Is existentialism a dead philosophy

The coronavirus not only claims many human lives, it will also produce a lot of philosophical nonsense

Perhaps we would do better not to wait for the books of our contemporaries. We'd better read Heidegger or Holderlin.

I am not at all looking forward to the fact that very soon very many novels will be published worldwide that have the coronavirus as their subject. It will happen one way or the other, and parables will be written that aim only at one topic: to translate "The Plague" by Albert Camus as skillfully as possible for us today. And to make today's virus tragedy palatable to us as skilfully as possible so that we can finally understand the fragility of our existence.

However, we don't have to understand anything. We have known for a long time that there have always been pandemics, and we also know what the first plague, that in Venice, did to us, to us mask-wearers of European culture: We had to learn quickly that only consistent isolation can stop an epidemic. In the Venetian lagoon, Lazzaretto Vecchio, a small stone island near the Lidos, was created as early as the 14th century, where plague sufferers were isolated.

And Camus’s novel can only be understood allegorically after the experience with fascism.

Sartre's blind spots

Nor will I ask these future authors of the new plague books whether they have read Leo Schestow or Simone Weil. Because that won't make any sense. You won't realize how thin and at the same time powerful the links between the two and the French existentialists are. And besides, what does that mean in terms of domino effects in terms of cultural history? One can argue about it. Always.

Sartre wrote that existentialism was humanism. And that's his best essay too. Known everywhere. And? Why couldn't he see, and above all not acknowledge, that his counterpart, Albert Camus, had understood very quickly that the Soviet left, communism, had created gulag camps to torture and kill its enemies?

In 1951 Camus published “The Man in the Revolt”; even then, his volume of essays should not only have roused Sartre. In the same year the literary report “World Without Mercy” by Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, the great Polish emigrant from Naples, was published. In it he processed his Gulag experiences: It was at least one of the first testimonies against the western left that did not see the Soviet virus, and did not even want to classify it as dangerous, even though millions were killed.

Heidegger's anti-Semitism

The basic condition of the human being is known to be: He has to face death. That sounds like Heidegger, but this basic constellation is not his invention, and yet Heidegger has done something for us that we can use today: He has - somehow phenomenologically - placed himself behind people, defends him in his identity of the time, which is always topical is.

That's half the battle when it comes to our existence: We need a lot of time and actually very little space for our life and our death. The coffins transported by the army in Italy recently gave the saddest view: They disappear in the bellies of the trucks, but Italy does not disappear because the dying do not disappear either. And we have an idea of ​​the living and the dead.

Heidegger's anti-Semitism is of course unbearable to me, and today we can talk so freely about the master teacher of Hannah Arendt and Jeanne Hersch, two brilliant women of Jewish origin, but Heidegger is actually unbearable because he was an anti-Semite. He didn't just come to terms with the Nazis.

And yet: I really enjoy reading his “Holzwege”. After all, what philosopher could write so well about poets and especially about Hegel? The student union between Hegel and Holderlin in Tübingen is considered to be the revolutionary birth of German idealism, which, out of disappointment with the French Revolution, actually strived for total freedom.

What luck that these two young men had come together back then, because they paved the way for a Heidegger to become a poet and thus finally made the difficult marriage between her and philosophy more bearable. In the 20th century philosophy finally found its way into poetry: just read the poems of Czesław Miłosz.

Our scanty time

But Heidegger has taken something essential to extremes in his volume of essays, which concerns our current corona pandemic and fear and what fundamentally affects our being. He writes: «Time is poor because it lacks the unconcealment of the essence of pain, death and love. This needy itself is poor because the realm of being withdraws in which pain and death and love belong together. Concealment is insofar as the area in which they belong together is the abyss of being. "

We should listen to these words today and I do not want to interpret them. Our times are already “poor”, and one immediately remembers Holderlin's long poem “Bread and Wine” and his bitter statement in it: “And why poets in poor times”.

Unfortunately, our time will not only bring death, but also a lot of nonsense about our condition of existence. Political, literary and so on. And also scientifically - nobody will be immune to the nonsense, the nonsense from our hand. We cannot understand the corona tragedy. And it would be good if we would admit that to ourselves worldwide.

The “unconcealment” of our incomprehension jumps into our eyes everywhere, and we stand before it - powerless as always. But that is also the human being, Jeanne Hersch would say.

The writer Artur Becker, born 1968 in Poland, has lived in Germany since 1985. Most recently he published the novel “Drang nach Osten” in Weissbooks and the book of poems “Bartel and Gustabalda” in Parasitenpresse.