Heidegger, at the centre of the photo, in the era of Nazi academia. Image Source: Le phiblogZophe.
Two paths diverged in the wood. I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. In 2014, the private notebooks of German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) - muse of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida and Hannah Arendt - saw print. The publication of the so-called Black Notebooks confirmed that Heidegger's philosophy grew out of support for the Nazis and an essential anti-Semitism. Oceans of ink have been spilt over what Heidegger meant by Dasein, or Being-in-the-World (his union of subjective, objective and conscious perspectives with the world at large), but this elaborate existential debate completely misses the historical context which informed Heidegger's thought. Heidegger associated his cherished idea of Authentic Existence with the values of agrarian Europe. For the German philosopher, rootless Jews were part of a new, supranational world of corporate industry, banking and trade. Jewish precursors of globalization contributed to an inauthenticity of being, a life whereby everyday people, distanced from the soil, became phantom slaves in a technology-driven world that destroyed traditional culture.
It is too simplistic to dismiss Heidegger's thoughts on being and time as aspects of the Nazi narrative. But it is also wrong to say that his ideas can be read separately from their Nazi context. Heidegger was in the same ballpark, and that demands a serious reappraisal of his ideas.
In building their Aryan mythology against the Jews, the Nazis ironically appropriated the Hebraic concept of scapegoating. The scapegoat was originally an early Archaic, pre-Classical improvement (dating from around the seventh century BCE) on the sacrificial rites of other ancient societies. Scapegoating, a mental gambit which is alive and well today, occurs when one projects one's sins onto a goat and sends it off into the desert to die; this leaves one free from blame and responsibility, and able to get on with life without feeling guilty for one's wrongdoings.
The Nazis had a love-hate affair with modernization. In part, they were extremely advanced, yet their advancement demanded a scary divestment of older agrarian views which they held dear. In the assimilated Jews of Europe, they found an easy scapegoat for the angst and moral inconsistencies which arose from going too far, too fast.
The conflict between an embattled and fading traditional way of life and a modern international capitalism or communism informed the central narrative of the 19th and 20th centuries. At this point, several thinkers, not just Heidegger, grappled with the West's rapid advancement and loss of innocence. The West split into factions, which went to war with one another over precisely this problem. For all the profits that came out of the Great Depression - advancements in business, medicine, education and public health - the 20th century West endured a so-called Hemoclysm, or flood of blood. Genocide. Apartheid. The unspeakable disappearances in South America. Clutch your beast of a tablet if you must, but understand that it arrived in your hands at a terrible price.
The divided West spawned many reactionaries who devised different responses to the struggle between modernization (and postmodernization) and tradition. While German Naziism partly informed Heidegger's recipe for Authentic 'rooted' Being, a contending outlook came from a contemporary, also a professor, who saw how industry challenged the European soul. This alternative came from J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), whose study of early medieval languages and sagas laid the groundwork for his Middle Earth stories, including The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.
A friend sniffily dismissed Tolkien's works as "children's stories," but this view completely misrepresents their significance. In England, Tolkien and his friend, C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) - like Heidegger in Germany - worried about the damage inflicted by industrialization on Western society. Both Tolkien and Lewis recognized the eternal human power of story-telling. While Lewis merged Christianity with fantasy and science fiction, Tolkien's central aim was to provide the West with a lost origin Ur-saga, a core common myth, using his scholarly study of Scandanavian early medieval sagas as his 'later' model. In a very modern way, Tolkien created an faux ancient myth suitable for modern times, based on the prehistoric memory of Atlantis, source of the "legendary West, a place of lost lands and mystery." Tolkien's Middle Earth stories were a form of modern Humanism, to help his readers cope with the fears and confusion sparked by industrial and technological alienation. Having fought in the First World War, Tolkien was aware of the devastation caused when western countries lost their common narrative through modernization.
In other words, rather than blaming another group or culture for the universal, existential malaise and stresses which arose from the advancement and transformation of society, Tolkien applied all his knowledge about myths and myth-telling to resolve that alienation. He provided a central saga to comfort the modern European, without absolving him or her of responsibility for change. Looking back, the hidden brilliance of Tolkien's agenda - to find authentic modern experience by 're-remembering' the original story of Western heroes - transcends Heidegger's seemingly-more-serious, but defensive enjoinder to 'Authentically Be' in the now. Tolkien trumps Heidegger not because Heidegger's ideas aren't less sophisticated or relevant than Tolkien's - far from it - but because the core motivation of each outlook was different and the real outcome of those motivations was different.
Japanese hostage 47-year-old Kenji Goto was beheaded in a video released on 31 January 2015. Image Source: New Yorker.
As the developing world modernizes, traditional cultures face a repeat of alienation and conflicts. Today's more traditional societies again divide internally between camps which defend either innovation or defensive regression. The latter nonetheless bear hallmarks of some of the very innovations they attack. Two paths diverge in the wood. One might take the jihadist terrorist path and externally blame the West for the internal fear of change. Or consider the hideous karma from the gendercide occurring in Asia, where 60 to 100 million females are missing due to selective abortion and infanticide. Superficially, the war on the corrupt West and Eastern females upholds tradition. But jihad and gendercide will lead to Hemoclysm, to civil wars inside these cultures and to wars against the scapegoat West. The true path out of the dilemmas posed by modernization and globalization is to shoulder the burdens of fear and alienation responsibly, and remember the best of each tradition in ways that befit the times.
ISIS footage of Jordanian F-16 fighter pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh being burned alive in a cage surfaced on 3 February 2015. The surreal jihadist video borrows from a lot of Hollywood, cable TV, and rock video stylistic conventions (presumably to appeal to a target adolescent audience). Image Source: The Muslim Issue.