But the coming of World War II, and the catastrophic defeat of the “hero” Heidegger himself had chosen in 1933—namely, Adolf Hitler—led the German philosopher to what he himself called a “reversal,” or turning back. In Heidegger’s new understanding (as Hannah Arendt once helpfully struggled to sum it up in plain English), “the very possibility of taking action,” presented now as “the will to rule and to dominate,” looms as “a kind of original sin, of which he found himself guilty when he tried to come to terms with his. . . past in the Nazi movement.”Continued.
In “The Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger in effect tried to purge transcendence of its conventional ties, not simply to logic, morality, and metaphysics (already challenged in Being and Time), but also to the “very possibility of taking action.” He marked this shift largely through the words he chose to emphasize. Instead of Dasein, he now stressed Sein, or “Being” as such. To illuminate Being as such, he now thought required not action, but rather a silent waiting, an essentially reverent contemplativeness that might keep open the (slight) possibility of a new, neo-pagan religion of man arising from the ashes of Hitler’s aborted revolution. As one of Heidegger’s shrewdest French readers, Jacques Derrida, would later point out, the “Letter on Humanism” abounds in images of light and metaphors that evoke “the values of neighboring, shelter, house, service, guard, voice, and listening.” “Man,” Heidegger declares, “does not decide whether and how beings appear,” as many readers of Being and Time had concluded. Rather “man” is merely “the shepherd of Being.”
At first glance, the vocation 0f the “shepherd” sounds idyllic. But a darker, more disquieting note was also sounded repeatedly in Heidegger’s letter—and it was this note that would resonate most deeply with Foucault, who already knew from Sade and Goya something about dark and disquieting visions of the world. For a human being committed neither to reason nor to purposive action must, as it were, be prepared to let itself go. To surrender one’s customary inhibitions and descend into what Heidegger called the “unthought,” the thinker had first to “learn to exist in the nameless.” To accomplish this paradoxical task, it was not philosophy but poetry and art that might light the way. “Language,” as Heidegger famously asserts, “is the house of Being”; but the metaphor is deceptive. For to inhabit, however contemplatively, the world revealed by the language of Sade, for example, was as likely to disturb as it was to comfort. “Concealed in the step back,” away from logic and conscious action, is “a thinking that is shattered.” Probing beyond the limits of reason, thinking sooner or later finds itself without statute or rule, structure or order, and face-to-face with nothing. The thus discover, as Heidegger puts it, that “Being” and “the nothing” are “the Same” is to “risk discord.” Heidegger’s new way of thinking might bring about a healing “ascent into grace,” but by the same token it might also unleash “evil,” “the malice or rage,” and the “compulsion to malignancy” with the certain and potentially fatal consequence. As the title of one of Goya’s most famous etchings summed up the risks, “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters.”