Sep. 26, 2011

September Visitors

by David Budbill

I'm glad to see our friends come:
talk, laughter, food, wine.
I'm glad to see our friends go:
solitude, emptiness, gardens,
autumn wind.

"September Visitors" by David Budbill, from Happy Life. © Copper Canyon Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Martin Heidegger (books by this author), the German philosopher and literary critic who has been called one of the most original and seminal thinkers of the 20th century as well as "a purveyor of literal nonsense," was born on this day in 1889 in Messkirch, Germany. His was a lower-class family, his father a sexton, and it has been frequently noted that Martin Heidegger is the only philosopher of his century to have been of purely peasant stock.

Heidegger began his college education as a Jesuit novice, but he was ultimately rejected as a seminary candidate presumably due to health reasons and what he would later call a psychosomatic heart condition. He finished at a university in Freiburg, where he read in theology, mathematics, and philosophy. Following the completion of his dissertation, Heidegger got married in 1917, joined the German army where he thrived but was soon discharged for health reasons, had two children, and began teaching.

Through World War II, Heidegger was a keen supporter of what he called the "inner truth and greatness" of the Nazi movement, declaring that the philosophy of history had led him to follow it. Following the war, he was forbidden by the French occupying forces in Germany to teach for six years, until a tribunal ruled him a Nazi-sympathizer only and he was allowed to return as a limited lecturer at Freiburg.

Heidegger refused to recant his sympathy for Nazi philosophy or repent of his party membership, and in the 1950s, he was still reprinting lectures he'd given in the 1930s on the greatness of the Nazis, once telling a former student that he was not going to indulge in the "luxury" of apologizing for himself. Whether Heidegger had been merely opportunistic, a run-of-the-mill racist — he was apparently given to racist remarks — or a fully committed Nazi is still a matter for argument, and it is no surprise that the extent to which Heidegger's philosophy and written works involve Nazism is still controversial.

Heidegger's main philosophical interest was ontology — the study of being. His most important work, the 1927 Being and Time, asks the fundamental question "What is it, to be?" explaining that to even ask the question implies that at some level the answer is already understood, exploring the objects and artifacts that have come to humanity from the past, and dissecting the experiences of angst and mortality.

Part of Heidegger's philosophy was the belief, commonly held by many other philosophers of his century, that "technological nihilism" — the rejection of all moral and religious principles through the ubiquity of technology — was a threat to the continuation of humanity. To counter this, in later years Heidegger turned his focus to poetry, seeing it as "the establishment of Being by means of words"; science, for Heidegger, was an "emasculation of the spirit," but poetry revealed the fundamental conditions on which all manner of things, including all other art and communication, are possible at all.

Because of his dealing with themes such as the end of human existence, death, nothingness, and authenticity of experience, many have come to associate Heidegger with existentialism, and his influence is certainly seen in the work of French existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre. Heidegger, however, resisted the existentialist label.

To avoid misleading conclusions and implications in his work, Heidegger invented a unique, meticulous vocabulary for Being and Time, which coupled with his formal and archaic prose has made him quite a cryptic read — his style is famously contorted. Here, for example, are two sentences from On Time and Being: "It has not been demonstrated that the sort of thing which gets established about the Being-present-at-hand-together of the changing and permanent when one takes time as one's clue, will also apply to the connection between the 'in me' and the 'outside of me.' But if one were to see the whole distinction between the 'inside' and the 'outside' and the whole connection between them which Kant's proof presupposed, and if one were to have an ontological conception of what has been presupposed in this presupposition, then the possibility of holding that a proof of the 'Dasein of Things outside of me' is a necessary one which has yet to be given, would collapse." Reading Heidegger, as Professor David Waddington of Concordia University writes, "is a lot like trying to steer a ship through a dense fog."

The poet Thomas Stearns Eliot, better known as T.S. Eliot (books by this author), was born on this day in 1888, in St. Louis, Missouri, where he spent the first 18 years of his life.

As a young man, Eliot was intelligent, hard-working, and intellectually eclectic. And as an undergraduate at Harvard University, he managed to finish both his undergraduate work and master's degree in just four years. At college, Eliot began writing poetry and was something of a dandy — an Anglophile with a personal style of fussy, studied carelessness; his personality witty and precise and his speech free of slang or preciousness. Eliot finished his education as a graduate student at Harvard, studying philosophy under visiting professor Bertrand Russell and completing his Ph.D. thesis in 1914.

Before defending his thesis, Eliot took advantage of a travel scholarship to Germany, followed by a year at Oxford University in England that turned into the rest of his life. The outbreak of World War I prevented him from returning to complete his doctoral defense, and without a Ph.D. in hand, Eliot could no longer consider securing a teaching position with a university and so turned his intention to poetry, editing, and writing essays.

In England, Eliot became acquainted with the American expatriate writer Ezra Pound, who became Eliot's devoted mentor and a sensitive critic of his work. Eliot shared with Pound a long poem he'd begun in college and finished three years before, which Pound critiqued and then encouraged Eliot to publish. Eliot did, and in 1915, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was published in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, launching Eliot into the midst of literary modernism.

That same year, at a dance in London, Eliot was introduced to the pretty, vivacious English governess and writer Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Eliot was repressed and shy and Vivienne seemed to jolt him. After just three months, the two were wed in a register office, completely ill-prepared for life together and with no idea how or where they would live.

Eliot's former professor, Bertrand Russell, generously offered to help the young couple and the Eliots first settled into Bertram Russell's flat in London, Russell giving his financial support as well as introducing Tom to other writers and intellectuals, helping the young poet establish a place with the British intellectual set and even bankrolling the pair for a time after they'd moved out.

Almost immediately after marrying, the Eliots discovered they were incompatible, and it seems that Mrs. Eliot began an affair with her husband's former professor, Bertrand Russell, which Mr. Eliot either tacitly condoned or about which he remained remarkably obtuse. The strain of the Eliot-Russell triangle took its toll on the couple, most especially Vivienne, and Tom found proximity to his emotionally messy wife to be extremely vexing and responded by withdrawing even further.

Eliot continued publishing, establishing himself as a critic in the 1920s with a series of articles for the Times as well as his essay collection Sacred Wood. In 1921, exhausted from poor health and suffering from overwork and increasing marital difficulties, Eliot had a nervous breakdown, took a break from his day job, and went to a sanatorium to recuperate. It was there that he finished his next masterpiece, The Waste Land, which in a line from Dante's Divine Comedy, he dedicated to Ezra Pound — "the better craftsman." The Waste Land drew from a wide range of literary modes taken from many of the writers Eliot admired: Dante, Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Elizabethans and Jacobeans and metaphysical writers like Donne; it was juxtaposition and contrast, modern but reflecting archaic aesthetics, and was considered by conservative reviewers to be some kind of literary hoax. The Waste Land called on everything from jazz and nursery rhymes to bits of foreign languages and footnotes, reproducing in both its form and content the jumble of the modern world that Eliot was attempting to describe.

The Eliots' marriage continued to deteriorate. Vivienne Eliot had long been plagued by ill health, from a childhood tubercular infection in her arm that required repeated surgeries to menstrual troubles that caused her great embarrassment as well as migraines, mood swings, and fainting spells. Before her marriage, her mother had intervened and sought treatment for the worst of her daughter's problems and Vivienne was dosed with sedating bromides, probably indicating she'd be diagnosed with hysteria — the common term of the day for "difficult" woman. Vivienne's emotional health was clearly strained, and by the 1930s Virginia Woolf, who was part of the Eliots' social circle, was quoted in a T.S. Eliot biography calling Vivienne a "biting, wriggling, raving, scratching, unwholesome, powdered, insane, yet sane to the point of insanity ... bag of ferrets" that Tom wore around his neck.

The anxiety within his marriage was more than Tom could apparently bear and, in 1933, while on an extended visit to the United States, he began the process of legal separation, dispatching his solicitor to draw up the required documents, take them to Vivienne, and also break the news to her. Although he never actually divorced her, from that time Tom's overriding desire would be to avoid all contact with his wife and to sever all connection to the life he had shared with her. Vivienne, for her part, refused to accept Tom's desertion. She grew panicky and depressed, and frantic to appear emotionally stable while her behavior by turns only became more bizarre, until 1938 when she was found wandering London at five o'clock in the morning, confused, apparently asking passersby if her husband had been beheaded. Vivienne's brother had her committed to an institution, where she spent the remaining decade of her life.

For his part, Tom continued to work as an editor and publish work — poetry, essays, and drama — and won both the Nobel Prize in literature as well as the Order of the British Empire in 1948. In 1957, Eliot remarried, and on January 4, 1965, he died of emphysema and his ashes taken to rest in the English village from which his ancestors had long ago emigrated to America.

Today is the official European Day of Languages, which is a yearly event begun in 2001 to celebrate human language, encourage language learning, and bring attention to the importance of being multilingual in a polyglot world. On this day, everyone, young or old, is encouraged to take up a language or take special pride in his or her existing language skills.

There are about 225 indigenous languages in Europe, which may sound like a lot but is only 3 percent of the world's total. Children's events, television and radio programs, languages classes and conferences are organized across Europe. In past years, schoolchildren in Croatia created European flags and wrote "Hello" and "I love you" in dozens of tongues while older students sang "Brother John" in German, English, and French. At a German university, a diverse group of volunteer tutors held a 90-minute crash course in half a dozen languages, like a kind of native-tongue speed-dating, groups of participants spending just 15 minutes immersed in each dialect until the room was filled with Hungarian introductions, French Christmas songs, and discussions of Italian football scores.

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