The Ghost of Heidegger and the Sex Lives of the New York Intellectuals

This is a 1969 photo of one of America's political philosopher and scholar, Hannah Arendt. (AP Photo)

Deconstruction, by Jonathan Leaf. The Storm Theater Company, at The Theater at Grand Hall (St. Mary’s Parish), March 3 through March 25. Directed by Peter Dobbins.

Jonathan Leaf’s new play Deconstruction deserves wider attention. It is an ambitious conflation of the philosophical and the personal, intertwining the personal and ideological life of the Belgian Deconstructionist Paul de Man. Along with Jacques Derrida and a few others, de Man persuaded the academy to abandon the quest for objective truth.

Every writer speaks from an agenda which has no more claim to verity than any other, and which agenda prevails is strictly a matter of power. This is a trivial thought, but de Man invoked the influence of Martin Heidegger, the most prominent 20th century Existentialist. That was appropriate in a number of ways; after de Man’s death it was discovered that he had written nearly 200 articles for the Belgian puppet government’s press during the German occupation of World War II, including some anti-Semitic ones. He had also been convicted of embezzlement in absentia by a Belgian court. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party with enthusiasm and, although he did not find Hitler quite up to his expectations, he never repudiated this vile action.

De Man was revealed to be a rotter, but the damage was done. Deconstructionism encouraged every group to devise its own narrative and assert its own will. If the Western Canon simply expressed the will to power of dead white men, then minorities of various kinds could invent their own narratives and assert their own putative truth.

Leaf’s drama encounters de Man in 1949, when the novelist Mary McCarthy aided his career. Leaf imagines an affair between the 30-year-old Man and the older McCarthy in which the former conducts himself contemptibly, using McCarthy’s influence to obtain an academic post while dumping her for a young student while she carried his child. De Man was a devotee of Heidegger, and understood his Existentialism to encourage absolute individual autonomy and egotism, and Leaf draws the connection between Heidegger’s ideas and de Man’s behavior. This is done heavy-handedly through the appearance of McCarthy’s real-life friend Hannah Arendt, who explains that the flaw in Heidegger’s system is the absence of human empathy, just the quality that the sociopathic de Man lacks.

McCarthy and Arendt were part of the circle known as the “New York intellectuals,” which is something of an exaggeration.

Explaining Heidegger to a modern theater audience is something of a challenge, and a general audience surely would have difficulty with the capsule summary that de Man’s character provides. It was effective theater in significant part due to the bravura work of Fleur Alys Dobbins, whose portrayal of McCarthy seethed and sparkled. Ms. Dobbins would have rescued a much worse play. The sexual and intellectual tension between Dobbins and Jed Peterson as de Man did its work of suspending disbelief. Hannah Arendt (Karoline Fischer) by contrast seemed an instrument of Brechtian alienation, announcing the moral of the story.

The appearance of Arendt as Angelus-ex-Machina seemed to me the least effective device in Leaf’s play. She supports McCarthy and accuses the unscrupulous de Man, offering a friendly arm for the jilted McCarthy to lean upon. Arendt confesses to an affair with Heidegger as a young student and to resuming the affair after the war, after Heidegger’s Nazi activities were known to the world. “I’m not proud of it,” Leaf’s Arendt concedes. That really doesn’t suffice. Where was the motivation for a Jewish refugee to sleep with an unapologetic Nazi? Arendt would have been far more interesting as the third in a trio of tragic figures than as the dispenser of anodyne morality.

This is a case where the facts well might have made for better drama than the playwright’s artistic license. Arendt surely understood the lack of empathy in Heidegger’s work; she was writing a dissertation on the concept of love in St. Augustine while sleeping with the married Heidegger. We know from recent academic research how dependent Heidegger was on Augustine. Augustine portrayed time as a three-fold present composed of memory, present possibility, and expectation, a concept Heidegger adopted while claiming that Augustine had only a “vulgar” notion of time. This was a lie on Heidegger’s part, and Arendt knew it, for the concept was in her dissertation before ever it found its way into Heidegger’s Being and Time.

Arendt knew what Heidegger was doing, and how much he lied about his dependence on religious sources — Augustine, and above all Kierkegaard. She chose to assist in the fraud. Why?

It seems clear that for Heidegger and Arendt, substituting philosophy for religion had become a quasi-religious obsession. The former seminarian Heidegger knew how much he depended on religious sources; indeed, the discovery of notes to his earlier lectures on a seminar on religion betrayed him to recent academic investigators. His barely acknowledged debt to Kierkegaard is now well-established. Even his drawing on Goethe, for example in the concept of Care (Sorge) as man’s Being-in-the-World or the Mephistophelian discussion of non-Being in “What is Metaphysics,” is a refraction of Ecclesiastes through Goethe’s eyes.

With tools borrowed illicitly from theology, Heidegger proposed to solve the old paradox of Being. Since Aristotle, the notion of Being has had two components, “thatness” (whether something actually exists) and “whatness” (intelligibility). As Kant said, 100 imaginary dollars have precisely the same characteristics as 100 actual dollars in my pocket, with the sole difference that they aren’t there. Philosophers understood Being as a compound of essence (intelligibility) and existence. But what makes existence intelligible? The moment we ask this apparently harmless question, we have reduced existence to an essence, and we are chasing our tails. Aquinas sought to cure this problem by resort to analogy, which only persuades people who have religious agenda to take Aquinas seriously.

Heidegger’s proposed fix involved importing from religion the issue of mortality, the boundedness of our time by the inevitability of death. In Heidegger’s own later estimation, though, Being and Time failed to accomplish its stated purpose. The disillusioned Heidegger then discovered the mad German poet Friedrich Hölderlin and purported to find in his ravings clues to Being that had eluded philosophy. The reasons for this are somewhat technical and much discussed in the secondary literature. In any case, after Heidegger serious investigation of the concept of Being recedes into obscure corners of academia. Existentialism becomes the plaything of silly Frenchmen like Sartre and Camus.

The above is hardly a proper account of the origin and end of Heidegger’s philosophy. He first proposed it as a response to problems in philosophy of science, in keeping with the program of his teacher Husserl, who in turn was a doctoral student of the great mathematician Karl Weierstrass. That is a longer discussion; suffice it to say that Heidegger’s work of the 1920s was the last great effort to propose a philosophical system consistent with the metaphysics of the Greeks and Scholastics. Heidegger is the last important philosopher we have and might be the last ever. His achievement might be to illustrate by horrible example that the paradoxes we inherited from the Greeks simply are not susceptible to solution.

I suspect that the lapsed Catholic Heidegger and the secular Jew Arendt believed in the importance of this project with the messianic fervor that seems to consume people who want to substitute something else for religion, and that is why Arendt defended and fronted for Heidegger, although she knew that he was a Nazi, a hypocrite, and a liar — most of all, a liar as a philosopher. The cause of Philosophy came first.

Arendt became a literary celebrity through her articles on the 1960 Eichmann trial for The New Yorker. It is a common (and I think a correct) criticism of Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis that she portrayed Eichmann as a little man following orders rather than a malefactor capable of great evil, because he believed that someone who truly was great (such as Heidegger) could not really be evil. For standing by Heidegger even before the Nazi official in charge of the Holocaust, she remains unforgiven in large parts of the Jewish world. She was a capable and well-informed philosopher, but eine eklige Schlampe. The enduring image of Arendt is Frau Blücher (Arendt’s married name) in Young Frankenstein, with her undiminished lust for the dead maker of monsters.

Of course, one doesn’t require of a playwright that he get the historic record down pat. Otherwise we would have neither Shakespeare’s Hal nor Schiller’s William Tell. But perhaps Arendt’s failings might have added another dimension to Leaf’s drama. He has the nonbeliever Mary McCarthy conclude the play by praying the Ave Maria. Coming at the very end, that calls attention to the religious issues whose dramatic possibility is not represented elsewhere in Leaf’s play.