In the midst of the battle for Troy, Hector notices Achilles charging toward him.
Afraid for his life, Hector flees. He turns to face Achilles only after Athena tricks him into thinking that Deiphobus, his brother, is at his side. Hector’s confidence rises. It is only with Deiphobus that Hector thinks victory is possible. Hector realizes Athena’s ruse after he turns to meet Achilles and Deiphobus vanishes. After, Homer describes Hector as a man expecting the inevitable. Hector laments:
My time has come!
At last the Gods have called me down to death….
And now death, grim death is looming up beside me,
no longer far away. No way to escape it now….
The events led Hector to a place where he sees the end clearly. It is because of these events that Hector seems to know what is coming next, almost as if his future were “standing at the door.”
Martin Heidegger describes humanity’s current situation in much the same way. In his essay on Nietzsche, “The Word of Nietzsche: ‘God Is Dead’,” Heidegger argues that nihilism is “standing at the door.”
Heidegger understands nihilism to be “the world historical movement of the peoples of the earth who have been drawn into the power realm of the modern age.” Nihilism is standing at the door for one reason with two direct implications. Heidegger argues that Nietzsche’s phrase, “God is dead,” proclaims the end of humanity’s religious sensibilities and that technology has constricted one’s experience to fit a certain structure. The rise of the technological age not only destroys one’s religious sensibilities by constricting experience but also creates an environment in which every thing is viewed as what Heidegger will call “standing reserve.” Though, where Homer provides no way out for Hector, Heidegger is more optimistic.
To carry the analogy further, in Homer’s Iliad Deiphobus standing beside Hector was only an illusion created by Athena, whereas in Heidegger’s understanding of our predicament Deiphobus is actually beside us. For Heidegger, as we shall see, this Deiphobus is the poet.
The purpose of this chapter is to outline the contribution Heidegger makes to the question “Where do we turn aesthetically to lead us out of nihilism?” In order to achieve this it will demand an explication of Heidegger’s thought in relation to this question.
Among other things, Heidegger’s response to the problem of nihilism teaches us two things. One, Heidegger teaches us about the serious problem facing humankind, how it came about and how we can be lifted out of this bleak condition. Two, Heidegger teaches us about a new significance and role for art. Heidegger lifts art from the ghetto.
Heidegger lifts art from its ghettoized role within the history of philosophy. For Heidegger this means that the history of philosophy has treated questions in the philosophy of art as second-class questions. The history of philosophy has quarantined the questions and concerns within the philosophy of art to secondary questions that do not reveal answers or the nature of things themselves. This means, for Heidegger, that questions within the philosophy of art have been held hostage by conclusions ofquestions deemed more important, usually within metaphysics, instead of questions of the philosophy of art being a source of discovering and inquiry itself. Heidegger transforms art’s role to one of prominence and importance. This transformed role of art will show the poet’s holds part in society’s escape from nihilism.
To this end, this chapter will have three sections. The first section will focus on the subjugated role of art within the history of philosophy. The second section will focus on the problems that arise because of society’s neglect of art, namely the rise of Heideggerian enframing and the end of religious sensibilities. Finally, the third and final section will focus on how a return to art, the aesthetic turn, can steal us from the current nihilistic age which is challenging and depriving society. These three sections combined aim to further Heidegger’s claim that the aesthetic turn can abate, confront, counteract, and eventually rescue us from the nihilistic abyss of the world’s night in which we find ourselves.
What is significant about Heidegger’s contribution is where he turns in hope of abating the problem of nihilism. This appeal to poetry and art represents a significant shift within the history of philosophy. This shift is a shift away from the ghettoized role of art that has dominated much of the history of philosophy.
Heidegger teaches us the importance of art. This is significant because the history of philosophy has maligned the role of art and aesthetics.
One of the best examples of this diminished role of aesthetics is a surprisingly honest dictionary of philosophy entry referenced by Theodor Adorno:
There is scarcely another philosophical discipline that rests on such flimsy
presuppositions as does aesthetics. Like a weather vane it is ‘blown about by
every philosophical, cultural, and scientific gust; at one moment it is
metaphysical and in the next empirical; now normative, then descriptive; now
defined by artists, then by connoisseurs; one day art is supposedly the center of
aesthetics and natural beauty merely preliminary, the next day art beauty is
merely second-hand natural beauty.’…There is a double reason for this pluralism
of aesthetic theories, which are often left unfinished: It resides on the one hand in
the fundamental difficulty, indeed impossibility, of gaining general access to art
by means of a system of philosophical categories, and on the other, in the fact
that aesthetic statements have traditionally presupposed theories of knowledge.
The problematic of theories of knowledge returns directly in aesthetics, because
how aesthetics interprets its objects depends on the concept of the objects held by
the theory of knowledge.