Heidegger’s Obliteration of Place: Reading “Language in the Poem”

Brian Irwin
John Jay college of criminal justice-cuny

Volume 14, 2020

In a certain criticism of Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas adopts a slightly mocking stance toward the Heideggerian themes of place, rootedness, world, and belonging: “To rediscover the world means to rediscover a childhood mysteriously snuggled up inside the Place, to open up to the light of great landscapes, …and the delight of camping in the mountains. It means to follow a path that winds its way through fields, …the presence of the tree, the chiaroscuro of the forests…” (“Heidegger, Gagarin and Us” 231-232). You get the picture. Heidegger is always critical of universalizing philosophies, of the secure distance of representational thought, a thinking that floats above our existence in the world. But might we ask if, as Levinas suggests, he takes his own refuge in certain narratives of place? If so, he might be charged with committing an ontological closure—a denial of the openness of being that is the always-necessary condition for authentic dwelling. It seems to me that much of Derrida’s interrogation of Heidegger’s thought in Geschlecht III turns on this question.

To ask it, especially in regards to “Language in the Poem,” Heidegger’s essay on Trakl, and his later thought in general, is to concern ourselves with what language does, and immediately calls to mind his famous claim, “Language is the house of being. In its home human beings dwell” (“Letter on Humanism” 239). Is this already the snug place? Is it that being is simply linguistic, that linguistic structures determine thought, or that language alone can reveal being? Interpreters of Heidegger occasionally suggest as much.[1] But Heidegger evades such an easy reduction, for it’s rather the case that being is brought to language, and in this way comes to human beings in their projective ek-sistence. That is, the character of the human being, as he says in the “Letter on Humanism,” is “of an ecstatic inherence in the truth of being”; and the clearing of being is where humans dwell because “language is the clearing-concealing advent of being itself” (248-49). The relation between language and what it reveals is not like the crossing of a gap between representation and represented, or sign and referent; to conceive it in this way would be to treat language as theoretical or objective. This relation is rather the very realization of ek-sistence within being.

But not just any speech attains this realization. Speech is not yet saying; it is not yet language that reveals being.[2] In order to say, one must listen, be attentive to what may be revealed, and allow for language to be creatively expressed. At its limit, this becomes the task of poetry, and in fact, Heidegger says, “All reflective thinking is poetic, and all poetry in turn is a kind of thinking” (1982a, 136). To engage in poetic saying, which is “saying of world and earth” (1971a, 74) is, first, to engage in listening, to allow language to “beckon us… toward a thing’s nature” (1971b, 216). To listen keenly is to allow language to speak, and this is to speak as a poet, which is to say, this is for language to carry us beyond our conventional habits: “The more poetic a poet is—the freer his saying (that is, the more open and ready it is for the unforeseen)—the greater is the purity with which he submits what he says to an ever more painstaking listening, and the further what he says is from the mere propositional statement that is dealt with solely in regard to its correctness or incorrectness” (Ibid.). Such an unconcealing may be discomfiting, or leave us at a loss; as Pol Vandevelde puts it, it “may leave us stunned, speechless, not knowing what to say or to think” (Vandevelde 260). It decenters us, and just as place, for Heidegger, orients us according to its own configuration, language may speak in its own way, summoning us into an encounter with being. In listening to language, then, we open ourselves to the event of becoming. In this way, Heidegger says, we allow things—“plant, animal, rock and sea and sky”—to “become beings, without falling into objectness” (1999, 207). Language often hardens into sedimented habit in the mode of conventional thought, precipitating an object world, but when it draws us into the event of becoming, when it astonishes us—this is when it becomes poetic.

So it is that we find Heidegger reading Trakl, discerning in the poet’s works an event of becoming. But what sort of event is this? Derrida, who is certainly not going to fall into any reductive reading of Heidegger, knows that being is not in language but is brought forth by it. It is not the case that we’ve already arrived there in the poet’s words, then, as if the unconcealing of being were simply a matter of eloquent description. Rather, whatever of being is unconcealed, which is to say, whatever place we find ourselves oriented toward, may be approached by way of language, and indeed language may be what allows the approach, but itself is not yet arrived at in speech. Here Derrida dwells for a bit on Heidegger’s own reflections on the German word Ort, or place, which, Heidegger tells us, originally designates the tip of the spear. What is significant here is the concretization of the theme of gathering: all the power and force of the weapon converges here. As Derrida says, gathering donne lieu au lieu—it lets place take place in its “indivisible unicity” (2019, 49). An important point, though: things are not gathered into place for Heidegger; rather, place gathers. It is not simply a site of dwelling, but has a potency which draws us into inhabitation.

The Gedicht, the poem, is a place, but this place is not the language of the poem; it is the place, we might say, that summons the poetic saying by its gathering power. Being is not in language, as we saw, but being draws out language, as it were, to gather us into dwelling. The unicity of the place of the Gedicht, for a great poet, goes beyond any single poem; the whole of their poetic saying is directed at this place which itself remains unsaid—as it must, precisely because, as the summoner of language, this place cannot be reduced to linguistic expression. The Gedicht, then—the true poem—remains unspoken.[3] So, Heidegger says, “the site of the poetic statement, source of the moving-giving wave, holds within it the hidden nature of what, from a metaphysical-aesthetic point of view, may at first appear to be rhythm” (1982b, 160). To elucidate the poem, to think with it, is already to dwell, with the silence of the poet, in this place.

We can make a second pass at asking: has Heidegger retreated to a secure refuge in place in such a way as to commit an ontological closure? This time the question is not asked with respect to language, but with respect to the Gedicht, the silence of the poem, and whether the place of the Gedicht is indicated by correspondence with the poetic saying. Given Heidegger’s references to what is “silent” and what is “yet concealed” (e.g., ibid., 197), one might be tempted to imagine this place as a “secret” and mysterious place which, despite (or because of) its being beyond language allows a special kind of poetic dwelling. Here Derrida’s concern about such a place being accessible only in the German idiom would be most salient, for it would imply an unavoidably German character and identity for this place of the most profound sort of dwelling (2019, 117). By contrast, if place were simply in language, there would be no reason to consider the German idiom privileged; any language could claim an equal right to reveal being in its own terms. Only if the place is concealed, beyond language, yet granted access by way of a particular poetic saying, does the question of the primacy of the German idiom arise.

To consider whether this place can be construed in ontologically closed terms, we need to be clear about what sort of place it is. First of all, it is not simply a destination or abode for dwelling. It is fundamentally liminal—see especially how the imagery, of both Trakl’s poetry and Heidegger’s elucidation of it, is drenched in the blue light of dusk, the time between day and night. This is surely significant for Derrida, who wrote in “White Mythology,” his essay on metaphor, that a heliocentrism covertly radiates through the whole of the Western philosophical tradition. As he says there, “when we try to determine the dominant metaphor of a group which interests us because of its capacity to gather things together, then what else should we expect but the metaphor of domination augmented by that power of dissimulation which allows it to escape domination in its turn, what else but God or the Sun?” (68) This metaphor is bound up, in particular, with what Heidegger would regard as the dominant ontotheological strain in Western thought, from Plato’s allegory of the cave to Descartes’ “natural light.” Like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, who becomes drowsy in the noonday sun and only discovers the depth of the world in his nocturnal dreams (Nietzsche, 339-40), Heidegger waits for the gloaming to have us set out. And credit Heidegger with this much: he is one of the rare Western philosophers who admits shadows into his thought, including night, which is the shadow of the earth. All this Derrida would keenly note, and surely regard as not incidental, given Heidegger’s criticisms of ontotheology. And the liminality of dusk does suggest not just an eschewal of a metaphysics of the same that a heliocentric metaphor might imply, but also suggests transition and openness, whereby the osmotic quality of place may be realized.

The Gedicht is also and primarily a place of movement. We spend much of Heidegger’s essay following the stranger, fremd, and (Heidegger says) “the German ‘fremd,’ the Old High German ‘fram’—really means: forward to somewhere else, underway toward…, onward to the encounter with what is kept in store for it…” However, this is not just any movement, but a kind of searching. He writes: “The strange goes forth, ahead. But it does not roam aimlessly, without any kind of determination. The strange element goes in its search toward the site where it may stay in its wandering. Almost unknown to itself, the ‘strange’ is already following the call that calls it on the way into its own” (1982b, 163). Movement as such entails transition and change, and to that extent we are still moving toward a dwelling defined by openness and the liminal, and still resistant to an ontology of domination, an ontology of the same.

These considerations suggest that it is unfair to Heidegger if we take him to understand place as merely the benign sanctum, the cozy home, or the romantic landscape. The most profound form of inhabitation for him is poetic dwelling, and to dwell in this way is not to achieve some sort of concordance with place; this would be more akin to the modes of Dasein when it falls under the sway of the they (das Man)—a frictionless, comfortable, inauthentic existence.[4] Rather, poetic dwelling is intrinsically open to solicitations that draw language, and thus human existence, beyond itself in an ek-static movement that in principle can never be fulfilled.[5] Place in general, and the place of the Gedicht in particular, is not the site of ontological closure; it is openness itself. So far, then, Heidegger resists the charge levied by Levinas.

But here is where the analysis reaches a crucial point. For the stranger’s searching movement does have a destination—more than that, it has a destiny. It is in fact a double movement, in two directions at once, in a manner that is, Derrida notes, consistent with “an omnipresent ‘logic’ in Heidegger’s approach: what is more originary bears the future, the more originary is more to come” (2019, 144). The place of Trakl’s Gedicht is not a site, in fact, or even a domain of wandering inhabitation, but a departure—place not of departure but as departure. In the final part of his essay, Heidegger names this place: it is the “Evening Land,” the Occident, the land of a promise. We are still in the dusk, and this is the land where the sun sets, but as the land of a promise it also thereby becomes a place of dawn.[6] In the same movement the place of the Gedicht (which we now know is a departure) takes us back to a promising origin that, Heidegger says, is “older than the Platonic-Christian land” (1982b, 194) and in returning to it, we are taking on its promise; the evening land thus holds the “rising dawn of the ‘One Geschlecht’” (Ibid., 196). The relation of language to being ultimately yields a destiny, one that is superior to the destiny of urban technological civilization.[7] It is, explicitly, a spiritual destiny, and while Heidegger prefers to leave aside the possibility of reading Trakl as a Christian poet, you might wonder why he even bothers with the protestations when he goes on to write that Trakl’s poetry “sings of the destiny which casts mankind in its still withheld nature—that is to say, saves mankind” (Ibid.).[8]

So we have a land that offers a promise. In following a call, we seek out this land to dwell in it, but to dwell not by residing but be departing, in two directions at once: toward its originary nature, and toward a promised destiny. The soteriological echoes that are present in Being and Time in such themes as ‘falling’ and ‘resoluteness’ echo here again as a promise of redemption. If anything, perhaps wanting to avoid a reductive reading, Derrida underplays the Christianness of this image, which speaks at once to a lost purity and a redemptive future, so long as we follow a silent call.[9] But whether this is really Christian thinking in a guise or not, we’ve reached the decisive point: after seeking after the place of the Gedicht, what we’ve ultimately uncovered is time: a promised future, a course of destiny. This is not the time of “progress” in any of its familiar social, political, or technological tropes; but it is nonetheless a temporal movement: specifically, a “unifying movement,” as Derrida has it, of the Geschlecht. This movement, which occurs as a return that is also futural, forms a schema that is a condition for every nationalism (2019, 177). The double movement allows for not just nostalgic withdrawal, as Derrida says, but also “colonial expansion, the future as adventure of culture or colonization, the dwelling cultivated and colonized starting from new routes” (178). This is not contradictory in light of Heidegger’s temporal logic and, indeed, it is recognizable in the curious blend of nostalgia and destined unfolding not just in Nazism but in various imperialist ideologies.

With this temporality of advance, Heidegger enters into a logic that is devastating for place. This is the temporocentrism that has long characterized Western thought, and for all his keen attunement to the history of thought—maybe due to such keen attunement—Heidegger situates us, in his idiosyncratic way, within this tradition.[10] The effect is to subordinate place to a narrative of destiny, and thus to admit all the perils of utopianism. Utopia, of course, has the double connotations of eu topos and ou topos—the good place that is also a non-place. It isn’t just that utopia is unachievable, but that the very orientation toward an ideal future is hostile to the particularity of place. That’s because, insofar as it is essentially futural, a place of destiny, it necessarily lacks the texture and depth that makes for a place of dwelling; for if it had this texture and depth, it would no longer be a place of destiny but a place with a past, marked by the habits and practices of its inhabitants.[11] For all his attention to dwelling and the particularity of the place of the Gedicht, Heidegger’s vision is ultimately a utopian one.

None of this would be troubling if the Gedicht did not offer a call to destiny. We could accept that language is summoned by what is silent, beyond language, and yet cannot be heard without language, and that in this summoning is the linkage between language and place. We could even allow that the particularity of the German idiom is necessary to hear the particular call to which Trakl is attuned. Such may be the nature of any particular poetic hearing, and this would only lead us to celebrate the variety of languages which allow for a wild profusion of poetic possibilities, a boundless heritage beyond the mastery of any single human or even any single people—even the basis of a pluralism, perhaps. But because the place of the call is the Occident, and the destiny is that of humankind, we exceed the particularity of the idiom in a universalism that nonetheless seeks to ground itself in a particular landscape. Even in this purported rootedness, the Gedicht breaks free to become not a place but a movement of time.

This movement recalls the Native American philosopher Vine Deloria’s account of the difference between Native and European thought. It is the difference between thinking in terms of space and thinking in terms of time. Deloria writes:

Western European peoples have never learned to consider the nature of the world discerned from a spatial point of view… The very essence of Western European identity involves the assumption that time proceeds in a linear fashion; further it assumes that at a particular point in the unraveling of this sequence, the peoples of Western Europe became guardians of the world. The same ideology that sparked the Crusades, the Age of Exploration, the Age of Imperialism, and the recent crusade against Communism all involve the affirmation that time is peculiarly related to the destiny of the people of Western Europe [and the United States]”.

(God is Red 62)

Western religion, meanwhile, has resolved the incredibility of its narratives by “secularizing itself. Instead of working toward the Kingdom of God on Earth, history becomes the story of a particular race fulfilling its manifest destiny” (Ibid., 68). The linearity of time, the Eurocentric guardianship of the world, the secularization of a thought that has historically been deeply entwined with Christianity—it is all there in Heidegger’s reading of Trakl. The remarkable paradox in Heidegger’s thought is that the destiny he invokes is carried forward through place itself, through the particularity of landscape.

So it is that in his reading of Trakl’s poem “Grodek,” the dead bodies strewn about on the battlefield are, as Caputo puts it, “not to taken [sic] as so many dead soldiers but as an event in the history of Being, which is something greater and more essential” (2001, 162). The battlefield as a place is tragic, awful, wretched, rent by violence and stained by death. The battlefield as a historical event is heroic, awesome, worthy, sanctified by blood spilled in the name of a cause. It is not Trakl who gives to us the latter reading, but Heidegger.[12] It is not the poet who subordinates place to a temporal narrative, but the philosopher who does so, notwithstanding all the attention he gives to the importance of poetic saying and of place. In this sense Heidegger manifests, in one of its most sophisticated forms, the temporal orientation that defines the West and that, as Deloria has it, is implicated in the violence that the West has inflicted on place—and on that great endless congeries of places we call earth.

The landscape of “Language in the Poem”—a place of forests and streams, blue light and wild game—is closed finally, not because it is the snug place Levinas mocked but because the narrative Heidegger draws out of it obliterates place. What Derrida finds, in the end, “is that the most continuous great logic of philosophy, the one that presupposes an exteriority of essence and accident, pure and impure, proper and improper, good and evil, this great logic remains at work in Heidegger.” For all of the “powerful deconstructive movements in Heidegger against the great logic of Hegel” (2019, 123) he ends up recapitulating the old Western narrative, the one in which humans, granted simple harmonious existence on the earth, fall from this benign state into ignorance and discord, and yet are offered the possibility of a redemptive future.

Would it have been possible for Heidegger to have simply dwelt in place poetically, without the obliterating temporal leap? Some commentators on Heidegger, including Dreyfus and Caputo, have noted the theme of Gelassenheit, or a serene sort of letting-be, that gains prominence over the course of his writings (Being-in-the-World 339).[13] Whereas a certain stoic individualism prevails in Being and Time, manifest in the “virile hero” of resoluteness, as Caputo puts it, the thought of Gelassenheit “has renounced the posture of mastery, domination, and violence, in order to let the world, the gentle worlding of the world, come to pass.” Following Fred Dallmayr (200ff), Caputo suggests that such a thought “embraces a non-Western possibility that at least provides an opening for breaking the grip of Heidegger’s Greco-Eurocentrism, …[and] opens up a considerably more welcoming and receptive, more prayerful and less warrior-like relation to the world” (2001, 160). Such a theme is amenable to place as the milieu that draws us into attuned dwelling.[14]

It is tempting to imagine Heidegger’s thought following this line, fulfilling the possibility that is suggested in his invocation of Gelassenheit. Suppose the dusk into which the stranger walks in Trakl’s “Evening Land” were to be taken as a moment of a landscape, a manifestation of a place where time is not a transcendent bond between an originary past and a destined future, but is rather identical with the processes of change that define any living place in its temporal openness. This openness would be intensified in the dusk, an ephemeral moment of transition in which the way the landscape discloses itself undergoes its starkest shift, elements of day and night meet as the shadow of the earth rises up through the undergrowth and the trees, and its animal inhabitants turn active or dormant as their nature demands. A spirit of Gelassenheit would let this temporal passage be; it would allow for a receptivity to the unfolding of place in its singularity.

To fulfill this thought would have required Heidegger to really accept the solicitations of place, taking it as it is, not as a symbol. The language of the poem would not draw one into a transcendent historical narrative but would respond instead to the gathering power of the place itself. The former movement necessarily demands an anthropocentric orientation that reduces place to a stage for human projects and meaning-making; the latter would put place at the center. We would not orient ourselves in place; place would orient us. Such a way of thinking would be not logocentric but lococentric. This means it would take humans as belonging to place. Perhaps the blue light of dusk would not, then, speak to a human destiny in linear time but would draw us into the cyclical temporality that defines any place under the sun and the moon. The potential for such a reading is already there in Heidegger, in such themes as Gelassenheit and poetic dwelling. This latent potential in Heidegger’s thought points in an ecological direction; it has in fact motivated much of the eco-phenomenological literature.[15]

But it is as if Heidegger could never fully give himself over to this potential in his own writing. He never can, finally, let things be. Perhaps he felt it would mean too great a sacrifice, to abandon the hope and purpose that a world-historical destiny bestows. Whatever the case, the dusk is not taken as a moment of a landscape but as a symbol of something more abstract—a teleological history of the West. As we saw above, attunement to poetic saying is attunement to place—to the place of the Gedicht. But language is not always poetic saying, and it has the capacity to obscure as well as to disclose, to launch us into abstract conceptualizations that overrun the landscape as well as return us to attuned dwelling in place. Ultimately, Heidegger succumbs to this fate: for all his efforts at listening and hearing, at being receptive to how the world discloses itself, at the last moment, as it were, Heidegger dissolves this attuned experience of place into the flow of a transcendent historical narrative. If place gathers, if it draws us into inhabitation, then on Heidegger’s reading the place of this poem, Trakl’s Gedicht, paradoxically draws us out of place, into a destiny. It is the same paradox that generally defines Heidegger’s treatment of place: a remembrance of its importance that is ultimately lost to oblivion.

A final question, or set of questions: what sort of political possibilities are raised by such a reading? Would the fulfillment of lococentric thought offer an escape from the baleful ideologies that are so often predicated on a utopian narrative? Or would centering place in our thought engender its own typologies (topologies?) of nostalgic sentiment, erasure of the other, even utopianism?[16] More broadly, what might an ethics of place look like, and could it serve as a sufficient ground for a politics?[17] From reading Heidegger, we can see an opening toward such questions, even though he, himself, never did arrive at them. We have to go beyond Heidegger’s obliteration of place, then, if we are to ask these questions ourselves. Yet given Heidegger’s incomparable thinking of place, we will, inevitably, have to pass through him as well.


01. I would disagree with the claim, made for instance by John Caputo, that being is language. (Caputo 1983, 672).

02. “To say and to speak are not identical. A man may speak, speak endlessly, and all the time say nothing. Another man may remain silent, not speak at all and yet, without speaking, say a great deal” (1982a, 122).

03. “Das Gedicht eines Dichters bleibt ungesprochen” (Derrida 2019, 54).

04. See Heidegger 1962, esp. sec. 38 (219-224) and sec. 68c (396-400).

05. That is, since language never fully “arrives at” that which draws it out, it always leaves room for further expression; poetic saying is never completed once and for all.

06. Hence: “The land of descent is the transition into the beginning of the dawn concealed within it” (1982b, 194).

07. “The cities already have their destiny. It is a destiny other than that which is spoken ‘beside the greening hill’ where the ‘spring storm sings,’ the hill which has its ‘just measure’ (128) and is also called the ‘evening hill’ (143)” (1982b, 196).

08. In Of Spirit, Derrida ventriloquizes a self-defense for Heidegger here: Heidegger could claim that “in affirming that Trakl’s Gedicht—and everything I say along with it—is neither metaphysical nor Christian, I am opposing nothing, especially not Christianity, nor all the discourses of the fall, of malediction, of the promise, of salvation, of resurrection… I’m simply trying, modestly, discreetly, to think that on the basis of which all this is possible” (111), though this turns out to be so accommodating to his theologian interlocutors (also voiced by Derrida) that they have no difficulty accepting it.

09. Again in Of Spirit, Derrida is less generous: “Right down into the detail of what I shall dare to call the explication de texte, or at any rate the elucidation… the gestures made to snatch Trakl away from the Christian thinking of Geist seem to me laborious, violent, sometimes simply caricatural, and all in all not very convincing… It is with reference to an extremely conventional and doxical outline of Christianity that Heidegger can claim to de-Christianize Trakl’s Gedicht” (108).

10. On temporocentrism in Western thought, see, e.g., Casey, 6-8.

11. I elaborate on this argument in the context of the built environment in Irwin (2019).

12. Much hinges, in Heidegger’s reading, on the line “O prouder sorrow!” in a poem that otherwise depicts a purely miserable scene. Given that the poem is written in memory of a battlefield of World War I, the most tragically absurd and pointless of wars, the line could at least as readily admit an ironic reading.

13. See also Davis.

14. See, for instance, Heidegger’s discussion in the “Memorial Address” published in Discourse on Thinking, where he argues that Gelassenheit would “grant us the possibility of dwelling in the world in a totally different way” and “promise us a new ground and foundation upon which we can stand and endure in the world of technology without being imperiled by it” (1966, 55).

15. See, for instance, Foltz; McWhorter and Stenstad; Storey.

16. Levinas (232) voices such concerns, though by now we can see that it is not Heidegger’s fealty to place but his betrayal of it that is most concerning for us.

17. Concerning the ethics of place, Native American philosophy is again relevant: see, e.g., Deloria (chapter 16) and Basso.

Works Cited

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