Language, Love and Meaning

Barreling through Eilenberger’s wonderful book on Weimar German philosophy, Time of the Magicians, themes begin to emerge. Some are forced, it has to be said, though language is certainly a consistent force. As Walter Benjamin had it, ‘the original sin of the philosophy of language in the modern era lies first of all in the fundamentally arbitrary nature of linguistic signs.’ (p.212) Ernst Cassirer ‘…understood man’s development through symbols as a continuous process of liberation that found its starting point in conceptual forms from which mythical thought derived.’ In other words, for Benjamin, language confused everything – that one is forced to theorise and philosophise through language limited the possibility of philosophy. Language of course was but one form of communication, one tool for concept formation; yet each concept, expressed as it had to be through nouns, imposed meaning on the thing, and distance between the signifier and the signified. For Cassirer, mythological concepts were as important as linguistic ones, allowing a level of transcendence – even if still wrapped in the stultifying chains of language.

It seems to me that this work lays a foundation for the French semioticians of the middle of the Twentieth Century – Barthes, Derrida, Lacan and the rest – though I’ve yet to flesh that out. Houellebecq’s The Map and The Territory sits unread on the countertop beside me, hinting at that world, as does the newly arrived Thinking the Impossible by Gary Gutting, about French Philosophy since 1960. The French will have to wait. I’ve reversed into the French school somewhat, with the omnipresent Foucault, the persistently revealing Deleuze, then Barthes (Cinema, Wrestling, and Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language, also unread), and hints of Camus and Sartre.

There doesn’t seem to be much overlap between French and German thought in the Twentieth Century, possibly because of wars, possibly because of language, possibly because of competition? A recent course of study on Modern Art highlighted for me the importance and vitality of German Twentieth Century painting. Juxtaposed against the light and airy French, and to some extent the Spanish (even Picasso), Franz Marc, Otto Dix and George Grosz appear so much more direct, urgent, important. The German imperative seems more genuinely cosmopolitan, while the French more self-centered.

That said Heidegger in particular, and Benjamin to a degree, were hardly bastions of social harmony, judging from Eilenberger’s account. Heidegger in particular with his dasein, or being in the world, appears entirely separated from the rest of the world, until he is flattered by the affections of Hannah Arendt when he was a 35-year-old professor and she was his 17- or 18-year-old student. In his writing, he babbles like an infatuated teenager himself, but more importantly, perhaps, his philosophy suddenly recognises another. ‘The fact of the Other’s presence beaking into our life is more than our disposition can cope with,’ he writes (p. 189).

Walter Benjamin, for his part, undertook an affair in Capri with an Asja Lacis, who he described as ‘one of the most brilliant women I have ever met.’ For her part, she later recalled that he ‘was able to lie on top of me twenty-four hours a day.’ Benjamin described himself as having been transformed by the relationship (p.201), and according to Eilenberger spent his remaining years trying (in vain) to intellectually get over Lacis and her communist ideas. She became a part of his thought.

Heidegger does not appear to have been as distracted by Arendt in the long run as Benjamin had been by Lacis. His Being and Time emerged in 1926, and the dasein remained intact, untethered it appears to the rest of the world, and (it seems to me) devoid of any genuine ecological sensitivity or dependence. His dasein appears alone, isolated, separate; knowing one’s dasein is an exercise in authenticity. And yet its boundaries had been breached – in Heidegger’s case by Arendt – and his clear, intimate compromise of unitary integrity. Arendt was part of his dasein, whether he chose to recognise it or not.

That’s what I mean when I speak of ecology: that the self is a projection into the world, and a synthesis of the world, at the same time. It is a fundamentally monist position, one in these hi-tech times not limited by physical proximity; networks and groups clearly demonstrate associative characteristics – language, accent, taste. Our experience in the world, our experiences of the world, they are who we are. Our loves, our languages, ourselves.

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