Abbot’s Journal Vol 60, July 12, 2007

by Norman Fischer | June 12, 2007 at 3:14 PM

En route to Bologna from Milano


Train rolls by fields. Hay ricks (is that it, “ricks”?) very shiny in the sun, some sort of skin on them reflecting strong light. Cylindrical, in yellow cut fields. And much corn in flower in fields as we pass. Neat stands of dark green trees, seem to be (I imagine them to be) poplars. Some suburban houses, but either modeled architecturally on farm houses, or built in square blocks of apartments, so don’t seem suburban in the American sense. Like the square multiple dwellings in old Italian cities. All seemingly more reasonable, more appropriate to “dwelling” (in the sense Heidegger uses this word in the essay I just read, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”) than American “ranch” houses, or the modified castles of suburban developments there, both seeking to dominate the landscape, or ignore it entirely. But houses at Muir Beach are nicer than this, meant to be lonely expressions of sea-inspired landscapes…

In “The Thing” (in “Poetry, Language, Thought”) Heidegger says the atom bomb only made more obvious what had been long so: that things had been annihilated. Western metaphysics had early on made things into “dead objects,” which led to science, that further robbed things of their true thingness. And that point of view presented as the only admissible reality (rather than one among many important viewpoints). With much philosophical – and poetic – language, H. seems to want to say that there’s a presence in things, that makes “nearness” to them possible, that’s been lost in the process. Here he’s entirely compatible with Zen. “Cypress tree in the courtyard” is that – Buddha Nature is to be found in the presence of things – which gives us the presence of ourselves – and we have to practice (Dogen would further argue) to recognize this fact and make it constantly true for us.

H.’s troubling connection to Nazism can’t ever be forgotten when you read him (or at least when I read him). It’s like the wonderful and inspiring churches of Italy we’ve again been looking at – how see them and forget the persecution and domination that went along with what they evoked in people? One could attempt to dismiss all that as mere politics, mere history, far removed from the ethereal truths and eternal beauties of the art and the thought there represented, that none of it has anything to do with the truly Christian (or Heideggerian) spirit, but that would be too easy. Fact is, it’s dangerous to come too close to what it is to really be human. To really encounter others, self, things. So easy to go wrong there. Yet coming close can’t be avoided either; not trying to do so deadens the world, flattening it into mere science that leads to the same destructiveness anyway.

Repeated hay ricks flaming in their skin
Bright sun reflected
In yellow open fields, these their fruit,
First food, unlike the one-armed
Piano player: whole music,
Flayed language, make it sing
Not through gorgeous sound but in
More essential senses, gnarled
Paradoxes, not even that,
As an object won’t just sit still
Or a church fail to kill -
These ricks beam presence as torches
Calling forth troubled human choices


Funny all this contemplating, the last few years, European art and culture (Celan, etc.) I forgot how radically different Europe is from America, forgot my early reading and the influence of Whitman, Williams, etc. looking for an “American foot,” an American form of expression. That whole line of thought seems quite dated now, yet Europe really is different, so much of a sense of history it’s got, tradition, the past – even the avant-garde, which rejects all that, does so in reference to it. In Europe everywhere the past bears down on you – in the streets, the buildings. Why Europe is so pleasant and interesting to visit. But in U.S. there really is no past – and that is a sort of freedom. Also a form of insanity. So the neo-cons who invaded Iraq scoff at the effete Europeans who are so sophisticated, historically sensitive, and therefore timid. We American shoot first and ask questions later. The Europeans do nothing but ask questions.


Norman Fischer