Friday, August 8, 2014

A Personal Postscript: The Death of Heidegger

In the age of the internet it's odd to think back to an earlier time when the "vital statistics" of life weren't always instantly available.

I don't know exactly when, as an undergraduate philosophy major, I first began thinking that I'd like to do a senior project involving the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.  It must have been before the summer of 1975, which I spent as a student-vagabond in Western Europe. 

My uncle Bill was then an army chaplain stationed just outside of Frankfurt, and, armed with an International Youth Hostel membership card and a second class Eurail pass, I was able to get by on no more than ten dollars per day (so long as I confined myself to one daily meal, and meat on Sundays only).

So, I find myself in Freiburg, and walk about a mile into the woods where a local Weinfest is being celebrated.  I'm obviously a fish out of water, a tongue-tied Ausländer, but I manage to strike up a simple conversation or two, and one of the questions I had for the locals was whether Heidegger was still alive.

It's an odd thing now to remember how, at the time I decided to study his work, I had no idea whether Heidegger was alive or dead.  I asked my advisor, and he didn't really know.  I'm not sure how I would have even found out, short of a newspaper search (remember those huge volumes in every library--I think it was called the Guide to Periodic Literature?  Totally unwieldy).

Now of course it wasn't germane whether Heidegger was alive or dead.  Today I would google him and get any number of biographies, maybe a home page or a fan club.  Then--well, I didn't know, and I didn't know how to find out, and I didn't particularly need to know, but I was mildly curious.

So, back to the Black Forest.  "Wissen Sie wenn Martin Heidegger noch lebt?"  A few people knew the name.  They thought he was dead.  OK.  Makes sense, guy writing his big book back in the twenties.

So, fast forward to the next summer.  I'm working with the surveyor of this construction company during this very hot summer in north Texas.  By day I set corners and drive stakes to set depths with rod and chain and plumb bob (all now gone the way of the abacus and slide rule, thanks to GPS).  By night I read philosophy.  So one day Chastain and I--Chastain's the surveyor--are driving down some God-forsaken road in his old pickup truck, windows down, on the way to a field to set points.  The radio's on.  Not a lot of choices.  It's Paul Harvey, news and comment.

Paul Harvey was an enormously popular radio figure, irritable about most things new, a kind of faux-farmer mid-American, too liable to sneer, but with a unique delivery and a sense of humor akin to that of your parents' less tactful friends.  So he's going through the daily news, and, right before commercial, he blurts out, in his inimitable staccato delivery, "Martin Heidegger...German existentialist philosopher...DEAD!"  That was it.

And that's how I found out that Martin Heidegger was dead, on the day he died.  From Paul Harvey.

Requiescant in pace.

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