronic figures, each of which aims at holding together in vibratory tension seemingly opposed ideas. Heidegger is discussing the calling of the poet as it is imaged in Stefan George’s poem “The Word.” He writes: “The renunciation which the poet learns is of that special kind of fulfilled self-denial to which alone is promised what has long been concealed and is essentially vouchsafed already.”65
“Fulfilled self-denial” is the English translation of erfülltes Entsagen, fulfilled “renunciation, relinquishment, or giving up.”66 How does renouncing become fulfilled? What is fulfilling about relinquishing or giving up? The saying is left to “vibrate” as a hint, beckoning the reader toward an awareness that defies univocal expression.
On the same page we read: “True sadness is in harmony with what is most joyful—but in this way, that the greatest joy withdraws, halts in its withdrawal, and holds itself in reserve.”67 This picture of joy contrasts strongly with the ordinary conception of it as boundless, free, and free of sadness. Here sadness is in harmony with joy, which itself retains something withdrawn and reserved about it.
Finally, in the same passage, we read another paradoxical characterization of the situation of the poet: “By learning that renunciation, the poet undergoes his experience with the word’s lofty sway [mit dem hohem Walten des Wortes]. He receives primal knowledge of what task is assigned to the poetic saying, what sublime and lasting matters are promised to it and yet withheld from it.”68 The poet submits to the “sway” or rule of the word, and receives a promise of matters which are yet withheld.
Heidegger’s imagery throughout this section seems again to attest to his sense of language as both gracious and mysterious, providing fulfillment only if one relinquishes or lets go. It causes both joy and a sadness that is essentially in harmony with joy’s “withdrawing” character, and it both “promises” and “withholds” the “sublime and lasting matters” that pertain to poetic saying. This awareness of polarities and of suspension between irreconcilable forces provides a sense of jouissance in Heidegger’s later writing, a sense of the eros or desire pertaining to the quest for the “mother,” as well as of the danger, negativity, and taboo surrounding that quest.
In the section on Heidegger’s erotic imagery (“The Nuptial Dance,” above) we quoted a passage describing how the four elements in the “round-dance of appropriating” mirror each other. “The mirroring that binds into freedom”69 was one of the most paradoxical phrases in that passage, and it too seems to belong in the category of oxymoronic expressions we are developing here. How can one be bound into freedom? Logically, at least, the terms are opposed. One is either free or bound; freedom is the absence of bonds. The sentence goes on, however: “The mirroring that binds into freedom is the play that betroths each of the four to the other. . . . ” This binding into freedom is play, a game, and a game of betrothal or entrusting. At this point, the passage seems to resonate with many associations, not only with the view of betrothal or marriage as a “binding into freedom,” but also with classic religious imagery. The discipline and commitment of religious life are said to bring a kind of freedom otherwise unattainable, paradoxical though it is.
We are reminded here of another of the apparently contradictory phrases so important to Heidegger’s expression of the relation of human being to its source. In “Conversation on a Country Path,” one of the characters says, “When we let ourselves into releasement to that-which-regions, we will non-willing.”70 How does one will not to will? If it could be said less paradoxically, no doubt it would be. It is precisely the vibration between these contraries that Heidegger is after. The vibration itself does not guarantee “success” as “poetic saying,” but insofar as philosophical discourse can evoke some of the same ambiguities that poetic discourse does, Heidegger’s paradoxical expressions seem to accomplish it.
At a later point in this same conversation, as the “Teacher” and “Scholar” engage in an imaginative dialogue, building on each other’s contributions to a particular theme, the “Scientist” interrupts with a criticism, or at least a note of caution. He says, “It seems to me that this unbelievable night entices [verführt] you both to exult [zum Schwärmen].”71 This night, which, as we have seen above, will be anthropomorphized as the “seamstress” at the end of the conversation, is here accused by the scientist of “enticing” (or “leading astray, tempting, seducing”)72 the other two to “exult.” Schwärmen may be translated “swarm, sprawl; revel, riot; rove, wander, stray; migrate.”73 Also, schwärmen von or für means “to be enthusiastic about, enthuse or rave over.” Thus the image here is of the seductive Night tempting these two to become overly enthusiastic; to rave; perhaps to stray or wander; maybe even to riot! Presumably the scientist is immune to such enticements.
The “Teacher” does not defend himself against this accusation, if that is what it is. Instead he says, “So it does, if you mean exulting in waiting, through which we become more waitful and more void.” (Gewiss, wenn Sie das Schwärmen in Warten meinen, wodurch wir wartender werden und nüchterner.)74 Nüchtern is defined in Cassell’s thus: “1. (on an) empty (stomach); 2. sober, dispassionate, temperate, moderate, calm, reasonable. . . . 3. vapid, flat, insipid, dry.”75
The “Teacher” thus agrees that he and the “Scholar” may be rioting—but soberly, in waiting; or that they are straying, but dispassionately. Perhaps they are even raving reasonably! Here again the terms seem to be diametrically opposed to one another, but needful of each other in order to keep alive the vibration or oscillation of the jouissant state of being in relation to the “mother.”
One additional oxymoronic expression describes the paradoxical requirements of jouissance: “What is important is learning to live in the speaking of language. To do so, we need to examine constantly whether and to what extent we are capable of what genuinely belongs to responding: anticipation [zuvorkommen] in reserve [in der Zurückhaltung].”76
In order to respond well to the call of language itself, human being must be capable of simultaneous zuvorkommen and zurückhaltung. Zuvorkommen means to forestall or anticipate; the adjective zuvorkommend is translated as “obliging, polite, charming, courteous, civil.” It is also offered as a German translation of “forthcoming.” In addition to holding oneself ready to be obliging, forthcoming, or anticipating, the responsive one must also practice Zurückhaltung, literally translated as “retention,” and figuratively as “reserve, caution, discretion.”
The lover of the mother must thus respond to her wishes in a paradoxical way, ready yet reserved, eager yet contained. The crucial balance between opposing forces, which is so important to Heidegger’s version of jouissance, is again evoked by this image. Many other oxymorons and examples of other tropes important to Heidegger’s style could be analyzed for their contribution to his unique thought. The figures here examined seem to point especially effectively to the suspension and doubleness characteristic of the experience of jouissance. They accomplish some of the same things Heidegger aimed to accomplish when in Being and Time he relied on long neologisms and hyphenated phrases (e.g., “Being-in-the-world”). In each case, Heidegger is experimenting with techniques for overcoming the metaphysical world-view that is powerfully embodied in and formative of ordinary language use. Both the concatenated phrases and neologisms of his early work and the “poetic saying” of the later essays are attempts to break down and break out of a calculative, grasping stance toward the object of Saying, which is so inaccessible to any univocal approach. They are all attempts to be in a position to respond to the paradoxical “peal of stillness” (das Geläut der Stille),77 and to be capable of being drawn into the “play of stillness” (das Spiel der Stille). How can “stillness” “peal” and “play”? We cannot re-present it to ourselves.