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Hell’s Angels: Derrida and the Heidegger Controversy

Hell’s Angels
Derrida and the Heidegger Controversy
Richard Wolin’s anthology The Heidegger Controversy – reviewed in RP 63 under the heading’ Righteous Indignation’ – has
run into trouble with its original publisher, Columbia University
Press. This useful selection of texts dealing with Heidegger’s
Nazism appeared in November 1991 and sold well. No doubt part
of the reason for the book’s success was the sunny self-satisfaction of its editorialising. Wolin invited readers to join him in
chortling at the disorientation of ‘the French left’ after ‘the timely
demise of Marxism in the 1970s’. The main object of Wolin’ s
amusement was Jacques Derrida. One day, shortly after it was
published, Derrida came across a copy of The Heidegger
Controversy in a New York bookstore, and failed to be charmed.

He considered the book a cheap attack on Heidegger; and what’s
more he discovered that, without consulting him, Wolin had
included a translation of
an interview Derrida has
given to the N ouvel
Observateur in 1987,
entitled ‘Philosophers’

Hell’. Derrida got his
lawyers to write to
Columbia University
Press threatening action
if a proposed paperback
version went ahead.

Wolin then decided to
interview, but add a
preface explaining why it
was missing. Columbia
asked Wolin to soften his
criticisms of Derrida, but
Wolin refused. According to his friend Thomas Sheehan, ‘the
press was caught between Wolin’ s principles and Derrida’ s

Abandoned by its first publishers, The Heidegger Controversy has now been adopted by the MIT Press (London, MIT
Press, 1993. 305pp., £33.75 hb, £14.95 pb, 0 262 23166 2 hb, 0
26273101 pb). The MIT edition is almost identical to the original,
except that the Derrida interview is missing. It is hard to understand why it has been removed. Wolin claims that it was published
quite legally, and that it was at most a lapse of courtesy not to have
consulted Derrida himself. After Wolin and his publishers had
shown the courage to come out against Nazism, it is a pity that
they did not steel themselves to publish and be damned: to keep
the translation of Derrida and let him take them to court if he

In his new preface, Wolin relishes the confirmation of his
suspicions about ‘Derrida and deconstruction’. Is it not delicious
that Derrida – so critical in theory of the classical notion of
authorship – should be making legalistic use of it all the same?

Derrida finds it difficult to locate the essential theoretical point of
divergence between Nazism and non-Nazism; so who can be
surprised that he is now acting like a Nazi himself, censoring
books if not actually burning them?

Derrida had argued that Heidegger’s belated affection for the
concept of ‘spirit’ or ‘Geist’ acted as a bridge between his
philosophical treatment of existence in the 1920s and his political
commitment to Nazism in the 1930s. This suggestion mayor may

Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993

…J _ _

not be right, but it is certainly fresh, interesting and substantial.

Wolin, however, is not impressed. He accuses Derrida of showing
‘unwillingness to specify the essential differences’ between Nazism and non-Nazism, as if there were no room for hesitation
about what these ‘essential differences’ may be. He mocks
Derrida for the ‘narrow and arbitrary’ attention he has given to the
concept of ‘spirit’, and denounces what he calls his ‘quasiexoneration of He idegg er , s philosophically overdetermined commitment to National Socialism’. In the correspondence columns
of the New York Review of Books, Sheehan and Wolin boast that
they have caught Derrida ‘in a lie’ and ‘with his pants down’.

Wolin is sure that Heidegger’s writings of the 1930s contain
too little invocation of’ spirit’, nottoo much. ‘Discourse on spirit,’

Wolin thinks, is ‘essentially and inalienably part of our tradition.’

And if Heidegger is still
worth reading today, it is
because of his ‘singular
contributions’ to this
‘discourse on spirit’.

noted that
throughout Europe in the
1930s, thinkers of the most
diverse political persuasions, Nazi and non-Nazi
alike, joined in a ‘hymn to
the freedom of spirit’ , and
he suggested that this was
part of the conceptual
Heidegger’s Nazi turn.

W olin, however, is sure
that the idea of spirit
belongs with democracy, human rights and freedom, and that it
cannot possibly have any connection with totalitarianism. If
Heidegger in 1945 was able to propound the idea that there was
a single reality underlying ‘communism or fascism or world
democracy’, it just shows that he was no longer able to come to
terms with the traditional purveyors of spirit to democratic states.

(It is worth noting, though, that Heidegger’s forebodings
correspond almost word for word with those of George Orwellnot bad as far as democratic company goes.) ‘We now know – and
can state unequivocally – that the most important political event
of post-war Europe has been the thoroughgoing de-legitimation
of the twin forms of totalitarian rule, fascism and communism,’

Wolin announces. ‘It is only in the aftermath of their virtual
elimination that one can go about building a democracy of
substance. ‘

The wilfulness ofWolin’ s optimism about building a ‘democracy of substance’ on the foundation of a ‘discourse of spirit’

perhaps deserves one cheer. But two cheers go to Heidegger and
Orwell for voicing fears about a ‘world democracy’ which glories
itself by opposition to ‘the twin forms of totalitarian rule’, and
finds it unthinkable that its ‘spirit’ could have anything in common with that of its imaginary playmates. And three cheers for
Derrida. Whilst W olin welcomes the triumph of the ‘spirit of
democracy’, Derrida has the nerve to point out that things may
still not turn out entirely well. Congratulating yourself on not
being a Nazi may not be quite enough.

Jonathan Ree

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