Heidegger’s Mom and the Joke of Democracy: Fictional Notes on the Political


Martin Heidegger

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

The following text  was delivered at the opening of Cross-Examinations #2: How Much Fascism?, curated by WHW in collaboration with Mihnea Mircan, Extra City, Antwerp BE, October 5, 2012.

I would like to begin with a definition from Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s book Heidegger, Art and Politics: “Fascism is […] the mobilization of the identificatory emotions of the masses.”[i] Today I hold this statement to be more timely than ever, and I do so also from a personal perspective. In the Netherlands a fascist party co-opted the government for a sad two years, and in my current home country, Albania, a new fascist party has thought it necessary bring ethnic and religious identifications into play in a country that justly takes pride in its uncompromising hospitality and struggle against fascist oppression.

According to Lacoue-Labarthe, the production of fiction is an essential part of any political system. Through a close reading of Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazi regime, an involvement that I will touch upon in this lecture, Lacoue-Labarthe arrives at a twofold observation. On the one hand, “Nazism is the Nazi myth, i.e. the Aryan type, as absolute subject, pure will (of the self) willing itself,”[ii] on the other hand, and here he quotes Maurice Blanchot, “the Jews embody […] the rejection of myths, the eschewing of idols, the recognition of an ethical order which manifests itself in respect for the law. What Hitler is attempting to annihilate in annihilating the Jew, and the ‘myth of the Jew’, is precisely man liberated from myths.”[iii]

In response to the kind invitation of Mihnea Mircan and WHW to speak here today, I would like to explore these observations in a fictional mode, doubling Lacoue-Labarthe’s discourse on itself, dealing with the fiction of the political within a fiction of the political. We will do so by considering a novel by the Dutch poet and novelist Nachoem Wijnberg. My choice to depart from literature is driven by the observation that literature often listens in to what philosophy — as a form of what Avital Ronell calls “obliterature” — ignores, disavows, or misses out on. Wijnberg’s novel, entitled De joden, The Jews, describes itself as a “talmudic tragicomedy” and “antihistorical thriller.” It is not my intention to offer an extensive reading of this dense text, but rather to ask of it to host a thinking that follows its narrative intricacies at several crucial points. Because the novel’s fictional protagonists, Martin Heidegger, his mother, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem, among others, are at the same present in this text in their “properly historical” incarnations, this approach entails a certain permeability between different narratives. This permeability, that may be called an effect of biography, is, however, initiated by philosophy itself, namely, as we will see, at the moment Heidegger calls upon his own mother to teach him how to listen.

The Jews is divided in three chapters taking place in three distinct locations: Moscow, Berlin, and a plain somewhere between Berlin and Jerusalem. As we will find out, the novel plays out between Stalin’s communism turning into a theocracy and Hitler’s fascism being sublated into the figure of a mute Heidegger. Martin Heidegger here becomes a figure of philosophy’s complicated, and perhaps poisonous, engagement with politics. After Hitler’s abdication as Chancellor of the Third Reich he is succeeded by Heidegger. Concerned by the situation, Stalin and the chief of his secret police, Lavrentiy Beria, have instated a committee to investigate the new political situation in Germany. The chairman of a committee reports as follows:

By the end of 1934, Hitler’s power was unchallenged. Toward the end of the year, just before Christmas, he made a radio announcement that he had resigned and that he had been succeeded by Martin Heidegger. As soon as Hitler had finished speaking one could hear the sound of applause. Then Heidegger held his first big radio speech. We have studied gramophone records of the speeches and it is beyond doubt that those were indeed Hitler and Heidegger’s voices. Neither did we find any indications that Hitler may have been confused or drugged. The next day, Heidegger held his second big speech. That is the speech in which he nominated Walter Benjamin as Vice-chancellor. According to reliable witness reports, Benjamin had been present at the conversations between Heidegger and Hitler during December. We do not know how many times they talked. During this period, Benjamin was also in constant contact with the other Jews, notably Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and a few others.[iv]

Walter Benjamin is Heidegger’s second in charge, and has to deal with the two Jewish actors sent to Berlin by Stalin to investigate the political situation, Salomon Maimon and Natalia Goncharova. The figure of Maimon recalls the Lithuanian philosopher and Talmudic scholar Salomon Maimon, a contemporary of Emmanuel Kant, and a member of the Jewish Enlightenment movement in Berlin. Natalia Goncharova resonates with the wife of the Russian poet Alexander Puskhin and a Russian avant-garde artist from the first half of the twentieth century. In contrast with for example Heidegger and Benjamin, these characters are condensed clusters of references, opening up several secondary thematics in the book. This is only one of the many instances of the novel’s “anti-historicity,” as if entire eras, both divine and sublunar, stretching from the creation of the earth until the years preceding the Holocaust were compressed, to speak with Benjamin, in one “tremendous abbreviation.”[v]

The Jews has been written as a play, a “talmudic tragicomedy,” and the two actors that mediate between Stalin — who has abolished theater — and Heidegger’s Germany — where they are slowly killing off theater — represent so to say the “survivors” of the death of theater itself, a theater, that, and this becomes clear at several points in the novel, we should read primarily as Athenian classical tragedy. The only real tragedy, according to Benjamin. Several indications can be found concerning the nature of this tragedy: except for the God of the Jews, it features several “ancient goddesses” and “royal gods and goddesses.” When Benjamin, just after explaining that Heidegger no longer speaks, says that he is going to fetch him to ask him what he thinks, he recounts:

First there are only ancient goddesses. Then the royal gods and goddesses arrive. The royal gods are always worried about the ancient goddesses. They are trying to take away the old goddesses’ power or act as if they already have done so. There are theater plays about that. […] There are also ancient theater plays in which people think that they have an alliance with a royal god but as soon as a single ancient goddess appears they abandon the royal god. Sometimes the royal gods take revenge on them, at other times the ancient goddesses. They eat their children and their children eat them. Sometimes there is screaming because somebody notices that he was wrong. (70)

It is easy to recognize in this quote the figures of the Furies and the Olympian gods, and their conflicts over the mortals. These conflicts become especially apparent in the series of tragedies concerning the house of Atreus, which figure a series of cannibalistic acts. The final tragedy of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the Eumenides, is the final act in the conflict between the Olympian gods, here represented by Athena, and the Furies, over the judgment of Orestes’ matricide. “This performance is an episode of the wrath of the ancient goddesses” (81), Benjamin confirms. Benjamin recalls Greek tragedy in the context of explaining the situation of Hitler’s abdication, thus situating both this abdication and Heidegger’s ascent to power on the birthing ground of our politics, whether democratic or not. This is the place where the question of origin and originary identification, and therefore of the mother, is inextricably imprinted into politics. Not only is matricide what is at stake in the first court case of the democratically elected Court on the Areopagus, this court is moreover installed by the “mother without mother” Athena. According to the well-known myth, Athena was born motherless, from out of the head of Zeus.

Thus The Jews takes place, as it were, in a situation that we could identify as after tragedy. That is, no longer under the sign of myth but under the sign of history.[vi] Both communism and fascism have abandoned tragedy. But Hitler has been sublated into Heidegger whereas Stalin later dies after a circumcision, being succeeded by the Rabbi of the recently conquered city of Jerusalem (that is, Moscow) and Birobidjan (37), the autonomous Jewish district in Siberia that Stalin established in 1934. By the end of 1934, Martin Heidegger had resigned from his rectorate of the Freiburg University, a post he had taken up in 1933 after a long hesitation, and “only in the interests in the University.”[vii] He had to resign by the end of April after refusing to replace the deans of the medical and juridical faculties with Nazi Party candidates. In summer semester of 1935, Heidegger would pronounce his lecture “Introduction to Metaphysics,” in which he would state, “In particular what is peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism, but which has not the least to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement […] is fishing in these troubled waters of ‘values’ and ‘totalities’.”[viii] This inner truth and greatness is parenthetically explicated as “the encounter between global technology and modern humanity,” a parenthesis that I have tried to develop in the text the accompanies this exhibition, an exhibition on what is at stake in fascism, of the past, present, and most certainly the future.

In Wijnberg’s elaboration of the 1934 events, Heidegger arrives in the position actually to steer National Socialism away from its banal racial theorizing and romantic longing for purity. Heidegger, as Führer, suddenly embodies “the inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism, the myth as pure will willing itself. But how does he articulate this? Do we witness at least the foundation of the philosophical polis, led by the philosopher-king? No. Heidegger turns completely silent. Wijnberg thus marks the void that Lacoue-Labarthe signals as the will to will that is at the core of the Nazi myth, but at the same time — a time that is essentially anachronistic, out of joint — he speaks, following Benjamin and Franz Rosenzweig, the “only one language that is completely proper to the tragic hero: silence.”[ix] Heidegger is, so to say, the very last tragic hero. Benjamin explains:

In the beginning we used to talk for hours, tirelessly. […] After he became chancellor we no longer had such conversations. Actually, we had already stopped talking before he became chancellor. Initially he still talked with visitors who came over for dinner. But later he also stopped talking at the table. Nowadays he doesn’t speak with anyone except his mother. (69)

The political situation is therefore suspended between on the one hand a mute, paralyzed Heidegger, like Benjamin’s angel of history who sees only “one single catastrophe” where we see a “chain of events,”[x] and the Russian rabbi as figure of Talmudic exposition in the absence of Temple or sacrificial rite. The final scenes take place on the plain between Berlin and Moscow, that is, a burning Jerusalem where Stalin has just died from a circumcision. A group of old Jews performs a comic play about the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the entrance of a camp in front of Benjamin and Maimon. Isaac says: “Bye father is an old joke, always reusable on parting.”

This is a post-tragic situation that Ronell, channeling the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, brings into relation with the destiny of democracy itself, as she suggests in her recent work on politics and authority, Loser Sons:

We come in after the break, in the historical and nearly ontological zone that Jean-Luc Nancy designates as “after tragedy,” where he analyzes what “venir après” means — what it means to ride in on the wake, to come in afterwards like the very concept of history, like all the posts and their chrono-logic that come after Aristotle. I will be considering the links between the destinies of democracy and the loss of tragedy — the destruction of the tragic ethos. […] The vanishing gods have left the mortals on their own, among themselves in a space where the address is no longer oriented toward the gods, offering victims and sacrifice, but toward one another, left to wonder how and where language holds on to former rites of sacrifice[.][xi]

This retreat of the gods, namely the moment that the origin of paternal law shows its proper, thoroughly unfounded and an-archic character, testifying to the fact that any identificatory relation, be that political or otherwise, always already presents relationality as a given is what Ronell designates with “the mother.” In another text engaging in a detailed reading of the “mother of all battles,” the Gulf War, Ronell reads the figure of the mother as a “region of some originarity: the site of primordial aggressions, the sacred origin of all culture.”[xii] I take the liberty of placing the installation of the court on the Areopagus by Athena, the motherless goddess of war no less, a point of origin without origin, an identification which only identifies itself, in this maternal zone.

* * *

If the post-tragic scene of democracy, emblematized by the mute Heidegger, is tightly bound up with the installment of identificatory processes, where is his mother? There is a passage in his work that philosopher Avital Ronell has called upon featuring this mother. She enters the scene at the beginning of the fifth lecture of What Is Called Thinking?. In this lecture Heidegger opposes what he calls thinking to science, Wissenschaft, a word that he relates to the Nietzschean cry “Die Wüste wächst….” That technology, together with the political framework that masters it, merely produces wastelands, should be clear to all. Yet this thinking which, in Heidegger’s terms, we have not yet arrived at, would be able to face this challenge brought forth by technology in our modern age, a challenge that philosophy, a philosophy that reached its fulfillment in Nietzsche, is no longer able to accomplish.[xiii] It is within this attempt to think a completely new method of thinking — a thinking that engages “the encounter between global technology and modern humanity” that could have but has not been addressed by National Socialism — that Heidegger’s mother appears. He opens his lecture as follows:

What is called thinking? We must guard against the blind urge at a quick answer in the form of a formula. We must stay with the question. Let us pay attention to the way in which the question asks: “What is called thinking?”[xiv]

We mark here with Ronell the repetition of the question, the second time framed in silent quote marks. It is not we who ask the question, it is the question “What is called thinking?” itself that asks “What is called thinking?” A certain anonymity creeps in that keeps us with the question, a repetition (that is never merely a repetition) that pushes the questioning in repeat, guarding us against the “blind urge” of immediately answering the question in “the form of a formula,” that is, in the way of Wissenschaft, of science. Blindness is the risk that accompanies answering a question, heeding to a call. A maternal call that, so the story goes, ended with Oedipus’ blindness. And then Heidegger’s mother enters, as if called upon by the question that resists a formulaic answer. Her role remains unclear, but she is going to teach us a lesson.

“You just wait, I’ll teach you what is called obedience [gehorchen]” a mother calls after her boy who won’t come home. Does the mother promise the boy a definition of obedience? No. Or is she going to give him a lecture? No again, if she is a proper mother. Rather she will convey to him what obedience is [das Gehorchen beibringen]. Or better, the other way around: she will bring him into obedience [in das Gehorchen bringen]. Her success will be more lasting the less she scolds him; it will be easier, the more directly she can get him into listening [ins Höhren bringt] — not just condescend to listen, but in such a way that he can no longer stop wanting to listen. [daß er vom Hörenwollen nicht mehr lassen kann].[xv]

Heidegger’s mother is going to teach her son “what is called obedience,” and the proper way to do so is to bring him into obedience, into hearkening to her call. And bringing her boy into obedience, Gehorchen, an obedience that is silent, will be all the easier if she makes him listen, Höhren. So much so, that he can no longer do anything else but wanting to listen. That is called obedience. Oedipal blindness is therefore avoided by an addicted, compulsive, and obedient listening. Later we will find a figure of this obsessive listening, hanging on the telephone, in the Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem.

According to Ronell, in Heidegger “the mother calls first.”[xvi] And it is also in The Jews that the mother takes the initiative. She asks the first question: “Martin, why did you stop singing? As a child you used to have a beautiful voice” (59). Instead, Heidegger only reads from the “book of memories,” a seemingly endless list of names, dates, and causes of death. This is why I suggested earlier that Heidegger may be a Benjaminian angel of history:

Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophy [the catastrophy of technology], which keeps poling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.[xvii]

Heidegger’s mother is in despair. At the end of the meeting where Hitler hands over power to Heidegger in the presence of Benjamin and Jewish actors she says: “Nobody knows how I feel today. […] My husband is in the book, my son sits next to me, silent. Nobody knows how I feel. […] I can scream but I won’t do it. […] I could yell and cry” (100). Heidegger’s mother here seems to follow the communication lines suggested in his lecture. As Ronell already noticed, Heidegger’s mother morphs into the figure of Nietzsche, the “most quiet and shiest of men,” who is nevertheless aware of the necessity of screaming: “In a decade when the world at large still knew nothing of world wars, when faith in ‘progress’ was virtually the religion of the civilized peoples and nations, Nietzsche screamed into the world: ‘The wasteland grows…’.”[xviii] But whereas Nietzsche allows himself to scream into the world, Heidegger’s mother only calls out to her son, “You just wait, I’ll teach you what is called obedience [gehorchen].” With Ronell we ask:

Who is this mother who haunts the ear that will never again close, ringing a more primordial teaching of obedience? The telephonic apparatus that the mother hooks up gives a yet inaudible command, opening the ear of a son who has strayed from home.[xix]

Ronell connects the conference call between mother, son, and Nietzsche with the scene where Heidegger takes a call from an SA official in his rectoral office, in which he was requested to display the so-called Jewish poster, and she suggests that this response to the call of the Nazi party could only have happened after first accepting his own vocation (Beruf) through which he could take his telephonic orders. In Wijnberg’s novel however the origin of this vocational call is displaced from an SA Group leader to Gershom Scholem, the Jewish scholar and friend of Walter Benjamin, and who, as it turns out, is someone who has been brought into listening. Heidegger, as Benjamin recounts, is in Hitler’s office. This is the scene of the abdication.

Hitler is silent for a moment. Martin looks at him. Hitler looks at Martin. The telephone rings. Martin is closest and picks up the phone, out of fear or habit. It is Gershom Scholem who wants to talk to me and he asks me impatiently how the conversation is going. I hand over the receiver to Hitler. Gershom remains silent. Hitler remains silent. Hitler places the phone on his desk without ending the conversation. The receiver is heavier than usual. Hitler looks at me and then looks at Martin for a long time. I hear Gershom screaming hooray in the telephone. […] Hitler picks up his cap and places it on Martin’s head. I walk to the doors and throw them open. Hitler’s bodyguards enter, hesitating when they see Martin wearing the cap. Martin looks bewildered too. Hitler tells his bodyguards that Martin is the new chancellor. Gershom screams through the phone: a long and blessed life for Heidegger! The bodyguards repeat him. Then I say it too, and put down the receiver. (105-7)

The scene of Hitler’s abdication thus takes places under the sign of the telephone, this synecdoche of technology, a telephone that as the very emblem of the anti-historicity of the novel, where different time zones and geographic locations are integrated into a single network.

What is Scholem doing on the phone? When Maimon, one of the Jewish actors, asks whether Heidegger’s abdication was a Jewish conspiracy, Benjamin answers: “No way, you can’t premeditate something like that” (107). Yet there was something in Scholem’s relation to Benjamin that suggests that Heidegger’s ascent to leadership was a set-up. In past communications Benjamin had criticized Heidegger’s level of scholarship, which he considered “awful”[xx] and “unilluminated.”[xxi] Already in 1930, four years before Heidegger’s ascent to power, Benjamin wrote to Scholem: “We are planning to annihilate Heidegger here in the summer in the context of a very close-knit critical circle of readers led by Brecht and me.”[xxii] We could read Hitler’s cession of power to Heidegger as a revenge of the two Jewish philosophers, or perhaps the whole Frankfurt School. By allowing Heidegger to lead Nazi Germany, he is forced to address the “inner truth and greatness” of the movement he is now heading, an inner truth of the pure myth, of the mother without mother, of the origin without origin. No wonder he only talks to her.

That Benjamin calls in Greek tragedy at key moments in his story, his myth of Hitler’s abdication, supports the claim that he is enacting a historical process that is not simply grounded in the philosophical or political situation of 1934; he is, so to say, tying up loose ends. Benjamin discusses ancient tragedy, as I mentioned before, just after a description of the moment that Hitler hands over the leadership of the Reich to Heidegger. And also his description of the narrative framework of the Oresteia is given just after Benjamin mentions Heidegger’s silence. Wijnberg’s novel is therefore not only anti-historical; it is anti-tragical.

* * *

Where does this leave us? What about comedy? After all, Wijnberg’s novel was supposed to be tragi-comic. After Stalin’s death, a Rabbi is in charge of the Soviet empire, and the Frankfurter School has nominally taken over power in Nazi Germany. The final chapter of The Jews forms a contemplation on the space in between: a field, at the entrance of a camp. We are here in the space at the end of politics where all myths are rejected, including the myth of myths, and where, to recall Blanchot, we are faced with “an ethical order which manifests itself in respect for the law.” Whereas in the Eumenides Athena casts the decisive vote in Orestes’ trial, the possibility such divine intervention, an intervention that haunted philosophy until Nietzsche, has been definitively abolished.

The court should consist of twenty-three judges. The smallest majority is insufficient to impose the death sentence upon someone. The majority should contain at least two judges more than the minority. To prevent that the court imposes the death sentence upon someone while the decisive vote was cast by a god dressed up as human. (124)

All divine influence has thus been removed from the law.

All ancient goddesses have been blindfolded and tied up together. The royal gods want to dream of God who has been tied up in the wrong spot. God remembers what has happened and what is going to happen, in any case until the beginning of the world to come. Somebody screams that the world to come has begun. God’s memory of earlier and later events is still complete but He is suddenly afraid that he has lost the difference between earlier and later. To hide his confusion God acts as if he is sleeping and dreaming. (133)

Owing to the complete absence of tragedy, people resort to attending court cases: “Now that theater has been prohibited, there are so many people wanting to attend court cases that it is difficult to find a seat in the public gallery” (132). Even the most tragic episodes of divine terror and abandonment, may only be reenacted as jokes. After tragedy we are left with only the contemplation of the law and the bad jokes that frame what is called democratic politics, and the novel properly ends with one. Walter Benjamin says: “If you’ve done one Jew you’ve done them all.”


[i] Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Heidegger, Art and Poltics: The Fiction of the Political, trans. Chris Turner (London: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 95.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Maurice Blanchot, “Les intellectuels en question,” in Le Débat 33 (May 1984), cited from Lacoue-Labarthe, Heidegger, Art and Poltics, 96.

[iv] Nachoem Wijnberg, De joden (Amsterdam: De bezige bij, 1999), 10-11. All translations are mine, subsequent references are between parentheses.

[v] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Selected Writings, vol. 4, 1938-1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge; London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 396.

[vi] Walter Benjamin, The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London; New York: Verso, 1988),62.

[vii] Martin Heidegger, “Only a God Can Save Us: The Spiegel Interview (1966),” in Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker (Chicago: Precedent Publishing, 1981), 37.

[viii] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 213.

[ix] Benjamin, The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, 108.

[x] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” 392.

[xi] Avital Ronell, Loser Sons: Politics and Authority (Urbana, Chicago, Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 37-8.

[xii] Avital Ronell, “Activist Supplement,” in Finitude’s Score: Essays for the End of the Millennium (Lincoln; London: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 303.

[xiii] See Martin Heidegger, “Only a God Can Save Us: The Spiegel Interview (1966),” in Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker (Chicago: Precedent Publishing, 1981), 59.

[xiv] Martin Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 48, trans. modified.

[xv] Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, 48, trans. modified.

[xvi] Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book (London & Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 23.

[xvii] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” 392.

[xviii] Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, 48-9.

[xix] Ronell, TheTelephone Book, 28.

[xx] Walter Benjamin, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin: 1910-1940, eds. Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 82.

[xxi] Benjamin, Correspondence, 172.

[xxii] Benjamin, Correspondence, 365.