Dr. Heidegger, the adjunct lecturer, lived in a rented room on a back courtyard off the Friedrichstrasse, above a brothel, and one can say that he kept an open house.
At the age of seventeen, with a high-school diploma in his pocket, Heidegger had fled the parental spinning mill in a valley in the Swabian Alps with only two goals in mind: to exchange that provincial fustiness for the big city, and to learn languages. First, however, he had to get himself exempted from military service and slog through two semesters in Heidelberg and another two in Halle before reaching Berlin, there to complete his studies in Romance languages and philosophy, to which he had in the meantime become addicted.
He passed the qualifying examinations in 1909 and received his doctorate summa cum laude shortly thereafter with a dissertation on the philosophical interchange between Voltaire and Frederick the Great. Despite Heidegger’s—to put it mildly—unconventional views and bohemian lifestyle, his professors sought to launch him on an academic career.
At twenty-seven, he had jet-black hair, the olive skin one sometimes encounters in the Alps, and a lovely mustache with curled-up ends. He looked more like a gigolo or an Argentine tango dancer than the professor he in fact was, despite all appearances to the contrary.
To be sure, he also danced the tango and of course waltzed as well. Like a god in both cases, a god from Buenos Aires or from Vienna, and if he rented rooms above a brothel, it was not just to save money. He had little enough of that, to be sure, for it was taking him some time to find a permanent position, so in his early years in Berlin, Heidegger supported himself with lecture fees and tutoring. His Swabian family behaved like a Swabian family: since Heidegger senior’s only male heir had gone astray and denied him the satisfaction of adding “and Son” to the company name, he was stingy.
Contrary to all academic convention, the young PhD had already published his first book the previous year, that is, in 1913. And contrary to all academic convention, it dispensed completely with footnotes and bibliography and was published by a firm specializing in belles lettres. That was the only reason, too, why the book didn’t put an end to Heidegger’s academic career before it had even begun. It allowed the gentlemen in authority, who despite everything still thought very highly of the young man, to turn a blind eye to the slim volume and dismiss it as a “novel” although its title was Philosophical Impromptus and in seven short chapters or essays (the entire opus was just barely a hundred pages long) already contained in a nutshell Heidegger’s entire future oeuvre.
The chapter titles were “The Taste of Life,” “L’horreur du domicile,” “On Walking,” “In Praise of the Coffee House,” “Public Gardens,” “On Dance,” and “Mozart.”
If it’s true that every philosopher with a new idea also expresses it in a new language, then the success of the Philosophical Impromptus (5,000 copies sold in its first year alone) must be attributed to its originality of thought, for the author’s German possessed an elegance and lightness never before seen in this kind of work. Heidegger wrote a German that telephone operators and office workers not only understood but enjoyed. Amid the grins and laughs the young philosopher elicited from his readers, the truths he had to convey were slipped in like a sugarcoated pill. “Why should I make things more complicated and hard to understand than they are for me?” he once asked. His critics, or some of them, were quick to requite his “philosophical capriccios in the style of Heine” with spitefulness: he took nothing seriously, they said, especially not philosophy. And in fact, he didn’t, or at least he wrote that he was unable to take philosophy as seriously as he took life. The critics called him “un-German,” a “ladies’ philosopher.” “How can a work that minces along like a French dancing-master be deeply thought-out?” He took these comments as compliments. The first chapter, entitled “The Taste of Life,” was his longest and most profound essay. Its key sentence was, “The strawberry tastes like a strawberry the way life tastes like happiness.”
What he meant was approximately as follows: in and of itself, human existence is positive, whether or not it is also self-reflective. Travel, wealth, and love are not what make us happy. Existence as such is happiness, the very flesh of life. The sun is good; the rain is good. Seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting—all are aspects of happiness. But sadness, pain, and weariness also possess the taste of life. Being itself is not better than anything else, but simply good, since it is everything that exists. We are not condemned to live, we lust to live. We want to touch the world, the essence of life. The decisive thing about all this is the temporality, transience, and mortality of all existence. Only a daily memento mori, the bitter awareness of brevity and inherent mortality, leads to the insight that a keen love of existence is the only choice open to us.
What is needed is to struggle free of the dreamy state of hoping and believing (which only results in falsity and disappointment) and toward the state of knowing and loving without illusion. Pain and joy, world-weariness and lust for life—it all goes together and constitutes the taste of existence, of happiness. That is what we are trying to achieve even in suicide, which is not a flight from the world but only the final, desperate attempt to find happiness somewhere else.
This is an approximation of what the first essay said.
Already evident, and an anticipation of the late Heidegger, especially of his great work on society and civilization, was his aversion to obscurity, pathos, and any kind of excess. He rejected the Romantics and their emotional attachment to the Middle Ages, German forests, and homey village life. For him, all of that led directly to the bloodthirsty barbarity of the Wars of Liberation. “The very fact that a wild man like Arminius could become a folk hero and model German shows how low a modern civilization can sink,” he wrote.
He was against the cockeyed bathos of the Expressionists as well, against distortion of any kind. The very idea of distorting things before you’ve even taken a good look at them! Their soulful blather about the Last Things and the Twilight of Gods and Mankind!—He recommended valium and a trip to London. If they could just once see how politely Londoners queued up at a bus stop, we’d all be better off.
In another essay he used walking as an example and wrote about mankind’s nomadic instincts, which had originated in migration. Those instincts were to be discovered both in myths like Cain’s hatred of Abel and in such everyday phenomena as the fact that a baby stops crying the minute its parents pick it up and begin to walk forward. Here, by the way, Heidegger knew whereof he spoke from personal experience, for at twenty-two he had already fathered an illegitimate daughter whom he took for Sunday walks in the Tiergarten.
The chapter on public parks and gardens, on the other hand, was a meditation on the course of civilization. “In a park, as perhaps nowhere else, the inhabitant of the city becomes aware that he has in fact cut the ties that fettered mankind to the soil.”
Finally, in the closing essay on Mozart, Heidegger contrasted that composer’s graceful, perfect balance between happiness and mortal fear—a precarious point of rest that represents both an apex and an end point—with his successors’ erratic attempts to continue on from there. The best they could come up with was to increase the quantitative aspect of music and then try to justify it theoretically and ideologically.
On this midday at the beginning of July he was sitting among the prostitutes in the brothel’s canteen—yes, it was a German brothel as well as a large one and had its own canteen in which the employees exchanged some of their wages for meal vouchers. Heidegger was a frequent customer and so his presence was tolerated. He was sitting, then, at one of the canteen tables, cutting up his croquette with a fork while reading a letter from a friend that had arrived in the midday mail.
I’ve been back from my trip for almost a week and you can judge the extent to which I’m already up to my neck in daily affairs again by the fact that I haven’t even come to see you yet. I don’t need to tell you how depressed I am by the inexorability of the political situation. There’s something absurd about it, especially for someone like me who has just traveled through all the countries with whom we will soon be at war and has made friends there. No arguments, however intelligent, can make it appear to me rational or necessary.
Outside the office, I’m living a bit like a peasant, but a lazy one, for I go to bed at sunset but do not usually get up at sunrise. You can see, my dear Heidegger, that your Klein is no longer the fanatical swot and worker he was as your pupil . . . Yet he hopes to become so again soon under the benevolent influence of his teacher.
Business is going quite well, but you know that business is not my ideal and I think I won’t really be happy until I can expand my activities. Where all this will lead and to what purpose are questions I ask myself each evening and to which only you can provide intelligent answers.
What about coming to supper this evening? Just the two of us? It has been so long since we’ve seen each other, so please say yes. According to my calculations, this letter should reach you about noon. As soon as it does, give me a call at the bank, then come join me in my hermit’s cell. Shall we say at eight?
Yours as always”
Heidegger folded the letter with a smile and asked Gisela, who was sitting next to him and sulking, to pass the mustard. As she silently pushed it toward him, he noticed her black eye.
“Gustav?” was all he needed to say. He knew that one word would suffice to open the floodgates. And indeed, words poured from the girl as from a burst water bag. She cursed, cried, and snuffled, and it did her good. Heidegger needed only to nod, raise his eyebrows, interject an occasional “He did?” or “Really?” and give her a fraternal pat on the familiar thigh. Meanwhile, he could think about the tall, blond youth who was almost as old as he and came from the other southern range of hills and mountains. A few years ago, when he himself was still a student and working as a tutor, the lad had knocked on his door with hungry eyes. He was a lowly bank teller determined to pass the high-school equivalency exam while continuing to work full-time. Heidegger had not thought that Klein would be able to summon up the energy necessary for such a task, but the tall, blond young man possessed vitality and such a ferocious work ethic that he overcame all material obstacles. He had passed his exam and become a friend. They took walks together, rode bicycles, and Heidegger arranged for a professional of his acquaintance to gently deflower the unbelievably inhibited lad. Today, without the slightest bit of envy, he was delighted by Klein’s financial success, though neither of them overvalued it.
They had arrived at a formulation that later found its way into the Philosophical Impromptus: “Success is almost as bitter as failure. Everything is vanity. That is the only truth. We must replace longing with knowledge. Knowledge is more bitter, but has the taste of life.”
Heidegger did not know in which direction Klein intended to expand his activities nor what advice to give him. Perhaps this was not even the moment to be giving anyone long-term advice. What he did know was that he would ride out to Charlottenburg that evening to see his friend. They would play dominoes, smoke a good cigar, and enjoy the quiet happiness that exists between friends like a calm sea.
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