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Sunday, 15 February 2015

My Valentine's Day Massacre ~or~ romantic notions I just don't find romantic (sorry)

So here are a few words on romantic BS for Valentine’s Day. Well ok, a day after Valetine’s Day, because yesterday I decided I’d rather write about Heidegger instead.

The One #1

First of all I’m not even going to give the idea that there is only one destined soulmate in the entirety of existence – who, of course, just happened to live in the same town and go the same gym as you – the time of fucking day. That’s clearly moronic. So let’s move on swiftly...

But – there is a less extreme version of “The One” theory which is much more common to find in otherwise perfectly sensible and intelligent people: The idea that in order for you to be really happy in a relationship you must find someone who is a perfect fit.

The One #2

A lady friend once asked me: “Don’t you think that’s a beautiful idea?”

And I said: “No. No I don’t. I think it’s one of the most destructive ideas in the sphere of relationships.”

Which may not have earned me any romantic brownie points but, y’know, it was honest. Which is what the ladies love. Um.

Anyway, I meant it – if you insist on a perfect fit you will never find it. You are dooming yourself to always find fault with whomever you are with, to be constantly convinced there’s someone better, more fitting, with greener grass, somewhere out there.

It’s akin (and closely related) to the insanity of a bride who insists every tiny detail MUST BE PERFECT on their wedding day – in which case, ironically, the thing that is most in danger of ruining their day is their own hyper-sensitive stress-out over the fact that every tiny detail MUST BE PERFECT. I’m sure – in fact I know – that many a promising relationship has been scuppered by the obsessive-compulsive questioning "OMG but are they The One?!" In fact, in truth, when I hear a potential partner say they believe in “The One”, in my head I substitute it with “An ideal to which I will never live up and to which I will be constantly reminded of how I fall short.” It saves any misunderstanding in the long run.

There is simply no way – no way at all – that you can spend an intensive amount of time every single day with anyone, even a “soulmate”, and not occasionally – or even often – get bored of each other, annoyed with each other, rub each other up the wrong way and need some time out from each other... in other words, notice the fractures and dis-joins between you. Relationships are never “perfect fit”, no matter how similar or compatible you are. The strongest and happiest couples I know have had to work at it, find a balance, compromise and adjust to each other, at least a little bit – the difference is, is that when you love each other, you want to do that. To some extent you make someone “The One” by your commitment to each other and your ongoing shared history.

The One #3

Which is not to deny that some people are more natural, suitable and compatible with each other. Absolutely there are couples who work and couples who just don’t, people who are automatically good together and people who just aren’t. But this is like friends – I have lots of close friends whom I would say are soulmates in one way or another, in that there is something in both of us that just clicks. But, interestingly, it tends to be a different part of my personality that each brings out – all are equally “soulmates” but all are different. It’d be a nonsense to imagine there could be a “perfect friend” that would cover all bases.

In the same way each relationship you have is different, because by the mingling of your personalities you create something unique, and that’s the joy of it. I’m afraid, when it comes to soulmates, I am very much a pluralist – I believe there are lots of people out there you could be compatible with, who have the potential to be your, ahem, “One”, and each would give rise to a different flavour of relationship. It is part of life’s rich tapestry, variety, diversity. To imagine there could be only one “right” person who fulfils every possible desire you could possibly have, seems to me just... pathological.

The One #4

Finally, to sound horribly un-romantic and pragmatic for a moment, the reasons people couple up and stay coupled up are really not just all about eternal rom-com-style perma-bliss, emotional fireworks and silly adolescent ideals – love is also about simple snug contentment, comfort and support. Being on your own is both emotionally and practically tough at times – not just lonesome, but logistically challenging when you have no one to share your burdens with, whether financial demands, personal problems or just house-hold chores. If you find someone whom, after years of living together, you still find reasonably cute, sexy, cool and interesting, whom you feel safe and comfortable with, who still makes you laugh and doesn’t do your head in (much) – well, then you have done pretty darn well.


Enough about "The One". Here are some other bullshit romantic notions:

Rules of relationships

The women’s magazine and self-help-book-style “a man should act like this and a woman should act like this otherwise your relationship is doomed” lists of rules that some over-analytical type has come up with, having read about one or two flawed psychology studies and talked about it with their awful friends.

No. Just no. Unless it’s based on thorough and extensively replicated science across cultures and generations, no. There is not any one-size-fits-all way a relationship must be. People can be very different with very different temperaments and needs, and relate to each other... differently. You must be tolerant, you must allow for this, it's the 1990s for Chrissakes. Relationships are alchemical and irrational, and you can’t force them into a single, predictable mold, no matter how much you want to nail them down and control them.

Also, call me strange, but I actually find it deeply unromantic and actually kinda disrespectful for someone to be only in love with their partner inasmuch as they can jump through a set of hoops and fit a pre-conceived template. And, as above, endlessly stressing over whether these rules are being adhered to will create problems where there were none. Cut loose.

It was/wasn’t meant to be

This makes my blood boil, probably because I’ve been told more than once by a girl that we weren’t meant to be” or that it was “fate” or “destiny” that she be with someone else.

Oh, great. That makes me feel a whole lot better, I’d think. So let me understand this right: It’s not just that you have decided you don’t want to be with me any more... no, THE FUCKING STARS HAVE ALIGNED to make sure I get dumped. Destiny has decreed that we must not be together. God Himself has cupped his hand and whispered in your ear “Yeah, bin out that loser, go off with that other guy, he’s much more dishy.”

I mean to say. Fucking rich, what?

Banging on about stuff being fated, destined, or happening “for the best” or “for a reason” is just kind of an insult to all the countless people who are shitted on, fucked over or ignored when they really didn’t deserve to be, I always think. If everything happens for a reason and everyone has a destiny, why the hell doesn’t everyone die happy and fulfilled? If life is indeed all pre-determined then, given all the pain and suffering and injustice in the world – that regularly goes un-rectified – then that’s just awful. The Greeks understood fate properly – if there is such a thing, it is not fluffy and nice, and it is not your friend – it is a terrible, terrifying thing, and responsible for endless tragedy.

Grand gestures

Finally the rom-com staple. Of course, it’s delightful when your significant other goes out of their way to do something wonderful and thoughtful and amazing for you. Of course it is.

But grand gestures are the cherry on the cake, not the be-all-and-end-all of romance. 100 slick grand gestures don’t mean someone is your soulmate, it just means they are slick and practised at this grand gestures crap, which can just as easily be hollow and manipulative as genuine and loving.

Again, call me crazy if you will, but I’m convinced real romance is not really about flashy fantasy shit like that. It’s not in the forced, showy, hoop-jumping gestures on Valentine’s Day – it is in the little, spontaneous, everyday things:

The warmth of each other’s embrace at the end of a long, tough day; the sense of fun and adventure you still get together on a night-time walk home through the park; the knowledge that even when you’re miles away, you’re still both there for each other, no matter what; the knowing looks thrown back and forth at a social gathering, when you both know what each other is thinking but don’t have to say it; all the little things you do thinking of each other, almost without thinking... You know what, screw grand gestures. True romance is not demanding or aspirational, it’s warm, open, honest, nurturing and supportive, it’s happiness and it's home. It’s your favourite old T-shirt, not your best suit.

Love is something that sparks between two flawed beings, who for some reason or another are drawn to, and chime with, each other, whether for a while or for the long term. It’s the feeling of belonging together, the sense that the other person may be a fuck up, but they’re your fuck up – that you value each other and what you’ve developed together, enough to not want to lose it or mess it up; it's the feeling that you want to face the world standing shoulder to shoulder, respecting each other as equal partners in crime, both as individuals and as an item... that’s what real love and romance mean to me.

The rest is all bullshit.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Heidegger question ~or~ what happens when an academic icon turns out to be a Nazi nut?

What happens when one of the most interesting and original thinkers of the 20th century turns out to have been a full blown Nazi?

A scandal and crisis is currently running rampant trough German philosophy departments, and to some extent the wider philosophical world, as the publication of Martin Heidegger’s notebooks from 1931 to 1948 has revealed him to be significantly more on board with the Fuhrer’s kinda thang than anyone previously realized.

The Velvet Underground of continental philosophy

Who is this Heidegger and why does it matter, you may ask – well, while he may not be a household name, his position in 20th century philosophy is unassailable. His influence on French and German thought in particular is HUGE. Well known, but never quite getting mainstream popularity, he is the Velvet Underground of continental philosophy: His legacy is in the mark he made on the big names that followed him – from Jean-Paul Sarte and his existentialism (a running philosophy joke is that Sartre’s whole career is based on a chapter of Heidegger's Being and Time) to Jacques Derrida and his deconstruction (good band name).

He was one the leading lights of the phenomenology movement, which may sound like gibberish to you, but I can assure you his ideas are still having an impact today, perhaps behind the scenes of modern life in academia, but still there none-the-less.

And besides, his philosophy is just so damn intriguing, packed with original, surprising and profound insights. He said western philosophy since the Greeks had been so concerned with knowledge and ethics and so on, it had ignored the question of beingwhat IS being, what is it to BE? He wanted nothing less than a complete overhaul of philosophical thinking – to destroy traditional metaphysics and build up a new account of existence by going back to raw experience itself. And, if you can get past his awful, over-complicated, jargon-heavy writing style, it’s far-out, revelatory stuff, with surprising parallels to eastern philosophy such as Zen Buddhism and Chinese Toaism (see here) and all that good stuff.

So, it’s doubly upsetting for me, someone who studied him intensively for over a year and found wisdom and solace in his musings, to learn that his appropriately named “black notebooks” are full of frankly nutty endorsements of the work of the National Socialist German Workers' Party.

Didn't we already know he was a Nazi?

In fairness, it should be said that none of this is out of the blue – it was known that Heidegger was a paid-up supporter of the Nazi Party from 1933 until the end of the war, and vocally endorsed Hitler and his cronies. But you kind of hoped his prolonged flirtation with fascism was kind of an embarrassing mistake, that he was caught up in the zeitgeist and swept along with the propaganda.

He was, after all, an iconoclast, wanting to sweep away the tired old order and start with a clean slate – so it’s easy to see how leaders promising the same in politics and society might have chimed with him. He is also very critical modernism in his work - modern life, modern ideas, particularly technology - and has a romantic notion of a more authentic, primordial, simpler way of being in the past. He very much sees the individual in modern society as having “fallen” from authentic being in some way, having become lost and dehumanised – so it is possible to understand why Hitler’s back-to-the-land, harking-back-to-a-forgotten-golden-age rhetoric might have appealed to the idealistic academic.

On the plus side it is known Heidegger prevented students from holding a book burning, and from displaying anti-Semitic posters, at the entrance to the University of Freiburg while he was rector, despite his ongoing support for the Nazis at the time. You hoped his silence on the matter after the war was because he was just too proud and ashamed to talk about his stupidity in backing the Third Reich. You hoped he felt a crushing sense of betrayal when it became clear the politicians he naively trumpeted turned out to be more monstrous than even their enemies imagined with the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

You also hoped whatever Heidegger’s personal politics, they did not impact on his work – his philosophy is not overtly political, it is about being in general – asking what it is for a self-aware consciousness to exist in the world, what it is to be “a being for whom its own being is an issue” – fundamentally, what are we and what is the world?

But no.

Oh dear

The black notebooks (as yet unpublished in English) apparently make it more than clear that Heidegger himself had a deep seated anti-Semitism that was deeply integrated into his philosophy. He talks of “world Judaism” as one of the main drivers of western modernity – ie everything he loathes as dehumanising us and taking us away from authentic being. Why and how exactly "the Jews" are responsible is not clear, except that Jewish communities in Europe tended to be necessarily rootless, itinerant people “divorced from the soil” (a bad thing for Heidegger) and tended to be happy to grasp the new possibilities offered by modern society. There was also a view prevalent at the time that "world Judaism" was really behind the Russian revelation, and that most threatening of modern ideas, communism.

Never mind that blaming a relatively small and peripheral ethnic minority for all the ills of the modern era is fucking ridiculous. Of all the possible roots of modernity, with all its mechanisation, exploitation, tranquilisation and alienation from authentic existence, “The Jews” is really not an obvious go-to-source. The European Enlightenment or “Age of Reason”, yes. The Industrial Revolution, yes. Free-market capitalism, the afore-mentioned communism and – FFS – fascism, absolutely. Jews? Um. No.

In “fairness” to Heidgger he does also point the finger at English, American and Soviet culture, but still – it shows he buys into the then-all-too-common paranoid and idiotic conspiracy theories about “world Judaism” of the kind espoused by Hitler in Mein Kampf, even if he pooh-poohs the Nazis’ racial angle in favour of a cultural one.


But the worst blow comes with the publication of the notebooks from after the end of the war, in which Heidegger talks about the Holocaust. In one jaw-dropping passage he appears to think it is more of a tragedy that Germany’s mission to transform the modern world – which had the potential to “save” the west – was stopped by the Allies before it could come to fruition. He sees this as a crime against history that is even greater than the genocide of six million people.

Surely, you might think, the Holocaust was the ultimate outplaying of the kind of dehumanising effect of modernity and technology Heidegger was so against - the production-line industrialisation of murder itself. But who do you think he blames for it - the Nazis he so stupidly supported? No, of course not. He blames "the Jews". Yes that’s right, they brought it on themselves – because they supported and drove the technological modern era, they are responsible for their own deaths by it. Not the Nazis who actually did it – they were simply trying to wipe out this Jewish culture of hateful modernity (that by Heidegger's own criteria they themselves took to an extreme in order to do that, but let’s not think about that). Yes, it really is bit like saying we can wipe out racism by the genocide of a racist race. Bloody racist races.


It’s not just that his views are vile – the history of philosophy is liberally sprinkled with horrible people who nevertheless had something interesting to say – it’s that they are just fucking nonsense. The fact that they are full of paranoia, hypocrisy, leaps of logic, and vast blind spots missing the obvious, casts serious doubt on his critical thinking faculties and the water-tightness of the rest of his work, which will now have to be re-evaluated in the light of this.

I mean to say, some of the translated passages of the black notebooks that have come my way read like a genteel and wordy version of the foaming-mouthed spoutings of a disgraced UKIP parliamentary candidate – if I read someone spouting this today I’d write that person off instantly as a nut, not worth wasting my time listening to. For that to be coming from someone I happen to think is among the most original and profound thinkers of the 20th century presents me with a hell of an inconsistency. How does one square this? Do I try to shrug off his more unpleasant views (surely an exercise in dishonest cherry picking)? Do I write off all of Heidegger’s thought (surely a bit baby/bathwater)? Have I woefully misjudged bonkers disgraced UKIP parliamentary candidates, who are in fact all philosophical geniuses?

All I can say is at least Heidegger wasn’t anyone’s posterboy. He never achieved the kind of hero status of the likes of Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, partly because his writing style is so impenetrable, pedantic and dull – no teenage philosophy students are scrawling Heidegger quotes such as “The projection of Dasein’s ownmost-potentiality-for-Being has been delivered over to the Fact of its thrownness into the ‘there’,” on Twitter.

Ban or study?

It will be interesting to see how the academic world deals with this. G√ľnter Figal, chair of the Martin Heidegger Society, has already resigned, stating his shock at the content of the notebooks, and that he is no longer willing to act as a representative for such a man. Those of us who always preferred Nieztsche – whose work was appropriated by Hitler and therefore is also tainted with such associations – can sit back and gloat, as our man, who died long before the Nazis and was vocally down on both anti-Semitism and nationalism in general, now looks like John bloody Lennon.

One thing I hope doesn't happen is that Heidegger will be treated like Jimmy Saville and excised from history. If nothing else that would be dishonest, since whole schools of thought with far-reaching consequences in the modern world owe a debt to him, whatever kind of beast he was - and our understanding of the history of philosophy would be poorer for skimming over him.

A ban on Heidegger would serve no one, and that is not the way philosophers do things anyway. What is brilliant about philosophy is that it doesn’t shy away from tough topics and questions for reasons of taste and decency – it delves right in. Burying and censoring things is the very opposite of the philosophical nature – rather it seeks to drag the truth out into the light, in all its ugliness and complexity, and then proceeds to dissect and debate it for eternity, to try and find out how it works, what might be going on and what the meaning and implications might be.

I suspect this is what will happen with Heidegger. If they are not already, people will soon be doing PhDs in the impact of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism on his phenomenology, or the implications of his Nazism for the work of his followers such as Satre (who, by the way, supported Stalin even after it became clear he was a mass murdering Gawd-help-us). And really, that’s the way it should be. Heidegger should not become untouchable – we simply have to handle him in a new and enlightened way.